Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for the ‘macro’ Category

Unexpected—and for many people still unwelcome—color

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Toxicodendron radicans; click for greater sharpness.

When I was traipsing around the grounds of Laguna Gloria on the foggy morning of December 9, I found myself surrounded at times by some healthy (for the plants) stands of poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. This prolific native species spends most of the year blending in with the rest of the greenery, but in the fall its leaflets are inclined to turn colors and become patterned in intriguing ways; you see one such leaflet here. What most people think about when they hear the term “fall color” is maples, oaks, flameleaf sumacs, cedar elms and various other trees, but the often lowly though much-scorned and much-feared poison ivy, like the skin-rending greenbrier, gets to play the game too.

It occurs to me that many of you outside the United States and Canada probably aren’t familiar with this noxious native plant of ours; if that’s the case, you may want to read a Wikipedia article about it. For a clickable map showing the many places in the United States and Canada where Toxicodendron radicans makes people’s skin turn red, itch, and even blister, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 7, 2012 at 5:04 AM

Some bubbly

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Click for much greater size and better detail.

No doubt some of you toasted in the New Year with a glass of champagne, but I had my own dose of bubbly a few days earlier. Near 4 o’clock on December 28th I found myself wandering along a stretch of a nameless creek, a tributary of the Bull Creek that has featured in these pages several times. Because of our recent rain the creeks were flowing again after months of being totally dry, and already algae had come back to parts of the creek beds. With the algae came bubbles, and with both of those came I, camera in hand(s), to see what I could record in the shade of the waning day.

You may have heard me say that I rarely include human elements in nature pictures, but in aiming my camera straight down into the bubbles that afternoon there was no way I could avoid having them act like little convex mirrors; so there you see a hatted me reflected in a few of the larger bubbles, elbows partly raised as I leaned in close to take the picture. Call me a Narcissus if you like, but an unintentional one, as I didn’t see my little clones until I looked at the image spread out across the computer screen later on.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 2, 2012 at 5:12 AM

An affirming flame*

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So far in this column you’ve seen two views of flameleaf sumac, Rhus lanceolata, doing its seasonal thing. Here’s a third one, and the closest of all to a few of the tree’s leaflets. Although some flameleaf sumac leaves in Austin are still turning color in this second week of December, the sky has been mostly gray, so today’s photograph comes from a sunnier November 14 session on Spicewood Springs Rd. near Loop 360. That was the same outing that produced the picture in which yellow was the main color, but here the red has begun to predominate. Note how even the segments of the leaf axis, seen vertically at the right, turn red.

My camera agrees with me that the three quarters of an hour that we (the camera and I) stayed at this site taking pictures was time well spent, not only for me and for the camera (in whose place you can see I presume to speak), but I hope for the sumac as well, for which the passage of time is the most eloquent spokesman.

For more information about Rhus lanceolata, you can visit the websites of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA. And for those interested in the art and craft of photography, the newly added point 17 in About My Techniques is relevant to today’s photograph.


* Today’s title consists of the last three words from W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 11, 2011 at 5:22 AM

Frostweed revisited

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In the posting for November 29 you learned that Verbesina virginica is called frostweed because of the thin sheets of ice that the plant extrudes through the base of its stem when the temperature falls to freezing. Eight mornings later, after the overnight temperature in Austin had dropped into the high 20s, I went back out to Great Hills Park to see how the frostweed plants there were doing. I found only a few with ice formations on the north side of Floral Park Dr., but a bunch on the south side, where I ended up spending most of my time. Because the frostweed phenomenon occurs at the base of the plant’s stem, spending my time meant kneeling, sitting, hunching over or lying down in order to be low enough to aim my camera horizontally at the mostly upright ice formations.

I selected today’s photograph of frostweed’s strange ice phenomenon because it differs in several ways from the last one: today’s is vertical, it shows much more of the plant’s split stalk, and—by virtue of being the last picture I took—it shows some of the sunlight that had begun falling on the ground and that meant the ice formations would soon begin to flake apart and melt.

To see the many places in the southeastern third of the United States where Verbesina virginica grows, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 9, 2011 at 4:53 AM

Deadly fruit

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One last thing I’ll show you that I found on the embankment of the US 183 freeway in northwest Austin on December 1 is the drying fruit of silveleaf nightshade, Solanum elaeagnifolium, a plant whose bud and flower appeared in October posts highlighting the prairie restoration at the Elisabet Ney Museum. This species, like purple bindweed, is one of the hardiest and most widely distributed wildflowers in Austin and similarly has a bloom period that covers all but the coldest months of the year. Even after an individual silverleaf nightshade plant has stopped flowering, its fruits typically persist for months. The one shown here—which if it weren’t less than an inch in diameter could almost pass for some sort of orange—has just begun the characteristic shriveling that often continues through the winter. Unlike an orange, though, silverleaf nightshade is poisonous to people. The highlights on this small fruit make it look as if I used flash, but I didn’t; what you see is the natural shine of the fruit’s surface, even on a cloudy day.

For more information about Solanum elaeagnifolium, including a clickable map showing the many places in the United States where this plant grows, you can visit the USDA websiste.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 8, 2011 at 5:04 AM

Buffalo gourd tendrils

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The last post post showed a buffalo gourd flower on the noisy embankment of the US 183 freeway adjacent to the Gateway Shopping Center in my northwestern part of Austin. As I said yesterday, Cucurbita foetidissima likes to hang out in places like this. As I didn’t say then, buffalo gourd is a vine, but it’s an atypical one: where so many vines climb high on plants, trees, fences, and other structures, Cucurbita foetidissima uses its tendrils to latch onto low things in order to stay anchored close to the ground. In the tangle that you see here, which was just inches above the earth, the tightly coiled buffalo gourd tendrils have grabbed onto some bits of dried grass.

For more information about Cucurbita foetidissima, including a state-clickable map showing the many places where this plant grows, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 4, 2011 at 5:30 AM

Frostweed explains its name

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Frostweed ice; click for greater detail.

In the last two posts I gave plausible reasons for the name frostweed and then I batted each one down. Today’s picture provides an answer to a question that may have occurred to you but that remained unasked: So tell us already, why is Verbesina virginica called frostweed? The name comes from one of the strangest phenomena in botany. By the time the first good frost settles overnight on the lands where this species grows, almost all of these plants have gone to seed. Although each stalk stands there unappealingly as it dries out, that first touch of hard frost can cause it to draw underground water up into its base. Now for the bizarre part: the lower part of the stalk splits as it extrudes freezing water laterally, and that process produces thin sheets of ice that curl and fold around the broken stalk and sometimes even unscroll away from it. That’s what you see in today’s picture, which I took just yesterday morning in Great Hills Park; if you’re willing to take your eyes off the pretty ice formations, you can make out a dark section of stalk in the upper left. I’ve read accounts that say some frostweed plants go through a second round of this icy phenomenon when there’s another freeze, but I’ve never tried to verify that. [Update: I’ve verified it for myself.] What I can say from experience is that the extruded sheets of ice are so light and delicate and prone to break when handled that they remind me of phyllo pastry.

And now let me answer another question that may have entered your mind. The last two posts dangled the question of frostweed’s name, but today’s picture, which explains the common name, was taken only yesterday morning. How did I know, when I began this series two days ago, that the temperature would drop enough to trigger frostweed’s ice trick and allow me to take pictures? I didn’t. I was planning to wait until the first or second week of December, which is when Austin usually gets its first hard freeze, and then take a frostweed ice picture that I’d use in an explanatory post at that time. Or if I didn’t manage to get any photographs of the phenomenon this year, I was going to show a photograph from another year. It was just serendipity that the temperature yesterday morning in Austin had dropped close enough to freezing to make some frostweed plants put on their display.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 29, 2011 at 5:12 AM

Frostweed gets a visitor

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Click for greater detail.

The last post provided a bud-opening view of Verbesina virginica, commonly called frostweed. Today’s picture of a slightly more advanced stage reveals a few of the fused stamen columns that are a hallmark of flowers in the sunflower family. In this species the dark-sided columns are tipped with pure white, though that’s not why the plant is known as frostweed.

But you may not be paying attention to the flowers or their name when you have such an appealing visitor. This tiny fly was only about a quarter of an inch long, and even with a 100mm macro lens I struggled to keep the main parts of it in focus. If you’d like to see more detail in the fly’s eye, which is curiously both convex and concave, the thumbnail below is an invitation. No RSVP is necessary, but the little fly and the larger I will welcome any comments that come our way.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 28, 2011 at 5:16 AM

Acalypha too

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Acalypha phleoides

As I was finishing up on the afternoon of November 8 at the Arbor Walk Pond in north-central Austin, luxuriating in my flower-covered Acalypha, the sky began to clear a bit in the west, beckoning me home. So I faced that way, but not yet taking any step toward home, got down low, put my head to the ground, and struggled with my camera to line up a single flower stalk against its now-light-filled fellows behind it. Of the poles, wires, and buildings adjacent to the expressway bordering the site, I need say no more, except that I managed to keep them out of my viewfinder and so created the undisturbed view you find here.

For more information about Acalypha phleoides, including a state-clickable map showing where this species grows, you can visit the USDA website.

For those interested in the art and craft of photography, points 1, 2 , 6 and 12 in About My Techniques are relevant to today’s picture.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 19, 2011 at 5:10 AM

What is done shall be undone

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Click for greater detail and sharpness.

Yes, what is done shall be undone, say the sages, and so it is with the tufts of Baccharis neglecta as they age and begin to come undone in a way that we may find unruly but that surely serves the plant’s purpose.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 6, 2011 at 5:51 AM

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