Portraits of Wildflowers

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Camphorweed Chaos

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Seeds caught on drying flowers of camphorweed, Heterotheca subaxillaris; click for more detail.

Yesterday’s post showed a fully open flower head of camphorweed, Heterotheca subaxillaris, on the prairie site of Austin’s former Mueller Airport. Call that the idealized camphorweed picture.

Within a few feet of that bright and well-behaved day’s eyedaisy to us now—was the miniature landscape you see today. This is more typical of what’s out there in nature: chaos. Failure mixes with success. The two flower heads in the center are drying out—notice their tightly curling rays—perhaps without ever turning into the tan puffballs that are normally their next incarnation. Chalk it up to the drought, and no one will argue with you. As is true for most plants, this one has spiderwebs on it, spiderwebs that collect debris, dust, stray objects blown by the wind. Now add the stickiness of camphorweed itself. Result: parachuted seeds trapped in places where they do no good. Do you see five of them? Let’s count:

•  the long, dark seed at the bottom, a bit left of center;
•  the one resting on its side on the rim of the narrower flower head;
•  the one stuck to the bulging base of that flower head;
•  the one at the top of the picture, a bit left of center;
•  the one stuck to a stem in the upper right.

Will any of these seeds ever make it into the prairie soil and begin to grow? If not these, then others, because dozens of camphorweed plants had sprung up around the place where I sat. But all, they and any descendants whose seeds don’t blow far enough away, are still doomed, for this part of the old airport is scheduled to be built on.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Camphorweed Triumphant

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Fully open flower head of camphorweed, Heterotheca subaxillaris.

This is what a camphorweed looks like when its rays are fully extended. Of all the camphorweed flower heads I’ve come upon in recent years, few were spread out as wide as this one at Austin’s former Mueller Airport three days ago, so I felt compelled to make a portrait of what I saw as a prairie pinwheel and mandala.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(For those interested in technique, see points 2 and 4 in About My Techniques.)

A one-day departure

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Union Hill Cemetery, Williamson Co., Texas; click to enlarge.

Today marks one month since I put up the first post in this blog, and it’s coincidentally not only my birthday but also our nation’s birthday, so I hope you’ll indulge me in a one-day bit of independence from my normal approach, which is to show nature per se, free from the intrusion of any human elements into the picture. Yesterday’s post about the old Union Hill Cemetery sent me to my archives for May 4, 2010, and in looking through the photographs from that session I was reminded of the eventful day it had been.

First there was the matter of parking. I’d originally parked on the edge of a small side road that intersects the one that crosses the upper part of the photograph. I walked into the cemetery but something kept nagging me about where I’d parked, so I gave in to my apprehension and moved the car. A little later, after I’d been photographing in the cemetery for a while, I was startled by a sound that I’ve come to recognize as that of one car crashing into another. A vehicle passing by on the main road had hit one coming out from the side road, and the one that was hit ended up careening over to the very spot where I’d originally parked my car.

No one was hurt, so I went back to taking pictures. In the last decade, site after site where I’ve photographed wildflowers has disappeared—sometimes within weeks of my visit—getting variously turned into a truck depot, office building, road, supermarket, parking lot, subdivision, etc. At the top of today’s photograph you can see that the piece of prairie across the way from the cemetery is now covered with one of the many subdivisions that have been springing up in the outer reaches of the Austin area, where land is cheaper than closer in.

Score one for the subdivision, and score one for me in not getting my parked car wrecked in a freak accident. Call it a draw with respect to another nemesis that I encounter all too often: the mower man. You can see him cutting his path of destruction across the top of the photograph. This blog is only a month old, and already you’ve heard me complain about these people who only seem happy when they’ve turned a beautiful display of flowers in a stubblefield. At least on this day the mower stayed on the subdivision side of the road and left the flowers in Union Hill Cemetery alone.

Because you know that the photograph shows a cemetery, there’s no reason for you to be surprised to see three tombstones standing among the Engelmann daisies and bluebonnets that by themselves would be my usual subject. What you can’t tell from this reduced view is that three people buried beneath the tombstones were all from a family named Brooks, and that all were infants. That’s what life was like back then. Going left to right, here’s the information about each, including the little poems that their parents, D.R and M.D. Brooks, had inscribed at the bases of the tombstones of their little children.

Freddie J. Brooks. Born May 13, 1891; died Oct. 9, 1892.

Alas how changed that lovely flower,
Which bloomed and changed our hearts:
Fair fleeting moments of an hour,
How soon we’r called to part.

James Oliver Brooks. Born Dec. 14, 1877; died Sep. 2, 1878.

How we miss thee how we miss thee,
There’s no earthly tongue can tell.
Yet we hope one day to meet thee,
Where we need not say farewell.

Ellen Adeline Brooks. Born Oct. 24, 1880; died Aug. 13, 1881.

She has crossed the shining river,
Safe she rests on yonder shore;
She is in her home eternal,
With the loved ones gone before.

The first of those inscriptions, which is the last one chronologically, even contains the word flower, so we’ll let this photograph of a wildflower meadow be a fitting tribute.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 4, 2011 at 1:43 PM

Texas thistle as butterfly attractor

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Swallowtail butterfly on Texas thistle; click to enlarge.

Once upon a time in Texas we had water. Some say, and memory confirms, that it was as recently as 2010. On May 4 of that year, thanks to a tip from native plant enthusiast Agnes Plutino, I found myself in a luxuriant field of wildflowers in the old Union Hill Cemetery on FM 1460 in Williamson County about five miles north of downtown Round Rock. The man who was accustomed to mowing the cemetery had been persuaded—and praise be to him—to let this prairie parcel revert to its natural state, which in last year’s rain-rich spring meant that it was covered with wildflowers. The yellow was from a dense colony of Engelmann daisies (Engelmannia peristenia); the red was from some firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella). Those two types of flowers and an occasional Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum) attracted insects and other animals, including a swallowtail butterfly and me. Put my body in a place like this, now and later.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(Technical note: this was one of those times when I used my Canon 100 mm f/2.8 IS lens not as a macro but as a moderate telephoto. Walking through the field to get closer would probably have scared the butterfly away, and taking time to change to a more powerful telephoto might have meant that the butterfly would finish and fly out of range. I did what I could with the macro I’d been using for close-ups, which fortunately focuses to infinity.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 3, 2011 at 4:29 PM

Texas thistle

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Texas thistle, Cirsium texanum.

Fugitive foxes and armadillos notwithstanding, I won’t stand you up and leave you without a picture today.

With white gradually shading into pink and magenta over the five posts showing clammyweed and the rain-lily, it seems color-appropriate to continue with the Texas thistle. Though the prime time for the species is the printemps, or spring, as the French say, some of these hardy thistles have continued to bloom in the heat of this year’s early summer. I photographed this one in mid-June on the prairie that survives in a thankfully still-undeveloped portion of Austin’s former Mueller Airport. Note that this thistle asserted its individuality: its stem bends and slants, its green bracts tilt a little to one side, and its crown of magenta disk flowers leans overall a bit to the other. Notice also that the flower stalk is so downy it appears a light grayish-green. Like some other members of the sunflower family, the Texas thistle has no ray flowers.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(For more information about the Texas thistle, including a clickable map showing where it grows, you can visit the USDA website.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 1, 2011 at 4:37 PM

Prairie redux

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Sunflower Colony 4955

“I haven’t been back to any of the three bluebell colonies I recently found on the prairie in northeast Austin….” So saying, I headed back to the prairie, where the bluebells have begun to go to seed. But the sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) just keep on coming in the heat: new buds and flowers mix with the rayless dark disks of predecessors that they will follow soon enough. There’s a wild energy in the randomness of a large colony, with parts of plants going every which way. How to capture that in a rectangle? Here’s one attempt.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman, for whom the ray folded down onto the disk of the large sunflower at the left makes the picture.

– – – –

P.S. In a bit of botanical-literary synesthesia brought on by the word ray, I hope you won’t mind if I cite the famous poem by Byron:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that ‘s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 25, 2011 at 7:49 AM

Bluebell bud opening into a flower

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Unfolding of a bluebell bud, Eustoma exaltatum

I haven’t been back to any of the three bluebell colonies I recently found on the prairie in northeast Austin, but I’ll take you back to something I saw when I visited the third of them. As the bud shown here began unfolding, it revealed a portion of the flower’s bright yellow, fuzzy-looking, two-lobed stigma. The two patches of orange below it are anthers. Each of the five elongated purple tubes surrounding and towering over the yellow and the orange would soon unfurl into a broad petal. For an earlier stage in the process, see last week’s photograph of a bluebell bud; for a later stage, see the recently posted photograph of fully open flowers.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(The website of The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has more information about bluebells, also called bluebell gentians and prairie gentians.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 24, 2011 at 6:50 AM

Fading sunflower blowing in the prairie wind

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Click for better color and clarity.

When a sunflower has passed its prime, its yellow ray flowers shrivel and its central disk begins to dry out. The wind met this sunflower in that stage last week on a still-undeveloped piece of prairie at Austin’s former Bergstrom Airport.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(Look here for information, including a clickable map showing where the species grows, about the “common” sunflower, Helianthus annuus, which I find uncommonly attractive.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 22, 2011 at 7:53 AM

More about bluebells

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Bluebells, Eustoma exaltatum.

So I’m bouncing around between bluebells and mountain pinks, with bluebells again this morning. Here’s how they look from above, where you can see their “good mouths”—that’s what Eustoma means—wide open. Today marks three years to the day since I took this picture on the prairie in northeast Austin.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(The website of The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has more information about bluebells, also called bluebell gentians and prairie gentians.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 20, 2011 at 7:03 AM

Pink joins purple

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Mountain pinks, Centaurium beyrichii.

When I went to the prairie in northeast Austin four days ago to photograph sunflowers, I found a dense group of bluebells some distance behind the sunflowers. Because I’ve seen bluebells growing in that part of town in other years, I was pleased but not surprised, except perhaps for how well the flowers were doing in the continuing drought. But surprise there was, and it came as I wandered away from the main colony of bluebells to look at some smaller groups of them; for then I came across another species that found sustenance on the floor of the sump: mountain pinks! In the photograph above, all the flowers and buds belong to a single mountain pink plant. The purple in the upper left of the picture is from the nearby cluster of bluebells in the background.

As the name mountain pink suggests, this plant is common in the Texas Hill Country that begins on the west side of Austin, where it can seem to grow right out of the limestone cliffs. Only once before had I found this species, Centaurium beyrichii, on the prairie side of town. That was in 2006, on US Highway 290, where a pioneering colony had sprung up. I photographed it several times then and I went back each year in May and June to observe and photograph yet again, until finally last year the site was destroyed during the construction that’s turning the highway into a toll road. A sad and familiar story: one more natural place gone. So let the newfound little group be this summer’s consolation.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(Look here for more information about Centaurium beyrichii, including a clickable map that shows where the species grows.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 17, 2011 at 6:28 AM

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