What Lindheimer Saw – Gaura

Flannery O’Connor’s conviction that “the writer should never be ashamed of staring; there is nothing that does not require his attention,” applies equally well to botanists.

Ferdinand Lindheimer — a German immigrant who arrived in Texas in 1836, equipped with amazing energy and obsessive curiosity — clearly had mastered the art of staring. Laura Deming, a great-great-great-granddaughter, recounts a family legend about the father of Texas botany:

Once, when He came upon a chief and a war party, he had a staring competition with the chief. Because he won, they allowed him to live.”

Whatever the truth of the story, when it came to the flora of Texas, Lindheimer’s propensity to stare served him well. In 1839-1840, he visited George Engelmann, a friend from Frankfurt who’d settled in St. Louis. After seeing the samples of Texas plants Lindheimer brought with him, Engelmann mentioned his work to Asa Gray, founder of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University and author of Gray’s Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. Gray was impressed, and interested.

Over the next years, Lindheimer provided Engleman and Gray with thousands of specimens, and left us a correspondence rich in references to discoveries made as he roamed Texas. Today, nothing delights me quite so much as finding one of the plants that bears his name, like this pretty Gaura (Oenothera lindheimeri), and then finding it mentioned in Lindheimer’s own letters to Englemann.

Lindheimer’s gaura buds ~ Nash Prairie

“What I may find in the Guadalupe Bottom, where we shall be in the course of a week, I wonder… If the Gaura Lindheim grows in the west, you shall have seeds. I did not find it last year between the Brazos and the Colorado. It grew commonly four miles east of Houston.” (written from a camp on the Agua Dulce, 22 January 1845)


Lindheimer’s gaura bloom ~ Nash Prairie

Gaura Lindheimeri seems to appear no farther west than the Brazos, and scarcely west of the San Jacinto-Buffalo Bayou region; otherwise, [Thomas] Drummond surely would have found it.” (from New Braunfels, 5 February 1846)


Comments always are welcome.


35 thoughts on “What Lindheimer Saw – Gaura

    1. He was such an interesting man — “enterprising” hardly begins to describe it. When I first began learning about native plants, it didn’t take long for me to notice his name here and there. He was one enthusiastic collector!

    1. It’s an airy plant, and can grow several feet tall. It’s really lovely to see it against a blue sky, like this. It wasn’t any trouble at all to shoot upward at these plants. They were taller than I am by at least a couple of feet.

  1. Your articles and pictures would be the very thing for Texas Highways — if it’s still being published. So many of the print publications are going out of business these days it’s hard to know what the market is like anymore.

    1. It is being published, although its circulation has dropped from a high of 400,000 in 1987 to less than 200,000 now. I have submitted a couple of proposals, which went nowhere. I think I’ve figured out why, and what I submitted wasn’t quite right for a tourist-oriented travel magazine. But I’ve got another idea in mind, and as soon as I finish up a couple of other projects, I may make another run at it. In the meantime, I’m having a great time traveling around Texas myself.

  2. Sometimes it’s nice to be late in reading posts, as the comments offer interesting trivia..
    The plants were taller than you? Wow, what beauties! I pictured them about iris or lily height.

    The second image is a true stunner!

    1. Actually, their height depends on the species, and I suppose on their environment. This particular guara is described differently by different sites. Some say it grows to three-to-five feet, some say four-to-six feet.

      Cultivars generally are shorter and bushier, while other species can be as much as seven feet tall.
      The photo I linked for GP is Lindheimer’s gaura, according to the folks at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, but it was a small colony of plants out in the middle of the prairie. It may have had perfect conditions, and there certainly had been no mowing. Even if I was standing slightly below them on the side of the ditch,they were six feet tall at minimum.

      One thing I like about the second photo is that it shows the color change from white to pink as the flower ages. And of course I love the dew drops!

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these. The bloom reminds me of a fat chicken, for some odd reason! Such amazing detail you’ve captured here (love the “hair” on the pods and the dew on the blooms!)

    1. Can you hear me giggling? I never would have seen this as a chicken, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I can. I wonder if it’s not partly the red stamens dangling down. They do look rather like chicken feet.

      Those little hairs are a perfect example of why I love my macro lens. Every time I use it, I come home and discover it’s captured details I never saw at the time. A hand lens can work out in the field, but it’s not quite the same. Every now and then I wonder what people like Lindheimer would think of our ability to capture such fine details in our photos. I suspect he’d like it.

  4. I think that the ability to see detail is one of the prime requirements of a naturalist, Linda. That and curiosity. I find it appropriate and interesting that naturalists get to add their name to discoveries. I agree about macro lens, they are a great aid when it comes to seeing detail, and they can capture the beauty of plants and nature in a unique way. –Curt

    1. There’s a taxonomical parody just waiting to be written, and thanks to your comment, I know what it is. Whether I can pull it off, I don’t know but I’m going to try. If I manage it, you’ll know that the inspiration struck right here, right now.

      As for botanists having their names added to this or that plant, I’ve laughed at the level of competitiveness among 19th century collectors. Lindheimer was quite aware of others who were out in the field collecting new species, and part of the reason he kept on the move was to keep ahead of them. Reading the letters of the group I think of collectively as The Botany Boys is really a hoot. There’s a docu-drama waiting in that correspondence. They exhibit all the passions, quirkiness, and obsessive dedication that would make for a great film. Colin Firth for Lindheimer!

  5. As always, it takes an obsession to really make things outstanding. I suppose staring is another word for that. Not all obsessions lead to the sort of beauty as shown by this German naturalist.
    Good on ye, Mr Lindheimer.
    You made the world richer.

    1. He made the world richer in a multitude of ways, Gerard. After settling in New Braunfels, Texas, he became the editor of Neu Braunfelser Zeitung in1850, and eventually owned the newspaper until 1872. He promoted public funding of schools, and was against slavery, although he was a successionist during the Civil War. His story — and the role his wife played in it — is so interesting. I’ve been to his house, and hope to go back. It’s a beautiful Fachwerk cottage which has — no surprise — beautiful gardens that are maintained by various groups.

      He was only one of many, though. Maybe you remember this list of early Texas naturalists I published in another post. It was a new world, and everyone was curious about it.

  6. Beautiful blossom! I love the garden Gaura, and it looks like this one is similar – they are delicacy personified. And the garden version is SO hard to photograph because the blossoms won’t every sit still on the stem, but that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?
    I like that you’re following this plant explorer. I just love all of them, or the idea in general I guess. I bet Englemann is the same of Englemann spruce, and probably other plants. Great stuff! :-)

    1. If I understand how these things happen, the natives, such as this one, are the basis for the cultivars. One of the earliest cultivars of Gaura, known as ‘Siskiyou Pink,’ was developed by the Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery in Medford. The owner, Baldassare Mineo, found a pink flowering sport of a white flowering seedling of Gaura lindheimeri, and started propagating. Apparently that was the beginning of the introduction of the genus Gaura to mainstream growers.

      Somewhere I read another interesting tidbit. When the taxonomists changed the genus to Oenothera, the horticulturalists demurred, and still refer to the genus as Gaura.

      You’re right about Engelmann. If you’re in need of a rabbit hole to go down, the Missouri Botanical Garden Archives have his papers digitized. Not speaking German, and not being at all good at deciphering that handwriting, I’ll stick to what the researchers produce. But it’s fascinating, nonetheless. I pulled up the section labeled Lindheimer, and found place names that still are part of my everyday conversation: Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, the Brazos bottoms, Port La Vaca, Indian Point.

  7. I laughed at the staring contest. It is universal among native people. Must be bad karma to bblink first! I have had many staring bouts in the Southwest, but I have no recollection as to who blinked first.
    The photos were superb, especially the second one with dewdrops. Amazing photography.

    1. Even inter-species staring can be amusing. I sometimes can outstare my cat, but not often. I think she knows she’s better than me — she starts it. I can’t remember it being a practice in West Africa, but I have read about it in other cultures. I was surprised and amused to see it pop up as a tale about Lindheimer.

      Dewdrops get me every time. I’m glad you like the photos!

  8. Here’s to staring! Laughing out loud at the staring competition, something I excelled at as a child. That blossom is nothing short of magical, those dew drops….sighs….xxx

    1. It takes patience and confidence to win a staring contest. If you were doing that as a child, it may have been an early indication of your future success as a rehabber! The guara is wonderful. I found this great article about growing it in England. Just what you need, right? But she has some good tips about how to do it successfully, and it was fun to see Texas mentioned in the article.

    1. It is a complex little thing, isn’t it? It helped that I got out and about early, before the wind came up to stir the plant and dry the dew. Even so, it took some time to find a way to photograph a flower that didn’t result in a messy background.

    1. It is a great camera, Jeanie. I read myself silly before I bought it, trying to decide whether I wanted the hassle of interchangeable lenses. I decided on the Canon, and before long, I bought the telephoto lens, and then the macro. I willnotwillnotwillnot yield to the temptation of a wide-angle lens until I really have my current lenses under better control. Besides, I’m not roaming grand landscapes, so a wide-angle isn’t really necessary.

      Anyway — glad you like the photo. You’re exactly right about the amazing detail. I’m constantly being surprised by what I find after I get home, and put things on the computer.

  9. What a beautiful flower! I’ve never heard of it or of Lindheimer, of course. And once again, I am amazed and in awe of what you bring to the table when you compose your posts. Research, insight, a sense of great personal feeling and of course, splendid images (even better when, like these, they are all your own!)

    I know I commented on this before but I had to return and read again!

    1. And I’m so glad you did, Jeanie. I was curious whether gaura would grow in your area, and it seems it does, since many of the garden centers sell it. On the other hand, it may be an annual. It’s sometimes called butterfly bush, since the flowers can whirl on their stems like butterflies. So, if you happen across something labeled “butterfly bush,” check and see if it’s gaura.

      I could be wrong about this, but I have the sense that Lindheimer would fit right in with the Cork Poppers. Anyone who writes letters like he did is bound to have been a good conversationalist. We could use a few more of those!

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