The Flower’s Basket


The American basket-flower (Plectocephalus americanus) is notable not only for its fragrant and delicate blooms, shown in this previous post, but also for the complex, closely-woven bracts which give the flower its common name. 

Like sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, and asters, the basket-flower belongs to a family of composite flowers known as the Asteraceae. Most have small disc flowers in their centers (the sunflower’s ‘eye’) and ray flowers (which look like petals) around the outside.

Some Asteraceae, however, have only ray flowers (dandelions) and some have only disc flowers.  American basket-flowers happen to have only disc flowers; each of their pretty pink, white, or lavender elongated corollas is attached to a developing seed. 

Seen here, in this intermediate stage between bloom and seed, drying disc flowers wrap around their basket. In time, they’ll fall away, leaving the seed to ripen, fall, or float away, ensuring next season’s beauty.


Comments always are welcome.


36 thoughts on “The Flower’s Basket

  1. Your basket flower posts and the title ‘the flower’s basket’ bring 2 thoughts to mind: one that you have given us a modern photographic equivalent of a beautiful, old botanical illustration of the basket flower; and two, that the way you have , over several photos, revealed the flower’s basket is similar to the popular unboxing videos. I have always been slightly puzzled by the popularity of unboxing videos but thanks to your posts (and the quirks of my thoughts) I am beginning to understand that humans have always loved discovering the secrets/details within the whole (package). We are excited by the process.

    1. I’ve never heard the term unboxing — not once — and I certainly never have seen an unboxing video. So, I did the only reasonable thing and went to YouTube to see what the fuss was about. I still haven’t found quite the right words to describe my reaction, but I have to say the phrase “waste of time” did cross my mind.

      Of course, a good puzzle can intrigue, and the excitement of shaking that present under the Christmas tree (or sneaking around the house to discover where they’ve been hidden) is real. Creating that anticipation and excitement is part of the fun of gift giving. It helps to explain the continued popularity of the box-within-a-box technique, as well as the occasional visual pun. I still remember a Christmas gift from decades ago. I opened a very large box that appeared to be empty, save for a tiny, half-inch long silhouette of a human hand attached to a spring. My task was to guess the gift. It took a while before I got it. You may be quicker — do you know?

      1. I am definitely slower! I would still be waiting for my Christmas present. Something bouncy? I am glad you didn’t waste too much time on unboxing. You may not be surprised to know that it is one of the least bizarre trends on YouTube. Nevertheless, I did love the way you ‘unpackaged’ or ‘revealed’ the basket flower. I was fascinated and educated by your posts.

        1. A tiny, moving hand was a perfect representation of the gift, which was, in fact, a “micro wave.” Now I’m laughing again. The microwave’s long gone, but the “micro wave” endures.

    1. I really enjoyed discovering the various ways the drying disc flowers arranged themselves atop the seed head. That rectangularity you mentioned (what a great word!) is a nice parallel to the shape of the opening buds.

  2. Such an interesting looking flower – easy to see how it got its name.

    Almost makes me want to unwind those longer tendrils and actually weave a basket.

    1. Those tendrils are so soft and delicate, you’d have a hard time weaving with them, I fear, even though they look as though they’d be perfect for your project. On the other hand, the bracts beneath the bloom are stiff as can be, with sharp points.

      The seed heads do dry beautifully, and make nice additions to an arrangement. Some people dry the flowers, and I gave it a try with a few stems. The pretty pink flowers turned a deep purple, and the bracts reshaped themselves a bit. I haven’t taken any photos with the macro lens yet, but it will be interesting to see what they look like when I do.

  3. Terrific photo. I know you’ve posted about this plant before, but to me, it’s still very exotic-looking. It reminds me of those “special effects” and “visual effects” artists at the Academy Awards – – the folks who create imaginary lifeforms – – aliens, extraterrestrial plants, even strange food – – and to me, this basket-plant looks like something from Hollywood’s fevered imagination.

    1. One thing I like about basket-flowers is that they’re interesting through their entire life cycle. Photos of them in bloom are great, but after some time has passed, and the basket takes center stage, they deserve another visit. Then, with the messy disc flowers gone, they take on an even more pleasing simplicity of form.

      And of course they don’t live alone. There are all the bees and wasps and beetles that adore them — they’ll have their day here, too, and when I post the iridescent green flower beetle I found, your point about Hollywood’s fevered imagination will have been proven.

    1. That only proves how astute you are, Jeanie. By the time the flowers reach this point, there’s no fragrance left. But when the flowers are in bloom, if you can find a nice field of them (like this, they can be wonderfully scented. It took me a while to find enough flowers to experience the scent, but when I did, it was memorable.

      I really enjoy this particular photo. The swirl of drying petals looks like a swirl of whipped cream on top.

    1. I can see that, both in the complexity of the closed-up bud and in the general shape of the flower in full bloom.

      Last spring, I was tickled to find another member of the Apiaceae: Tauschia texana, or Texas umbrellawort. The flowers are quite different, but its leaves are distinctly carrot-like. It’s listed as rare, which made finding it even more fun. I’d forgotten about it, so thanks for bringing it back to mind.

    1. Thank you, Lavinia. My list of ‘favorite flowers’ is getting longer every year, but this one’s been on the list from the beginning. It’s in the same family as cornflowers and bachelor buttons, which my grandmother grew. Perhaps that’s why I love the basket-flower as I do.

    1. That seems exactly (!) right to me, Tom. Fading flowers still can be lovely, but these basket-flowers kick it up another notch as they go to seed, and the variations among them are greater than I would have imagined. When you add in their appeal to a wide variety of pollinators, the fact that they aren’t browsed by cattle or deer, and their resistance to diseases and pests, they’d be one of the first flowers I’d plant on my ranch. (If I had a ranch.)

    1. Thank you, Tina. I love this stage, too. If I were in my 30s rather than entering my 70s, I’d devote myself to developing a field guide that shows all of our wildflowers as pods and seeds. I’m not sure I’ve got the years left at this point.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found something in a field and thought, “Now, what in the world is that?” Sometimes, by the time the seeds are formed, the leaves and such are so ratty they’re not much help with identification. The basket-flower, of course, is unmistakable.

    1. I certainly think it’s as pretty as the flower in bloom. It seemed to deserve its own entry, instead of being just a footnote to the blossom. Last year, I tucked some seed heads into a vase, and they’re still lovely as ever.

  4. You know, Nature is a great reminder that time is moving on and soon, it will be Fall. We get caught up in the day-to-day heat and humidity of August and tend to “forget” it won’t always be so. Your basket flower is a lovely depiction of that. Sad, though, that the purple fades to a golden beige!

    1. I took a little time this afternoon to go to a local nature center and walk the paths. I was surprised to see beauty berry and pepper vine berries ripening, and the first autumn flowers are beginning to develop. Some of them are triggered by the length of day as much as temperature, and the days are getting shorter. School starts here in a week — it’s hard to believe.

      I confess that I like the faded basket-flower as much as the pretty blooms. But I learned something. If you want to keep the purple, just dry the flowers. I gave it a try with a half-dozen, and by the time they were fully dry, they were really purple. I’ll have to take a photo of them for you. It was easy to do. I just hung them upside down in a closet for a couple of weeks.

  5. The natural world, full as it is of wonders, is a source of endless inspiration. Another blogger turned me on to this bit of inspiration from the natural world. I wonder how that embroiderer would have interpreted this basket flower in her stitchery?

    Don’t forget the thistles! Many flowers with “thistle” in their common name are also members of the Asteraceae.

    1. That was an interesting article, and the blackwork is gorgeous. I’ve always liked black transferware, too, although I never collected it because the pieces I liked were completely beyond my budget. Beyond that, the best black transferware was English, and I preferred sticking to American potters. What I wonder is whether the blackwork might have led to the black transferware, or at least to a taste for it in England.

      You’re right about the thistles: and those thistles have been great subjects for embroidery and pottery, too. I read that the basket-flower is known by some as the star thistle; someone else noticed the similarities along the way.

  6. Thanks for the explanation of this flower. It has helped understand the ‘disk’ flower element that differentiates it from other Asteraceae.

    1. I remember how confused I was some years ago about the Asteraceae. Since another name for the family is Compositae, I assumed that they all had both disc and ray flowers. It was quite a revelation to me that some could have only ray flowers, and some could have only disc flowers.

      I just looked, and sure enough: several of our thistles (Cirsium spp.) are the same: disc flowers only. An interesting one is our Gaillardia suavis, sometimes called perfume balls, or pincushion daisy. It usually has only disc flowers, but sometimes it has tiny ray flowers.

    1. Isn’t it, though? I wonder sometimes why such things evolved as they did. There’s no apparent reason for this basket to be so fancy, but I’m certainly glad it is. I’ve had an arrangement of the seed heads mixed with eucalyptus for a couple of years, and it still looks just fine. They’re not only beautiful, they’re sturdy.

    1. I adore this flower. I looked for it for some time before I found it. Now, it seems to be everywhere. Isn’t that just the way things go? It’s a magnet for pollinators, and I do have a photo or two to share — including one of a metallic green beetle that looks like he’s in love with the flower.

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