Stars on the Prairie, Stars in the Hills

It didn’t twinkle, but this delightful blue star caught my eye nonetheless. I’d seen the flower in the past, and recognized it as Amsonia tabernaemontana, a member of the Apocynaceae, or dogbane family.

The plant’s genus name honors 18th century Virginia physician Dr. Charles Amson, while its interesting specific epithet (tabernaemontana) recalls Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern (1525-1590), who Latinized his name as Tabernaemontanus, or ‘mountain tavern.’  Also a physician, botanist, and herbalist, Tabernaemontanus has been considered the father of German botany.

The native range of the blue star which bears his name lies well beyond Texas; it can be found as far north as Illinois, and as far east as North and South Carolina. Looking beyond my single star, I found plants bearing its extraordinary multi-colored buds, as well as a few scattered plants covered in blooms.

As I was admiring the flowers, an older man stopped his truck on the road and called to me. “You think those flowers are pretty? Go on down the road a couple of miles to where they’ve burned the prairie, and you’ll see hundreds of them.”

He wasn’t wrong. In the past, I’d witnessed the emergence of thousands of spider lilies after a prescribed burn, but I wasn’t prepared for acres of blue stars, on both sides of the road.

In places, the contrast between the scorched land and the resurgent flowers was breathtaking.

Blue star nectar attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, carpenter bees, and hummingbird moths, but on that day it was the least skippers (Ancyloxypha numitor) that fluttered by the dozens through the flowers.

The blue stars I found on the coastal prairie aren’t the only Amsonia species in Texas. Amsonia ciliata, sometimes known as fringed bluestar, thrives in dry, open woods or chalky hills; these were photographed between Medina and Vanderpool along Farm-to-Market road 337. The distinctively narrow leaves, as well as slightly shorter and more rounded petals, make identifying the species relatively easy.

Like Amsonia tabernaemontana, the fringed bluestar seems to draw clouds of butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) spreads its long, narrow wings over one of our prettiest Texas wildflowers: the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon.


Comments always are welcome.


55 thoughts on “Stars on the Prairie, Stars in the Hills

  1. It’s love at first sight for me, gorgeous!
    I do wish I was that butterfly.
    And yes, I survived my underground adventures!

    1. It seems to me that you do a fairly good job of spreading your wings as it is — not to mention keeping your antennae extended. It’s good to see you. I wondered how the great adventure turned out. Now I can breathe a little easier.

      I do love these flowers. They don’t last long, but while they’re around, they’re gorgeous.

    1. You’re welcome, GP. We have so much variety, and so much of it is beautiful, or interesting, or both. It makes me happy that I’m introducing you some things you’ve not seen, and that you’re enjoying them.

  2. A good plant biography you’ve got here, even to the mountain tavern. I’m with you in finding those tapering blue buds probably more intriguing than the open “stars.” Your mention of the latter, along with the word thousands, made me wonder whether you remember a certain song.

    1. The layers of color in the buds remind me of a parfait. I thought it interesting that both species show similar colors and pattern, despite other differences.

      I wish I could have another chance at those flowers in front of the log and the burned portion of the prairie. I think I could get all of the flowers in focus now. Still, even at the time I remembered your photo of the post-fire white prickly poppy at Bastrop, and gave it a go.

      I do remember that song. In fact, I remember more of the lyrics than I would have imagined. Listening now, I wish the writer could have done something with the double negative in those first lines: “there’ll never be no other love…” I know. Picky, picky.

  3. Wow, what a find! I’m jealous! I’ve only seen a few here and there over the years. I tried to grow another species in the garden last year, A. illustris, but it has not returned this year. Not sure what happened to it.

    1. You made me laugh. I’m usually the one suffering from floral jealousy. I’ve found A. tabernaemontana in several places; they’re usually near a ditch and in spots with plenty of sunlight. I was interested to read that A. illustris is called Ozark bluestar. The USDA map shows it in four counties in Texas, but it’s not on the BONAP site, which seems strange.

      The Missouri Botanical Garden says, “Amsonia illustris, commonly called Ozark bluestar or shining blue star, is a Missouri native perennial that most frequently occurs in sandy or rocky soils on gravel bars or along streams in the Ozark region of the state.” Maybe you should get yours a box of gravel to sink its feet into.

    1. You should see how many butterfly photos I threw away. There were three other species fluttering around, but I just kept one photo of each for reference, since they weren’t at all sharp. I’m glad I had one for you to enjoy!

  4. I’ve always loved anything blue and this one little plant is so pleasing to me. The photos are marvelous. I can well imagine how thrilling is was to see a sea of blue on the sides of the road. I think it would make me down right giddy.

    1. It was such a surprise to see fields filled with these flowers. We expect it with the Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets, and primrose, but this was something I’d never imagined. If you’re a blue lover, I can see how these would appeal to you. Even though it’s a light blue, it’s a clear, pure blue, and just lovely.

      1. i can not get my WP account to accept my password which I have had to change too many times to count. Just to let you know I am commenting on one of your replies to me. That is the only way I am “spent.” I m using my dashboard to get into WP. Maybe I have a virus on m computer. Linda, I am so sorry to have not be able to comment on your posts but I can read. I will try again at some point. Just don;t understand why I was finally able to get my comments to take and then suddenly I could not.

      2. Not able to get your blog to accept my comments- yet again. Just do not understand but maybe I have a virus on my computer. I am using my dashboard to comment here on a reply that you made to me.

        1. I don’t think it’s a WordPress password issue, Yvonne. If it were, you wouldn’t be able to get to your dashboard. I think you’re dealing with a little irritation that I’ve run up against, too. Just this morning I had to sign in to comment on a blog, and it’s a weird way that I had to do it.

          When I run into trouble commenting on a blog next time because the form has changed, I’ll take a screen shot and send it along, with an explanation of how to work around it.

          By any chance, are you getting a page that says you have to sign into Gravatar, or a comment form that has blank spaces but won’t let you add information? If you are, I think we can work it out.

          1. Yes, it mentions Grava tar and it is very frustrating to deal with this every time I want to comment on a blog. I signed in, in a different way this time and it, “took.” I then left another comment and I saw that I had posted all sorts of typos. My patience is wearing thin and that is not a good thing. I really like your photos and your writing style and so I am happy if I can comment. The last one was very short because I really did not think my comment was going to be accepted. If you don’t’ mind either correct that one or delete it. You can delete this one as well as if you care to do so.

            1. I did edit that other one, just slightly. No need to delete this, especially as there are other people roaming around who are having the same kind of difficulties, and our discussion might give them a clue about what’s going on.

              I’m just glad it’s working for you now. I hope you’re not getting any of the bad weather that’s roaming around tonight. It looks as though it’s going to mostly pass us by, and I’m glad.

            2. Thank you. It has rained all day here- sometimes pouring and sometimes drizzling and sometimes the rain was falling softly. Further south -south east, the weather was not as favorable. I don’t know if there was any damage to any of the areas or not.

  5. I think I saw something very similar to this growing at the ditch last year. I’m not sure — I can’t remember if I photographed it or not and it may well not be the same thing but boy, are those ever pretty. I love the vernacular names far more than the genus, though I know they probably have to have those just to keep everything straight in the world. Very pretty indeed.

    1. Scientific names are important, especially since so many plants can have the same common name — but I’m with you when it comes to enjoying and being comfortable with names like ‘Blue star.’ They’re descriptive — and fun — in a different way.

      You may very well have seen an amsonia of some sort up there. They aren’t native, but it’s possible that some escaped from a garden. Has the ditch started greening up at all? Or do you even know? I suspect that you’ve been kept closer to home than you’re accustomed to, given recent events. I really appreciated your update on Rick today. I know he’ll be glad to finally be “on the move” again, even if it’s only walking.

      1. I have to take a photo of something I found in my yard. It MIGHT be the same or something related. I just found them yesterday but didn’t have my camera at home with me! The ditch is still pretty brown but with the rain the past couple of days, I suspect it’s greening up! I’ll have a Harry post, probably later today — he’s back! But I really haven’t been out all that much. And today he got a little release from his doc that he could be upright longer. That’s definitely a good thing and doing much for the attitude!

        1. I just saw your photos of the ditch in your last post, and I must say, it appealed to me even though… well, you know. You need spring, not more of that. Still, this has been my year to really appreciate blue and brown combinations, and that was a pretty one.

          Take a photo of that “whatever” and just send it in an email. I’d love to see it. Whether I know what it is is something else, but we always can figure it out.

          It’s blowing like crazy tonight, hard, out of the north, and I heard my first baby ducks of the season. I always want to rescue them, but of course that’s unreasonable and inadvisable and all of that. Still, it’s hard to sit here and listen to a baby peeping for its mother!

          1. Hopefully the baby ducks will find their way in water and well protected by mom. They get pretty feisty when their chicks are bothers!

            I’ll take a pic when it stops raining and send it to you. Hopefully it will still be blooming!

            Happy Easter, my friend.

  6. These make me smile, Linda — both the gorgeous color and the shape of the stars. I’m glad that passerby clued you in on continuing your trip to see the prescribed burn, too. It’s nice to know that even from the ashes, Nature is resilient and persistent!

    1. I certainly was glad for the tip. Without it, I might have spent the whole day photographing the first little stand of flowers I found, not realizing what lay farther down the road. And isn’t it wonderful to see so many resurrections: from winter, from fire, from neglect. There are uncounted miracles every day, shining just like these stars.

  7. Beautiful shots, Linda–all of them and I couldn’t choose one above the other. I always like to see a pollinator doing its thing, so thanks for those pics. I know this plant–the first one, but don’t think I’ve seen any in recent times.

    1. It’s a lovely plant in all its forms, isn’t it? I didn’t realize until I began doing a bit of research about the various species that it can turn wonderfully golden in the fall; the foliage is as pleasing as the flowers. I’ve never seen it, or at least I’m not aware of seeing it, but I’ll be looking for it. Perhaps our native species aren’t so flamboyant, but photos of others are spectacular.

  8. Beautiful flowers, open or closed they’re pretty neat. And those butterflies look pretty happy. That botanist’s name is quite a mouthful in German or Latin. I tried my last name in a google translator, and it came out in Latin as Gelida Barbara, not bad

    1. I can’t make many guarantees about things I see in nature, but I’d be willing to guarantee that the butterflies I found swarming these plants were happy. There was plenty of nectar for everyone — it was like an open bar at a convention.

      Your Latinized name reminded me of “Che Gelida Manina” from Puccini’s La Boheme. My grandmother was a great admirer of the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, and had a recording or two which she felt compelled to inflict on us. I think that aria was part of her collection. I’m more appreciative now than I was at the time.

  9. All are lovely Blue Star bloom images and the one with the skipper is very nice. We actually have some Blue Star growing as a perennial in our yard. Happily it returns annually and has grown into a nice clump. I have yet to photograph it but have a project I am considering and that would be a part of it.

    1. What a treat, to have this in your yard. Does its foliage turn beautifully golden in the fall? I’ve seen photos of some other Amsonia species that have really remarkable foliage: feathery, and so colorful. I’d grow the plant for the fall color as much as for the spring flowers.

      New projects are fun. There’s a hint here that your backyard might be involved, and that reminds me of a favorite quotation from the Swiss naturalist, Louis Agassiz. He once said, “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.”

      1. Yes, the leaves turn golden in autumn. Not entirely in my yard, but it is involved. I could say similar as Agassiz as I have yet to catalog our year…although it is no way a botanical wonderland. Still, a lot going on out there.

  10. The last photo of the butterfly with its wings spread out made me think of an aeroplane landing. If you squint your eyes and think of a Boeing landing you will get what I mean. It is a magnificent butterfly in its grandeur and full flight mode.

    1. I don’t even need to squint, Gerard. I saw that butterfly coming in for a landing, too. I didn’t realize until recently that fritillaries belong to a group of butterflies known as “long-winged,” and the photo just happens to emphasize those long, relatively narrow wings. I like the way its antennae are spread parallel to its wings, too. I don’t know if there’s a reason for that, but it makes for a great photo.

  11. Lone-Star blue stars! That last photo was the star of the show. I love the word “fritillary” — it’s such an un-butterfly-like word.

    1. Every time I hear ‘fritillary’ I get tripped up at the first syllable and think we’re going to be discussing ‘frittata.’ Those darned frittatas are linked to my insistent misspelling of ‘fritillary,’ too, since I never can figure out which letter ‘t’ to double.

      A mix of Texas yellow star, blue stars, and star hibiscus would be a neat variation on the paintbrush/bluebonnet/groundsel theme. I’m not sure they’d ever be found growing together, thanks to preferences for different growing conditions, but it’s still neat to imagine.

  12. Absolutely gorgeous and how lucky to see a whole landscape brimming with the colour (after the burn).

    Reminds me a bit of seeing the sea of bluebells in the woods near the estate I worked on in Sussex, U.K. in 1978.

    1. Your mention of the bluebells in England brought all of those wonderful photos to mind. I didn’t think of them at the time, but later it occurred to me that these blue stars were my first experience of seeing flowers and woods in such a way — even though the ‘woods’ weren’t anything close to a forest or the real woods that exist in other parts of our state.

      I know a painter who often begins by painting his canvas black, and then adding the colors. That’s what happened here, in a sense. First fire turned the landscape black, and then nature added the color.

    1. I think the fritillaries are wonderful, and that one posed wonderfully well. I’m so happy to have the butterflies back again. The flowers are delightful to see, but it’s even better to see their fluttery friends making use of their nectar and pollen.

    1. They are beautiful. Both their delicate color and that star shaped flower are really nice. You know what I found interesting? I’d never heard of the dogbane family, and had to spend some time learning about that. I was amazed to read that the name came from the practice of using some of the plants to poison dogs. Why anyone would want to do that I’m not sure, but it does explain the name. I do know that bluestars are deer resistant, which suggests that the toxicity is real!

      1. I’ve read also that dogbane is toxic to grazing animals and fortunately the milky sap is very bitter and they avoid it. The species that is present here is Apocynum androsaemifolium (Spreading Dogbane).

        1. That also has very pretty flowers. When I read that it’s present in Texas, I checked the USDA and BONAP maps and discovered that’s true — sort of. It’s been reported in three counties in the Big Bend area. A. cannabinum, or Indian hemp, is more widespread, but still north and west of my area.

    1. Aren’t they pretty? There are several varieties that are used in gardens, and they certainly do attract the butterflies. There were at least three species flitting around that I never could photograph clearly, but the frittilaries seem more inclined to stay put for at least a few seconds.

      I thought of you when I read this very interesting article about making life easier for London’s hedgehogs. Such simple changes can make such a big difference.

  13. The last photo was a delight, Linda. Your comment about after the burn reminds me of fireweed, which also has a penchant for covering disturbed roadsides with colorful flowers. It is particularly dramatic along the Alaska Highway. –Curt

    1. I’ve seen photos of fireweed springing up after conflagrations in the west over the past few years. Obviously, it’s been springing up for a good long time — it’s just that I’m becoming more aware of such things. With or without fire, of course, there are surprises every year. Flowers that never have given a neighborhood a passing glance suddenly settle in and call all the relatives to join them, while others pack up and leave town without a word. It’s part of the fun, especially if we can learn to be a little flexible with what constitutes a “good” year.

      1. I first became aware of fireweed when I lived in Alaska, Linda. Now I find it in lots of places, like up in the Sierras and Cascades, where I don’t recall seeing it in the past.
        We probably thank global warming for some of the going and coming of certain plants. –Curt

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