The Glories of a Vacant Lot

Deer pea vetch surrounding green milkweed ~ Asclepias viridis

One of my favorite places to roam lies along a short Brazoria County road. Dead-ending at a fish camp on Hall’s Bayou, it has a ditch and a small, triangular piece of land on one side, and a small private hay meadow on the other. Sunflowers, ladies tresses orchids, a variety of milkweeds, and some lovely blue sage all have been found on the land, but it’s generally impossible to predict what I’ll find.

On April 6, I decided to visit the spot to see what might have appeared. It was a trip well worth making.

Browne’s savory ~ Clinopodium brownei

I’ve seen this pretty ground cover for years. With the help of Michael Eason’s Wildflowers of Texas, I finally identified the tiny, complex flowers.

Closeup of Browne’s savory
Lady Bird’s centaury ~ Zeltnera texensis

Once known as Centaurium texense, Lady Bird’s centaury became Zeltnera texensis after genetic analysis split the genus Centaurium and limited Centaurium to Eurasian species, placing Lady Bird’s centaury in Zeltnera.

Named after the former First Lady, the flower resembles mountain pinks, but the isolation of individual blooms helps with identification. Most guides place the flower in the rocky soil of the hill country, but Eason notes that it has spread southeast, into the Houston area.

Spring obedient plant ~ Physostegia intermedia

Three years ago, a nearby field was filled with hundreds of these flowers. Named for their stems’ willingness to remain in place once bent, they’re not so obedient when it comes to staying in place in the garden. They can spread enthusiastically, and I hope to find more as the season goes on.

Blue-eyed grass ~ Sisyrinchium angustifolium

Like the Herbertia blooming at the Varner-Hogg plantation, this lovely plant is a member of the iris family. It’s quite common, and always appealing.

Roughstem rosinweed ~ Silphium radula

Rosinweeds have been blooming for weeks, and their sunflower-like faces always appeal. I’m equally fond of their buds and seedheads, but for now, this flower will do.

Curly dock ~ Rumax crispus

An introduced plant that has naturalized nearly everywhere in the world, curly dock often is mentioned by foragers. The flowers appear in whorls encircling the stem; here, the separation of the clusters of fruits makes the pattern visible.

Carolina Geranium ~ Geranium carolinianum

With flowers only about a third of an inch wide, this common native lawn flower is easy to overlook. After identifying it, I began to see it everywhere, even in the grassy areas of the marinas in which I work.

Slim milkweed – Asclepias linearis

Surprised as I was to find both green and slim milkweed spread across the hay meadow, they clearly had been blooming for some time. A few plants had pods developing already, and a multitude of pollinators were visiting the flowers.

Bur clover, bur medick  ~ Medicago polymorpha

Another introduced plant, bur clover reminds me of a favorite member of the pea family: Vigna luteola, or hairy cowpea, the only native species of Vigna in Texas. Small-flowered, bur clover’s blooms are about a quarter-inch wide, but its vibrant yellow makes it noticeable.

Butterweed ~ Packera tampicana

This was the year I finally began to sort out the various Packera species. Some are obvious, like the prairie grounsel (Packera plattensis) I found in the hill country, but others required deep contemplation of stems and leaves, since the flowers appear quite similar. Also called yellowtop or Great Plains ragwort, this lover of disturbed ground was growing at the edges of the ditch that had been deepened and mowed.

Sand rose gentian ~ Sabatia arenicola

Smaller and differently-leaved than the meadow pinks (Sabatia campestris) that are so common here, this pretty flower prefers sandy soil, and often can be found on the inland side of dunes. Like Lady Bird’s centaury, it was new to me, and a delight to discover.

 Delta arrowhead ~ Sagittaria platyphylla

Just add water — even in an inland ditch — and the Delta arrowhead will be happy to make itself at home. One of my favorite ‘ditch diamonds,’ I’m always happy to see its unusual and pleasing flowers.

Horrid thistle ~ Cirsium horridulum

There are a number of names for this thistle, including some that sound more like a curse than a name. Still, despite the miserable, prickly, damaging thorns, the flower is entirely approachable, and on this particular afternoon the bees were everywhere: a good reminder that the flowers we find so pleasing visually also have a purpose.

As for those vacant lots? The next time you come across one, you might want to stop, and have a look.


Comments always are welcome.


61 thoughts on “The Glories of a Vacant Lot

  1. Obviously a lovely place for a walk, and your ever expanding knowledge of all things botanical is impressive. We can only hope that Trump and his wall does not destroy a whole lot of wonderful habitat for myriad organisms.

    1. Over the past few days, I realized with some amusement that it was taking me far more time to identify some of these flowers than it took to drive, look, and return. Of course, that’s part of the pleasure of it all. Making the time to sit down and really explore the differences among species makes tentative identifications easier in the future — as you’ve surely found with the birds.

  2. I don’t know what I love more — the abundance of beauty in your world, your wonderful and complete descriptions or the photos that make these blooms pop off the page. Gorgeous, Linda.

    1. Thanks, Jeanie. Think of it as my way of decorating for Easter. This has been an exceptional spring, and there’s so much to share it’s been hard to decide what to do first. So, I just did this — there will be more to come. At least you have a few blooms now, to go with that snow.

  3. I know exactly where you were. I think that was the field you took me to visit. What a beautiful spot when you look closely! I would love to join you on an excursion, again. My favorite was the curly dock – what a beauty!!

    1. That’s exactly the field we visited, Nancy. I’d love to go with you again. We should get Martha to go with us, too, and anyone else who’s interested. It’s great to have such an interesting and unpredictable spot so close to home, and I like that people in the area are accustomed to seeing me now, and often will stop to chat.

      Here’s another view of the curly dock as it’s beginning to ripen. It really is a pretty plant, despite being an uninvited guest.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the little bouquet, Pit. It was great fun to find and identify a couple of new plants. I was surprised to find another photo of Lady Bird’s centaury in my files — from 2017! I need to go back into the files and see what else might be lurking there.

      Happy Easter to you and Mary, too. It ought to be a pretty one.

  4. I felt like printing this out not only as a flower guide but for the beautiful pictures. “Ditch diamonds” – I like that.

    As a little kid I never understood why they called them vacant lot as there was so much going on there. Then I decided it’s where you could go and let the busy city noise vacate your thoughts for a little bit. So many sigh they can’t get kids outdoors into nature anymore, but if one looks, nature tucks itself in here and there to be available…we should encourage more tiny islands for that?

    1. I’ve been carting the phrase ‘ditch diamonds’ around with me for several years. They deserve a post of their own. There are so many that are so attractive, and not only the obvious ones, like the spider lilies.

      I suspect vacant lots were as much a magnet for you and your friends as they were for us. They were the original enterprise zones for the fort builders, battlefields for our armies, and a great place to laze away an afternoon, just looking at what was there. Honestly, there’s plenty of nature available for most kids: perhaps excepting those in the inner cities. The islands they might need more are islands of time, free of constant schedules and adult supervision.

  5. Nice closeups: you’ve gotten quite good at these portraits.

    I always want to put quotation marks: a “vacant” lot. Such places are anything but vacant for those of us who look closely (and sometimes not even closely).

    1. Thank you. I took this set of photos just a few days after our conversation about yellow-and-orange, RAW processing, and too-soft images. I tried to approach things a little differently, and I was pleased with the results.

      I almost put quotation marks around ‘vacant’ in the title. I insert them mentally every time I come across the phrase. In seventy-plus years, I’ve never seen a truly vacant lot, and don’t expect ever to see one.

  6. What a dazzling array of wildflowers. Makes me wish I still had a macro lens and could kneel down low, Linda.

    So glad you decided to visit this lot and share your finds online. I enjoyed seeing every single one, especially the species which looked similar to wildflowers we have in Australia.

    This vacant lot might be worth another visit in 4-5 weeks.

    1. Another four to five days might be better, Vicki — or at least in another week or two. Things are changing so quickly here that it’s a little overwhelming. I’m still trying to sort through spring photos from two months ago, and every day a few more get added to the pile.

      When it comes to Australia, one of the most interesting connections I found involves the Delta arrowhead. In the Journal of Aquatic Plant Management, I found this paragraph in the midst of a good bit of scientific text I didn’t understand:

      “In southeast Australia, delta arrowhead has spread significantly since its introduction [from North America] in about 1960, becoming a major weed of irrigation and drainage systems… In 2012, the Australian Government declared the species a Weed of National Significance because of its invasiveness and potential impacts to the economy and environment. An increase in capacity to manage the weed is required because current control methods are underdeveloped (Australian Weeds Committee 2012).”

      I found that it first was identified in 1959 near Brisbane, and then in Victoria in 1962. It was introduced from our country to yours as an aquarium plant — and of course it escaped.

  7. Now I want to go wildflowering in empty lots! Love that asclepias! And the Brown’s savory, I only recently came across it on iNaturalist—it was a new one to me. I haven’t spotted it in the wild yet, though.

    1. I’ve found four Asclepias species in that field: the others were A. longifolia and A. viridiflora. It was amazing, to say the least. And one year it was covered with ladies’ tresses.

      I’ve found the Browne’s savory in three spots: at this one, around the freshwater pond at the entrance to the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, and along the trail down by the kayak launch at the San Bernard refuge. I’m sure it’s in many more places, especially if there’s water around. Until this year, it’s always looked a little faded and scraggly when I found it, and I’m sure that lack of water was one reason — as well as being at the end of its natural cycle.

    1. It is varied, no question about that. To have prairie plants, aquatic plants, and an assortment of vines in such a small area feels unique to me. It’s like three mini-eco-regions have been squashed together.
      It’s even more interesting that some plants I’ve photographed there in the past never have turned up again. Since photographing this one in 2017, it’s never shown up again. The entire plant seems to have disappeared. Easy come, easy go!

  8. Linda, your photos and profiles of these lovely wildflowers are exquisite. I’m not familiar with some of these so thank you for the flower tutorial. You mention with the spring obedient plant how they move around–and that’s certainly true! I also used to have carolina geraniums pop up every spring, at least somewhere in the garden. I scrolling through this post, I realize they’ve abandonded my garden for this year. But, who knows about next year? :)

    1. Thanks, Tina! I wasn’t familiar with a couple myself, and didn’t have an ID for others, so the search was great fun for me. I think the obedient plants are beautiful, and perhaps even more in the bud stage than in bloom. As for the geraniums — they’re everywhere. When I first spotted them, I was sure they were a “weed” — that is, invasive. Imagine my surprise when I discovered they’re a certified, true-blue, Texas native wildflower. I have a feeling I’ve been pre-judging every tiny flower as a weed. No more!

      1. Early on in the re-landscape of my garden, I planted some spring obedient plants. I loved them, but they weren’t very obedient–they grew in too little sun. Eventually, I moved them, but they never did well for me. I enjoy it when I see them growing–I really like them.

        Like you, I assumed that geranium was an invasive and yanked some up, before I though to, you know, LEARN what they are! I looked forward to them each spring for the past 5 years or so, and only realized none were around with this post. Well, they showed up once, univited, it’ll probably happen again!

        The other photo in this group that I just adore is the close-up of the Browne’s savory–they have the cutest little furry faces!

  9. Linda, you’ve given us a buffet for the senses today! Each of these beauties is breath-taking in both color and shape. I’m awed by your knack of finding not only them but also their identification. Are you sure you weren’t a botanist in a past life?!!

    1. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a botanist in a past life, Debbie, and I’m surely not one now. But I do love a good mystery, and nature’s full of delightful mysteries to be solved. I enjoy learning, too, and I’m sometimes amazed by how much I’ve learned about flowers (and photography) in recent years. I still remember the days when all I could say about a collection like this was “Pretty flowers.” There’s not a thing wrong with that, and I still take time to appreciate flowers solely for their beauty — but it sure is fun knowing a little more about them.

      1. I do agree. I think that’s just one reason why I miss my dad so much. He was a wealth of information about trees, flowers, bugs, and a lot of subjects, and now I have to dig things out for myself (which takes time!). But there’s something to be said for a “thirst for knowledge,” isn’t there?!

    1. I’ve found a little more about that plant. The scientific name means “slope footed,” and it was named after Patrick Browne (1720-1790), whose major work was The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica (1756).

      Apparently it will grow in any kind of soil, and in full sun or shade, as long as its feet are wet. It’s described as an ‘aquatic mint.’ There are a lot of interesting details here.

  10. This surely should encourage gardeners everywhere to set aside a section of their garden to allow little gems a place to flourish. A wild place, not interfered with.
    Of equal importance are the insects who rely on these plants. I’d love a post focused on them.
    My mother grew the obedient plant, and in time, so did I. It never became a pest but did expand enough to share around. Loved it, and it was a lovely surprise to see it here.

    1. Another wonderful custom that seems to be developing is allowing wildflowers free reign in our cemeteries. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes it just happens, but it’s delightful. Keeping the people who long for tidiness under control apparently can be a bit of an issue, but a patient explanation — “We’ll mow as soon as the flowers go to seed, so we can have more flowers next year” — often does the trick.

      Funny you should mention the insects. I’ve very carefully been moving them into their own little folder, so they can have a post of their own. Despite my eagerness to show all my treasures at once, it’s probably not the best idea. I still have to identify a few, but they are interesting, and sometimes quite amusing.

      I dug around in my files and found this photo of a mass of obedient plants. It’s not the best photo, but you might enjoy seeing them anyway, just for the memories.

        1. No, I’ve never come across that one. Of course, I tend to stick with sites relevant to the US, just because of limits on time. The number of great sites is remarkable, but I can’t even keep up with the ones I want to read.

          What I did notice when browsing his site is that there’s real commonality between his concerns and those of many people here. I do follow Etymology Today, which has some articles entirely over my head, but the occasional fabulous article about pollinators, flower-munching beetles, and so on. Some of my readers are quite enthusiastic and knowledgeable bee-keepers, too.

          I celebrated Earth Day today by not smooshing the spider that was preparing to walk across my varnish. Instead, I took it over to the grass and suggested it have a look around.

  11. I was going to say, vacant according to whom? I’ll take a vacant lot over a lawn any day, especially one that isn’t often mowed. You can find all sorts of goodies in one, as you so amply demonstrate.

    1. Exactly. Of course, it’s not always flowers and bumblebees — someone recently dumped a car at the edge of the meadow, and there are a couple of rib cages from something much larger than a deer — but between the vultures and the willingness of the plants to clamber over the trash, they’re becoming less obtrusive. Apparently there’s been some back-and-forth between the county and the landowners over who’s responsible for clearing up the mess, but the car’s disappearing a little at a time as people cart pieces away, and eventually the bones will bleach out. In the meantime, the flowers just keep blooming.

  12. Great use for a vacant lot, Linda, and a reminder to look closely. I was quite impressed with your ‘flower garden’ and even found some old friends, as well as some new ones. –Curt

    1. Sometimes I call what’s happening in these so-called vacant lots ‘accidental gardens.’ I’m always tickled by the real gardeners’ term ‘volunteers.’ There was quite a variety that vounteered to fill up this space. I smiled at your use of the phrase ‘old friends.’ Seeing familar flowers pop up after the long winter always is like meeting an old friend on the street.

    1. Many thanks, Tom. I didn’t know until after I posted that the Browne’s savory is a foragers’ favorite, or that it’s mint-like. It certainly adds to that one’s sweetness.

      It was really, really windy here yesterday, but it laid overnight, and the weekend is projected to be gorgeous. Once I finish a few projects, I’m going to project myself out of the house for a while.

    1. This is my favorite kind of mixed bouquet. I really was surprised to see the milkweed, although I shouldn’t have been. Despite all my years in coastal Texas, it’s still hard for me to understand that spring can begin in February. At least this year I wasn’t completely late to the party!

    1. This past weekend, I came across some ditches that were filling up with obedient plant. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a shoulder where I could pull off, but they’ll be around for awhile, and I’ll find them.

      Since writing this post, I’ve learned that Browne’s savory has a mint-like fragrance. There was a story on a site from Florida about an area filled with the plants that also is prone to occasional instances of auto-in-the-ditch. It seems that all of those crushed plants make the accident sites extraordinarily fragrant.

  13. Wonderful collection of plants doing what we should allow them all to do…be fruitful and multiply. Your images are all excellent intimate portraits. You are right, more vacant lots need exploration.

    1. Even this morning, scrolling through the photos again, I was astonished by the variety that was present there. Our primary highways are gorgeous in spring, thanks in part the the highway departments and municipalities, but they’re probably designed to be monocultures: patches of a single color more easily appreciated at 70 mph. Some flowers spread in great colonies, of course, but there’s something delightful about poking through a field that looks like “nothing” and finding a great deal of “something.”

      1. I think that about the only places around here that our highway departments maintain for flowers are the highway median strips. But I am pretty sure they use mixes so there is variety. I suppose for the flower nerds among us, trying to identify those flowers might be hazardous as might pulling over and exploring them. Honestly, as one of those nerds I am tempted to pull over myself but, at least so far, I have shown better judgment. Maybe as I get a little older and have a bit lower common sense.

        Country roads just go wild or get mowed.

        1. I confess to pulling over on a regular basis. If there aren’t any shoulders, of course I don’t, but if there’s any room and something eye-catching, I’ve been known to slam on the brakes for a little exploration. I’ve learned the trick of holding up the camera, though, so people know there’s no car trouble involved. I stay close to the car on primary roads, but out in the country I don’t, and it’s really kind of nice how many people will check to make sure that old woman lying on the ground hasn’t had a stroke.

            1. I don’t have one, and wouldn’t put one on my car anyway. Back when there were metal bumpers, they were more popular, partly because they were easier to get off. The last bumper sticker I had said “I Love NY.” If the car hadn’t’ been totaled in an accident, I think I would have taken it off once I got to Texas.

            2. So would I. I don’t have any bumper stickers and haven’t since the early 70s when I got a lot of abuse for my “No Nukes” declaration. I decided long ago not to advertise my political views for all to see. Now with social media even less so. No one is going to change their outlook based on a bumper sticker or social media post. I may give myself away in a comment but that’s about it. I wish more folks would learn the facts behind the issues rather than relying on others to make decisions for them.

            3. On the other hand, there was a time when bumper stickers were great fun. We used to sit in a café in Berkeley and admire the creativity.

    1. It’s interesting how many people like Browne’s savory. Finding it in such fine condition was a plus. I’ve usually seen it later in the spring or early summer, when it’s already fading, or has been mowed, or whatever. Having a macro lens to photograph it made a difference, as it did with the blue-eyed grass. There are such fine details to all of the smaller flowers that I simply never noticed before.

  14. wow wow wow wow WOW! what a grand assortment of glorious beauties! there’s a lot of work here – first from your outing, scouting, admiring, photographing, then back home working on the images.. and then uploading, etc! well done, amiga!

    1. You know a little about the process of putting a post like this together, don’t you? I’ve often thought about the amount of work you do to produce your wonderful, local-color filled posts of flora and fauna, but I really thought about you when I was working on this. There are so many decisions to be made (which photo?) and so much research involved (is it this, or is it that?) But it all was great fun, and it was surprising even to me that there was such a variety in that little bit of land. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing all my little friends!

      1. All of that research plays a role in keeping the brain sharp, so we benefit in many ways!

        Recently I helped a friend in her garden. “Show me how you put your spell on the plants,’ she asked….. I watched her work for a while and realized that her mind was elsewhere… then she watched me work, dote on each plant, give praise to the beauty of even a small bud, tuck them into the well-prepared bed, water them immediately — but the whole time talking with them… i feel that it’s important, and though they might not communicate the way that we do, they receive our love – and hopefully thrive.

        your photos reveal your own love of our plant world (and animal)… we are lucky to have a close relationship with nature.

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