Truly Wild Flowers

Carolina larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) ~ Rockport City Cemetery

If you think this larkspur seems unusual, you’re quite right. The mass of blooms, the unusually flattened stem, and the sheer size of the plant — nearly sixteen inches of floral exuberance — are clues that the plant is fasciated: a relatively uncommon condition that produces a variety of abnormalities in the plants it affects.

Sometimes, there is fusion or flattening in the plant — usually in its stem — that results in ribbon-like, coiled, or contorted tissue. Banding at the top of plants can cause them to increase in size and weight, while flowers and leaves growing on a fasciated plant’s flattened stems may be smaller than usual, or more more abundant, as with the larkspur I found at Rockport.

Fasciation has been attributed to a number of causes: genetic mutation, the presence of bacteria, fungi, or viruses; the activity of insects; or even weather conditions such as frost. Any physical damage to the growing point, or apical meristem, can lead to quirks in the production of new flowers, leaves, or stems.

Plant meristems usually produce the round or cylindrical stem we’re accustomed to seeing. In fasciated plants, the meristem flattens out and becomes elongated. Instead of producing a round stem, the mutation causes a flattened stem to develop.

A larkspur’s normal, cylindrical stem
The wide, flattened stem of the fasciated larkspur

Here, a fasciated and top-heavy Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) shows off its own flattened stem and remarkable size while lying on the ground; unbroken, it had been brought low by the weight of its own growth.

This Brazoria County paintbrush would do for a really large canvas

Here, the banding typical of fasciated stems is obvious.

Looking more like a chrysanthemum than an Indian paintbrush, this remarkable collection of individual blooms and colorful bracts had grown to be more than six inches in diameter.

It may be a bit of a commonplace, but it’s impossible to see these botanical anomalies without saying, “Fasciation is fascinating.”


Comments always are welcome.

63 thoughts on “Truly Wild Flowers

  1. Keen interest and an inquiring mind, combined with decent observation skills, will reveal a great deal. Nature is full of anomalies, which of course makes it all the more interesting.

    1. When I first began reading about fasciation, I sometimes found questions from gardeners that were tinged with a bit of annoyance that such ‘imperfect’ plants had appeared in their beds. Perspective is everything, I suppose; one person’s imperfection is another’s delight. I’ve come across five fascinated species now, and am hoping for many more.

  2. What an excellent specimen of a fasciated larkspur you’ve presented. I’ve never seen fasciation in that species.

    While the similarity between fasciation and fascination lends itself to wordplay, I’m afraid the stem in meristem leads to confusion. Etymologically speaking, there is no stem in meristem. The word splits differently: merist-, from the Greek meristos that meant ‘divided’, plus the same -em noun suffix found in the botanical terms xylem and phloem and in common words of Greek origin like problem and system.

    1. Partly because of its size, this larkspur certainly was eye-catching. Between the red bench in the midst of the flowers, the white bluebonnets, and this gem, the trip to the Rockport cemetery was more than worthwhile.

      A story I heard may or may not be apocryphal, but it’s a good one, and highlights your point about meristem. I was told that an older grade school child in a summer ecology course asked the teacher, “Why are stems so happy?” Of course the child had seen the word, and interpreted it as ‘merry stem.’ I’d managed to avoid that misinterpretation, but I hadn’t realized that its root means ‘divided.’ Thanks for adding that.

  3. I am always learning here, Linda. But with so many plants and now you teach us of mutations – I’ll never be able to keep with their names!

    1. Many of us can’t keep up with the names, GP. That’s why I have increasing numbers of books on my shelves, and an increasing number of bookmarked websites. Of course, an imperfect memory doesn’t help. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at a plant and said, “That’s a …. oh…. you know.” Truth to tell, the oddities tend to be the most memorable. I’ve seen five fasciated plants now, and I know exactly where and when I saw them, as well as knowing their names.

      1. Believe me, Pit — I’m learning as I go. You can’t believe the number of times I look up ‘this’ word or ‘that,’ just to be sure I’ve really gotten a detail right. If noticing is the first step, and photographing is the second, figuring out what I’ve actually seen and photographed is the third!

    1. In addition to these two, I’ve also seen a fasciated Texas dandelion, a black-eyed Susan, and a vervain. The dandelion was a hoot. It was so large and so perfectly flat, it looked as though it had been pressed in a book. Both the word and the phenomenon are fascinating; I’m eager for another sighting, somewhere.

  4. We’ve had some fascinating fasciation with foxgloves. And it seems to be embedded in their genetics because we have them reseed and those in the same bed come back up with it. We’ve also seen it in pine trees where one branch gets an abnormal growth. It’s pretty cool!

    1. It’s interesting that you get ‘repeats’ with your foxgloves. Another plant that can be bred for the effect is crested Celosia (Celosia argentea). I’ve seen those, but didn’t realize what was going on with them. I just learned that the abnormal growth in trees is sometimes called witches’ brooms. What an apt name for another interesting phenomenon! One article said they often are mistaken for squirrel nests; I’m going to have to look more carefully from now on.

    1. Well, some people enjoy a formal garden, perfectly symmetrical and trimmed within an inch of its life. One of my friends is offended beyond words when anything she hasn’t planned or planted shows up in her flower beds. Others prefer a less structured garden, and delight in botanical interlopers (aka weeds) and oddities.

      I found the paintbrush in a ditch along a county road. It was the size of the flower head that caught my attention. Such a big blob of red demanded a little extra attention!

    1. Both of these flowers tickled me. The other fasciated flowers I’ve seen were pure accidents — in fact, I only noticed some after I’d gotten home and spotted them in a photo. It required another trip back to their ditch the next day to get better photos. Thank goodness it was a weekend, and the mowers weren’t out and about!

    1. Great plants make for great photos, and both of these plants are great in my book. Big, showy, and willing to push the boundaries, they’re obviously outliers, but that’s fine. A whole field of them would just be a whole field of them — it’s the individuality that catches the eye.

  5. I might have larkspurs in my garden. Now I have to go out and look, though I fear they are on the down side of life and may not resemble anything so lovely as your photo. Interesting about the “paintbrushes.”

    1. Both Indian paintbrush and larkspur are native in your area, although your paintbrush species differ from ours. One of yours I especially like is the pale Indian paintbrush (Castilleja septentrionalis): it’s not red, but nearly white, or creamy white. The only time I’ve seen something like that, it was a genetic abnormality present in our usual species.

      There are so many ‘paintbrushes,’ in so many colors, you could create quite a painting with them.

  6. Why do I feel sorry for these poor plants?? They’re interesting, of course, but somehow, they’re just “off” for me. I’ve probably got the traditional varieties in my mind, so these appear as anomalies. Thanks for pointing them out though.

    1. These certainly are anomalies; that’s part of what makes them interesting to me. It’s intriguing how differently we can respond to the same thing. You feel sorry for the plants, while I was cheering them on. As a matter of fact, the original title for this post was “The Over-Achievers” — they took what they were given, and made something splashy out of it.

      As a matter of fact, when I look at the flower head of the Indian paintbrush, I think of Carmen Miranda, with her over-the-top hats covered in fruit and flowers. Maybe I’ve just been out in the sun too long!

        1. Now I’m grinning. I’ve known a few people who have really big heads, too — at least, metaphorically speaking — and they tend to be all stooped over, too.

    1. That’s one I’d love to see some day. Every time I see a photo of a fasciated cactus, I can’t help staring. They display the phenomenon in a way that compels attention, that’s for sure. It must have been great to actually see one.

  7. I wonder how they came up with “fasciation” as a name for the phenomenon? I know “fascia” is the name for the covering over a muscle, and “fasciculation” is a muscle twitching. Curious.

    1. The words are related. Here’s the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary: “1560s, from Latin fascia “a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon,” derivative of fascis “bundle” (see fasces). In English, originally in architecture; anatomical use is from 1788. Also used in botany, music, astronomy. Related: Fascial; fasciation.”

      Fascia boards on houses rot; the sheet or band of connective tissue that’s attached to muscles and other organs is called fascia; and fasciation is the banding, or ribbon-like flattening of plant parts. From architecture, to medicine, to weird plants: who knew?

  8. I can really identify with that fallen Indian Paintbrush having become more bent over and closer to the ground myself. And over time, don’t we all develop our own form of fasciation?

    This is a very fascinating fascination post, Linda. Nice explanation of the possible causes and some great illustrations.

    Interestingly enough, spellcheck did not recognize “fasciation” and wanted to correct it to fascination. It will know it now as I just added it to the dictionary.

    1. I smiled at your balky spellcheck. I’ve started using DuckDuckGo as a search engine, with occasional forays into that ‘other one’ for more esoteric topics, and the Duck was convinced I really wanted to search for ‘fascination.’ Once I convinced it I knew what I was searching for, the results were pretty slim. Still, the more people use it, the more useful it will become.

      Your mention of being bent over reminded me in a flash of a favorite old bluegrass tune: “I Ain’t Broke, But I’m Badly Bent. I’ve pretty much hit the ground myself. Working in hundred degree or more heat day after day for almost three weeks now has done me in. I’ve been trying to get a “real” new post up, but I can’t even think at the end of the day, let alone write. Last night, I thought I might have a little rest before doing the dishes. I laid down at 7:30, and here I am, ten hours later. I don’t think it’s any mystery why I dreamed about Christmas last night.

      I did get my 12″ reflector yesterday. I was impressed with its cute little case. I was even more impressed with my ability to get it properly folded and back in the case after I’d released the thing and had it fly halfway across the living room. I’d prefer spending the weekend in the AC, but I suspect the poorly-lit orchids I found might still be in bloom, since there still were some buds last weekend. I really would like a decent photo of them, so I guess me and my reflector will hit the road tomorrow or Sunday. The dishes can wait.

      1. I know that song! And I’m a Ricky Skaggs fan as well.

        I feel for your suffering. We’ve had 90’s and@70% humidity for a while but recently moderated to more seasonable temps. I am sure what we complain about would seem like relief to you. Those ice baths I got last October probably sound pretty good, eh? I am sure we all miss a “new real” post from you, but don’t want you to stress yourself or not be pleased with what you create.

        I’m glad that you managed to fold it up so quickly. They do fly when losing your grip. As cool as that little one is, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy using it, the larger one I have is more versatile. The inner ring is a diffuser, similar to parachute nylon, and comes in real handy in bright contrasty light. It gets wrapped in different reflector material, golds and silver which can also be used to shade a small subject as well as reflect light. I have a large backpack for the kit which has a section larger enough to put the folded unit in at about 15″. Even if it isn’t sunny, the reflector still can add a little light to a shaded portion of a flower or the underside of a mushroom. I’m looking forward to your first post having used it.
        Enjoy the a/c in the afternoon and rock those flowers in the early morning.

        1. It hadn’t occurred to me that the reflector could be used as a shade, too. There have been times when I’ve used my own shadow, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not. But it would be nice to be able to do that without regard for my own position re: the subject. And believe me — trying to photograph a grass-green orchid in the middle of other green plants in light that’s more than usually contrasty was an experience. Simply being shaded wouldn’t be the whole answer, but it would help.

          1. I’ve used myself as shade too. Sometimes it’s tough to get my arms and legs close enough to not let slivers through. That was the case with the bottle gentian. It had become pretty sunny by the time I got to them and holding on to the cable release limited how far I could get away and still shade the entire bouquet. I almost fell a couple of times trying to align myself. A diffuser can really help in the scenario you described. It’s like shooting in bright overcast…nice even lighting. I try to combine that with holding the small reflector to the side and giving a little more light to the subject.
            I am looking forward to seeing what you do with the reflector.

            1. One thing’s become clear already. Using a reflector (or a diffuser, I suppose) is complicated when there’s no tripod, cable release, and etc. involved. I think a little creativity is going to have to be involved in all this, but I’ve messed with the thing enough at this point to understand that it could work with those orchids — or any other plant buried beneath shrubs and trees.

              Whether the orchids still will be blooming when I get back up there, I don’t know. The weekend’s plans have changed, due in part to a rainy forecast for that area, and a call from a friend inviting me to visit an area closer to Austin where I’ve never been. In any event, when I do get back, I know where there’s a native ginger that would do just as well — as would several other plants. Stay tuned!

            2. Yes, without a third hand that is tough to accomplish. Even with a cable release and tripod, I still at times have had to find an appropriate sized stick to prop the reflector or diffuser. At one point I started carrying one of those 3/8″ diameter green plastic garden stakes and a woodworkers’ spring clamp to help with that. Maybe that will prod you to use a tripod more.

            3. Hmmm…I typed in but it didn’t post. Maybe that’s how the smile icon is written and I believe you don’t allow smileys. I didn’t want to do a smiley, just express the grin.

            4. Isn’t that odd (that the little icon or whatever didn’t show up)? I looked at your comment in the editing window and nothing showed up there, either. Maybe if you used a FB icon it’s WP that doesn’t allow them. I don’t even know of a setting that prevents them from posting. Weird.

              In any event, I caught the humor. What I need is a photographic assistant. I recently learned that my doctor served as photographic assistant for an acclaimed photographer. He said it mostly consisted of standing where he was told and holding a reflector.

            5. Here’s what I posted…if it can be seen with lots of spaces.

              I think there is an option to disable emoticons. I have no idea what the one I tried to post comes from, I thought it was a standard.

              Years ago I had a shooting partner. He wasn’t all that interested in my subject matter, aside from mushrooms, as he required his to have a pulse. So he held reflectors and diffusers for me. I called him the “western Massachusetts Light Control Services, Inc.” He never sent me a bill.

            6. Oh! I think I know. When you used the greater and less than signs, WP thought it was improper html, and stripped it out. I think if you’d used parentheses, it would have worked: let’s try — (grin).

              Now, let’s try with those other signs —

              Ah, ha. It stripped it out for me, too.

            7. Bingo! Maybe brackets will work. {grin}

              I still think it’s odd since we use those symbols when inserting a link. Oh well, some thing are just beyond my ken.

    1. When you posted a while back about the hoary vervain, I very nearly added a couple of photos of fasciated vervain that I found last spring. I’m not sure which species it is, but it’s certainly in the family.

      The irony is that when I came home from roaming the country side, I didn’t know I’d come across fasciation until I looked at this photo. There are three fasciated plants there: one at the bottom, and two in the middle, across from one another. The next day, I went back to the spot and took more photos. It was windy as could be, so they aren’t very good, but you can see the effect. Here’s one close up and another. The banding of the bloom and the thickened, flattened stem are really interesting.

  9. I like all images but the last one of the Indian paintbrush is fascinating. It just really looks like a chrysanthemum.

    I was reading the ‘Delphinium’ refers to ‘dolphin-like’ flower buds. I do see the forms in the second image which remind me of bottlenose dolphins. However, there is a particular kind of dolphin that reminds me the most of this Larkspur’s bud: the ones called ‘long-beaked common dolphins’:
    They have longer snouts which resemble the flower bud even more clearly. They’re found in the Caribbean, South America, the Pacific, as well as in Africa.

    1. It took me a little while to come up with ‘chrysanthemum,’ but once I had, it seemed perfect. I’m glad your eye sees it that way, too.

      I hadn’t read about the association between the dolphins and ‘delphinium.’ I just couldn’t see the association, until I realized the flower’s spur is most akin to the dolphin’s tail. Then, it made sense. When I rotated this photo of a leaping dolphin, it made even more sense. I wonder if that’s the association that led to the name: not the head, but the tail. In either case, when the dolphin’s turned upside down, the resemblance to the flower is more clear.

        1. Here’s something else that occurs to me: the shape of some Delphinium cultivars is more bulbous on one end than our natives — or so it seems. The larger and rounder flowers do bear a greater resemblance to the dolphin’s nose, I think.

  10. We’ve talked about this before, right? It IS such a fascinating phenomenon (sorry, didn’t mean to do that, really didn’t). I’ve seen it most often in saguaro cacti and Common mullein. I’m glad you’re making a study of it – hope to see more posts as time goes by. I’m thinking the next time I see it I must photograph it, and keyword it appropriately. :-)

    1. I’ve seen so few fasciated flowers, I know exactly where that conversation of ours took place: around my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on the Nash prairie. Now, just don’t ask me where my car keys are, or who has birthdays in September!

      I’ve seen five examples of fasciation now, and hope the next comes along soon. The fun thing about them is that there really isn’t any going out and looking for them: they’re not like a bird or flower species known to appear in a certain place. They just are “there” — and such fun to find.

      1. Right, they come to us. I think there may be one or two more mulleins right off the highway nearby, but there’s not a good place to stop and traffic moves too fast. Maybe they’re just larger, bulging flower heads. I guess I should figure out a place to pull over and walk….

        1. That’s one of the nice things about Texas. When you get into the country, traffic on many of the farm to market roads or county roads is calculated in the dozens of cars per day, if that. There are wide shoulders, and it’s perfectly fine to stop, put on your flashers, and wade into a ditch. People will slow down to double check and make sure help isn’t needed, but I’ve learned to hold up my camera. That usually elicits a grin and a wave.

          I have stopped along major highways, but that’s a little iffier, and I don’t like to do it. It is the way I found my first stand of white prickly poppies: right on highway 35 outside Angleton. I’ll bet I could take you to the very spot today.

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