A Delight of Basket-flowers

American basket-flower ~ Plectocephalus americanus (formerly Centaurea americana)

As spring transitioned into summer, I began to fear I had missed seeing my beloved basket-flowers this year. Finally, around mid-June, they began to appear: along abandoned rail tracks and in ditches; tucked into unmowed corners of vacant lots; lurking at the edge of a shipyard. By July, seeds I’d given to friends began to produce as well, and their reports of successful germination pleased me immensely.

Generally speaking, basket-flowers bloom a soft, lovely pink, or various shades of lavender. As they age, the intricately woven ‘basket’ containing the slender disk flowers turns golden, becoming the center of attraction as the seeds form.

Occasionally, as with this flower from a colony in Kemah, Texas, the fading bloom darkens, taking on shades of bronzed purple and red.

Sometimes, white basket-flowers appear. Near Tres Palacios Bay on Texas’s mid-coast, this lovely example stirred in the wind: a reminder of the surprising variety nature offers to even the most casual observer.


Comments always are welcome.

53 thoughts on “A Delight of Basket-flowers

  1. They are very beautiful and recall to mind a thistle. I suspect that the seeds of basket-flowers are eagerly sought after by birds, especially late breeding frugivores.

    1. In fact, one common name for the plant is American star thistle, although it doesn’t have the prickles common to other thistle species. I’ve never seen a bird pulling seeds or fluff from one of these, although I do see them around other thistles occasionally. I did a quick search and found that ground feeders like quail and dove enjoy the seeds, which makes sense. Once ripe, they fall from the plants rather easily.

    1. My technique’s pretty simple: wander around a lot, and keep my eyes open. I do find some neat things, but every now and then I ponder how much I’m missing.

    1. I’d never seen them until I moved to Texas, and even though they’re quite common here, they can be scattered. I looked at the USDA map, and the farthest north they’re mentioned on the east coast is New York, but even in NY they’re mentioned in only three counties.

    1. The white basket-flowers are uncommon, but that second photo may be the most unusual I’ve created. The flowers were growing near a stand of trees and shrubbery; that’s what provided the dark background. Usually, they’re found in more open areas.

    1. Basket-flowers are fairly benign, although plopping down on a stem broken by weed-eating can be problematic; it’s not the stem that’s going to be further damaged. One of those babies can pierce jeans and flesh, and still look like this. I was glad the puncture wound healed on its own, so I didn’t have to explain it to anyone.

      You might be interested in this page about Texas thistles that I found. I hadn’t realized there are so many species.

    1. If these are around, they certainly do attract the eye. They’re listed for your area, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all that you’ve seen them. I enjoy the ‘basket’ as much as the flower — and they make wonderful dried flowers. I hung some upside down for a few weeks, and they kept their color as they dried. When I moved I finally got rid of them, but they had lasted at least three years.

    1. I think it must be. The maps show them in all the counties around you, but not yours. They aren’t in east Texas, either, so the woodsy environment clearly isn’t suitable for them. They’ll take partial shade, but they’re sun-lovers.

  2. What stunning colors! I loved the lavender in the first photo … until I saw the bronzed purple in the second … until I saw the snow-white in the third. Each is beautiful in its own right, proving once again, that there’s a beauty to everything in nature if we’ll only look around and appreciate it.

    1. Every now and then I’ve had a customer who’s wanted all of the wood on the boat to be exactly the same color. I like to tell them, “If you want uniformity, use plastic.” Nature’s variety seems unending, and it’s one of the things that makes roaming around in the natural world so much fun — we never know what we’re going to find.

    1. Isn’t that a great flower? It is torch-like; I’d not seen that until you mentioned it.

      I learned a practical and somewhat amusing lesson about basket-flowers while taking that photo. The day was windy, but the flower was relatively low and protected, so sitting was the best option. Unfortunately, I didn’t just sit down; I plopped down without looking. That’s when I realized that basket-flower stems don’t break easily; they’re quite capable of piercing jeans and flesh. It’s a good thing the photo was decent — that might be my one worse-than-chiggers experience.

  3. So very pretty. I’m trying now to decide if the beachy blooms (in my butterfly shot) are these basket flowers (mine are quite small, the bloom about the size of a fingernail) or knapweed, which Jenny IDd it as. Or maybe they are of the same family. It’s hard to tell how big these heads are.But they are truly beautiful.

    1. I went back and looked, and yours sure does look like a knapweed. It’s in the same family as the basket-flowers, but these are really quite large — as much as four or five inches across. They can be quite tall, too. I’ve found some plants that are more than six feet tall, and quite dramatic. You certainly aren’t going to miss a stand of basket-flowers. Even the ones that are more normally-sized are three or four feet tall.

      When I was up in the hill country, I found a plant I’ve never seen before, and I think it’s a native knapweed — I don’t have it identified yet, but it certainly looks like yours.

  4. I haven’t sowed my seeds yet—was going to save them for when we mow/burn our ROW in the fall and sow our wildflower seeds so that we have a good meadow out there next spring!

    1. Well, you’re right in line with the advice I’ve read: that they should be sown between August and November, depending on conditions. Now, I need to be enlightened: what does ROW mean? I know the various ways the word’s used in gardening, but I don’t know the acronym.

  5. As I go through my reader and go through the particular mix of blogs I follow, there seems to be an ad hoc theme of delicacy this morning. These are very beautiful and extremely well presented. Thank you.

    1. I think people are tiring of more than the current restrictions; there’s a lot of harshness in the world just now, and a little delicacy can be restorative. On the other hand, the basket-flowers’ delicacy is more apparent than real. They’re tough plants — like sunflowers and thistles — although they’re not prickly. I do think they’re beautiful, and I’m glad you found them pleasing.

      1. I think there is a great advantage in being tough but not prickly. Someone who is tough but not prickly can also be delicate. Then it is possible to be kind to people while still deflecting the inevitable brickbats. I think it comes down to being confident in one’s inner strength, but an awful lot of people aren’t because they don’t have any. Start each day with a good strong editorial. That’s my motto.

        1. I’m smiling, because you’ve reminded me of a routine that my dad initiated when I still was in grade school. In the morning, we’d read the news section of the Des Moines Register , but at night we’d read one or two editorials together, and talk about them. It was great fun, although it depended on a couple of customs kids often don’t experience these days: family meals, and real conversation.

    1. Some photos are the result of little ‘workshops’ in the field, and that was one. We could title it: “How to Deal with Wind and Its Frustrations.” I think there might have been more than fifty photos of this basket-flower — this is the best of the lot.

      I just did a quick scan of my basket-flower photos, and found several pollinators: bumble bees, those little bees with black and white striped abdomens, some flower beetles, and some lurking spiders. What’s interesting is that I don’t have any photos of hoverflies around them, and I don’t remember ever seeing them at the blooms. I know that skippers enjoy them, and hairstreaks, but I’ve never managed a photo of one of those feeding.

  6. That white one almost looks Chinese — like some of their chrysanthemum art. Cropped down to nothing but the blossom, blown up to about 24 x whatever, with an eggshell white mat in a slender black frame. Yowsa.

    1. It does look chrysanthemum-like. They are in the same family as basketflowers, although I’d never thought of it. If it hadn’t been so windy that day, I would have centered it better, and it really would have cropped into a nice square. You’re right about the eggshell mat, too — matched to the interior of the flower.

  7. Beautiful images – I love the close-up of the ‘basket’. The detail and colours are great. :)

    1. The basket’s as appealing to me as the flower in bloom. They’re so intricate, and they’re especially beautiful when photographed in the golden light of sunset. They certainly do a good job of holding all those ray flowers in place!

    1. Thanks, Rob. They’re a tall, splashy flower, so as long as they’re around, they aren’t hard to find. Just today, I found another patch that had gone to seed. The plants were well over my head — probably seven feet tall. They would have been quite a sight in full bloom, although I would have needed a ladder to get some close-ups!

  8. I am pleased you got to see your basket-flower. These are so fine and delicate. Beautifully photographed, too. This exquisite set shows how different backgrounds can really enhance a flower, and indeed the whole image.

    1. That’s one reason I decided to group these three together. Obviously the flowers differ pretty significantly, but the lighting and backgrounds emphasize the differences. Sets like this prove there’s no need — or possibility! — of picking a ‘favorite’ among flowers. They’re all beautiful, in their way.

    1. This white one was part of the only group of white ones I’ve found. I know other people who’ve seen them in other parts of the state, but they certainly aren’t common. I guess that’s part of the appeal — I do love finding unusual flowers here and there. I suppose there are unusual birds and insects, too, but I’m not so familiar with them, so it’s hard to pick out the ones that are unusual in some way.

      It’s been so hot here that we’ve moved into that summertime pause, when the spring flowers are nearly gone and the fall flowers haven’t begun to appear, but I did find some real treats in the piney woods last Sunday. As soon as I get the photos processed, I’ll post some. I’d forgotten that one of our rare orchids blooms in July, but it was putting on quite a show; seeing it thrilled me to pieces.

    1. Oh, Dina. That’s such a kind thing to say. I really appreciate it, especially since it comes in the middle of my usual summer slump. When it gets so beastly hot, nothing looks good to me at the end of the day — even my photos! Still, I can’t keep myself from going out and about. I keep wondering what I’ll find next!

    1. As far as I know, ‘basket-flower’ or ‘American basket-flower’ always has been the common name for this Centaurea species. It’s derived from the basket-like base. Blanket flower or fire-wheel are the common names here for Gaillardia pulchella. A related species, G. amblyodon is commonly distinguised by the addition of ‘maroon’: maroon blanket flower, or maroon fire-wheel. As the article notes, the blanket flower name may be derived from the flower’s combination of colors, which resemble those used in Native American blankets.

        1. Believe me, Jason, you’re not the only one. And the more flowers I learn about, the more confused I can be. I was trying to remember ‘vervain’ this afternoon, and finally had to resort to the books. Still, as long as I can find my way home, I’m not going to worry about it.

  9. They are delightful and I am very happy that you finally got to spend some time with them again this year. That was how I felt the other day with our Black-eyed Susans. I love their intricacy and as well the white variant you captured…lucky you.

    1. One of the real benefits of photographing flowers for years rather than months is the record that’s established. I still haven’t done the organizing and tagging I should do, but I can go back into files for an individual species, like this one, and see when it’s appeared each year: ‘early’ or ‘late.’ Of course, flowers don’t live by our calendars, so the variation in bloom can be substantial. I was surprised by how relieved I felt when they finally appeared this year — we take our ‘normal’ where we can find it!

      1. I am so beyond being behind on my cataloging. When I was laid up I vowed to spend the time once I was able to catch up. That was the end of 2018. I am still vowing. Flowers do their own thing but having a rough idea does up the odds. I find that not only do they miss the mark on the calendar but sometimes take a year or two off. That was the case when I looked for our Canada Lilies this year. Very sparse. Same for Mountain Laurel. Several others that I spent a lot of time with last year were AWOL this.

        1. It does happen. I went looking for a large patch of white bluebells that’s been present and accounted for in the past three years, and they were nowhere to be seen, despite being in an area that only was mowed last fall. So it goes: that’s what makes it such fun. I did get a windshield grasshopper as a consolation prize!

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