Cotton Country

Snake-cotton (Froelichia floridana)


Growing up in corn country, I’d always thought of Texas as cattle country. In truth, cotton has been nearly as important to the state, from battles waged over the product during the Civil War to the economic benefit provided by bales leaving Galveston’s wharves.

Even today, cotton fields abound — in the Panhandle, in west Texas, throughout the midcoast — and cotton has become part of the culture. To favor something is to ‘cotton’ to it. To be secure, financially or otherwise, is to be ‘in tall cotton.’ One of my customers once named his post-retirement sailboat High Cotton, and I’ve danced more times than I can count to the “Cotton-Eyed Joe”.

Recently, I met another bit of Texas cotton: snake-cotton, a member of the Amaranth family known scientifically as Froelichia floridana: a tribute to German botanist Josef Aloys Frölich. Given the plant’s preference for full sun, dry conditions, and sandy soil, its appearance at the edge of a service road at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary wasn’t surprising.

Its tiny, conical flowers emerge in a tight spiral, but they soon swell to become shaped like a short vase with a short narrow neck. There are no petals; the orange stamens and style are contained within the neck of the ‘vase.’

Blooms become densely woolly or cottony, giving the plant one-half of its common name. Why it’s called ‘snake cotton’ is more mysterious. While it might be that snakes commonly were found in the same area as the plant, it’s just as likely that the development of the plant itself led to the name. Young plants have short, erect spikes of blooms. As the plant ages, the spike elongates, adding weight to the stem and ‘snaking’ it down toward the ground.

Whatever the source of the common name, it’s a fascinating plant that rewards a second, closer look.


Comments always are welcome.

67 thoughts on “Cotton Country

    1. That was an interesting article; I enjoyed the comments, as well. I certainly was pleased with the photos. It made the time spent laying in the road more than worthwhile. Getting the sand out of my clothes was a bit of an issue, but sand’s better than chiggers.

      1. Sand is way better than chiggers!! When I was a kid our family went on a woodland hike somewhere. My mother thought we kids were all dirty and needed a bath, but she was ok. Only later on to remove her socks and find masses of red welts from chiggers on her feet. Can’t remember what was used back then…maybe nail polish over the spots to kill the chiggers.

        It is always fun to know the story of now an image was captured. It’s rarely just given to you between uncomfortable positions to assume, heat, insects, or just plain waiting!! I hate waiting.

        1. I had one ghastly experience with chiggers and a whole collection of who-knows-whats earlier this year when I made my first foray into the San Bernard woods. I thought I was home free because I didn’t see any mosquitoes. I was wrong, with a vengeance. I’d been lazy, and hadn’t sprayed my clothes with Permethrin, or used my Picaridin spray. Since then, I haven’t been lazy, and I’ve not had more than a bite or two since.

          I just posted about a hike through the San Bernard woods on The Task at Hand. I wondered as I sorted through the photos if the territory looks anything like areas you explore. I know there are differences, but palmettos, vines, and lots of standing water surely has some similarity!

    1. The name’s just a reference to the cottony appearance of the blooms. As the plants age, the ‘cotton’ becomes even more pronounced: nice and fluffy. You’d have to harvest a lot to make any use of it, since the flowers are so tiny. One source mentioned that there can be as many as fifteen flowers in a bit of stem only a third of an inch long; they wrap around the stem in a spiral.

    1. It is that. I’d never seen it until I visited east Texas. It’s not shown in our coastal counties, and it doesn’t appear around your area, either. It is listed for central parts of the state; someday I’ll get there, and know to look for it.

    1. Your reference to the wide world reminded me of a snippet from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “The world is wilder than [we know] in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.” Isn’t that just the truth?

      I’m pleased to have introduced you to this bit of wildness.

  1. I see that a variety of this grows in Illinois, but I don’t recall ever seeing it. Nicely captured, Linda. Hope you’re managing to stay safe from the hurricane that’s passing to your south. Lots of wind and rain from that, and I noticed The Weather Channel had folks nearby (that’s never a good sign, ha!)

    1. I think it would be easier to spot a little later in the year, when it’s taller, and has more cottony blooms. The fact that it arches over would help, too. I’ll be sure to look for it a little later in the season.

      We’ve had some good rain bands, but they’ve been interspersed with periods of sun. The radar suggests we’ll have more later today, but we haven’t even had much wind. You’re right about The Weather Channel. It’s quite a joke around here that when Jim Cantore shows up, it’s time to leave town.

    1. We’re just fine, here. There have been some dousings from heavy rain bands, but little wind and only coastal flooding. A hundred and fifty miles south, things are quite different.

      I’m glad you cottoned to the photos. They’re another reminder (as if one were needed) of what a good macro lens can do.

    1. Coral hadn’t crossed my mind, but now that you mention it, I can see it. Sometimes I see that first photo as a star, and sometimes as a variation on a medieval mace. Rorschach lives!

  2. Wow–those are great shots. I don’t know this plant, but it’s a cool one, sort of other-worldly in its form. Great post, Linda.

    1. Other-worldly’s a good description, Tina. It’s found in your area, but I’d guess it would be out on the edges, in places like Balcones. It’s a fascinating plant, for sure. I’m hoping to find it in a more mature — and hence more cottony — state later this summer.

      1. I’ve never heard of it!! Thanks so much for this info–I always like seeing a new plant, or at least pics of a new plant.

    1. What’s amazing is how easily it can be overlooked. Many people would glance at it and think, “Weed…” But the details are lovely and interesting. I’m glad to have managed a nice, close look at it.

    1. It’s interesting that the maps don’t show it for either Wharton or Matagorda County. Given that, it makes sense that you wouldn’t have seen it around. Now, cotton? That’s different, for sure. I had hoped to see the flowers this year, but missed them. Next year.

  3. An amazing formation! And incredibly attractive too. The diversity of plants is truly staggering isn’t it? Thanks for once again presenting an appealing bit of botany for us all to enjoy. I suspect that like me many of your readers were seeing it for the first time. Your posts are never dull, Linda!

    1. I’d never seen snake-cotton in person until last year. I had learned of its existence through another blog dedicated to native Texas plants, and that’s what allowed me to recognize it when I found it. The experience certainly recommends attending to the kind of field guides you review. Even if we haven’t seen something, having a mental image of the possibilities makes it more likely our vision will sharpen!

  4. Very nice images of this interesting plant. So much diversity in Nature, I do not know why some humans have such a hard time accepting it. The flowering structure and manner reminds me of Nodding Ladies’ Tresses orchids. The individual bud, with that loose paper-like material, resembles garlic a bit. I’ve always heard the term “cotton to it” or similar but now know from whence it came.

    1. I don’t think it’s a matter of acceptance. Many people simply haven’t been exposed to the wonderful complexity of the natural world. Providing new experiences is part of the fun: especially with the children, but also with blasé adults who suddenly can find themselves experiencing childlike curiosity.

      When I felt the buds, they didn’t seem papery, although they do give that appearance. The cottony ‘stuff’ is so tightly wound in the buds that it’s slick and smooth; the fluffiness comes later. Just from the image, though, it’s easy to see how garlic buds would come to mind; there is a resemblance.

  5. Whoa! You outdid yourself with this one!!
    (That top picture looks like it could be the insignia for some sci-fi space federation!)

    1. You’re right — that top photo would make a far snazzier insignia than the ones used by groups like the crew of the Enterprise. This is another one that grows in your state, too — that’s the reason for floridana in the name. It comes from ‘Florida’!

      1. And yet, I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought I had become more observant after following your blog, but it seems I need to improve on that.

        1. We’ll all in that boat, GP. Besides, there’s so much to see and learn in this world, no one can do it all. That’s why it’s good to have others pointing things out for us. You do it with history, I do it with flowers.

    1. The nice thing about a macro lens is its ability to reveal the beauty in apparently mundane flowers. Someone just walking down the road could so easily miss this little gem — it’s the stopping and looking that makes the difference. Then, it’s time for a second look.

  6. Excellent photographs! The flower is intriguing and very unusual. Love all the detail you’ve captured, especially the little bit of orange and the soft gleam to the ‘cones’ in the top picture.

    1. It is an interesting flower. Most of the sources agree that it isn’t visited by pollinators; it spreads strictly by seed. Until I read that, I hadn’t considered the fact that I hadn’t seen even the small insects like thrips, tumbling flower beetles, or hoverflies around the flowers. They just sat there and gleamed!

  7. An interesting plant and your photos are fabulous. Great light. Almost a painterly effect of the cones.

    1. I really enjoyed finding this one, and I enjoyed the challenge of getting those tiny details in relatively decent focus. I’ve been looking and looking at the cones in the first photo, and finally realized what they remind me of: a sharpened pencil that’s been wrapped in satin ribbon. I certainly never have found another flower that raises that kind of association.

  8. Proof that aliens have landed and left offspring! That is a very interesting looking plant and I have never even heard of it. I learn so much on all the blogs! I’m glad to see in other comments that you’re not having a bad hurricane where you are. Let’s hope it stays that way.

    1. That suits it perfectly — Aliens! It is an odd little thing. It seems to be at least a tiny bit of mystery, too. The articles I found that mentioned pollinators said the plant ‘probably’ is wind pollinated rather than insect pollinated. It certainly would take a tiny insect to get inside the flower.

      We’ve had a quiet day, and the coastal flood advisories have been lifted. There still might be some rain, but this one’s essentially over for us. Now, we’ll see what turns up next.

  9. That must be the oddest looking flower that I have seen. The photo shows nice detail. Snake cotton is a very odd name as you have written. As I read your title I thought I was going to read about a cotton patch and I was pleasantly surprised.

    1. I had a hard time picking a title. “Look at this weird one!” did come to mind, but I decided on something a little closer to the common name of the plant. I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the season, when it’s more developed. I think the cottony appearance will be much more pronounced, making more sense of the name. Maybe by that time I’ll have figured out where the snake got added to the name.

    1. Isn’t it a strange little thing? As it matures, it begins to look more ‘normal,’ but even so, it’s eye-catchingly odd. I’m hoping to see it in its latter, more cottony stages.

  10. Interesting! I’m in the same boat as G.P. Cox, and need to keep working on being observant – I see a relative of this, Slender Snakecotton, grows in NY and WI, but slim pickin’s, darned if I’ve ever noticed a plant like this.

    1. Honestly, it’s not a plant that demands to be noticed, especially if there are larger or more colorful plants around. As it matures, it becomes taller and much more cottony, so I’m going to look for it later in the summer, and see how it looks then. It doesn’t seem to like shade or wet conditions: dry and sandy spots with full sun are more favored, so it probably doesn’t grow in many of the places where you hike — at least in NY.

    1. Believe it or not, cotton belongs to the Malvaceae. The flowers look like hibiscus; they’re just beautiful. I’ve never seen them blooming, but I have learned that they change color as they age: white to yellow to pink. Once the bolls form, there’s very little prettier than a field of cotton.

      Of course, this is an entirely different family and genus; it’s the pronounced ‘cottony’ appearance of the older plant that gives it the common name of ‘snake cotton.’

    1. After your comment, I looked again at the top photo, and this time saw it as fireworks: iconic signs of joyful or cheerful occasions. I certainly was cheered to find it, and then to discover what delightful little details it possesses.

  11. This is so dramatic and beautiful! I have learned so much about this genus Froelichia, and I might just see it around here too. I’m glad you shot it against a dark background to appreciate its details and intricate morphology. It first gave me the impression it was either a rush or a sedge. I see now it’s an Amaranthaceae. Amazing!

    1. It does have that sedge-like look, doesn’t it? The almost spike-like, tightly-wound buds remind me a bit of irises.This species appears in nearly every Florida county, except for some that are inland, so you should have a good chance of seeing it, especially in wetter and sandier areas. I think it will be easier to spot once it’s achieved some growth. These plants were very young, and very, very small. They reminded me of the flowers of ball moss in some ways.

    1. It’s a strange little plant, although it looks fairly pedestrian when you just glance at it. It finally struck me today that the first photo resembles something I would have built with Tinker Toys when I was a kid, although I do like the Star Trek references!

    1. I just had a nice browse among the tube worms. I vaguely remembered hearing the name, but I didn’t have a clue what they were, or where or how they live. They’re as odd and interesting as this flower! It made me a little sad to read that they never can leave their protective tubes. I suspect there are more humans than usual who could identify with that.

      I’ve been tracking Isaias, hoping that it will stay off your coast, though it’s clear you’ll have some effects. Fingers crossed!

      1. Parchment worms or tube worms have always been fascinating to me. Many so beautiful and feathery, and others with that hungry maw look with red amidst pointy lips emerging.

        I think Texas did have a blow recently!! Here we were lucky it was just some great breeze, cooler temps, and a cozy rainy day to be inside Sunday. We did remove all the fly away stuff outside in case it might be more. Early in the season yet, but hope all that comes our way is as mild.

        May we all be safe from all manner of enemies this summer..whether viral or storm.

        1. I read just a bit more about the tube worms. There’s something about deep water creatures that really does fascinate. One of the side benefits of the Deepwater Horizon explosion (and there weren’t many!) was watching the work by the submersibles. Every manner of strange, deep sea creature would come swimming by– some were recognizable, and others seems like part of the cast of a bad grade-B movie.

          Our storm came in well south of us. Like you, we had some breeze, and some rain bands, but nothing particular. Tonight, Isaias is cruising past a friend in Charleston; it would be great if it would tend just a bit more offshore. Anyway: it’s August. Two more months, and the chances start to drop. That will be good for us all.

    1. I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago that cotton flower change color as they mature. I’ve never seen the flowers. I intended to see them out this year, but for some reason (!) spring traveling became complicated — maybe next year.

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