Ornaments for the Roadside

American basket-flower with common sunflowers

In 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston lost his life during the Civil War’s Battle of Shiloh, but before his death, he and his wife, Eliza Griffin Johnston, lived and traveled in Texas. The details of their life together are beyond the scope of this post, but Eliza was a keen observer of the world around her, an accomplished artist, and a great lover of wildflowers. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, she created a watercolor record of Texas wildflowers; eventually, she bound her images into a book and presented them to her husband as a birthday gift.

In 1894, Rebecca Jane Fisher, a member of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, began seeking Republic of Texas artifacts for a museum. When she asked Eliza for something that had belonged to the General, Eliza donated her wildflower book. It remained in an Austin bank vault for years; today the book, containing more than a hundred watercolor images and wonderfully descriptive text, is available under the titleTexas Wild Flowers. It pleased me to find that Eliza had included my beloved basket-flower in her collection. She writes:

In passing through north western Texas, the traveler will frequently find his path bordered for miles by this flower mingled with sunflowers. The seed, falling from a single cluster of each will stock many acres; by being caught up by passing wheels, or clinging to horses’ feet, they are planted, and thus become ornaments for the roadside.
Emerging basket-flower ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City

Today, these ‘roadside ornaments’ are equally common. Named for the stiff, straw-colored phyllaries (modified leaves) which form a kind of woven basket at the bottom of the flower, they seem to be especially fond of disturbed ground or seemingly odd locations.

Abloom at the base of a billboard ~ Clear Lake Shores

Their considerable height — often as much as six to eight feet  — makes it easy to use the sky as a pleasing background for the only native Centaurea species in the U.S. (It should be noted that the name I learned and that still is most often used — Centaurea americana — has been changed to Plectocephalus americanus on many sites. Caution: taxonomists at work!)

Along a Brazoria County road

Even though their appearance seemed late this year, their locations were predictable. The small colony that’s decorated the bank of a Brazoria Wildlife Refuge canal for as many years as I’ve been visiting was in full bloom, and offered up a surprise.

Banking on predictability ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Pink and lavender, combined with cream, may be the usual basket-flower colors, but occasionally a white one appears. Along the same Brazoria Refuge canal where I found my dependable colony, one white basket-flower was blooming: a joy for my white flower loving heart, and as pretty a natural variation as could be found.

One white flower, two views ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge canal


Comments always are welcome.

56 thoughts on “Ornaments for the Roadside

    1. I’d been whining a bit because others were finding this flower, and I’d not seen a single one. Finally, I stopped whining and started wandering. That’s when I discovered that the ones in my immediate area were slower in development than I’d expected. Whoops!

  1. I think that old book would be as much of a treasure as the flowers themselves. How wonderful that it is still able to be enjoyed today.

    1. I was pleased to find both the flowers and the book. My great-great-grandparents lived on the Texas prairie for a bit, just after the Civil War. There are hints in family letters of what they saw there; apparently gr-gr-Grandpa was quite a flower lover. The book is like a window into what they might have seen during their ‘Texas days,’ shortly after their marriage.

    1. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas still are active, of course. We’ll see how well they do in their efforts to preserve the Alamo; it’s harder to tuck that into a bank vault. Sometimes, historically-minded families make it possible for us to experience history in an especially nice way. The last time I visited the Varner-Hogg plantation in West Columbia, a pair of Sam Houston’s cologne jars were there.

  2. Happy basket-flowers to you for 2021. Your fourth view, soft in color and cloud, came through as my favorite of the lot. While I’ve often managed to get a blue sky behind a basket-flower, you were fortunate to have watery blue behind one of yours, something I rarely see.

    1. That cloud-streaked sky developed while I was there; I certainly was pleased to see it. While I didn’t come across the large colonies of flowers I’ve seen in the past, it was enough to find some. There still are quite a few here that only now are developing buds. It seems strange to me, but the flowers know what they’re doing.

      1. As Pascal said: The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about. Maybe that goes for flowers, too. In any case, the fact that you’ve still got freshly developing basket-flowers bodes well for more pictures this year.

    1. I’m glad you like them, Rob. One of my favorite photos of this group may not be as aesthetically appealing, but it’s certainly the oddest. The image from the foot of the billboard has one of the big steel supports as a background. That’s why there’s the blue-ish vertical shadow at the right. It was created by the circular nature of the post.

  3. I hate to ever admit blatant ignorance, but here goes: over the years I’ve probably been passing by basketflowers and dismissing them as Texas Thistle. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    1. Don’t feel too bad. Another common name for this flower has been American star-thistle. There are some other Centaurea species called star-thistle that are invasive; I remember that one is an especially pretty yellow. But this one’s native, and not all all thorny. I can report that the stems holding the flowers so high in the air are pretty tough. One that’s been broken by weed-eating or mowing can puncture both jeans and what the jeans cover.

    1. The invasive ones can be a real problem, but some of my favorites are natives, and lovely. We have one that blooms either yellow or pink, depending on where it’s found. The pollinators love them — advantage, thistle, again!

  4. These are exceptionally beautiful photos, Linda. We have a bloom quite similar to this at the lake but yours look bigger and stronger. I love the story of the artist and her beautiful gift to her husband and eventually the museum. It is poignant in every way and now preserved forever.

    1. These are related to bachelor buttons, which I’m sure you have. It’s easily confused with some thistles, too. In fact, one of the common names is ‘American star thistle.’ It is a sturdy plant. Not only that, deer and insects don’t like it.

      Eliza Johnston’s illustrations probably will show up here from time to time, now that I’ve found them. Even without computers and digital cameras, people found ways to memorialize and preserve the beauty they loved. I so enjoy reading the journals of the early naturalists and settlers. It was a hard, but exciting time for them.

    1. I really appreciate that, Pete. I had hoped for a deeper blue sky behind the white flower, but their bloom is short, and by the next day it would have faded substantially. Better to take what we’re given and do our best with it: Carpe Centaurea, so to speak!

  5. I can see why you’re partial to that white flower, Linda — it’s very striking. Yes, the pink and purple varieties are lovely, but there’s something special about such a rare color. These sure do look like little baskets, too!

    1. Not only that, the flowers dry beautifully. I have some seed heads that I collected years ago that still are in a kitchen vase, seeds intact. When they dry, the basket really comes into its own. Not only that, the flowers, once dry, take on a nice, lavender-blue, and they hold their color well. It’s like having a bit of summer all year long.

    1. I don’t remember seeing them in east Texas at all, but they’re pretty widespread. The biggest colonies I’ve seen here were along 146 south of Kemah; there were large fields of them at the old power plant down there. Unfortunately, that’s off limits now, and has been for about three years. I suspect there might be nice stands of them at the Texas City prairie, but every time I go past, it seems to be closed. No matter; I found part of this year’s crop, and that’s good enough.

  6. Beautiful photographs! I love the detail of the flowers. And it’s great that Eliza’s work was rescued from the vault and published.

    1. I’m not completely certain without looking it up, but I think I read that the book was digitized in 1990. I couldn’t resist; I ordered a copy, and will share it here in some way. I made one short trip to the north Texas area where my gr-gr-grandparents settled for a time after the Civil War, and the flowers that Eliza describes surely were ones they saw, also. It’s an especially nice connection with the past.

      This is one of my favorites among our native wildflowers; I was so pleased to find that she included it in her book.

    1. I’m always inordinately pleased with I find a variant of any kind, but the white ones are a special delight. Sometimes, the flower heads look as tousled as a child’s hair,and sometimes they’re so perfectly symmetrical they seem to have been molded. Great flower!

    1. And believe it or not, the deer don’t like them — or most insect pests, too. They’re loaded with pollen and nectar, and a great favorite of the insects because of it. I decided to do a separate posts showing some of their visitors.

      1. I’m wondering if they are in the thistle family. They look like it. Deer, cows and horses will not eat thistle but bees & pests love them. Because they are not consumed they can become invasive.

        1. Yes, they are related to thistles. There are native thistles in the genus Cirsium, but both that genus and the basket-flower — Centaurea are members of the sunflower family.

  7. Beautiful basket flower and great photos. Mention basket flower in Australia and one gets a basket of flowers delivered.
    Thistle together with prickly pear can’t be mentioned here without getting the noxious weed inspectors knocking on the door. Highly invasive and costing farmers hundreds of thousands of hectares in arable pastures.
    I believe though that your basket flower isn’t in that category. Phew!

    1. Here, we could get a basket of basket-flowers, although I prefer seeing them in the fields. The flowers do dry nicely, so a bouquet of them can last substantially longer than a florist’s bouquet; mine lasted about three years or even more.

      We do have some invasive, non-native thistles ourselves, and they’re a pain in every possible sense of the world. On the other hand, these basket-flowers, while related to thistles, are very well behaved. Our native prickly pear can be a chore to deal with, but while they spread like the proverbial wildfire, they do have their uses. The jelly made from their fruits is especially nice, although it’s also time-consuming to make.

  8. I love the description of these flowers as ‘ornaments for the roadside’. Your photos show how beautiful they are. I don’t think I realized until now just how tall these flowers are.

    1. It took me a while to realize that the large colonies I was seeing alongside the roads were averaging three to four feet tall because of mowing: at least, I assume that’s the reason. At the foot of the billboard and along the canal, there wasn’t a plant short enough for me to photograph the center of the flower. That’s part of the enjoyment: never knowing what I’ll find.

  9. A fantastic native bloom!

    I love the fact they grow so tall and that are such a hardy plant. Of course, for photographing, one needs to haul along a ladder!

    You really photographed them well. The detailed pattern of the “basket” is remarkable.

    1. This is one instance where mowing can provide an advantage. There are mowed ditches and such where the plants attain only three to four feet, making center-of-the-flower photos easier. As for the baskets, their relationship to those of knapweeds can be seen, but the baskets of this native are singular, and to my eye the flowers of invasive knapweeds aren’t nearly so attractive.

  10. Your Centaurea americana does not make an appearance here in the Northeast. There are several, known as Knapweeds, that live up to that name as invasives that do bully out whatever is in their way. I’ve not photographed it to see if it has that nice basket weave your American Basket-flower does so will have to check it out. None of the thirteen (maybe that number is why they are invasive) here are native.
    It is a beautiful flower and that weave is quite attractive. The image with the soft cottony clouds and gentle blue sky is lovely.

    1. This is the only native Centaurea in the U.S., which is pretty interesting. The knapweeds all are non-native; we have at least two that I’ve come across, and their reputation isn’t very good. Some do have hints of basketry to them, like this spotted knapweed. Another commenter suggested that her knapweeds (C. scabiosa) have phyllaries that are the same, but different: more akin to Spanish tiles.

      I had to wait a while for that pretty sky. It was pure gray when I arrived, but when I saw it was starting to clear, I decided to hang around for a while. I made another loop around on the pond on the auto route, and when I came back, voila! Pretty sky.

      1. Your patience paid off and is similar to what happens sometimes with a mostly cloudy sky at sunrise. Wait because things change. Not always but occasionally the wait pays off as it did here for you.

  11. I immediately thought of the part of the Disney movie “Fantasia” where they had the Russian thistles dancing the Cossack dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite, but also of “bachelor’s buttons” (Centaurea cyanus), which is not a native species, but introduced from Europe. Evidently the taxonomist no longer consider it a member of the genus Centaurea, which is why the name was changed, although I can see how they might be fooled by the resemblance to Centaurea cyanus into thinking they were members of the same genus.

    1. The bachelor buttons (aka ‘cornflower’) were part of my grandmother’s flower garden; hers were pink and white as well as blue. What’s interesting about the new genus is that it includes only two species: this one, and Plectosephalus rothrockii, which is limited to a very few counties in New Mexico. The ‘basketry’ in P. rothrockii looks more like a knapweed to me, but to paraphrase Pascal, the taxonomists have reasons which most of us can’t figure out.

  12. Oh, that really is a beauty! I especially like the white form. Our greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) has some fairly nice basketwork (may be slightly more like Spanish tiles), but in both cases it really doesn’t matter what your viewing angle is, as the whole flower is a work of art.

    1. Now that this has been transformed into Plectocephalus americanus there are only two species in its genus: this one, and P. rothrockii, which has that Spanish tile-like basketry.

      Just for grins, I did a shallow dive into an Annals of Botany article, and almost understood this:

      Plectocephalus was one of the earliest segregates of Centaurea and contained a single species, Centaurea americana Nutt. from Texas that was eventually renamed Plectocephalus americanus (Nutt.) D. Don (Sweet, 1830). It was distinguished from the rest of the heterogeneous Centaurea assemblage by its very large and showy peripheral florets, the scariose bracts with unarmed silvery appendages, and by its arcuate and faintly ribbed achenes. Don (cited in Sweet, 1830) described the pappus as triseriate, a misinterpretation of the obscurely multiseriate, easily deciduous pappus that is typical of Plectocephalus. This is in contrast to the neatly double and persistent pappus of Centaurea sensu stricto (Susanna and Garcia-Jacas, 2007). Another botanist with the same name, G. Don (cited in Loudon, 1855), described a second species for the genus, namely Plectocephalus chilensis G. Don ex Loudon from central Chile.”

      I’ll leave those discussions to others, and just admire the flowers; either name’s fine by me!

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