Barbara, Unbuttoned

A blooming Button in the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract

The pretty flower known as Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia graminifolia) occurs naturally in flatwoods, bogs, seepage slopes, wet prairies, and savannas; it’s quite common in east Texas’s Big Thicket.

All species in the genus commonly are known as Barbara’s buttons, although the identity of ‘Barbara’ is unknown. The common name first appeared in John Kunkel Small’s Flora of the Southeastern United States; published in 1933. The genus name, Marshallia, honors American botanists Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) and his nephew Moses Marshall (1758-1813), while the species epithet refers to the plant’s grasslike leaves.

Although a member of the sunflower family, the flower heads are composed only of disc florets; ray florets, often sometimes called ‘petals,’ are absent. In bloom, the flower’s compact form makes a comparison with buttons understandable; as buds, they seem even more button-like.

An interesting aspect of the flower is the way it sometimes comes into bloom: asymmetrically, if not erratically. I’m often amused by the forms it takes. Here, Barbara looks less like a button and more like a pig-tailed bud that’s cute as a button.

I caught this flower presenting a tentative wave to the world. Perhaps it felt a bit buttoned-up, and sent one of its florets to determine if it was safe to bloom.


Comments always are welcome.

72 thoughts on “Barbara, Unbuttoned

  1. With these four excellent portraits you’ve buttoned up the early and middle stages of flowering in this species (which differs from the M. caespitosa in Austin).

    I’ve conjectured that once someone noticed the resemblance to buttons, “Barbara’s” got chosen strictly on the basis of sound: it begins and ends with the same sounds, and has the same rhythmic pattern as “buttons.”

    1. Your conjecture about the common name makes sense to me. Coincidentally, I’m working on a new post for my other blog, and the first line is, “Before words become language, we hear them as sound and rhythm.”

      It took me a while to differentiate among the Marshallia species. I don’t think I’ve ever seen M. caespitosa. I wondered why I was seeing so many white flowers when I did an image search; now I know.

    2. There are also Bachelor’s Buttons-Centaurea cyanus which is not really a wildflower although it is included in meadow seed mixes as such. Also known as Garden Knapweed or Cornflowers.

        1. If you’ve mentioned her before, I don’t recall it. On the other hand, reading about her life and music was a trip into the past. She was a frequent performer at the Freight and Salvage on San Pablo in Berkeley; I lived not far from the place, and occasionally visited (although I don’t remember her). In fact, her website mentioned that her 75th birthday concert was held at Freight and Salvage, with none other than Wavy Gravy emceeing. Talk about a blast from the past.

          1. It’s a blast from the past for both of us. In the 1980s Kate Wolf came to Austin one time and I was fortunate to attend her concert. At one point I persuaded her to step outside and I took a stereo (3-D) picture of her. After her death I sent a copy of the picture, along with a 3-D viewer, to her family.

      1. Even though Bachelor’s Buttons are an introduced flower here — my grandmother had them as a part of her picking garden — they are wild flowers by nature: native in England and other places. I never knew the name Cornflower until I started blogging and heard British and European gardeners use the term, even though I knew ‘cornflower blue’ from my set of Crayolas. The venerable Wiki tells me that it was introduced in 1958, in the box of 48 crayons.

        1. I grew up with the Bachelor’s Buttons in both my grandfather’s garden and my mother’s. I’ve only seen them once in the wild in northern New York while camping in the Adirondacks. Don’t know why we’ve not added them to our gardens. Maybe next year. By the time Cornflower Blue was introduced I wasn’t coloring with crayons anymore so missed that one.

  2. You really found the flowers in all different states. The pigtails are really cute. I wonder what the criteria is for humans to decide to domesticate a plant. My dad would always say that our plants started out as weeds (wildflowers) somewhere.

    1. Don’t you think that simple attractiveness plays a big role? Someone sees a flower, thinks it’s pretty, and collects seed. Or, somewhere along the line, a plant’s discovered to be tasty or useful, and more get added to the garden. I’ve come to dislike the fact that so many beautiful and useful plants have ‘weed’ in their names: milkweed, ironweed, sneezeweed. I suspect more than a few people have heard such names and assumed the plants were undesirable and needed removal.

    1. Isn’t that a great shot? Sometimes I don’t see a detail until I look at a photo on the computer, but those pigtails were obvious even at the time. Any flower that brings an immediate smile demands a photo — I’m glad it brought a smile to you, too.

  3. My first crush ever was on a girl named Barbara – unfortunately it was one-sided! She figuratively curled her florets away from me.

    1. It’s a little too curly for the resemblance to be perfect, but it reminds me of a baby basket-flower. Those ribbon-like rays are such fun; it is as pretty as can be.

    1. Sometimes it’s worth tucking a photo or two into the archives and waiting for useful companions to show up. It was especially fun with these flowers, because of their propensity to begin blooming in odd ways. If one outlier’s good, two or three are even better.

  4. I do love that pig-tailed version, Linda. Kind of looks like curly ribbons beside Barbara’s head. And what a pretty little thing she is, too! I’ve heard of Bachelor’s Buttons, but not this one, so once again, I thank you for enlightening me. Is this one of those plants that attract butterflies, by any chance?

    1. From what I’ve read, they do attract butterflies, and a variety of other pollinators, including beetles. I’ve seen only one that was being visited by a skipper, but that’s probably a matter of not being in the right place at the right time. They are cute as can be. The ribbon-like appearance of the rays is fun; they look as though they’re made from the curling ribbon we use to decorate gifts.

    1. I looked again at the map and saw that you’re completely out of their range. They go as far north as North Carolina, but they stay at the coast, and don’t appear inland at all. Even in Mississippi and Alabama, they’re coastal. I’m glad we have them here.

    1. I couldn’t believe those pigtails when I saw them. It’s fun to find details hidden in photos after the fact, but it’s just as delightful to spot something unusual in the field, and capture its image to share. Generally speaking, my ‘favorite’ flower tends to be the one I’m looking at, but this is one I’m always happy to see.

  5. I’m impressed by the variety of the blooms and buds in your photos. It gives the flower a whimsical personality. Perhaps John Kunkel Small, or whoever the original giver of the common name might have been, knew a whimsical Barbara and wished to honor her spirit with the flower’s name.

    1. The one ‘Barbara’ that I know personally is the least whimsical person in the world. For me, the name always has evoked a bit a stodginess and lack of humor, so it was especially fun to be able to fill the name with something a bit lighter. Besides: the flowers are cute.

    1. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard the phrase ‘cute as a button,’ but when I saw these flowers, there it was, ready to be used. Thanks to Velcro and such, buttons aren’t as important as they used to be; who plays with button jars any more? For that matter, who keeps a button jar? At least we have the opportunity to play with flowers that resemble buttons.

      1. Button jars! My mother had one and when I was little, I loved to pour them out, run my hands through them, and sort them into sparkly, cloth-covered, and otherwise. I was probably a weird kid, but I hadn’t thought of that jar in decades, so thanks for that sweet set of memories. We lose buttons from shorts and shirts and I toss them in random drawers and of course, forget where they are when sewing them back onto the garment becomes a necessity.

        I didn’t mention in my first comment how beautiful your photos are–but they sure are!

        1. I sorted buttons, too. What’s funny is that I still can remember some of them as clearly as if I saw them yesterday. There were fat, woven leather buttons from a coat, and of course plenty of plain shirt buttons. The sparkly ones were great, and the faceted jet. I still remember my mother taking apart the buttons you could cover with fabric and changing the fabric to match a different dress. Goodness! Talk about patience.

          Next we can talk about the shoe box filled with rick-rack and bits of leftover seam binding!

          Thanks for the nice words about the photos. It tickled me no end to find such amusing flowers.

          1. Yes! I loved the sparkly ones (well of course I did!) and I also remember the ones that could have the fabric changed! I wonder what happened to that jar? We also had boxes of rick-rack (is that even a thing anymore?), seam binding and other bits of sewing detritus. I have a sewing machine and use it on occasion. Most recently, when my son was here from Jordan, he did some shopping and like his short-legged mother, always needs to have the legs hemmed a bit, so I did that for him. In Amman, he has a tailor guy who he sees for this sort of thing. He pays that guy!

            1. Now, that’s splendid — his own tailor! I’ve a lovely Vietnamese woman who occasionally does a hem or jeans shortening for me, but I’ll bet you were happy to accomodate your son. I hope he’s doing well; it’s nice to hear a word about him.

    1. Believe me, I grinned when the title came to me; I like it, too. As for the lens, all of these were taken with my Canon 100mm macro lens. It’s fun to use, and more adaptable than I realized when I first got it.

      1. Shirley Temple did come to my mind when I was thinking about ringlets. I decided, in the end, that her ringlets were usually more ruly than unruly. My mother admired Shirley’s ringlets but not enough to ever let me have long hair!

    1. I was more than thrilled to find this one’s frills, Derrick. I’m hoping to find a few more of these later this month, after the bridge on the easiest route to east Texas finally is fully opened and the trip’s less of a hassle.

    1. I’ve had some good mentors, Jean — and I’ve learned the truth of the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!” Thanks so much for the kind words; it makes me happy that you like the photos.

  6. Although it should be common in our area, I don’t recall encountering this species. Since it should still be blooming at this time of year, I’ll look more carefully. I suspect I haven’t been in quite the right habitat lately.

    Your photographs are really special! Patience, skill and your artistic eye show us mortals what is possible.

    1. When I saw that this one’s relatively common in Florida and other southeastern states, I wondered if you’d come across it. I suspect you’re right about the habitat. I’ve only found it in the piney woods; it likes sandy soil, but not sand dunes or beaches.

      It was fun to collect this little gallery over time. The photos are all from the same area, but slightly separated in time. It took some patience to hold on to Miss Pigtails until I had a couple other photos to accompany her.

    1. Isn’t it a fun plant? It just occurred to me that no one’s used the word ‘tousled’ yet, but it fits. Those tousled flower curls suggest nature has a good bit of affection for this one: reached right out and gave those blooms a bit of a stir.

    1. The answer is yes, probably. Here’s the map that shows its distribution in your state. You can enlarge the map to get county names, but even if your county isn’t listed, if you’re close you probably can grow it. Flowers don’t consult our maps before they set up shop. The maps are only a general guide to where they’ve been reported. This one has a lovely fragrance, and butterflies and other pollinators visit. I think it might be worth a try.

      1. Alas – we’re about 5 counties away from the growing region (we’re in Catawba County, which is in the foothills closer to the western part of the state). However, that might not stop me anyway. Ha!

  7. I think this is one of my favourites of the flowers you have captured with your camera. It has that curly, Christmas candy look kind of similar to the look of pickerel weed spires close up. I’ve tried to capture the pretty curls of the spires a few times. Love this flower imaging.

    1. It is a pretty thing, isn’t it? I’ve seen pickerel weed a few times, but don’t recall this kind of curliness being associated with it. I’m going to have to search some out, and take a second look. There are a couple of other flowers that echo this one’s frilly appearance; the various palafox species come to mind. Both flowers bloom into fall, so I’m hoping to find some new examples this year, now that the heat is beginning to moderate just a bit.

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