Autumn Snow


As summer begins to ease its grip on Texas, a lovely floral ‘snow’ suggests the coming of autumn. In the western two-thirds of the state, Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) covers much of the land. In the Eastern third (and north into Oklahoma), Snow-on-the-Prairie (E. bicolor) holds sway.

Snow-on-the-Prairie can grow to a height of three or four feet, and often forms dense colonies. Its long green and white bracts, open and airy, offer a pleasing counterpoint to surrounding grasses and forbs.

The plant’s long, slender bracts sometimes are mistaken for petals, but they’re actually  modified leaves. The flowers of Snow-on-the-Prairie are quite small, and exceptionally interesting.

Plants in the genus Euphorbia possess a unique structure called a cyathium (plural, cyathia) which contains both male and female flowers, as well as small structures known as bractioles, and nectar glands. Surrounding the flowers, bractioles, and glands, small bracts called cyathophylls — which superficially resemble the petals of a flower — provide additional color.

Here, the white cyathophylls of E. bicolor add to the plant’s ‘snowy’ appearance. Since the snow is only metaphorical, the sight is entirely pleasurable; it’s possible to admire this plant on the prairie without getting frostbite.


Comments always are welcome.

67 thoughts on “Autumn Snow

  1. Snow-on-the-Prairie is pretty! The first year I blogged (2017) I posted photos of a lovely variegated Euphorbia that we admired at Dunedin Botanic Garden in NZ, a chance cross that came from a garden in Tasmania –named Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’. So interesting to see your pics! I’ll add a link to my 2017 post.

    1. Your pretty plant certainly looks as though it could have one of our “snow-on-the-whatevers” in its family line. The variety among the Euphorbia species is remarkable.

      Even more interesting to me was the general structure of the plant. It reminded me of an aquatic plant I found last spring at the San Bernard refuge. It’s been lingering in my files without an ID, and it’s new growth that’s appearing rather than a bloom, but the similarity was enough for the comparison to come to mind.

  2. It’s a very interesting plant, and the fact that it grows so tall aligns with what one might expect of a prairie plant. I remember many years ago, in Kansas, asking an erudite professor of botanical science what dictated the emergence of a small grass prairie or a tall grass prairie. I think I was expecting an answer relating to soil conditions and other factors. His terse, one word answer said it all, “Rain!”

    1. As I understand it, your professor was exactly right. Granted, no amount of additional rain is going to turn buffalo grass into big bluestem, but climate — including rainfall — certainly shapes the land and its flora.

      When I was learning about tallgrass prairies, I happened across this shortgrass prairie article which has an especially useful graphical representation of the various prairies’ ranges. If you compare the area of tallgrass prairie to this distribution map for E. bicolor, it’s easy to imagine what an overlay would look like. There’s no snow-on-the-shortgrass-prairie!

    1. What a lovely and apt comparison, Derrick. I didn’t think of a Tudor rose, but of Luther’s rose.. Given the history of both symbols, it seems entirely plausible that there’s a connection. The War of the Roses ended in 1485, and Luther’s seal was designed for him at the behest of John Frederick of Saxony in 1530, during the Diet of Augsburg.

    1. I’ve had close-ups of both ‘snow’ flowers in my files since 2015, but only for my own reference. I was glad to finally manage one that could be published. Their complexity is amazing, and unmistakable. When I found E. corollata in east Texas, I was able to recognize the genus right away.

  3. Such pretty images! It’s always a pleasure to read your posts and everytime I learn something new… It’s a good start for me after a break from blogosphere. Good wishes, Linda!

    1. It’s so nice to see you, rethy! I hope you’re doing well, and that your break was refreshing. This is a pretty plant; it’s always fun to see those first fields of white stretching to the horizon. Even if it still feels like summer, we know then that a change is coming, and who doesn’t like change? Emily certainly appreciated “Nature’s Changes.” The plants she describes aren’t yours, but the dynamic is the same.

      The springtime’s pallid landscape
      Will glow like bright bouquet,
      Though drifted deep in parian
      The village lies to-day.

      The lilacs, bending many a year,
      With purple load will hang;
      The bees will not forget the tune
      Their old forefathers sang.

      The rose will redden in the bog,
      The aster on the hill
      Her everlasting fashion set,
      And covenant gentians frill,

      Till summer folds her miracle
      As women do their gown,
      Or priests adjust the symbols
      When sacrament is done.

      1. Thanks a lot Linda! Thank you for that beautiful one from Emily. Other than ‘gentian’, rest of the flowers are familiar. Gentian appears in many of her poems. I know gentian from my childhood days as ‘ gentian violet’ a deep violet coloured antifungal medicine. Hope you’re doing well too! See you more often here!

        1. I certainly do remember ‘Gentian violet.’ That was a part of our medicine chest when I was a child, too — along with mercurochrome and a few other things that probably were banned years ago! It’s so good to see you. I’m ready for bed now, but I’ve glanced at your new post, and have the most amazing association to share with you — but not until morning!

  4. What a lovely ‘snow’ effect! It all looks very delicate and pretty, although I’d guess that the euphorbia is probably quite robust.

    1. It is a sturdy plant. After our recent storms, some stems were bent, but they weren’t broken; the plants still were standing tall. They’re coming to the end of their season now; the flowers are fading, but the stems take on a lovely reddish hue which is equally attractive.

    1. We’ll hope that this is the last of our snow for the year! (Actually, I wouldn’t mind some snow — fluffy, short-lived, and pretty. More of what we got last February isn’t on my wish list!)

    1. I’ve never seen this in a pot. As a matter of fact, I’ve never imagined it in a pot! Do people actually do that? I suppose it would be as pretty in a pot, but you’re right that it’s probably happier on a prairie.

        1. That makes sense. Because of such limited opportunities for gardening in my world, I tend to think of plants in pots as being in pots forever, tucked into patios and such. The ones you saw probably were intended for gardens of one sort or another.

  5. I’ve been using this in flower arrangements all summer and thought it was a variety of milkweed, but now I know better! Amazing. I am always learning from your blog or seeing something new.

    1. One thing these plants and milkweed have in common is that their flowers are quite distinct. Once you’ve learned their singular characteristics, it’s relatively easy to identify other plants in the genus. I say ‘relatively’ because more often than not my suspicions are confirmed only after a little research. Still, look at this flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata). When I found it in the east Texas woods, it only felt familiar. Now, it’s easy to see the similarity in structure between it and snow-on-the-prairie flowers.

      1. It’s interesting–a fellow gardener suggested it might be spurge so she was closer than I was. I would never have guessed something in Euphorbia, but I’m learning all the time!!!

  6. Anything that has “snow” in its name yet can be enjoyed in temperatures above freezing is a winner in my book!

    Euphorbia is a huge family. The idea of a prairie filled with your species is wonderfully appealing.

    Your close-up photograph is really superb!

    1. Isn’t it interesting how something white can have a cooling effect even in the worst heat? That’s one reason most of the coastal Texas women I know tossed overboard that old rule about not wearing white after Labor Day. Clearly, these plants think white after Labor Day is perfectly fine!

      It pleases me that you enjoyed the closeup. It’s still a little softer than I’d like, but given the challenges of photographing a half-inch flower in twenty knot winds, I was plenty happy with the result.

    1. They do bear a resemblance, don’t they? That’s one of the plants that always was around my mother’s house; she grew it quite successfully. Then, she transferred her knitting skills to macramé, and she grew more: two, three, and four hanging baskets filled with them. Have you ever done that? You clearly have more than enough skill, but it may not be your thing.

  7. Beautiful, Euphorbia and I have history! Many moons ago, when I worked in the world of flowers, I had to make a hand-tied bouquet of flowers for presentation to Princess Margaret. There was a very precise specification, and I fussed and fiddled with it all afternoon, before it was whisked off for delivery. In making the bouquet, I must have touched my face, and got the euphorbia sap on my skin, I woke tin the small hours of the following morning to discover I had a face that looked like a gerbil! I’d had a reaction to the euphorbia sap which is an irritant. I spent the rest of the night, tossing and turning and wondering if Princess Margret also looked like a gerbil! But rest assured ladies and gentlemen, this is why the ladies of the royal family wear gloves!

    1. If I didn’t know you, I might have thought this was some sort of delusionary spam — but I do know you, and it’s a fabulous story!

      I’ve read about the possibility of irritation from the sap, and it seems you’re one of the unfortunate ones. I happen to think gerbils are cute as can be, but I’m not eager to look like one, and I’m sure you weren’t too pleased, either. I must say: of all the reasons I could summon for the royals wearing gloves, this is one that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

      Again — a great story! And so nice to see you. Thanks for stopping by, and taking the time to share it.

  8. Love the macro image, Linda – it’s such a perfect little flower. While E. marginata is grown here as an annual, I’ve never seen E. bicolor. Maybe it is too tall?

    1. I have found E. marginata west of here in the hill country, and I remember it as both shorter and more compact. E. bicolor can really fill a field, but it’s somewhat gangly and not at all tidy. I wouldn’t think it would be suited to a garden, although I’d not be opposed to it showing up in the back forty.

      I did poke around my archives a bit and found one interesting detail in a very, very bad photos of E. marginata. At the time, I didn’t think anything about it, but now I’m certain that the ant in this photo is feasting at one of the flower’s nectar glands.

  9. As someone who has grown cacti and succulents for a long time, most of the Euphorbias I have seen are short fleshy plants. The one I am currently growing, Euphorbia milii, better known as the “Crown of Thorns” comes closest to this with wide green leaves and similar flowers although they must have a form of silica in them as they have a bit of glitter when the sun hits.

    Reading of Jane’s experience a few comments above, reminded me of a friend’s dog who chewed on another species of Euphorbia and had a stroke (he survived but was a little messed up for a long time). Jane is “lucky” that she just had a bit of swelling.

    Having said all that, your images show the beauty of this species and those little flowers are lovely. I hope, with your hot summers and not very chilly autumns, that this snow adds some coolness to the air.

    1. My knowledge of the Euphorbia genus is expanding. I just learned about Crown of Thorns recently, although I did know that our so-called ‘wild poinsettia’ also belongs there. Now that I know what the flowers and fruits actually look like, it’s much easier to spot a member of the genus, as recently happened with E. corollata.

      Given Bentley’s penchant for chewing, has he ever gotten into your plants? Or do you keep them in an area inaccessible to him? The pets around here seem to avoid the oleander, but every now and then we hear of Sago palm poisoning. I’ve always thought of the various species of euphorbia as irritating, but they clearly can do serious damage.

      1. It is actually a widely varied family of plants but all with that toxic milky sap.

        We keep all plants out of Bentley’s reach. E. milii has enough thorns that he might be deterred but we take no chances. The problem for my friend’s dog was that the plant was fairly large and kept on the floor where Ralph could get at it. They can indeed cause damage. Some friends had a foster home for teens and one got some of the sap on his hand and then rubbed his eyes, losing his vision for a few days. Not to be trifled with. At some point ours will become too big and will be donated to one of the UMass greenhouses where a neighbor works.

  10. I love snow on the prairie. I don’t ever see it in Austin, but do see it if I drive outwards. I seem to recall that I might have seen some last fall at the Decker Lake area of East Austin. Love your photos, as always, beautiful.

    1. There’s a Decker Prairie north of Houston that’s named for a historical person named Decker; I wonder if the two might be connected. (I did a quick search, and it seems doubtful.) I have a pile of photos of snow-on-the-mountain in my archives, but they’re from several years ago, and of exceedingly low quality. I need to re-find some of the plants I photographed then, and give them another go!

      By the way: here’s a horror story for you. A woman in a town not far from here mentioned that one of her neighbors cleared out all of the flower beds and prairie-like land from his property, and then brought in bee hives. None of us can wrap our minds around that one. Do you know of any reason to do such a thing?

      1. Maybe he’s an idiot?

        He can apply for an agricultural exemption, that’s the only thing I can think of. But to clear prairie land is awful.

        1. It’s an old, run-down place that may have been in a family, but neglected. Someone suggested the best case scenario would be for him to muck things up completely, tire of it all, and retreat. People are strange, that’s for sure. You’d think someone who brought in bees would understand something about bees!

          1. My guess is that he’s come up with a fail-proof get rich quick scheme. :) Beehives are an investment and you’re right, any minimally knowledgeable person would understand that keeping a prairie/set of gardens around is a win for the beehives. If he’s just looking for the ag exemption, professional beekeepers charge for their services. I’m not sure how this fella comes out ahead.

            1. I just found a bit of information on the Wildflower Center site about this plant that you’ll find interesting, if you don’t already know it: “Honey produced by bees that have collected nectar and pollen from this species can irritate or burn the throats of consumers of it. Beekeepers call it ‘jalapeño honey’.” Whoops! I couldn’t find any reports of the same effect from E. marginata.

    1. With your equipment and skills, you could get some fabulous images of the flowers. My 100mm did fairly well given the wind and the height of the flowers, but you could really capture the detail. I hope you do get a chance sometime. Perhaps you could find some E. corollata out at the Cape. It doesn’t have the flashy bracts, but the flower colors and structure are the same.

  11. What an interesting post. I’ve grown snow-on-the-mountain here for the last two years and really enjoyed its form and colour. Snow-on-the-Prairie looks taller and looser, more like a willow in fact, and must look wonderful across a landscape.

    1. That’s exactly how I would describe the difference: snow-on-the-prairie is taller and looser. Even the shorter plants have a sense of airiness about them.

      Since you’ve grown snow-on-the-mountain, you might have come across a phenomenon I became aware of only this morning. These photos show nectar glands that have turned red. Have you seen that, or the pink-tinged bracts? I’ve never seen the phenomenon with snow-on-the-prairie; now I’m wondering if it’s a common development with E. marginata. If it is, I need to go find some!

        1. Those Kew Garden images are fabulous. I want to be able to do that when I grow up! Clearly, the phenomenon has to go on my list of mysteries to be pursued. Finding red nectar glands on Euphorbia would make me euphoric!

  12. At Rick’s house the term “snow on the mountain” is usually preceded by a perjorative (sp) of some sort! It grows like the weed it is, which is fine when it is a better option than the other weeds but it can take over and is darned hard to kill! I like the Snow on the Prairie. It’s lovely and the photos you do are always spot on!

    1. Ah, yes — it’s the old “one man’s wildflower, another man’s weed” discussion! I didn’t realize snow-on-the-mountain was native across so much of the country, but I see it’s even reached your state, so it makes sense that Rick might have a hard time getting rid of it. It wants to be there!

      In the wild, both plants are so pretty. Snow-on-the-prairie can be especially nice when it grows taller than surrounding plants and waves its little branches against the sky!

    1. It is a pretty plant, both from a distance and at closer range. ‘Close’ is necessary to appreciate the flowers, that’s for sure. Tiny insects and tiny flowers can have remarkable appeal.

  13. I much prefer this snow! When I was a kid I used to love to watch it snow, and that lasted for my first few Ohio winters, but the idea of having to slog through it to work took away the magic.

    1. I loved the snow when I still lived in Iowa. We walked to school, went sledding and skating — all the usual things. I can even remember trotting off to church or other occasions in heels and skirts, without thinking a thing about it. No more! As you say, there’s not much magic in frozen door locks and slush!

    1. That it is. I suppose plenty of people think of it as a ‘weed,’ but it’s far from that. I saw several swallowtail butterflies nectaring on it. On the other hand, I found this little tidbit, which gave me pause: “Honey produced by bees that have collected nectar and pollen from this species can irritate or burn the throats of consumers of it. Beekeepers call it ‘jalapeño honey’.”

  14. Of course this doesn’t look like snow to a true Midwesterner, but it’s still pretty. And just think — you were able to capture all these lovely photos without having to don boots, heavy jacket, and gloves!!

    1. Metaphor, Debbie — metaphor! After all, the stuff we mixed up from Ivory flakes to put on the limbs of our Christmas trees didn’t look one bit like actual snow, but we called it that — just like that canned ‘snow’ we used to decorate windows. You may be too young to remember that stuff, but you clearly are wise enough to appreciate these pretty plants!

      1. Just teasing you, my friend! I expect you’d be glad for some snow when the holidays near — and I’d be more than glad to ship you some!

    1. It would, but I think its genus-mate, Euphorbia marginata, would be more pleasing to your friend. This article gives some useful details, and notes how pleasing it is to those who enjoy variegated foliage. It’s more compact, and shorter, which makes it good for borders and such.

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