The Star-Thistle That Isn’t a Thistle

Basket-flower and beetle ~ Atascosa County

If you search the USDA site for information about the ‘American basket-flower,’ you’ll not find the attractive plant shown above, since its common name is listed there as ‘American Star Thistle.” Searching for it with a scientific name also can be problematic, since the USDA still applies Centaurea americana rather than the more current Plectocephalus americanus.

Taxonomy aside, both common names reflect aspects of this wildflower. While a member of the sunflower family, it lacks the familiar combination of ray and disc florets that make the family so recognizable. Instead, its bloom is composed solely of pink, lavender, and white disc flowers held in the basket-like phyllaries (modified leaves) that led to the plant being called a ‘Basket-flower.’

The Basket-flower’s pretty ‘basket’

On the other hand, ‘Star-thistle’ also makes sense, since basket-flowers so closely resemble various thistles. Traveling an Atascosa County road on May 9, I would have missed the basket-flowers had I not slowed for a closer look. What’s easily misinterpreted at 60 mph often suggests its true nature at 30 mph — and reveals its full beauty at a full stop.


Comments always are welcome.

55 thoughts on “The Star-Thistle That Isn’t a Thistle

    1. My experience is that the BONAP map is pretty accurate. I’ve never seen it in deep east Texas, but it’s quite common around here. I’ve seen it in League City yards, along 146 between Kemah and Texas City, and north of Baytown, toward Dayton. The past couple of years it’s been thick at the Brazoria refuge. It can become quite tall; in that League City yard, there’s a patch that’s filled with 5′-6′ flowers.

  1. Mine are HUGE and full of buds, but none open as yet. I haven’t really taken any photos, but they’re 6-7 feet tall and we’re so dry. I should add that I’ve watered some, since they grow in my “new” garden, but they’re quite something to see. Not quite sure how I’m going to get shots of the pollinators, though.

    Your photos are lovely and capture the pure lavender of this pretty flower.

    1. I’ve seen that kind of height around here, including at the base of some huge billboard supports where they don’t get any kind of TLC. No one mows, so they just do their thing, and they’re certainly impressive. I had to laugh at your comment about the pollinators. You didn’t know you’d need a telephoto lens to photograph flowers, did you?

      I love the way lavender, pink, and white/cream can intermix in these. It’s always fun to find the white ones, too. Maybe one will pop up in your garden; I see at least a couple every year.

    1. Doesn’t it, though? The ‘baskets’ can be even cooler when the flower begins to fade and they take center stage, like this one. Another fine quality of these flowers is that they dry beautifully. I dried some and kept them as part of an arrangement for years.

  2. If I remember right, basket-flowers have also been called thornless thistles. That makes sense because these flowers won’t pierce your skin the way true thistles will when you handle them.

    The fact that the outer disc florets often look quite different from the inner ones—as in your top picture—has led some people to incorrectly assume the outer disc florets are ray florets.

    1. I thought the drooping florets in the first photo looked rather than a coneflower; that’s a confusion I could have made at one time.

      I did come across the name ‘thornless thistle’ as I browsed through articles. The name fits; the flowers are quite easy to handle, whether picking a bouquet or thinning them in a garden.

      On the other hand, beware those stalks. One reason the flowers are able to grow so tall is that their pith-filled stalks are unbelievably strong. If someone’s been weed-eating in a patch of them, and left a few remnants like this sticking up, woe be unto her who thoughtlessly plops down on one. It will go right through a pair of jeans and straight into that thoughtless human’s rear end — leaving a bit of itself as a reminder to be more cautious.

  3. Beautiful photographs!

    With that “basket”, it’s easy to see why it could be presumed a “thistle”. I like this one. Attractive without potential pain.

    1. I really like that first photo; the beetle looks rather like a brooch pinned to the flower. I was surprised to see that you don’t have these in Florida; we share so many, I thought this surely would be around since it pops up in our coastal refuges.

      As for these flowers being attractive without potential pain — yes, and no. I just mentioned to the previous commenter my experience of carelessly sitting on a stalk like this — one of many broken by a weed-eater. The plant’s stalks are tough, and don’t break easily; they pierce both bluejeans and human flesh with impunity. Getting a splinter out of a finger is one thing. Getting basket-flower-stalk out of other body parts is something else. Live and learn!

    1. I thought about your area’s basketmakers the first time I took a good look at the flower’s ‘basket.’ I’m not sure how an artist could replicate the flower’s basket; it seems more like something my grandmother would have crocheted than something that could be woven.

    1. The full stop is the best: both literally and metaphorically. Sometimes, I’ll stop even when nothing particular is in view: just to have a look around. I’ve yet to leave a spot disappointed; there’s always something to see.

    1. This is pure guess, but I’d say that nearly all of the flowers are at least 3″ across, and some of them will grow to 4″ or 5″ across. They’re quite large, with a honey-like scent. On this trip I saw some plants that were only 4″ tall — where they’d been mowed and regrown — but they tend to be tall, from 3′ to 6′. They’re impressive!

  4. The first basket flower emerged ( I think) in my field this morning. Searching for photos of foliage without blooms, I discovered Lagniappe and The Task at Hand. Eliza Johnston’s flowers (I taught at A.S.Johnston High School for a time), Tinker Creek, the Whitbread Race, La Vie Dansant, and Lost Maples, all in a basket of loves woven (forgive me) by your words and photographs. Thank you.

    1. One of my readers from Austin says that hers have emerged and put on buds, but she doesn’t have any blooms yet. It’s always interesting to compare the bloom times between my area and the Edwards Plateau; it can vary widely, and not always predictably.

      I’m so glad you stopped by, and happy that you found some things that appeal. You’re always welcome here; feel free to comment or not, as you please. And I hope your basket-flowers are scrumptious!

  5. Way to notice, pause, and wonder. Of course when I do that on my commute I’d get rear ended or at least honked at. I’ll have to look closer next time I see a thistle on my walks.

    1. We do have to pick and choose our spots for exploring, that’s for sure. I drive through a construction zone every day that’s edged with cacti, sunflowers, palo verde, and who knows what — but there’s just no way to stop. For that matter, there’s no way to walk back into that particular spot, so appreciating in passing is the best that can be done. No matter. There’s plenty of world to explore — without getting rear-ended.

      1. Not meaning to come off ungrateful for the views offered by my commute just appreciating, albeit not vey well, the beauty and knowledge that you bring with your posts.

        1. I didn’t sense even a bit of ungratefulness: just an acknowledgement of the realities of commuting life — including the too-fast, inattentive, and angry drivers who can create such havoc in a flash!

  6. I’m glad you were prompted to stop and photograph this one, Linda — it’s quite amazing. I love how appropriate its name is, too — pretty little basket holding a pretty bloom.

    1. I spent a few years trying to find a basket-flower in bloom, without success. Once I found my first, I suddenly could find them pretty frequently; I suppose it’s the botanical version of “I once was blind, but now I see”! It’s not every flower that comes with its own vase; I love that this one does.

  7. You could have entitled that first photo “Beetle in the Basket.” I would imagine that when the flower is in its fully opened state, it looks like a lavender version of those old-timey powder puffs for loose powder that have the little knob handle.

    1. I’d forgotten about those puffs. My grandmother had one, tucked into a carnival glass powder box. I found a few that really looked the part. They were at a ranch gate, and had been mowed. They flowers were only about 4″ tall, but 4″ across: just delightful.

    1. They remind me of the bachelor buttons and cornflowers that my grandmother grew in her cutting garden. As a matter of fact, it’s not just appearance that brings the resemblance to mind; they’re actually in the same genus.

    1. Of course the wheels of governmental agencies can grind exceedingly slow, but I suspect there’s a tendency to let changes establish themselves, too. I don’t dig very far into taxonomic issues, but I have seen some interesting back-and-forth after a change is made and certain factions don’t agree with it. Beyond that, the introduction of DNA analysis seems to have both sped up changes and multiplied them; I’m happy to try and keep up, but I wouldn’t want keeping up to be part of a job description!

    1. They’re not only pretty, they have a lovely fragrance some describe as honey-like. That doesn’t surprise me, really, as the bees go crazy for them.

  8. 60 mph certainly can obscure some details. Beautiful flower I wasn’t familiar with. And I absolutely can see the resemblence to a basket with the stage of bloom of the lower flower.

    1. It makes sense that you wouldn’t know this one. Although the USDA map shows it ‘present’ in New York and Massachusetts, enlarging the map shows how ‘barely there’ it is. I think the basket is one of my favorite flowery things; sometimes structure beats color, hands down.

    1. You wouldn’t see these in your woods; they’re shown as native only in one county in Wisconsin, and none in Michigan. If you could get them to grow there, you’d love them. They don’t have any of the thistle’s prickliness, and they make wonderful dried flowers. A Southern Exposure wreath made of their flowers would be so nice!

    1. Both. I’ve seen ditches and fields so filled with them you hardly could walk through them. Others will pop up in small groups of a dozen or so. Once they get established, they spread nicely if conditions are right, since they aren’t affected by insects or disease. I don’t have any good photos of large groups, but this will give a hint. I found these under a billboard on the property of the local VFW.

  9. What’s in a name? Similarly, our Dogtooth Violet-Erythronium americanum is no violet, shrinking or otherwise. A member of the liliaceae, another name is Trout Lily which seems more appropriate. The leaves resemble a trout hence the common name. I can see why this could be mistaken for a thistle at 60 mph. I guess one could say slow down and smell the basket-flower…which you did.

    1. It took me a while to figure out your Dogtooth Violet. I thought for some time the name referred to the shape of the flower; learning it was the leaves was quite a revelation. And of course I thought that the Trout Lily was another plant entirely. Live and learn.

      Slowing down certainly is the right approach where nature’s concerned. Granted, there are times for Point A to Point B, but even then it’s worth keeping half an eye on the side of the road.

        1. A couple of eye exams ago, my doc was astonished by the fact that testing showed my peripheral vision had improved rather than declined. “I’m not sure how that happens,” he said. “Easy,” I said. “Practice.”

    1. It self-seeds, is essentially unaffected by disease or pests, likes a vase, and dries beautifully. What’s not to like! It’s even fragrant — some compare its scent to honey.

    1. A-tisket, a-tasket, an overflowing basket! It’s a beautiful flower, and interesting even when the color fades. I usually say that my favorite flower’s the one I’m looking at, but this one stays near the top of the ‘favorites’ list all the time. I’m glad it keeps blooming through the summer.

    1. The flowers can become quite large — 4″ across isn’t uncommon — and they can become as tall as 5-6′, too. Given their color, their resistance to disease and pests, and their lovely fragrance, they’re one of the best ever garden flowers. They’re in the same genus as cornflowers and bachelor buttons.

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