Buttoning Up Summer

Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia graminifolia) bloom from late summer through early fall in the wet flatwoods and prairies, seeps, and bogs of east Texas’s Big Thicket. Here, the warm hues of a pitcher plant flower provide a glowing background for the emerging disk florets of this small, button-like flower.

A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, the plant’s dome-shaped flower heads sway atop slender stems as much as sixteen inches tall. Like its family-mate the Basket-flower, Barbara’s Buttons have disk flowers but no rays: a characteristic that increases their resemblance to one another in shape, if not in size.

The genus name Marshallia honors Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) and his nephew Moses Marshall (1758-1813), American botanists active in and around Pennsylvania during the Colonial period. The specific epithet graminifolia refers to the plant’s grasslike leaves.

Although every species in the genus is known as Barbara’s Buttons, the identity of ‘Barbara’ remains unclear.  It seems the name first appeared in print in botanist John Kunkel Small’s 1933 book, Flora of the Southeastern United States.

Whatever the source of the flower’s common name, it’s quite attractive to late-season pollinators like butterflies, beetles, and bees, and a lovely bit of lingering color as the season begins to change.


Comments always are welcome.

63 thoughts on “Buttoning Up Summer

    1. Thanks so much, Derrick. I try to apply the Three Bears approach to the information I include in these posts: not too little, and not too much, but ‘just right.’

  1. Your superb photography brings to light beauty that can be easily missed by the naked eye. It’s amazing to me that people like the Marshalls had so much interest in all things botanical without modern equipment.

    1. As I’ve often said, I do love my macro lens. As for those early botanists, it’s fascinating to read their correspondence and get a sense of what they went through to preserve, share, and study their specimens. The thought of sending plants from America to Europe, or from one part of our country to another, is daunting, but they got it done. Curiosity and care were keys.

  2. Well, having piqued my interest in where Barbara came from, it seems I can, if I wish, purchase a book called Manual of Southeastern Flora, by John Kunkel Small (1933, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), for US$27 (plus US$22 shipping) if I want to read more about it. Apparently this book contains the first written use of that name…quite a lovely rabbit hole one could jump into when researching these names eh?

    1. The names are fascinating. Once I learned that the specific epithet for many plants includes information about people and places, things got a lot more interesting. And those common names? Many a confusion has resulted from plants having a variety of those.

      As for Barbara and her buttons, the Wiki entry adds this: “This common name…was not used in Southern Wildflowers and Trees (1901) or Plant Life Of Alabama (1901). The botanist B.W. Wells, in Natural Gardens of North Carolina (1932), called the plants “loudspeakers”, referring to the megaphone shape of the individual flowers.”

      I’m glad ‘loudspeakers’ didn’t stick!

    1. I’ve wondered whether the original Barbara ever knew that she had a flower named for her. I’m glad that this beauty reminded you of your friend; little reminders like that are as pleasant as they are surprising.

  3. Names of plants are interesting, especially some common names. Barbara must have been very special. My favorite plants man, John Bartram, was also from colonial Philadelphia and sent many plants over to England.

    1. I thought of you when I was reading about Marshall, because of this:

      “A younger cousin of John Bartram’s, Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) was another of the remarkable circle of Quaker botanists from Chester County, Pa., who helped shape American botanical practice during the 18th and early 19th centuries. His most enduring work, the Arbustrum Americanum was fittingly published only two years after the Peace of Paris had formalized American independence, and is recognized as the first botanical treatise written by a native American on American plants, produced in America.”

      The entire article which that paragraph introduces can be found here. It’s fascinating stuff.

  4. Since the original Barbara is unknown, perhaps Barbara Bush could be co-opted to assume the mantle. She was after all a prominent Texan.

    1. It occurs to me that the Marshallia species range so far beyond Texas it would be a shame to limit the common name to just one Barbara, however admirable she might be. Beyond that, the anonymity of the original Barbara allows imagination free play: was she a wife? a friend? a child? Whoever she was, her flower’s a delight.

  5. Beautiful bloom, Linda. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in person, but have seen photos. I love the common names, even when I’ve no idea where they came from. Some are poetic (‘ladies slippers’ and the like). Lovely capture.

    1. When a plant is widespread, it’s fun learning how the common names differ from one area to another, too. Some are just funny; I came across ‘hogwort’ yesterday, and was surprised to learn that it’s a croton, and not just the name of an imaginary boarding school. When I peeked into the etymology, I found this: “Coined by J. K. Rowling in her 1997 book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling has speculated that she might have subconsciously produced the name from hogwort, a plant she saw when walking round Kew Gardens.”

      You never know!

  6. I like the delicate form and the tiny white spectacles sticking out in several places. Do bees come and look through them? Nature provides us with such a wide variety of examples of adaption and success.

    1. Whether bees use those ‘spectacles’ I can’t say, but plenty of bees visit these — as do other pollinators. Those little curled parts are the stigmas of individual flowers. Unlike sunflowers, which have disk flowers (the center) and ray flowers (the ‘petals’), these are made up of a collection of disk flower — no rays!

  7. YES! I like this one, Linda. The color is so delicate, and its resemblance to the basket flower is uncanny. Thanks for introducing me to another beauty!

    1. It’s quite intricate for such a small flower. It’s fun that it opens from the outside, too — that’s why the center of this one looks as though it hasn’t quite gotten with the program. In time, the whole flower head with be puffy and pretty. Like you, I enjoy the colors: not to mention the fact that it looks like a baby basket-flower.

    1. The color scheme stays the same, but the variation from one flower to the next keeps things interesting. Some are almost pure white; others appear pink from a distance, and those touches of lavender are perfect.

    1. Readers like you teach me so much about plant distribution. Whenever you say you haven’t seen a flower, I take a look at the BONAP maps, as I did for this one. It’s not lack of attention that’s kept you from seeing this one. It just isn’t there!

    1. Who wouldn’t like to have such a sweet flower bearing her name? The only other plants with women’s names I can remember are Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susan. There surely must be others.

  8. Last night as we drove around the “feral” farm I realized all the flowers are gone and only the Golden Rod is there for color and the pollinators. The Coral Berry, the winter food source for birds and last of the color on our wild and native fields, has yet to appear.

    1. That’s interesting. Our goldenrod hasn’t yet come into its own — but it shouldn’t be long. I had to look up Coral Berry, since that’s one I didn’t know. When I looked at the maps, I discovered it’s listed for a variety of counties I visit. I need to learn more about it, and start looking for it.

      The seasons are turning, in both of our places. I hope the thought’s as pleasing to you as it is to me.

    1. That’s exactly right. One of the fanciful explanations for the common name involved St. Barbara, who had long hair. Maybe someone else saw that ‘whole head full’ and thought of something more pleasant than the Medusa.

  9. There you go again.

    Another beautiful bloom that apparently thrives in our area that I have not seen! Now the game is afoot.

    Button, button, who’s got the button? Barbara!

    Now I just have to find her.

    What a beautiful flower! Those curled stigmas are so unique. Kudos on the background. Now I’m jealous that not only did you show me a flower which I should have already seen, you rub it in by showing a pitcher plant bloom which I haven’t been able to locate this year!

    I shall drown my depression in another cup of java. And play the Ink Spots in the background to cheer me up.

    1. I’m surprised you’ve not seen this. In the east Texas areas I visit, I find it keeping company with bog buttons (hat pins) and pitcher plants in one wetter area, but also with liatris, longleaf pines, meadow beauty, and pinewoods rose gentian in dryer and sandier places. If you happen to catch an unusual, sweet scent on the air, look around, because they are fragrant. It looks like the last sighting on iNaturalist was September 11, but you still might see one.

      I mentioned my mother and grandmother’s button jars to another reader, but I’d forgotten about the “Button, button” game. We’d play that in school; it must have been kindergarten or first grade. By second or third grade, we’d (been) moved along to “telephone.”

      I didn’t know that great song by its title, and even when I listened it was a vague memory, but it’s a great song. It’s gone into my morning rotation now!

    1. I’m fairly sure ‘was’ is the proper word, Curt, since her name was used in print in 1933, and she’d surely been around for at least a few years before that. On the other hand, she could be in her 90s, and growing these in her garden. That would be perfect!

  10. Like you, I’ve failed to track down the elusive Barbara. At least you’ve traced her back to 1933. In the 1929 book Texas Wild Flowers, Ellen D. Schulz calls Marshallia caespitosa puffballs. That’s the species that grows in Austin, and it looks very much like the one you’ve shown here.

    1. I pulled out my copies of Eliza Johnston’s Texas Wild Flowers and Neltje Blanchan’s Nature’s Garden, but neither of those books mention your species of the flower or mine — by any name. Now, I’m considering another amusing possibility: that John Kunkel Small thought the flowers looked like buttons and named them ‘Barbara’s Buttons’ solely for the alliterative effect.

      1. I’ve conjectured the same thing, namely that someone (though not necessarily John Kunkel Small) looked for a name that would go well with buttons. Barbara’s, if pronounced in two syllables, offers not only alliteration but also the same rhythm as buttons.

        1. I suppose I’ve heard ‘Barbara’ pronounced with three syllables, but I don’t remember it. It’s always been a two-syllable name for me, and you’re right that when it’s combined with ‘buttons’ the rhythm is pleasing, too.

  11. I thought there was something familiar about the flower but I knew I hadn’t seen it. My sister had some basket flower this spring. I haven’t been to East Texas in decades.

    1. Everything from the color to the shape makes this one look like a baby basket-flower, although this one gets a little frillier with age. I love the variation in the pinks, lavenders, and whites from flower to flower — and my goodness, they have a sweet fragrance.

  12. I’m thinking this “Barbara” of whom this flower refers must be a queen bee, earnestly sending out her workers to push her buttons, and maybe beelittle a beetle or butter up a butterfly while they’re at it.

    1. Ah, ha. You’re the first to imagine Barbara as a non-human creature, and to imagine her life so imaginatively. If she can get her minions to do all those things, I’d say she’s as clever as her flower is beautiful.

  13. Beautiful choice of background for this one. It really helps all that colorful detail stand out. These late season bloomers that bring a bit more color before fall are always welcome.

    1. It’s always fun to see flowers that don’t ‘seem’ as though they should be blooming together doing just that. I’m always entranced by the dramatic flowers of the pitcher plants, but they do a fine job as supported actors, too.

  14. Thanks Linda for sharing these precious treasures as autumn moves forward. Here in Ohio, we experienced summer’s farewell the day before the first day of autumn. The fall season arrived right on schedule, and few of us can remember the last time nature’s timing matched the calendar.

    1. Oddly, and a little sadly, we have glorious fall weather now thanks to a combination of a frontal passage and winds off the back of Hurricane Ian. It’s rare for such pleasant conditions to last so long. Usually, we get our first front and then it heats up immediately. Everyone’s enjoying this wonderful fall weather. Now, if only we could get some rain again! (Never satisfied, we humans.)

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