A Basket-Flower for May Days


May baskets, a cherished tradition during my childhood, were tiny crepe paper baskets or paper cones filled with flowers, strung with ribbon, and hung at the front doors of family and friends. Creating them, then delivering them on May Day, was as popular as the May Pole dances that also celebrated the coming of spring. A snippet from an NPR article describes it perfectly:

A reporter in the Sterling, Ill., Gazette in 1871 explained the seasonal ritual this way: “A May-basket is — well, I hardly know how to describe it; but ’tis something to be hung on a door. Made of paper generally, it contains almost anything, by way of small presents you have in mind to put in it, together with your respects, best wishes — love, perhaps. It is hung after dark at the door of anybody the hanger fancies. — Which done, the said hanger knocks and scampers.”

May baskets may have gone out of fashion among humans, but I smiled to see nature providing her own version on April 30: just in time for May Day. The American Basket-Flower (Plectocephalus americanus, or, more familiarly, Centaurea americana), was budding and blooming at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

Although it looks rather like a thistle, it has none of the thistles’ negative attributes. Its appearance reminds me of my grandmother’s bachelor buttons: Centaurea cyanus. Those were small enough to be included in a May basket, but with blooms as much as five inches across, it’s good that one of my favorite flowers provides its own ‘basket’ — the intricately woven, straw-colored bracts beneath the flower head.

When this basket-flower appears, it’s summer that’s knocking at the door.


Comments always are welcome.

63 thoughts on “A Basket-Flower for May Days

    1. Weren’t those baskets fun? Sometimes we’d use those little crepe paper-ish nut cups instead of paper cones. They were so frilly — and always done in pastels. Like decorating Valentine shoe boxes, the making was as much fun as the giving!

  1. Putting out a post is a kind of knocking and scampering.

    It’s easy to see why basket-flowers are among your favorites. On April 3oth I, too, went to check out a place where I know to expect them. Didn’t find any there, but as you saw in my post this morning, a slew of them are budding in Pflugerville. Looks like it’ll be a good season for them here, and I hope for you down there.

    1. That made me laugh, but you’re exactly right about posting as knocking and scampering. Of course, we’re of an age that we can remember a different way of doing the same thing: calling a neighbor and asking, for example, “Is your refrigerator running?”

      I was surprised to find these where I did. There’s only been one place in the refuge where I’ve found them in the past. When I looked there, they were growing, but not yet in bud. Maybe this second stand is an indication of a good year. The other thing I found was a single ladies’ tresses orchid. It was well past its prime, browning and raggedy, but there it was. I’ve found them in the same general area before, so it may be that I’ll get lucky with those, as well.

    1. Are May poles still a tradition over there? There are certain areas here where May Queens and May poles endure, but not many. A friend who grew up in heavily Scandinavian Minnesota used to participate in those each year.

    1. Not only are the blooms large, these can grow to some height — I’ve seen them so far above my head they must have been 12′-15′ tall. Those were in a yard, so I suppose they were well watered and nurtured, but 5′-6′ isn’t unusual, even in the ditches. Of course it tickles me when I find the white ones, but the range from pink to lavender is so pretty.

  2. I so love these–thanks to you! Mine are up (way up, some of them!) and growing, but no blooms yet. The Texas Thistle that grew and bloomed last year is at it again and it already has other friends and is blooming. I’ll have to cull that plant, it’s too prickly. Nice post!!

    1. It was a fine day when I realized that basket-flowers weren’t prickly. Like so many, I’m sure I confused them with thistles in my early days of looking around, and never took the time to examine them. They certainly are loved by the pollinators: as much as the thistles. I’m hoping that an isolated colony under a local billboard does well this year. I dried some from that spot four years ago, and they could stand to be replaced!

    1. It seemed strange to me at first that you haven’t seen a basketflower, but I did read on some site (or perhaps in a book) that they’re weak in east Texas, so that makes sense. They draw butterflies, bees, and beetles like crazy; they certainly are a great garden flower. I just mentioned to Tina that I’ve dried them in the past; it was interesting that once dried they became more of a blue.

        1. I’ve seen them at the edges of thickets down here; they seem to thrive as well in dappled light as full sun, but that’s still different from your woods.

    1. I came SO close to using those lines from the nursery rhyme in my title. Then, I swerved and went this direction, but not before spending some time listening to various Ella Fitzgerald versions of the song. I grew up with the nursery rhyme, but only those first two lines stuck with me. A few stuck lines certainly are better than stuck fingers!

    1. I wonder how well they’d thrive in your area. They are shown as adventive in two New York counties, so someone has gotten them to grow. Still, they’re mostly absent in the northeast, and they aren’t around east Texas, either. Usually, I’ve had to head west to find the large colonies of them, although they’re common enough in my area. There’s one home in my town that has grown them in the past, next to their driveway. I hope to find them there this year, as well.

      1. Select Seeds offer them for sale, but they require 4 months to bloom, which would mean they would have to be started inside in Mar/Apr. Doable…

        1. If you ever give it a try, the flowers dry nicely, and they last for years. The seed heads make great additions to dry arrangements, too.

    1. A tisket, a tasket — the flowers made some baskets ~ and fine baskets they are. The flowers are pretty, but those little woven ‘holders’ are delightful. Personally, I think the world would be a better place if we stopped with Twitter and Facebook arguments and spent more time hanging flowers on doorknobs!

    1. May baskets were a Big Deal when I was a kid. We’d not only hang them on the doors of friends and neighbors, groups like the Bluebirds or Camp Fire Girls would make enough to hang on the doors of everyone in nursing homes and hospitals. There always were projects for places like that at Christmas, Valentine’s Day, May Day, and Thanksgiving. It made us as happy as it did the residents.

  3. How grand to see basket flowers from you again! The color is so delicate, and I’m particularly enthralled that they don’t have stickers. My mom used to be big on May baskets — sad that this lovely tradition has gone the way of eight-track tapes. It’s been replaced by the celebration of Law Day now (which, I suppose, is worthwhile in its own right — just not as a replacement!)

    1. Sometimes I’m more cynical than I should be. My first thought when I read about Law Day was, “How do you celebrate that? Sue somebody?”

      It is good to see old friends like the basket flowers appearing again. It’s comforting to know that while we hyperventilate over the latest fad or crisis, nature goes right on, obeying unwritten laws of her own, and giving us gifts in the process.

  4. I wasn’t aware of the May Day basket tradition. I vaguely the 5th of May being freedom’s day. In the Netherlands they celebrate this day in many cities celebrating the liberation from the German occupation in 1945.

    1. You’d not heard of our May baskets, and I’d not heard of your May 5th celebration. The venerable Wiki provided this detail: “After liberation in 1945, Liberation Day was celebrated every five years. In 1990 the day was declared a national holiday when liberation would be remembered and celebrated every year. Festivals are held in most places in the Netherlands with parades of veterans and musical festivals throughout the whole country.” Sharing May baskets was fun, but I suspect Liberation Day celebrations are more meaningful.

    1. Even when they’re more moderately sized, say 4′-5′ with 3″ or 4″ blooms, they’re quite wonderful. They can be thick enough to fill ditches, just as they can be tall enough to make photographing anything but the bottom of the basket difficult. Part of the reason they can become so tall is their very stiff, pith-filled stems. I once plopped down on one of those stems that was left after weed-eating. It went straight through my jeans and into my cute little rear end; the stem never broke.

  5. No May baskets in my childhood, Linda. Even the flower is a stranger to me but I think I remember you featuring the baskets. It must have been more fall-ish.

    1. I have shown the seed heads and baskets in the past. They’re really cool once the flower has faded — like this. The flowers dry very well, and the seed heads will last a good while. At this point, my little arrangment of eucalyptus and basket-flower seed heads is at least six years old.

  6. well, isn’t this timely. I just read another blog the writer of which was telling us about the knock on her door to find a paper cone with tulips. first I have heard of this tradition.

    1. That’s wonderful! It’s proof that, at least somewhere, the tradition continues. We never filled our baskets with anything so extravagant as tulips, though. Lily of the valley and violets were more our speed; of course, our baskets were fairly small.

  7. May-poles I am familiar with, May-baskets not at all. I know that in Britain they still celebrate May by dancing around the maypole, but I think it is more of a tourist event than anything rooted in regular practice.

    1. One of the great surprises of my life was learning from my grandmother that Maypoles, in her Swedish childhood and youth, were associated with midsummer celebrations, too.
      I suspect the same pagan roots underlay those. The only maypole dance I’ve ever seen took place in a Swedish/German mining community in Liberia’s iron range, at the New Year. That was quite an experience.

  8. I remember delivering those May baskets as a child! It was such a fun tradition. But nice to know that the basket still exists in the form of a flower…..

    1. One of the best things about May baskets is that they always were made, and never purchased. Sometimes, the tiny nutcups that formed the base of some probably were found in a store, but they always were the base. You couldn’t buy a completed May basket. Unlike Halloween, the celebrations never made it into the retail stores; even the least artistic among us could roll up a paper cone and pluck some flowers.

      1. You’re right, we always picked out own flowers and tied them into a group, then put them into a homemade basket. And I think that make it even more special!

    1. It’s one of my favorites. What I find amusing is its propensity to bloom no matter its circumstances. If it happens to be mowed down, as it sometimes is around ranch gates or in ditches, it’s much smaller. On the other hand, the flowers still can be attention-getting. I once saw a cluster of 6″ tall flowers blooming away after being mowed.

    1. It was great fun, Tanja. Making the baskets, or beribboned paper cones, was quite a project. I don’t know how far ahead of May day we began the process, but I remember the excitement, which certainly equaled that of finding flowers and distributing the baskets. It was a simple, sweet tradition.

  9. A stunning flower!

    Apparently, Florida missed out when those seeds were distributed.

    Gini remembers making May baskets and filling them with flowers for her Mother. I have no recollection of them at all. Of course, some days I don’t recollect my name, either.

    1. I think girls were more fond of May baskets than the boys: at least, they were more inclined to make and distribute them. On the other hand, I still believe — without any firm evidence at all – that it was Billy Vandewater who left one on my bicycle handlebars in third grade, or maybe fourth. I made one for him, too, but I was smart enough to fill it with candy rather than flowers.

    1. Their flowers’ size and their height makes them noticeable. Their lovely colors and the flowers’ delicacy makes them more than usually attractive — and you wouldn’t believe the number of bees, butterflies, and such that come to visit. For them, the size of the blossoms is pure advantage.

    1. It really is. What surprises me about it every year is the variation in its colors. I’ve found pink, white, and lavender flowers of all shades, with centers ranging from pure white to ivory. Add in the fact that even the smaller flowers usually are at least three inches across, and it’s just magnificent.

    1. Although it begins blooming in late spring, I do think of it as a summer flower, thanks to its long bloom time. I laughed when a gardening friend mentioned the height of hers, and the difficulties she has taking photos when the flowers are above her head. They’re not all so tall, of course. Especially where ditch mowing has taken place, they will come back and bloom when only two or three feet tall: much more convenient!

        1. I do know people who carry stepladders with them as part of their photographic kit, but there’s no way I’m climbing a ladder out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a great idea, but fraught with potential trouble.

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