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.

Texas Thistle ~ From Bud to Bloom

One of our prettiest and most useful plants, the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum) begins blooming in April and continues to benefit a variety of birds and insects throughout the summer. A larval host for the Painted Lady butterfly, the plant provides nourishment for a variety of native bees, including bumblebees, and birds such as Goldfinches make use of its fluff and its seeds.

Each plant produces a single flower at the top of its usually unbranched stem. Sometimes confused with Engelmann’s thistle (Cirsium engelmannii), Texas thistle lacks that plant’s spiny bracts at the base of its flower.

 Its color and form are especially attractive, and its minimal prickliness makes it a fine addition to landscapes or pollinator gardens.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Mornings with Monarda

Spotted beebalm with phlox ~ Medina County

Named in honor of 16th century Spanish physician, botanist, and pharmacologist Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), native Monarda species are widespread across Texas.

Monardes himself never traveled to the New World, but Spanish captains engaged in trade with the Americas knew of his interest in plants, and kept him well-supplied with new species. Monardes established a museum in Seville to house his growing collection — the first such museum in Western Europe — and brought the plants’ therapeutic values to the attention of his colleagues.

Drought tolerant, clump-forming members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, Monarda species thrive in sunny areas with dry soil. During a visit to the Texas hill country on May 7-9, I found colonies of both Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) and Lemon Horsemint (M. citriodora) giving clear notice that late spring is turning into summer.

Spotted beebalm ~ Medina County
Lemon horsemint ~ Wilson County
Lemon horsemint with firewheels  ~ Gonzales County

 

Comments always are welcome.

Hark, Hark! The Larkspurs Bloom

The well-known line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline — “Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings” — came to mind when I encountered larkspur standing tall in an Austin County field on April 9. “Hark, hark! the larkspur at heaven’s gate blooms” seemed perfectly suited to the moment.

Although larkspurs (Delphinium carolinianum) have naturalized in nearly every area of Texas, I rarely see them. In 2019, I found a few at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary in Hardin County, but it wasn’t until this spring that I came across more of the tall, dramatically blue flowers.

Commonly known as wild larkspur or Carolina larkspur, the plant — a member of the buttercup family — is native from Virginia to Missouri and southward to Florida and Texas. Found in an assortment of habitats, its sparsely-leaved flowering stalks typically contain six to fourteen blue-violet spurred flowers. Plants continue to grow upward after bloom, eventually reaching 18-24” tall; that height allowed these to stand above the phlox and bluebonnets surrounding them.

Each flower contains five petal-like sepals and four petals, with the upper sepal forming the long, backward projecting spur that gives the flower its common name; by the 1570s, the calyx and petals were imagined to resemble a lark’s hind claw. On the other hand, the Spanish name for the flower, Espuela de caballero, acknowleges its resemblance to a horseman’s spur.

The genus name Delphinium comes from the Greek delphis, or ‘dolphin,’ which some believe the bud resembles.

Larkspur’s dolphin-like bud
Blue larkspur and pink phlox
Blue larkspur fading to purple, with a bluebonnet background

The colors of D. carolinianum can vary, ranging from white to pale or dark blue. In 2020, I found a small group of white larkspur on an isolated road near Cost, Texas. Remarkably, when I returned to the same spot after our February freeze in 2021, I found the white flowers blooming once again.

This year, even more larkspur were blooming when I arrived. Their color has been so remarkably consistent I wondered if I might have found a subspecies. On the other hand, with no blue larkspur nearby to provide opportunities for cross-pollination, the pure white flowers may have a chance to keep multiplying.

One thing is certain. Whether blue or white, larkspur flowers are immensely attractive to native bees. The green-eyed beauty shown below, a long-horned bee tentatively identified as a member of the genus Melissodes, was doing his part to keep the larkspur colony thriving — and ready to be admired again in 2023.  

 

Comments always are welcome.

Smiling in Spring

Plains Prickly Pear ~ Opuntia macrorhiza
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
                                  ~  Wendell Berry

 

Comments always are welcome.