Ornaments for the Roadside

American basket-flower with common sunflowers

In 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston lost his life during the Civil War’s Battle of Shiloh, but before his death, he and his wife, Eliza Griffin Johnston, lived and traveled in Texas. The details of their life together are beyond the scope of this post, but Eliza was a keen observer of the world around her, an accomplished artist, and a great lover of wildflowers. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, she created a watercolor record of Texas wildflowers; eventually, she bound her images into a book and presented them to her husband as a birthday gift.

In 1894, Rebecca Jane Fisher, a member of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, began seeking Republic of Texas artifacts for a museum. When she asked Eliza for something that had belonged to the General, Eliza donated her wildflower book. It remained in an Austin bank vault for years; today the book, containing more than a hundred watercolor images and wonderfully descriptive text, is available under the titleTexas Wild Flowers. It pleased me to find that Eliza had included my beloved basket-flower in her collection. She writes:

In passing through north western Texas, the traveler will frequently find his path bordered for miles by this flower mingled with sunflowers. The seed, falling from a single cluster of each will stock many acres; by being caught up by passing wheels, or clinging to horses’ feet, they are planted, and thus become ornaments for the roadside.
Emerging basket-flower ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City

Today, these ‘roadside ornaments’ are equally common. Named for the stiff, straw-colored phyllaries (modified leaves) which form a kind of woven basket at the bottom of the flower, they seem to be especially fond of disturbed ground or seemingly odd locations.

Abloom at the base of a billboard ~ Clear Lake Shores

Their considerable height — often as much as six to eight feet  — makes it easy to use the sky as a pleasing background for the only native Centaurea species in the U.S. (It should be noted that the name I learned and that still is most often used — Centaurea americana — has been changed to Plectocephalus americanus on many sites. Caution: taxonomists at work!)

Along a Brazoria County road

Even though their appearance seemed late this year, their locations were predictable. The small colony that’s decorated the bank of a Brazoria Wildlife Refuge canal for as many years as I’ve been visiting was in full bloom, and offered up a surprise.

Banking on predictability ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Pink and lavender, combined with cream, may be the usual basket-flower colors, but occasionally a white one appears. Along the same Brazoria Refuge canal where I found my dependable colony, one white basket-flower was blooming: a joy for my white flower loving heart, and as pretty a natural variation as could be found.

One white flower, two views ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge canal

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Sure Sign of Summer

If I’m lucky, this Prairie Gentian will be only the first of many that I’ll find this year. Its scientific name, Eustoma exaltatum, points both to its ‘large-mouthed’ appearance (Eustoma) and to its height (exaltatum).  Other common names — Catchfly Prairie Gentian, Bluebell Gentian, and Seaside Gentian — all apply to this showy, purple-to-lavender flower that occasionally appears in white.

Before its flowers appear, the plant easily is identified by grayish-green, oppositely-arranged leaves that clasp the stems. Tolerant of salt and with a preference for moist conditions, the it can be found in salt marshes, wet prairies, and coastal flats from Florida through Texas, to California and northward.

A large colony of these flowers on the west end of Galveston Island fell first to the mowers and then to the developers, but this single bloom at the side of a west end road whispered a message: “Get thee to Brazoria County. I have friends there.”

Who could ignore a message from a flower?

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Close Encounter of the Alligator Kind

In the fall of 2019, I visited the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge in the company of Steve and Eve Schwartzman. As we approached one of the ditches that threads through the refuge, we came upon a Great Egret fishing at the water’s edge; eventually, that bird’s photo appeared as an entry on Steve’s Portraits of Wildflowers blog.

Just over a week ago, I was traveling the same road, but when I came to the same ditch, I discovered a different creature emerging from the water. This handsome alligator had hauled itself up the bank and onto land, obviously intending to cross the road. It seemed to be as surprised as I was, and we sat there for several minutes, eyeing one another.

After ten minutes or so, it seemed as though the staring contest could go on for some time, so I decided to continue down the road. As I slowly drove past the gator, about three feet off the end of his nose, that fearsome creature didn’t snarl, hiss, or charge the car. Instead, without changing expression, he slowly pushed himself away, slid backwards down the bank, and disappeared beneath the water. No doubt he was waiting for the traffic to clear.

 

Comments always are welcome.