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.

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 Delight of Basket-flowers

American basket-flower ~ Plectocephalus americanus (formerly Centaurea americana)

As spring transitioned into summer, I began to fear I had missed seeing my beloved basket-flowers this year. Finally, around mid-June, they began to appear: along abandoned rail tracks and in ditches; tucked into unmowed corners of vacant lots; lurking at the edge of a shipyard. By July, seeds I’d given to friends began to produce as well, and their reports of successful germination pleased me immensely.

Generally speaking, basket-flowers bloom a soft, lovely pink, or various shades of lavender. As they age, the intricately woven ‘basket’ containing the slender disk flowers turns golden, becoming the center of attraction as the seeds form.

Occasionally, as with this flower from a colony in Kemah, Texas, the fading bloom darkens, taking on shades of bronzed purple and red.

Sometimes, white basket-flowers appear. Near Tres Palacios Bay on Texas’s mid-coast, this lovely example stirred in the wind: a reminder of the surprising variety nature offers to even the most casual observer.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Flower’s Basket

 

The American basket-flower (Plectocephalus americanus) is notable not only for its fragrant and delicate blooms, shown in this previous post, but also for the complex, closely-woven bracts which give the flower its common name. 

Like sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, and asters, the basket-flower belongs to a family of composite flowers known as the Asteraceae. Most have small disc flowers in their centers (the sunflower’s ‘eye’) and ray flowers (which look like petals) around the outside.

Some Asteraceae, however, have only ray flowers (dandelions) and some have only disc flowers.  American basket-flowers happen to have only disc flowers; each of their pretty pink, white, or lavender elongated corollas is attached to a developing seed. 

Seen here, in this intermediate stage between bloom and seed, drying disc flowers wrap around their basket. In time, they’ll fall away, leaving the seed to ripen, fall, or float away, ensuring next season’s beauty.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Tisket, A Tasket…

…a just emerging basket

A basket-flower, that is. I watch for the emergence of Centaurea americana every year, and they never disappoint.

In ditches and along railroad tracks, the flowers come and go. Last year’s largest stand was mowed at precisely the wrong time and failed to bloom, but a newly-discovered colony already is forming seed, and will be a destination next spring.

This year I experienced their scent, honey-sweet and heavy in the early summer air, and longed to extend their season.

“You should grow some in a pot,” said a friend. But these flowers aren’t meant for patio life. They’re meant to be wild and uncontained, like their mature blooms.

For years, I failed to see the basket-flowers crowding fencelines and ditches during spring and early summer. Obviously, they were there. Only my attention was lacking.

 

Comments always are welcome.