If You Burn It, They Will Come

As spring deepens into summer, I’m always eager for the appearance of basket flowers. They grow in a large swath across the state, so I’m as likely to see them in the hill country as along local fencelines, but I’ve never found them at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge — until this past July.

The pair shown above were some of the last buds in a colony overspreading a berm that separates a small, water-filled ditch from Olney Pond. The berm itself is only about twelve feet wide; the basket-flowers covered it from edge to edge, and extended along the length of the berm for perhaps fifteen or twenty feet.

When I stopped there last October, that same area was covered with balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum), a pan-tropical, introduced, and quite invasive plant that easily smothers more desirable natives. (Another species, the Chihuahuan balloonvine (C. dissectum) is native to Texas, but limited to Starr, Zapata, and Hildalgo counties along the Rio Grande.)

A month later, in mid-November, all that was left of the balloon vine was a collection of fire-scorched vines, seed pods, and seeds. Clearly, a prescribed burn had taken place: the smallest I’d ever seen.

It made perfect sense that fire had been used to clear the area, just as it’s used to manage much larger sections of refuges, prairies, and woodlands around the country.

Prescribed fires clear the way for native grasses and forbs to thrive, but they also allow for some surprises: acres of spider lily where none have been seen; blue star spreading across fire-blackened ditches; and American basket-flower, taking advantage of a newly opened neighborhood with surprising panache.


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Three Views Inside The Basket

When it comes to the basket-flower (Centaurea americana), the intricately woven basket is only the beginning. Equally appealing are the pink, purple, or white flower heads that appear to be beckoning insects and humans alike to have a closer look.

Colonies can be a blur of color, but individual flowers deserve a second glance, or to be viewed from a different angle.

Here, a basket-flower glows against a sandy county road.

This slightly unkempt specimen from a suburban ditch seems to be having a bad hair day.

Meanwhile, in the shadow of an abandoned power plant, the inherent elegance of the flower shines.

One of our most beautiful natives, basket-flowers help to make the transition into the heat of a Texas summer almost bearable.



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A Tisket, A Tasket…

Not a green and yellow basket, as the children’s nursery rhyme would have it, but a green and purple American basketflower (Centaurea americana).

Sometimes standing as much as five or six feet tall, it spreads along ditches in great colonies, appears as a single plant at the edge of parking lots, or scatters across fields. Its color varies from pink, to purple, to creamy white, but always there is the “basket” — the stiff, straw-colored bracts just beneath the flower head that look for all the world like a woven basket and provide its common name.

After weeks of fearing one of my favorite flowers would be in short supply in our area, it suddenly swept across the landscape in great waves. From every angle, at every stage, it’s a delight to photograph, with or without the insects that seem to enjoy it as much as I do.



Comments always are welcome.