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.

Going, Going… But Not Gone

Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) mixed with native grasses

While such people may exist, I’ve yet to meet anyone who actively dislikes sunflowers. The willingness of common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) to put down roots almost anywhere — construction sites, vacant lots, rural fencelines — can bring a smile to the face of even the most determined curmudgeon.

But there are many versions of the sunflower, including three of my favorites: swamp sunflower (H. augustifolius), silver-leaf sunflower (H. argophyllus), and Maximilian, named for Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied-Neuwied, a German explorer and naturalist who traveled through the United States in 1832–34.

Swamp and silver-leaf sunflowers prefer conditions farther south; Maximilians appear in my area, but erratically, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. When I noticed a patch of them decorating a narrow strip of land in Brazoria County, I stopped for a visit. Despite being well past the peak of their flowering, they were a delightful discovery.

Clustered blooms and height help to make them noticeable. Commonly four to six feet tall, and even taller where conditions are right, Maximilians are tough and adaptable. Their flowers appear late in the season, often blooming in tandem with goldenrod.

Occasionally, skyward-reaching stalks provide an interesting view of their slender, alternate leaves.

Gravity often pulls tall, flower-laden stalks down to the ground, but shorter stalks will lean as well, even in the absence of wind.

Every sort of pollinator is attracted to them, especially butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) pauses for a sip of nectar.

A special treat was finding a new example of a favorite autumn color combination in the field. Here, purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba) clambers up a Maximilian stem, showing off its leaves in the process. 

Since I discovered this colony, winds associated with cold and warm fronts have been strong. Whether the sunflowers will be going strong when I next pass by is hard to say, but I suspect that they won’t be gone.

Comments always are welcome.

 

Nature’s Trellis

Cheerful and opportunistic, these sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge found the fire-blackened limbs of some neighboring trees perfect for climbing.

A few weeks earlier, a prescribed burn had consumed the grasses and shrubs surrounding the trees, even as it scorched their bark and stripped away their leaves.

Still, some newly sprouted sunflowers recognized the skeletal remains for what they were: an unexpected opportunity to imitate the vines they’d always envied. Their trellis may have been charred, but it supported them perfectly.

 

Comments always are welcome.