Baskets of Blooms

It’s hard to say farewell to a species of plant whose end has come, especially one that produced such an abundance of flowers. Alas, my American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana, are done for the year. This is a sad sight:

The stalks of these spent lanky lovelies, tidily tucked in to bins, are on the way to the city of Austin’s composting facility.

I grow these annual native wildflowers, with thanks to Linda of Lagniappe and The Task at Hand, who several years ago graciously mailed to me seeds she’d collected. It’s taken a couple of years, but these regal annuals are now an integral part of my garden family, offering stature and elegance to my summer garden. This year, the basket flower stalks grew especially tall, some reaching to 9 and 10 feet. Most stalks were so tall that I couldn’t enjoy observing many of the blooms that opened atop the stalks. Pollinators filled the air above the garden, zooming from bloom to bloom for pollen and nectar. The lofty flowers certainly earned their keep, even if I was out of the loop. That said, the stalks are multi-branched, so while many flowers were too high for me to observe, there were plenty at human eye level–and their presence was welcome by those wishing only to admire.

A basket bud tops a tall stalk. It waits for maturity, to open, and for multitudes of pollinators to visit.

The common name, Basket flower, comes from the bracts below the flower head which is reminiscent of a woven basket.

As the flower develops, fringed bracts push upwards

…and outwards.

The beginnings of a bloom.

Once the flower fully opens, it’s about 4-5 inches across, a sweet purply-pink, and a pollinator magnet.

A wide variety of pollinators worked these flowers from May through early July. Pollinators like native bees, honeybees, small skippers, larger butterflies, hummingbirds, and flies were at the Basket flowers from sunrise to sunset. A couple of examples of these:

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor
American Bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus

All things die of course, and once the Basket flowers ended their bloom time, seeds developed and the stalks turned from rich green to toasty brown.

During seed development, the pretty pinky blooms morphed to a warm beige; I think the spent flowers are quite attractive. Several of these beauties now reside in a dried flower arrangement in my house.

During winter and early spring, the Basket flower seedlings emerged and grew in the garden, I transplanted some and removed many. As they matured, the stalks grew taller than nearly every other plant in this garden. There was one group of about a dozen that I called ‘the grove’ that I left where they seeded out. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a specific photo of the grove in its prime, but this photo from my last post shows the grove in May at the top right of the garden.

As the flowers of the grove ended their bloom cycle and began to spread their seeds, this is how the group looked.

Small, oval seeds are buried in the fuzzy center of the flower, released with a strong breeze or by working their way out of the center and falling to the ground. There were plenty of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, House Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens who enjoyed these seeds. The birds were skittish and I wasn’t particularly patient at getting photos, so I never managed a decent shot of any Basket seed-munching birds, but they will spread the Basket goodness. Besides in my own garden, I expect these seeds will produce plants throughout and beyond the neighborhood.

I’ve collected a few small bags of seeds that I’m donating to our local library for their seed bank.

I suspect if this summer wasn’t so hellishly hot and dry that the pollinators and I would still be enjoying the Basket flowers. Last year, many of my Basket flowers lasted well into fall and were done only after our first freeze of the year. Even though their bloom and seed cycle was shortened this season compared to last, I appreciate what these natives bring to my garden–and look forward to meeting them again next year.

21 thoughts on “Baskets of Blooms

  1. Local botanist Bill Carr says that the basket-flower is “uncommon in Travis County although very common in grasslands on both clayey and sandy soils in every direction from here.” My observations have coincided with what he said, and I rarely see a basket-flower in Austin. Your garden is redressing the balance.

    Shinners and Mahler’s big book gives the upper end of the range for basket-flower height as 2 meters, so the ones in your grove were giants.

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    • That’s really interesting and it’s true that I’ve never seen basket flower in Austin area. Linda mentioned to me that the ones she sees well east of us are quite tall. Mine was giant, that’s for sure. I’ve always meant to tell you that I like your avatar! 🙂

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      • Thanks. That photograph was a breakthrough. I discovered a new photographic frontier while lying on the ground and aiming upward.

        It’s good the seeds Linda sent you came from that land of the super-tall basket-flowers well east of us.

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  2. Do you prefer seed collected from the wild to garden varieties? I was very pleased with the beautyberry seedlings (from Forest Garden), and esperanza and poinciana seed (from Crazy Green Thumbs), not only because I wanted to grow these species, but because they were the sort that grow wild in the regions from which they came. I could have purchased garden varieties online, but they would not have been quite the same. The Gladiolus papilio (from Tangly Cottage Gardening) are not native to Washington (from which they came) but are a popular perennial species of Gladiolus that I had never met before. They are one of my favorites now, and just might be my favorite.

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    • Some of the seeds I’ve used for wildflowers have been from green space areas, though quite a few have come from reliable retail seed sources. I’ve also mostly used seeds for annuals, rather than perennials. That said, quite a few of the perennial that I grow are prolific in their seed production.

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  3. What a cool plant, and obviously favored by some butterflies and bees. As I was reading/viewing your post, I kept thinking, “I know I’ve seen that plant around here.” And, believe it our not, it’s native here, too–perhaps more prevalent in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin where we have our cottage. It appears to be native mainly in the center of the U.S.: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ceam2. Great photos!

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  4. Another entry on the “tried to grow that here but no dice” list. Such a gorgeous flower – it is no wonder the pollinators go ga-ga over it. If they are more commonly seen east of the Austin area perhaps that explains my lack of success – it certainly can’t be “pilot error”. I’ll be interested if your Giants seed yields plants that also shoot for the stars. What fun!

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    • Interesting that it doesn’t grow where you garden. I noticed on the LBJWC site that it grows in quite a few places, but is native to SW Missouri, Eastern Kansas to Louisiana, Eastern Arizona to New Mexico–sort of an odd mix of places. Still, it’s happy in many regions, so that’s a win, I suppose. According to Steve (first comment–through Bill Car) they aren’t that common in Travis County. I wonder if they need a deeper soil than what might be found in the Edwards Plateau and the like?

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  5. Gorgeous! I also received some from Linda but I probably should babe grown them in pots to get them started. I spread them in our row but they never took. Yours are lovely.

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  6. It’s immensely satisfying to see how well the seeds did for you. It’s strange that they’re said not to be common inTravis County. On the other hand, even when I find them well west of here, they tend to be south of a line from Kerrville to Camp Wood. On my last trip that direction, at the end of May, there were ditches full of them around Bandera, Hondo, and Uvalde, and then east — but south of Alternate 90.

    I did check out the home that has them planted next to their driveway, and sure enough — the flowers were well above my head. Many of them had to be seven feet tall. A large colony lining a vacant lot near here regularly grows to five or six feet; and some that set up shop beneath a billboard in Kemah are five to six feet. It must be the soil — or something!

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    • I’m besotted with these beauties and can’t thank you enough for sharing those seeds! My visiting pollinators and birds join in my thanks, too! It’s interesting because last summer, they were just starting to bloom, this year they’re done, (though I notice that my SIL has one stem still blooming). This time last year, the sunflowers were finished; this year? Still going strong! The baskets and sunflowers are great companion plants for summer flowering fun.

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