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Basket Case

This lavender, spidery beauty is an American Basket-flower, Centaurea americana.

In July 2020 I wrote this post about the single American Basket-flower growing from seeds gifted me two years before by Shoreacres (author of Lagniappe and The Task at Hand). I was thrilled when I saw the sprawling, low-to-the-ground individual nearly hidden beneath a Mexican Orchid tree. I took photos, checked on the plant from time-to-time, let it seed out and moved on to appreciate other surprises in the garden.

This past spring, I noticed some new growth that I didn’t recognize. In a rosette form with lanceolate, slightly serrated leaves, I watched several specimens for a while, then decided to pull them up, assuming they were unwanted weeds. Next door neighbor, sister-in-law (SIL), found the same in her garden, but was a wiser gardener than yours truly.

SIL left her unrecognized and unnamed plant alone and it grew tall. Then, grew even taller. Since we didn’t know what the mystery plant was, she named it ‘Audrey II ‘ from The Little Shop of Horrors. Several Audreys appeared in her front garden SIL left them alone to grow and bloom. We mused and wondered what Audrey would be when she grew up. When the first Audrey was about 6 feet tall, it flowered and we easily identified the plant: so long Audrey, hello American Basket-flower! The photo below doesn’t show the original Audrey, but another of the same species amidst tall summer sunflowers.

It’s not a great shot, but just off-center, to the right is an open Basket-flower. The plant stands nearly 6 feet tall.

No doubt these plants have come from those seeds that I haphazardly scattered in 2018, but I would have never guessed that they are Basket-flowers until they bloomed and left little question about their identity. Basket-flower literature suggests that the plants grow between 2-5 feet tall; the one I found in my garden in 2020 was about 12 inches tall. That being said, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website, American Basket-flowers can get as tall as 6 feet–as these have done. As well, these annual wildflowers supposedly only bloom in late spring and early summer, but SIL’s bloomed in July and there have been blooms opening since that time, with more to come.

SIL left her “weeds” to see what they would become, but I yanked most of mine. Impatience is not a virtue, especially in gardening, but I missed a few and once we identified the plant, I left the ones I hadn’t pulled. In August, I finally enjoyed blooming Basket-flowers of my own. This lovely was the first Basket-flower that bloomed for me. It wasn’t as tall as the ones in SIL’s garden, only reaching about 3 feet in height.

This lanky, arched single stalk sports two open blooms at its terminal end at the left side of the photo. There are other buds forming that will bloom in the next month.

The plant stood tall until SIL’s very large and mostly dead Arizona Ash tree was pruned to a shrub. The arborists who did the work were careful, but the ash is a huge tree and a few garden inhabitants were mushed, crushed, and bent over from the traffic. This Basket-flower plant was one of them. Also, the photo was taken after a heavy rain and the water-logged plant hadn’t had a chance to dry off and stand up a bit.

Another is about to open.

American Basket-flowers are excellent pollinator plants, attracting butterflies and native bees.

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) visiting one of my Basket-flowers.
Hairy-legged bee, Apidae enjoying crawling around another bloom.

A Basket-flower has-been, it is ready for seed production. Once the seeds develop, the pod becomes a warm, toasty color.

SIL has been diligent about collecting seeds; I’m letting my Basket-flowers seed out at will.

After my Arizona Ash is removed in November and without a tree canopy, my front garden will undergo a complete make-over; the garden will transform from shade to full-sun. I’m confident that some Basket-flower seeds will find their way into soil and bloom next season and seasons beyond. As well, the Basket-flower case has been a good reminder that it’s good gardening practice to leave alone unknown plants until they’re known: friend or foe, desired or not. With that tolerance, I’m better able to decide whether a plant or plants should be a thread in the fabric of the garden, a valuable part of the garden ecosystem.

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