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.

The Spring Garden

Despite late freezes, drought, and earlier-than-normal warm temperatures, it’s been a lovely, affirming spring in my garden. Plants are growing, leafing out, and blooming in their typical order and roughly on their same schedule. Some, like the multitudes of Tradescantia, Spiderwort, were so eager for spring to happen that they’re over-performing. Of course that has nothing to do with the fact that I routinely fail to control them by weeding during fall and winter. Ahem.

My Spiderwort are pass-alongs varieties and they’ve mix-n-matched for years, so I don’t have a definitive species. Because of their height, I suspect T. gigantea, but regardless of species, the flowers are stunning in shades of purples with a few pinky hues. Some are pure lavender, with rounded petals,

…and some are deeper lavender with or triangulated petals

Certain individuals bloom in shades trending pink. These below sport ruffly petals.

No matter their color or form, Spiderworts are favorites of the honeybees. Flowering early and for most of the spring season, bees are keeping busy with the nectar sipping and the pollen collecting.

The first yellow in my garden is typically Golden Groundsel, Packera obovata. The little group I have brightens a shady spot.

The groundsel echos the Adirondack chairs: cheery blooms, comfortable chairs.

Last year’s deep, destructive freeze ended 2021 hopes for the luscious clusters of blooms from Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora. This year, both of my Mountain Laurels flowered beautifully, if too briefly. These blooms are known for their grape juice fragrance. Weirdly, I can’t detect their very sweet fragrance unless my nose is right up in the flowers or at night, with whiffs of the grape scent on the wind.

The irises I grow, all pass-along plants, have bloomed prolifically this spring, more so than in many years.

I think every single bulb, even those that I separated and replanted in the fall, have pushed up stalks and adorned those stalks with flowers. The irises are still going strong and are now joined by European poppies. Tall, leafy American Basket flower stalks await their turn to shine in the sun, while a couple of Martha Gonzalez rose bushes add pops of rich red and burgundy-tinged foliage.

Spiderworts, irises, and poppies are all plants-gone-wild this spring, but the heat and drought have sadly rendered the columbines less floriferous. As well, given my now full-sun front garden, columbines won’t grow there–they fry in Texas sun.

This one, as well as a couple of others, still have a place in the back garden. I plan to add more in the shadier areas because I can’t resist these graceful additions to the garden.

Hill Country Penstemon, Penstemon triflorus, are in top form this year. Hummingbird moths and Horsefly-like carpenter bees are regular visitors.

I wonder if pollinators have a hard time deciding? Hmmm. Penstemons or Spiderworts? What am I in the mood for??

Of course, it’s not only gorgeous bloom time, but foliage presents a worthy rival in beauty and form during verdant spring. This silvery-green Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuissima, waves, adding movement and action in the garden. In the past, I’ve witnessed migrating Painted Buntings nibbling at the tiny seeds that feathergrass produces. I wonder if those colorful birds will find this patch as they move through my garden this spring?

The drought continues and summer will be a bear, but I’m grateful for the gentle artistry and renewal of life that is spring.

What’s in your spring garden this year? I hope it’s colorful and ever-changing and provides a respite from the world’s troubles.

Happy spring gardening!

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.