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.

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.

A Surprise Basket

I like early mornings.  I need the time to myself, to wake up, to think about the day ahead, to breathe the outdoors. The light is soft and even in the warm, humid Texas summer, the morning walk through the garden is calming, refreshing.  I love the sunrise, the sparkle of light through the trees, casting shadows, then not, across the garden.  I replenish the bird feeders and baths and notice the changes in the garden.  I feed the fish in the pond.  This morning ritual doesn’t take much time and is a good way to face each day.

While my eyes are bleary, at least until the caffeine kicks in with its magic, I’m often surprised, and usually pleased, by the bits of news the garden has for me.  Recently, I was in my front garden and was flabbergasted when I spied a bit of pink underneath a Mexican Orchid tree, whose flowers are decidedly white.

What ho, you frilly, pinky thing!  The anemone-like flower was low to the ground, highlighted by the rising sun to its east.  Its plant companions, a Purple Heart,  Tradescantia pallida and a low branch from the Mexican Orchid tree,  Bauhinia mexicana, are there, always, but made room for this new resident.  It reached out, made sure I noticed–an American Basket flowerCentaurea americana

Some time ago, my blogging buddy, Shoreacres of the beautiful Lagniappe and the thoroughly charming, The Task at Hand, mailed some basket flower seeds to me, which I happily spread out in autumn of 2018–and then, completely forgot about.  I never assume the seeds would germinate (because seeds will, or won’t, and I go with the flow) and particularly not in this shadier, rather than sunnier, spot.  I’d spread the seeds in the same garden, but primarily in the part of the garden where the west sun bakes, figuring that the sun-loving annual would be content to grow there.  I recall having extra seeds and tossing out those extras in this area;  here we are, nearly two years later, a single American Basket flower in bloom.

I’m tickled pink.

Thistle-like in structure, its filaments are soft, not prickly.  American Basket flowers are native to Texas and a number of other states, typically growing in prairie-type settings.  I checked that day and for the next few days, for interested pollinators.  I never saw any, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t visit, only that I didn’t see. Basket flowers attract butterflies and native bees and I hope that some found this specimen, though it was so low to the ground.  I would love for some pollination to have happened, so that I enjoy another surprise again next summer.

I’ll have to wait and that’s okay.  The basket flower find reinforces the commitment to my early morning strolls and especially, to the connections that gardeners and plant lovers share.   

With grateful appreciation for the many knowledgeable garden/nature bloggers who share their seeds (thanks, Linda!), tell stories, and express their love of the natural world.  Today, I’m linking with Anna and her lovely Flutter and Hum and Wednesday Vignette.