Definitely Not Flowering Now

Texas is “too warm” for spring wildflowers right now in the same way that the Sahara is “a bit on the dry side” for waterlilies. Oh, you can find the odd pale, stunted winecup here and there, and there are some late black-eyed Susans about, but the show is pretty much over for the year. The roadsides are tawny brown, like the pelt of an African lion, with nary a bit of blue or pink or yellow to be seen. It is perfect weather for sitting indoors and thinking about wildflowers, drawing them, and charting them up, so here is a second vetch to go with the first one.

Photo by John Willem Jongepier

This is Vicia angustifolia, the common or garden vetch. It’s not native to Texas but can be found all over the world’s north temperate regions and has made itself right at home here. You can find it growing with V. ludoviciana along the roadsides and in grassy areas. There is quite a bit of both in my front lawn.

Where V. ludoviciana has clusters of multiple, small bluish-puprple flowers, this species has one or two larger flowers at each node, and they come in shades of reddish purple with a whitish eye spot. Sometimes the petals are all nearly the same color, but sometimes the wings are a deeper color, or more red.

Photo by George Konstantinou

The leaflets are proportionately narrower than on the other vetch, and they are often cut nearly square across the end, with a little bit of a bristle tip. All of those leaflets and tendrils were just as much fun to chart up as they were on the last one. That is to say, not very. The pods are longer and proportionately slimmer and are nearly black at maturity.

Here it is in blocks of color:

Not sure what is up with the colors for the calyces. The program just doesn’t render that color of DMC well at all. And I’m not crazy about the leaves. Skinny shapes don’t turn out very well. I might stitch them squared off at the tips and then just ad a tiny backstitch for that bristly tip. Bet that would be better.

Here’s a close up of the flowers, leaves, and tendrils as currently charted:

II like the way it looks next to the other vetch (stitched rendering.)

I probably wouldn’t put them side by side in the big composite piece, though. Have to spread the vetch love around, right?

So, vetch. There are two other species, one with single *tiny* flowers and one with long clusters of large, brilliant amethyst flowers, but I’m not going to do either of them any time soon. The tiny one would read as all leaves, and the larger one would be out of scale for the current project of small spring things. If I ever do a collection of big, showy things like bluebonnets, paintbrush, firewheel, and the like, I can put it in there.

All the plants, eventually.


That Program is Smarter Than I Am

I whined in my last post about how the fruit of that vetch weren’t rendering in the proper color. I should have taken it as a warning that I was doing something wrong.

Last week I spent several hours pulling all the now-spent, yellowed, and tall-enough-to-get-a-nastygram-from-the-city-or-the-HOA vetch out of the lawn. I had ample opportunity to note that the fruit only look like little snow peas for a short while. Mature, they are proportionately longer and thinner, and they’re a deep brown so dark it is almost black. I had certainly mis-remembered!

I am going to have to redo that chart if I want it to be accurate for mature fruit. However, since the flowers on the charted plant are still very much fresh and the stem tips are unexpanded, it would not be unreasonable to think my plant might have immature fruit. I think I’ll leave the fruit as is and put mature fruit on the next vetch.

A Libbie for Texas

Last year, on the Spring Equinox, Texas lost a big soul, a good friend, and a lover of all its plants and creatures.

Elizabeth Rice Winston was many things–a debutante, a teacher, a naturalist, and a free spirit. I knew her as the owner and heart of Peaceable Kingdom, a gorgeous parcel of Washington County field and forest. It was a one-time commune, a school for craft and natural history and spiritual enlightenment, a stunning garden, a home, and a haven for plant people and bird watchers. Over the years, Libbie touched hundreds of lives. She had a way of making you feel welcome and a knack for introducing all of her favorite people to one another.

Libbie was also mistress of Winston Ranch, some 7,000 acres in Uvalde County, bordered on one side by the Sabinal River. I had the very good fortune to visit Libbie on the ranch three times as part of botanizing houseparties. I will never forget her hospitality or the hundreds of beautiful plants we collected. She always knew the best places to look and would drive us all over the ranch in the big white truck. She’d stop wherever we wanted to and we could poke to our hearts’ content. Always surrounded, of course, by the dogs. Libbie said her life’s goal was to be “hip-deep” in dogs, and she certainly accomplished that!

One evening, we made one last collecting run down by the river. We found Reverchon’s Blazingstar, Mentzelia reverchonii, in bud just as dusk was falling.

By the time we got back to the ranch house for several hours of plant-pressing, this amazing plant had unfolded its petals in the collecting bag, and we saw for ourselves how it earned its name.

These blossoms are more than two inches across. With the numerous stamens, the result is the botanical equivalent of an explosion of fireworks.

We collected and photographed so many beautiful plants on that trip, but it was this one that I came back to when I wanted to make a thank-you for Libbie, something that would recall the magic that was Winston Ranch. I drew up a chart on graph paper and stitched it up on black fabric, because the flower had to be a blaze of yellow in the dark.

That’s not a very good photo–it doesn’t capture the bright lemon and rich greens, but it will do.

I know I still have that crude graph-paper chart somewhere, but I can’t find it. Reverse-engineering a chart from the finished piece gives me this:

There is black outlining to bring out the details of the leaves, buds, and sepals. And then the stitcher would need to add all the stamens, which are just straight stitches ended with french knots.

Libbie is gone now, and her loss still hurts. The world is a little less bright for her not being in it anymore. Recently, through a roundabout route, my stitched piece unexpectedly came back to me.

I will treasure it always. Miss you, Libbie.

Little Pink Stars

It’s always a treat to look down and find the little pink stars of Lady Bird’s Centaury, Centaurium texense. It always feels as if these are rare, but I don’t think they truly are. Just easily overlooked.

photo by Hugh D. Wilson

They’re diminutive plants, usually less than a hand-span high, with slender stems and narrow leaves. They disappear into the surrounding foliage, but when they bloom—wow! Hot pink stars with a tuft of bright yellow stamens and a yellow stigma. The ovary sits at the bottom of the long floral tube surrounded by a long calyx.

photo by A. Sergeev

The common name of this delightful wildflower honors Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady who passionately loved Texas’ wildflowers. She was the driving force behind the seeding of bluebonnets along the state’s highways, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin is named for her.

There are other species of Centaurium in Texas, but this is the one that grows locally. I drew one plant, somewhat simplified since they tend to be a little bushy.

I charted it, then reversed it and rearranged the branches.

One uses darker shades for the shadowed petals and the undersides of the corollas on the folded flowers.

I like the second one better, both for color and for the shape of the plant. If I only put one in my large assemblage, it will be the one on the right.

I made quite a few changes to the shapes of the flowers from my original penciled chart. What looks fine in black and white doesn’t always “read” correctly once you see it in color. I thought for sure I had already used all the colors in my previous work, but no. Each chart so far has added at least one color to the developing palette of the whole. This design introduces some deeper shades in the DMC 600-605 color family, a series of cool pinks.

This is what it might look like stitched up, keeping in mind that the program tends to show skips in the stitching that wouldn’t be there in the finished product.

I’m reasonably happy with this. It certainly looks like what it’s supposed to, and it will be good to have a nice pop of pink in the big piece that will have all the plants together.

An Unlikely Name for a Beautiful Flower

No spring assemblage of plants from a sandy area in East Texas would be complete without Blue Toadflax.

copyright D. Tenaglia

These plants used to be grouped with the true toadflaxes in the genus Linaria, but now they enjoy their genus, Nuttallanthus, named after one of the pioneers of Texas botany. (I learned them as Linaria and had to retrain my middle-aged brain.) There are some subtle differences in the shape of the corolla, but both genera boast a long, tubular spur which emerges from the back/bottom of the corolla and houses a nectary that offers treats for long-tongued pollinators.

These plants have slender stems that are largely unbranched. At the base, smaller stems with pairs of opposite leaves look like compound leaves.

But why “Toadflax”? Supposedly, the flowers resemble little toads, or else the broad, two-lipped corollas are reminiscent of the mouth of a toad.

Yeah, I don’t see it either.

There are two species locally, N. canadensis and N. texanus. At one time, N. texanus was viewed merely as a variety of N. canadensis, but they are sufficiently distinct to be considered separate. The flowers of N. texanus are bigger overall, but the surefire way to tell them apart is by looking at the seeds under high magnification. They’re bitty little things, and more or less trapezoidal. Those of N. texanus are round-edged and minutely pebbled…


while those of N. canadensis are sharp-angled and smooth to only sparsely pebbled.

Interestingly, sometimes these plants skip making showy flowers altogether and make very reduced, self-pollinated flowers instead.

But enough about the botany–what about the stitching? I drew one plant. I’ve tried my best to keep all my drawings to the same scale so that the plants can all be stitched together in a single piece, but I’m sure there’s enough “slippage” that this could be either species.

This is the chart. Skinny leaves are not fun, and there’s a lot going on in the pedicel-spur-bract region of each flower. There ought to be more buds up top, but that would end up as just a wad of green and bluish-purple, so I reduced the number and separated them.

(You can see a bit of the Triodanis on the left of the same sheet. Why waste graph paper?)

After I charted up one plant, I mirrored it and made the second one taller by adding some more stem between the leaves and the flowers.

This is a close-up of the inflorescences:

The one on the left is too pink. The one on the right is too blue. DMC desperately needs to make a color family of blue violets, from very pale to very dark. Each flower needs three shades to differentiate the upper lip from the lower lip, the center of the lower lip from the turned-back portion, and the spur from the rest of the corolla. In real life they are much more nearly uniform in color. It might be interesting to see if a) brands other than DMC have a color that more nearly matches anthocyanin plant pigments or b) whether there exists a variegated or overdyed floss with a long enough repeat that different sections that are a bit closer to one another in shade could be separated out and used for the three colors.

Also, the flowers look very, very large, don’t they? I guess this is N. texanus after all. Drat. Now I think they’re too big.

And, finally, here is what they might look like stitched.

The idea is for these to be tall-plants-in-the-background in the large composite work. I think, with their very basic stem and leaves and complicated flowers that will be held above shorter plants in the foreground, they will do very nicely.

I’m not sure these are Gerda-ish at all, but they are recognizably Nuttallanthus, so I give them at least a six out of ten.

They’re Everywhere, But Have You Seen Them?

At the same time I initially charted the Valerianella, I did another of spring’s tiny-flowered plants, Sherardia arvensis, commonly called Herb Sherard.

This plant is absolutely everywhere in Central Texas in the spring. It’s one of the first plants to blossom, starting as early as January, and here it is nearly May and it’s still going at it.

This plant, which is the only member of its genus (no need to decide which species to draw!), is in the Rubiaceae, the same family that gives us Bluets, Gardenias, and Coffee. The plants are low, with slender stems. The leaves are in whorls at each node, and the tiny, four-petaled, lavender flowers are borne in clusters at the ends of the branches. Since the whole plant is about six inches tall, it easy to overlook these little beauties.

Field Madder

Up close, the flowers look a lot like Bluets, but they’re only one quarter to one half the size!

The plants usually grow in clusters, which can make sussing out their branching pattern a little tricky. I drew one plant and simplified it a bit.

I originally charted it as drawn, trying to fit the squares to the sketched flower shapes.
The results were less than satisfactory. The essential four-petaled-ness of the flowers was lost. In the end, I decided to chart the flowers all as crosses and to vary the floss color used just a bit to help keep them distinct.

Stitched up, it will look something like this:

I’m still not sure if I’m entirely happy with this. Are there too many flowers per cluster? Are the clusters too big? Too dark? Do I need to use a lighter green? Probably “yes” to that last, but let’s be honest–most little herbaceous plants have about the same color foliage, unless they’re furry or waxy. Chlorophyll is approximately DMC 3347. I can’t make every design call for the same colors of floss, though, since the ultimate goal is to stitch all of them together in one ginormous piece. Something has to be a little darker, something lighter, something bluer, something grayer. Also, the colors the program displays aren’t exact matches for the floss. The darkest green is 3362, and all the greens (except maybe the stem and the withered leaves at the base) are from this palette:

Nothing near as black as what the program displays. But when it comes time to put needle to fabric, I may well lighten everything up a notch. Second-guessing can lead to remorse!

Absence Makes the Heart Go, “Wonder..?”

As in, wonder why I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to work much on charting lately? I’m busy, sure, but I’ve been busier before. I pondered, and it became clear that I just wasn’t happy with the last chart I posted, the Valerianella. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Valerianella that blooms (well, bloomed, past tense–they mowed this week : ( ) in the open area near the herbarium where I spend a lot of time.

Why didn’t my design look right? I wasn’t seeing the large bracts under the clusters of flowers that I had put into my design. Part of that is that I’ve been looking at V. radiata, not V. florifera, which may be more bract-y. I mean, I did work from photos of V. florifera.

I wondered what would happen if I made the bracts under the flower clusters smaller, made the space between the ultimate groups of flowers blank rather than green, and put in more white to make the groups appear more as they do in real life, at least on other species.

Here’s the result.

Compared to the previous version:

I should have done this a month ago.


On Beyond Bluets

I have charted some very tiny plants so far, but I hadn’t yet charted the tiniest flowers. Yes, there is something smaller than bluets! Recently, I remedied the situation and charted two of Spring’s smallest.

The first is Corn Salad. That’s the common name for plants in the genus Valerianella.

Supposedly, the plants can be weeds of corn (grain) fields and are edible in salads, hence the common name. I’ve never put the edibility to the test, though. I imagine, as with most plants that have edible greens, they taste better before they flower.

Valerianella is related to the herb Valerian, the one that helps people sleep and which cats like so much. These plants used to be in their own family, the Valerianaceae, but molecular research has shown that they belong in the Caprifoliaceae with the honeysuckles. One of the distinguishing features of the Valerian group is a distinct odor of wet wool or “wet dog” in fresh plant material. I’ve even seen that character referenced in keys. Certainly makes you want to eat some doesn’t it?

Valerianella has a very distinctive growth habit. The leaves are opposite, (always in pairs), and the stem branches dichotomously–in two, again and again, even throughout the inflorescence at the top. The flowers are always minute. All the local ones are white, though elsewhere there may be bluish species.

When I was first studying botany, our class had keying (identification) quizzes every week. If we moaned about the flowers being too small, the next week our Teaching Assistant brought in something even smaller. We must have been cranky one week, because the next we had Valerianella. It takes a microscope to distinguish the five fused petals, the few stamens, and the three-lobed ovary with its one fertile and two sterile compartments. Identification to species requires looking at the tiny fruits end-on and determining whether the two sterile parts together are wider or narrower than the fertile part, and at what angle the parts diverge. And then one starts looking at hairs.

I drew one Valerianella plant, deciding that it was V. florifera, since that speices has slightly larger flowers. I didn’t do more than suggest the flowers because I knew that for this plant, charting the shapes of individual flowers was going to be impossible, even with the plant drawn twice life-size.

Here’s the chart, marked for place-keeping as I was putting it into the charting software:

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the graphed chart. It doesn’t really show the divided and divided again nature of the inflorescence. When it came time to input the flowers, I randomly placed some white to indicate them and filled in the spaces and bracts with shades of green, making sure to leave a green channel between the first two divisions of each flower cluster. I promise that the greens I’ve chosen are not as garish as the program makes them out to be!

The second plant is a mirror image of the first, in a different colorway, with the shapes of the leaves changed a bit and the internodes made shorter to give a smaller plant. This is a close-up of what a stitched sample would look like:

There’s more than a little artistic license here, but I think it “reads” as Valerianella. I showed the chart to a botanist friend who knows nothing of needlework or Gerda Bengtsson, and he was able to identify it as Valerianella.

I keep looking at this. It’s very stylized, with the branches and leaves spread wider than they would be on a live plant, so as to show the characteristic shape of the plant. If you look back up at the top, it’s the same artistic liberty that was used in the botanical illustration. Sometimes a drawing–or a design–needs to be a little inaccurate to portray something accurately. I may fiddle with this one more before finalizing the chart, or I may leave it. What do you think?

A Tiny, Multicolored Party

Many people love irises–and why not? They’re perennial, easy to grow, and come in every color of the rainbow, including nearly black. Many people are familiar with Blue-eyed grass, a common sight on Texas roadsides during spring.

Sisyrinchium - Wikipedia

What most people don’t realize is that Texas has a species of miniature Sisyrinchium, S. rosulatum. They can be found growing by the hundreds in sandy soil, but since they’re only a few inches tall, it is easy to walk right past them.

The fun thing is that they come in all sorts of colors.

White with a diffuse purple eye-ring:

White with a more well-defined, maroonish eye-ring:

Pale pink-purple with a darker eye-ring:

Yellow with a maroon eye-ring:

Or even blue (though this is less common locally):

Often multiple colors will be found growing in the same colony–all but the blue image above were taken at the same spot on the same day. Since the flowers are less than a centimeter across, the effect can be like confetti.

Photo by Bobby Hattaway

The sepals and petals are the same color and texture, though there may be three of one size or shape and three of a slightly different size and shape. The fruits nod after flowering.

I drew three plants of various sizes, simplifying them a bit by not putting in too many leaves, flowers, or fruit. By the time I picked out colors, it was a very annotated sketch. (I keep thinking that surely I must have all the colors I need already specified in the palette for the big project as a whole, but I end up having to add five or six for each new design!)

Charting it was a bit tedious, since long, thin shapes like the grassy leaves are a a bit boring–and also hard to render naturally.

I then reversed the largest sketch and changed the position of the flowers so that I’d have four and could chart designs with white, yellow, pink, and blue flowers. I chose three different colorways for the stems, leaves , and fruit. A stitcher could mix and match flowers and foliage in any way they choose.

This is about life size on my laptop!

As stitched, the individual plants would look something like these–bearing in mind that the program shows non-greens as brighter than they really are:

I’m reasonably happy with these. The leaves don’t come out smoothly, the bases of the corollas need to be more green and not petal/sepal-colored, and they’re actually a bit big. I will probably play with them some more. But they’re still recognizable as Sisyrinchium, so I suppose I will put this one in the “Win” column.

Through the Looking-glass

My latest plant is one that is easily overlooked. It’s not tiny, the flowers aren’t minute, but it doesn’t have many blossoms at any given moment, and the stems are slender and unbranched.

Triodanis perfoliata is one of our local members of the Campanulaceae, or Bell-flower Family.

This species has egg-shaped leaves that are widely spaced along the stem and usually one or two blossoms open at any given time.

The common name for this plant is Venus’ Looking-glass. I think this stems (ha!) from the unique way the fruits are constructed. Instead of breaking open along a seam as most capsules do, the fruits open by a single pore that opens in the side. The flap of tissue that initially covered the pore rolls up like a little Roman shade, leaving a peep-hole through which the microscopic seeds can fall out.

Fruit photos by Larrhy Allain

Sometimes the pore goes all the way through. In variety shown above, var biflora, the pore is located above the middle of the capsule.

Another interesting fact is that most of the fruits are not made by the showy purple flowers. Instead, they’re the product of cleistogamous flowers–reduced, non-showy flowers that are self-pollinated. Plants with cleistogamous flowers can get away with self-pollination because, usually, they are so genetically heterogeneous that no bad effects of inbreeding occur.

I sketched var. perfoliata, which usually has 2 (or sometimes more–got to get in as much color as possible!) showy flowers open at the top and the pore on the fruit located below the middle.

Since the leaves have low, rounded teeth, I initially charted it with wavy leaf margins, but that gave the impression of too much toothiness…

… so I did not carry them into the finished chart.

I’m happy with how these turned out. It was fun to do a plant less complicated than some of the others, without a lot of backstitches. You’d think by now I’d have all the colors of the floral rainbow, but nope! I had to add a couple for this design.

Here’s a close-up of what the stitched flowers would look like, complete with white style and stigma.

And here are the little peep-hole fruit:

When put in the chart with my other plants, they look very tall and leggy, but really, they are about right. If I stitch them in company, I can always take out a node or two of stem and make them a little shorter.

If anyone is curious, here’s what my doodle space looks like now.

Looks like spring!