Photo of the Week – November 10, 2018

A goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius) seed hanging on the flower stalk of hoary vervain (Verbena stricta).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Despite being a little slow to fully embrace it a dozen years or so ago, I’ve become very grateful for the world of digital photography.  One of the best perks, of course, is that it costs nothing but sorting time and storage space to take lots and lots of photos.  When I was shooting slide film, I was very selective about how many photos I took because I knew it cost me about 33 cents each time I clicked the shutter.  As a result, I didn’t take as many chances as I would have liked, and often didn’t take enough images of a particular subject to get what I really wanted.  

Today, I don’t mind taking way more photos of something than I think I’ll need to make sure I’m happy with the final result.  A great example of the benefits of this strategy occurred back in June of this year.  I had finished spending some time at my square meter photo plot, and was doing a quick meander through the rest of the nearby prairie when I spotted a goatsbeard seed that had gotten caught on the flowers of a hoary vervain plant.  I liked the color and texture the seed/flower combination, so I stopped to photograph it.

The seed was barely attached to the flower in one place, and a gentle breeze caused the seed to slowly rotate around on that fulcrum.  In my head, I had only a vague concept of the image I was trying to capture.  There was something about the fuzzy, webby texture of the seed and the strong vertical arrangement of the flower stalk, but…  As the seed shifted around, I just snapped away – kind of like trying to refine an idea by just talking it out.

Just when I was starting to get frustrated by not getting what I wanted, the breeze picked up just for a second and blew the seed into a new position, where it hung for a few moments.  That was it!  I slid my tripod a few inches closer and got exactly the shot I had been searching for the whole time.  It’s become one of my favorite photos from this year, both because of its simple beauty and because I had to wait for it to happen.

This is definitely the image that captured the essence of what attracted me to the tiny scene in the first place.

Exotic Beauty

Early in my career, I felt pretty strongly that only native plants should be in the prairies I managed.  Pretty quickly, I realized I didn’t have enough time to eradicate the worst invasive plants from our sites, let alone worry about some of the more innocuous non-native plants.  In fact, I found some of those non-native plants could be pretty valuable (e.g., dandelions and their early season resources for pollinators).

I began to take a much more pragmatic approach to managing plant communities, working to suppress species that tended to form monocultures or become dominant enough to suppress the diversity of plant communities.  Some of those dominant/aggressive species included non-native invasive grasses and woody plants, but also some native species such as big bluestem, eastern redcedar, smooth sumac, and rough-leaved dogwood.  A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

A goatsbeard flower opening at sunrise.  Niobrara Valley Preserve.

One non-native plant I’ve always gotten along with pretty well is goatsbeard, aka western salsify (Tragopogon dubius).  Sure, it wasn’t here before European settlement, but it isn’t aggressive and has simply added itself to the plant diversity of many of our prairies.  Also, it’s really pretty (though so are many nasty invasive plants).  Both when it flowers and when it goes to seed, goatsbeard makes an attractive photography subject.

It’s fun to stick a macro lens into a goatsbeard seedhead, which resembles a fist-sized dandelion head, and try to create interesting abstract images.  Goatsbeard seedheads were one of my favorite subjects when I first started playing with close-up photography about 25 years ago, and they still attract me today.  I never get tired of looking at those big fuzzy parachute-style appendages attached to the seeds.

Becoming less of a snob about the native status of plants has made my life a little less stressful.  There are plenty of plant species that require serious attention in order to maintain healthy, diverse, and resilient prairies.  Worrying about whether a plant was here 200 years ago is the least of my worries.  Now when I walk around a grassland, I’m comfortable greeting species like dandelions, goatsbeard, and lamb’s quarters as friends (while still trying to eliminate problematic non-natives such as crown vetch, Siberian elm, and Canada thistle).