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.

…But Sometimes They’re White

I generally use this blog platform to share ideas and information about prairies, but now and then I also use it as a platform for asking questions.  Today is an example.

I want to know why many wildflowers, especially those with pink, blue, and lavender-colored blossoms, sometimes produce white flowers.  As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a white sunflower or goldenrod flower, or a white variety of any flower that is normally yellow, orange, or red.  However, it’s not that uncommon to see white gayfeather, verbena, or spiderwort blossoms.  What’s up with that?

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), showing the the typical pink flowers on the left and a white variant on the right.

I’ve looked for information on this, and talked to a few friends with horticultural/botanical knowledge, but haven’t really learned what I want to know.  I’m interested in the mechanics of how these typically pink or bluish flowers turn out pink, but I’m actually more interested in why it seems not to happen with all species – especially those with yellow flowers.

Prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) might be the species with which I see this phenomenon most frequently.  It is an annual/biennial that is typically purplish in color, but whenever I find a big patch of them, I can usually find a few plants with white flowers.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) sometimes has white flowers – I used to have some in my home garden.

Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) can sometimes have white flowers as well.  I wonder if the white blossoms are any more or less attractive to pollinating insects?

In addition to wondering about how the white flowers occur and why it seems to happen mainly in bluish and purplish-flowered plants, I’m curious about a few other things.  Is the white color variant recognized differently by bees and other pollinators?  Are there other differences (nectar or pollen amounts, odor, or flavor) that correlate with those color differences?  If you harvest seed from the white flowers, do at least some of them grow into more white flowers?

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) and bumblebees.  Most pitcher sage plants are blue, but at least a few grow white blossoms now and then.

I’d sure appreciate any insight on these topics.   I was surprised not to find answers readily available online, but maybe I just wasn’t framing the questions correctly?  Thanks.