Flora funeral: Silphium and Liatris

The pews shine with furniture polish as the funeral ceremony approaches all too soon, I am afraid.  We have read the obituary either on the internet or in the strange pulp we call newspaper.  There was an accident, no, that’s not quite correct.  There occurred an intentional erasure of a Silphium and Liatris beside a highway as the road expanded to carry cargo from Cathay to London and places in between.   They had to go, making way for trucks, cars and commerce.  In another county, these two species of wildflowers were literally mowed down to accommodate fields of bermuda grass for cattle grazing.  Man and his machines with an ideology of progress cut these plants from our world.

At the flora funeral, I settle in the pew, way at the back because I want to leave as soon as the sermonizing begins, for I know that in some corner of a county road, a cemetery, an abandoned field, there are survivors and I want to find them and stand guard against their enemies.  The parson begins, “We come here today to honor two beautiful friends, Silphium and Liatris, that unfortunately were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  He continues and I slip out the back….

I shall find Silphium’s relatives, the kin of Liatris, somewhere on the back roads of America.  I know I will discover them, for mankind cannot be so cruel as to grind under every beautiful blossom in the name of progress.  I will, and many others will, stand as sentinel, protecting their existence from unthinking blades of technology.

* * *

For several years, Aldo Leopold monitored a tract of Silphium near a Wisconsin graveyard as mowers came closer and closer, year by year, eventually cutting it down.


Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by sythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

 — Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac (1948).

* * *

Elaine Lee, a friend of mine, wrote me about Liatris, her narrative quite similar to Leopold’s Silphium, as you can read for yourself:

Purple Gayfeather, Liatris

Just this morning as I was driving to work I noticed about 150-100 yards west of the abandoned oil storage tank east of Putnam, there is a field full of purple flower spikes.  I think, just from seeing them while driving eastbound, that they may be purple Gayfeather, or Liatris.  The only other time I have seen Liatris in the wild, it was called to my attention by a Texas Master Gardener and she was doing her best to protect a very small stand in Clyde, near the cemetery.  According to her they are not extremely common in this area.  I had never seen them before, but I think the purple color of these plants, plus the fact that it was after many other wildflowers had bloomed that she made me aware of them and this particular field could be the same.  If so, it is a very large cluster in a good-sized field.  The habitat was very similar to that of the small cluster I saw in Clyde — an open field, not attended, and not plowed or mowed for probably many years.   Just the right amount of sunshine and rain coming at just the right time.

— E-mail of Elaine Lee to Jack Matthews, May 21, 2012.

I will seek out the Liatris as soon as possible, photograph it and write about its presence in west Texas.  I don’t like going to funerals and neither do my friends.


Notes, corrections and additions:

Excerpt of Aldo Leopold from: http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html


Filed under Wild Flowers of Texas

21 responses to “Flora funeral: Silphium and Liatris

  1. Excellent, Jack. Really well-done. You’ve inspired me to become even more aware. Thank you.

  2. Oh, Jack this is entirely lovely and heart wrenching. I had a book of wild flowers years ago that described the habitat of some as being “waysides and waste places”. I loved that but wondered if the flowers felt they were growing in “waste places”. I look for them now along the highway cuts, like the scrubby, determined chicory with its blue blossoms opening in the sun. Here our botanical garden system maintains a nature preserve with a wonderfully restored and tended prairie. We have Liatris and Silphium thriving there. Take heart.

  3. Thank you, Wrensong. My nearest nature preserve is over near Fort Worth. I sometimes think I would like to turn my place into a preserve since it has a resurgence of bluestem, etc. I will take heart, especially with friends like you that feel deeply about this good earth.

  4. I just watched a video tonight about the Texas prairies. Up near LaPorte, a couple of guys with a truck found out a piece of land was going to be paved over for a parking lot. That land was full of bluestem and such. They got to work and started digging. By the time they were done, they had filled about 350 tubs with earth and grass. They cut them up, got rid of the invasives, and sent pieces to restoration projects all over this part of the state – such an inspiring story.

    You can see a video about their work (and that of others) here.

  5. Thanks, Linda, got it. I watched it. Tremendous guys that saved the bluestem.

  6. Hello Jack!

    Terrific post! Not only that, very interesting. It is great that some people are doing what they are able to save the old plants and flowers that once covered the prairie. These types of plants have lived for centuries where God planted them and have a built in tolerance for surviving in the environment in which they grow. And they will survive if given a little TLC.

    I think it is phenomenal you are thinking about doing your part in keeping these plants alive and living on into the next generations. Keep us all posted on your successes and allow us to grieve with you if you have any failures.

    As you can see, I’m up and about after my surgery. Since it went so well, the doc said I did not need to confine myself to lying on one of my sides for three weeks. In fact, I really don’t have much in the way of limitations – and no pain to speak of.

    I am limited to: No bending over (of course, everything hits the floor!), no lifting, and I need to sleep on two pillows. Of course, there are the Rx drops needed four times a day and keeping my eye washed.

    In spite of all my fears, the vision is coming along great. The way I have described the ‘gas bubble’ insertion is like looking through a carpenter’s level bubble. The way it looks ‘from my side of it’ is really interesting. As I move, it moves around. That is why I liken it to a bubble in a carpenter’s level.

    The ‘bubble’ started out almost full, just like the bubble on a level. What I could see above it was just lights and shades.

    Looking through the bubble, however, I could see my hand in my lap, but not much below that. And it looked like I was viewing all things through a film.

    Then as the level of the bubble receded, for the first couple of days, still all I could see was lights as per above.

    On about the 5th day, when I awoke I could suddenly actually see! Above the bubble level every thing was quite plain.

    It is now early Thursday morning. I had surgery Thursday evening a week ago. The level of the bubble is just a bit in the bottom of the vial – so to speak. And I seen quite well. Of course, I’m certain the view will be exceptionally clear up as the eye heals. After all, it has been only a week.

    I am so thrilled I had this surgery done. Anyone out there that is facing the same situation, just make certain you have a good surgeon and have it done.

    Much thanks to you for your encouragement.

    God bless,

    • Iona, I am so happy that your surgery went well. The bubble does go down. Odd thing, isn’t it? I got reflections off of it. All is pretty much back to normal now, but I still have a slight fuzziness, but it has been stopped and will not grow larger, thanks to the surgery. Great news you have! Thanks for the comment, Iona, and best wishes.

  7. Wonderful read here, Jack. That we now have to mourn the loss of any species is more than sad. And, yes, perhaps if we did have funerals people would take notice. And like you, I would slip out the back as soon as the sermon began! Especially if it began wrong place, wrong time!

  8. Fantastic blog. I’m glad I found it.

  9. Such fine work Jack. It was good to have a chance to catch up with your thoughtful and wise writings once more. So glad to see the land around you has been graced with enough moisture to provide restoration and viewing of the wild, the natural. And so very glad you have no smoke in your photos. Hope all is well and you and Brenda are once again sitting on the porch enjoying the late May air as I type. All the best!

  10. I have attended far too many floral funerals: I witnessed one by one the vacant lots of my home town fill up with megamansions (and the thousand of green hedgehog cacti paid the price). Sand lilies, languid ladies, all are gone except in the heavily trampled “public” lands around town. I have witnessed the last flowering of Eustoma grandiflorum in the Denver Metro area. I have seen the hill where the biggest colony of Calypso bulbosa I knew was sliced to accommodate a wider road. I have seen so much destroyed so senselessly for the ultimate weed: us. Great post, Jack!

  11. Pingback: Compass Plant. | Find Me A Cure

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