Tiny Flowers in Big Masses


Somewhere along the downstream third of the Billy Goat A trail there’s a 40-foot traverse along a cliff face – really one of the best parts of the trail. I was working my way down those rocks when a bright spot of yellow at the bottom caught my eye.

Helenium flexuosum (Asteraceae) is by no means an unusual plant: it can be found throughout the Maryland Piedmont and much of the eastern US, ranging from southern Maine south to Florida, west to Wisconsin and Minnesota and eastern Texas. It’s not on any state’s conservation list. But for some reason, I’ve only seen it once, along Billy Goat C, and that was two years ago. So I was delighted to see such a nice stand of plants along a very well-used trail.

This plant, along with its close relative common sneezeweed (H. autumnale), likes sun and wet soils, so look for both species along riverbanks. There are huge stands of H. autumnale along the rocks on the northern shore of the Potomac in D.C., upstream of Fletcher’s Boathouse.


What I really love about this flower is how well it demonstrates what composites are all about. The three-lobed yellow “petals” are the ray flowers, of which there are typically 8 to 13, while the spherical purplish-brown head can consist of 250 to 500 disk flowers.



The photo on the right shows two inflorescences. The bottom several ranks of disk flowers are open on the left one, with the double-lobed stigmas protruding. All of the disk flowers are open on the inflorescence on the right. Click on the picture to see a larger image. Isn’t that neat?


Finally Hiked the Billy Goat Trail, Section A


Clitoria mariana (butterfly pea, Atlantic pigeonwings); Fabaceae

I’ve written before that I stay away from the Billy Goat A trail – haven’t been there in years, actually – mostly because it’s overused, and I like solitude in the wilderness, but also because wildflowers generally don’t grow well where there’s lots of foot traffic. So what’s the point?

Nonetheless a friend convinced me to give it a go. By 9 o’clock last Friday morning when we parked near Old Anglers Inn, the temperature was already near 90º F, and the humidity was in the 90s as well. It was brutal but hey, at least it wasn’t crowded.

Anyway I schlepped the camera along, just in case, but not the tripod (didn’t want to bore my friend to tears). We saw some expected flowers – two species of Eupatorium, some wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) just starting to open. And we saw some unexpected: a good amount of bushy St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum), a few Atlantic pigeonwings (Clitoria mariana), a magnificent specimen of flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), some seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia), and a single clump of purple-headed sneezeweed (Helenium flexuosum).


Helenium flexuosum (purple-headed sneezeweed); Asteraceae

And then we found two species that I’d never seen before. But of course I was just taking snapshots, and a breeze was blowing (excuses, excuses), so my pictures suck.

By the time this piece autoposts Monday morning I expect to be back on Billy Goat A, with full camera kit on my back, trying to get good photos for new blog entries in the next few days.


Helen of Troy in Autumn


common sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale


With three naturally occurring varieties, there’s a common sneezeweed found almost everywhere in the continental US and Canada, except the extreme northwest and northeast.  This herbaceous perennial can get up to five feet tall, and likes full sun and plenty of moisture – not surprisingly, this is another plant I found growing along the banks and on the rock outcrops in the lower Potomac Gorge.


Nineteen other native species of Helenium grow in the US.  Common sneezeweed and purple-headed sneezeweed are the only ones known in the Gorge.

Apparently the dried, ground leaves and flowers were once used for snuff, hence “sneezeweed”.


Flower of the Day: Purple-Headed Sneezeweed

Helenium nudiflorum (aka H. flexuosum); Asteraceae (aster family)


There’s not much to say about this plant.  It’s found Maine through Texas and parts of the upper Midwest, grows to three feet tall, and has flowers 2 inches across.  It likes wet areas, like riverbanks.  Looks a little like a coneflower, except that each ray flower has three lobes.

I just really like how this picture came out.  I saw a single plant on August 11 and haven’t seen any since.  So glad I took the time to get some nice photos.