One Flower, Many Critters

Posted: May 28th, 2010 under photography, Plantlife, Wildlife.
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The basketflower, Centaurea americana, looks much like a thistle at first…but the stem and leaves are not prickly at all.    It’s a favorite of Black Swallowtail butterflies (and Giant Swallowtails, if there’s enough moisture for the flowers to last into summer) and many smaller butterflies.  And also other insects.

Beetle flying toward Basketflower already occupied by Black Swallowtail

Basketflowers require fall and winter moisture to flower; even though it’s now dry (cracks in the prairie over an inch wide and invisibly deep) , the rains of last fall and winter produced an abundant crop in the Entrance Meadow,  with many plants four feet high.

A mix of basketflowers and brown-eyed Susans over little bluestem

Although many butterflies, beetles, bugs, and other insects enjoy basketflowers,  I was able to photograph only a few today:

American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis, on basketflower

Hackberry Emperor, Asterocampa celtis, on basketflower

Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, on basketflower

In addition to butterflies,  beetles are attracted to these flowers.   A new species for our list today was this flower longhorn beetle:

Strangalia virilis on basketflower

The beetle in the first picture is almost certainly not this species, but another of the four Strangalia spp to be found in Texas.   I didn’t see the beetle while photographing the butterfly, so it’s no wonder the image isn’t clear enough to ID for sure.  Either S. luteicornis or S. sexnotata is possible from what I can see of the original image (much larger than seen here.)

Here’s one I didn’t get a good photo of before it dove deep into that mass of petals:

It might be another Strangalia or it might be something else entirely.    I also saw much smaller insects in these flowers, but the flowers were swaying in the wind and I couldn’t ever get focused on the little ones before they were out of sight.

Basketflower is a forb of the prairie, preferring damper areas but not really wet ones–the last wet year, we had a patch of it behind an old terrace, where water collected for awhile.   Originally, it grew only on one end of the Entrance Meadow (a pocket of original prairie plants that survived here) but has since spread to some other sites on the place as well as filling the Entrance Meadow when there’s enough cool-season moisture.    I hope eventually to establish it on the east end of the place, though the soil is different there and may not be right for it.


  • Comment by ajlr — May 29, 2010 @ 11:48 am


    That swallowtail is certainly a very handsome butterfly.

    The centaurea family (main group being known colloquially here as cornflowers) is also extremely popular with insects, including bees, in the UK. I grow some of the cultivated ones every summer, for the pleasure both of their intensely blue flowers and the variety of bees and butterflies that come to them.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 29, 2010 @ 4:39 pm


    All our Centaureas are alien invasives except the Basketflower…we have star thistle and various knapweeds and of course the cornflower. Some are pretty, but none of them are welcome in a restoration project except the native one. Star thistle (C.calcitrapa) in particular has a bad rep and not just for its spines. I agree that cornflower (the one we have, anyway) is a gorgeous blue, but still…not in my prairie project, thanks.

    If you want to see another of our swallowtails, also pictured on Basketflower, check out the front page of the 80 acres website. That’s the giant swallowtail. I haven’t seen one yet this year. Last spring and summer were so brutal for butterflies and their larvae that I expect not many survived, but I hope some do come back.

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