Mystery Flora: Purple Pinwheel

This is a common little flower, and I don’t imagine it will tax your powers of identification overmuch. And it’s not like I haven’t got a great many flower photos featuring much more spectacular flora. But this single, simple blossom down by the Marys River is one of my favorites.

Mystery Flora I

Mystery Flora I

I must have seen these a thousand times. But I’ve never really stopped for them before. I didn’t even see this one, but Lockwood did, and mentioned it, and there’s just something about this half-hidden bloom, a solitary survivor at the end of summer. It was nestled calmly amongst dying plants and brambles. It looks completely unconcerned about the coming winter.

And it’s unremarkable, as I said. Thousands like them every year. They’re ubiquitous, so common you don’t really notice them. Not until they’re the only flower left on a riverbank. Then you stop for a closer look. Let’s zoom in.

Mystery Flora II

Mystery Flora II

Look at how slender those petals are! I love their purple sunburst pattern. And now, this close, we begin to notice that the bright yellow center has a lot more going on than we might have guessed at a glance. Push in.

Mystery Flora III

Mystery Flora III

And we now see that there’s actually some rather incredible detail here. I wish now I’d paused long enough to put it under the hand lens. Those little unregarded things can be so extraordinary under magnification – just like rocks, which may look dull and uniform until you choose a spot and zoom in, and find a riot of minerals forming intriguing patterns. There is a story to these shapes. They formed that way for a reason. And science has spent hundreds of years discerning those reasons. We can learn the name, look up the facts, and learn why this flower came to be the way it is – but imagine the first scientists to look so closely, to wonder what the reasons were. They had to start from scratch. They had to investigate and test their conclusions, hared off down blind alleys before finding their way to truth. But is truth the word I want? People use the word truth in strange ways. I want a word that says, “This is the most reasonable conclusion based on evidence and testing, but it is provisional and may be incomplete, and so we will never stop here, thinking we know the absolute truth.” This is what scientific truth is. It’s provisional, but it’s also backed by hard work, reality, and as much evidence as we can muster.

And to me, that’s the most beautiful truth. It takes nothing away from the beauty of the natural world: it adds. This is just a flower right now. Imagine what it will be when I know its story.

Mystery Flora IV

Mystery Flora IV

I can still find myths beautiful. The stories we told before we knew how to reliably investigate reality are often fascinating. We’re an imaginative species. And those stories can tell us truths about how people think and how they relate to the world around them. But they’re still shallow truths. They ripple the surface. They can dazzle, just like sun reflecting off of disturbed water can dazzle. But they’re just reflections in the end. They have a power and beauty of their own, but I’ve not found them capable of matching the power and beauty of scientific truth.

No creation story can leave my jaw agape like the story of evolution. Tell me a god created this flower in this form for whatever reason, and I may find it adorable or poignant, but not awe-inspiring. Why should I be in awe of the idea of powerful, perhaps all-powerful, entities that can craft such things? Of course they can. They’re gods, it’s what they’re supposed to do, and it really isn’t all that interesting. Nor plausible, for that matter. Don’t be ridiculous.

But the knowledge that small changes over vast spans of time, undirected by a conscious will, can sculpt such intricate and beautiful things, now that’s interesting.

Mystery Flora V

Mystery Flora V

A universe filled with formations and flora, fauna and folks, empty of gods, that made it to this point on its own: that’s what’s fascinating. The fact we’re clever enough to figure it out? Well, that gives me a bigger grin than I ever wore in church. Others get a thrill out of believing they’re the special pets of deities. I don’t need that to know we’re rather extraordinary. I just read a science paper explaining some aspect of the universe around us that we never understood before. Then I know that, for all our faults, human beings are far more awesome than any gods we’ve imagined.

Then I reflect on the fact that evolution means this flower and I are distant cousins, and that we finite little beings discovered this fact using nothing more than the brains we evolved and the tools we invented, and I’m speechless.

Why am I an atheist? Because after all that, gods are certainly surplus to requirements.


  1. rq says

    Usually grow in great bunches, but late in the season, can have individual late-bloomers, such as this one.
    Once the asters bloom, I know autumn is here – they’re usually a September flower in these parts, and provide a beautifully cool contrast with all the oranges and yellows of the trees. Like they’d attended a colour-coordinating class together or something.

    asters + (every allergy sufferer’s favourite) goldenrod = autumn

    • says

      Goldenrod should be liked by hayfever sufferers because goldenrod doesn’t cause hayfever. It’s insect pollinated which is why it has showy flowers. Seek out the drab wind pollinated ragweed if you want to see what causes hayfever in the fall.

      • rq says

        Well, I know people who are actually allergic to the goldenrod. Couldn’t come near it without sneezing. Its showy flowers have a lot of loose pollen.
        But yes, ragweed was the other top contender.

          • adrianwhite says

            Hi rq

            Yes that picture is Golden Rod, at least here in the UK.
            It was one of the first flowers that I could name way back just after the last Ice Age.

  2. adrianwhite says

    Great link, thanks Eskered.

    Now I can key out some of these pesky Mystery Flora of Dana’s.