All that Glitters is not Gold – Feathers on Friday and Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus

While those purple flowers may look lovely, their beauty holds a dark secret.

Great blue heron fledgling with purple loosestrife in background.

Great blue heron fledgling with purple loosestrife in background.

This photo of a great blue heron fledgling sunbathing was taken six years ago today. It’s one of my favorites, the heron caught in golden late afternoon sunlight, with lovely purple flowers just out of focus in the background.

While those flowers may look lovely, their beauty’s secret is dark – they’re an invasive species called Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), that spread from Europe to North America.

The flowers make an attractive background for shoreline photography, and attract insects that are a popular food source for herons – especially dragonflies. However, the plant chokes wetlands, displacing native vegetation and damaging the ecosystem. According to Mass Audubon, “a single purple loosestrife plant can produce a million or more small seeds that are spread by water and waterfowl.”

An interesting “biocontrol” program to reduce, if not eradicate, purple loosestrife by releasing loosestrife-munching beetles started in Massachusetts in the early 2000s. Released beetles were reported to have the ability to spread as much as 20 miles from their release location according to The Green Blog . Similar biocontrol programs in the UK target Invasive Japanese knotweed by introducing predatory insects, as the BBC reports.

Although this lake was not in close proximity to a beetle release site, by 2008 the program appeared to be showing results here. Just one year after the 2007 photo above, I noted that the purple loosestrife plants had virtually no flowers in the parts of the lake I frequented, just brown spindly dried stalks and some greens at the base, that may or may not have even been other plants entirely.

I noticed a change in the herons’ habits, as a result. The very lovely loosestrife flowers grow on slender stems maybe 4 feet high, and attract dragonflies and other insects that herons like to eat. No loosestrife flowers meant less clumps of tall plants for the herons to hide amongst along the shoreline, and fewer insects-as-food available in those places where they were abundant in summers past. Not that there was a shortage of food for the herons by a long shot, but the disappearance of the loosestrife in those areas caused the herons to move to other areas to forage.

Now, five years after, the purple loosestrife has returned. It is beautiful and vibrant and as menacing to the ecosystem as before. What caused the return?  Did the harsh winter kill off dormant beetles? The extreme heat? I don’t know, I’m not an entomologist.

What I do know is that all that glitters is not gold and not all that looks beautiful is.


Thanks for the Feathers on Friday nudge, Prairie Birder, and also thanks to Cheri Lucas Rowlands and WordPress for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus nudge.


(This took place August 30, 2007)

© 2013 Babsje. (

Posted on August 30, 2013, in ardea herodias, Art, Birds, daily prompt, Ecology, Feathers on Friday, Great Blue Heron, Nature, Photography, Photography challenge, postaday, Weekly Photo Challenge, Wildlife Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Nice narrative and picture. What a curious wingspan that heron has only half out-stretched.

  2. “While those flowers may look lovely, their beauty’s secret is dark ….” need more?! *clap

  3. Great photo! Thank you so much for following my blog, I really appreciate it! Your blog is full of stunning photographs, I am enjoying them very much.

  4. Very informative. I once had a Purple Loosestrife plant in my garden, not knowing its “dark secret.” THANKS for subscribing to my funny-caption photoblog and leaving a “like”! I hope I can bring you a smile (or at least a groan) every weekday.
    –John R.

  5. Wonderful photo… but somehow rather unsettling! RH

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