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The Indian blanket or Gaillardia pulchella. Free use photos

Growth in gardening: The Wildflowers of Texas

Sunday, April 7, 2019

I was driving on Texas 150 from Kyle to Wimberley the other day and I could hardly keep my eyes on the road for all the beautiful wildflowers I was seeing. Spring in Texas is a canvas on which Mother Nature paints some of her most awe-inspiring works of art.

More than 5,000 species of flowering plants are native to the Lone Star State. Way back in 1932, the Texas Department of Transportation (DOT) hired Jac Gubbels, a landscape architect, to maintain, preserve and encourage wildflowers and other native plants along Texas roadways. As a result, and for over 60 years, DOT rules have delayed all mowing, unless essential for safety, until spring and early summer wildflower seasons are over. To help maintain nearly one million acres of highway rights-ofway across the state, the DOT buys and sows nearly 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed each year. In addition to making our highways look great, the flowers help reduce maintenance and labor costs by encouraging the growth of native species that need less mowing and care. The native grasses and flowers also help to conserve water.

The iconic Bluebonnet, the state flower, inspires annual photo pilgrimages just as soon as it starts to bloom in early spring – although the “Big Bend” variety can bloom as early as January. There are basically six varieties, and all six species of bluebonnet that grow in the state have been designated as the State Flower by the Texas Legislature. We pretty much all know and love our Bluebonnet, but what are the other flowers we are seeing along the roadways of Texas?

My wife’s favorite is the Indian paintbrush, which blooms in early spring throughout the state. Several species, whose colors vary from scarlet to orange, cream, yellow and occasionally purple, are popping up all over this time of the year. The bright tips of the petal-like bracts look like they’ve been dipped in paint. The genus name honors Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo (1744-1793) who was one of the first scientists to make a study of Texas wildflowers.

One of my favorites is the Indian blanket, it blooms from April to June across much of the state. These flowers are also called firewheels or gaillardia. Its brilliant colors of red, orange and yellow look like brightly woven blankets. Indian blankets can cover large fields with their showy flowers but prefer sandy soil. They are able to withstand the Texas summer heat and drought with ease.

Another beauty – who am I kidding, these are all beautiful – is the Drummond phlox. It too blooms early in spring. It occurs most frequently in spectacular masses of color among sandy post-oak woods and along roadsides in east, south and Central Texas. The most common color is red, but shades of pink, blue, white and purple are also seen. In 1834, Thomas Drummond gathered their seeds near Gonzalez, Texas and took them back to England for garden planting, thus their name. There are many types of phlox growing across Texas, most grow only a few inches tall, but some grow to heights of 20 inches.

 The verbena, among Texas’ most abundant wildflowers. 

We see lots of verbena on our roadsides. Verbena blooms most profusely in spring but may flower at other times of the year depending on rainfall. Though found throughout the state, only a few years ago, the Texas Hill Country seemed like the verbena capital of Texas with pasture after pasture covered with carpets of purple. Verbena is an amazing native perennial. It is drought tolerant and highly deer resistant. This beautiful low growing trailing plant likes dry to medium moist sites. Verbena is among the state’s most abundant wildflowers.

Pink evening primrose is another we see growing everywhere and I am so glad that it does. From April to June, across much of the state, you will find patches of pink on display as you drive the highways of Texas. It opens at dusk in northern portions of Texas; flowers wither each day, replaced by new blossoms each evening. In our part of the state, its blooms stay open all day for us to enjoy.

The Texas Bluebell has all but disappeared because of indiscriminate picking.

Next is the Bluebell – not the ice cream, although I love that too – I am talking about the Texas Bluebell which blooms from June to September in moist areas in fields and prairies, and in drainage areas, except in Big Bend Country. Please don’t pick them. Bluebells have virtually disappeared in many locations because of indiscriminate picking. With its tulip-shaped blooms and its rich color, bluebell is considered by many to be our state's most beautiful wildflower. After seeing an entire field of bluebells in their stunning glory, it is easy for me to see why that argument is a strong one. Flowers range from bluish-purple to white, or white with tinges of yellow or purple.

Another favorite is Winecup. It is a lovely native groundcover that blooms in spring from March to April. They form a sprawling evergreen mat that explodes with vivid purple flowers, though you can also find varieties with white flowers. They bloom for weeks, opening in the morning and closing at night. These flowers tend to grow in sandy soils in open woods and scrublands. Mostly single flowers, on plants about six to eight inches high. A tall branched variety bears many blossoms on one plant.

Spotted beebalm, also called lemon-mint, horsemint and wild bergamot, is one of those plants that you seem to never notice until you learn a bit about it. It is not as in-your-face as some of our more bedazzled wildflowers can be. It tends to grow in small colonies and near each other. If you find one, you will usually find another not too far away. They can vary in size from six inches to three feet but are always showy, in their way, with extroverted colors that can last for months. You can propagate it by seeds or cuttings. The creamy lilac-spotted flowers with pink bracts, attract honeybees, bumblebees, miner bees, plasterer bees, hummingbirds and the swallowtail butterfly.

Gayfeather is another wildflower Texans look forward to each year. Gayfeather is among the most finely attired of our pageant of wildflowers. Standing taller than most, it draws your attention with its distinctive purple-pink spikes and tassels. This showy flower, that resembles a bottle-brush, makes its debut in pastures, prairies and roadways as early as July and hangs around until December. It is also called button snakeroot because roots and underground stems have been used to treat rattlesnake bites. Butterflies and hummingbirds are frequent visitors, and goldfinches and other songbirds eat the seeds.

The last plant I want to mention is the Blackfoot daisy. It blooms in early spring and stays with us through fall, thriving on the calcareous soils we have here in Central Texas. A low-growing plant, this species often grows twice as wide as it is tall. This plant is very drought and heat tolerant. It is also a good source of nectar for many different insects and seeds for birds while still being highly deer resistant.

Bluebonnets are the most popular Texas wildflowers in Central Texas and people come from hundreds of miles to view the Bluebonnets. The Bluebonnets started bloom in the middle of March and will usually peak about the second week of April. It is a beautiful sight and since by the end of April the Bluebonnets are usually fading away, I suggest you get out now and enjoy them, that is if you haven’t already.

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgriLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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