By Julie Catalano | Photography courtesy of Wildseed Farms and Lady Bird Johnson | Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Lady Bird Johnson’s passing on July 11, 2007. Her lifelong work in highway beautification and plant conservation is legendary, with native wildflowers holding a special place in her heart — and in the hearts of those who work year-round to preserve them.
Each spring, Texans eagerly await the explosion of color that marks the beginning of wildflower season, which peaks around the second week of April. Front and center are the iconic Texas Bluebonnets (Lupinis texensis), cheerfully commingling with Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja foliolosa), Indian Blanket or Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), Purple Horsemint (Monarda citriodora), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), native Phlox (Phlox pilosa) and one of Lady Bird’s favorites — the Bluebell (Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum).
John Thomas, founder and president of Wildseed Farms near Fredericksburg, has worked in the field (literally) of wildflower promotion, education and conservation since founding the family’s working wildflower farm in 1983. With more than 200 acres of wildflower fields alone, the compound consisting of a nursery, walking trails, a gift shop with countless seed packets and more attracts upwards of 350,000 visitors a year, most of whom leave with a newfound education and respect for wildflowers. Thomas says that the farm’s role in wildflower conservation is “to teach people how to grow them from seed, when to plant, where to plant, when to mow and how to maintain them so that they reseed and return each year. That’s what we preach here.”
It’s a message that Thomas has taken on the road through the years, presenting wildflower seminars throughout the U.S. to agencies who want to model their highways, byways and national parks after the state that puts on the biggest wildflower show on earth. “They’re not talking Bluebonnets,” says Thomas, “They’re talking about what flower can they plant that will produce a lot of color like we have here.”
And wildflowers aren’t just a pretty face. “They’re the best thing you could have for the environment,” says Karen H. Clary, PhD, director of plant conservation at the University of Texas-Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. “Native plants are the best adapted. They have been living in these areas for at least 10,000 years, evolving to withstand drought and extreme changes in temperature, living in co-evolution with insects, pollinators, the soil and the water system, and they know exactly how to do it.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that wildflowers are indestructible. “Some endangered plants are actually wildflowers,” adds Clary. “Here in Texas we have about 440 rare plants, of which about 33 are on the endangered species list, and a portion of those are wildflowers.” The Texas Poppy-mallow (Callirhoe scabriuscula), for example, “is extremely rare and on the endangered species list, and it’s right out there on the roadside, blooming away.”
“One way that we help to save endangered plants is to collect and bank the seeds in case there is an extinction event,” says Clary. “We work with Texas Parks and Wildlife and other organizations to educate people as to the importance of conserving rare plants and how to manage them if you have them on your property.” Education, outreach and classes on native plants help to keep people aware of “why it’s important to conserve them. They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, because they are often good indicators of good habitat that we might want to preserve.” A publication by Texas Parks and Wildlife entitled A List of the Rare Plants of Texas, is online at tpwd.texas.gov/publications. A very informative book is The Rare Plants of Texas (Texas A & M Press).
The 284-acre Wildflower Center, founded by Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes in 1982, is the only 100 percent native plant family garden in Texas, with more than 800 species of Texas native plants growing in the gardens, making it the most diverse collection of its kind in North America. “We have actual formal gardens where we grow wildflowers that are in season throughout the year,” adds Clary. They also have meadows, fields and areas called the wildlands where “all kinds of wildflowers bloom just naturally.”
It’s those natural beauties that make Texas, particularly the Hill Country, a mecca for flower lovers who start driving the highways at the first sprout of a Bluebonnet or Bluebell. John Thomas, for one, hopes that increased awareness will encourage the public to leave those roadside riots of color alone to live and grow in peace for future generations to enjoy. “I remember when school wildflower projects would consist of teachers instructing students to ‘Go out and pick 25 species of wildflowers.’ Now, with iPhones, it’s ‘Go out and take pictures of 25 species.’” From a conservation standpoint, that’s a good thing.
Wildseed Farms, Fredericksburg
800.848.0078 :: www.wildseedfarms.com
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin
512.232.0100 :: www.wildflower.org