In the semi-arid and arid high and low-desert climate of Far West Texas, springtime and its associated wildflowers seems to tease its way along at the speed of germination. But, like in any deserts, showy spring forb bouquets can sometimes appear almost overnight in concert with precipitation, surprising many who think of the Texas wildflower show as only a Hill Country thing. There’s more to showy forbs in Texas than Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush.
Overwintering themselves in fall-mown, grassy roadside shoulders, Wooly Locoweed (Astragalus mollisimus) is one of the earliest spring flowers in the land West of the Pecos. Ranchers may curse the plant for its toxic alkaloid properties and do their shortsighted best to spray the native plant into extinction, but the Astragalus is only defending itself from herbivory, and its poison is the only way it can survive in today’s world of fragmented landscapes and fenced-in, improper grazing pressure from non-native bovines. The pollinators, who were here long before cattle, relish this early food source, and agriculture is heavily dependent on pollinators.
A classic throughout most of Texas is Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida). This member of the Verbena family flowers nearly throughout the year in warmer regions of the state, though it really puts on a show in the spring and summer.
A lot of the early flowers are easily missed by many people, simply due to their short stature. Here, Tufted Milkweed (Asclepias nummularia) stays fairly hidden among last year’s warm season grass stalks. Typically less than 6″ tall, it requires one to pay attention to detail and to actually observe discrepancies in vegetational patterns to find it. Simply looking – scanning the horizon in a quick flit of the eyeballs for most people – will not help you locate this small plant. Those who do take the time to do so are rewarded with the sight of this plant’s odd-shaped flowers and ability to survive in a harsh land despite its diminutive size.
Another forb that flowers nearly year round, though mostly is seen cheerily sunning its fertile ray flowers from March to October, is Chocolate Daisy (Berlandiera lyrata). True to its name, it emits an aroma of chocolate on warm sunny days, especially in the aestival aspect of the year as its populations increase (one generally smells this species before their eyes locate it). Like the other Berlandiera (B. betonicifolia), this one flowers and sets seed in pulses throughout the growing season, making repeat visits a requirement if one wishes to collect its Silphium-like seed.
While the above flowers are by no means an exhaustive account of the herbaceous spring art forms in this region of Texas, they do show the beauty of our native flora – the majority of which are now endangered species. The natives have worked on their phenotypic beauty over the last several thousand years, and as such, they belong here just as much and more than other species. And because we humans have destroyed almost all of their habitat, we have an ethical obligation to save what remains of those habitats, to restore what has been degraded, and reconstruct, to any extent possible, what has been lost. Should we not, then we are not a moral society of any kind, and all we’ve done is enable a heavily biased playing field that favors invasive noxious species and allows novel ecosystems to take over the fragmented worldscape, changing our nation’s scenery, fire regimes, and increasing costs to all of us, especially on the taxpayer front.
Over the long haul, farther than the nearsighted lens of modern day economics can foresee, a healthy ecology matters most. It’s the lifeblood of the planet.