Texas may be known for many wild things, but the best, by far, are its wildflowers. Every spring from early March through April, highways and hillsides in Central Texas and the Hill Country are blanketed in blue and pink. More than just the official state flower, the Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) has become THE iconic symbol of Texas, reproduced on t-shirts and souvenirs, notecards and dinner plates, and painted, photographed, woven and stitched by everyone from professional artists to school children. A maroon hybrid called Alamo Fire (Lupinus texenis—Fabaccae) was even developed for cultivation by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in the University’s school color! (Available from www.wildseedfarms.com ) That just shows how far those Aggies will go for all things Texas!
These days, traditional bluebonnet seeds are sold in nurseries all over the country, though I can tell you from frustrating experience that they rarely grow. That’s probably because indigenous wildflowers need most what home gardeners don’t provide: native soil, some neglect and a drought. Lady Bird Johnson understood the advantage of local conditions when she encouraged President Johnson to get the Highway Beautification Act* passed in 1965. Today, over 50 years later, the explosion of color all along Texas highways owes its profusion to what is unofficially called “Lady Bird’s Bill,” and to the 30,000 pounds of native wildflower seeds sown by the Texas Highway Department each year.
Bluebonnets may be the star of the show here, but certain other varieties have strong supporting roles: my favorite, the Indian paintbrush or Indian pink (Castilleja indivisa) is similar in size and shape to the bluebonnet, but is a strong pinkish orange. Often the two flowers grow together creating broad swaths of vibrant pink and blue in the landscape. Then there is the delicate pink primrose known as buttercup (Oenothera speciosa), which only blooms for a day; the joyful Indian blanket commonly known as firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), with its starburst of red, orange and yellow; the happy little coneflower or Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera), with its high crown and broad red-and-yellow brim that resembles a sombrero; and the beautiful, fluttering white Prickly poppy (Argemone Mexicana), which you dare not touch, and which the cattle will avoid even in a drought!
Such floral abundance has always provided ready Easter decorations in Texas. When I was a little girl, Easter preparations began in earnest when Lent was over on Holy Saturday. First, we dyed Easter eggs, always in solid colors and always too many. Then we would head down to Coleto Creek way out in the country toward Fannin to go “Easter flower pickin’.” We carried small buckets, bottles of water, and scissors for clipping, and my Mother would find a spot to park off the side of a little dirt road near the creek. Treading carefully and watching for snakes, we sought patches of profusion, where we were sure a bucket or two of flowers wouldn’t be missed and wouldn’t impede the proliferation of seeds for next year. Sometimes we’d have to move the car once or twice to get just the right mix. My grandmother, already elderly even when I was small, usually stayed in the car, managed the buckets and water, and complained about the heat.
Back at home, we’d lay out newspapers over the kitchen table where we cut and trimmed all the flowers and got rid of all the bugs. The blooms were sorted by type and condition; the longest, prettiest ones got arranged into one of my Mother’s prized milk glass vases. The smaller, shorter blossoms got woven in with long grasses, which I gathered from the vacant lot next door, and shaped into round Easter nests in front of the fireplace. By the end of the day, spring had come to our house. All we had to do was wait for the Easter bunny.
Interesting how childhood traditions endure and adapt. When I was a newlywed, my Holy Saturday Easter flower pickin’ meant picking out plants and flowers to bring home from a local flower shop, since there were few wildflower-coated hillsides in New York City. Pink and yellow tulips replaced bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush on the dinner table, and a tall, white potted Easter lily had pride of place in the living room. Later, after our son was born and we were living out in the suburbs, Easter flower pickin’ meant cutting some of our own home-grown tulips and daffodils, supplemented with an Easter-flower family field trip to one of the large local nurseries nearby. We still dyed eggs on Holy Saturday and built Easter nests, but with faux grass (less messy).
Now living in Texas again, I eagerly welcome the explosion of wildflowers in the spring and can actually pick bluebonnets myself on my morning walks down a little side road where I live. Easter is somewhat late this year, and the wildflowers have pretty much peaked, but I still have one last cluster of bluebonnets on my kitchen table. I will have to purchase assorted flowers for Easter arrangements, but come Holy Saturday, I will again dye eggs, make a nest for the chocolate bunnies, and begin to prepare our traditional Easter dinner of baked ham and scalloped potatoes. I won’t have to wait for the Easter bunny however, not because I am too old, but because I am the Easter Bunny.
HIP – HOP.
*Note: in the interest of “factual” information, the Highway Beautification Act was formed to control billboards, advertising and roadside junkyards, as well as to implement native landscaping along highways in all 50 states. Lady Bird Johnson, herself a native of East Texas, was passionate about preserving natural landscapes and cultivating native plants and flowers. In 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes established the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas, Austin, a 284 acre native plant botanic garden and resource center for conservation and education. www.wildflower.org