CAN’T DECIDE WHETHER to save the world or decorate it? Plant native wildflowers and you’ll do both. More and more Texas gardeners are embracing native plants, motivated by our eye-opening droughts and disenchantment with chemically maintained landscapes. But be forewarned: What begins as an innocent desire to grow a few blooming annuals—plants that complete their life cycles in one year and then reseed, like Drummond’s phlox—often escalates into a passion for native perennials, which take at least two years to complete their cycles, and then, before you know it, you’ll want native shrubs and trees. You can choose from more than five thousand flowering species of natives, and they are at home in beds, borders, and window boxes. But if you want to mirror nature, why not plant a meadow? It can be as big as your ranch or as small as a patch between sidewalk and street.
The profusion of wildflowers in nature can lead you to believe that a picture-book landscape can be yours simply by tossing out a few handfuls of seed. This illusion was created by that prankster Mother Nature, who has secretly been dispersing zillions of seeds for thousands and thousands of years to achieve her glorious effects. But don’t despair. Although your wildflower meadow is going to take considerable patience and some trial and error, there’s a lot of information out there to help you along. Unfortunately, few experts agree on the fine points of growing wildflowers. Do you gather seed close to home or is it okay to sow seed from plants grown in a different region of Texas? To scarify—scratch the hard seed coat, like the bluebonnet’s, to mimic the natural weathering process—or not to scarify? There’s not even a consensus on whether you should water your meadow or depend solely on rainfall. But the basic instructions are universal. If you follow them closely, in just a couple of years you’ll have a garden that is stunning and self-sustaining—one that will allow you the time to stop and smell the wildflowers.
Plan Your Meadow
IMPORT A PLANT FROM ONE REGION TO ANY OTHER and it’s no different than a nursery exotic. “It may die,” says Geyata Ajilvsgi, the author of Wildflowers of Texas. “It may struggle to survive. It may take off and become a weed. But wherever you are in the state, you’ve got beautiful wildflowers growing.” In far west Texas blackfoot daisy and evening primrose flourish in the sandy desert. Annual aster and turk’s cap flower among the pines and post oaks near Tyler. The heavy clays of the coastal prairies of Houston can be a challenge for wildflower gardeners, but instead of fighting the rains and poor drainage, plant black-eyed Susans or false dragonheads. Austin’s Hill Country, despite its thin soil, is home to some of the most popular wildflowers, including bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. Around Dallas, where blackland prairies and woodlands converge, winecups and purple coneflowers abound. South of San Antonio, Indian blanket and coreopsis provide spring-to-frost color.
In a state that spans four hardiness zones, where annual rainfall ranges from 56 inches along the Louisiana border to 8 inches in El Paso and soil types vary from acid clay to alkaline caliche, it’s necessary to determine where you are, botanically speaking. For help, take a look at Sally and Andy Wasowski’s book Native Texas Plants, Landscaping Region by Region and its list of city-by-city vegetative possibilities. Study natural (as in “unimproved”) areas nearby and note plants that thrive. Dig a toe in the dirt and make your best guess. Choose a well-drained, sunny site for your wildflower meadow (unless you plan to concentrate on swamp sunflower or shade-tolerant species such as columbine). Then settle down with the Wasowskis’ book or one of the excellent field guides, like the aforementioned Wildflowers of Texas, color-coded and packed with information, or Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller’s comprehensive Texas Wildflowers, to determine the appropriate plants for your region and your site. You should also consider “flower architecture”—size, color, and height—in your meadow. Take your cues from nature. Remember how stunning that lavender gay feather was when paired with the yellow of goldenrod or the way a field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush jump-started your eyeballs? “Think in terms of a prairie situation with native grasses and perennial flowers,” advises Marcia Herman, the natural areas manager at Austin’s respected National Wildflower Research Center , “and be willing to see things change.” In fact, native grasses should make up 50 to 80 percent of your meadow. Though beautiful in their own right, little bluestem, sideoats grama, buffalo, and others support and protect wildflower seedlings, act as noxious-weed inhibitors, prevent soil erosion, and provide color and texture when the wildflowers go to seed.
Think too about germination and bloom times. It’s possible to have blooms nearly year-round in the southern half of Texas, beginning with windflower anemones in January, moving to bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in the spring, Mexican hat through the summer, and wrapping up with Indian blanket as late as December.
If you decide to use wildflowers in a more-traditional garden setting, where heights and colors are more critical than in a meadow, you can sow the seeds in flats indoors and transplant the seedlings at the appropriate time (bluebonnet seedlings, for instance, like bluebonnet seeds, should be planted in the fall). In this controlled situation, treat your wildflowers as you would any exotic annual, such as pansies or petunias; pull them from the flower bed as soon as their blooms have faded or they begin to look ragged. If you would like to purchase container-grown natives, the National Wildflower Research Center (512-292-4200) sells lists of native-plant nurseries across the state ($3).
All About Seeds
NOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT SEEDS YOU WANT, where do you get them? A mere fifteen years ago, your choices would have been limited to bluebonnets or California imports. You could have collected seeds yourself, but they would have come without instructions. Today, however, a head-spinning selection of wildflower seed