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Everything you need to know to enjoy the wildflowers of Texas

by Timber Press on June 7, 2018

in Natural History

An overgrazed field in the southern region of the Rolling Plains. Lacking in grasses, the area is now dominated by mesquite and a host of wildflowers.

No matter where you are in Texas, it is always a short trip to find wildflowers blanketing in numerous national, state, and local lands.

The state is blessed with miles upon miles of roads, some of which are less traveled than others. Along these byways, if you slow down and occasionally stop, you can find a wide variety of plants between the pavement and the fence line. You do not need to travel far to find wildflowers. Even in urban areas, plants can grow in harsh environments— often in places you wish they would not, such as your garden.

Parks and Public Places
Texas is primarily a privately owned state. What does that mean? Less than 10 percent of land in the state is available to the public; the rest is in private ownership. If you do not have permission from the land owner to access property, do not enter. Public lands include national, state, and local parks; wildlife management areas; recreational areas; national seashores, grasslands, and forests; and the like.

Often, a fee is required for entry to public lands. When visiting these areas, follow the rules set forth by each institution, as they tend to vary between sites and agencies. Some allow overnight camping, others do not. Some have staffed facilities, others do not (or staff may be seasonal). Do your research and plan ahead. Many parks and recreational areas provide species lists, either online or onsite.

Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) in full bloom during the summer of 2013 in Val Verde County. In this area, three ecoregions merge: South Texas Plains, Edwards Plateau, and the Chihuahuan Desert.

Safety
It would be impossible to cover all the safety issues that can arise when exploring nature. Concerns in swampy areas of East Texas will be vastly different from those in the arid mountains of West Texas. The best and simplest advice is to be aware of your surroundings and your own limitations.

Whether you pull off on the side of the road or hike a trail in a park, each situation has its own challenges that may lead to injury or discomfort. Keep a small first aid kit with you, one that can easily fit in the glove compartment or under the seat of your vehicle, and that can be tossed into a small pack for light hiking.

For overnight backpacking trips, find a first-aid kit that best suits your needs and alter it with any additional medications. It is highly advisable to take a course in first aid, CPR, or even wilderness first aid. Additionally, just as you have a first aid kit for yourself, you should have one for your vehicle as well. This may include a tire patch kit, extra belts, jumper cables, extra oil, water, and so on. You should know where your car jack is and how to use it.

If you are taking a remote route or one you do not usually travel, let someone else know where you are going and how long you plan to be gone. Remember, not every place you visit will have cell phone service or a coffee shop. There are many areas within the state that are considered remote, and it may be several hours until another vehicle happens to pass your way.

Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum var. pseudocaudatum) dominates the understory in this pine forest in Angelina County.

Photography
Whether you use the camera on your phone or a digital SLR or something in between, a few basic tips may help when later relying upon photographs to identify a plant. Take clear, close-up photographs of the plant’s flowers, leaves, and stems as well as an image of overall habit. If the plant is in fruit, a photo can be helpful. Take images from different angles, including the underside of leaves and the back and side of the flowers.

Balanced lighting is also helpful. If it is very sunny, try to apply shade to the subject. Many camera shops sell sun shades for such purposes, but a large hat, or even the shade of another person, can help. If it is too shady, learn how to use the flash on your camera. It can be helpful to keep a record of where you are. This is especially important if you happen to stop several times along the road or visit many sites in one day. I’ve worked with people who write the location down in their field journal and take a photograph of the journal prior to photographing at each stop. Many cameras now come with GPS; if you have this option, make sure it is always enabled.

Double-check your images. Zoom in to check clarity and focus. This is best done in the shade. If you are using a camera that uses memory cards, keep an extra card with you. Do not delete images in the field. It is best to wait until you have downloaded and viewed the photographs on your computer.

Nymphaea odorata covers the surface of this man-made pond in Tyler County.

Identification
When you come across a plant you do not know, you may think about what it is not. You may recognize the plant as a dicot, ruling out monocots, and if you know it is not in the Asteraceae, Fabaceae, or Lamiaceae, all very large families, you’ve just decreased the unknowns drastically. Eventually, through elimination, the unknown always turns into a known, and it is always the last place you look. The next time you come across the same or similar species, you will know where to begin, building your own internal reference library. Each time you read through several descriptions you are learning the flora, whether you realize it or not, a little bit each time.

Of course, you could just ask someone, or post an image on the internet for others to tell you, but what fun is that? Other resources include local and online herbariums. Online herbaria now provide images of the species and scanned images of specimens, as well as descriptions and locations.

I was able to peruse herbaria (swbiodiversity.org) throughout the United States and Mexico without having to leave the comfort of my home office. That said, you should be wary of online information. Double- and triple-check different reputable websites and databases. I have encountered numerous errors, both in descriptions and in images online. Some of these were simply misidentifications; others were errors in images that were uploaded to databases under the wrong species name.

If learning about your local flora is indeed a passion, consider joining your local chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (npsot.org), the Texas Master Naturalist program (txmn.org), or other like-minded organizations. These groups offer field trips (usually led by a knowledgeable botanist or biologist), presentations, and volunteer opportunities, all of which can help you discover more about the local flora and fauna.

 

Michael Eason is the head of the San Antonio Botanical Garden rare plant conservation department. He is also a conservation botanist for Texas Flora, a botanical consulting company. Eason has previously worked with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Millennium Seed Bank Project. He volunteers his time for organizations like the Wildflower Center, the Native Plant Society of Texas, and the Nature Conservancy.

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