Wildflowers give hope after drought

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Porter Plepys smells flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Wednesday afternoon. After a mild winter, a plentiful bloom is expected this spring, despite the recent drought, because wildflowers germinate based on precipitation in fall.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

After months of brutal drought in Texas, a seed of hope is finding its way through cracked soil during the upcoming wildflower season.

Wildflowers are fairly well adapted to drought and germinate based on the rain in the fall and winter, said Damon Waitt, senior director at the University's Lady Bird Wildflower Center, a botanic garden of Texas wildflowers and plants maintained by the center staff. During the worst period of the drought, wildflower seeds are submerged in soil with a dormant metabolism, he said. But the combination of fall rain and the mild winter helps the flowers bloom vibrantly in the spring, Waitt said.

“We had that horrible drought but I think it’ll be a good spring compared to last year,” he said. “We’ll still get a good show this year thanks to those timely rains.”

Less fall rain means less seed germination, fewer plants and fewer wildflowers, Waitt said, so good years are needed to increase the number of seeds for the following years. A good year indicates more flowers and provides insurance for the future, he said.

Waitt said Texas wildflowers are a key part of the state’s unique culture and a signature sight in the landscape.

“The bluebonnet is to Texas what the four-leaf clover is to Ireland,” he said. “It drives tourism to the state with the T-shirts and coffee mugs, so not only are they well known within the state, but also people come in from out of state to see our displays.”

Preservation and appreciation of wildflowers all around the country was one of Lady Bird Johnson’s major projects, Waitt said.

“It was a lifelong passion [of hers] to preserve the regional identity of the country — so when you’re in California, it looked like California with the poppies, and in Central Texas the bluebonnets,” he said. “We should celebrate our local diversity with the flower.”

Undeclared freshman Samantha Whitford said she looks forward to wildflower season each year but expected fewer wildflowers because of the drought.

“Because of the drought, you’d think there wouldn’t be as many wildflowers, so that’s exciting and surprising,” she said. “When wildflowers bloom, it’s my favorite time of the season because they just make you feel happy.”

Wildflowers are not only aesthetically pleasing but also serve useful purposes in the garden, said Longhorn Gardeners secretary and biomedical engineering graduate student Srimahitha Kaliki. Her organization utilizes the dual purpose of wildflowers to better grow vegetables as wildflowers help block pests, she said.

“We use the wildflowers to litigate the problems of pests,” she said. “They can be used in sustainable organic gardening. Hardly anybody knows they can be used this way.”

In the midst of drought, Waitt said he thinks the colorful flowers are signs of hope for Texans.

“Their ability to survive these tough times is very encouraging to people, especially in areas like Bastrop that got hit by the fire,” he said. “I think it lifts people’s spirits to see the wildflowers come out.”