May’s Wildflowers – Not to be Missed
By Mox Moxley, Texas Master Naturalist
The breathtaking beauty of wildflowers along Ellis County’s roadsides does not end when our bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush go to seed. Now is the time to travel county roads to view Mexican hat, pink evening primrose, Indian blanket, Texas thistle and Engelmann’s daisy – some of our most showy wildflowers.
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) is one of Ellis County’s most easily identified perennials because of its distinctive sombrero-shaped flower. The drooping ray flowers are solid yellow, solid reddish-brown or most commonly, velvety reddish-brown at the base and yellow at the tip. The long central cone is initially gray-green but turns brown when covered with small tubular disk flowers. The leafy foliage is deeply divided into almost thread-like segments. The top third of the stem has virtually no leaves which helps accent the unique flower head. This plant, also called prairie coneflower, adds an airy, free-form to the garden and long-lasting flowers to cut arrangements. Propagation is either from seed in spring and fall or by division.
The sprawling pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) is so prevalent you may spot it in town along the railroad crossings. Many enjoy this wildflower when it shows up in their home flower gardens. It is easily grown from seed. This plant spreads underground via runners to form extensive colonies. The four rosy-pink to white flower petals are broad, delicate and form a shallow cup that is lined with dark pink veins. You may know this plant by the name “buttercup” for the cupping petals and abundant butter-colored pollen.
Indian blanket or blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) sometimes covers pastures so densely it seems to form a blanket of flowers. It is also commonly called firewheel because the brownish-purple disk flowers are circled by flame-red ray flowers tipped with yellow. Its hardy nature and attractive flower makes it a popular annual garden plant. Most ornamental varieties available at nurseries are G. grandiflora, developed specifically for garden use. Indian blanket attracts pollinating insects and releases ethylene gas that helps fruit ripen.
Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum) is an upright, bristly-spiny biennial plant that at 2-5 feet stands above most other wildflowers now blooming. The flower head is lavender-rose or pinkish-purple, on a long, naked upper stem. The top surface of each leaf is dark green while wooly hairs densely coat the underside. Spines form at the end of each leaf lobe. Larva of the painted-lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) feed on the foliage, bumblebees frequently visit the flowers and goldfinches (Carduelis spp.) eat the seeds and line their nests with the silky fluff of the ripened seeds. The plant is a valuable addition to compost heaps because it is rich in potassium.
You can easily pick out a cut-leaf or Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia) from the numerous other yellow May flowers by its characteristic leaves that form large clumps at the base of each plant and get smaller up the stem. The basal leaves are 8-12 inches long, deeply cut or lobed and the lobes themselves are lobed or toothed. It is from this leaf structure that the familiar name cut-leaf daisy is derived. The other common name, Engelmann’s daisy, honors Dr. Georg Engelmann (1809 – 1884), a St. Louis physician and botanist who collected and classified many western species.
The cut-leaf daisy is a rough, hairy perennial plant that grows about two feet tall and is branched to form a rounded crown. The flower resembles a miniature sunflower with 8-10 petals that open in the afternoon and fold under in intense heat and sunlight the next day.
The Cut-leaf daisy is primarily a specie of native grassland. Its rich protein content (nearly 27%) makes it preferred forage for livestock. Consequently, overgrazing has significantly reduced the plant’s presence in much of its former range.
The foregoing plants are only a sample of the wildflowers currently in bloom; there are many more. Take your wildflower guidebook on your next road trip to see if you can also identify gaura, four-nerve daisy, prairie clover, rose vervain and silver-leaf nightshade.
Better yet, experience the wildflowers up-close and personally. Join Jim Varnum, a regionally known Dallas Master Naturalist, on a nature walk tomorrow – Monday, May 23, from 9-11 a.m. at Kachina Prairie Park in Ennis. The park is a remnant of Blackland Prairie, once the primary landscape of east central Texas. The walk with provide hikers with a glimpse of what the original tall-grass prairie looked like years ago.
Directions to Kachina Prairie Park: From I-45 in Ennis, take exit 251-B, traveling west on Ennis Avenue for 2.1 miles to Jeter Drive. Turn right on Jeter Drive and travel .8 miles along Jeter Drive. Turn left onto Baldridge Drive and travel .2 miles to Kachina Prairie Park located on the left. Bring your drinking water, insect repellent and wear closed-toe shoes.
The walk is sponsored by the Indian Trail Master Naturalist Chapter and is free and open to the public. For additional information contact Ellis County’s AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175.