You'll find them throughout the year in Houston—lyre-leaf sage, Drummond skullcap, silver-leaf nightshade, snow-on-the-prairie, lemon beebalm, scarlet pimpernel, plains wild indigo, spring ladies'-tresses, deer pea vetch.
These wildflowers and hundreds of other species flourish in this part of Texas, but until this book was published in 1993 no guide had focused exclusively on the Houston area. John and Gloria Tveten spent years seeking out both the common and the rare flowers. They describe here more than 200 plants. A color photograph of each one will make identification easy.
The guide is arranged by color, with each entry tracing the history and lore of a species. Many plants—for example, prairie Indian plantain and self-heal—were used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. Others, like poke-weed and wapato, are edible. Southern dewberry and giant ragweed are used as natural dyes. And some, like rattlebush and milkweed, are poisonous.
At the end of each species account is a list of key identifying characteristics for quick reference in the field. Summaries of plant families are also included, as well as tips on where and when to look for wildflowers.
Families of Flowering Plants
This guide is intended for a broad audience without botanical training. We have kept the use of technical terms to a minimum, defining those that have no common counterpart in everyday language. We believe that the brief descriptions, along with the color photographs, will enable the interested observer to identify most of the wildflowers that occur in the immediate Houston area.
No book of this scope, of course, can treat all the flowers that might be encountered, but this one has the advantage of focusing on a limited area. Most of the available wildflower books treat the entire state or a large region of it, and the options are even more numerous. The 210 species included here were selected as representative of Houston flora and the various families found along area roadsides, in vacant lots, and even as "weeds" in urban lawns and gardens. Where several similar species occur, one may need to consult more technical manuals. However, most readers will be content to identify such confusing plants to the genus level. In those cases, the most abundant of the closely related species have been selected for inclusion in this book.
Species accounts are arranged by color: white, yellow, red/pink, blue/violet, and green/brown. It is not always possible to draw distinct boundaries between these color groups, particularly in the case of the purplish flowers. For them, the reader will want to compare a plant with the pictures and descriptions in both the red/pink and blue/violet sections. Individual flowers may also vary in color within a species. For example, some plants have blossoms ranging from white to pale pink or blue. In spite of the problems in classifying flowers by color, most beginning enthusiasts will find the system easier to use than a classification by family.
We have kept botanical descriptions to a minimum within the accounts and have included other information on such topics as folklore, the edibility or poisonous properties of the plants, medicinal uses, and the sources of their common and scientific names. The reader may also wish to consult the preliminary summaries of the various plant families in order to place species in a broader context.
All photographs were taken in their natural settings by the authors. However, we frequently used an electronic flash in order to obtain the sharpness and depth of field necessary to portray the flowers in detail. Too often, dim light and brisk winds make photography by natural light all but impossible, and we have placed a premium on photos useful for identification.
Both the common and scientific names are given for each species, as well as the common and scientific names of its family. While the Latinized names may at first seem intimidating, they provide the only means for positive identification. We have attempted to select the common name most frequently used, consistent with good nomenclatural procedure, however, many of our wildflowers travel under a host of colloquial names. These are listed as alternate names for each species and are included in the index to aid in finding a particular flower.
Various references differ in the use of hyphens in common names. One book, for example, may call our common pink spring flower an "evening primrose," while another hyphenates the name to "evening-primrose." We prefer the latter form, because flowers of this family are not true primroses; they belong, instead, to a distinct family of the evening-primroses. Usually we have employed the hyphenated names, which are the bane of editors but which help to refine an inexact nomenclature.
In scientific usage, the name of each plant is written as a binomial: Oenothera speciosa, for example, to designate our showy evening-primrose. Such names are italicized, and the first part, the genus, is capitalized. Plants in the same genus are more closely related to each other than to those in other genera within the same family. Subspecies or varieties within a single species are accorded an additional term.
Although each scientific name should be unique to a particular species, taxonomy changes continually as botanists clarify relationships among our myriad plants. Thus, books and checklists may use different names in reference to the same plant, depending on the time of their publication and the authority they chose to follow. Even scientists disagree at times.
In general, we have chosen to follow the classification and nomenclature of the 1990 Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Texas by Stephan Hatch, Kancheepuram Gandhi, and Larry Brown. With a few exceptions, that list is in agreement with Marshall Johnston's 1988 The Vascular Plants of Texas, which updates the earlier Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas by Johnston and Donovan Correll.
Finding Houston Wildflowers
Wildflowers occur everywhere in Houston, from downtown vacant lots to woodland edges and roadside ditches on the perimeter of the city. When we stopped for a quick lunch at a fast-food restaurant within the 610 Loop, we discovered a host of flowers along a drainage ditch nearby and spent the remainder of the day photographing them. Periodic walks along Braes Bayou near Hermann Park and White Oak Bayou on the north side of the city produced numerous other species. A vacant lot on the west side proved to be a treasure trove of winecups, herbertias, and other showy plants.
Houston's location offers a variety of habitats, each harboring different flowers. Fields on the west side of the city contain flowers typical of the Katy prairies, while woodlands on the north contain species that might be found in the Big Thicket of East Texas. Eastward along the upper reaches of Galveston Bay one finds wildflowers of the brackish and saline coastal marshes.
The species in bloom change with the seasons, and we surveyed the city and the surrounding area every week or two during a two-year period. Each excursion produced new and delightful discoveries. In addition, plants that normally bloom in the spring may put on new growth and bloom again after heavy latesummer rains. Except after a hard freeze, wildflowers can be found virtually throughout the year.
The trend toward gardening and landscaping with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers should be encouraged. Many of our native species are as attractive as the cultivated hybrids, and they are adapted for our soils and climate, requiring a minimum of care. Even the smaller, less dramatic flowers have a unique and delicate beauty that makes them worthy of consideration. A little planning can provide a garden attractive to birds, butterflies, and other wildlife--a backyard sanctuary that helps to counteract the serious loss of habitat occurring throughout the area.
Occasionally wildflowers can be transplanted from sites threatened by construction; however, plants should never be taken from the wild indiscriminately. Wildflower seeds and plants are readily available from nurseries and at native-plant sales. Whether you grow them in your garden or simply observe them along the roadsides, Houston wildflowers can provide countless hours of enjoyment throughout the year.
Intermittent throughout the year. Most abundant in very early spring and late fall.
False garlic may well be the most abundant wildflower in Houston during the cooler months of the year. It springs up in lawns and fields from February into May and again in late fall. It also blooms intermittently after summer rains and through the winter if there is no killing freeze. Regarded by most homeowners as a lawn weed, it nevertheless provides a bright spot of color and serves as a nectar source for bees and butterflies when few other plants are blooming.
Also called "crow-poison," false garlic resembles the closely related wild onions, but it lacks the onion or garlic smell. The fibrous-coated bulb is inedible, and Delena Tull in A Practical Guide to Edible and Useful Plants notes, "I have found no information to indicate whether or not it truly is toxic, so we can only assume that it could cause poisoning."
Six to twelve white or cream-colored flowers cluster together in an umbel at the top of the leafless, foot-long stalk. Each ranges from one-half to one inch in diameter and has six petallike "tepals," a term used for the collective petals and sepals when all are alike. Reddish or greenish central stripes often ornament the outer surfaces of the tepals, while the stamens and ovaries are bright yellow. The flowers close on cloudy days or during cold weather, and the grasslike leaves might hardly be noticed among the grasses of the fields.
The genus name comes from the Greek words nothos and skordon, meaning "false garlic," while bivalve refers to the two membranous bracts that enclose the flower cluster during its early stages of development.
By John and Gloria Tveten
John and Gloria Tveten have written the "Nature Trails" column in the Houston Chronicle for over twenty-five years. They are the authors of several books and many magazine articles on Texas birds, butterflies, wildflowers, and natural history.
Carroll Abbott Memorial Award Native Plant Society of Texas