Wildflowers abound in a place where dinosaurs once roamed.
You can go there, too, and enjoy the bucolic central Texas scenery at Dinosaur Valley State Park. The park is famous among science circles for its fossilized 108-million-year-old dinosaur trackways, but the natural beauty of the park is one of its biggest draws for campers, hikers, and all those looking to escape into the woods.
While I was romping around like an overgrown kid, documenting and enjoying the fossilized dinosaur trackways, I was consistently amazed by the bright flourishes of color in the tall Texas prairie grass. The wildflowers of central Texas are pretty awesome–and considering our camping trip ended with a double rainbow, I’d say we were in sensory overload for much of the trip.
Here’s an overview of some of the most prevalent wildflowers at the park, and across central Texas, throughout the late spring and into deep summer.
Prairie Spiderwort (also known as “cowslobber”)
This cool little purple flower has bright yellow anthers on the stamen (the male parts of a flower that stick up like spidery legs). Its bright pedals make it hard to miss in the green of prairie grass. One cool thing about spiderwort: if it’s exposed to dangerous ionizing radiation, the stamen hairs change color from purple to red. It’s kind of like a natural Geiger counter. Pretty neat! Besides, what a great nickname, heh!
This fragrant purple flower grows on stalks and can form big expanses of lavender fields. Central Texas is known for large farms full of the beautiful stuff, but at DVSP we only saw a few singular plants.
Oh, the amazing smell of sage on the prairie. Different from the sagebrush bushes of the mountain plains, blue sage flowers in singular green stalks. It still bears the small oval leaves that emit the earthy fragrance of sage when crushed, causing the volatile oils in the flesh of the plant to be released.
Cirsium texanum is a firework of purple color in the grasslands. These flamboyant flowers attract bumblebees to help spread their pollen.
Texas Bull Nettle
Also known as “OH GAWD WHY DOES IT BURN?”
This beautiful but nasty little herbaceous plant looks real pretty from afar, but up close it packs a powerful punch. Each stem, leaf and bud is covered in tiny, glass-like needles that break off when the plant is brushed. Not only do they stab you with tiny shards of glass, the plants go one step further: the nettle needles inject your body with a small amount of acetylcholine and histamine (according to this 1948 issue of the journal New Phytologist), which inflames your allergic response and BURNS LIKE HELL. According to more recent research the nettle family also injects such lovely things as oxalic acid (a rust removing bleach agent–though it is common in spinach and parsley) as well as tartaric acid (a sour antioxidant common in wines and grapes).
As bad as it is to scrape against one with your ankle, I’d hate to be the unlucky herbivore shoving the whole thing in my mouth. That’s got to be a nasty lesson for a young bovid (cow-thing).
The spines. Oh my goodness. They are pure evil. Nature at its finest!
Woolly White – Old Plainsman – Wild Cauliflower
Ah, finally on to something cute and pretty once more. Without the burn of tartaric acid death. These lovely little things are called woolly whites, old plainsmen, or wild cauliflower–though they are not very closely related to actual cauliflower.
Texas Creeping Oxeye – Orange Zexmenia
Okay, this plant wins hands down for second best name (after “cowslobber”). Zexmenia is planted outside the Dinosaur Valley State Park visitor center entrance, with a helpful sign.
It is also abundant in the park. It’s easy to confuse zexmenia with the yellow Texas star plant, though unfortunately I didn’t snap any photos of those. Zexmenia has eight yellow, grooved pedals while the Texas star has only five pedals. Yeehaw!
These pretty little flowers in the sunflower family pop up around the park. Pollinators like bees and butterflies love ’em.
Whoa, wait, who said we could go back to things that stab you? Why do plants have to be so damn good at defending themselves? Ugh. Anyway, another stabby plant–the prickly pear, which actually has really lovely flowers, and you know what? From a distance they’re kind of pretty.
A reasonable, safe distance.
Super close up! These soft buds may look cute now, but just you wait. They will grow into thin glass harbingers of stabby pain.
Indian Blanket – Firewheel
Man, I really like these names, too. ‘Firewheel’ evokes a whirling dervish or a crazy circus trick with flaming hoops. I took a few photos of the firewheel unfurling its buds. It ends up looking like mottled cotton candy.
Not to be confused with the Indian paintbrush of the high desert plains, this bright red flowering plant stretches toward the sky, tall and proud and really gorgeous in the sea of green.
Inland Sea Oats (Sea Grass)
Another helpful sign by the Dinosaur Valley State Park visitor center entrance displayed inland sea oats. When they flower, the buds look like oats, which are relatives of these grasses.
When yarrow flowers, the little white buds look a lot like the woolly white or old plainsman. Other nicknames are plumajillo (little feather), old man’s pepper, and nosebleed plant.
Hummingbirds flock to the red buds of Salvia greggii, and the leaves have a very strong, almost cat-pee odor. Mmm.
Coral Berry – Indian Currant
The pink-purple fruit of the coral berry or Indian currant will keep foliage bright even in the middle of winter, so these plants are popular in some home landscaping.
This is a drought resistant plant that blooms in summer and all the way into fall.
Juniper (not a wildflower)
But still pretty!
Endangered Texas Prairie
Prairie grasslands, like the ones that shelter these wildflowers, once spanned over 140 million acres in the Great Plains of the United States. In the Texas panhandle, 16 million acres still roll like an green ocean across the plains and hills of north central Texas. But these grasslands are endangered, lost each year to croplands and urban development. Species like the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) and bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) call the shortgrass prairie their home, and are put at risk when the grasslands begin to dwindle. Luckily, conservation efforts are in place to help prevent the loss of endangered grasslands like those at Dinosaur Valley State Park–part of the Cross Timbers grassland region. Reintroduction of local, non-invasive plants and support of local animal species through breeding programs is really giving the grasslands the kickstart they need to keep thriving.
Special thanks to the rangers and staff of Dinosaur Valley State Park, Carrie and Dean Wolf of Central Texas Wildflowers, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Do you have a favorite flower? How about a favorite wild spot to relax your mind and escape? Let us know in the comments below!