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Where Are All the Texas Bluebonnets?

Credit Joy Diaz
Cotton candy for butterflies. Botanist Mick Vann displays a flower from the tropical rainforest of Guatemala. The flowers do smell like cotton candy.

If you are one of those parents who drag your kids all over town to find the picture-perfect patch of Texas bluebonnets in the spring, then brace yourself: There aren’t as many flowers this year.

That’s, in part, because 2012 was the hottest year on record and the long drought continues. That has many native species feeling the heat.

At UT Austin’s Biological Sciences’ greenhouse, botanist Mick Vann told me the danger to flowers and animals is not so much the heat as is the lack of water.

“Fortunately I have a hose,” Vann said as he snipped dead leaves from a plant. “But,” he added, “all these plants that live out in the wild, they depend on whatever rain we get.”

No water and higher heat equals scorched soils and fewer plants. Somehow, the Wildflower Center’s Botanist Damon Waitt is not worried. “Well, I don’t know that it can be too hot for bluebonnets because they’ve been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years.”

Waitt also gave me a little lesson in Texas legends. It included a Comanche girl and bluebonnets that once bloomed in the midst of a Texas drought. “A young Indian girl sacrificed her favorite doll and the doll had a blue dress on,” Waitt said. “She devoted the doll to the Great Spirit in the hope of bringing rain and then the next day the hills were covered with bluebonnets.”

Waitt and Vann explained native Texas wildflowers are naturally equipped to resist the ups and downs of our environment. For instance, bluebonnet seeds are covered with a hard shell and even if they don’t bloom one year, once there’s moisture in the ground they come back to life.

Unfortunately, other critters that rely on native Texas plants, from bugs to birds and beasts, aren’t as resilient. In the case of butterflies, their survival largely depends on flowers.

Botanist Mick Vann said butterflies are “picky” eaters and if their food of choice isn’t available, they migrate or die. People can help by planting juicy flowers that can grow even in an urban environment.

“The ultimate butterfly plant around here is called Greg’s mist flower,” said Vann. “It’s native, it’s constantly covered with sky blue little powder puff flowers that drive the little butterflies insane.”

In the end, Vann and Waitt agree nature’s icons that define Texas’ identity, such as the bluebonnet and the transient Monarch butterflies, are in less danger of disappearing from the heat and drought than they are from becoming invisible in our urban habitats – habitats that push wildflowers and critters away.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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