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The Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, oversees Texas transportation and is headquartered in Austin. The Texas Legislature created the organization in 1917, although the agency has had several names throughout the past century.

Who Thinks About Wildflowers In The Fall? TxDOT Does.

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Bluebonnets blooming in downtown Austin near Interstate 35 in February.

From Texas Standard:

“Out of sight, out of mind.” That’s how the saying goes. And it’s exactly the way wildflowers are right now, for most Texans. But the flowers that beautify state roadsides each spring are not out of mind for the team that makes it happen.

Meet Forrest Smith, with Texas A&M-Kingsville. His research team has put in “decades of work” in search of the perfect seeds for the different climates and soils we have in Texas.

Smith says finding the right selection of a wildflower is like looking for the right person for a job.

“Every population of even a given wildflower is different,” he says, “You’ve gotta find the one that grows enough seed, that comes out reliably when you plant it and that’s essentially our program’s role.”

Smith works in partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT. The same state agency that manages roads and bridges in Texas also plants and cares for wildflowers.

Once a promising wildflower seed is developed, TxDOT partners with growers like Douglas King in San Antonio. The seeding company has been in business since 1912. Dean Williams is the current owner. His piece of this puzzle consists of growing and harvesting most of the seeds he sells. It is a hands-on job.

Credit Antonio Cueto/Texas Standard
When raw seeds are harvested, they come into the Douglas King warehouse full of grass and bugs. These tumblers are used for separating the grass and the seeds.

The raw seeds come into King’s warehouse from his family’s ranch. The piles of seeds are full of grass and bugs, and they need to be cleaned.

Once the seeds have been cleaned and bagged, they are purchased by TxDOT’s Travis Jez. He shops for seeds with the same excitement and bewilderment others have for a good Black Friday sale.

And how could he not? He loves his job.

“My backyard is 800,000 acres [of land] and it’s very diverse,” Jez says. “You think about that: the entire state I get to play in.”

The final step is planting the seeds; they must be planted in the fall.

The last set of hands that cradle the seeds before they can bloom into a colorful array of wildflowers are those of Dennis Markwaldt. He leads TxDOT’s Vegetation Management Program. He carefully handpicks which seeds will thrive where. He says it depends, in part, upon the soil.

“If we got very loose sand, I won’t plant Texas Bluebonnet; I’m gonna plant Lupinus subcarnosus, the Sandyland bluebonnet, because it does well in those loose, deep sands,” Markwaldt says

But Lupinus subcarnosus doesn't do well in Central Texas. Neither does phlox. For heavier soils like the ones in Central Texas, Markwaldt chooses the Texas bluebonnet.

All over the state, TxDOT employees on tractors are conducting seeding operations through December. After that, everyone will cross their fingers and pray for rain -- that’s the part that is out of their hands.

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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