It’s wildflower season! When most people think about Texas wildflowers they immediately go to our beautiful state flower the Bluebonnet; which I must agree are absolutely one of the most beautiful wildflowers that exist. But they don’t grow wild or even from seed very well in all parts of the state. You’ll find them in early spring in fields and along the roadsides through central and south Texas and are in abundance in the Hill Country around San Antonio. They were named for their color and resemblance of their petals to a woman’s sunbonnet. Of interest, it is against the state law for any state employee or contractor to mow down any wildflower when they are in bloom.
Where I live in the Texas Panhandle which is also referred to as the High Plains because we’re up on “the caprock” you don’t see the Bluebonnet other than in well maintained private gardens. But we have some very beautiful wildflowers that are conducive to our weather and soil.
The beautiful and impressive Indian blanket grows along roadsides and in pastures, covering large areas, sometimes up to forty acres or more, like the Bluebonnet. They are also good garden flowers. Each has ten to twenty ray flowers, sometimes all red but usually marked with brilliant yellow on the ends of the rays, forming a band along the outside. The disk, or center, is brownish.
In West Texas they have Gyp Indian Blanket, which although they share a similar name, they are totally different. I get them confused easily. The Gyp Indian Blanket stands very tall at twelve to eighteen inches, has bare flower stems with leaves at the base of the plant. The ray flowers are yellow and deeply cut into three lobes. They have a large brown center that remains once the ray flowers fall off making it very striking in appearance.
The yucca of the agava family, also known as Spanish dagger, flourishes over much of Texas, but is more common in our area. It attains heights of eighteen feet or more. A huge mass of white blossoms appears in spring and sometimes after the fall rains. When I was in grade school, one of my favorite things to do was to draw dried yucca pods in art class. When the blooms fall the heads turn to some of the most beautiful hues of browns, oranges, and sometimes they are tinged with purples and reds.
Several years ago Texas experienced one of the biggest invasions of moths that we’ve had in years. Thanks to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, I can share with you how the yucca was involved with the huge crop of moths; sometimes we call them miller bugs.
Yuccas are a wonderful illustration of how interconnected everything in nature is. Each species of yucca has a specific species of moth that pollinates it. Each depends on the other. The yucca depends on the moth to pollinate it, and the month depends on the yucca to provide food and shelter for its young. Neither would survive without the other.
After being fertilized by the male, a female yucca moth spends her life making sure there will be enough food for her young. When the yucca flowers open in the evening, she gathers pollen and rolls it into a ball. She lays her eggs on the pistil of the flower and rubs the pollen on the stigma. In this way, the yucca flower is pollinated and the moth makes sure that her young will have seeds to feed on when they hatch. After repeating this process several times, the yucca moth dies.
Seeds and moth larvae develop together in the ovary of the yucca flower, with the moth caterpillars eating the seeds. Since there are only two or three yucca moth caterpillars in each ovary and hundreds of seeds, there are enough seeds to feed the caterpillars and produce yucca offspring. When it is ready to form a chrysalis, the yucca caterpillar chews its way through the ovary, crawls through the hole and lowers itself to the ground on a thread it spins itself. Once on the ground, the caterpillar burrows into the soil, completes its metamorphosis, and emerges as an adult moth the following year as the yuccas begin to bloom. And, the cycle begins again. Since we had an invasion of moths last year, this circle of life seems very interesting! Perhaps just signs of God restoring our lands?
The genus name of the yucca moth is Pronuba. According to Roman mythology, Pronuba was the foundress of marriage, and a woman who arranged marriages became known as pronuba. Yuccas were used by Native Americans medicinally. Yucca juice was used as diuretics and laxatives, and mashed and boiled roots were used to treat diabetes. Yucca roots can be used to make a good soap. Yucca is an important fiber plant and it has been used to make rope, sandals, and cloth. In my research for my story in the anthology that’s been out about eight years and still available, “Give Me a Texas Ranger”, I learned that they used to make bootleg liquor from yucca.
What is your favorite wildflower?
A special thanks to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for their information on the correlation between the yucca and the moth; and to my friend Natalie Bright for sending it to me.
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