A Texas Botanical Guide

Five wildflowers that heal, feed, impress, and inspire

By Robyn Ross

Illustrations By Lucy Rose

Generations of Texans have snapped countless photos of pastures awash in bluebonnets and marveled at the wind rippling across a mountain covered in Mexican gold poppies. But up close, Texas wildflowers dazzle in ways beyond sheer beauty. Some are edible, some offer extra support to pollinators, and others bear names that hint at our state’s early history. From among the 2,700 species of wildflowers in Texas, Take a detailed look at five stars that offer more than just roadside decoration.

An illustration of large golden sunflowers on a yellow background


Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)

At least 16 species of sunflowers cheer up Texas roadsides, ditches, and vacant lots throughout the year. Maximilian sunflowers grow mainly in Central Texas, and swamp sunflowers add color to river bottoms farther east. But the common sunflower takes root practically everywhere. Once established, the plants protect their territories by releasing toxins that inhibit the growth of other plants nearby in a phenomenon called allelopathy. Their developing buds tilt to follow the course of the sun each day, yielding one of the flower’s common names: mirasol, or “look at the sun.” Once the flowers begin to open, the heliotropism ceases and they remain facing east.

Nutritional Value

Archeological evidence suggests humans have been eating sunflowers (the unopened heads taste like artichokes) for thousands of years. Indigenous people cultivated them to produce larger seeds, which could be eaten plain, or ground into a high-protein meal. The Caddo added this meal to cornmeal when making cakes or tamales, and the Apache made bread from sunflower dough, Matt Warnock Turner explains in his book Remarkable Plants of Texas. The tubers of Maximilian sunflowers provided food for Indigenous people long before their namesake, German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, encountered them while exploring the western North America in the 1830s. Today, farmers in the South Plains grow sunflowers for birdseed, oil, or confectionary use in packaged snacks.

Historical Perspective

European explorers brought sunflower seeds to Europe from North America as early as the late 1500s. Russian farmers were the first to mass-cultivate the crop as sunflower oil was not among the foods prohibited by the Russian Orthodox church during Lent. The giant Mammoth Russian sunflower they developed was later exported back to the U.S. as a commercial crop.

In Bloom

Common sunflowers and Maximilian sunflowers bloom in summer and fall. Maximilian prefer locations with some moisture, most commonly in Central Texas but also to the east and west. Fall-blooming swamp sunflowers prefer moist soil in woodlands, river bottoms, and roadside ditches in the eastern third of the state.

Photo Ops

Spot common and Maximilian sunflowers on trails at the Sibley Nature Center in Midland or on the Live Oak Wilderness Trail at the Fredericksburg Nature Center. Find all three species in the Native Butterfly Habitat and Conservation Canyon at the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas.

Sibley Nature Center

Open daily sunrise to sunset. 1307 E. Wadley Ave., Midland. 432-684-6827; sibleynaturecenter.org

Fredericksburg Nature Center

Open daily sunrise to sunset. Off SH 16 southwest of Fredericksburg. 830-997-4202; fredericksburgnaturecenter.com

Texas Discovery Gardens

Open Wed-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 3601 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Dallas. 214-428-7476; txdg.org

Sunflower seeds

Recipe: Sunflower Seed Butter

Spread 2 cups raw, shelled sunflower seeds on a baking sheet and roast for 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees or until seeds are golden brown. Cool, pour into food processor, and blend until smooth. This may take several minutes as seeds form a powder and then a giant ball before smoothing out. If necessary, add a teaspoon of vegetable oil to help the concoction move past the giant ball stage. Add a pinch of salt at the end. Store in the refrigerator and use in place of peanut or almond butter.

An illustration of purple flowers and green stems

Morning Glory

Lindheimer’s morning glory (Ipomoea lindheimeri)

The sturdy vines of morning glories twist around fence posts and climb telephone poles, earning the flower its genus name: Ipomoea, from Greek words meaning “wormlike.” The plant’s delicate funnel-shaped lavender or pale-blue flowers open in the morning and typically close before noon.

What’s in a name?

Although Indigenous people were the first to observe, use, and name North American plants, many Texas wildflowers are known today by the names given by botanists and explorers during the frontier era. Lindheimer’s morning glory honors one of these plant collectors, German botanist Ferdinand Lindheimer. Several dozen other species and subspecies of plants are named after the man, who is often referred to as the Father of Texas Botany.

In Bloom

Lindheimer’s morning glory blossoms from spring to fall along roadsides and in rocky canyons and ravines in Central and West Texas.

Photo Ops

Find morning glories among other flowers named after Lindheimer and his fellow early Texas botanists in the Wilderness Walkers theme garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center or in the Pollinator Garden at the Fredericksburg Nature Center.

Wildflower Center

Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin. 512-232-0100; wildflower.org

Fredericksburg Nature Center

Open daily sunrise to sunset. Off SH 16 southwest of Fredericksburg. 830-997-4202; fredericksburgnaturecenter.com

A historic portrait of a man with a large white beard

Historical Perspective

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1801, Ferdinand Lindheimer arrived in Texas in 1836. He later reconnected with George Engelmann, a fellow Frankfurt native and a medical doctor who had immigrated to the Midwest. As a doctor, Engelmann had a keen interest in botany; in the days before synthetic drugs, medicines came from plants. Frontier explorers could harvest North American plants previously unknown to the academy, and scientists could study their potential medicinal qualities and economic potential.

Lindheimer was hired to collect plants that Engelmann then sent to paying clients including botanists at American and European universities. For roughly a decade, Lindheimer traveled through Central Texas and the western Hill Country in a two-wheeled oxcart, gathering samples to ship back to Engelmann. The roads were rudimentary and bridges nonexistent; Lindheimer wrote of stripping down to cross creeks and dressing again on the other side. When his cart was full of plant samples flattened between sheets of pressing paper, he shipped the goods to Engelmann. In 1852, Lindheimer ended his travels and began a new career as the first editor of the New Braunfels newspaper, now called the Herald-Zeitung.

An illustration of large green tubular flowers on a tan background

Yellow Pitcher Plant

Yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia alata)

Yellow pitcher plants have long been a subject of fascination because of a peculiar trait: they are carnivorous. The Big Thicket in southeast Texas is home to four of the five carnivorous plants of North America: sundews, bladderworts, butterworts, and pitcher plants. (Though cultivated throughout the world, Venus’ flytraps are native only to North and South Carolina.) The yellow pitcher plant thrives in the bogs of the Big Thicket and blooms in early spring, producing a pale-yellow flower that hangs upside down.

Nutritional Value

Like other carnivorous plants, Sarracenia alata grows in nutrient-poor environments and makes up for its nitrogen deficiency by absorbing fluids and soft body parts from insects. Its leaves form a pitcher that collects water and then infuses the liquid with digestive enzymes. Above the pitcher, a hood secretes nectar that attracts insects. Once an insect enters the mouth of the pitcher, it slips on the waxy interior and falls into the liquid. The enzymes then decompose the protein so the nutrients can be absorbed.

In Bloom

Yellow pitchers bloom in March and April in bogs, marshes, and other wet areas with nutrient-poor soils in southeast Texas.

Photo Ops

Watch pitcher plants catch a meal at the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve or along the Pitcher Plant Trail at the Turkey Creek Unit of the Big Thicket National Preserve.

Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve

Open daily during daylight hours. Off US 69 in Warren. 281-421-2469; watsonpreserve.ning.com

Big Thicket National Preserve

Open daily during daylight hours. Off CR 4850 near Kountze. 409-951-6700; nps.gov/bith

A small bug inside of a bright yellow flower

Clever Adaptations

Not every insect has an adversarial relationship with the yellow pitcher plant. Some species of mosquitoes lay their eggs inside the pitcher plant’s fluid. These larvae are not harmed by the enzymes and eat the insects that fall into the trap. Spiders and praying mantises sometimes intercept insects at the lip of the plant for a quick meal. And the pitcher plant mining moth, Exyra semicrocea, has adapted to live safely inside the pitcher. Its feet cling to the waxy walls of the pitcher, and it never faces downward when inside, so it does not fall into the liquid. The moths live in the pitcher during the day and fly at night. They lay eggs inside the pitcher, and their larvae feed on the inside of the plant’s walls.

“Every stage of this moth’s life cycle is dependent on the pitcher plant,” says Pauline Singleton, a member of the board of directors of the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve in Warren. “If pitcher plants become extinct, the moth will suffer the same fate.”

An illustration of two green milkweed plants


Green milkweed (Asclepias viridis)

Antelope horns milkweed (Asclepias asperula)

Zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides)

Milkweeds are known for their role in the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars feed almost exclusively on the plant’s leaves. After spending the winter in Mexico, the butterflies migrate north through Texas in the spring, laying their eggs on milkweed plants in March and April. The eggs hatch two or three days later, and the tiny caterpillars begin munching on milkweed. For two weeks they feast, growing rapidly and shedding their skin five times. In the fifth shedding, the caterpillars form a chrysalis, where they pupate for two weeks before emerging as an adult butterfly. Milkweed leaves are toxic to other animals, which helps protect monarchs from predators.

Grow Tips

Last summer, the International Union for Conservation of Nature added monarch butterflies to its endangered species list. Gardeners can offer monarchs a nursery and rest stop by planting native milkweeds in their yards. Although the plants are hardy in the wild, they can be finicky to grow from seeds. It’s important to plant the type of milkweed that’s native to your region. Carol Clark, a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas and a conservation specialist with Monarch Watch, recommends patronizing a nursery that specializes in native plants. Make sure you’re getting milkweed grown without pesticides; those chemicals can kill caterpillars.

Green, antelope horns, and zizotes milkweeds are generally good options, as they are native to most of Texas. Many naturalists recommend avoiding tropical or Mexican milkweed, which can harbor a monarch-debilitating parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Although tropical milkweed is often sold at nurseries, some scientists believe planting it can do more harm than good. “To play it safe and do the best thing we can do for monarchs, planting native milkweeds is really everyone’s best bet,” Clark says.

In Bloom

Antelope horns, green, and zizotes milkweeds bloom from spring through fall. Antelope horns prefers sandy and rocky soil throughout most of the state, except South and East Texas. Green milkweed is found in fields, roadside ditches, and bayou banks in the eastern half of the state. Zizotes grows in prairies, shrublands, riverbanks, and roadsides in many parts of Texas.

Photo Ops

Find zizotes at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, where the Monarch Waystation harbors milkweeds and other nectar sources for migrating butterflies. Antelope horns and green milkweeds can be found at the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas.

National butterfly center

Open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. 3333 Butterfly Park Drive, Mission. 956-583-5400; nationalbutterflycenter.org

Texas Discovery Gardens

Open Wed-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 3601 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Dallas. 214-428-7476; txdg.org

A caterpillar with yellow and black stripes

Nutritional Value

Milkweed plants do double duty by acting as a food source for monarch butterflies when they return to Texas in the fall. Although caterpillars chew milkweed leaves, butterflies sip nectar from the flowers, which bloom from March to October. Monarchs also consume nectar from other flowering plants, including those of the aster family, to fuel their epic flight. “They have to fatten up on their journey to Mexico, or they don’t have enough fat stores to get through the winter,” Clark says. “So Texas is critical in both stages: on the way north and on the way south.”

An illustration of yellow goldenrod with green stems


Tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima)

Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora)

Many Texans curse goldenrod for causing their fall hay fever, but the real culprit is typically giant ragweed, which happens to bloom alongside goldenrod. Goldenrod’s showier flowers stand out more than ragweed’s, so it often gets the blame. But those same bright flowers and their nectar are also goldenrod’s proof of innocence. They attract butterflies, bees, and other insects to the flower’s heavy, sticky pollen, which the insects then carry to other flowers. This means goldenrod doesn’t need to produce large amounts of airborne pollen. Ragweed’s flowers, however, are less attractive to pollinators. It relies on the wind to carry its pollen to other plants and into the noses of unsuspecting bystanders.

Historical Perspective

Native North Americans found many medicinal uses for goldenrod, and the plant’s Latin genus name, Solidago, means “to make whole.” Some chewed the leaves to soothe sore throats; parts of the plant were used to treat burns and bee stings; and goldenrod tea eased digestive problems and fevers.

Nutritional value

The leaves and flowers of sweet goldenrod make a licorice-flavored tea. After the Boston Tea Party, colonists switched to alternative teas they could enjoy while boycotting British fare. These teas, brewed from herbs and flowers including goldenrod, were dubbed “liberty teas.”

In Bloom

Goldenrods bloom in late summer through fall and are more commonly found on roadsides and in fields in the eastern third of the state. Solidago odora especially prefers sandy soils in East and Southeast Texas.

Photo Ops

Take a whiff of Solidago odora in the Marianne Scruggs Scent Garden at the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas—and find Solidago altissima in the gardens’ Conservation Canyon.

Texas Discovery Gardens

Open Wed-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 3601 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Dallas. 214-428-7476; txdg.org


A cup of bright yellow tea with a flower in it

Sweet goldenrod tea

Rinse several cups of leaves and flowers (if you are allergic to pollen, don’t use the flowers). Place them in a pot and add boiling water. For every 2 cups of fresh plants, use 4 cups of water. (If making your tea from dried herbs, use a smaller volume of the herb.) Let the tea steep for 10 to 30 minutes, then strain. Drink it hot with sweetener and lemon or refrigerate the sweetened juice for a licorice-flavored iced tea.

Sweet goldenrod jelly

• 1 cup goldenrod tea (see above)
• 2 tablespoons pectin
• ¾ cup sugar
Add the pectin to the tea and heat to a rolling boil, stirring continuously. Add the sugar and return to a rolling boil. Stir and boil 1 to 3 minutes until the concoction jells. Pour into jelly jars.

From Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest: A Practical Guide by Delena Tull, Copyright 1987, 1999. Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

From the March 2023 issue

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