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The Serendipity of Wildflowers

Written by Melissa Gaskill.

A lone pumpjack makes an unlikely back-drop for a profusion of spring color in a South Texas pasture. (Photo by Laurence Parent)

As our First Lady in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson worked tirelessly to call attention to our country’s natural beauty, and she deserves much credit for the abundance of glorious spring wildflowers that we enjoy today. She recognized the beauty and also the ecological advantages of native plants, and, in 1982, along with actress Helen Hayes, founded what has become the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Now affiliated with the University of Texas, the Austin center is a national leader in native-plant research and education. Any Texan who has ever snapped baby photos in the bluebonnets or marveled at a pasture awash in color can thank Mrs. Johnson, as well as the state agencies, counties, municipalities, and private landowners who follow her vision.

See related: The Elusive Dogtooth Violet

altWe selected our annual wildflower drives with the assistance of Wildflower Center botanists and other experts. While even the pros can’t entirely predict the whims of nature, you’re bound to see some wildflowers on these routes, which are scenic year round and offer plenty of additional diversions. Contact the individual sites for specifics on spring wildflow-er conditions. And as always, take your camera … and take your time.

Northeast Texas

Each April, the Ennis Garden Club sponsors Ennis Bluebonnet Trails, a monthlong event that showcases the area’s wildflowers. The members monitor 40 miles of roads around Ennis, making it easy for travelers to head straight for the best displays of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, verbena, Texas five stars, Arkansas lazy daisies, prairie parsley, broomweed, winecups, scarlet gaura, rose vervain, winter vetch, and blue-eyed grass.

While in town, visit Kachina Prairie, 30 acres of rare blackland prairie off Baldridge Street, then fuel up on Czech pastries at Kolache Depot Café & Bakery on nearby Brown Street. Roll down US 287 south to Corsicana, and look for wild petunia, prairie parsley, and Engelmann’s and Lindheimer’s daisies along the way. From Corsicana, take Texas 31 to Athens, a gentle roller-coaster drive past green pastures, ponds, stands of pines, and flowers such as winecups, wild indigo, blue-eyed grass, horsemint, and pink evening primrose. Just before Kerens, a pond at a picnic area on the south side of the road sports a healthy popu-lation of spider lilies when spring brings enough rain. Other water-loving flowers to look for in bar ditches and on river and pond banks along this route include water willow, obedient plant, and germander.

In Athens, take US 175 north, and turn on CR 3918, then on CR 3914, to Tara Vineyard and Winery. The tasting room is open Tuesday through Sunday, and a covered patio offers dinner and occasionally live music. Rest up at the two-story guest mansion overlooking the vines, or spend a quiet evening in one of two cottages nearby at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast, set on wooded acres where dogwoods bloom in early spring and pond frogs provide a campfire serenade. Oak Creek lies down a long country road off Loop 7.

Continue on US 175 to Kaufman, past Cedar Creek Reservoir, and watch for wildflowers, including echinacea, butterfly weed, and other milkweeds, as well as redbud trees in bloom. Michael Eason, a botanist with the Wildflower Center who coordinates collecting for the center’s seed bank, says the now uncommon dogtooth violet was sighted near Corsicana and in Kaufman County in the 1930s. Hard to see from the road, this flower appears in forested areas during early spring, and blooms before trees put on leaves. Eason would love to hear from anyone who spots its delicate, white, lily-like flowers.

Take Texas 34 back to Ennis, crossing the Trinity River, and look for larkspur, Indian paintbrush, wild verbena, and puccoon. If you stay overnight, you can catch a double-feature at the Galaxy Drive-In Theatre.

Leakey Area

From Leakey, take Ranch Road 337 to Vanderpool, surely one of the most scenic drives in the state. The narrow road twists over ridges with endless views, and on the rocky hillsides, you may see golden ball leadtree, mountain laurel, mealy blue sage, false day flower, and rock penstemon. Make a short detour north on FM 187 to Lost Maples State Natural Area, and hike the Maple Trail (eight-tenths of a mile each way), or the 4.6-mile East Trail or 4.9-mile West Trail, both of which explore the park’s backcountry. If you want more time to savor the flowers, book a riverside cabin at Foxfire Log Cabins, a few miles from the park.

Back on RR 337 heading east, look for the purple fields of Imagine Lavender Farm just east of Vanderpool. On weekends after April 15, stop in for a closer look and perhaps a lavender-inspired product or two. This route offers glimpses of the Medina River and roadside flowers such as perfume balls, brown-eyed Susans, agarita, winecups, and golden-eyed phlox. Look for chatterbox orchids along the river, and for Mexican prickly poppies in the gravelly banks. In Medina, turn south on Texas 16 and drop in at The Apple Store and Love Creek Orchard Bakery for all things apple-flavored, from coffee to pie, and a hearty sandwich or salad at the Patio Café behind the store.

Continue to Bandera and experience wildflowers in true Texas style — from horseback. Running-R Guest Ranch offers rides of one to five hours exploring the adjacent Hill Country State Natural Area. This sprawling preserve often abounds in flowers, including the usual suspects—bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, primroses, firewheels, blue sage, daisies, wild petunias, and many others. Two hours of riding, breakfast, and lunch come with an overnight stay at one of Running-R’s oak-shaded cabins. For dinner, try Busbee’s Bar-B-Que, or country cooking at the OST Restaurant, both in town.

From Bandera, go west on Ranch Road 470, past beardtongue, prairie vervain, thistles, skeleton plant, Navajo tea, scrambled eggs, and blue curls. In Tarpley, Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery serves burgers for lunch and gourmet fare such as honey-basted quail for dinner Friday and Saturday (brunch on Sunday). If you’re not hungry in Tarpley, keep going to Utopia for burgers, steaks, or Mexican food at Lost Maples Cafe. All that driving and flower-gazing is hard work; rest up at Bend O’ the River Bed & Breakfast, just north of Utopia on RR 187.

Driving Ranch Road 1050 to US 83 takes you back to Leakey. Swing into Garner State Park on the way, and dip your feet in the Rio Frio, or pitch a tent and stay all night.

South Texas

From Smiley, take US 87 south. At Westhoff, turn left on unpaved Cheapside Road and drive about two miles for a truly dazzling flower display on both sides of the road. Make a safe U-turn, return to US 87, and head for Cuero. This drive traverses Central Texas Plains, where lazy daisies, rattlesnake flower, Barbara’s buttons, blue-eyed grass, wild onion, linum, American basket-flower, prairie vervain, and skeleton plant bloom. Bunk at Ridge View Ranch, seven miles outside of Cuero, and from the spacious porch or from beneath a sprawling oak tree, enjoy vistas that often include bluebonnets, phlox, winecups, and coreopsis.

The Guadalupe River skirts Cuero; spy wildflowers from a canoe or kayak along the 13.8-mile Guadalupe Valley Paddling Trail, which has access points north of town on FM 766, and south on FM 236. A third access point on Texas 72 splits the route into legs of 6.6 and 7.2 miles, perfect for a morning or afternoon paddle, with a hearty meal at Smolik’s Quality Meats & BBQ before or after.

From Cuero, drive US 183 south to history-rich Goliad, past flowering hawthorn trees, Texas sensitive pea, showy evening primrose, and  marbleseed.  Stop at Goliad State Park, and visit Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site, a refurnished replica of the mission built here in 1749. The 188-acre park also offers a wildflower meadow with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, Mexican hats, Indian blankets, phlox, and horsemint, as well as access to a 6.6-mile paddling trail on the San Antonio River. A quarter-mile south lies Presidio La Bahía, originally built in 1749 to protect Mission Espíritu Santo. You can tour the newly refurbished museum, or even spend the night in the Presidio’s two-bedroom officer’s quarters (make reservations well ahead). For dinner, dig into homemade chicken and dumplings at the Hanging Tree Restaurant or jalapeño soup at Blue Quail Deli, both on the town square.

Take Texas 239 west for 33 scenic miles to Kenedy. Turn north on FM 792 to Helena, then take Texas 80 north to Nixon, where you can catch US 87 back to Smiley. Keep a sharp eye out for wildflowers in pastures and roadsides along the way.

Washington and Grimes Counties

Start in Brenham, and take Texas 105 a few miles, then turn north on FM 50. If you got a late start, turn off on Airport Road and enjoy lunch at the Southern Flyer, a ’50s-style diner complete with a jukebox and waitstaff in poodle skirts, overlooking the runway. A few miles farther down FM 50 on Clover Road, bluebonnets fill the fields around Windy Winery, says manager Linda Meitzen. Savor them along with a glass of Brazos Red from the cozy tasting room’s patio. Continue on FM 50 to Independence, with a quick detour left on FM 390 to Old Baylor Park, home to a riot of wildflowers, before proceeding east on FM 390. This road has a sharp dogleg, where you can take the scenic route—narrow William Penn Road—to Texas 105. If the area’s plethora of wildflowers inspires you to linger, take a detour down Pickens Road to Brazos Bed and Breakfast. A downstairs suite and upstairs guest room sleep up to seven, outdoor decks offer great 
birdwatching and fresh air, and breakfast includes eggs straight-from-the-chickens and herbs from the garden.

A bit farther down Texas 105, turn on FM 1155 and swing into Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site to add some history to your horticulture. Stroll the park’s trails, Star of the Republic Museum, and Barrington Living History Farm, and take a guided tour to see where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. Enjoy a picnic in the park, or try the daily special, or perhaps the ribs, at R Place right next door. Or drive on through Navasota, following Texas 105 to FM 1774 in Plantersville; Allphin’s Bar B Que and Smokehouse is on the right. The little building looks nondescript, but the sliced-beef sandwich is piled high with melt-in-your-mouth brisket and comes with thick, slightly spicy, handmade potato chips. Tombstones in the wooded Plantersville cemetery date to the Civil War. Take FM 1774 to Magnolia, and check out the town’s Texas Historic Landmark, a 1901 train depot.

From here, FM 1488 rolls through pine and oak woods to US 290. Head west here, and detour at FM 1155 to the Chappell Hill Historic District, home to antiques shops, historic churches, a history museum, one of the oldest continually operating banks in America, and the Stagecoach Inn. In case you’re ready to call it a day, the inn’s two secluded guesthouses lie with-in walking distance of the historic district. Or follow US 290 West back to downtown Brenham for dinner at the Brenham Grill (you can’t go wrong with the meatloaf and a brownie for dessert), located in historic Ant Street Inn.

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