Many Species, Many Specialties
The roadsides are awash in flowers this time of year; some stretches of highway have completely changed colors in recent weeks. But the flowers that emerge each spring along the roadsides of Central Texas aren’t just beautiful — wildflowers serve as medicines, beauty treatments and food.
Wildflowers have long been found in soaps, lotions, scrubs, shampoos and, of course, perfumes. But the most important value they offer may be in the medicines and treatments that have come to us through centuries of tradition and a great deal of modern research. Flowering plants provide almost a quarter of the raw materials for our modern drugs. As our wildflower matriarch, Lady Bird Johnson, once said, “Surely there are others like digitalis out there.” She was referring to the foxglove, now commonly used to treat heart disease and responsible for saving countless lives.
Wildflowers can also serve as ingredients in our favorite dishes. Flowers give rise to two of the most common types of food — fruit and seeds — so harvesting the flowers is a similar process, just a little earlier in the cycle. And flowers offer some enticing flavor profiles just like their herb cousins.
Chamomile flowers have long been used as a soporific tea, but they can also be used to treat anxiety and a range of digestive problems. In vitro studies have demonstrated that chamomile kills bacteria, fungus and viruses. You often see the flowers used in shampoos, conditioners and other hair products for blondes, and repeated use can lighten the hair. Additionally, a chamomile compress can lighten dark circles under the eyes. This is a great plant for your garden as well. Known as the “plant’s physician,” it contributes to the overall health of the garden, especially onions and cucumber.
Lavender is used in all sorts of culinary endeavors, flavoring syrups and sugars as well as a number of desserts, including créme brulee, ice cream and semifreddo. Its light, fragrant notes can also be used in tea and all its accompaniments, including muffins, cookies and scones. Medicinally, it can be used to treat insomnia, stress and anxiety, and it is being studied as an antibacterial and antiviral. But its most common uses are in countless soaps, lotions and other beauty products, where the alluring fragrance adds a calming effect to a bath or massage. It grows well in Central Texas, and you may spot stunning purple rows of cultivated lavender as you drive around the Hill Country.
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
Several varieties of this plant exist, and most grow well here, particularly E. purpurea, which creates beautiful purple flowers that attract both butterflies and hummingbirds. But it’s the medicinal value of this plant that has drawn the world’s attention to this simple, pretty wildflower. Preparations have been used to fight colds and other minor infections, including skin infections and small wounds. An enormous amount of research is still being done on the antioxidant, antiviral and hormone-influencing properties of this wildflower. And it’s easy to receive the benefits — dried blooms can be made into a tea or combined with lotion to create an ointment.
Often confused with its allergy-inducing doppelganger, ragweed, this bushy plant is covered in tiny, vivid yellow flowers. It can become invasive, and should be planted carefully to make sure that it doesn’t take over. But its cultivation can be well worth while, as it attracts butterflies to the garden. Medicinally, the diuretic properties of this plant allow it to be used for inflammation, kidney and bladder issues.
Firewheel or Indian Blanket
These wildflowers are common to Texas roadsides, and easy to add to any landscape. If you decide to grow them yourself, the beautiful multicolored flowers will set fire to the garden. The blossoms are attractive to butterflies, and have special value for native bees. They also hold medicinal value — the flowers are used to treat gastroenteritis and skin disorders.
Sidebar of Related Information
Narrow the Field
When planning your own wildflower garden, the best way to begin is to determine what you want to do with the plants you grow. Do you want to harvest your own beauty products, or add new life to your cooking? Are you looking to create your own aromatherapy or medicinal teas?
There are many varieties of each major type of flower, so researching your choices beforehand can be crucial. For example, African violets are poisonous, but the common variety, related to the pansy, is frequently candied and added to desserts. Here are a few places to get started:
- www.wildflower.org — The grandmother of all wildflower web sites, this is the official website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It includes an extensive database of more than 7,000 native plants, which can be searched using a huge number of attributes. This is a research center, which publishes all kinds of new and developing data each year, and the site provides an online advisor who will answer your specific questions.
- www.npsot.org — The Native Plant Society of Texas includes information on local chapters (there are several in Central Texas), where to find plants in our area, and tons of articles and educational resources. If your thumbs turn green each spring, this may be just the place for you.
- www.lone-star.net/wildflowers — This site lets folks post Texas wildflower sightings, letting everyone know where to find the thickest patches and newest blooms. It also provides a listing of wildflowers by color, which can help you identify what you’ve seen.
- www.plants.usda.gov — The USDA PLANTS Database is an exhaustive listing of U.S. plants that can be searched by location (down to the county level), taxonomy (including common name), growth habits, native status, and more than 80 physiological characteristics.
- www.wildflowerinformation.org — This site offers a national look at the wildflower scene, with information on the types, regions and habitats of U.S. wildflowers, as well as some information on the history of these useful plants.