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In a New Guide, Alpine Botanist Captures the Glories of Texas Wildflowers

Published in April 2018 by Timber Press, “Wildflowers of Texas” includes photographs and descriptions of more than 1,100 flowering plants in the Lone Star State. It's the work of Alpine botanist Michael Eason.

Bluebonnets along a roadway, Indian blankets in the chaparral – wildflower viewing is a rite of spring in the Lone Star State. And the opportunities here are almost inexhaustible. A Texan can see a quarter of all the wildflowers in the U.S. without leaving the state.

How would a botanist go about cataloging this abundance? 

In April 2018, Alpine's Michael Eason published Wildflowers of Texas. The guide contains more than 1,100 color photos, including many West Texas wildflowers that have never appeared in print before. Eason sought to balance scientific rigor with accessibility.

He'll discuss the book, and sign copies, at Front Street Books in Alpine Friday, April 27. He visits Midland's Sibley Nature Center July 19.

A conservation botanist, Eason provides consulting for West Texas landowners. But he cut his botanical teeth during 10 years with Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. There, he led the Texas portion of the Millennium Seed Bank Project – a global initiative to gather seeds, to safeguard wild flora from extinction.

In 2014, Timber Press approached him about writing a guide. The prospect was daunting, but irresistible.

Texas has roughly 6,000 types of flowering plants. Eason ruled out grasses, sedges, rushes and cacti. Colleagues elsewhere in the state agreed to share photos.

Then, he hit the road, criss-crossing Texas to supplement his photographic archive.

Eason traveled widely in his earlier work. Buy he's lived in Alpine since 2006, and worried he might be rusty on plants elsewhere in the state. 

“I'm more comfortable obviously with the plants out here in West Texas,” Eason said. “But strangely enough, when I had to go back out and photograph, it was odd how once I got to a certain area my internal GPS just kicked in. I was like, 'Oh, yeah – that plant is right over this ridge.' And – there it was.”

He photographed along roadsides. But Eason's landowner connections, and a willingness to walk, helped him photograph plants never before seen in print.

“Many of those plants were South Texas and West Texas species,” he said. “That's partially because they're kind of hard to get to sometimes – when you have to hike up a mountain to get a photo, not a lot of people are willing to do that.”

The guide is organized by flower color. Eason wrote descriptions for each plant, with habitat, bloom time and more. He was painstaking in descriptions – using a ruler to measure leaf lengths, for instance.

In some cases, the etymologies of Latin names have been lost. And searching them out was a challenge.

“A description – if I'm sitting down and can hammer one out – it usually takes about 30 to 45 minutes,” Eason said. “But there were the occasional plants that I would spend about four or five hours, because it just became so interesting, like a little mystery that you have to figure out: Where did this name come from? Who are these people that it's named after? And then you start reading about their history.”

Eason was able to add new species to the Texas record, and expand ranges for others.

There is no guarantee if or when a plant will flower. Serendipity is always a factor.

In Maverick County, Eason found Mexican mud-plantains. They grow in playas from Mexico to the Llano Estacado, but had never been photographed in Texas.

And on a backroad near Brackettville, in an ephemeral wetland, Eason found a species not known from Texas. Nymphaea ampla – sacred white lotus, or white waterlily – has luminous flowers, 8 inches wide.

“It was quite a treat to see and find,” he said. “It was one of those new things. It's just the person being at the right place at the right time, to see it and know what it is.”

Eason is now at work on a West Texas-specific wildflower guide. He said the projects are ultimately labors of love.

“Honestly, I learned so much doing it,” Eason said. “Because you don't know until you sit down and start looking and you start doing the research, and it's like, 'Wow, I never knew that was out here – I'll go look for it.' If you had enough money, this is what I'd do the rest of my life.”

Eason's April 27th talk at Front Street begins at 6:30 p.m.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.