Wallow in the wonder of wildflowers in the Bluebonnet Capital of the World

The Bluebonnet Capital of the World is right here in Burnet, Texas. From about mid-March to the end of April, Burnet becomes the center of spring festivities as the Highland Lakes area bursts forth in bloom. Wildflower season rivals the fall colors of the Northeast in awe-inspiring beauty and ability to draw tourists.While this year’s crop might not match the brilliance and abundance of the 2012 season, it still will be well worth watching, says Damion Waitt, senior botanist at the University of Texas’ Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Recent rains and warm temperatures could mean an earlier start to the season, he says.

“We’ll see some early blooming bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush but not as abundant as last year,” Waitt says. “You need sustaining rains throughout the winter to cause the flowers to really bolt.”

Bolting refers to when the green rosettes growing close to the ground change from a vegetative state to sending up flowering stalks.

“They’ll probably be a little smaller this year, too, because of the lack of rain,” he predicts.

Texas boasts five varieties of bluebonnet. All are considered the official state flower. The most well-known variety is the lupinus texensis, endemic to Central Texas.

“Lots of plants have limited distribution, and this is one of those,” Waitt says.

The Texas Department of Transportation works to spread the beloved bluebonnet beyond the borders of Central Texas by regularly seeding highways across the state. More than 5,000 species of wildflowers are sown over 800,000 acres of right-of-way that TxDOT then nurtures with carefully planned mowing.

Former First Lady Claudia Johnson — known lovingly as Lady Bird — championed the cause of highway beautification in Texas and across the nation. Thanks to her efforts, the Highway Beautification Act became law in 1965. The act established rules and regulations for outdoor advertising and junkyards, landmark preservation including parks and wilderness areas and safe waste disposal among other things.

Although the issue of seeding flowers has been a priority since the act became law, TxDOT has been maintaining wildflowers along the roadways since 1932. Texas is the first state to establish a wildflower seeding policy and buys about 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed every year.

Despite popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick bluebonnets or any wildflower, Waitt says, it’s just not a good idea. Many don’t retain their water after being plucked from the mother plant and quickly wilt. It’s best to leave them in the ground and preserve the image with a photo.

The Wildflower Center nurtures several picture-perfect patches for photographers, so there’s no need to pull onto the side of the road. Many flowers are damaged each year by photo seekers tramping down the flowers.

Waitt has some advice on how to prevent harming the blooms.

“Step in someone else’s footprint if you’re not the first one there,” he says. “Take your photo in an area already sat in by others. Don’t forge your own path. It’s best for the wildflowers.”

Carefully preserving this year’s crop could mean an even better crop next year, he says. And that’s big business here in the Highland Lakes.