Floral Lore: The Stories Behind Texas Wildflowers

Addison Gregory, Staff Reporter


Wildflowers are a tell-tale sign that spring has arrived. They fill the streets with color, and brighten up the fields, and are truly a beautiful sight. But that’s all most people think of flowers, a pretty sight, a sign of spring. Just little splotches of color in the fields.


The Indian Paintbrush, Bluebonnet, and Indian Blanket are three common examples of wildflowers native to Texas. They each have their own stories, and their own uses. 


The Bluebonnet is the state flower. It’s one of the first flowers to bloom at the beginning of spring, and is pretty well known. “Bluebonnets are said to symbolize bravery, sacrifice, and admiration,” Farmer’s Almanac, Amber Kanuckel said. This flower is a symbol to the citizens of Texas, but also to several Native Tribes.


One of the tribes that holds cultural significance to the bluebonnet is the Comanche tribe. One of their legends is about a little girl who tries to help save their village.


In the Comanche, the Great Spirit is an all powerful being, who created some of their people. It is a common tradition in their culture to sacrifice items of importance during times of hardship, to try and win the favor of the Great Spirit.


One particularly desolate winter, the medicine men, who are the spiritual leaders of the tribe, said that they would have to make a sacrifice to “appease the great spirit,” Jane Kelogg Murray. One little girl in the tribe decided to sacrifice her favorite doll, a little thing, with a bonnet crafted out of blue jay feathers. She burned it in the bonfire that night, and the ashes were blown across the fields.


In the morning, when the tribe awoke, they saw that the fields were filled with the luscious blue color of the bluebonnets. This is a story that is told and retold, and even though some of the details may have been lost in the retellings, the moral and the ideals still remain. 


Native Tribes also have used the bluebonnet extracts to help with ailments such as fevers, coughs, and eye irritations. The bluebonnet extracts have never been proved to be beneficial to your health, or to any of those ailments, but Native Tribes such as the Apache and Comanche tribes believed that they did. 


Despite its name, not all bluebonnets are blue. “Though bluebonnets are typically blue, occasionally you’ll come across light blue, white or pink flowers growing in the wild. These are natural variants caused by genetic mutations. These variants generally don’t stick around in wild populations because blue flower color is dominant.” University of Texas in Austin, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center said.


There is a Mexican legend based around the pink bluebonnet. Before the invasion of Santa Anna and his troops, a Mexican family lived not far from the  Alamo. They had a beautiful estate, but that was all taken from them when the Mexican dictator invaded.


Some of their family was fortunate enough to survive the attacks, and a young woman who belonged to the family placed a pink flower to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary. When her child and mother asked where she had gotten it, she had said that all the blood and violence that had forsaken the estate had tinted the color of the once pure white flower.


The pink flower was a pink bluebonnet, and it’s said that the seeds from that flower drifted down the river, and spread their roots where they landed. “You will only find the pink ones near the river, within sight of the old mission,” Texas A&M University, Greg Grant said.


“Whether or not this legend is true, Parsons and Grant agree that the only place they have found those rare pink bluebonnets in the wild is along the road just south of San Antonio.” Jane Kelogg Murray said.


This story speaks of the sacrifice, and the heartbreak that this family went through during the Texas Revolution. This story tells the tale of surviving, and the cost that was paid so that Texas could be freed. 


“So remember, the next time you see a pink bluebonnet, it’s not only a pretty flower, but a symbol for the struggle to survive and of those who died so that Texas could be free.” Greg Grant said.


This story speaks to the fact that flowers are more than just pretty little plants that bloom in the spring. They have meanings, and stories, and while they not only provide pretty color to our land, they provide stories that build our cultures.


The Indian Paintbrush, while not as well known or cherished as the Bluebonnet, is also a very common flower that can be found adorning the streets in the cities, and blanketing the fields in the countryside. 


“About 200 different species of the flower exist, and nine of them are native to Texas.” Jane Kelogg Murray said. The most common type that can be seen in Texas is the Castilleja indivisa. 


“While Indian paintbrush is by far the flower’s most common name, it’s also occasionally nicknamed butterfly weed, prairie fire, painted lady, and grandmother’s hair. The latter name is attributed to the Chippewa tribe, who used the flower to make a hair wash and treat women’s illnesses in addition to rheumatism.” Jane Kelogg Murray said.


There are many different legends and stories that are based around the Indian Paintbrush, and like the bluebonnet, it has several Native American associations.


One of the Native American Legends is about a Native American painter, who didn’t have the materials to paint the sunsets he cherished so much. He asked the Great Spirit what to do. That very same night he was rewarded with a dream about two people who brought him a white deer hide, so white and pure that it glistened, and they instructed him to use it as as a canvas. One of the people was a young woman of indescribable beauty, and the other was a wise old man.


“They whispered to him to use it as a canvas, and that as evening came, he should head to the hillside where he would find everything he needed to paint.” Jane Kelogg Murray said.


He did as they had instructed, and on the hillside he found paintbrushes colored in every hue of the rainbow. There were violent reds as bright and deep as the blood of the spilled blood of the prey they hunted for nourishment. Vibrant yellows that glowed like the first rays of the rising sun. Calming blues like the top of a still lake. Purples so vivid they looked like the sky during the twilight. Greens that glistened like leaves in the morning, blanketed in dew. And oranges so bright they glowed like a fire in the night.


He used his deer hide canvas, and started on his masterpiece. It was truly beautiful, filled with all of the colors the Great Spirit had guided him to through the dream. He discarded his paint brushes on the hill, and when he laid his eyes on the same spot the next morning, it was covered with flowers in the same vibrant and beautiful hues.


That legend is where the Indian Paintbrush got its name. Much like the Indian legend about the bluebonnet, it’s quite old and has been told and re-told again and again, but it never lost the meaning, or the beauty of the story itself.


Also like the Bluebonnet, the Indian Paintbrush was used for medicinal purposes by many of the tribes, one of which being the Chippewa tribe. They believed that it could be used as a treatment for rheumatism, and they bathed in it to give their hair a glossy sheen. 


It was used as a love charm as well. They gave them to those they loved to show their feelings. They also used it for a more sinister purpose. To poison the food of their enemies. 


“Ironically, this plant was used by Native Americans as both a love charm in food and as a poison used against their enemies, as this species is known to have toxic properties.” US Forest Service, Christopher David Benda said.


That just goes to show that something so beautiful can be dangerous and deadly, while also being pleasing to the eye. Take Hemlock, for example. “Poison Hemlock or Conium maculatum is one of the most poisonous and deadly flowers.” Oleh Aditya said.


Nature is beautiful and gentle, but shouldn’t be underestimated. The consequences of doing so can be deadly.


The Indian Blanket is another flower that got its name from a Native American legend. There are many stories in many religions about individuals being lost, and given comfort or guidance from great and godly beings. It’s an idea that shows up in many religions, such as the Parable of Lost Sheep, in Christianity. The legend from which this flower get’s its name is the same.


There are many legends that are based around this vivid flower, and many have Native American origins. One of them speaks of a girl who was lost in the woods, in the midst of winter, and about to freeze. She looked up at the sky through the trees, and asked the Great Spirit to cover her with a blanket that she had seen her mother weaving. The blanket was for her father, who was a warrior. It was intended to protect him through his battles. When she awoke the next morning, she was rewarded by the vibrant colors of the Indian Blanket. The flowers had the same gradient of yellow and red as the blanket her mother had been weaving. They covered the girl, as well as the forest floor around her.


Another story that was told in the Native American tribes is about a weaver that was known for making beautiful blankets. He made a blanket that resembled the Indian Blanket, with a gradient of yellow and orange and red. It was intended to be his burial blanket, and was the last thing he made, and also the most beautiful.


It is said that the Great Spirit liked the design, and in tribute to its magnificent design, covered the grave of the renowned weaver in Indian Blankets the following year. 


There is also a tale, of Mexican origin this time, that says that the color of the Indian Blankets was changed by when Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador in 1519, invaded Mexico. 


The Indian Blanket was beloved by the Aztecs when they ruled over Mexico, from 1300, to 1521. Back then, the flowers were said to be pure yellow. They blanketed the fields in a sunlight-like color, and the red that paints their petals today was nowhere to be found. 


That changed when Hernán Cortés invaded the Mexican Valley. This invasion, and the fights that followed it came to be known as the Battle of Tenochtitlán. It lasted 93 days, from May 22, to August 13, in the year of 1521. This led to the conquering of Mexico by the Spanish.


The Aztecs were overthrown, but they didn’t go without a fight. The death count for the Aztecs  is unknown, but is estimated to be over 200,000. Their blood painted the fields in crimson. A once peaceful place scarred by the violence and the dead. The blood of the fallen is said to have tainted the color of the Indian Blanket, a reminder of the loss and heartbreak of the Aztecs.


As beautiful and cherished as these stories are, they only focus on the physical aspects and appearance of the Indian Blanket. Like most things, this flower has more uses than can be assumed. 


In modern day, the medicinal uses mainly focus on the roots. Tea is made from the crushed up roots, and used to treat and reduce inflammation in the stomach. Topicals are also made from it.


“It has been used to treat skin disorders by grinding the root of the plant into powder or chewing it and then applying it to the skin.” INaturalist said.


This vivid flower is the basis from which many stories have been woven, across several cultures. 


These pretty little flowers impact human lives so much, and yet are under appreciated. They decorate our clothes, our homes, our stores, our streets, and yet they still go unseen in their true glory.. So pay attention, when you’re driving down the road, or taking a stroll. Look at the flowers, and not just a glance. Remember the names, listen to the stories. They are so much more than meets the eye.

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