The Dastardly Bastard Cabbage and What It Has Done to Texas Bluebonnets
Right now, Texas wildflowers are putting on quite a show in any number of places in Texas, but elsewhere, such as in West Texas and Houston, things are a little disappointing.
Photo by Son Lam One person's beautiful field of yellow wildflowers may be nothing but bastard cabbage hiding in plain sight.
So we called the gurus of all things wildflower -- the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center -- whose personnel confirmed, as expected, that last year's drought had taken its toll in parts of the state.
But then we heard something we didn't expect.
"Bastard cabbage" -- we had to ask the distinguished Saralee Tiede, communications director for the Center, to repeat herself because we were sure we'd misheard -- is a major culprit in Central Texas right now, spreading over to the coast. The invasive species can choke the life out of a bed of bluebonnets.
You probably have a photo of it, too. Probably thought it was real pretty. Just like us.
"It's a bad invasive plant. It's just galloping down the roadside. It comes up very early. It has huge bottom leaves that smother out the growth of other wildflowers. It goes all the way to the coast. People have been talking about it in Corpus and Port Aransas," Tiede says. "It's a foot, foot-and-a-half and even taller, stalky plant with little bitty yellow flowers about an inch across.
Photo by Son Lam The real deal in all its glory
"You'll see whole fields of yellow and I think a lot of people see that and say 'Oh, what a nice wildflower.' "Well no, it's not nice at all."
Then Tiede turned us over to Joe Marcus, Living Collections manager for the wildflower center. He confirmed her dour view of bastard cabbage, explaining the plant originates from Eurasia, has been in the northern United States for some years, finally hit Texas and finds Central Texas conditions about perfect. Although in many parts of the country while present in large quantities, bastard cabbage is not invasive as it is here, Marcus says, "for some reason it's just really made itself at home in Central Texas and we really don't know why."
"It's expanding its range southward and eastward," Marcus says.
And actually, Marcus says, the drought per se wasn't bad. In many cases the drought suppressed the growth of plants that would be in competition with the emerging wildflowers. What matters, he says, is when an area finally got rain in the fall and for West Texas, when that didn't happen at all.
"When you didn't get the rain, that affected the wildflower season around Houston. I know around Bryan/College Station and Washington on the Brazos -- that area that usually has just a great wildflower display -- it just didn't happen this year."
"Wildflowers are winter annuals; that sprouts in the fall and blooms in the fall and spring. So without good fall rains and some good rain during the winter you don't get a good spring show. "
But the Port Aransas area is better than ever, he says. Other standouts include Corpus Christi to San Antonio and San Marcos down to Port Aransas as well as the Willow City Loop, a Hill Country drive near Fredericksberg. That last area is ranch land and cattle don't eat bluebonnets, Marcus says.
Asked why it got called bastard cabbage, Marcus says he doesn't know. He most often refers to it by its scientific name Rapistrum rugosum. A while back there was some discussion ("We've had some people blush.") about changing the common name, Marcus says, but a former wildflower center director said " 'I think bastard cabbage describes that species perfectly and that's what we're going to call it.' and we never looked back on that."