Long before cars and tour buses trekked to Fredericksburg, Texas, bringing people to see fields carpeted in red poppies, gold yarrow, and violet bluebonnets, German immigrants steered their wagons and ox carts over rocky soil and through the scrub brush to settle in the Central Texas town.
Fredericksburg celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2022; more than 1 million annual visitors now come to this historic town, home to nearly 12,000 residents, for its art galleries, peach orchards, museums, vineyards, farm-to-table dining, and shops that sell everything from eclectic European antiques to custom-made cowboy hats.
And they also come for the flowers. Depending on the weather, black-eyed Susans, daisies, spurred snapdragons, and other wildflowers pop up from spring into the summer in this part of Texas Hill Country. The kaleidoscope of colors draws butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators—and crowds of onlookers with cameras in hand. Native annual flowers drop ripened seeds that resow, and perennials come back on their own, most years. Peak bloom is usually in April, when the spring rains fall, although a drought can delay or spoil the show entirely.
Wildseed Farms, billed as the largest working wildflower seed farm in the U.S., is located just east of Fredericksburg. Founder and owner John R. Thomas grows 41 species of wildflowers and harvests several hundred thousand pounds of seeds each year. Some are planted by backyard gardeners across the country and others travel around the world. He also supplies seeds to 28 different highway departments to beautify their roadsides. “Chances are, if you see wildflowers along the roads here or in Georgia or Mississippi or on the way to Florida, they grew from our seeds,” Thomas says. “We fill a lot of orders for North and South Carolina and Alabama, too.”
Demand for wildflower seeds got Thomas into this business. A former rancher and farmer, he’d been running a turf seeding company in Houston when landscape architects began asking him about growing wildflowers for their projects. Thomas went to see the wildflowers for himself: “I started taking pictures of people who pulled over to take pictures of wildflowers along the roads,” he says. “I realized people really loved them.” Since nobody was selling the large quantities of seeds he needed, he opened a “real, live working wildflower farm” to grow and harvest his own.
Not all of the wildflowers that grow in the long, hot Texas summers can survive colder climates. To meet the demand for seeds in New England and other cold-winter areas, Thomas contracts with growers in California, Oregon, and Washington, and as far away as Holland, Germany, and France. He sells some seeds as individual species, so you can buy a packet of just Texas bluebonnets (the state flower) or Mexican hats.
Other seed packets are mixed and labeled for specific regions, so gardeners get a variety of wildflowers that will thrive in their climate. Others are designed to provide food and cover for wild birds and small mammals, attract butterflies and hummingbirds, or produce flowers for cutting. Wildseed Farms also offers native grass and herb seeds, and an on-site nursery carries an assortment of plants.
Today, tractors roll, combines run, and employees hand-harvest the tiniest seeds on more than 1,000 acres dedicated to wildflower production at Thomas’ three farms. (Two more are located outside of Houston.) Admission and parking are free at his 300-acre operation in Fredericksburg, where visitors can walk the wildflower trails, admire seasonal gardens, shop, and sample wines bottled from on-site vineyards. After the blooms finish, there are fall events and an annual butterfly tagging. (Check the website for operating hours and other activities.)
An ocean of bluebonnets
Because Thomas knows people want to take pictures of his wildflowers, he lets them walk in some areas. “Yeah,” he says, laughing. “I know some of the flowers are going to get stomped.” He doesn’t seem worried. Seen from a distance, one bluebonnet field looks as big and blue as the ocean.
Lady Bird Johnson—wife of 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was born in Fredericksburg—is credited for working to pass many environmental and conservation laws, including the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. Eventually, a federal program came along to help pay for planting wildflowers and other native plants along highways across the country.
“She was a good friend of ours,” Thomas says of the former first lady. “Their ranch was about 14 miles from our farm here. She was a great supporter of what we were doing and would come by with her Secret Service agents about once a week in the springtime. Her favorites were showy primroses, and I’d grow a little field especially for her. She also loved bluebonnets and Indian blankets. We have a spot here we call the Lady Bird Meadow that was planted for her.” Today, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, located at the University of Texas at Austin, is the Botanic Garden of Texas.
Sunday houses and the Texas White House
After a visit to Wildseed Farms, follow the wildflowers along the road to downtown Fredericksburg, which still reflects its German heritage. A historic trolley tour takes you past many “Sunday houses”—small, charming homes settlers used when they came into town to shop on Saturdays and attend church on Sundays (many of which are now available as rentals).
Save time for the National Museum of the Pacific War, a museum originally named for another of Fredericksburg’s native sons, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Spread over 6 acres, it houses a submarine used to attack Pearl Harbor, a hatch from the U.S.S. Arizona, a casing designed for the “Fat Man” atomic bomb, video history kiosks, and more.
Detour to Stonewall, Texas, for the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, which feature the “Texas White House,” LBJ’s show barn, the Johnson family cemetery, and a JetStar aircraft, nicknamed “Air Force One-Half,” used during the Johnson administration. Just don’t forget to look for wildflowers along the way.