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Where Did All the Bluebonnets Go? Somebody Messed With Texas Wildflowers!
By Susie P. Gonzalez

April 2008

About 20 years ago, the Texas Department of Transportation introduced a catchy slogan to raise awareness of roadside litter called “Don’t Mess with Texas.”   In a twist of environmental irony, the same agency also began seeding roadways with a weed known as King Ranch Bluestem (or KR Bluestem) to prevent erosion and stabilize soils. But as the litter began disappearing, so did springtime displays of bluebonnets and other native wildflowers.

To determine whether Texas wildflowers can once again take root on state highway rights-of-way and elsewhere, and to improve management of rangelands, a Trinity University botanist will use federal funds to research the links between invasive weeds and diverse native grasslands. Kelly Lyons, assistant professor of biology, has received a $205,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an award considered prestigious for schools such as Trinity that emphasize undergraduate research.

She will develop new approaches to identify native plant species that can be used to control and manage invasive weeds that were intended to improve rangeland productivity and keep soils in place but grew wildly. Professor Lyons says that KR Bluestem is native to Eurasia and cultivars of the species were developed through the agricultural industry to improve degraded rangelands. “Unfortunately, it’s been a bit too successful,” she says. “The Texas Department of Transportation has introduced it very widely on roadsides to stabilize soils, and it is the primary reason that we no longer see the wildflower displays that we once did along roadsides and on many ranches in Central Texas.” 

A native Texan, Professor Lyons recalls that Lady Bird Johnson’s concept of roadside beautification was to protect and plant Texas native plants; however, Lady Bird’s legacy has been foiled by the introduction of invasive weeds such as KR Bluestem and others, including Buffelgrass, which grows south of San Antonio, the botanist notes. She left the state to earn a bachelor’s degree from American University and masters’ and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Davis.  She also conducted post-doctoral studies in Sonora, Mexico, on Buffelgrass. “Returning to Texas after a 20-year absence was a bit shocking as a Texan and a botanist,” she says of the increase in invasive weeds.  As a result of these introductions, Texans have lost and continue to lose major components of their natural heritage.  Fortunately, today local land owners are getting involved in native prairie restoration and, as a result, the sale of native seed is not only on the rise but also becoming an important agricultural market in Texas.”

As part of her studies, Professor Lyons will test whether restoration of native species that use resources in a similar fashion to an introduced invasive species will be more effective than native species that use resources differently.  For example, native species that germinate, grow, and reproduce at the same time as an invasive species might be expected to be more effective at suppressing the invasive species.  The project is being conducted on a privately owned ranch in Central Texas and integrates the knowledge of academics, local USDA Plant Materials Centers, and native seed suppliers. The grant period begins June 1, and includes funds for three students for the next four summers to join Professor Lyons in her work.

Although bluebonnets do tolerate drought well enough to persist in South Texas, Professor Lyons says the evidence is “quite clear” that invasive weeds such as KR Bluestem “homogenizehabitats. If you get out of your car and walk the roadside in Central Texas, you will see that most of the space is taken by KR Bluestem and there is little room for anyone else.” As her research goes forward, Professor Lyons may consider collaborating with a Trinity art professor to develop a book featuring “before and after” photos of rangelands once heavily populated by Texas wildflowers but now showcasing invasive weeds such as KR Bluestem.

Courses taught:

  • Integrative Biology (Introductory Biology)
  • Plant Biology
  • Conservation Biology
  • La Biodiversidad y Conservación de México (Spanish language course, Languages Across the Curriculum Program)

Selected Publications:

Lyons, K.G. and M.W. Schwartz. 2001. “Rare species loss alters ecosystem function – invasion resistance.” Ecology Letters 4:358-365.

Schwartz, M.W., C. Brigham, J.D. Hoeksema, K.G. Lyons, M. Mills, and P. VanMantgem. 2000. “Is biodiversity-for-ecosystem-function an appropriate conservation paradigm?” Oecologia.

Franklin, K.A., Lyons, K., Nagler, P.L., Lampkin, D., Glenn, E.P., Molina-Freaner, F., Markow, T., Huete, A.  2006.  Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) land conversion and productivity in the plains of Sonora, Mexico.  Biological Conservation 127(1):62-71.

Lyons, K.G.  Kelly G. Lyons, Baruk G. Maldonado-Leal, Gigi Owen.  In Press.  Community and ecosystem impacts of the non-indigenous C4 grass Pennisetum ciliare (Buffelgrass) in the Plains of the Sonoran desert, Sonora, México In Invasive Plants on the Move and Controlling them in North America, eds. Francisco Espinosa-García, Tani Hubbard, Thomas R. Van Devender, and Bonnie Harper-Lore.  University of Arizona Press.

Glen, E.P., Franklin, K.A, Lyons, K., Nagler, P.L., Lampkin, D., Molina-Freaner, F., Markow, T., Huete, A.  In press.  Remote sensing methods to monitor Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) land conversion and productivity:  Case study in the Plains of Sonora In Invasive Plants on the Move and Controlling them in North America, eds. Francisco Espinosa-García, Tani Hubbard, Thomas R. Van Devender, and Bonnie Harper-Lore.  University of Arizona Press.



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