One of the most colorful perennial wildflowers found in Runnels County is on the endangered species list. The Texas Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe scabriuscula) is a member of the Malvaceae family and is endemic to the area, found in the Rolling Plains that encompasses Runnels County, Coke County, Mitchell County and Scurry County. Those are the only 4 counties that Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPWD) lists as current locations where the flower is found.
The Texas Poppy Mallow is an erect perennial in the Mallow family and is sometimes colloquially referred to as “Winecups.” The Winecup is actually another member of the Mallow family, Callirhoe involucrata, and is also found in the county. Those Winecup flowers are sometimes referred to as Purple Poppy Mallow. The name just depends on who you ask and where they’re from.
One reason that the Texas Poppy Mallow is in Runnels County is that it thrives in alluvial sand. The combination of west Texas winds and sandy soil allows the flower to thrive. Alluvial sand is sand that is loose, windblown, unconsolidated sand. It can form deep spits of sandy material and is the ideal environment for the flower. It’s mainly found along the Colorado River in the aforementioned counties due to the deep sands along the banks of the river.
The flower forms a striking impression on anyone who sees fields of them in pastures and along the edges of sandy cultivated areas of cotton and wheat. According to the rare plant botanist with TPWD, the stem of the plant can grow up erect, up to 3’ in length and is topped by the wine cup shaped flower. The green parts of the flower are covered with a dense layer of branched, star-like hairs. The fruit has a thinner layer of unbranched hairs. The lower leaves form a rosette and more or less circular in outline have shallowly lobed. Leaves on the stem are the same shape although they are smaller. The flower is 5-petaled, magenta to red wine color and ranges from 1” to 1.5” tall and approximately ¾” across. The upper structure cups the flower base and has five pointed lobes. There is a darker red spot at the base of each petal.
The flower only blooms in May and June when the flower opens just before dawn and closes at sunset every day for 6-8 days. The flower dies quickly as it begins to wither within 90 minutes of being pollinated. One species that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the flower are bees. Bees are the main pollinators of the flowers and hints of the flavor of the plant can found in honey that is from areas with significant numbers of the plants.
Like many flora and fauna in nature, the plant was put on the endangered species list due to loss of habitat from man such as sand mining, road construction, agriculture and the ever-present application of herbicides and insecticides. It was in 1981 when the federal government added the plant to the endangered species list. Officially it is listed as G2 “Imperiled” under the NatureServe conservation status.
In the past the petals of the flower were used to make dyes with the dyes coming out in the same colors as the flower. Mixing different colored petals created a wide range of hues. To ensure that they didn’t damage the prospects for the following year’s plants only the petals of the plants were harvested without disturbing the already fertilized ovary.
The status of “endangered” protects the plants on public land where they may not be picked or otherwise damaged. The law does not apply to the flowers growing on private land.
The flowers are a natural treasure for the 4 counties where they exist and are often found in fields of other flowers such as bluebonnets, Indian blankets, wild sunflowers and Indian paintbrushes. Their colors create a stark and beautiful contrast when intermingled with fields of blues and reds other flower species.