Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Texas History: How the Tahoka daisy sprang into existence

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
The Tahoka daisy or prairie aster of the Llano Estacado in Texas.
  • Thinking of planting a Tahoka daisy? Here’s where the bloom got its name.
  • The wife of a ranch hand on the Tahoka Lake Ranch brought the purple aster to light.
  • A garden club member in Lubbock sent the seeds back East.

As you read this, I am on vacation. Yet I did not forget the statewide readership of the Think, Texas newsletter and column. In my absence, allow me to offer a March 28, 2020, column by Christina Stephens, a frequent contributor to the Caprock Chronicles, a historical series edited by Jack Becker, a librarian at Texas Tech University. It was originally published in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. 

The first Texas native wildflower that became ingrained in my memory was a little purple aster flower, and it happened to me while working on saving a historical Texas ranch headquarters.

It was a single stem flower that sometimes grew in massive patches. Its growth pattern was correlated with rainfall amounts for that year.

I went on to learn about more wildflowers thanks to the late Zoe Kirkpatrick’s book, “Wildflowers of the Western Plains: A Field Guide” (University of Texas Press).The purple aster flower in question, as I learned, was the Tahoka daisy, Machaeranthera tanacetifolia, or tansy aster.

Lately, it has become a passion of mine to learn how wildflowers got their names. How did such a small purple aster get the name of a small Texas town?

Let’s begin with a bit of history of the area of Texas known as the Llano Estacado. The Llano Estacado was a prairie we all could only dream of. It was a sea of unending grasses, with hardly a tree in sight, with maybe a lone cholla cactus or a yucca in bloom. Seemingly like Nessie of Loch Ness breaking the water with her head only to go back under disappearing. The Llano Estacado was a waving sea of grass on land.

As the area slowly developed, people moved in seeking their fortunes. Some made their fortunes in the cattle industry. Just a few of the big names that established ranches on the Llano were C.C. Slaughter, David DeVitt and the XIT Ranch.

The house at Tahoka Lake Ranch, where the Tahoka daisy was found by a ranch hand's wife.

One of the first things ranchers did was fence in their rangelands. They strung miles of barbed wire fences to keep their cattle at home. Once the fences went up and the grazing began the sea of grasses slowly disappeared.

With the advent of ranching came cowboys, ranch hands and the women who often kept those men alive to do their jobs.

Rancher C.C. Slaughter liked acquiring ranch land to lease for his cattle. In 1897 he acquired a lease of 140,000 acres known as Tahoka Lake Ranch in Lynn County and, through a foreclosure sale later in 1898, he bought the land and hired Jack Alley to run the ranch for him. Six years later Slaughter sold the ranch to Alley.

Alley’s wife, Effie Paralee, was not a typical woman who sat home while her husband was out working cattle. Effie always rode herd with her husband, the cowboys and the cattle.

Legend has it that Effie first discovered a tiny purple aster flower emerging from the ground at the Tahoka Lake Ranch in 1898. Can you imagine walking on the ranch and discovering this little purple aster with a yellow center? After this nothing much is known about Effie.

It took another 25 years for the purple aster to get noticed again, this time by a Lubbock woman named Roberta Myrick. One day while driving south of Lubbock, probably on a dirt road, a lavender colored flower caught her eye. It must have been a rainy season for she said it was almost a shrub like plant covered in purple flowers. Roberta got out of her car and dug up the daisy plant and took it back to Lubbock and planted it. As the plant went to seed, she saved the seeds and sent them to a Pennsylvania seed company that in turn sent the seeds to New York.

Eventually the seeds ended up in the Burpee Seed Catalog. How the seeds got in the catalog is not clear, but the seeds were featured in their catalogs starting about 1925. 

Only a few details of Roberta’s life are known and no known photograph of her survives. Yet Roberta was the first woman to own and drive her own car in Lubbock County. She was a charter member of the Lubbock Garden Club. Most importantly, she loved working with rare flowers. Roberta died at the age of 80 in 1948.

The Tahoka daisy was originally named by Carl Sigismund Kunth in 1832 as the prairie aster and it often goes by both names. Kunth was a German botanist who categorized and named a diversity of plants.

More specifically, the Tahoka Daisy is a hardy upright sprawling annual native to the midwestern United States. It is quite easy to recognize by the purple dense and compact leaves that are deeply divided into many narrow segments. 

The Tahoka daisy is an aster-family wildflower with 2-inch lavender-blue flowers, a golden-yellow center, and green, fern-like foliage. They prefer sandy or gravelly soil in full sun with a blooming period from May to September.