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At the end of the road, past the observation platform, around the steel gate meant to discourage cars and up again on the berm, lies an isolated hiking path at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. On the east side of the berm, a ditch deep enough to provide protection from the wind allows plants to bask in low winter sunlight; it’s one of the first places I look for early-blooming flowers: coastal germander, verbena, scarlet pimpernel.
Sometimes, there are surprises. On January 27, I found the ditch filled with short and somewhat scraggly Gaillardia pulchella, commonly known as firewheel or Indian blanket. The genus name honors M. Gaillard de Charentonneau, a French magistrate and patron of botany, while the specific epithet means ‘pretty.’ Twelve species of native blanketflower inhabit the United States; at least one species can be found in every state, with Gaillardia pulchella the most widespread.
Known for their months-long bloom, these tough, cold-hardy Gaillardia clearly weren’t faded holdovers from the fall. In their snug little corner of the world, spring has arrived.
It would seem that a flower known as the scarlet pimpernel should be red, but this pretty little introduced flower that can bloom throughout the year has an interesting secret. Sometimes, it’s blue.
The phenomenon known as color polymorphism isn’t uncommon, but it usually involves blue, purple, or red-flowered plants that become white because of their inability to produce anthocyanins: the pigments that give those flowers their rich coloring.
Both scarlet pimpernel morphs — the red/orange and the blue — contain anthocyanins, but they differ among the plants. What determines which color will appear is somewhat mysterious. There are suggestions that climate is involved, since the best predictor of flower color seems to be hours of sunshine. In England, red pimpernels predominate; in sunnier Spain, blue is more common.
The red version, of course, is indelibly linked to one of the more well-known novels in English literature, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Its hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, disguises himself as a hapless playboy, while also devoting himself to rescuing aristocrats from the French revolutionary guillotine.
Given to leaving a card with an image of the red flower at the scene of his rescues, he becomes known as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Given the pimpernel’s ability to change its own appearance, a card showing both blue and red flowers might have been equally appropriate.