Born to Be Wild

Born to Be Wild

Beauty blooms at Wildseed Farms

Words by Jennifer Kornegay

Photos by Wildseed Farms

Just looking at any flower can bring on a mood boost, no matter its size, shape, or hue. But wildflowers—a few stems clutched in a haphazard, hand-plucked bouquet or thousands waving to us from a windswept field outside our car window—provide a burst of energizing happiness that’s distinct from the carefully cultivated flora of a formal garden. Perhaps it’s because they go and grow where they want; their appeal is comprised of equal parts aesthetic and a free-wheeling attitude. 

Whatever attracts us to them, we are entranced. It’s a fact John Thomas, founder and owner of Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, Texas, recognized more than 40 years ago. The fifth-generation rancher and farmer is not immune to wildflowers’ charms, but was inspired to start Wildseed, a farm whose main crop is wildflower seed, when he noticed how much others enjoyed them too. “I’ve always loved them. Every spring, our ranchland would become miles and miles of wildflower color,” he says. “And then I started noticing how much everyone loves them. I was seeing more and more people pull over on the side of roads to take photos of and among wildflowers.”

Thomas also had a side hustle—a turf-seeding business, and in the mid-1970s, when landscape architects began asking him where they could get wildflower seed to use in their projects, his passing interest grew into a business idea: farm wildflowers to harvest and sell their seeds and make it easy for people to plant and grow their own. “There just weren’t many seed sources out there at that time,” he says.

But first, he had to figure out how to get the seeds from the blooms. He started with The Lone Star State’s favorite wildflower, the Texas bluebonnet. “It’s our state wildflower, and I was able to modify a combine tractor in a way that let me extract its seeds. I went out on our ranch and began gathering all the seed I could, and that’s how it started.”

He opened Wildseed Farms in 1983, and today, it boasts approximately 1,000 acres in several spots in Texas, growing 20 species of wildflowers that produce more than 100,000 pounds of seed most years. More than 200 acres are at the farm’s headquarters in the hill country surrounding Fredericksburg. “It’s a niche crop,” Thomas says, “and still very few people are doing this. We are probably the largest wildflower farm in the country, and possibly the world, as far as I know.”

Its bluebonnet seeds put the farm on the map, and then Thomas added other species: black-eyed Susans, Indian blanket, blue flax, lemon mint and more. For years, buyers ordered from the farm’s information-packed seed catalog, which it still sends out, but its online store now represents the bulk of its business. 

Out in the fields, the process varies among each species, but flowers are planted in rows. Thomas and his team pray for rain, and once the flowers push through the soil and reach maturity, it’s time to harvest. This usually begins in April and continues into September. Combine tractors fitted with sieves collect the seeds. They’re given a good shake to separate them from leaves and other debris, and then they’re dried and cleaned before being bagged. They also have to pass USDA and Texas Department of Agriculture inspections. “They’re looking for purity, among other things,” Thomas says. “We don’t want invasive species mixed in with our flower seeds.”

This requirement drives part of the day-to-day work on the farm. “We keep our fields very clean, and keeping out weeds and grasses takes a lot of time and effort,” Thomas says. Wildseed added to its workload 15 years ago, expanding to add vineyards and a winery to craft wine with the fruits of this labor. It now has 14 varietals on 42 acres, making it the third-largest grape grower in a county that grows a lot of grapes. “I knew we had fantastic grape-growing soil, so as this area became a wine-producing region, I thought we’d try it too,” Thomas says.

There’s always a lot of agricultural activity at Wildseed, but it’s also become a destination. Its onsite seed and gift shop, its live plant nursery, and its café and winery tasting room entice visitors from the stores and eateries of quaint downtown Fredericksburg. Its walking trails winding through demonstration fields are a large draw. Squares of vibrant wildflower color flank the flat paths, and butterflies flitting and hummingbirds zipping by join those strolling, often with a glass of Wildseed wine in hand. “We get about 350,000 to 400,000 visitors a year; people love to come see us,” Thomas says.

Thomas loves that they love it. Farming’s in his blood, so he reaps the reward of tending plants and watching them grow, but he’s found purpose outside the fields too. “I really love watching people smile when they look at our crops or stop to take a photo,” he says. Spreading some of his home state around the world via his beloved bluebonnets and other Texas natives is a bonus. “It’s fun to know a piece of Texas ends up in other places when folks buy those seeds,” he says.