Bluebonnets: A Texas Tradition
Wet winters around Texas nearly guarantee we will be celebrating the following spring with fields of fat blooms. Many South Texans recently basked in what was widely considered the finest roadside bluebonnet display in ten years or more…a lovely reward for the long, strange, snow-filled winter the state experienced in the last six months.
Like most wildflowers and other winter annuals, bluebonnets benefit from fall seeding in the South, and they like their soil lean and well-draining. After germinating, the seedlings (shown at left) hunker down for the winter. Sound harsh? That’s how bluebonnets roll. You can’t be a shrinking violet and survive in the berm of an oft-travelled Lone Star highway. In fact, the sloping roadside terrain ensures the bluebonnets get that much-needed good drainage, and the wind created by passing traffic certainly helps with the reseeding process.
Here’s a bit of history: In 1971, the Texas Legislature elected all species of bluebonnets to be recognized as the state flower, although another species, Lupinus subcarnosus -- unglamourously nicknamed "Buffalo clover" -- had been recognized as the state’s flower since 1901 and even that decision wasn’t reached easily.
As the story goes, the selection contest in 1901 was apparently pretty heated. According to the Texas A&M website, many thought cotton should be honored, since it was the main crop of the state at the time. Conversely, future Vice President of the United States John Nance Garner earned his nickname of “Cactus Jack” because he lobbied so passionately for the native hardy succulent to be selected. In the end, a persuasive group of ladies known as the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Texas won over the selection committee with their recommendation of the bluebonnet.
We can credit the late, great Lady Bird Johnson for so many petal-pushing projects, but it is the former First Lady who is almost solely responsible for the current proliferation of bluebonnets throughout the state. After returning to Texas following her husband’s stint in the White House, Lady Bird encouraged the state to scatter wildflower seeds along the highways during the early ‘70s. They have spread and flourished ever since.
And…they have also changed color. What? A bluebonnet that isn’t blue?
Well, let’s backpedal a bit. To say they’ve “changed” color isn’t quite accurate. The truth is, a pair of Aggie plant gurus decided to create a hybrid from the white and pink variants that sometimes occur in native blooms. Enter 'Texas Maroon' – a reddish-pink bluebonnet. (Not a “redbonnet,” thank you.)
Horticulturists Jerry Parsons and Greg Grant were inspecting a production field of ‘Abbott Pink’ bluebonnets in LaPryor, Texas, in spring 1988. Grant discovered a plant with a variant flower color of purplish-maroon. Seed collected from this plant was used to produce transplants that were field planted in the fall of 1989; most of the flowers were pink or purple, but 10% were maroon. Seed was collected from these maroon-flowered plants and used to produce transplants that were field-planted in the fall of 1990. They continued this seed collecting and replanting for five more years (one cycle per year) until a pure maroon-shaded population was obtained. This line was grown in isolation for two additional years, and is being currently sold as ‘Texas Maroon’ or ‘Alamo Fire.'
However, while Texas gardeners and retailers initially bristled at the idea of a red bluebonnet, the flower became a huge hit in Europe. Since then, seeds for the hybrid red version are still available but have become a little hard to find. A quick visit to the Wildseed Farms website showns none in stock. After I sent an email inquiry to Wildseed Farms, they were kind enough to quickly reply that, while their current stock was sold out, more should be available from this year's flower harvest in late summer or fall. Meanwhile, seeds of the common blue version are widely available. (To date, none of the other variants, such as the pure white, 'Barbara Bush Lavender' or 'Abbott Pink' have been developed for or offered to home gardeners.)
If you decide to plant seeds of Alamo Fire, keep them well isolated from any other bluebonnet variety; the reds will eventually cross-pollinate with and return to the more dominant blue color over time. You’ll probably get some interesting purple hues in the seasons between there, though!
While Mother Nature ensures consistent-but-conservative yearly production of bluebonnets, the average gardener trying to start plants in seed trays may have difficulty with germination. The seed coat of the bluebonnet is notoriously hard, so much so that the afore-mentioned horticulturist Jerry Parsons developed a special chemical scarification process just to boost bluebonnet production.
However, for those who don’t wish to turn to chemicals, an overnight soak in water or light scuffing with sandpaper seems to help immensely. Alkaline soil suits all bluebonnets best, and an ounce of seeds will cover about 200 square feet. Like most wildflowers, bluebonnets benefit from good seed contact with the soil, lots of sun, adequate water and very little, if any, fertilizer. In the South, a September or October planting time is best. The flowers usually reach their peak in early April.
And, come summer, if you want your bluebonnets to reseed, wait until seed pods form and turn brown on the plants (usually six weeks after blooming), then mow.
Sadly, this otherwise tough flower is apparently no match for homeowners associations. A Dallas couple was threatened with legal action if they didn’t mow down their front yard field of bluebonnets. They reluctantly agreed…but only after convincing the HOA to let them keep the plants that were neatly contained within their garden beds.
Something tells me those bluebonnets will be back next year for revenge. After all, you don’t mess with the Texas state flower.
Uncredited photos appearing above were designated as public domain by Wikipedia contributors.