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Lore of the Bluebonnet

Bluebonnets have been loved since man first trod the vast prairies of Texas.  Indians wove fascinating folk tales around the beautiful flower.  The early-day Spanish priests gathered the seeds and grew them around their missions.  This practice gave rise to the myth that the padres had brought them from Spain, but this cannot be true since the two predominant species of Bluebonnets are found growing naturally only in Texas and at no other location in the world.

As historian Jack Maguire so aptly wrote, “It’s not only the state flower but also a kind of floral trademark, almost as well known to outsiders as cowboy boots and the Stetson hat.” He goes on the affirm “The Bluebonnet is to Texas what the shamrock is to Ireland, the cherry blossom to Japan, the lily to France, the rose to England and the tulip to Holland.”

The ballad of our singing governor, the late W. Lee O’Daniel, goes, “you may be on the plains or the mountains or down where the sea breezes blow, but bluebonnets are one of the prime factors that make the state the most beautiful land that we know.”


TEXAS HAS FIVE STATE FLOWERS?

As our state flower, bluebonnets have a most interesting history.  Texas actually has five state flowers, more or less, and they are all bluebonnets.  Here is how it happened:
In the spring of 1901, the Texas Legislature got down to the serious business of selecting a state floral emblem and the ensuing battle was hot and heavy.  One legislator spoke emotionally in favor of the cotton ball since cotton was king in Texas at that time.  Another, a young man from Uvalde, extolled the virtues of the cactus so eloquently, noting the hardy durability of the plant and the orchid-like beauty of its flowers, that he earned the nickname of “Cactus Jack” which stuck with him for the rest of his life.  He was John Nance Garner and later became the 32nd vice president of the United States.

But the National Society of Colonial dames of America in Texas won the day.  Their choice was Lupinus subcarnosus (“…generally known as buffalo clover or bluebonnet,” state the resolution) and it passed into law on March 7 without any recorded opposition.

And that’s when the polite bluebonnet war was started.

Lupinus subcarnosus is a dainty little plant, which paints the sandy, rolling hills of coastal and southern Texas with sheets of royal blue in the early spring.  But some folks thought it was the least attractive of the Texas bluebonnets.  They wanted Lupinus texensis, the showier, bolder blue beauty that covers most of Texas and gives inspiration to many an artist.

So, off and on, for 70 years, the Legislature was encouraged to correct its oversight.  But the wise Solons of Capitol Hill weren’t about to get caught in another botanical trap nor did they want to offend the supporters of Lupinus subcarnosus.  They solved the problem with typical political maneuvering.
In 1971, the Legislature handled the dilemma by adding the two species together, plus “…any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded,” and lumped them all into one state flower.
Among the many things the Legislature did not know then was that the big state of Texas is home to three other species of Lupines and the umbrella clause makes all five of them the state flower.  And, if any new species are discovered, they automatically will assume the mantle of state flower, as well.

The Five State Flowers of Texas are:
Lupinus subcarnosus, the original champion and still co-holder of the title, grows naturally in deep sandy loams from Leon county southwest to LaSalle county and down the northern part of Hidalgo Count in the Valley.  It is often referred to as the sandy land bluebonnet.  The plant’s leaflets are blunt, sometimes notched with silky undersides.  This species, which reaches peak bloom in late March, is not easy maintain in clay soils.

Lupinus texensis, the favorite of tourists and artists, provides the blue spring carpet of Central Texas.  It is widely known as THE Texas bluebonnet.  It has pointed leaflets; the flowering stock is tipped with white (like a bunny’s tail) and hits its peak bloom in late march and early April.  It is the easiest of all the species to grow.

Lupinus havardii, also known as the Big Bend or Chisos bluebonnet, is the most majestic of the Texas bluebonnet tribe with flowering spikes up to three feet.  It is found on the flats of the Big Bend country in early spring, usually has seven leaflets and is difficult to cultivate outside its natural habitat.
Lupinus concinnus is an inconspicuous little lupine, from 2 to 7 inches, with flowers, which combine elements of white, rose and lavender.  Commonly known as the annual lupine, it is found sparingly in the Trans-Pecos region, blooming in early spring.

Lupinus plattensis sneaks down from the north into the Texas Panhandle’s sandy dunes.  It is the only perennial species in the state and grows to about 2 feet tall.  It normally blooms in mid to late spring and is also known as the dune bluebonnet, the plains bluebonnet and the Nebraska Lupine.

TAKING THE MYSTERY OUT OF SEED GERMINATION

September and October are the months for planting cold hardy, fall annuals that bloom profusely the following spring.  This concept is a hard item to sell to most people who are convinced that customarily, “April showers bring May flowers”.  Therefore, most don’t consider planting until Spring.  Nature, on the other hand, doesn’t need convincing that fall IS the best and proper time for planting winter annuals.
A number of spring-blooming wildflowers germinate in the fall, their tops remaining small and inconspicuous while developing a massive root system throughout the winter which then provide us with a riot of color during April and May.  The bluebonnet is one of these flowers.

Although heat is needed to germinate the seed, cool weather is needed to develop the bluebonnet’s root structure.

Basically, cultural practices for the Texas state flower have not been changed or significantly researched in the past century.  Because of research supported and funded by the Worthington Hotel of Fort Worth and thanks to modern agricultural technology, the bluebonnet is finally becoming “all that it can be”, taking its place among our most treasured, hardy bedding plants.

The clue to successfully cultivating bluebonnets lies in knowledge of the seed.  The seeds resemble small, flat pea-gravel and are multi-colored with slate blue and light tan being the most common hues.  People can now buy bluebonnet seed that will germinate and begin growing within 10 days rather than the months required previously.  One might think that any seed, if viable, will grow when planted; not so with the bluebonnet.  Nature has structured the bluebonnet seed in such a way that only a small percentage of the seed germinates during the first season after planting.  This delayed germination ensures species survival during periods of adverse growing conditions such as prolonged drought.  Nature may want to ration bluebonnet seed germination but planters of the state flower want each and every seed to germinate and grow rapidly.

To ensure rapid, high-percentage germination, the bluebonnet seed has to be treated to remove inhibiting properties of the seed coat which otherwise prevent water uptake and initiation of growth.  This process of seed treatment is referred to as scarification.  Seed that has been properly scarified will germinate within about 10 days after planting in moist soil. Seedlings of scarified seed are also more vigorous.  All bluebonnet seed at Wildseed Farms has been scarified for even and quick germination.

PLANTING POINTERS

For years, wildflower lovers have planted bluebonnet seed and wondered what happened to the beautiful spring bloom that they expected.

First of all, if common bluebonnet seed is used which has not been scarified, one stands less chance of success.  The germination of non-scarified seed is sometimes less than 20 percent.  This means that assuming you do everything correctly (pest control, optimum moisture), one could expect only, at best, 20 seeds to grow out of every 100 seeds planted using non-scarified seed.  Also, one cannot expect all of those 20 seeds to sprout simultaneously as sprouting may occur over a 30-day period.  The availability of acid-scarified seed solves this age-old problem.

Of course, getting seed to germinate and plants to emerge from the soil is just the beginning.  To ensure success, you must first have chosen the optimum-planting site.  Emerging seedlings must be protected from the ravages of pill bugs and rotting by soil fungi.  Most would-be bluebonnet growers kill plants with too much water.  Remember, bluebonnets are actually very drought tolerant and as such are very susceptible to death by overwater.  In the wild, you always see bluebonnets growing on slopes.

One way to ensure successful bluebonnet blooms from seed or transplants is to plant them in an ideal location.  Ideal can be defined with one word, sunny.  Bluebonnets will not perform well if grown in shade or in an area that receives less than 6 hours of direct sunlight.  If grown in a shaded area, the plant may become tall and spindly with few blooms.

Bluebonnets will thrive in almost any soil as long as it is well drained.  If you are plagued with sticky clay soil, try building raised (6 inches or more) planting beds and amending the soil with 3-4 inches of organic matter (compost, tree leaves, spoiled hay, etc.).  Don’t Keep the soil too wet; just keep it slightly moist.  Remember that once plants become established (2 or 3 weeks after germination), they are drought and cold tolerant and one of Texas’ toughest natives.

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Sheila
Sheila
4 months ago

Loved this article and it has a wealth of information that all “Bluebonnet Lovers” should read. Thank you!

Terrance Roy Williams
Terrance Roy Williams
3 months ago

After recently visiting the Wild Seed Farm, and having a glass of wine with John & Marylin Thomas the owners of the establishment, and their visions of their venture, I was really impressed with their dedication, their Texan welcoming, wonderful sense of humour, and dedication to each other and the business.
Everyone employed enjoyed the work and were also dedicated to the enterprise, including John & Marylin’s family who were also running various operations.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit if you are in the Hill country, it’s a great experience!