Bluebonnets have been loved since man first trod the vast prairies of Texas. Indians wove fascinating folk tales around them. 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 the plant 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 to affirm that “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.”
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. The ensuing battle was hot and heavy. One legislator spoke emotionally in favor of the cotton boll since cotton was king in Texas in those days. 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 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,” stated the resolution — and it was 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 that 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 Capital 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 to the northern part of Hidalgo County 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 to 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 stalk 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, rosy purple 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 two 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.
To keep bluebonnets blooming longer, remove old blossoms. This encourages a profusion of side shoots to develop and bloom while eliminating seed production, which would otherwise stop the bloom cycle.
For maximum impact and beauty in the landscape, use large drifts of a single color rather than a hodge-podge sprinkling of many colors. For example, a line of blue pansies (interplanted with one color of bluebonnets) reinforcing the line of your patio is most striking. Cool colors such as blue make an area appear farther away, whereas reds and yellows bring an area closer.
Bluebonnet planting time is also important. Many people wait until they see bluebonnet plants blooming in the spring to begin planting. IT’S TOO LATE to plant transplants in the spring. Fall is the optimum time!
The sooner in the fall (beginning in September) chemically scarified seed and transplants are planted, the larger the plants will grow in the spring and subsequently more bloom will occur. Root systems of seedlings and transplants established in early fall expand more and are able to produce a larger plant when top growth and bloom begins in the spring.
Chemically scarified seed should be planted no later than September 15 in North Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth) and Thanksgiving in South Texas (San Antonio). Transplants should be planted no later than Halloween in North Texas and Valentine’s Day in South Texas.
A major advantage of the commercial production of bluebonnet seed and, consequently, transplant availability is that it eliminates the problem of the homeowner having to wait until plants produce dry seed in June before removing old, ugly, dried plants.
Rather than suffering with the ugliness of a dying, drying plant (which can endure longer than 40 days after bloom), remove the plant after bloom has occurred. Who cares about the plant forming seed? You will be able to buy more fast-germinating, reliably producing seed as well as transplants next year. Gardeners don’t save seed of petunias, pansies, marigolds, etc. and NOW we don’t have to worry about having a dependable supply of the state flower’s seed.
Texas AgriLife Extension Service horticulturists, in cooperation with seed producers, bedding plant growers and vegetable farmers have domesticated the bluebonnet wildflower into a new multi-million-dollar bedding plant. People often ask how did such a wonderful project begin and why hadn’t it been done before.
In 1982, a terminally ill entrepreneur and Texas naturalist named Carroll Abbott, known to some as “Mr. Texas Bluebonnet,” had a dream of planting the design of our state flag comprised entirely of the state flower to celebrate the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial. This seemingly simple proposal involved thousands of people, created a multi-million-dollar agricultural industry, generated tremendous publicity for Texas A&M and is still producing new products and wildflower knowledge with no apparent end in sight.
Since the beginning, development of unusual bluebonnet color types has been the main driving force of this project. All of the other developments including bluebonnet transplants, rapidly germinating, chemically scarified seed, commercial seed production and early-blooming plant types were all necessary ingredients needed to find and proliferate the colors needed (blue, white and red) to plant the initial floral goal, a Texas state flag.