It’s Bluebonnet Time
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.
When the fields erupt in a blanket of blue flowers, native Texans, newly planted Texans and visitors alike whip out their Canons, Nikons and iPhones and plop their children among the sea of blue flowers.
Photo etiquette requires would be photographers to preserve the beauty of the scene by using the spots previous shutterbugs have already flattened. And never cross over a fence into a field without first speaking to the landowner. Texans take pride in their natural blankets of blue. The season usually last until mid-May.
It’s a seasonal tradition, but you should still proceed with caution.
Don’t forget that if you’re on the side of a busy highway you could be subjecting yourself to any number of roadway dangers.
“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,” historian Jack Maguire once wrote.
Bluebonnets have a most interesting history. Texas actually has five state flowers, more or less, and they are all bluebonnets.
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 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 thus spawned the polite Bluebonnet War.
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 which 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. The duly elected officials at 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.
September and October are the months for planting cold hardy fall annuals which bloom profusely the following spring. 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, then provide us with a riot of color during April and May. The bluebonnet is one of these.
Although heat is needed to germinate the seed, cool weather is needed to develop the bluebonnet’s root structure.
The clue to successfully cultivating bluebonnets lies in a 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 which will germinate and begin growing within ten 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.
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 only expect, at best, 20 seeds to grow out of every 100 planted using non-scarified seed. Also, one can’t even expect all of those 20 seeds to sprout simultaneously as sprouting may occur over a 30 day period. The availability of chemically 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 insure success you must have first chosen the optimum planting site. Emerging seedlings must be protected from the ravages of pillbugs 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 from overwatering.
One way to ensure successful bluebonnet bloom 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 the shade or in an area which receives less than 8-10 hours of direct sunlight. If grown in a shaded area, the plant will be tall and spindly with few blooms.
When actually planting bluebonnet seed, FORGET THE IDEA OF JUST THROWING OR SCATTERING THE SEED IN THE GRASS! Much bluebonnet seed has been wasted as bird feed using this scattering technique. The seed MUST be lightly covered or raked into the soil. In naturalized fields of bluebonnets, the seed is gradually covered by washing soil and defoliation of weeds and grass, BUT IT IS COVERED BEFORE IT ACTUALLY GERMINATES.
BLUEBONNET CULTURE AT A GLANCE
- Plant in full sun, in soil which drains well and doesn’t stay wet for long periods of time.
- Utilize transplants or chemically scarified seed
- Barely cover seeds with soil, don’t bury the crown of transplants
- Water seeds only on the day of planting and transplants only when the top one inch of soil dries
- No applications of fertilizer are required but are helpful and will cause more abundant bloom
- Interplant with pansies and other annuals for winter-long color
- Don’t overwater!