By Jeff Abt
Submitted to the Daily Sentinel of Nacogdoches, Texas
Reprinted with permission of the author
As I begin this column, I don’t know what to write about, the maroon bluebonnet (Texas’ newest bluebonnet growing in its oldest town) or “the birds and the bees” (reproduction). Shall this column be a simple recitation of horticultural facts, or shall it be about a sordid tale involving strategies of attraction and seduction? I’ll try to work both in. (For what follows, parental discretion is advised.)
Before we talk about the “Texas Maroon” bluebonnet, we should talk about the different stratagems that plants use in reproduction. We all know about flowers and bees. Bees, in search of food, pollinate flowers.
Flowers, in turn, become fruit and seed, and thus the plant has perpetuated itself through another life cycle. Not only this, but plants actually have strategies to move themselves around. Grass burrs, those hateful things that get stuck in your feet, are really just grass seeds that have thorny protrusions that are in actuality botanical Velcro making them stick to any passerby (dog, human); and, so, the plant is perpetuated and spread around.
There are a variety of ways plants reproduce themselves. You’ve all noticed this spring the clouds of yellow pine pollen floating in the air. Pine trees hardly need bees for pollination. They approach the subject of reproduction with the force of sheer numbers. With all that pine pollen in the air, pine tree pollination will surely take place. We will have pine cones and thus new pine trees.
There are ornamental plants that have come up with a unique strategy of not only reproducing themselves but also spreading their genetic kin across the face of the earth. Let me give you an example of this. The native American magnolia is highly valued in Europe as an ornamental plant. The magnolia’s beautiful, glossy green leaves and magnificent white blooms have become the means by which this plant has spread itself all across Europe.
It happens not by some dog carrying the seed stuck to its fur (as the grass burr), but rather this plant has made itself attractive, alluring, and beautiful to human kind. Human beings actually grow millions of magnolias and plant them all across the United States and into Europe where they are not “native”. The dog moving around the grass burr and the human being moving around a magnolia are both “natural” things and both a part of the “natural order”.
This brings us to the sordid tale of the Texas Maroon bluebonnet. Imagine a field of bluebonnets and two inquisitive horticulturists, Greg Grant and Dr. Jerry Parsons. Jerry had been working for years with bluebonnets, trying to isolate and select out strains of red, white, and blue flowers, in an effort to create the Texas flag out of bluebonnets. Dr. Parsons tells me they were already ⅓ of the way to success with the bluebonnet when they began. White was also easy to come by, for the wildflowers naturally come in shades of blue, white, and pink. They next started working on the color red. As a result, they had selected out and planted a field of pink bluebonnets with the hopes of finding in this field a few red ones. Instead, they noticed some pink bluebonnets with a blue tinge to them in the field. These pink bluebonnets with the blue tinge began to use their wiles upon the unsuspecting Greg and Jerry. The plants had as their goal in life to reproduce themselves. The pink flowers of the field outnumbered the blue–tinged pink ones drastically. The ones with the blue tinge were rare, but they had a plan. They would lure human beings into perpetuating, preserving, and peddling their pink and blue–tinged DNA. The flowers had been perfecting their performance for who knows how many years; and, with the coming of these humans, it was time to take their show on the road. These little bluebonnets were on the verge of a great leap forward.
Greg Grant, being an Aggie, thought to himself, “These pink bluebonnets with the blue tinge in them look a bit like the color maroon. Let’s select out, not for the color red, but for the color maroon. Who cares about the Texas flag. It’s Aggies that matter.”
I won’t go into too much depth, but Greg and Jerry began gathering up the seed from these bluebonnets. After a few generations of selecting out bluebonnets with increasing red or maroon color, they eventually came up with a deep maroon bluebonnet. At this point we must take note of the amazing strategies and wiles of these little pink bluebonnets. They are outnumbered in the bluebonnet world; hardly anyone notices them. But now they have human kind taking part in the spreading of their kin around the earth. Lupinus texensis ‘Texas Maroon’ is now a reality. Not only are humans spreading them around the earth but a very unique species of human, Aggies.
So, what we have here is not a cross pollination of different species of bluebonnets, because, as Dr. Parsons says, “A & M will allow no sex going on with the State Flower.” In other words, Lupinus texensis can’t be fooling around with the Egyptian Lupinus termis. Rather what’s going on here is a lot of pollination within the family of Lupinus texensis (incest). In actuality, Greg and Dr. Parsons encouraged this sordid affair or (if you look at it from the bluebonnet’s point of view) Greg and Jerry were used by the bluebonnet to spread around the maroon color DNA of this family of bluebonnets. The maroon colored bluebonnets are taking over. (At least until Greg is successful with a certain family of purple ones that are wanting to assert themselves).