Lore of the Bluebonnet
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 whatthe 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 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 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. 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.
Taking the Mystery out of Seed Germination
September and October are the months for planting cold hardy fall annuals which 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, they don’t consider planting until April. 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, then providing 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.
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 Ft. 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 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.
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 the initiation of growth. This process of seed treatment is referred to as scarification. Seed which has been properly scarified will germinate within 10 days after planting in a moist soil. Seedlings of scarified seed are also more vigorous.
For years, wildflower lovers have planted bluebonnet seed and wondered what happened to the beautiful spring bloom which they expected.
First of all, if common bluebonnet seed is used which has not been chemically treated (scarified), one doesn’t have much chance for 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 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.
To avoid possible problems with seed germination, many people will want to use transplants instead. Transplants, being older, tougher plants, are much easier to handle and establish. The transplant is also easier to space so that stand establishment in formal plantings is assured. Transplants as well as scarified seed of white, pink, and ‘Worthington Blue’ bluebonnets are available to accentuate and complement the beauty of the more common blue variety.
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.
Bluebonnets will thrive in any soil as long as it is well drained. If you are plagued with a 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 (two or three weeks after planting), they are drought tolerant and one of Texas’ toughest natives.
Damping–off, a fungal disease complex which causes stem rotting, is not as prevalent with tough–stemmed transplants as with tender, emerging seedlings. To minimize damping–off, avoid planting in beds with a history of this condition, use transplants rather than seed and do not over water.
Also remember that during early growth, bluebonnets form ground–hugging rosettes. The whole plant may not be over several inches tall but the leaves may cover an area the size of a dinner plate. This is a natural condition and regardless of how much one waters or fertilizes, the plant will not grow rapidly until the warmth of spring initiates flower stalks. It is also natural for the lower leaves to turn a crimson color after the first freeze. Beneath the rosette of leaves, a large mass of roots is growing. These roots have the ability to form nitrogen–fixing nodules which are filled with beneficial bacteria that can take nitrogen from the atmosphere and feed the plant. This means that fertilization can also be kept to a minimum. No additional fertilizer needs to be added to bluebonnet planting beds since most established planting beds have an abundance of plant nutrients remaining from fertilization of previous crops.
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.
When planting a bluebonnet transplant, be careful not to plant it too deeply. You will notice that all of the leaves arise from a central crown–like structure. This crown should not be buried, otherwise the plant will rot.
Major enemies of seedlings and transplants are small, nocturnal menaces referred to as pillbugs, rolly–pollys, sowbugs, and several other names which should not be mentioned in polite company. These hungry devils can devour plants overnight. Many times the devastating onslaught does not occur immediately after planting. To ensure seedling and transplant survival, it is wise to broadcast pillbug bait around the newly established or emerging plants and do so weekly during the first month after planting.
Add Pansies for Winter Color
Many would–be, patriotic planters of bluebonnets have been discouraged with the idea of a non–blooming winter bluebonnet plant. From September until April, bluebonnets are a hard sell item to those who demand beauty from flower beds all year. This problem can be solved by interplanting with other fall annuals which serve as companion plants to provide interim beauty. After several years of testing and some record–breaking cold winters, the recommended companion plants for bluebonnets are pansies, dusty miller, dianthus, spring–flowering bulbs (tulips, etc.), ornamental cabbage or kale and Drummond red phlox. Most of these flowering plants will be overgrown by the bluebonnets in March as they begin to expand. At that time, remnants of the interim annuals can be removed, thus allowing the bluebonnets to take center stage.
To ensure continuous beauty and utilize the texture of the bluebonnet foliage as a background, plant bluebonnet transplants in rows 24 inches apart. Transplants should be 12 inches or less apart in the row. Then between each row of bluebonnets, or every 12 inches, plant a row of pansies, ornamental kale, cabbage, dianthus, dusty miller, spring–blooming bulbs or Drummond red phlox. Bluebonnets also make a great companion plants for summer blooming perennials such as lantana, mealy cup sage, autumn sage, and Michalmas daisy. These and similar plants can be cut to the ground after the first frost and interplanted with bluebonnet transplants. As the bluebonnets fade in late spring, they can be removed as the warm season perennials begin to emerge.
In addition, bluebonnets make great plants for containers such as whiskey barrels and terracotta pots. The pots should be filled with a potting mix which drains well and placed in a sunny location. Bluebonnets are an ideal low maintenance flower with which to replace summer color container plants (copper plants, periwinkles, purslane) — particularly those around decks, patios and pools which won’t be used again until spring. The following spring, as the bluebonnets fade, replace them with your favorite heat loving flowers.
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–Ft. Worth) and Thanksgiving in South Texas (San Antonio). Transplants should be planted no later than Halloween in North Texas; 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.
Exciting New Colors
Texas Agricultural Extension 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”, implanted in the mind of Extension horticulturists 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 and what has been involved to make it a reality have 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.
BLUE: The blue bluebonnet was, of course, already available. The only thing needed to be done with this color was to enhance seed germination and formulate a commercial production technique which would ensure a dependable seed supply.
WHITE: The white strain of bluebonnet was familiar to most local botanists yet still unknown to the majority of Texans. Photographers always treasure the opportunity to find a rare white albino bluebonnet nestled among the blues to enhance their artistic attempts. Consequently, many people knew where white populations existed.
PINK: The development of a pink bluebonnet was thought to be an impossible task. Even Carroll Abbott considered location, purification and proliferation of the pink, and eventually red, bluebonnet a bit farfetched. This great plantsman had roamed the fields of Texas his entire life and had seen only three pink bluebonnet plants. Most of his native plant friends had never seen even one!
In searching for the pink strain, the same criterion used to successfully locate and purify the white bluebonnet strain was used. People were told to collect only seed from pinks in large groups so that natural selection would have already bred some of the blue out of the pinks. However, the pinks were indeed so rare that only four locations throughout the entire state were reported. The “mother lode” of pinks was found within the city limits of San Antonio. Once a gene source was located the pink and shades thereof were added to the bluebonnet color spectrum.
Because the pink strain of bluebonnet was so rare and so special, it has been named after the mentor of this project. The ‘Abbott Pink’ bluebonnet is now a reality. Its unique and subtle beauty will always serve as a reminder of Carroll Abbott’s dedication and inspiration to all who love and appreciate nature’s rarities.
OTHER COLOR STRAINS: Like Carroll Abbott himself, the pink bluebonnet is full of surprises. The ‘Abbott Pink’ strain is providing wonderful “bonus” color hues which none could have initially imagined. The purification of a pink bluebonnet strain will eventually lead to the creation of an entirely new color variant which will make the bluebonnet without a doubt the most revered state flower in history to a certain segment of the Texas population. Geneticists indicate that for every color in nature, there exist hues or shades of that color. For instance, within the pink bluebonnet there should exist a series of shades of darker pink and, eventually, red. Another spectrum of colors should exist when blue color shades are mixed with dark pink or red to create lavender or possibly even maroon. Now isn’t there a group of Texans who might show a subtle interest in developing a maroon colored state flower? Sounds as if the Aggies may have done it again!
The additional colors of the state flower were not genetically created by man; these colors have existed for as long as bluebonnets have bloomed. The additional colors, which already existed in nature and have for hundreds of years, were simply isolated, purified and grown in large numbers. No plant breeding or genetic manipulation of bluebonnets has been done except by God. All of these colors have been developed to enhance the Texas state flower. ALL of these colors, by law, are legally the state flower. Now, for the first time in history, color patterns of the state flower can be planted and enjoyed. And, since these colors are all naturally occurring selections, they complement each other perfectly, making design and color selection almost fool–proof. There is nothing prettier than a mixed bed of pink, white and blue bluebonnets. Through working with Mother Nature, the Texas state flower can now be raised to new heights of beauty and enjoyment.
Others hasten to add: “If a bluebonnet flower is white, it shouldn’t be called a bluebonnet, it’s a whitebonnet.” The state flower is the bluebonnet, written as one word. A color variant of that flower would be properly described with the name of that color, PLUS the name of the flower. Consequently, the terms white bluebonnet, pink bluebonnet, and maroon bluebonnet are correct. Be advised that from all packets of seed or flats of transplants of bluebonnet color strains such as pink, white or ‘Worthington Blue’ there will be some plants which will bloom with the standard blue color. The new color strains are not 100 percent pure and thus will occasionally exhibit the ancestral blue and possibly other hues as well. Also, be advised that in bluebonnet stands which have been allowed to naturally reseed the mixing of blues with pinks or whites will, in several years, result in reversion to the blue color due to cross–pollination and the subsequent masking of the less dominant color strain.
BLUEBONNET BONUS: NITROGEN THE NATURAL WAY
It’s ironic that the name Lupinus is derived from the Latin word lupus, meaning wolf. In fact, at one time bluebonnets were known as wolf flowers because they appeared to devour the soil, as they were often found growing in thin rocky soils which didn’t support any other plant life. But it was later discovered that bluebonnets did not rob, but enhanced the soil.
In nature there exists a form of natural fertilizer which is pure and clean. It is the fertilizer, especially nitrogen, produced by soil organisms. The best known of these nitrogen–fixing soil organisms is a bacterium, known as Rhizobium, which lives on the roots of legumes such as clover, alfalfa and vetch. The relationship between this bacterium and the plant is referred to as symbiotic, meaning that both organisms involved benefit. The plant receives the much needed nitrogen from the bacterium which has the ability to take nitrogen from the air. The bacterium, in return, lives on the roots and receives life support from the plant. Man benefits as well because the plant, which has been nurtured by the bacteria–formed nitrogen rather than applied fertilization, can then be utilized as a nitrogen source when the plant tissue decomposes. The nitrogen produced from this system is “clean” because there is no salt or chemical toxin potential.
The use of legumes specifically as a source of nitrogen has not been a common practice in Texas. The main reason for this has been the expense involved in their establishment. There IS, however, a legume which thrives in all areas of Texas, produces nitrogen via Rhizobium bacteria, and is the state flower as well — the bluebonnet. The Texas bluebonnet belongs to the legume or bean family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae). Bluebonnets are probably the most important native rangeland legume in Texas, often occupying hundreds of acres of rolling hillsides during the cool (fall, winter and spring) months. The roots of these legumes are highly nodulated, making them important sources of nitrogen for the soil. Because lupines are able to invade soils low in nitrogen, they have become established in disturbed areas. This is the reason why certain species are used as cover crops for the enrichment of agricultural soils.
Bluebonnet plants have the capacity, with the help of Rhizobium, to produce as much nitrogen as soybeans, which often yield as much as 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Bluebonnets are not a preferred food of deer, as are clover and vetch. Therefore, survival of bluebonnet plants in areas heavily populated with deer is ensured. The bluebonnet is also extremely cold tolerant, so freezes normally will not kill the plants.
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!