Plant of the Millennium: Bluebonnets!

March and April can be spectacular across Texas as our spring wildflowers hit their full stride. And leading the pack, painting our hillsides glorious blues, are the billions of bluebonnets. No wonder we love them so much.

Texas can’t be any more beautiful than a gorgeous young lady in a field of our wildflowers!

Want to see Texas bluebonnets? Leave it to Texas Highways Magazine to deliver the goods. Here is comprehensive information from their website.

If you want to grow bluebonnets…
Want to have your own floral display? Follow these guidelines.

Find a good source. If you’re buying your seed, Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, TX is great.

Full sun. Bluebonnets (and most of the wildflowers that grow with them) need 8 or 9 hours of direct sunlight daily to do their best blooming. Shade is not their friend.

Hundreds of miles of Texas roadsides are blanketed in bluebonnets this time of year. Get out and enjoy them.

Perfect drainage. These are plants that do best on slopes where water doesn’t stand for days after rains. In fact, they do best in gravely soils that are slightly acidic to very slightly alkaline.

This kind of a slope is ideal for bluebonnets.

Plant where there is no permanent turfgrass. Look where they’re growing in nature, and it will almost always be where soils are poor and almost barren. Remember that they’re legumes, so they’re able to “fix” their own nitrogen (a key nutrient) out of the air. What they can’t tolerate is competition from perennial grasses.

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Sow seeds in late summer or very early fall into lightly tilled soil. Bluebonnets germinate with early fall’s rains. They establish their rosettes of leaves and their deep root systems over the winter so they’ll be ready to come into full bloom in early spring.

This is the way your young bluebonnet plants should look by November’s first frost. This photo was posted to my Facebook page by one of my readers a year or two ago.

Use scarified seeds. That’s a term that means the very hard seed coat has been softened or roughened in some way to promote faster, more uniform germination. Commercial seed producers found 30 years ago that sulfuric acid did the best job, but that’s a dangerous task that must not be attempted by home gardeners. Either buy acid-treated seeds or use two blocks with sandpaper to scarify the seeds. Rub the seeds between the blocks until you sand through the outer seed coats.

Rake the soil lightly after you sow your seeds, then water with a lawn sprinkler to settle them in. Water again a few days later and perhaps one or two more times if you don’t get any rain. Do not fertilize them at all.

After the plants finish blooming in spring leave them in place so that their seeds can mature. By the time the seed pods are dried and rattle you can trim or mow the area, leaving the seed stubble in place.

Almost 40 years of hard work by Dr. Jerry Parsons and others have led to this fabulous red bluebonnet, perfect for use in the Texas State flag. Well done, Jerry!

The search for a red bluebonnet…
Back in the early 1980s, in anticipation of the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986, Dr. Jerry Parsons of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (now Texas AgriLife Extension) and the late Carroll Abbott of Kerrville set out to develop a stand of truly red bluebonnets to go with the blue and white bluebonnets already available. Their ambition was to recreate the Texas flag using bluebonnets as the source of its colors.

We lost Mr. Abbott years before the journey was completed, but Jerry Parsons continued on his search. He’s been a friend of mine for 45 years, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching him do some amazing horticultural research. Out of respect for his lifetime of work, the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association awarded him Honorary Lifetime Membership last August. No one is more deserving.

Jerry has not only developed a pure strain of red bluebonnets, but he also was instrumental in developing Alamo Fire maroon bluebonnets (Aggies love that one), and he continues working on other colors as well. I had the chance to see his production fields south of San Antonio four years ago, and that was a real treat.

Dr. Larry Stein (Associate Dept. Head for Extension Horticulture), Neil Sperry, and Dr. Jerry Parsons (retired from TAMU Texas AgriLife Extension) stand in a research and production field of Dr. Parsons’ bluebonnets and try to look like they know what they’re doing.

How the bluebonnet became our State Flower…
Here is information Jerry Parsons shared with me a couple of years ago.

“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 he 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.

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 it hits its peak bloom in late March and early April. It is the easiest of all the species to grow.”

This sign welcomes travelers to Texas at Eisenhower State Park.


Posted by Neil Sperry
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