Texas Bluebonnets: The Flower of History and Legend

BY CHRISTI BERTELSON/BURNET BULLETIN

The advent of spring in Texas in marked by a visible change along highways and pastures all across the state.

The bluebonnet begins to bloom, and the countryside is dressed in blue.

The bluebonnet, also called buffalo clover, wolf flower, and el conejo (Spanish for ‘the rabbit’), usually blooms in late March and early April and is found mostly in limestone outcroppings from north central Texas to Mexico.

According to the Handbook of Texas, while early explores failed to mention the bluebonnet in their descriptions of Texas, Indian lore called the flower a gift from the “Great Spirit”.

The Texas Cooperative Extension elaborated that Native Americans wove fascinating folk talks around them.

The early-day Spanish priests gathered the seeds and grew them around their missions, which gave rise to the myth that the padres had brought the plant from Spain, however this can’t be true since the two predominant species of bluebonnets are found growing naturally only in Texas and at no other location in the world.

The bluebonnet continues to be a favorite subject for artists and photographers, and at the peak of bloom, festivals featuring the flower are held across Texas, including the Burnet County Bluebonnet Festival April 8-10.

 

State History

The bluebonnet was designated the official state flower of Texas in 1901, trumping the cotton boll and the cactus flower as competition.

Historian Jack Maguire 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... 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.”

For Texans, bluebonnets are so much more than just the state flower.

The state has also designated an official bluebonnet tartan, song, city (Ennis, Texas) festival (Chappell Hill Bluebonnet Festival, and trail (also in Ennis).

In 1933 the legislature adopted a state flower song, “Bluebonnets,” written by Julia D. Booth and Lora C. Crockett, stated the Handbook of Texas.

Lyrics

When the pastures are green in the springtime

    And the birds are singing their sonnets,

    You may look to the hills and the valleys

    And they’re covered with lovely Bluebonnets.

 

    Blue is the emblem of loyalty,

    They’re as blue as the deep, deep sea,

    Their smiling faces bring gladness,

    For they bloom for you and for me.

 

    Bluebonnets, so gorgeous and stately,

    In your mantle of blue and of green,

    In the spring when you’re in your full glory,

    You’re the loveliest sight ever seen.

 

    You’re beautiful when you sway in the sunshine,

    You look like waves of the sea,

    Ah, Texas was wise in her choice of a flow’r,

    So we offer our homage to thee.

 

   Chorus:

    Bluebonnets, blue lovely Bluebonnets,

    More beautiful than all the rest.

    Texas chose you for her flower,

    And we love you best, Bluebonnets.

 

During the same decade, as an extension of Lady Bird Johnson's efforts at highway beautification in the United States, she encouraged the planting of native plants along Texas highways after she left the White House.

The bill, passed in October 1965, was efforts by the senate to clean up and beautify highways.

Due largely to that agency’s efforts, bluebonnets now grow along most major highways throughout the state.

Bluebonnet species Lupinus Subcarnosus was originally specified as the state flower by legislation in 1901.

But in 1971, after much discussion, the Texas state government amended the decision and added the L. texensis and “any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded” as the designated state flower.

 

Get to know your Bonnets

 

  1. Lupinus Subcarnosus, the original champion, also referred to as the Sandy-land bluebonnet, grows naturally in deep sandy loams from Leon County southwestward to LaSalle County and down to the northern part of Hidalgo County in the Valley. This species reaches peak bloom in late March and is difficult to maintain in clay soils.
  2. Lupinus Havardii, the Big Bend or Chisos bluebonnet, is the most majestic of the Texas bluebonnets with flowering spikes up to three feet. It is found on the flats of the Big Bend country in early spring; it usually has seven leaflets and is difficult to cultivate outside its natural habitat.
  3. Lupinus texensis, the favorite of tourists and artists, provides the spectacular blue spring carpet of Central Texas and is widely known as THE Texas bluebonnet. The inflorescence (flowering stalk) composed to up to 50 fragrant blue flowers is tipped with white flower buds (like a bunny's tail, therefore named El conejo) and hits its peak bloom in late March and early April.
  4. Lupinus concinnus, the Annual or Bajada lupine, is an inconspicuous little lupine, only 2 to 7 inches tall including flowers, which combine elements of white, rosy purple and lavender. It is found sparingly in the Trans-Pecos region, blooming in early spring.
  5. Lupinus perennis, “Old Maids Bonnet”, is a medicinal plant and is widespread in the eastern part of the USA, from Texas, Florida, Maine and Canada. The bloom is long, sparsely flowered, sometimes almost verticillate. Flowers can range from blue to pink, but are most often blue or bluish purple.
  6. Lupinus plattensis, makes its way down from the north into the Texas Panhandle's sandy dunes and is the only perennial species in the state. It normally blooms in mid to late spring and is also known as the Dune bluebonnet, Plains bluebonnet, and Nebraska Lupine.

 

 

How to Grow Bluebonnets

 

Plant the seeds in October & November (early October is best). Lupinus texensis (Texas bluebonnet) are annual plants; that is, they go from seed to flower to seed in one year. They germinate in the fall and grow throughout the winter, and usually bloom around the end of March to the mid-May. 

 To increase the germination rate the first year, growers often scarify seeds. Scarification means scratching or nicking the seed coats to simulate natural weathering processes. Once scarified, most seeds will germinate quickly and should be watered for several weeks, especially if the weather is dry.

You can use the following methods to scarify seeds:

  • physically nick the seeds with a knife (for small quantities)
  • rub the seeds with sandpaper
  • freeze the seeds overnight, then quickly pour boiling water over the seeds and soak for several hours at room temperature

While a hard seed coat is an excellent mechanism for species survival during unfavorable years, it can frustrate the gardener who wants a spring display of colorful blooms the first year after planting. Adding to a gardener’s frustration, not all seedlings that germinate successfully establish and grow to maturity.

Choose a sunny, well-drained location with slightly alkaline soil for Lupinus texensis. South and west-facing slopes will encourage earlier spring growth and flowering. L. subcarnosus, which prefers the sandy soils found in areas of East Texas, is also available commercially in limited amounts and also requires a sunny, well-drained site.

If your site is not weedy and you plan only to interseed bluebonnets into existing vegetation, the process is relatively easy. Mow the vegetation to 6-8 inches and rake up the thatch. Try to open up some bare areas to allow the seeds to make contact with the soil. Prepare weedy ground by using the techniques outlined in Soil Preparation in Gardening and Landscaping with Native Plants. For bare ground, plant seeds on a lightly tilled or slightly roughened soil surface for optimum seed-soil contact.

The Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation recommends a seeding rate of 10 to 12 pounds per acre. At that rate, an ounce (which contains between 850 and 1,000 seeds) will cover about 200 square feet. This is approximately five seeds per square foot. Using that rate, maximum display probably would be reached the second or third year after planting.

 

Where to see the Bluebonnets

 

If gardening just is not your thing, we have compiled a list of routes you can drive just to enjoy the scenery that Mother Nature did all the work for you.

Although there are many driving routes (known as bluebonnet trails) throughout the state, a good place to start is near the city of Burnet, which is known as the Bluebonnet Capital of Texas. Burnet is roughly 40 miles northwest of Austin.

Follow TX Hwy 29 west out of Burnet for 3-1/2 miles, then turn right (north) on Ranch Road 234 and follow it about six miles.

Turn left on Graphite Mine Road, which will eventually meet TX Hwy 29.

Turn left to return to Burnet.

A variation of this drive will give you different but equally spectacular views of bluebonnets as well as of Lake Buchanan.

Follow TX Hwy 29 west and again turn right on RR 2341.

If you stay on this road, you'll have 15 miles of vistas before it finally dead-ends.

You can return via the same route or make the turn on Graphite Mine Road.

If you want to see even more of the Hill Country, simply stay on TX Hwy 29 west all the way to Llano, a distance of about 30 miles.

In Llano, turn left (south) on TX Hwy 16 and follow it to Fredericksburg (39 miles).

In Fredericksburg turn left (east) on U.S. Hwy 290 and follow it 32 miles to Johnson City, then follow U.S. Hwy 281 north 37 miles to Burnet

It is difficult to predict where the best fields of Bluebonnets will be each year. 

A good field the previous year may have few flowers the following year, while fields that had very few flowers the year before may have thousands of flowers but we recommend checking out two great overlooks as well.

The first is from Lookout Mountain on Hwy 1431 near Kingsland. 

The other is located between Longhorn Cavern and Inks Lake State Park.

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