Texas Superstar bluebonnets

  White, red, pink colored bluebonnets are natural, not created by man


September 23, 2004


Victoria County Master Gardeners


Previously written articles in this column concerning various Texas Superstars have explained how they are heat tolerant, drought- and disease-resistant as well as being low maintenance. Plants and trees are field-tested for several years across the state by Texas A&M University before they are confirmed to be a Texas Superstar. These articles can be accessed at http://community.victoriaadvocate.com/groups/VictoriaCountyMasterGardenerAssociation. Click on the link "Gardeners' Dirt" to find the articles. Today's article addresses yet another Texas Superstar - the bluebonnet, our state flower.


The Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), found growing in the pastures when our state was first explored, is named for the petals' resemblance to the sunbonnets worn by Texas pioneer women. It has also been called buffalo clover, wolf flower and, by Mexicans, el conejo (the rabbit). It has long been admired and protected by our forefathers and was adopted as the official state flower by the Texas Legislature in 1901.


Needless to say, a field of blue radiating from these flowers is a remarkable recurrence each spring. It was in the 1980s, however, that Carrol Abbot, a Texas naturalist, dreamed of planting the state flower in the design of the Texas flag to celebrate the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial. So he began looking for different shades of colors of the bluebonnet. A white bluebonnet strain was available in some localities, but largely overlooked by most Texans as a fluke of nature or a rare photo op. The pink strain of the bluebonnet was very rare and special, but a gene source was finally located within the city limits of San Antonio. The Abbot pink strain is now providing bonus pink and red hues - and even into the maroon color. 





Photos courtesy of Texas Cooperative Extension and Bluebonnet Gallery, Jerry M Parsons, PhD., specialist and professor of Horticulture, Texas A&M University


These additional colors of the state flower were not genetically created by man; rather, they have existed for as long as bluebonnets have bloomed. They were simply isolated, purified, and grown in large numbers. If you find seed sources and plant some of these various colored bluebonnets, the new color strains are not 100 percent pure and will occasionally show up as the most recognizable blue-lavender bluebonnet suggestive of the pioneer woman's bonnet.


Have you ever planted bluebonnet seeds and wondered why so few, if any, came up? ... or whether you simply missed the prime time in sowing the seeds? Read on for information.


September and October are the best times to start cold hardy annuals such as bluebonnets. The warmth of our Texas sun helps seed germination. The cool and sometimes cold winters help the root structure develop and during this time, tiny nodules form on the roots to collect nitrogen needed to build a better plant for the spring.


Understanding a little about the seed coat will take the mystery out of germinating these timeless beauties. The seed is composed of a hard structure, which inhibits moisture being absorbed. Since our weather varies so much from year to year, nature knows precisely how large a crop to produce. In nature, there will be roughly 20 percent germination at best. This insures species survival. A severe drought could deplete our seed supply in one year if not for the inhibiting factors embedded in the seed.


And thanks to agricultural science, we can germinate faster and bring a larger seed supply to the public. Scarification is the key to creating this new multimillion-dollar market. By removing the inhibiting properties of the seed coat, we can now have an outstanding germination rate within 10 days. This makes the bluebonnet a great addition to the annual bedding market. When sowing bluebonnet seeds, lightly cover them or rake them into the soil to insure germination, but make sure not to cover them more than one-half inch. Bluebonnet seed can be very expensive birdseed when thrown haphazardly on the ground.


When planting bluebonnet seeds or transplants it is best to plant them in a sunny, well-drained area where they can receive eight to 10 hours of sun each day. This will ensure beautiful blooms.


If clay soil is a problem, try raising your beds 6 inches or more and amending the soil with organic matter. Do not plant in an area that has a history of a fungal disease, known as "damping-off." Keep in mind that these plants are not only drought tolerant, but are one of Texas' toughest natives.


One of the major enemies of bluebonnet seedlings and transplants are nocturnal pill bugs, often called roly-polys, or sowbugs. Because they are capable of devouring a plant overnight, it is best to broadcast pill bug bait around new emerging plants on a weekly basis during the first month after planting. Another enemy would be over-watering.


Bluebonnets are capable of producing a natural fertilizer, nitrogen, produced by soil organisms. A nitrogen-fixing bacterium known as rhizobium lives on the roots of legumes (bluebonnets). The relationship between the bacterium and the plant is said to be symbiotic, meaning that both organisms benefit. The plant receives 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. Although bluebonnets were thought at one time to rob the soil, it is now known that they enhance it and are capable of producing (with the help of rhizobium) as much nitrogen as soybeans, which can yield a possible 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. For best results, purchase pre-inoculated seeds or purchase the bluebonnet inoculants and follow directions to mix it onto the seed prior to planting.


A bed of bluebonnets looks striking mixed with other plants, and if you desire companion planting with bluebonnets, your best choices are pansies, dusty miller, dianthus, spring-flowering bulbs, ornamental cabbage and drummond red phlox. Spacing bluebonnet transplants in rows 24 inches apart and 12 inches apart within the row interspersed with perennials will yield a beautiful pattern. Also lantana, mealy cup sage, autumn sage and Michalmas daisy provide a very attractive contrast.


If you are interested in wildflowers, especially bluebonnets, the September 2004 Texas Highways publication is excellent. Local feed stores and nurseries, Native American Seed (Junction, Texas 1-800-728-4043, http://www.seedsource.com) Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (Austin, Texas 1-512-292-4200, http://www.wildflower.org/) and Wildseed Farms (Fredricksburg, Texas 1-800-848-0078, https://www.wildseedfarms.com/welcome/index.html) are excellent seed and inoculants suppliers.


We hope you will sow a few bluebonnet seeds this fall and enjoy the beautiful, colorful hues our Texas bluebonnets have to offer. If you are not familiar with "The Legend of the Bluebonnet," you might want to access it on the Internet or at the library. It is a truly wonderful story and another reason why the Texas bluebonnet is the brightest of all the Superstars.