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Gardening: Master Gardeners Image

Bluebonnets are putting on spectacular floral displays nowadays. While the Brenham area may be acknowledged as the bluebonnet capital of central Texas, motorists need only to keep a watchful eye out here in Galveston County to view one of nature's majestic creations.

Photo Credit: Margie Jenke

The colorful history of bluebonnets

By Dr. William M. Johnson, Galveston County Extension Agent - Horticulture

April 11, 2007

Bluebonnets are putting on spectacular floral displays nowadays. While the Brenham area may be acknowledged by many as the bluebonnet capital of central Texas, motorists need only to keep a watchful eye out here in Galveston County to view one of nature's majestic creations.

The lore, history and biology of our state's floral symbol is rather fascinating. Bluebonnets have been loved since man first trod the vast Texas prairies. Indians wove fascinating folk tales around them. The early day Spanish priests gathered the seeds and grew them around 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 no place else.

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 also wrote that "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."

As our state flower, bluebonnets have an interesting history. Texas actually has five state flowers, more or less, and they are all bluebonnets. The five state flowers are all species classified within the genus Lupinus (hereafter abbreviated as "L." in accordance with technical protocol). 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. 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 legislator, a young man from Uvalde, so eloquently extolled the virtues of the cactus, noting the hardy durability of the plant and the orchidlike beauty of its flowers, that he earned the nickname "Cactus Jack." He was John Nance Garner and later became vice president.

But the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Texas won the day. Their choice of bluebonnets was L. subcarnosus ("generally known as buffalo clover or bluebonnet," stated the resolution) and it was passed into law without any recorded opposition.

That was the quiet before the storm for that's when the polite bluebonnet war was started.

Bluebonnets classified as L. subcarnosus are dainty little plants that paint 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 L. texensis, the showier, bolder blue beauty.

So, off and on for 70 years, the Legislature was encouraged to correct its oversight. But the now much-wiser-by-experience legislators weren't about to get caught in another botanical trap. Nor did they want to offend the supporters of L. subcarnosus.

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 as well. More than one member of our present-day Legislature (as well as other law-making bodies across the nation) probably wish such a Solomon-like remedy exists for all politically-charged issues before them.

Since Texas bluebonnets belong to one of five distinctly different species, our state, in essence, has five state flowers. The five state flowers of Texas are:

  1. L. subcarnosus is the original champion and still co-holder of the title. It grows naturally in deep sandy loams from Leon County southwest to LaSalle County and down to the northern part of Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley. Often referred to as the sandy land bluebonnet, its leaflets are blunt, sometimes notched and sport silky undersides. This species, which reaches peak bloom in late March, is not easy to maintain in clay soils.
  2. L. 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 with a flowing stalk is tipped with white (like a bunny's tail). It hits its peak bloom in late March and early April. It is the easiest of all the species to grow. This is the species generally seen growing here in Galveston County.
  3. L. havardii, also known as the Big Bend or Chisos Bluebonnet, is the most majestic of the Texas bluebonnet species, with flowering spikes up to 3 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.
  4. L. concinnus is an inconspicuous lupine, from 2 to 7 inches in height, with flowers that 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.
  5. L. 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 2 feet in height. It normally blooms in mid- to late spring and is also known as the dune bluebonnet, the plains bluebonnet and the Nebraska Lupine.

If you're interested in getting your own "backyard patch" of bluebonnets established, you can use either chemically scarified seed or bluebonnet transplants. Regardless of whether you use seeds or transplants, late October to November is the ideal time to get your own bluebonnet patch going in Galveston County. Once an area is established, and with a little care, such as not mowing them until after they seed, you'll be treated to a yearly grand floral display in the spring.

Dr. Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County Extension Office of Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University. Visit his web site at

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