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Bluebonnets for Growing and for in the Home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer
Celebrating the 100th year of the Texas State Flower is the bluebonnet, more accurately, bluebonnets?no less than five species of flowers officially designated as Texas State bluebonnets. Governor Joseph D. Sayers signed the approval on March 7, 1901. However, the adoption sparked a 70-year political debate, ?The Bluebonnet War? that Governor Preston Smith resolved on March 8, 1971 by signing an additional resolution authorizing two more species of bluebonnets plus ?any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded? as the official Texas State Flower.
From the very beginning, after the Texas Senate passed a preliminary intention to adopt an official state flower in 1900, the bluebonnet has generated controversy. In early spring 1901, legislators began campaigning for their favorites flowers, notably Phil Clement, who proposed the cotton boll because the cotton industry was booming, and John Nance Garner, who so highly praised the prickly-pear cactus that he later became known as ?Cactus Jack.? But John M. Green?s petition to have the bluebonnet designated as the state flower led to confusion because people didn?t know exactly what the bluebonnet flower was. Some thought the bluebonnet reminiscent of sunbonnets worn by pioneer women while others thought it was ?buffalo clover? or ?wolf flower,? according to Garden Guides. So, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Texas contrived to have a painting of the bluebonnet flower taken into the legislative chamber. The legislators, after seeing the beautiful painting, approved the bluebonnet, little knowing that more than one species of bluebonnet existed.
To make matters worse, the particular bluebonnet adopted, Lupinus subcarnosus from the sandy loams of southern Texas, was soon discovered not to be the most common species of bluebonnet in Texas nor was it the favorite of most Texans. Many people preferred the L. texensis, which covers much of central Texas and is the easiest bluebonnet to grow. Then, of course, Texas was found to have even more bluebonnet species. The L.Havardii, is renown as the Big Bend or Chisos Bluebonnet, with flowers that grow up to three-feet wide while the inconspicuous L. concinnus at only 2 to 7 inches in size is sparsely located in the Pecos region. Up in the Texas Panhandle is a perennial species, L. plattensis, better known as the plains bluebonnet and Nebraska Lupine. All together, five bluebonnets, each with a distinctly different character, have been identified in Texas.
As Texas native wildflowers go, it is a misdemeanor to damage or destroy bluebonnets. Yet, to cultivate them is not as easy as their profusions along the highways might suggest. Part of the difficulty exists in the bluebonnet seed, which has a hard outer covering that prevents rapid germination. Planting guides recommend transplanting older plants to assure success. For people who prefer using seeds, try soaking them in hot water or scratching the hard coat of each seed, or planting chemically treated seeds (scarified) under a tiny cover of soil, which usually initiates germination in 10-12 days. Plants should be re-planted 4 to 6 inches apart and, later, thinned out to 8-10 inches for early spreading rosettes to form flower stalks in the spring. Once established, bluebonnets make up some of Texas? toughest natives, well equipped to handle the rampant and arid environmental precipitation that make up Texas weather.
Scarified seeds are sold at North Haven Gardens for $16.00 per ? pound from Wild Seed. But wait to sow the seeds in September and October for the cold hardy plants to come up next year. This late in the growing season, you are better off planting four-inch potted blooming plants that will soon be available.
Not just blue anymore, bluebonnets can now be found in Texas Maroon and Lavender Barbara Bush, according to Dr. Wayne McKay at the Dallas location of Texas A&M. McKay selectively breeds L. texensis native from the hill country to remove the dominate-blue color and allow expression of the recessive colors. The newest color, white, is still under development. These plants are available through Wild Seed catalogues, www.wildseedfarms.com. And they grow and reproduce just like the blue, bluebonnets, only they have been isolated to enrich the color. Once they are planted outside in the garden, because of the prevalence of native blue bluebonnets, subsequent generations will tend to show more and more blue color, and eventually the recessive colors will disappear.
One of the most important requirements for the cultivation of bluebonnets is full sun?a location where plants get at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight. Maria Whitworth, an avid gardener cultivating a native/xeriscape (water conservation) garden using organic materials, found that her garden with its mature trees couldn?t sustain bluebonnets although she has successfully established other native plants.
?I think the hill country is definitely where they (bluebonnets) are happiest,? said Tina Dombrowski, Director of Horticulture at Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park. In the Dallas area, they will divide and eventually spread out, but not as much as in central Texas. ?They like drainage. Many time?s you?ll see the greatest stand of bluebonnets along the highways where there is a slope?that aids in drainage; perfectly flat, black clay soils are not their favorite spots.?
Bluebonnets also thrive among other blooming plants and help provide year round flowering, according to the Texas Agriculture Extension Service, who has experimented with various combinations of plants. For good winter color, they suggest planting bluebonnets with pansies, dusty miller, spring flowering bulbs, ornamental cabbage or kale, dianthus, and Drummond red phlox. The companion-plants bloom in the cold, and the spreading bluebonnets take over as the weather warms up. Then, plant summer blooming perennials, such as lantana, mealy cup sage, autumn sage, and Michalmas daisy, among bluebonnets for summer-time flowers.
If you want indoor blooming, try cut bluebonnets that are now available through www.oldalavan.com. For the past ten years, McKay has been experimenting with the giant blooms of L. Havardii from the Big Bend area for use as indoor cut flowers. These blooms have a very delicate fragrance, lightly perfumed without being cloy and overpowering, according to Domrowski. And if treated with flower preservative, the flowers will look fresh in a vase for 10 to 14 days, a period that Mckay is currently working to extend.
?They (bluebonnets) are very well adapted to desert conditions,? said McKay. ?They have a great potential to re-hydrate.? Thus, growers can dry ship (without water) cut bluebonnets. This same drought resistant capability of bluebonnets enables them to be included in xeriscape landscaping (water conservation landscapes), perhaps.
?Even if you have a xeriscape garden that you don?t water, if it doesn?t drain quickly and allow the soil to dry out, a lot of times they (bluebonnets) aren?t too happy,? Dombrowski said.
For more ideas about bluebonnets in xeriscape landscapes, visit the Dallas Water Utilities, who sponsors exhibits, publishes brochures on water conservation landscapes, and are co-founding the North Texas Xeriscape Association (NTXA) to design and establish a xeriscape garden at the old White Rock Pump Station.
Finally, those people who love just to look at the beautiful blooming bluebonnet scene might want to visit the art galleries for bluebonnets have been an inspiration to artists for a long time.
Dr. Oneida Cramer
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