It’s about time for a wildflower familiar to those living from the Red River south into the Hill Country around the state capitol in Austin to make its appearance now that spring has sprung. The bluebonnet holds a special distinction in this great state of Texas.
Known as Lupine and Quaker-Bonnet, wolf flower, buffalo clover and “el conejo,” the Spanish word for jackrabbit, the bluebonnet is better known to those of us in North Texas as the state flower of Texas. Generally in late March or early April, the distinctive flowers grow along most major Texas Highways — especially between Dallas and Austin with a side trip through the Hill Country. We owe credit for the beautification efforts to the Texas Highway Department of the 1930s.
They aren’t an east wildflower to attract or get started, but once they do make a stand, they hopefully return every year and reseed to enlarge their territory. Bluebonnets have been the official state flower since March 7, 1901.
Almost 20 years ago, while visiting a good friend in Austin, I decided to gather information so that one day I could write a series of columns on Texas emblems. My friend and I went to the state Capitol, where we found books containing information on all the Texas emblems up until that time that I believe was 2001. Bluebonnets were among those we found. We spent a full day gathering the information that has remained in file folders in my file cabinet since then, except for the few times that I have written about one of them.
Actually, Texas has had five state flowers and all of them have been bluebonnets. When the Texas Legislature decided in 1901 that the state needed a floral emblem, debate on the floor of the House of Representatives got hot and heavy.
One legislator poured out his emotions for the cotton boll since cotton was king in Texas in those days. That included those around Grayson County.
Another young man from Uvalde spoke so strongly for the cactus because it was so hardy and the orchid-like flowers were so beautiful that it earned him the nickname of “Cactus Jack.” That moniker stayed with John Nance Garner the rest of his life. Much later he became vice president of the United States.
But on May 7 that year, a group of women who were members of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Texas expressed their choice for the state flower to be Lupinus Subcarnosus or Buffalo Clover or as we know it today, the bluebonnet. Their resolution passed with no opposition.
The Lupinus Subcarnosus held the title until 1971 when pressure through the years from people who thought it was the least attractive of the Texas bluebonnets and wanted a brighter blue, showier version called Lupinus Texenis that caught the ear of legislators. They solved the problem with typical political maneuvering.
That year they added the two species together, plus “any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded,” and lumped them all into one state flower.
What the legislators didn’t know was that there were three other species of Lupines and they had just adopted all five of them as the state flower. Any new species of bluebonnets will automatically join the state emblem.
In addition to the Lupinus Subcarnosus, the first adopted state emblem and the Lupinus Texensis, today’s favorite that is better known as the Texas bluebonnet, there are Lupinus Havardii, also known as the Big Bend or Chisos bluebonnet, the largest of the Texas bluebonnet tribe; Lupinus Concinnus, whose white, rosy purple and lavender flowers are found sparingly in the Trans-Pecos region in the early spring; and Lupinus Plattensis that migrated into the Texas Panhandle from the north and grows about two feet tall. I haven’t heard lately if that breed is still growing.
The late Denison-born historian Jack Maguire best described the Texas emblem when he 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 is to Japan, the Lily to France, the Rose to England and the tulip to Holland,” he said.
The prettiest showing of bluebonnets in most years can be found around the south end of the Denison Dam spillway. The last couple of years there were fewer than in most years, but let’s hope that this year they break the skimpy showing and the flowers bloom in profusion.
My husband and I have tried for many years to get bluebonnets to take root on our property east of Denison. We say the ground is so poor they won’t grow, but we sometimes believe it is the growers that don’t know what they are doing.
We have purchased seeds, been given seeds with lots of instructions and even talked to the plants when we see signs that they might grow. Last year we had one spindly plant and while it had a few seeds on it after the blooming season, we left them there hoping they would spread and grow, there is no sign of anything yet.
One year a number of years ago when I was working as manager of Eisenhower Birthplace, we were expecting a granddaughter of President Eisenhower to visit for a special occasion. We planned a barbecue on the grounds around the birthplace, had speakers and western music. In the planning stages before the event, we thought it would be nice if we had bluebonnets in the center of each table.
That just happened to be during the bluebonnet blooming season and they were making a great showing at the dam. I went to the Corps of Engineers office to see if it was possible to have enough plants to make a nice showing. I was given permission to take all I wanted.
I told the permission-giving person that there was no way I was going to dig any up. I always had heard it was against the law to take any of the state flowers. He laughed, found a shovel and went with me and dug a few plants. I’m still not certain it isn’t against the law, but they sure did look pretty in cowboy boots on the tables.
Call the bluebonnets by their true horticulture names, or simply call them bluebonnets. It’s obvious to Texans about this time of year when fields turn to blankets of the blue blossoms they know why the legislature selected them to represent our state.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.