The Legend and Lure of Texas Bluebonnets

By:
Crystal Henry

The Legend of the Bluebonnet

Adapted from many versions of the story.

Long ago, when the Comanche people were experiencing a drought so severe that their population suffered from starvation, their Shaman pleaded with the Great Spirt to save the tribe. The Great Spirit said they were being punished for taking so much from the land but offering nothing in return, and must burn their most prized possessions in offering. Tribal members were hesitant to make such sacrifices, except for a young girl, She-Who-Is-Alone, who had lost her mother to the famine. Her most treasured item was a doll made of blue feathers, and she cried herself to sleep as ashes from her precious doll fell all around her. The next morning, she awoke surrounded by fields of bluebonnets. And every year since, the Great Spirit covers the landscape in bluebonnets in honor of her generosity.

Some of the Texas Hill Country’s most popular roadside attractions are the stunning fields of sacred bluebonnets. For a few magical weeks in the spring, the roadsides, medians and sprawling fields paint themselves blue and green as the state flower begins to bloom. Locals know that a true Texas baptism is having your picture made in a field of bluebonnets. 

The Texas Flower War

Lupinus texensis was adopted by the state of Texas as the official state flower in 1901, beating out the cotton plant and the pear cactus in a heated flower war. Cotton was to symbolize the state’s economic independence and growth while the cactus was nominated for its hardiness and strength. The infamous yellow rose never even made the cut. Instead, the National Society of Colonial Dames of America nominated the bluebonnet to pay homage to the brave pioneer women of Texas who wore blue bonnets to protect them from the hot Texas sun. 

While cotton was rumored to be the frontrunner, the Dames displayed paintings of the bluebonnet on the floor of the legislature and they left floral arrangements featuring the flower on each politician’s desk on voting day. The bluebonnet won out. 

This blue wildflower is a symbol of resilience for so many Texans. Throughout the wildly varying and often unforgiving terrain and unpredictable weather that spans the state, the bluebonnet comes back year after year. And while the bright bloom is known to thrive in rocky soil, come rain or shine, the full and fertile blankets on our roadsides get a little help each year from the Texas Department of Transportation. 

Texas Department of Transportation

The bluebonnet might be the most revered bloom, but it’s not the lone wolf out there. Texas has more than 5,000 species of wildflowers and native grasses that decorate the roads, and those blankets of color are protected and maintained in part by TxDOT. 

TxDOT runs a wildflower program designed to cut down on median and roadside maintenance by using native blooms. These low-maintenance beauties require less mowing and attention than non-native plants, and they help conserve water and give native wildlife a place to live. Each year, TxDOT buys and sows about 30,000 pounds of seeds, and they time their mowing just right to ensure the existing blooms have time to seed out.

Take a Drive

The wildflowers are a big tourist draw, popping up from around the middle of March through April. The Hill Country is full of its own wildflower patches, but some of the most well-known spots in the state are just a short drive away. From Boerne, a scenic — and colorful — drive to Fredericksburg, Texas, is where you can jump on the Willow City Loop, a 13-mile stretch of wildflower-viewing paradise. From there, head about an hour north to Burnet, Texas. Burnet was named the Bluebonnet Capital of Texas and it’s one of the best spots to find healthy crops of the state flower, especially at the Bluebonnet Festival in April. Just west of Houston is Chappell Hill, home of the Official State of Texas Bluebonnet Festival, and Ennis, Texas, south of Dallas, claims the Official Texas Bluebonnet Trails.

Picking Bluebonnets

As the state flower, bluebonnets are fiercely protected by proud Texans. Many locals will swear it’s illegal to pick this sacred plant. But while it’s not actually illegal to pick them in most places, it’s definitely frowned upon. The simple fact is, if the thousands of visitors and locals who enjoy the flowers picked even a handful, the field could miss out on seeding and be barren the next year. 

There are definitely some places you shouldn’t pick them, such as Texas State Parks, where it is actually against the law to pick or destroy any plant life. You should also take heed not to trample the flowers if you find a nice field for a photo op. And watch out for rattlesnakes that like to nestle in the fields.

Grow Your Own

Rather than picking bluebonnets, some Texans choose to grow their own crop. Local places, like Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, have beautiful fields of flowers to visit and enjoy, but they also sell seeds for you to take home. Wildseed Farms cultivates a myriad of wildflower species, including traditional bluebonnets and the Alamo Fire — a blazingly gorgeous maroon bluebonnet, originally found in the wild near San Antonio.

If you’re inspired by this spring’s crop of wildflowers, you’ll have plenty of time to prep before planting in the fall — mark your calendar! The great thing about planting native wildflower seeds is that they don’t require a ton of tilling. In fact, you don’t have to prep the soil at all. Bluebonnets love alkaline soil that’s well-drained and gets plenty of sun. Plant your seeds from the beginning of September through mid-November so they’ll have a chance to germinate and plant a heavy root system over the winter. You can sow the seeds by hand in a small area, and TxDOT recommends using about eight to 10 seeds per square foot. That means about half a pound of seeds will cover about 1,000 square feet. Cover your seeds with no more than a quarter-inch of soil, just enough to keep them from birds, give them plenty of water to start and don’t bother fertilizing or you’ll get more leaves than blooms. Then come spring time, you will literally reap what you sow. 

Give your seeds a year or two to really get revved up, since bluebonnets especially have a hearty seed coating that has to wear down before sprouting — just don’t prick or nick the seed coats to try and get them started, because it’ll likely damage your seeds. 

Around mid-March, you’ll start to see the grasses transform from green to blue, and then later to seas of red, yellow, purple and white as the Texas wildflowers welcome spring once again. 

For more information, visit wildseedfarms.com and txdot.gov/inside-txdot/division/maintenance/wildflower-program.

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