The bluebonnet creates one of the most beautiful and iconic spectacles of Texas. It’s a biennial leguminous plant with bright blue (and also white or pink) pea-like flowers which make a splash of colour across grasslands and along road verges in April and early May around Ennis, in the Blackland Prairie and in similar environments across Texas and neighbouring states.
The ‘bonnet’ part of the name supposedly derives from the headgear of pioneer women whose shape its flower resembles. There are in fact 5 distinct species of bluebonnet which together are nominated the State Flower. This was accepted as a compromise when there was argument between different factions supporting different species. It’s now even been arranged that any new sub-species which may be discovered will also come under the umbrella.
Bluebonnets are self-seeding and the way this works in the wild is that only something like a fifth of seeds will germinate immediately, the rest resisting for a while in an insurance policy for the flower in case the first batch should encounter a drought or other unsuitable conditions. It’s important that anyone who buys seed to sow in their garden should be aware of this and go for scarified seeds, which means they’ve been treated to remove inbuilt resistance to germination.
Some of the first bluebonnet gardeners were Spanish priests who gathered seeds and scattered them around their missions. This gave rise to the myth that bluebonnets were imported from Spain but this is not the case at all. They’re a true native plant of Texas.
Strangely, people seem either to be able to smell the scent of bluebonnets strongly, as a cloyingly sweet perfume, or to not be able to smell them at all. Also some people are more attuned than others to the ‘popping’ sound which the seedpods make as they burst open and release their seeds. This method of seed distribution is common to other plants with pea-like flowers, including gorse and broom which can propel the seeds to quite a distance. Bluebonnet seeds, like those of some other plants in the pea family such as sweet peas, are toxic to humans.
Agriculturally speaking, the plant can be of great benefit because, in common with other leguminous plants, its roots harbour a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. When the plant dies, it can be worked into the soil as a clean source of nitrogen – clean because there’s no possibility of chemical toxins being introduced unlike when fertiliser is used.
There’s no doubt whatsoever about the visual appeal of bluebonnets. They’re often taken as the backdrop to family or pet photographs and have been used in this way for generations. Websites and festivals are dedicated to them. Songs have been written about them. The historian Jack Maguire once wrote: “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.” There could hardly be a more resounding tribute.