The profusion of Texans’ favorite wildflower implies an extravagant ease of being. In fact, the bluebonnet’s existence is hardscrabble and full of peril. Timing of rain is the crucial element. Too much summer rain can fool bluebonnets; they sprout prematurely and die before they bloom. Conversely, fall and winter drought can be ruinous. But when the last freeze of the year finds the creeks running, stock tanks overflowing, limestone cliffs water-stained and dripping, the weeks of cold, hard rain are redeemed by a glorious bluebonnet spring. This has been one of those years.
Bluebonnets want daylong sun. Strongly rooted, nitrogen-rich legumes, they scavenge and help heal soil that has been overgrazed or unwisely farmed. Because the drainage on slopes is to their liking, they tend to congregate there. Bluebonnet seeds can lie on top of or under the soil for up to 35 years before they germinate. Finally, some auspicious October, two leaves appear from each seed. If these sprouts surivive the grazing pill bugs and the ensuing winter (they’re good at 20 below), they form a rosette about the size of a salad plate. As protection from other predators, the plants have developed a mildly toxic alkaloid. Horses and cattle hate them like gall, and deer graze bluebonnets only if they’re desperate, yet sheep and goats think the gray-green leaves are as tasty as watercress. So did buffalo: The Tejas Indians are said to have believed that the herds’ spring migration was prompted by the indigo message of abundant food.
Bluebonnets are fertilized by bees, which do in fact take directions from color. White spots on the flower’s upper petals signal the plant’s fertility. As the viability of the pollen wanes, the spots turn maroon. Bees go along happily and helpfully, face down in the blue and white. All-white bluebonnets—albinos—are not pollinated as frequently. Maybe the bees get confused.
The bluebonnet’s adoption as state flower in 1901 was hardly preordained. Even its name was a matter of controversy. Anglo settlers called the plan wolf flwoers and buffalo clover. Among Hispanics, the name was el conejo, “the rabbit,” the white-spotted blossoms reminiscent of cottontails. One member of the Texas Legislature boosted the cotton boll, “the White Rose of Commerce,” as the state flower. Uvalde’s John Nance Garner voiced a paean to cactus blossoms with such grandiloquence that the was thenceforth known as Cactus Jack. When Cuero’s John Green nominated the bluebonnet, colleagues shouted, “What’s that?” Members of a women’s patriotic society witnessing the debate dashed to an Austin parlor and returned with another incipient Texas institution—a painting of bluebonnets. “Deep silence reigned for an instant,” history records. “Then deafening applause fairly shook the old walls.” In April 1905, Theodore Roosevelt came to Texas. Along the president’s parade route in Austin, school kids sang “America” and threw cascades of bluebonnets in his path.
Different species of bluebonnets have adapted to the sands of East Texas, the desert climate of the Trans-Pecos, and the cool barrens of the northernmost Panhandle. The most flamboyant species—Lupinus texensis—favors the central grasslands and the Edwards Plateau; its best range is a rough diamond bounded by Alice, Huntsville, Waxahachie, Brownwood, and Fredericksburg. To see them, drive the coastal prairie from Houston to Port O’Connor; start in Brenham and wander fifty miles in any direction; or strike west from Austin and follow the lakes of the Colorado River.
Other lupines blossom handsomely from North Carolina to California and from Mexico to Canada. Bluebonnets occupy a generous habitat that, by happenstance, fills and overflows Texas’ boundaries. Their sudden abundance each spring nurtures our fascination with magnitude and reach—whole damn canvases of color, not the fine brushstroke. Texans’ enshrinement of bluebonnets gets a little corny, but the effect of seeing one or twenty acres of them in solid bloom does nothing but good.