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A wildflower that has inspired naturalists, artists, hikers and gardeners for centuries, Texas bluebonnet is a flower steeped in legend and lore. Indeed, the first time I became aware of Texas bluebonnets was through the haunting song, Gulf Coast Highway, by Texan folk singer Nanci Griffith. Griffith sang of a hard-working couple living for many decades in a little house on the side of the road, and whose bond with the land was rooted in the glory of a bluebonnet spring. “This is the only place on earth bluebonnets grow,” sang Griffith, “and once a year they come and go, at this old house here by the road.”
Griffith painted a picture I wanted to experience for myself; and I did, many years later on a trip through the state in the spring. I wasn’t disappointed, and was lucky enough to see them spiked with the orange-red flowers of another Texan favorite, Indian paintbrush. Lupinus texensis is one of five bluebonnet species to hold the title of the “official” state flower of Texas, and with the exception of one of the more northern species, they are annual plants, completing their life cycles in one year.
These days, and thanks to the commercial harvesting of bluebonnet seeds, this glorious wildflower is grown all over the United States by gardeners and naturalists alike. Understanding the life cycle and needs of the plant will make a huge difference in your quest to create your very own bluebonnet spring.
Texas Bluebonnet's hard seed coat makes it a great candidate for fall planting. Cooler weather and exposure to a few months of precipitation will help to naturally break down the outer casing of the seed, allowing water access to the life force inside. This will lead to perfectly-timed spring germination.
If fall planting doesn't fit your schedule, no problem! You can mimic a lengthy winter yourself by soaking the seeds before planting. Small-space gardeners can also 'scarify' the seeds by placing them between two pieces of rough sandpaper and rubbing them together or by nicking them with a nail file or clippers. Once you have done this, it is important to plant them right away.
While you may have no trouble getting your Bluebonnet seeds to sprout without specialized treatment, soaking or scarifying will certainly improve your chances of a good germination rate.
Bluebonnet seed is planted in the fall (as early as August in hotter climates). It should be raked into sandy, well-drained soil in a very sunny location and covered with 1/8” of soil, tamping it down to make sure that the seed makes good soil/seed contact. Broadcast seeds at a rate of just over 2 ounces to 100 square feet, or plant a few seeds (for insurance) on 10 inch centers, thinning later. It can take a good amount of time to germinate, but seeds that have been adequately scarified should germinate within about 10 days.
Water the seeds in well, and then let the fall rains do their job. Once seeds have germinated and developed roots over the winter, they are very drought hardy and can be hurt by too much water. Foliage rosettes of 5-7 leaves will develop close to the ground and overwinter that way. Come spring and a little heat, the plant will expand, flower stalks will appear and you’ll have your breath taken away.
If you’re having problems with growing bluebonnets, you may live in a climate where excess moisture is causing the seedlings to dampen off with fungal disease, or you may not be scarifying the seeds adequately. You may also be dealing with a soil that is too heavy and needs building up with plenty of sandy loam before planting.
Remember, bluebonnets are a drought tolerant plant that needs good drainage, plenty of sun, and a cool spring to flower well. Excessively hot springs can mean a short bloom season for this lupine, for whom hot weather is a signal to set seed and finish its lifecycle as compost for those seeds.
You may also be sowing your seeds too late in the season for them to put down strong roots for winter. Try sowing a little earlier in fall than you did the previous season.
If you’re having difficulty with getting your seeds started because of the ravages of birds and/or pill bugs (two of the worst pests for bluebonnet), consider starting them in trays outdoors and transplanting when the plants are larger. As long as you haven’t let them grow too root-bound, you should be able to transplant them into a small hole filled with similar soil to the growing medium to lessen transplant shock. Water them in, and again, let the fall rains do their job.
I am a wildflower purist when it comes to Texas bluebonnet. That is, I love to see them alone or paired with other drought loving wildflowers that set off their blue-violet blooms and will seed themselves when the profusion of color is over.
Once that time has come, you may want to collect and dry the seed yourself in order to make room in the beds for other colorful favorites like summer salvias or Russian sage. Then, when autumn beckons, it’s time to scatter that seed, perhaps plant some cool-season companion plants for color, (such as pansies or Redbor kale), and start heading toward your next breathtaking bluebonnet spring.
About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at www.smalltowngardener.com.
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Learn How to Grow Texas Bluebonnet