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The Texas Bluebonnet: a blossom of renewal

The Texas Bluebonnet: a blossom of renewal
NANNETTE KILBEY-SMITH Bluebonnets, members of the lupine family, blanket the countryside around La Vernia following the recent late winter rains. Designated the official Texas state flower in 1901, the bright wildflowers are harbingers of spring to Texans. Send your bluebonnet photos to

“No other flower -- for me at least -- brings such upsurging of the spirit and at the same time such restfulness.” J. Frank Dobie

After one of the worst droughts and wildfire seasons in Texas’ history, a sign of renewal is springing up along Texas highways. It is the state flower of Texas: the bluebonnet. For decades, poets, authors, and artists of all kinds have been drawn to the bright blue flower, which typically makes its debut for a few weeks each Spring, decorating the Texas landscape in a sea of blue.

It is believed that the first to observe and write about the bluebonnet were European naturalists who traveled to Texas, then part of Mexico, in the early 1800s to collect and document specimens of new plants and animals. The first of these was 20-year-old Jean Louis Berlandier, a Franco-Swiss botanical explorer who was sent to Mexico by his professor to serve as the botanist for the Mexican Boundary Commission, which was tasked with establishing the border between Mexico and the United States.

While traveling from Ciudad de Bexar (San Antonio) toward Nacogdoches, his company camped overnight by the Salado Creek. It was here that Berlandier first described the bluebonnet in his journal.

“The fields, strewn with flowers, were yet only a small thing compared with what we saw in the upper regions of Texas. A lupine, verbena, delphinium, some lilies, and a great many evening primroses contrasted with the tender green of the grasses, from which sprang flowers of various colors.”

Berlandier called the bluebonnet a “lupine,” which is a genus that includes mostly perennials and stems from the Latin “lupinus,” or wolf. Lupines were classified as such because many were believed to rob the soil of its nourishment, much like wolves rob shepherds of their sheep. In fact, the bluebonnet is not predatory in nature and actually has the opposite effect, nourishing the soil through nitrogen nodules on its roots. Over the next several decades, the blue lupine continued to draw attention as a new specimen for naturalists and a beautiful sight for weary travelers.

In 1901, State Rep. John M. Green, of Cuero, Texas, made a compelling argument before the state legislature as to why the bluebonnet should be the official state flower. When he rose to the podium to suggest the bluebonnet, someone on the floor called out, “What the devil is a bluebonnet?” One explanation was given comparing the bluebonnet to the sunbonnets worn by Texas women in the pioneer days to protect their faces from the sun. Another called the bluebonnet by its Spanish nickname “el conejo” or “the rabbit” because of its resemblance to the tail of a cottontail rabbit.

After the legislators were shown a painting of the blue flower, the bluebonnet stole the show. A resolution making the bluebonnet, specifically the Lupinus subcarnosus, the official state flower of Texas was signed by then-Gov. Joseph D. Sayers on March 7, 1901.

The debate did not end there, however. Different groups argued that the Lupinus subcarnosus was not the most attractive of the bluebonnet family. They claimed another species, the Lupinus texensis, was bolder, more beautiful and should be named the official flower. For the next 70 years, this debate would ensue. Finally, in 1971, then-Gov. Preston Smith signed a resolution designating both species of the bluebonnet as the official state flower, along with “any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded.” As it turns out, three other species have been discovered.

The 70-year debate did prove one thing: Texans are passionate about bluebonnets. Over the years, this flower has been a source of inspiration for many. In Tales of Old-Time Texas, Texas historian and author J. Frank Dobie wrote, “Every dauber in the country tries his hand at painting it, and bluebonnet chromos are as plentiful as cowboy figures on pulp magazine covers.”

Towns across Texas have developed wildflower tours and festivals to showcase their bluebonnets as the best and most colorful in the state. Every April, thousands of visitors flock to the historic cotton town of Chappell Hill for the official “Texas Bluebonnet Festival,” complete with bluebonnet contests and crafts.

I hope this spring we can all pause to enjoy the beauty of our state’s flower in any of its five forms. Indeed, the bluebonnet runs wild throughout Texas and deep in our state’s history.

Sources: Legends and Lore of Texas Wildflowers, Elizabeth Silverthorne; Tales of Old-time Texas, J. Frank Dobie; The Texas Bluebonnet, Jean Andrews; Texas State Historical Association.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn serves on the armed services, judiciary, and budget committees. He was the attorney general of Texas.

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