Red, White, and Blue Bluebonnets?

Pink Texas Bluebonnets

Pink Bluebonnets | Photo by Andreanna Moya

If a bluebonnet is called blue-bonnet, doesn’t that mean its color has to be blue?  That’s what most people would think, myself included.  But there once was a time when a Tennessee boy, much in the spirit of Gregor Mendel himself, began to “play God” with the Texas Bluebonnet.  And once again, the bluebonnet was in the midst of controversy.

It all began in 1982 when a Texas naturalist by the name of Carroll Abbott planted a seed in the minds of state horticulturists of planting the design of the Texas state flag comprised of nothing but Lupinus texensis, the Texas Bluebonnet.  The state sesquicentennial would be taking place in 4 years and Abbott thought such a patriotic endeavor would be appreciated by all.  But one question begged to be answered.  The colors of the Texas state flag are red, white, and blue.  Nature already provided the blue bluebonnet.  How would Abbott get the red and white bluebonnets?  Enter Dr. Jerry M. Parsons, a vegetable specialist with the Texas Cooperative Extension agency, who took on Abbott’s dream as his personal calling and would spend the next 20 plus years of his career tinkering with the sacred state flower and whose efforts would result in a multi-million dollar agricultural industry.

It might be news to some, but there does exist in nature white and pink bluebonnets.  Although rare, the white bluebonnet occurs frequently enough that many people in the horticultural world know of isolated populations.  The pink bluebonnet is the rarest of them all.  So rare, in fact, most people in the native plant world have never seen one, not the least of which Mr. Abbott, who having roamed the Texas countryside for decades in search of native species, had seen only three plants in his entire life.

Lavender Texas Bluebonnet

Lavender Bluebonnet | Photo by Karen Morris

Geneticists assert that if a color exists in nature, varying shades of that color will also exist.  With that in mind, Dr. Parsons deduced that if a pinkbluebonnet existed in nature, then varying shades of pink, such as a darker pink and eventually red, could be isolated and produced.  And if red could eventually be produced, then lavender or maroon were just a few generations away.

Now this is the part in the story where most Texans think, “Now hold on a minute!  You’re messing with the state flower of Texas.  Don’t mess with the Texas Bluebonnet!  It’s sacred!  If the flower is pink or white, how can it be called a bluebonnet?  Aren’t bluebonnets supposed to only be blue?”

Well, not so fast there, Tonto.  Officially the state flower is the “bluebonnet,” one word, period.  It’s not the blue bluebonnet.  It’s the bluebonnet.  And more specifically, it’s Lupinus texensis.  Changing the color of the flower does not change the species.  Therefore, it is proper to refer to bluebonnets with their color, such as pink bluebonnets, red bluebonnets, lavender bluebonnets, and in the spirit of redundancy, blue bluebonnets — but I’ll just stick with bluebonnet for that one, thank you.  And since they are all Lupinus texensis, they are all the official Texas state flower.  In Dr. Parsons’ opinion, end of discussion. I believe some Texans would beg to differ, but on with the story.

Producing the Texas state flag would “just” be a matter of locating white and pink bluebonnets, collecting their seed, purifying the color, and then producing a large enough quantity of seed to grow the needed transplants.  And I’m using the word “just” as a relative term.  In searching for the white and pink strains, the same collection criterion was used — collect only seed from white or pinks in large groups so that natural selection would have already bred most of the blue out of the plants.  There was no point in starting from scratch with blue bluebonnets.  Fortunately, this technique cut down on the amount of time needed to produce greater quantities of colored flowers with each generation, especially so with the white bluebonnets.

Purple Texas Bluebonnet

Pinkish Purple Bluebonnet | Photo by Montanna Smith

Not much was known about the bluebonnet before Parsons began the project, especially its genetics.  Parsons didn’t know exactly how many white flowers would be produced from the seed collected from the native white population.  Many thought it would be years before purification of the white flower would occur because of its rarity in nature.  But during the first season that white seeds were collected and planted, 75% of the plants produced bloomed white.  Producing whitebluebonnets wasn’t going to be as difficult as once thought.  Well, two-thirds of the project was figured out, now for the last third.

Pink bluebonnets proved to be so rare that only 4 locations were found in the entire state of Texas with the “mother lode” occurring within San Antonio’s city limits!  Just like the white bluebonnets, only seed from pink flowers in large groups were collected so that natural selection had bred out as much blue as possible.  Parsons waited with baited breath for the first season’s crop — less than 12% of the plants produced bloomed pink that first year.  Compared to the 75% production rate of the white flower, Parsons knew getting to red was going to be a long haul.

Getting to red, in fact, proved to be the most difficult aspect of the project. It would not be until several years after the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial that a red bluebonnet would finally be isolated and produced on a large scale. When the Texas state flag was finally planted for the Texas Sesquicentennial at the San Antonio Botanical Center, Drummond phlox was the stand-in for the red bluebonnet. Unfortunately, Mr. Carroll Abbott didn’t make it to the 1986 planting either, as he had passed away a few years earlier in 1984.

Although Carroll Abbott did not get a chance to see his dream of a red, white, and blue bluebonnet flag come to fruition, there is no denying his influence on not only the life of a young vegetable specialist from Tennessee who finally met with success in producing not only red bluebonnets, but maroon and lavender as well, but on an entire state itself, both economically and in the hearts of its people.