Spring. It's the season of awakening. Gone are the dreary, drab, bone-chilling days of winter, replaced with the promise of sunshine, warmth, and a blossoming of color to rival the spectrum of the brightest rainbow.
In Texas, Spring is wildflower season when Mother Nature puts on her finest Easter bonnet. In a state that is so often depicted as the dry, dusty, gateway to the Old West, many are surprised to learn there are more than 5,000 varieties of blooming plants. There are Pink Primroses and Brown-eyed Susans; Indian Paintbrush and Indian Blankets; Winecups and Mexican Hats, and in a nod to my ancestral home of Scotland, there are Texas Bluebells and the Texas Thistle. But if truth be told there is one wildflower that is royalty in Texas and that is the Bluebonnet.
A variety of Texas wildflowers. Click on each image to enlarge.
The Bluebonnet is the official state flower (all 5 varieties), having been proclaimed such by the state legislature originally in 1901. At that time the National Society of Colonial Dames of America put forth Lupinus subcarnosus (generally known as buffalo clover or bluebonnet) and it won easily against its competition, the cotton boll and the cactus. That's when the battle began, and it raged for 70 years! Lupinus subcarnosus is a dainty flower that is found mostly in coastal and southern regions of the Lone Star State. Many felt the bolder, heartier, showier Lupinus texensis should have won the honor. For years a polite argument ensued and politicians, as they often do, deferred any decision less they offend one group or the other. Finally, 1971 saw a political compromise when the legislature named both varieties the state flower, along with (in a stroke of political genius!) "any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded." Today, there are 6 identified varieties, so Texas has 5 "state flowers."
Beginning in early Spring, Texas in blanketed in blue thanks in large part to the late Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act and her personal campaign for the planting of wildflowers along Texas highways. The rolling fields of color have become so widespread and popular that the Texas Department of Highways even published guidelines for locals and tourists alike stopping to take treasured photographs. (I once piloted my hot air balloon at an event in Texas where each pilot was provided packets of bluebonnet seed and asked to spread them along our flight paths.)
The bluebonnet is the royalty of Texas wildflowers. Fields of bluebonnets near Ennis, Texas. Both photos by author. Balloon owned by Kevin and Linda Thompson.
It's in the bluebonnet that I find another of the many similarities I enjoy between my homeland of Texas and my ancestral home of Scotland. To me, the bluebonnet is just a bluer shade of heather. Where Texas in blanketed in blue from March to May, Scotland is painted purple from July to September. If the bluebonnet reigns supreme among Texas' blooming foliage, then Heather is the Clan Chieftan in Scotland.
From July to September, Scotland's hills are painted purple by the heather. Photos public domain except last with sheep by author. Click on each to enlarge.
Like bluebonnets, heather grows wild across Scotland covering an estimated 5 million acres of the land. It is found in many varieties and colors but the most common typically ranges from lilac to purple. (White heather is considered to be lucky!) Both plants like wet soil, seldom an issue in Scotland while in Texas the density of the springtime blanket of blue is dependent on how wet the winter season was.
Both Heather and Bluebonnets are steeped in folklore and myth. For example, there are a number of American Indian tales of how the bluebonnet got its name. One recounts how those warriors who had gone on to the happy hunting grounds fought a mighty battle, tearing chunks from the blue sky. These pieces of sky fell to earth and shattered into many pieces becoming the blooms of the bluebonnets. Another story suggests they were named for a resemblance to the bonnets worn by pioneer women. It's even been suggested they were named for the bonny blue bonnets (tam o' shanter) favored by Scottish Texicans, but the bluebonnet pre-dated even the earliest Scot settlers in Texas. (Before winning its independence, settlers in Texas were called "Texicans" - a cross between Texan and Mexican.)
In Scotland, In the 3rd century AD, the fair maiden Malvina, daughter of Scottish bard Ossian, was to be married to a Celtic warrior named Oscar. Tragically Oscar was killed in battle. The messenger who brought the news to Malvina also delivered a sprig of purple heather saying it was from Oscar as a symbol of his undying love. Legend has it that Malvina's tears falling onto the heather turned it white prompting her to remark, "'although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it." Hundreds of years later, white heather is considered lucky, especially for brides.
Another who finds a common attraction to both bluebonnets and heather is the honeybee. Fields of the bluebonnets draw a variety of bees, including honey bees who find nutrtious pollen in the white top tip, or bunny tail, of the bluebonnet. Sadly the bees are unable to collect nectar from the Texas wildflower so there is no such thing as bluebonnet honey. Heather, on the other hand, is used to create heather honey, honey-jam, and honey marmelade, as well as a spot of delicately flavored tea!
So here's to the changing season and the promise of blue skies, bluebonnets, and the heather-hued sunsets of summer sure to follow.