All About Bluebonnet Color Varieties

 A bee on the 'Texas Maroon' Bluebonnet. Photo by Dr. Jerry Parsons. 

A bee on the 'Texas Maroon' Bluebonnet. Photo by Dr. Jerry Parsons. 

Have you ever heard of the famous maroon bluebonnet? Dr. Jerry Parsons spent 30 years developing several color variations of bluebonnets. We sat down with Dr. Parsons, to get his expert advice on planting these special bluebonnets.

The most famous variety he named the 'Texas Maroon' Bluebonnet. There is a wealth of stories and folklore around these bluebonnets (such as maroon bluebonnets mysteriously appearing at UT Austin's campus), but first let’s discuss the best ways to get beautiful blooms from your seed. 

(This page contains a wealth of knowledge. You can refer back to it for tips and advice or you can jump to the planting instructions by clicking here.)


When To Plant

Plan to sow your seeds sometime between mid-September and November.

A good rule of thumb is to not plant your bluebonnets past Thanksgiving, or you risk losing your young seedlings to a freeze. Bluebonnets are extremely cold tolerant, but they need to enough time to establish a healthy root system before going dormant in winter.


 
 The rosette formation of the Bluebonnet. Although the plant is small above ground, it has an deep root system that will help it endure the winter. 

The rosette formation of the Bluebonnet. Although the plant is small above ground, it has an deep root system that will help it endure the winter. 

Why Planting in the fall is important

When you plant in the fall, the bluebonnets will grow to a certain point, forming a small rosette, and stop in late fall to prepare for winter.

They will remain in that rosette stage until winter passes and when the following spring arrives; the bluebonnets will finish growing and bloom.

The bluebonnets will bloom when they emerge out of dormancy in the spring.

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Seedbed Preparation

Before you plant, prepare your seedbed. This means you need to be working well before you get your seed in the ground.

Begin by loosening the soil, but just the top layer. Tilling deeper than an inch could stir up weed seed below. Dr. Parsons recommended using a roto-tiller or aerator to break up your soil.

Then give the seed bed a descent watering and let set before beginning to plant. You want the soil sticky enough to grab on to and hold the seed.

Remember this term: seed-to-soil contact. Good seed-to-soil contact is your key to success.

Why? The seed is packed with a limited amount of moisture and nutrients to grow. In order to successfully grow it needs to be kept moist, which the soil will do if packed tightly around the seed. The second benefit is as soon as the seedling extends roots out it has immediate access to vital nutrients that will help it grow rapidly.

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Planting Depth

 Seeds left on the soil surface runs the risk of drying out or being eaten. Make sure your seed is lightly covered with soil. Photo by Dr. Jerry Parsons.

Seeds left on the soil surface runs the risk of drying out or being eaten. Make sure your seed is lightly covered with soil. Photo by Dr. Jerry Parsons.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, this point is very important: The key to successful plantings is getting good seed-to-soil contact.

Plant your seed just below the soil, between ⅛-¼ inch deep. This gives the seed the benefits of having the shortest distance to travel to the surface while also being deep enough to keep moisture.

Few seed types can be sprinkled on the ground and left on the surface and achieve measurable success. Seed typically needs adequate, but not deep, soil coverage in order to grow.

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Weed control

 Stop! Don't pull me up! These are both bluebonnet seedlings. The round leaves are their "seed leaves," they will lose those leaves as they grow and have the more chracteristic bluebonnet leaves, as seen on the left.  

Stop! Don't pull me up! These are both bluebonnet seedlings. The round leaves are their "seed leaves," they will lose those leaves as they grow and have the more chracteristic bluebonnet leaves, as seen on the left.  

Stop! If you have weeds, don’t spray common weed killers — it will kill your bluebonnets! If you have broadleaf weeds growing among your bluebonnets, your best bet is hand pulling of the “unwanteds”!

A good way to avoid broadleaf weeds is to plant your bluebonnets on higher ground. Most broadleaf weeds prefer low-lying land.

However, if you have grass growing into your bluebonnets that you don’t want, you are in luck. There are some GRASS herbicides you can use that will not harm the bluebonnets. Dr. Parsons recommended some common name brands, such as “Ornamec - Grass Herbicide,” “Ortho Grass-B-Gon,” and “Poast.” Verify that it is a grass-only herbicide, not a broadleaf herbicide, before using. The active ingredient you are looking for is Fusilade and it is harmless to broadleaf plants, such as bluebonnets.

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Fertilizer

You most likely won’t need to fertilize your bluebonnets. However, if they begin to look yellow to light-green in appearance, you will need to give them a nitrogen boost. Dr. Parsons recommended a 50 percent slow release fertilizer of 19-5-9, with an application rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet.


Stories

Now for the fun part: The stories! Back in 1982, the famous Carroll Abbott (founder of the Native Plant Society of Texas — also known as Mr. Bluebonnet for his efforts in conjunction with Lady Bird Johnson on advancing wildflower protection and planting) approached Dr. Jerry Parsons on an idea to plant the Texas State flag in red, white, and blue bluebonnets for Texas' Sesquicentennial in 1986. Just a decade before there was almost no commercial market of Texas native wildflowers, so Dr. Parsons had a pioneer quest ahead of him. Dr. Parsons soon enacted a network of eyes and ears that scoured Texas in search of wild color variations of the bluebonnet. Wild white forms were known and by 1986, Dr. Parsons had developed a pure white strain by collecting and breeding these wild forms and two-thirds of the flag project was complete. For the Sesquicentennial the flag was planted with white and blue bluebonnets, and Drummond Red Phlox for the red. The red bluebonnet variation was a much rarer form to find. In 1988, the first purplish-red flower was found in a field of “Abbott Pink” Bluebonnets— another strain Parsons developed during his quest for the bluebonnet Texas flag. By fall of 1989, the seedlings from that first discovery were planted and it took another 5-6 growing cycles to get a pure red strain. By the turn of the century, Parson’s had done it, and created a couple more strains along the way — the “Abbott Pink” and the “Purple Heart” variations. To see a photo of that flag, click on the link to “How Long Does it Take to Grow a Texas Flag?”

To read more stories about this famous bluebonnet and Dr. Parson’s adventures in developing a Texas Flag of bluebonnets click on the links below.

  1. How Long Does it Take to Grow a Texas Flag? 
  2. Lore of the Bluebonnet 
  3. Research on the 'Texas Maroon' Bluebonnet 
  4. A tale of creative rivalry- Aggie Maroon Bluebonnets growing on UT Austin campus

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Step-By-Step Guide on Planting Bluebonnets in a Garden or Yard

  1. Pick a time when you will be able to plant. Plan for the fall between September and November
  2. Pick your location. Find a spot that gets at least 8 hours full sun
  3. Prepare the seedbed
  4. Moisten the seedbed (for yards and gardens only, for large areas see the rangeland guide below)
  5. Spread your seed, whether by broadcaster or hand spreading
  6. Run a rake over the soil to cover the seed. Do not cover too deep, about 1/4 inch deep will do. 
  7. Then, roll something over the soil to compact it slightly, ensuring good seed-to-soil contact. You could use a sod roller, which is available to rent at some nurseries.
  8. After compacting, give the seed another drink of water, but not so much that water begins pooling in the area. (Try to use your best judgment here, you want the soil wet enough that your shoe leaves an imprint in the soil. If you see water pooling, stop watering.)
  9. Continue to monitor the moisture levels of the soil closely for the next few weeks. In lieu of rainfall, water about 1 hour with the sprinkler 1x a week for the first three weeks, then 1x every two weeks throughout the growing season. Remember, if you have had rainfall, you do not need to water as much. Dr. Parsons stressed that the most important time to keep your bluebonnets watered is when they bloom 
  10. If you start to get weeds, click here for weed control advice.
  11. If your bluebonnets begin to look pale-green or yellow, click here for fertilizer advice. 

A word of caution: If you skip any of these steps, you are reducing your chances for a successful bloom. If you skip more than one of these steps, you are almost guaranteeing you won’t have a successful bloom.

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Step-By-Step Guide on Planting Bluebonnets in Rangeland or a Pasture

  1. Decide when you will be able to plant. Plan for some time in the fall between September and November
  2. Pick your location to plant. Find an area that gets at least 8 hours full sun
  3. Prepare the seedbed, you might want to run an aerator, or disk through the area to break up the soil. (The aerator works for over-seeding as well.)
  4. Do not pre-moisten the seed bed if you are using heavy equipment to plant the seed!
  5. Spread your seed, whether by broadcaster or hand spreading
  6. Run a rake over the soil to cover the seed, if the equipment you are using doesn't compact the soil after planting. Do not cover too deep, about 1/4 inch deep will do.
  7. Then, roll something over the soil to compact it slightly, ensure good seed-to-soil contact
  8. After compacting, give the seed a drink of water, but not so much that water begins pooling in the area. (If you do not have access to water, again try to plan planting around the rainy season.)
  9. Bluebonnets are hardy plants, they are well adapted to the boom and bust rainfall patterns we have in Texas. The only limitation to allowing your bluebonnets be watered naturally is lack of control on the bloom. In drought years there will be fewer blooms than in a wet year. But, these hardy seeds are tough and if you have a drought year, be patient and they should put on a quite a show when the conditions return to wetter weather.

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Douglass King Seeds