By Dr. Tommy Stringer
The 7th Texas Legislature adopted the bluebonnet as the state flower on March 7, 1921, but the final decision came after some passionate support for at least two other plants. One lawmaker spoke in favor of the cotton boll, since cotton was king in Texas. Another supported the cactus, noting the plant’s durability and the beauty of its flowers. His eloquent support earned John Nance Garner the nickname of “Cactus Jack,” a sobriquet that remained with him throughout his long political career, which included service in the Congress and one term as Vice President of the United States.
Legislators, however, selected the bluebonnet, which was proposed by the National Society of Colonial Dames. Their choice was Lupinus subcarnosus, commonly known as buffalo clover or bluebonnet. When the resolution was introduced, it passed with no opposition. But not all Texans were totally happy with the choice. Some thought the Lupinus texensisa better option, which is showier and a bolder shade of blue. The issue would come up periodically, but the lawmakers avoided getting caught in the conflict. Finally in 1971 the Legislature added the two species together plus any other variety of bluebonnet heretofore not recorded. Unbeknownst to the lawmakers, there were three other species of Lupines in the state, technically making all five the state flower.
Regardless which variety a Texan prefers, all agree that its beauty is unsurpassed. Indian lore gives it Divine status. One popular story relates how an Indian village was suffering the effects of a severe drought. When the medicine man petitioned the Great Spirit for relief, he received word that the village had committed a great offense against the Great Spirit, an act so heinous that it required the sacrifice of the most valuable object in their possession. Upon hearing the message from the medicine man, a young girl became convinced that she must save her people by sacrificing her most valued possession, which was her doll made from the feathers of the blue jay. As the village slept, she placed her doll on the camp fire, and the flames quickly consumed the girl’s treasure. She took the ashes and scattered them on the surrounding hillside. The next morning, those hills were covered with beautiful flowers, the color of her doll, a sign the Great Spirit had been appeased. Each spring the flowers return, confirming the girl’s sacrificial spirit.
In the 1930s the Texas Highway Department began a landscaping and beautification program that included planting bluebonnets all along the state’s highways, greatly extending the flowers range. Lady Bird Johnson also helped spread the flowers along roads and highways.
The bluebonnet actually is more than a state flower. As historian Jack Maguire commented, it has become a floral symbol as well known to outsiders as cowboy boots and Stetson hats. It is to Texas what the Shamrock is to Ireland and the tulip is to Holland. It is a popular subject for photographers and artists and many communities celebrate with bluebonnet festivals.
Dr. Tommy Stringer is executive director of the Navarro College Foundation.
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