January 3rd, 2008
Oversummering Bluebonnets

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. The freak survival of bluebonnet seedlings over the summer of 2007 resulted in this bluebonnet flowering in December.

I worry that 2008 might not be a very good for Texas’s beloved state flower, the bluebonnet. Under ideal conditions, bluebonnets sprout in late September or early October after fall rains break summer’s hold. By Christmas, each plant has formed a flat rosette about the size of a salad plate. The root system gets firmly established as the rosette grows to dinnner plate size. By late February, the bluebonnet sends up multiple stalks forming a compact little bush with a flower at the end of each stalk. If you pick these first flowers, the bluebonnet will stay bushy and more flowers will form on side shoots.

However 2007 was an odd year weather-wise. Austin enjoyed a cool, wet summer and endured a hot, dry fall. In my yard quite a few bluebonnets sprouted from fresh seed in June. Although this happens every year, these early summer seedlings rarely survive the heat and droughts typical of August in Austin. In 2007, seventeen plants ended up successfully oversummering and are already forming little bushes. On December 15th one of these flowered.

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. The bluebonnets which grew over the summer are now forming small bushes ahead of schedule.

Unfortunately very few bluebonnets began sprouting in the fall of 2007. Only in the last couple of weeks of the year did I begin seeing new seedlings. Of course, they are quite small for this time of year, only a a few true leaves rather than a large rosette. And the weather remains very, very dry which means that they are not getting off to a good start.

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. This bluebonnet just sprouted; it is a couple of months behind.

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. This time of year, the bluebonnets plants are usually form rosettes about 6 inches across.

While the gardener may fret, the bluebonnets are employing their long-term strategy for survival. Their seeds have a tough coat which makes them difficult to sprout when dry. The coats are of various thicknesses so that only some of the seeds sprout in the same conditions and other remain in reserve until their coats are worn down. Even though the plants are fewer and smaller, once conditions are right, they will still manage to send up a flower or two. The seeds that didn’t sprout this year are waiting to sprout next year.

Now I’m waiting to see what the other oversummering bluebonnets will do. Will they also flower early? Will they be more subject to freeze damage in January and February? Or will the plants just sprouting now catch up to the plants which have been growing last June so that they all bloom at once?

by M Sinclair Stevens

20 Responses to post “Oversummering Bluebonnets”

  1. From Steve Mudge (Fort Worth):

    I thought we’d waited too long to plant our seed packet of Texas wildflowers, but after reading of your observations perhaps the Bluebonnets are more adaptable than I’d thought so I’ll try a January planting. Happy new year and thanks so much for your great blog!

    Errrr…actually my point was that this IS too late for the bluebonnets to be sprouting. They should have sprouted three months ago so that their root systems would be establishing themselves over winter. Unless these little sprouts get some rain, they will probably survive but they may not thrive. Those that survive will be small and produce few flowers. I’m not saying don’t try. If you have a packet of dry bluebonnet seeds, you should scarify them (gently rub off a bit of the coat with sandpaper so that water can penetrate) and perhaps soak them before planting them. In nature this can take months or years for the coat to wear down…that’s the protective measure. Gardens aren’t natural. Nature gets by on survival. The garden demands optimum conditions. The gardener has to employ nature’s strategies in order to force flowers to bloom when and where he wants them, where they would not do otherwise on their own. — mss

  2. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    I can honestly say I’ve never heard the term “oversummering” before. Your garden problems are so fascinating to this frozen snowbird. Although 2008 may not be a good year for bluebonnet blooms, the good thing about natives is, as you said, they’re genetically wired to survive the worst your climate can throw at them.

    I just made it up to stress the different challenges we face down here. Most North American gardeners worry about overwintering their tender plants. But for most of the flowers I grow here in central Texas, winter is their natural growing season when they build up their strength to burst into bloom in spring. I struggle to nurture plants through our hideous summers. And in the case of this bluebonnet oddly flowering in December, succeeded. — mss

  3. From Libby at Aurora Primavera:

    Sigh. It’s demoralizing to hear that this may be a bad year for bluebonnets. It seems like the only thing we can count on lately is that the weather will surprise us.

    Re: your 2007 photo: I never get tired of looking at the structure, beauty, and color of the bluebonnet foliage. It’s so beautiful. Dainty yet strong. Even if bluebonnets didn’t flower–the leaves would be worth growing just to admire their prettiness.

    Well anything can happen. We had a terrible drought just a couple of years ago and the bluebonnets were off to another slow start. Then we got a a couple of drenching rains in March and they pulled through and put on a show. It wasn’t the greatest year for bluebonnets but we didn’t go entirely without a wildflower fix that year. I love the bluebonnet foliage, too. — mss

  4. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    That’s the fun of gardening isn’t it? You never know what’s happening next. Plants that flowered for years and right on time too suddenly don’t flower at all or at very odd times.

    Love those pretty bluebonnets but can’t grow them here as the slugs and snails love them even more.

    Happy New Year, MSS!

    Happy New Year! I have some problems with snails. I’ve never seen a slug except in England. It’s too dry here. (Probably a bunch of Austinites will write and say they have slugs in their gardens.) — mss

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    You shared some bluebonnet seedlings a couple of springs ago, and I was convinced these would be the magical plants that would reseed and return. Last year there was one lone seedling – and I see one lone seedling in 2008. Since they’re not abundant for you either I won’t take it personally, just buy a few budded bluebonnet plants for my hanging baskets.

    Oversummering, huh? That term could come in handy.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’ll just have to get you some more seeds. If your beds are heavily mulched, that might keep them from sprouting. I always turn over patches of dirt in the fall (as part of my weeding and clean up) and to help the self-sowers come to the surface. — mss

  6. From kate:

    I love the colour of the bluebonnets. They look like larger versions of Baptisia australis.

    It will be interesting to see what the other bluebonnets do … hopefully bloom!

    Yes, the bluebonnet flowers do look a lot like false indigo, both pea-shaped flowers. Bluebonnets are a deep blue and aren’t woody at all, like the perennial baptisia. — mss

  7. From Angelina:

    Are bluebonnets a type of lupine? (Is that a dreadfully stupid question?)

    Of course it’s not a stupid question. And yes they are, Lupinus texensis…literally Texas lupines. We apparently have six different varieties and all of them, and any newly discovered ones, qualify as our state flower. — mss

  8. From Carol:

    MSS, I think I know what you mean by “oversummering”, though it isn’t something we have to worry about much here in Indiana. But this last summer, with a moderate drought, I do wonder what impact there was on the forming of flower buds for spring bloom on shrubs like lilacs. Did the plants form good buds, even in the dry conditions? Plus we had an obnoxiously cold spring.

    Under ‘normal’ circumstances, when do the bluebonnets usually put on a big show in Texas? I suppose I could do a search and find the answer, but I bet it would lead me back here, so I thought I’d ask.

    I think it is also nice to have a flower like the bluebonnet that everyone identifies with ‘Texas’. We don’t have a flower like that in Indiana, that I can think of.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

    The bluebonnets generally cover the hillsides of central Texas from mid-March to mid-April…depending on the rain, of course! My son’s birthday is on St Patrick’s Day and we have many a birthday photo of him in the bluebonnets. If temperatures continue to warm around the world, you northern gardeners might start experiencing some of the problems we face–not enough cold days for certain bulbs and fruit trees, as well as water bans and heat-damaged plants. How nasty if you have to face bad winters and bad summers. — mss

  9. From Nancy:

    AH! I thought I was the only one to have spotted the odd flowering of some bluebonnets in December. The first time I saw the patch (on the side of an access road here in Houston that just isn’t a good place to stop and take pictures) I thought I was seeing things.

    I also have spotted some Indian blanket along with the bluebonnets.

    It’s been a very strange year.

    It has. The earliest I’ve ever spotted a bluebonnet before is February 5th, along IH-35. I think that since our temperatures vary so every month that the most important factor in when flowers bloom in central Texas is the amount of rain. — mss

  10. From Bonnie, Austin:

    Great post- I had never really learned about how the bluebonnets cycle through and it is fascinating to note. I always have to remind myself this time of year that when I see these little sprouts coming up, they are not weeds. Just leave them be!

    Thanks for the great information. And great job on the Spring Fling badge. I love it!

    Thanks. One of the reasons I’m so behind in posting and catching up with comments here at Zanthan Gardens is that I was totally immersed in trying to get the Garden Bloggers site up last week. I’m glad you like the way the badge turned out. I get a thrill when I see it on other people’s blogs. — mss

  11. From Karen, Savannah:

    Yes, Angelina, bluebonnets are lupines. It’s a huge genus.

    Fascinating life history of the Texas bluebonnet, mss. Thanks. You are so right that our problem in the south is oversummering (good word!) I don’t think I’ve ever lost a plant in winter and I’ve lost hundreds in summer.

    Oh me too. I always laugh at those books that talk about long growing season based on the dates of our first and last frosts. What about that dead season in the middle, summer? I think of Austin as having two short growing seasons. Although seeing the gardens of the other Austin garden bloggers has shown me strategies for getting through summer. Our topsy-turvy seasons are one of the many reasons I’m happy garden blogging has caught on finally. It’s so much more fun to compare notes with individual people who share my experiences than to read books with advice for people who live only in a four-season climate. — mss

  12. From ml, maine:

    I love the kind of smokey blue/green leaves of the bluebonnet. This is the kind of foliage I’d proudly display in my foliage garden, even if it didn’t bloom. Reminds me very much of the wild lupine we have here in Maine. Same leaf-shape.
    And – I left you a comment to your comment on my blog.

  13. From Aiyana:

    The weather was also strange here in Arizona in 2007, and many of my plants, including cacti, did weird things during the year, which lead to sun scorch, early death, spindly growth, etc. The hard freeze did cause many cacti to bloom profusely, many earlier or later than normal. I’m wondering what effect that will have on this year’s flower production.

  14. From Don, Iowa City:

    I always loved that song by Nancy Griffith about “some bluebonnet spring”. I see where they are predicting a high probability of major drought this summer here in the midwest… dunno if that will include Texas. They say 16/17 of the droughts that have occurred here have been preceded by drought in the southeast.

  15. From Kylee:

    I’ve only been to Texas twice and never saw the bluebonnets, but then I wasn’t into gardening back then either. I’ve never seen a bluebonnet in person, but I love their gorgeous blue color and I agree, the foliage looks like our lupines here and the blooms a bit like baptisia. Lovely!

    I’m struck by how many flowers I grow that have pea-shaped blossoms: the sweet peas, of course, the bluebonnets, the hyacinth bean vine, and the Texas mountain laurel. That family of plants seems to do well in this environment. — mss

  16. From Dee:

    I have transplanted at least 200 seedlings, they appear to be stunted looking now. What should I do? Has anyone had this same occurrence?

    Where do you live? How long ago did you plant them? How big were they when you planted them? Have they grown at all. During the winter bluebonnets form a flat rosette. They won’t start getting bushy until late February to send up flower spikes in March. If you live in the central Texas area, water them. It’s been a very dry winter. — mss

  17. From Dee, Southeast, Texas:

    I have transplanted these seedlings, with a huge clump of dirt around December 19, 2008. These seedlings have shown no growth whatsoever; However they are still alive. Thank you for your reply. I am concerned about them. I really want a grand display of blue flower heads. Should I fertilize? Is it too late to continue to transplant? These seedlings are about 3 inch in diameter, but all of the sudden they have really exploded in diameter, not the transplants, but the field source ones.

    Bluebonnets do not need to be fertilized. However, if you haven’t gotten any rain, you should water them. When they are young, they put all their growing into their roots. After the roots are well-established, the tops should start growing. It’s not too late to transplant more bluebonnets. Bluebonnets planted later in the winter will take some time to catch up with ones planted in late fall. — mss

  18. From Dee Southeast, Texas:

    My transplanted bluebonnets have adapted. My question is the weeds, that have been transplanted with them, What kind of weed & seed, Weed killer can I use on them later during the year?

    None. You can’t use weed killer on wildflowers. The makers of weed killer consider wildflowers to be weeds. Weed killer is bad. It poisons you and it poisons the earth. Get out there among your beautiful flowers and cultivate them. –mss

  19. From Dee, SE, Texas:

    Yes you are correct, weed killer is poison. I just have cockle burs transplanted also. Not to fond of them! I have had great success with my seedlings, I planted them all very close to each other. How far apart should I be planting these bluebonnets, and where is the best place for me to find, are buy pink bluebonnet seeds, or seedlings? Is there anyone out there willing to dig me a few seedlings? I will pay! Thank You again, Dee

  20. From Joanie; Central TX:

    I planted a raised flower garden 5 years ago. The first year I bought some bluebonnets. I planted 6 plants. This year one bluebonnet showed up. It has been very cold and wet this season, which made the flower blossom. Today I went out and found one of the plants escaped the garden. It is in my St. Augustine grass. I want to dig it up and put it back in the bed. How do I transplant the fugitive. Does it have shallow roots or one long tap root? Will it be safe to transplant it now (it has just the first level of leaves and no buds or blooms.) or should I wait. WOW! 2 blue bonnets I feel special.

    You can move the bluebonnet if it is still small. Mine pop up all over the gravel paths and in other places I don’t want them and I spend most of December moving them to places I do want them. They have a single long taproot but if the plant is small you should be able to dig the whole thing up without too much problem. Transplant it in the evening or on a cloudy day so that it won’t wilt in strong sunlight when it is moved. — mss