Garden: Bluebonnets And Lupines, With Love
Fields of bluebonnets in Texas hill country.
By Madaline Sparks
Bluebonnets were one of my mother’s favorite flowers. Texas bluebonnets are a variety of lupine, but they are much shorter than our taller, graceful varieties in the Northeast. Almost yearly, for many springs, she traveled to the Texas hill country near Austin to visit her sister. She chose that time of year because the bluebonnets are in their full glory growing in colonies along the roadsides and in meadows everywhere. Many other native wildflowers bloom at that time as well: Indian paintbrush, prairie primroses, blanket flowers, wine cups, and more. It is all quite magical, but the bluebonnets are the most prolific and create waves of blue as far as the eye can see, and she was completely charmed by them.
Last year, my mom passed away in November, a few days short of her 92nd birthday. She had moved from Oklahoma City three years ago to live near me in Columbia County. I was charged with returning her ashes to our hometown for a memorial service and to bury her alongside my father. My family chose to make the pilgrimage home in April, so I saved a cup of her ashes to take with me to Texas after the service in hopes of spreading them in a drift of bluebonnets somewhere, a fitting resting place for someone who loved them so much.
Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) near Austin.
My husband and I went to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a spectacular public garden within the Austin city limits that realizes its mission through research, education, plant conservation, ecological design and landscape restoration. My mother was an avid naturalist, conservationist and a teacher for over 30 years, so she would have loved this botanic garden. I ended up scattering my little pouch of her ashes in a pretty patch of bluebonnets among their acres of meadows. The land will be preserved as a nature center (hopefully) forever and it just felt like the right place.
We can’t grow bluebonnets in our region, but with over 200 species of lupines that grow around the world there are a number of natives and hybrids that thrive happily here. They are a classic, as comfortable in a cottage-style garden as they are naturalized in a meadow. With their bushy clump of palm-shaped leaves and tall colorful spires of sweet pea-like flowers, lupines are a valuable addition to the mid- or back border of a perennial garden.
A vigorous colony of lupines in the kitchen garden at Steepletop in Austerlitz. Photo courtesy of The Millay Society.
Lupines are available as annual and perennial varieties so make sure which you are acquiring so you know what to expect. They can tolerate part-shade, but thrive best in full sun. They need well-drained neutral soil, or slightly on the acid side and don’t handle high heat and humidity or staying wet for prolonged periods. Lupines develop a deep tap root so mature plants don’t transplant well but grow readily from seed. If transplanting seedlings, do so before they are bigger than six inches tall.
Lupines flower in late spring and early summer. After blooming they can tend to get ratty looking. Cut them back to basal foliage and they will re-flush with healthy new leaves and often moderately re-bloom later in the summer. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators love them. The only pest that might befall them are aphids. Keep an eye out and treat quickly and thoroughly by spraying them off with a strong stream from the hose. If the infestation persists, spray with an organic insecticidal soap.
They can be found in many colors but I do Iove the blue shades the best, as did my sweet and wonderful mom.