The Pleasure of Faded Blue Genes

Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge


Although I’d never considered the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge as a source for bluebonnets, an impulsive decision to swing by for a visit revealed acres and acres of the flowers covering the land.

These weren’t the Lupinus texensis of central Texas’s gently rolling hills, but Lupinus subcarnosus: the sandyland bluebonnet. Declared the state flower in 1901, Lupinus subcarnosus competed for years with the larger and showier Lupinus texensis for pride of place. In 1971, the state legislature resolved the conflict by declaring that the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) and “any other variety of bluebonnet not heretofore recorded” also should be considered the state flower; today, six recognized species share the honor.

As I walked into the field, the appropriateness of the name ‘sandyland’ became obvious; the covering of loose sand reminded me of barrier island prairies. The sandy conditions also suggested I was seeing white prickly poppies in the distance, but walking farther in I discovered something quite different: bull nettles. One of the nastiest plants I know, the flowers are lovely, and butterflies visit them without fear, but the sting from the hairs covering every other part of the plant is remarkably painful. Having learned about that sting in the past, I looked, but didn’t touch.

Texas bull nettle ~ Cnidoscolus texanus

The day’s greatest delight was a scattering of white bluebonnets throughout the field. I’ve occasionally found one or two white flowers, but on this occasion I counted a full dozen in the area I explored.

What I’d never before seen were pale bluebonnets: lovely, soft hues that were immensely appealing.

Even more fun were the variegated bluebonnets blooming in the middle of the field. Whether variations are more common in Lupinis subcarnosis, or whether other conditions caused them to appear, I can’t say, but I’m certain that any budding genticist would have had a field day in this field.


Comments always are welcome.

67 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Faded Blue Genes

    1. Both the pale blue and the variegated were real surprises. In some ways, these fields weren’t as ‘photogenic’ as those in areas where the Texas bluebonnet predominates, but I certainly enjoyed the range of colors.

    1. It crossed my mind while still in Attwater that it wasn’t a good spot for the traditional ‘babies in bluebonnets’ photos. Given the sand, the bull nettles, the detritus from previous seasons, and the generally sparser flowers, the more well-publicized areas would do much better. I’m glad you had the experience with your kids — and like you, I was overwhelmed the first time I experienced a Texas spring.

    1. I love bluebonnets in every shade, although I’ll confess that the pale blue, while interesting, is my least favorite. I never would have expected that bold blue and white combination; there’s never any predicting what’s going to be found.

      1. A relative is the Lupins in Iceland. Nonnative plants can be a huge problem. The pretty Nootka lupin was brought to Iceland from Alaska in 1945 to help to restore degraded soils which had been a severe problem since the 19th century. Although there are still large areas in Iceland which suffer erosion and desertification many feel the lupine has become too aggressive and needs to be stopped. It is especially feared that the lupine will spread into the Central highlands, permanently transforming the local flora. It is an invasive species in Iceland, threatening local plant life. It creates monocultures which can suffocate more delicate native flora. Icelanders are trying to destroy the lupine. The goal is to protect the distinctive woolly moss, known in Icelandic as graymoss, which covers the lava. The moss gives the lava field its magical aura.

        1. I can’t remember now exactly who wrote about them, but I do remember someone in the American west mentioning a lupine species that had become troublesome in their area. It’s an old story. Plants like the salt cedar, that were brought from Europe to help with erosion here flourished beyond anyone’s expectations, and now are “plant non grata” in several states. Likewise, the Chinese tallow tree, which is the bane of prairie restorers — and many others. Attractiveness can be as much of a problem as a non-native plant’s usefulness. I know a lot of people who love the Chinese tallow because it provides some of our most consistent fall color. The price for that color is substantial, however.

    1. Just once, I found a patch of white bluebells that was large enough to endure for about three years as the bees went from white flower to white flower. How long it would have lasted I’ll never know — it was at a refuge, but even there the mowers sometimes show up.

      Blue and white weren’t the only bluebonnet delights this time around. In time, I’ll show the pink and the yellow, too.

  1. Blue genes–I see what you did there. Like you, I like bluebonnets, no matter the shade. They’re popping up here in Austin, always nice to see. I like your photos of the nettle and I know exactly how prickly that thing can be!

    1. As soon as the phrase “faded blues” crossed my mind, a title was born. I’d love to see the species that grows in Big Bend — the Chisos bluebonnet. From what I’ve read, it can reach a height of four feet. I can only imagine what that looks like; nothing shy or retiring about that flower.

      1. I’d love to see the Big Bend bluebonnets too! I’ve only ever been there in summer; it’s gorgeous then, I can only imagine what spring is like.

  2. You know, I’ve only seen photographs of bluebonnets, never saw them in person. I’m going to have to fix that someday, but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy your beautiful pictures of them.

    1. They’re truly lovely. The solid blue fields can be spectacular, but I enjoy them mixed with other flowers; I have some photos of those combinations to share, as well. I will say that big fields of them have another advantage: the fragrance. This year I’ve already had the pleasure of catching their scent, and it’s wonderful.

    1. I love the white, and thought the pale blue was interesting, but like you I enjoy that deep blue. The combination of blue and white was pleasing, too. It’s always fun to see something new, and those flowers certainly qualified.

  3. Dangerous as bull nettle is, its flowers have a very pleasant scent. As a native plant person I don’t stop and smell the roses but instead stop and smell the bull nettle flowers when I see them—very cautiously, of course. Losing one’s balance while leaning over a bull nettle would be a disaster.

    Happy pale blue bluebonnets to you. You must have been thrilled with them, and with the white ones exemplifying your favorite color.

    1. Now I’m curious. When I was roaming Attwater, there was a distinct and entirely pleasing scent in the air. I assumed it was the bluebonnets, but there were so many bull nettles that now I’m wondering if their scent might have been wafting around, too. The next time I come across some, I’ll have a careful sniff and see if that might have been what I was smelling.

      1. I don’t have a good sense of smell, and I always have to get my nose pretty close to a bull nettle flower before I detect its scent. Maybe someone with a stronger sense of smell could detect bull nettle fragrance from farther away, especially if there are a lot of flowers close together. Give it a shot—and don’t let it give you a shot.

        1. Thinking about it, I realized that I caught the same scent early Sunday morning along 90A, where there were some large spreads of bluebonnets. I suspect the scent at Attwater was the bluebonnets, especially since the bull nettles were scattered. That said, I’ll do some comparative sniffing and see how the nettles fare when it comes to fragrance.

  4. I didn’t know bluebonnets came in variegated hues, Linda — boy, those are stunning! You know I’m a BIG fan of these Texas wildflowers. I can still recall one road trip from Dallas to Denton (for some conference or other) when the bluebonnets were in full bloom everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Just heavenly!!

    1. forgive my ignorance – does any of the credit for all of this majestic beauty go to Lady Bird Johnson?

      1. A good bit of the credit belongs to Lady Bird. She began her beautification programs while in the White House; there’s a great article about those early days here.

        In time, interest in her programs began to spread; combined with an increasing appreciation for the value of native plants, it led to what we see along our highways today. The Texas Department of Transportion plants around 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed each year, and changes in management practices like mowing have helped to ensure year-round beauty. There’s a nice article about TxDot practices here. And of course the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin is a primary source of information and education. I’ve not yet visited there, but I use the website on almost a daily basis.

        Of course, it’s worth remembering that the flowers were here long before any of these human programs developed. What we see along the roads may be a result of intentional planting, but what overspreads the countryside often is what early settlers would have seen. I have gr-great-grandparents who camped on the prairie near Melissa, Texas, after the Civil War, and family correspondence suggests gr-gr-grandpa was quite a fan of the flowers!

        1. Lots of good info here – thanks. Lady Bird always seems like a sad figure to me. And it makes me sad to see that carpet bedding and know that many gardeners would maybe sneer a little – I hope not. She did a lot of admirable work for all of us

    2. We’re not yet done with the cleverness of the bluebonnet, Debbie. There are more treats to come, and other colors! Are you a fan of blue generally? I just noticed that the blouse you’re wearing in your avatar photo is almost exactly the blue of the pale bluebonnet. It’s not a color I generally choose for myself, but it looks great on you, and it sure did look great among the more saturated blues of the other flowers. One of the great pleasures of life is being able to get out and see the flowers; I wish I could whisk you down here for a weekend to have a good up-close look at them.

      1. I’d love a weekend seeing flowers in Texas, Linda — maybe one day…. I love both blue and green, but my late dad always liked me in the pale robin’s egg blue like my avatar shirt.

  5. I saw my first bluebonnets of the season yesterday, on my way back from the doctor’s office. It was one of those times when you feel worse after the exam than you did before. Those patches of blue were the best medicine. I perked right up.

    I wish the “altered” blues in your photos had never been tampered with. You can’t make perfect any more perfect. Am willing to bet I’m the only one who feels this way. Thanks for the photos.

    Be well.

    1. Those pale blue, white, and variegated bluebonnets hadn’t been tampered with at all — unless you want to blame Mother Nature for the ‘tampering.’ They’re natural variations. They probably won’t come back next year, because of the way pollination takes place. On the other hand, other variants surely will pop up elsewhere; that’s part of what makes them such fun discoveries. They weren’t created by a plant breeder or in a lab — they’re just what nature does.

        1. Well, and given the ‘fancy’ flowers that plant breeders come up with, there’s sometimes just no telling what we’re looking at. Someone posted some photos of daffodils recently that I never would have recognized as such! Speaking of natural variation in bluebonnets, I found pink ones and yellow ones on this trip, too. They were just hanging out, the pink in a field and the yellow alongside a road near Hallettsville. I’ll be posting photos, of course. They were amazing.

    1. Isn’t it, though? While I love the white, the cobalt blue and white mixed really appeals. It reminds me of some of the blue and white chamber set pieces I’ve collected over the years: probably my favorite patterns.

    1. Oh, my. And everyone around here is bundled up and fussing about our cold — I think we started out in the upper 40s. The nice thing about a spate of cooler weather now, as well as a possibility of rain, is that it may help extend the blooming period of at least some flowers. On the other hand, we could use a good, windy rain to get rid of some of the pollen.

      I’m so glad these brightened your morning. They certainly brightened my day when I found them!

    1. Especially when your introduction to bull nettles came by sitting on one — as I did near a Texas field when I plopped down to get a better angle on whatever I was photographing. I had no idea what had happened, but I knew it wasn’t good!

  6. Attwater always seems to offer a surprise.

    Blue genes faded, bright or mixed certainly provide stunning landscapes and lovely single blooms to enjoy! Our first residence in San Angelo, Texas had a median strip within view of the front door which was covered in blue beginning in March each year. We soon discovered back roads where we could park in the middle of the road and gawk at Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush (Gaillardia pulchella) and never see another person.

    Our local version of your Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) is called Tread-Softly or (perhaps more appropriately) Finger-Rot. I learned about them the hard way. Picked a bouquet of pretty little white flowers for Mom. Instant regret. Mom grabbed some adhesive tape to pull out some of the plant’s hairs and kept pouring alcohol on my very red hands.

    Thank you for sharing your exquisite photographs, even the nettle.

    1. Attwater certainly offered a surprise this time. The bluebonnets were in the fields before the visitor center — but so were the trucks, the earth movers, the construction cones, and the road graders. I had no idea what was going on, but the fields where I’ve always enjoyed swamp and Maximilian sunflowers in the past were nothing but raw, scraped earth. Unsure whether they were doing road construction, and happy with the bluebonnets, I just turned around and left. Now, I have the answer: a brand new, big, shiny visitor center is being constructed. I suppose the good news is that beyond the construction zone, things should be pretty much the same. I’ll check some day, although the website now is advising road closures, etc., for the foreseeable future. “Call before you come” has to be the order of the day.

      The further good news, of course, was the flowers. I’m just so enamoured of the blue and white combo, although I did find some of the nicest white flowers I’ve come across. The pale blue was unusual, too. I’ve never seen that shade; who knows what else might be out in that field?

  7. Very clever title, excellent! Those light blue ones look a lot like delphiniums that the old folks always have in their garden. Those flower are real knockouts, wow. That’s sneaky of the bull nettles, though, to have such nice flowers and then be so amazingly irritating if you brush up against them. When I grabbed a stinging nettle by mistake years ago, it felt a little like a low-voltage electrical shock but boy it persists, doesn’t it. What a wonderful display at that Attwater place.

    1. I always love a title that makes me giggle. I had to look up delphiniums, and sure enough: there’s exactly that blue, in among all the fancy colors that have been developed. Now that I’ve seen the delphiniums, I like that pale bluebonnet even more.

      You may not have read my mention up the page of how I discovered bull nettles. I was trying to compose the world’s most artistic photo of some prickly poppies, and plopped down on the ground — right onto one of those nettles. My goodness! I didn’t have one idea of what had happened; at first, I feared it was a snake. Nope. The squashed plant made clear where I’d landed, and I began the process of gaining respect for bull nettles.

    1. Both of those really surprised me. I used to think white bluebonnets were rare, but they’re better described as ‘uncommon.’ The light blue and the combo, on the other hand, were new to me. I especially like the combination of the deep blue and pure white; I suspect that might be the least common of all.

    1. Oh — the prairie chickens? This is what the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken looks like. It’s quite different from our barnyard fowl, and it’s endangered. That’s why Attwater is so important; it’s one of the last homes for the birds, and a place where great effort is being made to help bring them back.

      I’ve made perhaps a dozen visits to the refuge, and I still haven’t seen one. They tend to be reclusive, and hard to see in the grasses. I’ve seen quail there, and other birds, but no prairie chickens yet. There are times when you can visit the refuge during mating season and witness their rituals, but I’ve never done that, and this year events have been cancelled because of a big construction project.

    1. I love that song, too, and I just listened to it again. I think I’ll repost it with some new photos from along that same highway. I really don’t know why the song affect me as it does, but the version with Emmylou and Willie is perfect — just like the flowers.

  8. The variegated bluebonnets reminded me of our native Lupinus perennis (Sundial Lupine) which often has pale blue or even white flowers.
    My day’s end tired brain first read the caption below the first image as The Attwater Refuge for Prairie Chickens rather than the refuge for Attwater Prairie Chickens.

    1. No matter which way you say it, that’s what it is — a refuge for prairie chickens. The best news is that their refuge comes with a staff dedicated to making them comfortable and helping them to increase their numbers: may their efforts succeed.

      It’s interesting how many Lupine species there are: some native and delightful, and some equally pretty, but highly invasive and not at all welcome. Our species is almost entirely limited to Texas, although it has crept across the borders into Oklahoma and Louisiana. That’s all right; we’ll share.

      1. For the most part or entirely, the lupines that line some of the highways in Maine as well as in Acadia are invaders. They also spread widely and in one New Hampshire town they are celebrated and hundreds or even thousands of visitors, and especially photographers, trek there for the abundance. I have not. I have an acquaintance near the east side of Quabbin with a large patch of the natives and am quite satisfied with those.

        1. Shhhh… Don’t tell a New Englander, but I like our bluebonnets better. It did occur to me that were it not for your disinclination to spend time among the floral invaders, you could have done a much better job of photographing the flowers: perhaps making them more attractive in the process.

          1. Uh, what about you telling that to this New Englander. We have Virginia Bluebells-Mertensia virginica here and they rival your bluebonnets but in a much smaller quantity.

            I appreciate your confidence in my flower photography but I can tell you that, from the work I have seen by others on Facebook, I wouldn’t be putting anyone to shame…or at least not all. I admire a lot of my fellow New England photogs.

            1. Well, now. Those bluebells are a different story. I’ve seen those, and they are equally attractive.

              As for the Lupines, I was responding more to the particular story you linked. It’s kind of interesting, really. Since I’ve never seen those flowers in real life, and have no memories of them, the photos in the article had to stand on their own; they didn’t evoke anything from the past. That’s why I said I thought the photos could have been better. Someone with experience of those flowers probably would have responded differently.

  9. I like all the bluebonnets, but the pale blue appeals to me most. With the few touches of white and the slight streakiness of the blue, it looks almost as if someone has painted a white bluebonnet with watercolour paint!

    1. You’re right about the watercolor-like effect. I wouldn’t have thought of it, but now I see it. They’d certainly make great subjects for a watercolor artist: watercolor flowers done in watercolor. In the deep blue flowers, that white “banner” turns red once pollination has taken place. It’s a neat way to tell the insects where to visit. I’ve never seen changes in the banners of white bluebonnets, though. That could simply be a matter of timing: mine, not the flowers’!

    1. When I saw the ones with the blue and white combination, I thought of your dishes. It really is a pleasing combination, whether in a dining room or in blooms.

  10. You mentioned the Chisos Bluebonnet… I’ve seen them in person, in mid-march in Big Bend National Park about 20 years ago. As you said, they are about 4 feet tall, with small deep indigo blooms, and sparsely leaved. The overall prospect is not a “field of blue”, it is a “blue haze” hovering above the desert landscape. And the aroma! Oh, my, the air is perfumed for miles. It was an incredible experience.

    1. The fragrance of bluebonnets is so pleasing. It sounds like those larger flowers might produce an even ‘larger’ aroma. I just was thinking about those blue hazes we see on Saturday. It wasn’t caused by bluebonnets, but by blue-eyed grass, which suddenly has arisen in profusion. Somewhat south of here, there were acres of it, sometimes mixed with pink evening primrose. I’ve never been able to photograph that blue haze, but it’s so lovely to see.

  11. I love the blues. They have me thinking about the Virginia bluebells that may be just about blooming in some regions around here. It’s been a while since I’ve found any of those in bloom, and only once did I see a large area of blues, not as large as what you showed up top, but a large area under the trees along a stream.

    1. The first time I saw one of those bluebells-in-the-woods photos, it showed a scene in England. I didn’t realize that they could be found in this country until some east coast bloggers mentioned them. I hope you come across some this spring. They’re a beautiful flower, and finding any sort of flower in woods always seems magical to me.

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