Recently Dr. Jerry Parsons and I were contacted by Texas A&M University to share the story of the development of the maroon bluebonnet. I related the following details with them:
In 1985-86 I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University studying horticulture. At the same time, Dr. William C. Welch and Mike Shoup were starting The Antique Rose Emporium in Independence, between College Station and Brenham. Meanwhile back in San Antonio Dr. Parsons was working on a bluebonnet “colorization” project to plant a Texas flag for the Texas state sesquicentennial comprised of red, white, and blue bluebonnets. The idea for the project was the brainchild of the late legendary Texas wildflower enthusiast Carroll Abbott known to many as “Mr. Bluebonnet.” He approached Dr. Parsons with the idea in 1984 with only a quick two years to get it done.
Like most Texans, Dr. Parsons (who isn’t an Aggie and wasn’t born or raised in Texas) didn’t even realize that bluebonnets existed in any color but blue. Carroll Abbott assured him that if one looked long and hard enough a few white bluebonnets could be found. And if one had the time and desire and looked even harder a very few light pinks could be located. Dr. Parsons was assigned the task of finding these natural colors in the wild, collecting the seed, growing them out, rouging out the off-color types, selecting the improved colors, replanting each, year, and bulking up the seed, all in less than two years! It was literally a completely impossible task. But Jerry was as stubborn as a mule and had a love affair with the impossible.
To Jerry’s credit, with the help of volunteers and local Belgian farmers, he managed to find and isolate both white and pale pink bluebonnets before the flag planting. Unfortunately, red petunias had to be used in place of red bluebonnets as it would take another 25 years for those pale pink ones to be gradually coaxed into reds. Jerry did no cross pollination and the plants certainly weren’t artificially “genetically modified.” All he did was take natural colors from the wild and isolate them so the “birds and bees” could do their thing.
In this process of selecting bluebonnet colors Dr. Parsons developed a method of scarifying the seed with concentrated sulfuric acid to increase germination. And with the help of local farmers, he showed that bluebonnet seed could be produced as a commercial crop, which in turn dropped the erratic price of bluebonnet seed to something reasonable and stable each year. Still yet, working with a local bedding plant producer he showed the world that bluebonnets could be grown, sold, and planted as transplants. I can’t help but think of his groundbreaking efforts each year when I see transplants for sale. These were all revolutionary developments as the prevailing thought at the time was that bluebonnets could not be grown without inoculation with a beneficial rhizobium bacterium and could not be transplanted. It turns out that simple fertilization replaced the need for the nitrogen fixing bacteria.
Now here’s where I come into the picture, in spring of 1986. The horticulturists at Texas A&M at the time were quite jealous of Dr. Parsons as he was “supposed” to be a vegetable specialist. But here he was making earth shattering developments in the flower world. So, they downplayed his amazing bluebonnet work. But one Saturday while working at the Antique Rose Emporium a lady came in and told Dr. Welch that she had found “maroon” bluebonnets on the bluffs of the Brazos River not far away. So, Dr. Welch got directions and sent me on my own to locate them. It was a beautiful view looking across the entire Brazos River valley, but I could tell immediately that the magenta pink flowers weren’t bluebonnets. They turned out to be loco weed (Oxytropis) a cousin to bluebonnets. How appropriate.
But even though they weren’t bluebonnets and weren’t even maroon, word leaked back to the horticulture department at Texas A&M that Dr. Welch had found maroon bluebonnets and if Dr. Parsons was any kind of ornamental horticulturist; he would develop those instead. So, in 1987 when I went to work as the county horticulturist for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in San Antonio, I carried those disparaging words about Dr. Parsons’ bluebonnet efforts in my head with me. Since I was working in the same office with Dr. Parsons and was born in love with bluebonnets, he immediately put me to work on the project. Jerry wasn’t good with color, so my main job was identifying the best red candidates in the pink plots and pulling up all the rest. I had never pulled up a bluebonnet in my life but in my five years in San Antonio managed to pull up thousands. Seeing hues, shades, and tints of colors has always come easy to me.
Eventually the small patch of developmental pinks was moved to a large production field in LaPryor, south of San Antonio. One day while going through the field there happened to be a few plants that had a mixture of both blue and pink in the flower. Technically they were muddy shades of lilac and mauve. But I remember being so excited as I explained to Jerry that we could take those seeds and actually develop maroon! We could take what was supposed to be a disparaging poke at him from his buddies at Texas A&M and make it a reality. As I told Jerry, all we had to do was combine blue and red to make purple and then combine purple and red to make maroon.
The problem is for every color selected and developed there had to be a completely isolated patch for both development and production; otherwise they’d all gradually revert back to blues. There also had to be somebody like me to pull out the unwanted colors; otherwise, they’d be a muddled mess. Poor Jerry! I was always coming up with ideas that required his nonstop labor.
I eventually moved back to East Texas and Dr. Parsons continued working on bluebonnets colors until his retirement. He named the first Aggie bluebonnet selection ‘Grant’s Maroon.’ The ‘Alamo Fire’ selection that is sold by Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg came out of the red strain. Dr. Larry Stein and I are currently dabbling with the true maroon strain, but nobody can do it like Jerry so keep your expectations low! Hopefully one day, there will be a few seed for sale. You can read Dr. Parsons’ version of this whole project by searching for “bluebonnets” on his website plantanswers.com.