CHAPPELL HILL, Texas — It is bluebonnet season in Texas, when hayfields and grazing pastures are transformed into seas of indigo bloom. And while Vermonters take pride in their fall foliage and Washingtonians in D.C. love their cherry blossoms, Texans can be near fanatical about bluebonnets, sometimes ignoring property laws and personal safety to wade into their fragrant midst.
“It’s like a feeding frenzy every spring,” said Damon Waitt, a botanist and senior director at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. “Every parent in Texas must have at least one picture of their kids in the bluebonnets, so you’ll see dotting the hillsides little baby butt prints where the flowers have been smooshed down.”
And because 92 percent of the land in Texas is privately owned, bluebonnet season is also trespassing season. “It’s weird when you drive down the road and see all these people jumping over fences,” said George Dillingham, a real-estate broker in Brenham, which is about halfway between Houston and Austin. “It’s amazing — people feel like they have some sort of legal access just because there are bluebonnets.”
Indigenous to Texas, the bluebonnet was adopted as the state flower in 1901. It is a member of the legume family, genus Lupinus, and grows low to the ground, with stems sprouting conical clusters of tiny blue flowers that resemble prairie bonnets. April is peak blooming season, and thanks to statewide seeding efforts that began in the 1930s by the Texas Highway Department, bluebonnets grow abundantly along roadsides and have infiltrated much of the adjoining land.
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On sunny spring weekends, countless cars park on the sides of Texas highways and farm roads as crowds spill into fields of bluebonnets, heedless of snakes, scorpions, bees, fire ants, bull nettle and even barbed wire.
“I put out a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, but people just ignored it,” said Don Jones, a retired construction company executive who lives on 175 acres in Chappell Hill, about 60 miles northwest of Houston. Entire wedding parties have tramped through his bluebonnets, and a group of Muslims once came to pray. “Someone even put his kid on top of one of my cows,” he said.
Most are after that perfect bluebonnet photo to put on holiday cards or post on social media sites.
“It gets really crowded, so when you find a good field, you kind of have to get in, take your picture and go,” said Heather Terrell, a Web designer for Travelocity in Fort Worth who began taking bluebonnet photos annually when her daughter, Lennox, was born three years ago.
Adding to the pressure are drought conditions in much of Texas, which have reduced the number of photogenic fields.
Terrell takes her own pictures, but some professional photographers create outdoor studios in the fields, where clients show up for appointments.
“Bluebonnet portraits are a huge part of my business,” said Clare Dempsey, a professional photographer in Fort Worth. “It’s embarrassing to say this, but photographers can get very territorial and cutthroat about their spots.”
That is why she has been watching a certain location — she will not say where — for the last two weeks so she can stake her claim when the blooms are most lush. “If you don’t get in there immediately, the flowers will be flattened by other people,” Dempsey said.
This, despite the widespread belief that it is illegal to pick or damage bluebonnets. “It’s a myth that’s been perpetuated to restrain people,” said Waitt, of the Wildflower Center. “Who knows how bad it would be if people didn’t think it was illegal.”
Law-enforcement officials report having to increase patrols during bluebonnet season. Sheriff Buddy Mills of Gillespie County, in the Texas Hill Country, said his deputies were out in force to “keep traffic moving and make people aware that just because there’s no fence doesn’t mean it’s not private property.” It is not unusual for public roads in the county to cut through a private ranch with little, if any, easement. “So all that land is their yard, if you think about it,” Mills said. “It may be 5,000 acres, but it’s still their yard.”
Websites for bluebonnet enthusiasts may be compounding the problem by pinpointing the best blooming areas. “There’s definitely bad bluebonnet etiquette out there,” said PerriAngela Wickham, founder of texasbluebonnetsightings.com, which has 7,300 Facebook followers. “There are properties I see that I will never post because of the trespassing issue, and if I do post a picture, I might say it’s on private property and not disclose the location.”
But most landowners are resigned to the annual intrusion, and some even look forward to it. Catherine MacDermott, a professor of business communication at St. Edward’s University in Austin, welcomes admirers of the bluebonnets growing around her home in the city’s historic Travis Heights neighborhood.
“Bluebonnets are so beautiful and are here for only a brief window before it gets so stinking hot,” she said. “They are a breath of fresh air and a promise of newness that I think should be shared with everybody.”