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By Tracy Hobson Lehmann
tlehmann@express-news.net
San Antonio Express-News

FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS:  How long does it take to grow a Texas flag? The quick answer is about eight months. But the Lone Star banner that's blooming in red, white and blue bluebonnets at Wildseed Farms has been in the works more than 20 years.

This flag-sowing project required far more than laying out straight rows.
 
Precisely planted in shades of red, white and blue, 9,000 bluebonnets depict the Lone Star flag at Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg. The project, spearheaded by horticulturist Jerry Parsons, led to discoveries about the state flower.

Visitors who lean on the cedar fence surrounding the 40-by-60-foot flag of flowers can appreciate the precise planting of the familiar blue lupines and their recessive-gene brethren that make up the stripes and star. What they can't see, though, is one man's determination woven through all 9,000 plants, especially the 3,000 red bluebonnets.

As the sweet perfume wafts across the banner, viewers won't sense the dread growers experienced as temperatures plunged to 24 degrees as the flowers began to bloom. Nor will they know the anxiety that gripped the planters when hail pummeled an area just 5 miles from the farm right after blossoms painted the green rectangle in red, white and blue.

What viewers soak in with awe, though, is what some call the crown of San Antonio horticulturist Jerry Parsons' career. It was in 1982 that a native plant enthusiast planted the germ for sowing a state flag from the state flower, Lupinus texensis, for the Texas sesquicentennial in 1986. Parsons, a vegetable specialist with Texas Cooperative Extension, took the bait.

I said, "That ain't no hill for a climber. We've already got the blue; we've got a third of it done!," recalls the horticulturist in his trademark Tennessee twang.  "And we're just getting to the red 20 years later!"

White bluebonnets, albinos that occur with relative frequency, were a cinch to proliferate compared with red. Parsons gathered seed from white flowers found in fields and along roadsides, planted controlled crops and multiplied them until he had enough to fulfill the 1986 plan.

Through the next two decades, though, he discovered the depths of his naïvet which tested his perseverance in the quest for a "true red" bluebonnet. He also unlocked secrets that have helped to tame the wildflower into a profitable nursery product.

Little was known about the flowering plant that is part of the legume family when Parsons began dabbling with it. Horticulturists didn't even realize that, unlike its self-pollinating hybrid bean and pea cousins, the lupine is cross-pollinated by bees.

Parsons' first big breakthrough was cracking the lupine's seed coat. "Nature wants the seeds to germinate in 25 years," he says. Growers need seeds to sprout in 10 days so they don't rot."

He surmounted the germination hurdle by soaking seeds in a caustic solution to create tiny holes in their coating. That advance in scarification allowed growers to begin raising bluebonnet transplants. Not only did that help Parsons to increase his crops, it also translated to a multimillion-dollar revenue generator for the Texas nursery industry.

"There were no commercial bluebonnet transplants before we started this project," he says. "That was a byproduct."

With better germination and commercial crops of bluebonnets, seeds are more plentiful and therefore more affordable.

"You could go five years without a crop of bluebonnets when relying solely on nature," Parsons says. "They would sell for $25 a pound. I haven't seen them go for more than $12 a pound in years."

And better germination means commercial growers need only a fraction of the seed to get a crop. Whereas it used to take 20 pounds of bluebonnet seed to get an acre of plants, growers now can get the same results with about 5 pounds of scarified seed, he says.

While those strides were important, Parsons still wasn't seeing red.   A patch of pink bluebonnets found at General McMullen Drive and U.S. Highway 90 showed promise but yielded only a small number of pink flowers and even fewer of the desired deep pink blossoms.

Working with former Bexar County Extension horticulturist and A&M University graduate Greg Grant, Parsons persevered.

"I may not be the brightest boy on the block, but I stay the course," he says, punctuating the self-effacing statement with a roar of laughter.

In the narrow window of spring bloom, he scrutinized the hues in volunteer-tended fields he had enlisted Bexar County farmers such as the Verstraetens and Verstuyfts to plant alongside vegetable crops and Moerbes in La Pryor, Texas, to plant in their grain fields. Using a Swiss army knife as the benchmark for the desired red, Parsons and Grant plucked all but the best colors from the fields. With each crop, he selects the purest form of the color he's seeking and pulls out plants that don't match the standard. He then collects seed from the chosen plants and grows a larger crop the next year.  Larry Stein, a horticulture specialist for the Texas Cooperative Extension Service and Texas A&M University graduate, has taken up the banner of intensifying the red bluebonnet and selecting other bluebonnet colors such as purple.

Because each of the off-color plants results from a recessive gene, the crops try to revert to their true blue. Growers must be quick to yank the 15 percent of the crop that blooms blue, lest they cross-pollinate in the field. To keep a selection pure, it can't be grown within two miles of a blue bluebonnet, Parsons says.

Along the way, Parsons isolated and propagated lavender bluebonnets, dubbed 'Barbara Bush Lavender' and pink bluebonnets, named 'Abbott Pink' for the late Carroll Abbott, the Kerrville, Texas, plantsman who dreamed up the flag idea. And there's the maroon bluebonnet that's grown out of the project. Parsons is quick to stress that he's not tampering with the sacred state flower. All the colors occur in nature. He has just multiplied Mother Nature's anomalies through a tedious selection process.

The maroon, first named 'Texas Maroon' now is called 'Alamo Fire'.  It's being propagated in a three-acre field at Wildseed Farms, a commercial
wildflower operation east of Fredericksburg on U.S. 290. Owner John Thomas also has a 15-acre plot of the fiery state flower at his farm near Eagle Lake.

"If John wasn't growing them, they wouldn't be there," Parsons says. "If you don't have a grower willing to put the time, effort and resources--and the resources are considerable--into growing a new plant, it will perish."

While the red bluebonnet met resistance from Texans steadfast in their love of blue bluebonnets, the variety was snapped up in Europe, where it is grown as an annual flowering plant. After the deep red flower garnered the prestigious Flora Select award in Europe, Burpee Seed Company contracted with Thomas to supply seeds for its catalog.

Even with adequate seed supply for planting the flag, progress was touch and go. Peterson Brothers Nursery in San Antonio, which had furnished the resources for over 20 years of bluebonnet color and transplant development, grew the red, white and blue bluebonnet transplants for the flag.

"The plants grew so fast because of unusually warm  temperatures in September we were about to lose them to overgrowth," he recalls. Texas A&M University horticulturists and Peterson Brothers Nursery are conducting plant growth regulator trials to determine how to prevent this problem and add shelf-life to bluebonnet transplants in the future.  Parsons' posse of volunteers worked as tenaciously as their leader in moving the little plants to four-inch pots graciously furnished by ColorSpot Nurseries (Lone Star Division) in San Antonio.

After transferring the plants from San Antonio to the greenhouses at Wildseed Farms, the field was too wet for planting. Finally, working from a diagram by interior designer Steven Burch, a crew got the 9,000 plants in the ground.

"We make it look easy," says Thomas, referring to having the plants bloom at the same time. But coordinating the three varieties that grow at different rates is tricky. For instance, whites outpace the other colors, so they went in the ground two weeks after the red and blue. Now, Thomas and Parsons hope the reds will hold their color as long as the blue blooms.

"God is the general contractor in this," says Thomas, who estimates the investment in the flag at almost $20,000, not counting the labor of five people who spent almost two days planting. As Thomas gazes across the field of red, white and blue bluebonnets, the Lone Star spectacle tickles his Texas pride.

"This is about as Texas as it gets."

Click here to view Jerry's Bluebonnet Gallery

THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE BLUEBONNET TEXAS STATE FLAG:

REMEMBER THE FROG STORY:

There once was a bunch of tiny frogs,...... who arranged a running competition.

The goal was to reach the top of a very high tower.

A big crowd had gathered around the tower to see the race and cheer on the contestants...

The race began...

Honestly: No one in crowd really believed that the tiny frogs would reach the top of the tower.

You heard statements such as:

"Oh, WAY too difficult!!"

"They will NEVER make it to the top."

or:"Not a chance that they will succeed. The tower is too high!"

The tiny frogs began collapsing. One by one...

... Except for those, who in a fresh tempo, were climbing higher and
higher...

The crowd continued to yell,

"It is too difficult!!! No one will make it!"

More tiny frogs got tired and gave up...

..But ONE continued higher and higher and higher...

This one wouldn't give up!

At the end everyone else had given up climbing the tower. Except for the one tiny frog who, after a big effort, was the only one who reached the top!

THEN all of the other tiny frogs naturally wanted to know how this one frog managed to do it?

A contestant asked the tiny frog how he had found the strength to succeed and reach the goal?

It turned out...That the winner was DEAF!!!!

The wisdom of this story is: Never listen to other people's tendencies to be negative or pessimistic.....because they take your most wonderful dreams and wishes away from you -- the ones you have in your heart!

Always think of the power words have.

Because everything you hear and read will affect your actions!

Therefore:

ALWAYS be...POSITIVE!

And above all: Be DEAF when people tell YOU that you can not fulfill your dreams!





 


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