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This Man Spent 20 Years Trying to Turn Bluebonnets Red

This week’s Wayback Wednesday examines the state’s beloved bluebonnet, though not the "blue" so much as the other hues that have graced the petals of Texas' state flower.

The wildflower comes in all manner of colors – blue, white, pink, red and even maroon, which Longhorn fans became intimately aware of last year. But the roots of these bluebonnet variants stretch back over 30 years, when a young, if not naïve, Texas A&M vegetable specialist took up the challenge of creating a Texas flag solely comprised of the state flowers.

“Being naïve, I said, ‘We’ve already got a third of it done!’ like an idiot,” says former Texas A&M horticulturist Jerry Parsons. “You know how young people are.”

That was in 1983, when Parsons had been pushed to make the flag by Carroll Abbott, a former Democratic Party spokesman who collaborated with Lady Bird Johnson on her initiative to beautify highways. Abbott put the vegetable specialist through his paces with the goal of unveiling the bonnet flag in time for the state’s sesquicentennial in 1986.

Credit Courtesy of Jerry Parsons
A still of Jerry Parsons from an educational video on the origins of the pink bluebonnet.

As a vegetable specialist, he says, he was confident. Bluebonnets are a legume, similar to a bean, and they’re in the vegetable family.

Parsons started first with the white, which occurs naturally (albeit rarely) and, at the time, was relatively well-known in botany circles. Parsons and his colleague John Thomas at Wildseed Farms set about cultivating seeds of the white bluebonnets by pulling out all other variants to avoid cross-pollination, then culling those seeds at the end of the season and starting all over until the field was up to 90 percent white.

By 1986, Parsons had the white bluebonnet isolated; the red took some time – 21 years to be exact. During the sesquicentennial, he used red phlox flowers in lieu of the yet-to-be-cultivated red bluebonnets.

Credit Courtesy of Jerry Parsons
Parsons says the red strain of bluebonnets couldn't have been possible without the maroon strand, which is named "Alamo Fire."

So he moved on to pink which, like white, was relatively easy to create over a few generations, and he ended up naming the flower after Abbott.

Then came maroon – an honorary hue he helped craft as a nod to Texas A&M, where he worked (though, he studied at what he calls “the real UT,” University of Tennessee.) The maroon, he admits, isn’t the brownish maroon many die hard Aggies prefer, but he says nobody's complaining.

Parsons then cross-pollinated that maroon with a pink to get red, ultimately unveiling the flag of bluebonnets in 2003.

Now, Parsons says he’s working on a darker purple bluebonnet to represent Stephen F. Austin University and the Wounded Warrior Project. Still, the most persistently requested color, he says, is burnt orange.

“I tell people that if I see a burnt orange, I’m going to save it and we’re going to isolate it,” he says. “I’ve seen some that are playing around with that color. That color doesn’t just pop up [in the] first generation. You have to go through about five or six to get a true burnt orange.”

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