Battered bluebonnets rise again

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, April 13, 2013

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Bluebonnets bloom among worn, gray stones like splashes of tranquil blue sky amid a coming storm.

Just over a year after a landscaping team cleared bluebonnets out of Oaklawn Cemetery in Decatur, looking to end an almost 40-year tradition, the state flower has returned to the grassy spaces between rows of headstones.

BLUEBONNETS RETURN - Just over a year after landscapers cleared bluebonnets from the grounds of Oaklawn Cemetery in Decatur, the wildflower has returned. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

BLUEBONNETS RETURN – Just over a year after landscapers cleared bluebonnets from the grounds of Oaklawn Cemetery in Decatur, the wildflower has returned. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“We’re going to let them bloom right now,” said Cemetery Board President Gene Blagg.

Despite being mowed last year before having the chance to go to seed, the hardy annual flowers are returning.

“They’ll continue growing for four to five years from old seed,” Blagg said. “They are just like grass burrs. They’ll keep growing for years.”

Nature engineered bluebonnets so that only a small percentage of the seed germinates in the first season. The delayed germination ensures survival of the plant during prolonged drought or other adverse conditions. Their adaptation is evidence the bluebonnet is native to Texas and its sometimes punishing seasons.

The two predominant species of bluebonnets grow naturally only in Texas. The Native Americans told tales about them. The early Spanish missionaries gathered the seeds from the hills and prairies and scattered them around their missions.

“The bluebonnet is to Texas what the shamrock is to Ireland, the cherry blossom to Japan, the lily to France, the rose to England and the tulip to Holland,” wrote historian Jack Maguire.

The lure and the lore of the bluebonnet is what created the tradition of the bluebonnets at Oaklawn Cemetery. It started back in 1975 when the groundskeeper at the time decided to let the few flowers growing among the graves go to seed. Photographers began visiting the cemetery to capture images of the flowers – new life springing up among tombstones.

“There were only a few patches of them out there, but we started allowing them to go to seed every year,” said Joyce Horton, secretary of the Decatur Cemetery Board. “It didn’t take long before they started spreading everywhere.”

Horton’s husband, Louis, became the groundskeeper at the cemetery in 1975, the year they first allowed the bluebonnets to go to seed. A tradition blossomed from those first seeds.

“People bring their kids out here to get photographs,” Horton said. “I know people that drive from as far as Stephenville every year to see them just because they love the bluebonnets.

“They (have) a special charm to see them through the iron fencing and among the stonework and the headstones. (It’s) different from seeing them out in a field.”

But as the years added up, there has been a growing divide on letting the bluebonnets remain.

The nine-member Decatur Cemetery Board voted unanimously in early 2012 to remove the bluebonnets before they had a chance to go to seed.

“We’d get all kinds of complaints,” Blagg said. “Some people didn’t want them growing on their plot. It’s too much work to keep up the cemetery and keep it mowed and edged.”

Blagg said the problem starts not when the bluebonnets are flowering, but in the weeks and months that follow. After the bluebonnets bloom, it takes another six to eight weeks for the tiny seeds, growing in pods on the stalk, to mature and open. If you cut them down before that, they can’t leave seeds for future generations.

To make sure the bluebonnets go to seed, they can’t be mowed until early June – no problem for a highway department but a definite pain for those trying to maintain a busy cemetery. The complaints occurred because during this time, weeds and grasses grow high between the fading bluebonnet stalks, giving the place an unkempt look.

Blagg has served on the cemetery board for about 25 years, and he’s heard complaints about them throughout his tenure.

“I’ve been hearing arguments for 20 years about mowing or not mowing them,” he said. “Although I understand a lot of people like them, I’ve heard even more complaints about them over the years. I’ve been stuck in the middle of this.

“I think they all need to be out to keep the cemetery up, but that’s not the way it goes.”

Last summer the board considered putting up “no mow” signs on plots owned by people who wanted the bluebonnets to grow. But they concluded it would just complicate matters even more and never approved the measure.

After the bluebonnets were mowed, a public outcry led the board to relent, and some members of the community spread bluebonnet and other wildflower seeds across an unplotted 12 acres on the eastern end of the cemetery.

Oaklawn Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Wise County, covering about 40 acres with more than 4,800 headstones. Its history is rooted in lore much like the bluebonnets that cover the graves in spring.

The historical marker at the cemetery reads that it was established in 1867, with Eli Lindley the first person buried here. However, evidence has since surfaced that the first burial occurred in 1855. Mrs. Bat Millhollon, sister of Lindley, was buried there after allegedly being poisoned by two of her slaves.

Wise County Messenger articles from the 1930s and 1940 supported that, but the grave of Millhollon lies unmarked somewhere in the eastern side of the cemetery.

The cemetery board will act on another possibly unpopular move in the near future.

“Another thing we have a problem with out at the cemetery is that grave sites are only supposed to have one floral arrangement each,” Blagg said. “We’ve been discussing this, and we’ve sent letters out.”

The one-floral-arrangement rule, which also applies to other items, is sure to stir up more controversy.

“At some point in time we are going to have to remove all the knickknacks from out there,” Blagg added.

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