The beauty of the first bluebonnets she ever saw moved artist La Juan Schlegel to tears.
“I started crying because God had given us such beauty to view. You just want to go out and sit down in them and smell their sweet perfume,” Schlegel says.
Her hometown of Ennis, Texas, (pop. 16,045) is famous for the bluebonnets that blanket the hills every spring, drawing about 50,000 visitors each year to an annual festival the third weekend of April.
“There’s a lot of cobalt blue and then you can see ultramarine blue, kind of a purple blue,” Schlegel says of the flowers. “I did a painting one time. I called it God’s Gift to Spring.”
Sandy Anderson, the Ennis Garden Club president, says Ellis County and the Ennis area have the poor soil that wildflowers love. Since 1951, garden club members have laid out 42 miles of trails that the Texas Legislature named “The Official Bluebonnet Trail of Texas.”
This year’s 51st Bluebonnet Trails Festival is April 19-21. The garden club provides free maps of trails through fertile farmlands and rolling hills where bluebonnets cover miles of grasslands. And Anderson says members drive the trails regularly in April so they can give exact information about the best areas for viewing bluebonnets and wildflowers.
Also known as the wolf flower, buffalo clover, and “el coneja” (the rabbit), the bluebonnet was named for its striking resemblance to the sunbonnets of pioneer women.
People from all over love the bluebonnets, says Schlegel, who recently sold a painting to a woman from Alaska. “I give away a lot of snapshots that I take of bluebonnets. I try to share them, especially with people who have never viewed them before,” she says.
Garden club members work with the Texas Highway Department and sometimes organize fall seeding programs with schoolchildren.
Chris Cook, a longtime garden club member and sixth-grade science teacher, has students make a wildflower notebook. “This forces students and their families to get out and take a closer look. The bluebonnets and wildflowers are just too wonderful a resource not to do some learning from them,” Cook says.
Bluebonnets are not the only source of pride in Ennis, which celebrates its Czech heritage each Memorial Day with the National Polka Festival.
“All parade entries, street dancing, and performing bands must have Czech themes and play Czech music,” says Danny Zapletal, chairman of the Polka Festival. “And we have four spacious Czech Fraternal Halls with large dance floors where you can enjoy anything from a good polka or waltz to a folk dance.”
Danny’s father, Raymond Zapletal, who still attends the festival, was one of three Ennis residents who founded the polka festival 36 years ago to keep Czech traditions alive in the community.
But it’s the state flower of Texas for which Ennis is best known. And the sweet-smelling blooms were beloved by the American Indians long before the Czech settlers arrived. A Comanche legend about the origin of the bluebonnets tells of the tribe’s struggle with starvation, cold, and disease. The Great Spirit told the chieftains that their most valued and cherished possessions should be burned and scattered to the four winds as an offering.
A little American Indian princess overheard the council and sacrificed her beautiful doll with a headdress from a blue jay. The next morning, where the ashes had fallen, there was a beautiful spread of blue flowers the same shade as the blue jay’s feathers.
However the flowers came to Texas, the bonnet-shaped blooms are a state treasure. Especially in Ennis.