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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Wednesday - April 05, 2006

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Wildflowers
Title: More on bluebonnets
Answered by: Dean Garrett

QUESTION:

Hello: We have been told that the sparse Bluebonnet appearance this Spring is due to sparse rainfall at the appropriate times. Were there fewer seeds to sprout and grow? Or are the seeds still in the soil, waiting until better conditions next year? If so, how long (years) can the seeds remain dormant? (... if the birds, bugs, and bacteria don't eat them first)

ANSWER:

The seeds are likely still in the soil, waiting to sprout and grow, if they were there to begin with. During years without enough rainfall, bluebonnet seeds can't imbibe enough water to sprout so they lie dormant until a more favorable year. Just how many years they can remain viable in the soil without sprouting is unclear. I've found source after source that says they can stay that way "for years" but none that are any more specific. I assume this would be a hard thing to research, as it would require years or even decades of observation of individual seeds. Seeds of some species of plants can remain viable in the soil for decades until triggered by whatever their trigger happens to be (fire, appropriate sunlight, arrival of beneficial microorganisms, etc.). And, yes, birds, bugs, and bacteria can have an effect on seed survival. Bluebonnets are particularly impacted in overly moist years by pillbugs and damping-off fungi.
 

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