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Flower Power


Claim:   Picking bluebonnets is illegal in Texas.

FALSE

Example:   [Copeland, 2003]

I have always heard that it was illegal to pick our state flower, the bluebonnet. But, I see them in all kinds of crafts. Is it illegal to pick them and, if so, how do they manage to put them in all the arts and crafts?
 

Origins:   Back when I was in Boy Scouts, most of our troop's camping activities took place in desert wilderness areas (wooded areas and natural lakes being rather scarce in our part of southern California). Typically, as we trekked to our campsites, hikers would dash off the trail to pick up dried stalks of yucca plants from the desert floor to use as walking sticks. The first time a tenderfoot tried to grab an upright stalk, however, half a dozen older scouts would immediately shout at him that what he was doing was against the law; only stalks lying on the ground could be legally be taken away, they claimed.

We had plenty of hazing rituals in the Boy Scouts (usually involving sending first-time campers on some version of a fool's errand), but this wasn't one of them; most of our troop truly believed that removing the stalks of yucca plants that were still rooted to the ground was prohibited by law.

I didn't realize it at the time, but my Scouting experience was my first exposure to a subset of legends having to do with (mistaken) beliefs about various flora and fauna being protected by law. Many Canadians grew up exposed to a very similar legend, one which held that in Ontario, picking the provincial flower, the trillium, was illegal (ostensibly because it would take the flower "seven years to grow back"). A reference to this non-existent law in the Ottawa Citizen in May 1997 prompted the following reader responses:
Q: Gershon Rother, NCC land manager, was quoted as saying that the "trilliums are protected by law in Ontario." What law, other than his Grade 3 teacher, is he quoting?

A: I have discovered that there is no provincial legislation that prohibits the picking of trilliums in our province ("Trilliums a protected flower," May 28). In our youth, we were warned such laws existed and no blue-blooded Ontarian dared harvest the sacred blossom. Did our teachers and parents deceive us? Was it our government that spread this specious story? How many more debunkings of childhood myths can we middle-agers endure?
That same newspaper reaffirmed the non-existence of such a law in 2009:
Ask an Ontario resident the name of the province's official flower, and a good number will answer correctly: the trillium. Ask whether it is legal to pick or transplant trilliums and a good number will likely answer incorrectly.

Many Ontario residents have long believed that the white spring-blooming flowers are protected by law. But that turns out to be a bit of an urban myth. Some trilliums, known in Latin as the Trillium grandiflorum, are protected, but only those growing on property owned by conservation areas or in provincial parks.

Otherwise, there is no law stopping admirers from picking or digging them up to transplant into their own gardens. And people do. Yet the urban myth persists.
Regulations prohibiting human interference with particular plants and animals do exist, of course (most notably the federal protections extended to those species deemed to be threatened or endangered), but spurious beliefs about non-protected wildlife exist as well.
One of the more ubiquitous legends of this form involving animals holds that killing a praying mantis in the U.S. is illegal (the act usually said to be punishable by a small fine).

Perhaps no legend of this nature gets more coverage in the U.S. than one that rears its head in Texas every spring, as fields, meadows, and roadside areas break out in brilliant profusions of the official state flower, the bluebonnet. As groups of mesmerized residents and tourists gather to gaze at and photograph the beautiful, painting-like spreads of wildflowers, inevitably someone will reach out to pick a few bluebonnets and be brought up short by a bystander who will brusquely inform the perpetrator that he or she is about to break the law.

Although bluebonnets may grow on state property or private land where one would be breaking the law in removing or damaging anything (including plants), and although some Texans may take umbrage at tourists who dare to despoil one of their state symbols by cutting or plucking those flowers, no Texas law specifically forbids the picking of bluebonnets. Nonetheless, the belief that the act is indeed illegal is so prevalent that every year the Texas Department of Public Safety and the State Highway Patrol are inundated with queries about the issue and have long since prepared standard responses. And the subject is annual fodder for Texas newspaper columnists who try to get the word out, as in this 2003 example from the Houston Chronicle:
This is a widely known myth and it is probably the most-asked question this time of year. It is perfectly legal to pick wildflowers in Texas, including our state flower, the bluebonnet. The question is asked so often of the State Highway Patrol, which has a standardized statement that it faxes to people advising that it is perfectly legal to pick bluebonnets.

There are some ways, however, that you can get into trouble and even break the law while you're picking them. First of all, you cannot trespass onto people's property to get to the flowers. That means that you cannot crawl over fences or go through gates to get into the fields where the flowers are. Secondly, you cannot block traffic with your vehicle when you stop to pick the flowers. And, in Texas, it is illegal to walk along the freeways or the shoulder of the freeways. It is also illegal to damage anyone's property, including the state's property, while you're picking the wildflowers. That includes making ruts in the grass or causing any type of damage to the landscape.

There are some areas where the state has actually planted bluebonnets and other wildflowers. Those are clearly marked. These are considered to be gardens, and gathering flowers in these areas is not allowed. If you are caught picking flowers in those areas, you will be asked to stop, but you will not be arrested or issued a ticket. So, there are certainly ways to get into trouble while picking wildflowers and some folks have actually broken some laws while doing so. However, picking wildflowers — even bluebonnets — is not illegal and never has been. Just be careful how and where you do it.
Last updated:   2 April 2014

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Sources:

    Copeland, Steve.   "Picking Bluebonnets Is Not Illegal in Texas."
    The Houston Chronicle.   23 April 2003   (p. 19).

    Dingus, Anne.   "Texas Myth #321."
    Texas Monthly.   April 2005   (p. 58).

    Forrest, John.   "Letters: Trilliums Unprotected."
    The Ottawa Citizen.   31 May 1997   (p. B6).

    Kent. John David.   "Letters: Grade 3 Law?"
    The Ottawa Citizen.   31 May 1997   (p. B6).

    Mikula, Chris.   "Provincial Flower Protected by Law."
    The Ottawa Citizen.   28 May 1997   (p. A3).

    Associated Press.   "The Blue State of Texas."
    18 April 2007.

    Ottawa Citizen.   "Trillium Delirium."
    3 June 2009.

    San Antonio Express-News.   "Did You Know?"
    11 April 2007   (p. SE2).