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Musings on Nature blog

Lady Bird’s Wildflower Center

For a plant guy, no trip to south-central Texas would be complete without a stop at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. This botanical institution, now a part of the University of Texas at Austin system, was founded 40 years ago and is perhaps the most significant of the many legacy projects left behind by this reportedly shy, very proper and well-respected First Lady. While she was not the first to promote wildflowers and encourage the use of native plants in beautification projects, she started the trend that has now achieved near universal-acceptance.

NATURAL BEAUTY — The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, celebrating its 40th year, is located in the beautiful Hill Country of central Texas is now managed as a part of the University of Texas at Austin. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman.)

Lady Bird — the only name that seems to be used for her though her given name was Claudia Taylor Johnson (1912-2007) — presented a more genteel side to her husband’s often brash ways. While LBJ made the political climb from Texas politician to eventually become our 36th President, Lady Bird drove about Texas encouraging garden club ladies to adopt a stretch of highway and plant wildflower seeds. In her travels, not just in Texas but around the nation during LBJ’s vice presidential and 1965 presidential campaign, she saw the seedier side of American highways and byways.

Construction of the interstate highway system was in full swing during the 1960s and Lady Bird Johnson is given credit for passage of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act that tried to set some minimum standards for appearance along these new roadways. This legislation stipulated that a small percentage of the highway budget should be used for roadside plantings. In addition, it required the screening of junk yards and tried to restrict the use of billboards. Personally, junk yards never offended me much because I like to look at rusty old cars, but I hate billboards. Anyone who has driven I-49 from Alma to the Missouri border can plainly see the benefit of billboard-free zones and the blight that these monstrosities impose on those traveling the route.

Back in the ‘90s I received a grant from the Arkansas Department of Transportation to develop a catalog of wildflowers, native shrubs and grasses for potential use along roadways in Arkansas. They were getting complaints from people driving out of Texas on I-30, wondering why the wildflowers abruptly stopped at the state line. Though our state does have a wildflower planting program, the most common complaint the department receives is about the need to mow the right of way. If wildflowers are to have a chance to establish, they must be left unmowed long enough for seeds to develop. Tidiness wins over the natural look every time.

Mrs. Johnson, along with the noted actress Helen Hayes, launched the wildflower project in 1982 on Lady Bird’s 70th birthday. The former First Lady donated land in east Austin and the two women set out to raise funds for the project. After only a few years it became apparent that urban growth was quickly encircling the original site, so another location was found in south Austin that now consists of more than 280 acres. This site, too, is surrounded by suburbia, but it is large enough to provide some buffering from urbanization. In 2006 the Center became a part of the University of Texas at Austin. During the first decade of this association the Center was administratively a part of the Landscape Architecture program but a couple of years ago was moved into Biological Sciences.

It takes a big pile of money to build and support a botanical garden. In many ways raising the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build a magnificent edifice is the easy part because naming rights are a powerful draw for those with big piles of money. Less glamorous though is funding mundane activities such as maintenance and upkeep — activities that go on forever.

A university home is a natural fit for a botanical garden because it can be used in all kinds of teaching programs — everything from art to biology to environmental sciences. And they are an easy venue for outreach to the citizens of the state that pay the bills. Though not widely recognized, not everyone is enthralled with football, so supporting a public garden space that reaches an entirely different audience makes sense.

But most importantly, botanical gardens are living laboratories that enable scientists from multiple disciplines to poke and prod to unmask the many and varied interactions between species growing in a natural environment. In the age of global climate change, these kinds of spaces are more important than ever and can serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine.