The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is south of Austin. If you’re not a local it’s a bit hard to find and requires a real commitment to see it. It’s as if the founders anticipated Austin’s rapid growth and purposely put our nation’s best native plant botanic garden and research center far enough away from it to resist urban intrusion.
Few First Ladies have been as activist as Ladybird Johnson. While her husband Lyndon was in office, her personal efforts resulted in the passage of about 200 environmental bills. One with lasting impact was the Highway Beautification Act that removed billboards and affected junkyards. After her husband left Washington, she and actress Helen Hayes joined forces to found this National Wildflower Research Center. Ladybird was 70 and Helen Hayes was in her 80s at the time. This was the culmination of Ladybird’s lifetime of interest in and appreciation of nature in general and wildflowers in particular. She lovingly recalled searching for native flowers on her grandmother’s farm in Maryland when she was a child.
Her legacy includes this important research center where visitors have access to the large central complex building made of native sandstone, a 16 acre arboretum, a 70 acre restoration research preserve of native grasses and flowers, etc. When Ruth and I were there, a group called Citizens’ Climate Lobby was holding meetings on the premises. Like at the wildly popular Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, there are plants on display 12 months each year at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Gardner Ruth enjoyed talking to the staff about winter into spring Bushy bluestems, Inland sea oats, and Frostweed while I walked the arboretum trail in less than ideal weather. The only blooming flowers that we saw were a couple of gorgeous yellow Carolina Jessamine.
There were endless opportunities here to learn about plants and their impact on our lives. For example, properly stored seeds remain viable for centuries. The oldest carbon-14-dated seed that has been revived and grown into a healthy plant is a Judean date palm seed that was about 2,000 years old when it was found during the excavation of King Herod’s palace in Israel.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center complex has, to me, an oversized hacienda feel that is quite appealing. It’s clearly succeeding in its mission to be the foremost native and plant research center and garden in North America. Bravo!