Lady Bird Johnson center a gift of education, beauty

A butterfly rests on Gregg’s Mistflower at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.

Last week I had the pleasure of traveling deep in the heart of Texas to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The trip was part of a professional development conference, but the visit to the wildflower center felt like a pilgrimage to me.

I have long admired Lady Bird Johnson’s contributions to national beautification and environmental conservation. Since I was part of a team from the South Carolina Botanical Garden that won the Lady Bird Johnson Award at the Southeastern Flower Show in Atlanta many years ago, I have been in awe of her work as a steward of the environment.

Mrs. Johnson championed many changes to our nation’s views on the environment during her husband’s presidency. The 1965 Beautification Act was so far-reaching, it effectively reduced litter and dumping on roadsides, controlled outdoor advertising, and later expanded to include stipulations that highways be landscaped with native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Using her influence with the media, Mrs. Johnson helped draw attention to the importance of national parks and natural places. Early on, she emphasized the importance of native plants in conserving the ecological diversity and integrity of these areas. As I walked through the entrance of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center last week, I felt her influence all around me.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a botanical research garden founded by the former first lady and her friend, actress Helen Hayes, in 1982. As part of the University of Texas at Austin, the 279-acre center conducts research on native plants and sustainable landscapes. Its mission is to demonstrate the beauty of native plants in innovative ways, showcasing their value in improving water quality, protecting water as a resource, combating invasive plant species, and providing for wildlife.

This research along with photos of each named garden in the center is available through The Native Plant Information Network at www.wildflower.org . The mission of the NPIN, founded in 2003, is “to assemble and disseminate information that will encourage the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants, and landscapes throughout North America.” I use this site almost every day in my work as an Extension agent and refer clients and Master Gardeners there regularly. Needless to say, stepping through the entrance of the Wildflower Center felt like a homecoming.

A series of central gardens move visitors through a variety of landscapes including The Wetland Pond, Courtyard Garden, Silo Garden, and a Hill Country Stream garden.

I was particularly captivated by The South Texas Mission Garden, a series of sandstone arches which transports visitors from East Texas to a South Texas Mission. Prickly pear cactus, spiky sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), and Texas Wild Olive (Cordia boissieri) survive cooler temperatures via heat reradiated from the stone structures.

The inverted roof of the nearby auditorium, shaped like the open wings of a butterfly, collects rainwater for a large-scale rainwater harvesting system. The center’s interim director informed us that the entire garden is now irrigated solely by collected rainwater, supplemented with the use of well water only when necessary.

The family legacy continues with the recent opening of the 4.5-acre Luci and Ian Family Garden, which is named after the daughter of President and Mrs. Johnson. Rather than a children’s garden, Luci Baines Johnson and her husband Ian Turpin wanted to create a Family Garden that invites the child in each of us to engage in nature. Through its design, the Family Garden does just that.

Children are wildly attracted to the bare stumps and inverted leafless tree trunks that comprise a Texas-style “stumpery.” Victorian stump gardens traditionally feature mossy logs and stumps tucked in fern glens, but in this arid garden, the stumps resemble a lunar landscape.

The open-ended possibilities for nature-play form a universal language that children of all ages understand. This is evidenced by the way every child instinctively knows it is OK to peel off the bark and peer at insects; climb, jump, hang upside down; and just pretend.

Like many lifelong gardeners, Lady Bird grew up with deep connections to the natural world.

The Wildflower Center is a gift to all of us as it shares her passion for wildflowers and native plants through research, education, and the beautiful gardens in Austin. As I left Texas, I recalled one of the former first lady’s quotes, “The environment is where we all meet, where we all have mutual interest.”

Apply now for the next Clemson Extension Master Gardener Training Course. This class is a volunteer training program requiring 12 weeks of intensive instruction in the fundamentals of basic horticulture. After completion of the course and an additional 40 hours of volunteer service, students will become certified Master Gardeners. Classes are Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at various locations in the tri-county area. Learn more and apply online at http://www.clemson.edu/extension/mg/counties/tri_county/. The deadline to apply is July 25.