The Hill Country of Central Texas has a breathtaking beauty in the springtime, when wildflowers sweep across fields in hues so vivid they don’t seem quite real. One looks at the vistas and understands that “Don’t mess with Texas” isn’t just some macho cowboy ultimatum, but rather a call to preserve and treasure the wild beauty of this countryside.
And an answer to this call lies tucked into the hills of southwest Austin: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a 279-acre public garden dedicated to preserving native plants. Its work in landscape restoration, plant conservation and environmental education is a national agenda—not just a source of pride to Austin residents, but an inspiration to visitors from across North America.
The center opened in 1982 at a different location and under a different name—as the National Wildflower Research Center on a small plot in east Austin. Opening on Lady Bird’s 70th birthday, it was the fulfillment of the vision and passion of this former first lady and her good friend, the acclaimed actress Helen Hayes, now deceased.
Over the years, as the center has grown and changed and moved, Lady Bird’s tireless commitment to this cause has never wavered. Now well into her 90s, this grand Southern woman has made her name synonymous with beauty in the landscapes of the United States.
“I’m optimistic that the world of native plants will not only survive, but will thrive for environmental and economic reasons, and for reasons of the heart. Beauty in nature nourishes us and brings joy to the human spirit; it also is one of the deep needs of people everywhere,” Johnson wrote in a letter to wildflower center supporters in 2002.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a perfect setting for joyful wandering, with stone pathways winding through a series of naturalistic plantings of grasses, perennials, cacti, stately oak and pecan trees and a meadow of native wildflowers, carefree and cheerful. A bright red native sage near the entry waves hello, making it quickly evident that herbs fit comfortably into this graceful vision.
Near the entry, a three-story observation tower of massive stone is a visual focal point. Anyone who climbs the 64 steps to the tower deck gets a bird’s-eye view of the gardens, as well as miles of the surrounding countryside. Within this tower is a cistern that holds 6,000 gallons of water; it is just a part of the center’s modern 70,000-gallon rain collection system, with arching stone aqueducts that provide the water for the gardens.
A variety of gardens and habitats are laid out in a relaxed fashion, and strategically placed benches and shady areas add much to the careful design. Visitors see a wetlands pond, a meandering stream, a courtyard garden, children’s garden, meditation gardens and a silo garden. A busy butterfly habitat hosts 350 different plant species. Here one finds fluted swallowtails on a patch of parsley, monarch and milkweed butterflies on the asclepias and brushfeet butterflies hovering over the mints.
There are, in fact, 16 different gardens at the center, including a number of symmetrical displays in different styles, from formal to cottage style, designed to inspire homeowners to turn their suburban lawns into peaceful refuges for wildlife and humans alike. A system of nature trails at the center expands the possibilities for wandering exploration even further.
Much of the native stone architecture here reflects the region’s Mission heritage. There is an auditorium where many community programs are held, as well as a courtyard with a café and a delightful gift shop.
The most popular time to visit the wildflower center is when the wildflowers are at the height of their bloom, from late March to early May. But the spring wildflowers are just a lure: This landscape is planted for year-round beauty, dotted with purple coneflowers, pink evening primrose, goldenrod, laughing sunflowers and the native sages that thrive in this climate. It is open year-round, and there’s almost always something blooming here.
The center’s mission extends far beyond displaying the beauty of wildflowers. This nonprofit organization does real work. It is endowed by many philanthropic organizations, corporate sponsorships, affiliated businesses, a large group of volunteers and even big-name celebrities who call Texas home.
Its programs include landscape restoration, a delicate process that combines science, art and practicality in service of public and private landowners; the aim is the restoration and maintenance of healthy ecosystems for plant communities. For example, one of its clients is a private golf course that lies along Barton Creek, one of the area’s most treasured waterways; the center has worked with the country club to reduce water consumption and herbicide use, to surround the greens and fairways with meadow grasses and wildflowers and to discourage the abundant deer. Last summer, the center teamed up with NASA and was awarded a grant to create a native plant landscape at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The center maintains a seed bank of rare and endangered plants, ensuring that those plants will survive even if conservation efforts in the wild should fail. It also has a vast searchable database of native plants, with more than 6,000 species and links to information resources. Want to see what some particular native plant looks like? One easily can click to an image in their gallery of 17,000 photos. And the center publishes an award-winning quarterly magazine, titled Native Plants.
There are many educational and community outreach activities at the Center, from conferences, classes and workshops to entertaining family programs. The Wildflower Center takes an active role in the community, connecting people to nature in very personal ways. It is an inspiration.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, at 4801 La Crosse Ave. in Austin, Texas, is open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 5:30 and Sunday from noon to 5:30 (the center is open seven days a week only from March 13 through April 30; at other times of the year, it is closed on Mondays). Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students. For more information, contact the center at (512) 292-4100 or visit www.wildflower.org.
Kathleen Halloran is technical editor for The Herb Companion and a freelance writer and editor living and gardening in beautiful Austin, Texas.