AUSTIN, Texas — Former first lady Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, better known as Lady Bird, is a presence at the sprawling LBJ Ranch, where she lived part time until her death in 2007. But where Lady Bird’s legacy is truly enshrined is at her Wildflower Center in Austin. It’s a place that showcases Lady Bird’s lifelong passion for conservation, the native plants of Texas Hill Country, and environmental research, all presented in a tranquil, thoughtfully designed setting.
Founded in 1982 as the National Wildflower Research Center by Johnson and legendary actress Helen Hays, her friend and fellow conservationist, it was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of the University of Texas at Austin in 1998. There are 279 acres of gardens, meadows, walking trails, a butterfly garden, and an arboretum, and 12 acres with more than 700 species of native Texas plants. The center is one of only three gardens in the nation that focus on native plants.
After paying admission ($8 adults, $7 students and seniors 60 and older, $3 children ages 5-12, under 5 free), visitors pass beneath large oaks and are greeted by the Southwestern-inspired architecture. There are stone walls, mission-style woodwork, a pond, and benches arranged around the gardens in ways that encourage rest and reflection. The center’s facilities are a model of environmental sustainability in keeping with Lady Bird’s commitment not just to beautification but also to conservation, preservation, and educational research. The San Antonio Tower overlooks the landscape, offering those who climb it spectacular views of the gardens, meadows, and scenic trails. Plan to spend at least a few hours to take it all in; picnics are welcome and there’s a cafe that serves lunch.
The newest addition to the center is the Luci and Ian Family Garden, named for Luci Baines Johnson and her husband, Ian Turpin, which opened May 4. The 4.5-acre site is the only native plant garden in central Texas developed for families, with a large lawn, a maze made of native shrubs, giant tree stumps for kids to climb on, oversized birds’ nests made from native grape vines, a grotto with caves, and a “dinosaur creek,” all designed to encourage hands-on outdoor play.
But the heart of the center is the nine acres of central gardens that display native plants arranged in ways that highlight the many textures, colors, and shapes of the trees, shrubs, and vines. Hundreds of plant species are on display in formal gardens, woodland gardens, and naturalistic ones that showcase plants and flowers native to the state such as prairie brazoria, pigeonberry, Texas paintbrush, pink evening primrose, Texas lupine, Texas verbena, black-eyed Susans, Engelmann’s daisy, red yucca and, of course, the famous Texas bluebonnets. The visitors center and the website offer a guide as to what’s in bloom each season.
In the exhibit halls and gift store, the emphasis is on the Wildflower Center and its work, not on Lady Bird herself. But a cartoon on the wall of the visitors center at the LBJ Ranch offers a fitting eulogy. When Lady Bird died, Austin American-Statesman editorial cartoonist Ben Sargent memorialized her with a drawing of a lush field of flowers. One of them asks, “Are there bluebonnets in heaven?” The reply: “There will be now.”
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