Visitors to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center here can stroll along paths featuring colorful blooms abuzz with butterflies, relax while swinging under towering oaks, let their children play in a new family garden, get ideas for using native plants in their own landscaping and even glimpse research on topics like building green roofs to survive harsh heat.
The center is the embodiment of the vision of its founder and namesake, the late first lady with a passion for native plants.
“I think my mother wanted to awaken a nation’s conscience to the importance of our natural beauty and our need to preserve it,” said Luci Baines Johnson, Lady Bird’s daughter.
A 4.5-acre garden for families added this year doubles the maintained garden space at the 279-acre site. Children can play in giant birds’ nests made of native grapevines, splash in a small rippling creek, explore caves, play on giant tree stumps and wind their way through a maze made of native shrubs.
A wide lawn in the Luci and Ian Family Garden — named for its lead donors, Luci and her husband, Ian Turpin — also features exercise equipment along the edge so adults can work out while their children play.
Johnson said she sees the family garden as a way to bring in more visitors and teach the next generation about the environment.
Her mother’s love of nature came at an early age: After Lady Bird Johnson’s mother died when she was 5, “her grief-stricken father poured his broken heart into his work” and her older brothers were away at boarding school, Johnson said.
“She was pretty much alone. There weren’t many neighborhood children, so she spent a lot of her time when she wasn’t in school outdoors in the beauty of the piney woods of East Texas,” Johnson said. “The flowers and the shrubs and the trees became the joy of her life.”
In the fall, the center’s stars include Texas lantanas with colorful clusters of red, orange and yellow blooms, blackfoot daisies and fall asters with purple petals surrounding a yellow center. Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the center, says fall is a favorite season.
“It’s another version of spring. It’s really pretty. There are a lot of yellow blooming plants, a lot of purple blooming plants, some whites. And then the grasses are doing their thing,” DeLong-Amaya said, adding, “there’s maybe more color in the spring, but a fall garden has more textures and forms. It’s just a more mature and interesting-looking garden to me.”
Among the flowers lining the paths in the central gardens at the center, which gets about 100,000 visitors a year, is an area showing homeowners how they can use native plants in landscaping, ranging from a rustic look to a formal one. Boxed theme gardens showcase different groupings of native plants, including one featuring cacti, another with edible offerings.
A 16-acre arboretum highlighting native Texas trees has a shady area with swings for kids and adults alike and picnic tables.
Intrepid visitors can make their way to a more remote part of the center to see where research is being conducted. The center, which offers consulting on installing native landscapes, notes that native plants help conserve water, reduce mowing costs, provide habitat for wildlife, protect the soil and save money on fertilizer and pesticides.
The center was founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson and actress Helen Hayes to protect and preserve native plants. The National Wildflower Research Center had no public space, but that didn’t stop the public’s curiosity. “We didn’t expect to have visitors, but they came anyway,” said Joseph Hammer, the center’s director of product marketing.
So in 1995, the center moved to its present location about 12 miles southwest of downtown, opening to the public as a botanical garden while continuing its research. The center, named for Johnson in 1997, became part of the University of Texas at Austin in 2006.
Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007 at the age of 94. Her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, was vice president under John F. Kennedy and became president after JFK’s assassination. In 1964, he was elected to a four-year term. Both Lady Bird and the president were native Texans. He died in 1973.
Sarah Hopwood, a nanny, visited the family garden on a recent day with four children ages 2 to 6. “There’s a little bit of something for everybody,” she said, noting that the youngest enjoyed climbing on things while the older kids enjoyed the educational activities.
“It’s just nice to show them respect for wildlife,” she said, adding, “It’s nice to get out of the city and be in an open space and run around with the kids.”
If You Go …
Where: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, 4801 La Crosse Ave.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (schedule varies by season).
Cost: Adults, $9; students and seniors 65 and older, $7; children 5 through 12, $3; children 4 and younger, free
Info: www.wildflower.org, 512-232-0100.