Lady Bird Looked Beyond Beautification to Preservation

Johnson in 1986. Her project to preserve the nation's diversity of plant life was groundbreaking.
Johnson in 1986. Her project to preserve the nation's diversity of plant life was groundbreaking. (By Dennis Fagan)

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

As we reflect on the legacy of Lady Bird Johnson's life and works, we should know that her embrace of the American landscape was not only about planting pansies in city parks or removing billboards from our highways.

Beautification was a term Johnson disliked, even though it has been indelibly linked to her public persona as the first lady who lobbied for a prettier world. The word itself is, ironically, ungainly. What's worse, it trivializes what she was trying to do.

Yes, she helped organize the facelift of much of Washington's civic spaces through mass plantings of spring bulbs and flowering trees and shrubs; vestiges of that floral blitzkrieg linger even as other major U.S. cities today have far outpaced Washington in their commitment to greening. Yes, she helped push landmark environmental legislation, notably the Highway Beautification Act. But instead of defining her career, these measures merely were a foretaste of what would come, even if most of us were not looking.

When her husband left office in 1969 and she resumed her life in Texas, Johnson began to tie together the strands of her determination to open our nation's eyes to nature with the creation of something much bigger and more enduring.

In 1982, marking her 70th birthday, the former first lady and the actress Helen Hayes, a longtime friend, founded the National Wildflower Research Center out of a small house and plot on the east side of Austin. The aim was to promote the protection and preservation of wildflowers -- or, more accurately, indigenous plants of every stripe -- along with the ecosystems in which they thrived. Johnson knew that native grasses, perennials, bulbs, shrubs and trees differ by state and climate, and thus lent each region its distinguishing look, fragrance and feel. She understood, too, that we needed to protect these many plants and their diverse habitats before they were plowed under or paved over.

In 1995, the center was moved to a 43-acre site 20 miles away in southwest Austin. With successive additions of adjoining land, it has become a 279-acre mecca for people wanting to understand how native plant landscapes can be beautiful, diverse and kind to the environment. It is also a research facility, where methods for sustainable horticulture are put to the test.

Renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1997, the center last year fell under the aegis of her alma mater, the University of Texas. Its attributes include an online native plant information network, listing and describing more than 7,200 species of native plants ( http://www.wildflower.org).

The center today embodies the green ethos and concern for a fragile planet that now pervades all of our landscape-making, from home gardening to countryside conservation. These have become widely shared mainstream goals, but when Lady Bird Johnson got this rolling, hers was a voice in the wilderness.

"She was way ahead of her time," said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. "Now, it's cool to be green. For her, it was groundbreaking."

The wildflower center is working with the American Society of Landscape Architects and the U.S. Botanic Garden in developing standards and guidelines for certifying sustainable green landscapes in the same way that buildings now are certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. The program is aimed at large landscape projects such as public parks, highway plantings and office parks, said Susan Rieff, executive director of the wildflower center. "It's a very big effort. We are also in the beginning stages of using native plants on green roofs. Most of the research on green roofs has been done in other climates."

The wildflower center is also working to develop a Web-based carbon footprint calculator that would aid in designing environmentally sustainable landscapes. "For example," Rieff said, "we are finding that in many cases [meadow] grasses may be more effective in sequestering carbon than forests. All this research is taking and building on Mrs. Johnson's vision for a more sustainable, healthy environment."

When the former first lady started the center, she called it her "forever project," the director said. Advancing age and infirmities reduced her direct involvement in the center in recent years, but she "has been completely devoted to the wildflower center and visited here as recently as a month ago," Rieff said. Johnson, 94, died July 11 at her Austin home. Family members gathered at the center two days later for a private service.

"She really understood that the way to reach people was to show them and to teach them to love and help the native plants around them," Rieff said.

Something far beyond beautification.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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