TEXAS

Washington has its cherry blossoms, but in the tradition of "Anything you can do, we can do better," Texas has its wildflowers. Right now, they are in glorious bloom.

They began sprouting in early March, and today, along highways and in vacant lots, in parks and recreation areas, and all through the Texas hill country, they are thriving.

The most noticeable are the bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, and there are so many that some roadsides have been turned into great blue seas. Intermingled with the bluebonnets are the red-orange blossoms of the Indian Paintbrush, the deep burgundy of the wine cups, the pale pinks of the primrose and the pastels of a score of other varieties, creating an impressionist's canvas for the passing motorist.

The wildflowers look as delicate as the fragile cherry blossoms now in bloom around Washington's Tidal Basin, but these weeds are sturdy. Winds and rain seem to have little effect on them, and as March passed into April the bluebonnets gathered strength to fight off the grasses and clover that threatened to devour them.

Protection of wildflowers is an important business here. Around 1929, the Highway Department, under first state engineer Gibb Gilchrist, started a state wildflower program, and today the department sows literally tons of seeds each year, gathering them from existing beds and transporting them to new roadsides. During the peak of the season, the department stops mowing the grass along the highways in deference to nature -- and public opinion.

Lady Bird Johnson has played a role in the propagation of Texas's wildflowers. Just as she did in Washington, she cajoled and persuaded and talked and kicked a little until everyone's consciousness was raised here over the natural resource of the wildflowers. Today, the Highway Department gives annual Lady Bird Johnson awards to the state highway crew members who do the most to protect and preserve the beauty of the roadsides.

The flowers seem to intensify the closer you get to the LBJ Ranch, as if Mother Nature herself got the message direct from Lady Bird.

This spring, a man named Carroll Abbott has registered as a lobbyist in behalf of the state's wildflowers, seeking a state wildflower day, and promising nothing more underhanded in his lobbying efforts than "maybe a little dandelion wine."

As beautiful as they are, however, these wildflowers can be a bit maddening. My wife has taken to crawling along the ground, her Audubon Guide to Wildflowers (Western Region) in one hand until she discovers yet another new flower. Texas has 5,479 native plants and 379 found nowhere else in the world, according to the experts here. I believe there are times when she has gone through at least 5,460 of them before finding that new flower in the book. Since she is not an expert, her own notebook is a maze of discoveries and not a few question marks.

Many people here are not as devoted to the pursuit of truth as she is, and prefer to spend their springtime cruising the hill country and simply admiring the flowers from their cars. The only bow these Texans make to this natural beauty is to slow down to the 55-mph speed limit.