Lady Bird Johnson has to be considered a rare figure in the political realm of Washington, a long-term thinker who understood the enduring value of beauty.
The former first lady, who died in 2007, is remembered as the driving force behind the 1965 Highway Beautification Act and by Washingtonians of a certain age as the founder of the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital. Its members transformed many pockets of the city, conspicuously along Pennsylvania Avenue and in Rock Creek Park, where they planted 200,000 spring bulbs.
Way back then, she told audiences that “I am quite sure that ugliness . . . has contributed to riots, to mental ill-health, to crime.” The need for beauty might have been more dire then — it was a period of trashed rivers, rank pollution and urban decay and restlessness — but we still have the ugliness of decay and, worse, a return to the indifference to it. All too often, our public buildings and green spaces are not fixed until they are on the verge of collapse. Think of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, or the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, or the U.S. Botanic Garden.
Almost half a century on, even Johnson’s plantings have run their course. The National Park Service has been doing some planting of daffodils in recent years next to Rock Creek Parkway. The effort got a big boost, literally and symbolically, on a recent Saturday when dozens of volunteers showed up to plant a grassy slope in one of the most heavily traveled sections of the parkway: the cloverleaf embankment where southbound traffic exits to Pennsylvania Avenue NW, below the Four Seasons Hotel.
In a kidney-shaped bed about 120 feet by 30 feet, the workers installed 1,500 perennials and 4,500 daffodil bulbs. The effort was organized by the Rock Creek Conservancy, a group established (under a different name) in 2005.
Park Service crews cultivated and amended the soil, and Michael McMahon, a Park Service landscape architect, devised the planting plan. For anyone wanting to plant a large area for beauty, low maintenance and long season of interest, it’s a model scheme, relying on the device of mass-planting just a few varieties.
It uses two varieties of daffodil. St. Keverne is an all-yellow, large-cupped narcissus that blooms early and perennializes better than others of its type in the heat of Washington. Bravoure is a white and yellow trumpet daffodil that blooms later. They were planted amid blocks of two native perennials, the wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis) and a variety of the purple coneflower called Ruby Star, valued for its intense, purple-magenta blooms.
Together, the four plants will provide months of bloom: As the first daffodil fades, the second will flower. A month later, the Baptisia will begin its long season of bloom. Upright and shrublike, the perennial has attractive, deep blue, pea-like flowers. As the blooms recede, the coneflowers will start their long season. “We’ll have sections of color from April to early fall,” said McMahon, and the perennial foliage will hide the declining leaves of the daffodils. The perennials are closely planted and should shade out the weeds once established, though volunteers will weed and mulch twice a year until then.
Whether these horticultural nuances were discerned by all of the volunteers who planted them is unlikely, and beside the point. Many of them were young, which is hugely encouraging.
Among them were Ellie Cohen and Mika Ramachandran, seniors at George Washington University who were shepherding two high school seniors, Anthony Brown and Lindsey Joiner. Both are 17 and attend the Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest.
“We work with them to fulfill their service requirement,” said Cohen, who helps to run a student organization called DC Today... DC Tomorrow.
The conservancy organizes many volunteer events, and much of the focus since it was formed has been on removing trash. “We have worked the entire 33 miles of Rock Creek at 50 locations,” said Beth Mullin, the conservancy’s executive director. “The park is measurably and noticeably cleaner. We feel now we can move out to other areas.”
This means a more concerted effort to remove invasive weeds that have smothered much of the natural flora. The top three culprits are English ivy, oriental bittersweet and porcelainberry. The conservancy is going to be working “more systematically” against them, Mullin said, with an initial mission to attack English ivy, the easiest weed for volunteers to identify.
The bulb and perennial plantings were just the first beautification project.
You can’t watch young folks like Brown and Joiner on their knees in the dirt without thinking that Lady Bird Johnson knew that she was planting a seed that she might never live to see germinate. The principle at play is a simple one: Beauty begets beauty; ugliness begets ugliness.
After she left Washington, Johnson and the actress Helen Hayes founded an organization in Austin to promote the planting of native flora there and everywhere else. It’s now called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“I’m such an admirer of her,” Mullin said. “Of both her beautification efforts and what she went on to do after she left the White House.”
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