Botanic Gardens, Gardens, Landscape History

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: A Legacy of Beauty

November 6, 2013
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A Roman-styled aqueduct frames the entrance and is part of the Center’s rainwater harvesting system.

“Can a great society generate the concerted drive to plan, and having planned, execute great projects of beauty?” Lady Bird Johnson

I recently spent a long weekend in Austin,Texas and had the opportunity to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. As part of a research project on urban parks and landscapes I had read “The Proceedings of the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty” and as a result had become completely smitten with Lady Bird Johnson. Dubbed the nation’s “Environmental First Lady” she co-chaired the conference (with Laurence Rockefeller), a two-day affair that brought together 115 of the nation’s leading design practitioners, theorists and political leaders including Jane Jacobs, Edmund Bacon, Garret Eckbo, Charles W. Eliot  ll, Grady Clay, Christopher Tunnard and John O. Simmonds. The goal was to develop a comprehensive agenda to “beautify” America exploiting the synergy between parks, townscapes, highways, waterfronts, scenic roads, farms, utilities and the “new suburbia.” It was an ambitious undertaking.

Beauty. It’s a word not often used when discussing the design of public spaces or “placemaking.” Often shunned as simplistic or by the even more damaging term elitist, beauty was at the core of Lady Bird’s agenda. She wrote:

“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean roadsides, safe waste-disposal, and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks, and wilderness areas. To me, in sum, beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”

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Believing that the physical landscape of the country, rapidly changing  through suburban expansion, was in danger Lady Bird called for measures that combined conservation and protection with restoration and innovation. In the introduction to the conference it states, “…the increasing tempo of urbanization and growth is already depriving many Americans of the right to live in decent surroundings.  More of our people are being crowded into cities and being cut off from nature.  Cities themselves reach out into the countryside, destroying streams and trees and meadows as they go. A modern highway may wipe out the equivalent of a 50-acre park with every mile.  And people move out of the city to get closer to nature only to find that nature has moved further from them.”

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The Wetland Pond features aquatic plants native to Texas.

Lady Bird’s love of nature was formed in childhood. She grew up in the country and found companionship in the natural world. Her experiences, whether exploring the cypress lined blackwater lagoons of Caddo Lake or the wildflower meadows of the Texas Hill Country, reinforced her belief that nature has the power to enlarge man’s imagination, relieve his spirit and restore his dignity. For her, the joy and solace she found in nature was essential to her well-being and a gift that she believed should be available to all.

Of her many ventures, including the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, the Landscapes and Landmarks Tour, the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, the Highway Beautification Bill, the promotion and expansion of the National Park System and once she returned to Austin, the development of a hiking and biking trail along Town Lake (later named Lady Bird Lake in her honor), it is the Lady Johnson Wildflower Center that is, perhaps, her greatest legacy. Located southwest of Austin, the Center is a tangible reminder of her vision – the nation’s foremost public botanic garden dedicated to native plants and sustainable design, renowned for research, education and information about native plants and native landscapes.

In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the centennial of Lady Bird Johnson’s birth with the commemorative stamp seen below, endorsed by five former first ladies.  For more information about the centennial and Lady Bird Johnson visit: http://ladybirdjohnson.org/about-lady-bird-johnson/.

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Founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson and the actress Helen Hayes the Wildflower Center began as a modest endeavor on sixty acres of land with a small house east of Austin and $125,000 donated by Mrs. Johnson. Two years later the Center had initiated research projects and established an academic portfolio.  By 1988 the first edition of Wildflower, the journal of the Wildflower Center, was published as well as the book Wildflowers Across America (of which I have a copy) co-authored by Lady Bird and Carlton B. Lees.

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In 1995 the Wildflower Center moved to its current location southwest of Austin gradually expanding to include 279 acres of land supporting  12 acres of gardens containing 650 plant species and 100,000 plants. Formally dedicated as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1995, the Center includes 2 miles of trails and an arboretum. Central irrigation is fed by a 70,000-gallon rainwater collection system and cisterns and ponds collect water for re-circulation.

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Designed by Overland Architects and J.R. Anderson Landscape Architects the Center sits lightly on the land. The architecture of limestone, wood and metal provides a regional response to the sensitive landscape of the site and reflects the history of Texas by using forms reminiscent of San Antonio missions as well as the craftsmanship of farmhouses built by German settlers of the Texas Hill Country and the vernacular features of Texas ranch compounds.

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The courtyard is visible through the entry arch.

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A seed silo provides a backdrop for seasonal plantings.

In the Landscape as Mentor issue of the journal Places landscape architect Darrell Morrison describes his love of the Texas Hill Country and its influence on the site plan of the Wildflower Center which was inspired by the forms of live oaks and the textures of native grasses (there were 663 trees on the site six inches or greater in diameter). The architects, according to Morrison, were “sympathetic to letting the landscape influence the design of the buildings …..by focusing on views of specific trees through certain windows….and (let) the landscape win in the end.”

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A mission statement for the project developed by Rick Archer and Tim Blonkvist of Overland Partners reinforces this point of view: “By design and context, the Center shall elucidate for the visitor a fundamental understanding of ecological issues, nature, and site specific environment, and in all ways the Center shall acknowledge the physical and transcendent value of native landscapes, and, by extension, the fragile precious natural Hill Country.”

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In the rendered plan above, from the Journal Places, the relationship between architectural form and landscape features is visible.  Dedicated to teaching people about the environmental necessity, economic value and natural beauty of native plants the Center’s educational facilities, including a botanical library and research facility  are accessed through a central courtyard.

A naturalistic garden connects the courtyard to the display gardens bordered by greenhouses and a series of theme gardens.  A learning center and butterfly gardens as well as a series of trails have been added to the facility since the original plan was completed. The plan below, from the website, shows how the Center has expanded since its founding.

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Throughout the Center water features and shade structures are used to complement the interplay of natural and built form.

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A pergola frames the Woodland Garden.

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Informational signage is augmented by audio tours.

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The Emma Lowe Hill Country Stream is modeled after a typical stream found in the Texas Hill Country.

The Center’s newest addition is the 16 acre Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum the centerpiece of tree-related educational and research programs. Its extensive Oak Collection reflects the species’ diversity within Texas where 74% of all Oak species in the US are found.

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Affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s applied research and demonstration projects advance the mission “to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.  In addition “its goals are national and ambitious: to learn as much as we can about wildflower propagation and growth and to be a clearinghouse to spread that knowledge to developers, park managers and private citizens everywhere.”

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The Center is one of five U.S.organizations participating in the Millennium Seed Bank Project established by Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/save-seed-prosper/millennium-seed-bank/).  It supports a landscape restoration program as well as an online native plant information network containing 27,000 native plant images available at the “Explore Plants” section of the website, www.wildflower.org.

In 2005 the Center developed the Sustainable Sites Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort to create voluntary sustainability standards for landscapes nationwide. Designed to motivate site developers and landscapers to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of landscape, the initiative uses market-based incentives and techniques to encourage the use of storm water management, biodiversity protection, pollution reduction and other varieties of resource stewardship activities.  Partners include the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Garden.  For more information about the initiative visit: http://www.sustainablesites.org/.

The Center’s newest project, the Luci and Ian Family garden to be completed in 2014, is a pilot of the sustainable sites initiative.  Designed by W. Gary Smith of TBG Partners as part of a 2005 Master Plan the garden is 4.5 acres in size integrating concepts of biology, botany, geology, hydrology and ecology into its design.  Features in the garden include a maze, grotto and a giant play lawn.

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Before I conclude with an overview of individual gardens and features within the Center I wanted to return to the idea of beauty and the need to consider its value in the built environment.

I have been spending a great deal of time lately balancing between the worlds of “Placemaking” and World Heritage Management. World Heritage sites are places acknowledged for their Outstanding Universal Value while placemaking was recently described as the deliberate shaping of an environment to foster social interaction and improve a community’s quality of life….. placing people ahead of efficiency and aesthetics.  Somewhere between the two lies another possibility,where beauty is integrated into the everyday lives of all through the design of the public realm.

As for beauty Lady Bird observed:

“Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool – all the threads are interwoven – recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty and parks…….It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”  

Indeed it does.

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Additional Noteworthy Gardens and Facilities in the Center include:

Entrance Kiosk:

Opened in 2013 the kiosk was assembled off-site and is designed of sustainable materials.  It’s 100% recycled green roof is planted with native prairie plants and its west-facing green wall provides shade from the late afternoon sun with plantings that are irrigated by condensate water from the building’s mini-split air conditioning unit.

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The Courtyard:

Modeled after a mission courtyard, the central gathering space is surrounded by facilities including an auditorium, visitor’s gallery, library, cafe, children’s center and gift shop.  A simulated Hill Country stream is at its center.

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Cafe Garden:

The Cafe Garden features plantings that replicate a mid-grass prairie community in a semi-formal design.

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Observation Tower:

A gift from Lady Bird’s San Antonio friends the Observation Tower serves as a 10,000 gallon cistern while providing views of the Center and surrounding landscape.

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Display Gardens:

Containing 23 themed beds highlighting the use of plants native to Texas the display gardens are enclosed by limestone walls and bordered by a shaded arbors of Texas Wisteria, Coral Honeysuckle, and Mustang Grape.

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Inspiration Gardens:

A series of homeowner’s inspiration gardens provide an opportunity to see plant combinations in a variety of settings including naturalistic, formal and a Texas mixed border.

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Ann & O.J. Weber Butterfly Garden:

Designed by Judy Walther of Environmental Survey Consulting the Butterfly Garden contains more than 350 plant species arranged by habitats to create a healthy ecosystem for butterflies and other invertebrates throughout their life cycles.  The garden demonstrates the codependent relationship of plants and insects and the critical role of pollinators in sustaining biodiversity.

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Trailhead Garden:

The 15,500 square foot Trailhead Garden provides a transition from the Center’s formal spaces to its trail network.  From here one can visit the new Arboretum, John Barr and Research Trails.

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And while the Lady Johnson Wildflower Center is indeed beautiful I was reminded to…..

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Additional information can be found at: www.wildflower.org.

Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply commonweeder November 6, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    On our trips to visit our Texas daughter near Houston we have visited a Bluebonnet Festival, and, in a different season, a fabulous Garden Conservancy Open Day, but on our 2014 trip we are definitely going to Ladybird’s gardens!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco November 8, 2013 at 7:02 pm

      Visiting during Bluebonnet season is from all accounts an extraordinary experience. If you do make it to Austin also consider visiting the Texas Hill Country. The landscape is beautiful.

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