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Ladybird’s Legacy

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Written By: Joan Bergsund

The recent passing of Lady Bird Johnson brought to mind her love of flowers and, by implication, of gardening. She worked long and hard to beautify America´s roadsides by encouraging anti-litter campaigns, planting wildflowers and discouraging roadside billboards. During her approximately five years as first lady her efforts resulted in what we now regard, some 40 years later, as habitat conservation and restoration, natural history education and genetic preservation on an international scale. Not an insignificant legacy.

She began by creating the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and planted pansies on the National Mall. Like the ripple effect, her efforts were expanded throughout Washington, D.C. and included the parts of town the tourists visited and blighted neighborhoods as well. Her efforts began to influence her husband who, in addition to struggling with the waning and horrific days of the Vietnam War, was responsible for creating some 200 conservation and environmental laws. He signed into law the Redwood, Canyonlands, North Cascades and Capitol Reef (1971) national parks. The Wild and Scenic River Program and the Wilderness Act of l964 were both passed under his watch.

When the LBJs left Washington in l969 and returned to their beloved Texas she continued her efforts in her home state. Although her national highway program had focused on eliminating junkyard litter and discouraging billboard advertising, the most lasting legacy in Texas is that of planting wildflowers, in particular, the Texas bluebonnet. A member of the lupine family, we are familiar with the blue spikes with white topknots, a welcome element in our springtime native gardens as well as visible along our roadsides locally and in the high country. In Texas in those early years following LBJ´s retirement I´m told you could see great rolling fields of the flower, truly breathtaking. Our best display locally was along the l08 bypass the first spring after the highway´s completion. In subsequent years we have observed just a modest display.

Lady Bird and the late actress Helen Hayes worked together in l982 to establish the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin. Now known as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, it partners with the University of Texas to maintain a demonstration garden of 279 acres, home to over 700 plant species as well as habitat for local animal species. Education of school children as well as adults is part of the center´s mission. They maintain a data bank—sorted by region—of native plants, information about invasive exotics that threaten wildflowers and other natives, and a seed bank. The noted Kew Gardens in London has invited the center to join their Millennium Seed Bank project. They are endeavoring to collect and protect at least 10% of the world´s plant species by the year 2010. Talk about ambition! Gardeners all over the world will be paying attention.

Go to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for more information. You´ll want to visit the center when you read about its extensive programs and activities. Their Q&A section is called “Mr. Smarty Plants.” Somehow, that sounds just like Lady Bird.

Information for this article was provided by Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. Their regular column is called “The Dirt.”

Joan Bergsund takes particular notice of our local lupine each spring, especially the glorious shoulder-high shrubs along the Tuolumne Trail off Buchanan Road.