It’s March in Texas, and that means wildflowers — specifically bluebonnets. For the next two weeks, roadsides and fields will be covered with our beloved state flower, a hardy lupine that loves rocky soil and early spring sunshine.
Fields of bluebonnets cover the hills of the Texas Hill Country, often peppered with clumps of Indian Paintbrush. People take pictures of themselves, their sweethearts, their babies, and their pets in bluebonnet pastures. Senior citizens who take up painting as a post-retirement hobby love to paint bluebonnet-filled landscapes.
Why are there so many bluebonnets along Texas roadsides? We all credit Lady Bird Johnson and her advocacy of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. But should we? It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s take a closer look.
Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia Alta Taylor was born in the tiny east Texas town of Karnack in 1912, and soon gained the nickname Lady Bird. In 1934 the quiet, diminutive Lady Bird married the very tall, very loud, very ambitious Lyndon Baines Johnson, and a new political power couple was born.
Johnson ruled the United States Senate years before he was named John F. Kennedy’s Vice President. When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, Johnson was sworn in as President on the plane back to D. C. and Lady Bird became the First Lady of the land.
Elegant, glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy was a hard act to follow when it came to setting the style for the rest of the country, so Lady Bird didn’t bother. Instead, she turned her energy toward something no prior First Lady—including the outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt—had done. She went back to the House and Senate, where Lyndon had wielded so much power, and directly lobbied for the passage of legislation she cared deeply about.
The Highway Beautification Act
As an only child, growing up in rural Texas, Lady Bird had come to love the natural beauty of her native state. On the campaign trail for her husband, she began to see civilization encroaching on that natural beauty in the form of junkyards, billboards, and other roadside eyesores. Prior legislation that set loose, industry-policed guidelines for highway development, was set to expire in 1965. Lady Bird led the campaign for a more complete and permanent solution.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 pushed roadside development back 660 feet from the edge of the road on U.S. and Interstate highways. It mandated fences to hide junkyards and other ugly roadside businesses; set limits on the size and type of billboards allowed along highways; and urged the use of native plants at the highway’s edge. D. C. powerbrokers called it “Lady Bird’s Bill.” Once it passed, Lady Bird became a doggedly persistent advocate for wildflowers and native plants—along the highways, and anywhere else they could be grown in the name of beauty and utility.
Lady Bird and the Wildflowers
The Texas Department of Transportation—TxDOT to those of us who know and love it—has been using wildflowers along roadsides for more than 100 years. In 1917, when the policy was to completely clear all roadsides as new roads were built, TxDOT officials noticed that wildflowers and other native plants were the first to reestablish themselves in the cleared areas. These plants helped stabilize the soil, reduce erosion, and provide habitat for wildlife. They also required less mowing and watering than other plants, reducing costs. In 1937, after TxDOT hired its first landscape architect, promoting wildflower growth along roadsides became department policy.
Today TxDOT nurtures more than 5,000 species of wildflowers and native grasses along Texas roadways. The department buys and sows 30,000 pounds of wildflower seeds every year. Roadside mowing is prohibited in areas where wildflowers grow, until after the flowers go to seed.
Perhaps Lady Bird’s love of roadside wildflowers grew out of her familiarity with the results of TxDOT’s policy. She certainly would have seen many Texas roads as she and Lyndon campaigned across the state. Maybe her love of bluebonnets spurred her to work so hard for the Highway Beautification Act. Wherever that initial seed came from, it continued to flower after Lady Bird and Lyndon left Washington and returned to Texas.
The Wildflower Center
Once back on native soil, Lady Bird teamed up with her friend, the actress Helen Hayes, to create the National Wildflower Research Center, headquartered in Austin. “The founding of the National Wildflower Research Center was my way of repaying some of the debt for the delight and sustenance Nature has given me all my life,” Lady Bird said.
While research was important, many people wanted to see wildflowers in garden settings, learn more about how to use them in their own landscape plans, and to simply have a place where they could enjoy a natural setting surrounded by native plants. The research center acquired more land and renamed itself in honor of its founder and greatest cheerleader.
Today, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center sits on 237 acres of land just outside Austin. Not only is it the official botanic garden of Texas. It has become part of the University of Texas-Austin, allowing the important research on creating sustainable ecosystems with native plants to continue. Open to the public, it allows tourists, garden enthusiasts, and scientists to happily wander the botanic gardens and snap up bluebonnet earrings, books on creating home gardens, and other souvenirs.
Just do it!
Has all of this made you hungry for a taste of the great outdoors? There are lots of ways you can enjoy Lady Bird’s beloved wildflowers. TxDOT has a wonderful online brochure with pictures of dozens of native Texas wildflowers you can scroll through. The Wildflower Center is open to the public, but you must purchase tickets in advance.
Better yet, here in Texas, there are many chapters of the Native Plant Society of Texas. Every spring and fall, during planting season, local chapters host native plant sales, so you can bring the wildflower beauty home to your own garden. Native plants aren’t just a Texas thing, though. Other states and nations have native plant advocates too. Find them online or go to your nearest garden center to see if they sell native plants.
Texas offers lots of bluebonnet trails that allow you to take a weekend drive through stunning landscape, and maybe take a few of those bluebonnet pictures yourself. Best of all, you can plant some natives in your garden for the birds and the bees. Enjoy the easy care of plants that evolved for your climate, annual rainfall, and critters. And thank Lady Bird Johnson for raising our awareness of the importance of cultivating native plants in our gardens and in our lives.
Weirdness Manager/Art Director Jan S. Gephardt (who assembled and designed all of the montages) didn’t think one photo would be enough for any of these illustrations, so we have lots of people to thank this week!
The gorgeous bluebonnet vistas come from Dallas Culture Map (the one where the sun shows) and American Legend Homes (cloudier sunset). Many thanks to both! The wildflower “porn” continues near the end of the post. In the montage of two, multi-species, multicolored meadows, one came from Pixels and Ellie Teramoto (bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush). Thanks for the the multi-species close-up to Southern Botanical.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center provided their logo. They’re also the ultimate source of the photo of their stone entry building. Jan found that via Tour Texas. She found the picture of the predominantly yellow plantings (also from the Center) via CBS Austin. Texas Highways provided the photo of the Center’s “Garden of Yes.” It’s designed for full-bodied fun by families with small children.
Finally, the bluebonnet trails photos come from Southlake Style (upper left) and 101 Highland Lakes and photographer Mark Stracke (lower right). The Comanche Chief News provided the photo in the background. Many thanks to all!
History in the Making
The photos for the “Lady Bird Politics” collection came from a variety of sources. The full-table photo of the signing of the Highway Beautification Act came from Scenic America. LBJ handing one of the signing pens to Lady Bird came from Texas Highways.
Jan was delighted to find the photo of Lady Bird addressing the White House Conference on Natural Beauty May 25, 1965, via FreightWaves. In the Oval Office photo by Yoichi Okamoto comes from the LBJ Library via Vanity Fair. It shows L-R: Juanita Roberts, Lady Bird, Lyndon, Charles Maguire, and Larry Temple. A New York Times review of Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight provided the White House photo of Lady Bird on the phone.
For the “Before the Highway Beautification Act” photos, we thank Scenic America for the photo of a sign-cluttered commercial strip in Texas. Thanks also to the Colorado Virtual Library for a scene from Missouri. That one looks hauntingly familiar to the Weird Sisters. The somewhat idealized “After the Highway Beautification Act” photos came from two other sources. Stokely Outdoor provided the photo with mountains in the background. New Jersey Conservation gave us the rest stop with wildflowers.