With great foresight, Lady Bird Johnson blanketed the nation with wildflowers and her legacy endures.
During her tenure as First Lady from 1963 to 1969, Lady Bird Johnson kept a small sign on her desk in the East Wing that read, “Can Do.” Short and to the point, the phrase captures the essence of Mrs. Johnson and the way she approached her work. Thrust onto the national stage in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Lady Bird Johnson did not look the part of a transformational public figure.
Quiet and unassuming, she lacked the mega-watt glamour of her predecessor, Jackie O. and the oratorical ease of her role model, Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet she garnered the tools she had—a keen understanding of politics, shrewd business acumen, a no-nonsense work ethic, and a reputation for grace and hospitality—to forge her own path in the public sphere, becoming one of the most important environmentalists of the twentieth century.
“Mrs. Johnson was as important to the environmental movement in America as anybody else,” insists Susan Rieff, Executive Director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. Before “thinking green” was de rigueur and eco-lingo like “sustainable” and “organic” entered the public lexicon, Johnson recognized the urgency of conservation and began to push an ambitious agenda that would literally transform the American landscape.
“Forty years ago,” Rieff notes, “Lady Bird was saying, ‘We’ve got to find a way to harmonize the needs of man with the needs of nature and make it beautiful.’”
Born in the remote section of East Texas in 1912, Claudia Alta Taylor (nicknamed “Lady Bird” by a nanny who thought she was “purdy as a lady bird”) grew up surrounded by nature. She spent much of her childhood alone outside, wandering in the dense forests near her home or rowing the bayous of Lake Caddo.
“My interest in beauty dates way, way back to my girlhood,” Lady Bird said in 1965. “Some of the most memorable hours I’ve ever spent have been in the out-of-doors, communing with nature.”
This love of nature, particularly wildflowers, followed Johnson to Washington, where she advocated for beautification efforts. She organized the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital to improve the physical conditions in Washington. Bringing together garden club socialites and representatives from the city’s poorest sections, Johnson worked to enhance Washington by planting millions of bulbs, cleaning up public parks, and encouraging citizens to simply pick up after themselves. With Washington as her laboratory, she promoted mass plantings and anti-litter campaigns around the country.
Though Lady Bird’s low-key demeanor stood in stark contrast to her husband’s more bombastic style of realpolitik, she too understood the political game and how to lobby for her cause. She worked tirelessly for passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (later known as “Lady Bird’s Bill”), which sought to propagate wildflowers along highways, increase the number of roadside parks, and limit billboards. Indeed, more conservation legislation was passed under the Johnson administration than in any previous administration.
Lady Bird’s work only increased when she left the White House for Texas in 1970, culminating in 1982 when she and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin. (A testament to Johnson’s humility, it is said that she recruited Hayes to co-found the Center because she thought it would help to have someone famous on the board.)
Later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, it’s an internationally acclaimed hub of horticultural innovation—a showcase, a classroom, and a test kitchen for native plants (that is, any plant occurring naturally in the place where it evolved.) Here, among the Center’s 270 acres of gardens, greenhouses, and meadows, Lady Bird’s legacy feels the most alive.
The gardens host a rotating parade of wildflowers year-round—Texas Bluebonnet, Indian Blanket, and False Foxglove in spring; Wooly Ironweed, Texas Bluebell, and the delightful Mexican Hat (a vibrant red and yellow number that looks like a sombrero) in summer; and Goldenrod, Gay Feather, and Maximilian Sunflower in fall. In total, the Center boasts 650 species of plants native to Texas.
As Lady Bird realized long ago, wildflowers aren’t just pretty to look at; they make economic and environmental sense. Because native plants are inherently well suited to their surroundings, they need less water than non-native ones, demand less fertilizer and pesticide, and provide vital wildlife habitats.
Then there is the profound emotional impact of native plants—the sights and smells that tell us where we are in the world. “Wherever I go in America,” Lady Bird once said, “I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent. I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont, and every state to look like itself. I just hate to see the land homogenized.”