Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Wildflower Treat in Texas

I remember Lady Bird Johnson primarily for initiating the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign.  Why this sticks in my mind is rather a mystery to me, since the only parts of that campaign that I remember were the anti-litter and anti-billboard pushes that went along with it.  In November, 1963, when Lady Bird became First Lady, I was 7 1/2 years old and in 2nd grade.  While to this day I get disgusted and angry when I see someone throw trash out a car window, I don't remember knowing anything about her interest in wildflowers, along the roadside or within the landscape proper.

Of course, in more recent years, you can't be interested in native wildflowers without being aware of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.  I've been on the website many times, but I had never visited the center itself...until last Sunday.

And what a treat that was!  Truthfully I was actually surprised at how beautiful, practical and educational the Wildflower Center is.  I'd imagined the Wildflower Center as primarily interested in beautification of the roadways, acting in conjunction with the bluebonnets and Indian paint blooms along the Texas highways, but I was not giving Lady Bird Johnson and her Wildflower Center anywhere near the credit that she and it are due.

Walking into the Center, there was a fantastic quote by Lady Bird Johnson...which I stupidly did not photograph or write down.  My memory is that it was the quote from which others have extracted this phrasing, "Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours. I want Texas to look like Texas and Vermont to look like Vermont."  The entire quote set the perfect tone for the rest of the visit: while the educational emphasis was on the importance of native plants in general, the gardens and natural areas were specifically exhibiting native plants of the hill country of Texas. 

That combination of general theory (the importance of native plants) and site specific examples in the Wildflower Center was brilliant.  My only dismay is that there isn't a series of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centers around the entire country, each emphasizing the same general theory, but showcasing that theory with each region's own, site specific examples of wildflowers and cultural use of the vegetation.

For starters, the Exhibit Gallery had a very simple but also very effective stand displaying individual cut blooms of the wildflowers currently blossoming on the property.  (As a side note, I could just imagine being the staff person responsible for keeping that particular display current and looking good!)

There is a big aqueduct that collects rainwater from all of the roof surfaces and stores it for use during dryer seasons.  In the courtyard, the plantings are all native but the ambiance is restrained and sedate.  One planting that caught my eye (and it's native here in Kansas, so I can copy it if I want to!) was coralberry or buckbrush, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, used as a groundcover under one of the trees.

Nature trails went through the region's primary habitat types:  open meadow and woodland.  I was stunned at the carpet effect of many of the wildflowers, especially in the open meadows.  Near the buildings there were smaller areas devoted to dry creekbeds, moist wetlands, etc.   In these photos, Greg is standing beside the relatively small entrance to a cave, hidden in this clump of brush, below, along the open meadow trail.  The brush looked totally unremarkable - only a sign talking about a cave encouraged us to take a closer look.

Probably the most useful exhibits of all were the examples of how the native plants, especially wildflowers, could be used in more "typical" human landscapes, with several different demonstration home landscapes, a big butterfly garden area, and individual beds highlighting a cutting garden, edible native plants, medicinal plants, dye plants, water gardens, groundcovers, a white garden, a succulent garden and so forth.

We toured the Center at mid-day, so I didn't take many photos.  Most would have been pretty badly washed out.  I'm rather regretting that decision, though, as I try to share what we saw in this blog post; hindsight is always 20/20.

At one point as we walked on the trails, Greg overheard a man comment that it was obvious the entire area had been heavily overseeded.  We doubted that...and our suspicions were justified when we drove north out of Fredericksburg the following day:  there were many areas literally and liberally carpeted with wildflowers, especially with golden plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria).  From the large areas of recently bloomed out gaillardia, it was obvious they'd been just as spectacular a week or two earlier. 

It seems appropriate to end this post with another quote from Lady Bird Johnson, this time captured from one of the display boards in the Exhibit Gallery....


ProfessorRoush said...

There is nothing like Texas for the wildflowers. I wish we could have the spring display of bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush that they have. Maybe with a few more years of global warming....

Gaia Gardener: said...

I must admit that I debated buying some bluebonnet seed to see if I could get them to survive here. I've definitely started looking to the south for seed and plant sources.

greggo said...

I've been there quite a few times when I lived in San Antonio. The spring colors are outstanding. I suppose when I lived there I took it for granted. Since my son moved to OKC I won't have any reason to go back. :(

greggo said...

Oh and I tried some bluebonnet seeds here, they didn't germ. It is a Lupine but I'm thinking it's too cold here.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Interesting, Greg. I haven't tried seeding the bluebonnets yet - and I don't see them further north than south Oklahoma...but things seem to be changing fast, so I may still give them a try sometime.

And I think we need our own Wildflower Center here in the tallgrass prairie region!