Lady Bird Johnson, Champion of Wildflowers
Gardeners and nature lovers everywhere have suffered a great loss in the passing of Lady Bird Johnson, a powerful and tireless activist in the struggle to preserve, continue, and increase the natural beauty of our country.
As First Lady, Mrs. Johnson was instrumental in the passage of 200 laws pertaining to the environment, among them the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, and the Highway Beautification Act, which restricted the placement of billboards and provided incentives for planting wildflowers along our highways. She also conducted a beautification project for Washington, D.C., supported entirely by donations and volunteer labor, that resulted in the splendid daffodils, azaleas, and dogwoods still seen today, as well as countless small-space plantings in the most depressed and unsightly areas of the city. She considered environmental issues a key component of President Johnson’s Great Society agenda, realizing the connections among beauty, mental health, and positive action: “A little beauty,” she wrote during the turbulent 1960’s, ” . . . can help create harmony, which will lessen tensions.”
Raised in rural Texas, Lady Bird Johnson spent her childhood wandering the countryside near her home. Each spring she would search out the first daffodil, which she would proclaim Queen. During a time when native plants were often overlooked in favor of gaudy new introductions from across the globe, she championed the humble Texas Bluebonnet (now gracing highways in breathtaking numbers each spring). After decades of effort, her life’s dream was realized on her 70th birthday, when she founded the National Wildflower Research Center (contributing $125,000 and 60 acres of her own to the effort). Now affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin, it has been rechristened the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and delights visitors with public gardens and open spaces as well as world-class research facilities.
Lady Bird Johnson received both the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for her lifework, yet she might have been nearly as proud of the many dozen honors bestowed upon her from organizations as diverse as the Native Plant Society, Motorola Corporation (the Earth Day Award), the National Council of State Garden Clubs, and the Department of the Interior (Conservation Service Award).
And more important than any recognition, of course, is her legacy. From the most magnificent natural splendors to the simple wildflowers nodding along the edge of the highway, the American landscape and all of us who love it have been enriched by her presence. Thank you, Lady Bird, we will miss you.