Wild About Texas – October, 2007
July 11, 2007, was a sad day for those whose lives were touched by the grace of Lady Bird Johnson. Her passing prompted an outpouring of stories from admirers visiting her namesake Wildflower Center and from dedicated staff and volunteers. Almost all focused on one of two groups of mighty virtues she possessed.
Nearly every mouth that opened uttered the words “grace,” “humility” and “courage.” Mrs. Johnson epitomized these qualities so comprehensively that it is nearly impossible to talk about her without using these exact terms.
“She was a huge role model for me growing up,” said one visitor. “Our father ‘forced’ us to watch Lady Bird on television, especially during her train tour of the south (campaigning for LBJ and in support of civil rights, 1964). He wanted us to see how a ‘lady’ could be strong and courageous in the face of hatred and animosity. She did what she knew was right and kept her composure the whole time.” I’m personally still trying to learn that exact lesson from her: How to lead with grace, humility and courage.
She was a humble and unpretentious human being. One evening as I was gardening, during my early days working here at the Center, she approached me with an outstretched hand and introduced herself. “Hello, I’m Mrs. Johnson. Please, tell me what it is you are doing.” She was truly interested in the activities in which I was engaged. And of course, she needed no introduction!
The second category of comments from visitors and staff recognized her single-minded dedication to our environment, in particular, beautification, wildflowers and native plants. She was a pioneer of the environmental movement before the movement had a name. She loved wildflowers and wanted to know all there was to know about them. On her regular visits, she wanted to see what new garden projects we were working on at the Center and what flowers were in bloom. If there was a plant she didn’t know, the questions would fly from her lips: “Why, what is this lovely beauty? Who drinks its nectar? Who eats it?”
Former Wildflower Center director, Robert Breunig, tells of a wildflower walk with Mrs. Johnson.
“Dr. Bob, what is that yellow flower over yonder?” Thumbing through his field guide, he settled on a likeness and made the call: “That looks like a Missouri primrose.”
“So, Bob, how would you tell a Missouri primrose from a calylophus?” Gotcha! Sharp lady. (I’m sure he had a sufficient response).
Mrs. Johnson was never fully comfortable with the term “beautification.” She felt it was, in her words, “prissy.” But at the time, a better term was not available. She knew her vision needed to be expressed in terms to which all people could relate. And she was successful.
“She didn’t intimidate with technical language. She new how to draw people in to her cause,” explains Susan Rieff, current Director at the Center.
Beautification for Lady Bird was deeper than mere cosmetics. She strengthened the cause of conservation and social rejuvenation. She profoundly understood the nurturing effects of nature, our need to connect with the natural world and the urgency of preserving our natural heritage.
“My hope for what lies ahead in the field of landscape design is not a revolution against the use of non-natives, but a resolution to educate ourselves about what has worked for Mother Nature through the ebb and flow of time, and to put that knowledge to work in the planned landscapes that are everywhere a part of our lives … I’m optimistic that the world of native plants will not only survive, but will thrive for environmental and economic reasons, and for reasons of the heart. Beauty in nature nourishes us and brings joy to the human spirit, it also is one of the deep needs of people everywhere.”
-Lady Bird Johnson
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will carry on her vision and legacy with pride and loyalty.
About the author: Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.
For information about Texas native plants, visit the Wildflower Center’s Web site at: www.wildflower.org. The mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.