Ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots say ‘Texas.’ So do the native plants bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) and Indian paint brush (Castillejao sp.). Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of our 36th President Lyndon Baines Johnson, saw the beauty in the Texas landscape and its native plants. She founded the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, to educate the public about the beauty of wildflowers that we can use in our landscapes. It is the botanic garden of Texas.
Visiting the Wildlife Center
The center preserves nearly 300 acres of meadows, streams, and woods. Many other botanical gardens grow and display plants from faraway places. The Wildflower Center grows and displays Texas native plants from its ten regions. in 1983 to educate the public about the beauty of wildflowers that we can use in our landscapes.
The Wildflower Center’s purpose is to protect the environment and to encourage our interaction with it. Upon arriving in the ample parking area and taking the short walk to the entry, this purpose is clear. From the natural stone of the buildings to the delightful use of water originating on the site to the acres of wildflowers, you know you are in Texas Hill Country in central Texas. The buildings reflect the land and architecture.
Visit here and experience the openness and wide vistas known by cowboys and settlers and inhabited by cattle and mustangs. Children love the room to run. The special exhibit Fortlandia is back through January 2024 with six newly designed structures for children to climb and play on, along a trail through the trees. Imagination takes over as they create stories and games.
The gardener will see native plants used in landscape settings. Close to 900 species from across the state grow on nearly 300 acres in habitat gardens, woodland, and homeowner and family gardens. Learn to recognize meadows and savanna. The paths take visitors through and past areas of naturalized mealy blue sage (Savlia farinacea); prickly pear, a common cactus (Opuntia spp.); and sideoats grama, an ornamental grass (Bouteloua curtipendula). Linger in shady areas around creeks and ponds. In April, plan to come for the bluebonnet displays.
The Center’s gardens are designed to inspire and educate home gardeners to use Texas native plants in their gardens and are ready to help visitors from every state learn about their states’ native plants. In the Central Gardens, find examples of design styles to use in your yard. Find plant combinations that will work well in your yard and plants to buy in area garden centers.
See Pollinator Habitat at Work
With hundreds of native plants to choose from, the Center’s Central Gardens include varieties sure to attract pollinators to your gardens. See some flowers you know and see others for the first time that you can grow at home. Watch bees and butterflies actively searching for and transferring pollen between plants, doing the work we depend on for a diverse range of plants in our yards.
Stretch Your Legs on Wildlife Hikes
Take longer, but not too long, walks through restored meadows and woods and maybe get a glimpse of a lizard or roadrunner. Discover an underground stream that bubbled to the surface over and through rocks and stones. Imagine how Texans experienced the wild many years before your visit. These walks encourage the visitor to slow down and take closer looks at flowers, insects, and small animals. The natural water features along the trails draw the most interest. Visitors do not expect a small waterfall or a trickling stream in this hot, dry climate.
In all parts of the Center, children find places to play. There is room to run and explore. Visit with your family to find giant bird’s nests. Conceived by a landscape architect, W. Gary Smith, these structures continue to capture the imagination of children. Here they can pretend to be birds and part of this native habitat.
Find the creek area designed to look like the dinosaurs still roam. Jump over running water and find dinosaur tracks. In the vegetable garden, use the pump to fill watering cans to take to the raised beds. Bring sketch pads and settle down to record what you see.
For those gardeners interested in learning more about native plants and insects in their home states, visit the library. The Center has become an educational hub for homeowners and landscape designers. The Center Gift Store has a wide selection of books about the natural environment, plus books specifically about Texas plants and wildlife. The selection of items includes large to small gifts, many featuring Texas native plants. Between children’s books, games, hats, t-shirts, and small souvenirs, be prepared to spend time at the end of your visit.
The Wildflower Café, with a short menu, is in the front complex also. Sit at picnic tables outside the Café. If you have a group of people and/or children with you, bring snacks, sandwiches, and water bottles. There are other shady areas to sit in and spots to fill water bottles.
When You Go
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is nine miles southwest of Austin and is open daily. Check the website for detailed hours and fees.
Choose Austin to visit for a full itinerary of activities. This is a large city, crisscrossed by highways, so leave ample time for driving. Try to group your activities in an area to lessen the time in the car each day. Known as a music city, Austin offers activities in many of the arts. Also, a favorite for outdoor activities, Austin will keep you and your family moving.
Where to Eat
Travel northeast on the MoPac Expressway from the Wildflower Center 10 miles and you will find Tacodeli, a favorite Austin taco chain. From this point, many restaurants and hotels are located off MoPac. Be sure to use directions and maps found on your phone or car GPS.
Other Gardens to See
Zilker Botanical Garden in Austin is called “Jewel in the Heart of Austin” and is a lovely smaller garden close to the Wildflower Center.
Umlauf Sculpture Garden is an even smaller, but unusual garden, it is very close to Zilker garden. Described on its website as “The UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum,” it exhibits the work of Charles Umlauf and other artists in a museum and a garden setting.
Judy Nauseef is a freelance writer and landscape design consultant. She is the author of Gardening with Native Plants in the Upper Midwest: Bringing the Tallgrass Prairie Home.