Most first ladies devote themselves to public causes that become their signature projects. For the wife of Lyndon Baines Johnson, that cause was the preservation of wildflowers and native plants. Lady Bird was a pioneer in promoting the idea that natural habitats and native species were beautiful in their own right, and that they could even be economically beneficial. She prevailed upon the state highway agency to seed the roadsides with wildflowers, which now flourish throughout the state—especially in central Texas, where bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, evening primrose, and other wildflowers paint the landscape in rich colors. And, with actress Helen Hayes, she founded the National Research Wildflower Center to help preserve—and showcase—the region's natural glory.
The center was later renamed for her and, in 2006, became part of the University of Texas; it’s an off-campus complement to UT’s LBJ Library and Museum, demonstrating the power couple’s impact on the state. The facility’s research library is the nation’s largest for the study of native plants, and the university uses the center’s habitats to study fire prevention, water conservation—its elaborate rainwater collection system could serve as a national model—and other topics key to environmental health. In 2017, the center was dubbed the State Botanic Garden and Arboretum of Texas, further recognizing its importance.
But what grabs visitors is the dramatic proof of what's in peril. This place is especially spectacular in springtime, when wildflowers (especially bluebonnets) paint the 284-acre spread in a palate of primary colors. You’ll see some 900 species of native plants in their distinctive habitats; a series of gardens, including one where kids can wade in a stream and sit on tree stumps; several hothouses; an arboretum with a gathering of historic oak trees; 2 miles of trails; and an observation tower built out of native limestone. There is also a large and colorful gift shop, a children’s playroom, and a cafe serving light fare. Free lectures and guided walks are usually offered on the weekends; check the website for current programs. Even if you’re not a gardening geek, you can find yourself spending the better part of a day here.