Wildlife Center Showcases the Best Blooms Texas Has to Offer
Story by Sarah Naron
As winter gradually gives way to spring, the Texas landscape awakens with blooming flowers, lush grasses, and flourishing trees. Perhaps one of the best places to observe and appreciate the beauty of the landscape is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of Austin, which provides a picturesque, tranquil experience in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Lone Star State’s capital city.
“We were originally founded by Lady Bird Johnson and the actress Helen Hayes in 1982 as The Wildflower Research Center over in East Austin in a much smaller area,” explained Angel Horne, the center’s PR, Media, and Marketing representative. “In 1987, we moved to our current site and were renamed The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at that point.”
Horne shared that the center was incorporated into the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas in 2000. It has also been recognized as the official botanic garden of Texas since 2017.
“Our mission here has been to inspire the conservation of native plants,” Horne said. “While the verbiage has slightly updated in the last several years, that’s been the core of our mission. We have research and conservation components of the work we do. We have the gardens where people can visit and enjoy the plants and also get inspiration for what native plants can look like in a garden or yard or landscape. We have educational programs. So, we’re still true to our mission of educating the public about native plants and their benefits and advocating for them.”
The center features nine acres of gardens, but reaches substantially farther, Horne said.
“We have hundreds of acres of wild plants that we protect and serve as well,” she shared. “We have thousands of plant species on site. We also maintain a free database that has over 20,000 entries of native plants that people can explore and learn about. And those plants are from all over North America, so that’s very cool.”
Among the unique areas visitors can tour while visiting the center is the Texas Arboretum, which features Texas oaks and other types of trees that are native to the Lone Star State.
“They’re very different experiences,” Horne said of the center’s various sections. “We’ve got trails that are more naturalistic, and you can go and experience what the Texas Hill Country would feel like if you were to be plopped down on a trail pretty much anywhere in the Hill Country.”
The center has brought plants from other regions into Austin, giving visitors the unique opportunity to see the best of what Texas has to offer all in one location.
“We have a West Texas Garden, for example, where you wouldn’t really find those plants while you’re walking around our city or a park naturally, but they are Texas species, and we planted and grew them and have been able to assimilate conditions well enough,” Horne said. “Of course, they don’t behave exactly like they would in West Texas, but we’re able to show those species.”
Another garden in the center focuses on showcasing the varieties of grasses which can be found in various parts of the state.
“When people think of grass, they think of short, invasive, green lawn grass, and that’s just not true,” Horne said. “We have so many beautiful grasses in Texas that just really characterize and bring so much texture to the landscape, as well as provide food for wildlife.”
The center is also home to both an Edible Garden and another section which educates visitors on the many uses of plants throughout history, as well as how the benefits continue in the present day.
“We also offer classes and programs at the center on topics like creating natural dyes,” Horne added. “So, we have taken some of those traditions and carried them forward through education and through our Demonstration Garden.”
In addition to gardens, visitors can also enjoy leisurely strolls down numerous trails.
“You can walk all of the trails and see something very different,” Horne said. “You can see the landscape shift and the shape and the colors and the different plants that are present in some areas, but not in others. That’s pretty magical for a large, but not incredibly large space.”
While many individuals enjoy driving along scenic routes and taking in the sights of nature, Horne said that walking provides a different experience.
“Getting out into a space, you end up seeing the small things,” she pointed out. “Right now, a lot of blooms – if there are any; it’s a little early – are going to be very small. So, with some of our first ones, you have to get low to the ground or be pretty close up to notice them, which I think is part of the fun as well.”
According to Horne, some of the first blooms to appear throughout the center are anemones, which are also commonly referred to as wind flowers.
“Those, you’ll see kind of popping up in some of our more wild areas – off the trails of the arboretum or along some of our conservation and research trails,” she said. “We are starting to see Spiderwort, which is a beautiful magenta – sometimes even white – colored flower with just very characteristic angular leaves and little bunches of flowers. Those are common in several of our state parks.”
One of the most prominent hallmarks of spring in the center, Horne said, is a bright yellow flower called Carolina Jessamine.
“It’s really popular in gardening,” she said. “It can be pretty aggressive, but it’s been used in home garden horticulture for quite a while. It creates big curtains of bright yellow blooms, and you’ll see bees visiting that a lot. They’re very striking, and they have a dark leaf, so it really pops the yellow against that as well.”
Another plant which makes itself known – by smell rather than sight – in the early spring is the mountain laurel.
“They have a very signature scent – people say grape Kool-Aid or Pixie Stix or grape candy or grape soda,” Horne said. “Everyone’s kind of got an opinion about the smell, but it’s undeniably sweet. That’s one of those plants that you’ll smell on your walk before you see if, so you’ll know to look for it.”
The center also features coral honeysuckle, which grows on a vine and was described by Horne as “striking.
“It has beautiful dark green leaves and long, tubular, kind of red or pink or sometimes orange-colored flowers,” she said. “We’re so happy to see them, because they’re lovely, and they’re a great pollinator plant.”
These plants, Horne added, also serve to attract hummingbirds migrating to the area.
“The males will often come first to kind of stake out some territory and consume a lot of calories,” she explained. “They travel a long way, and that’s one of the plants that’s ready for them when they arrive.”
Throughout the springtime, Horne said, the center is filled with vivid colors and signs of new life.
“From March through May, you just see this sort of rolling cast of new characters and colors coming onto the scene,” she said. “It really can be different from day to day.”
The beauty encompassed by the center is something its staff is eager to share in person again after being unable to do so during the previous spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We closed in mid-February of last year and weren’t able to be opened until later in May,” Horne said. “We obviously wanted to put safety first for our staff and volunteers and visitors, and we wanted to make sure we had protocols in place. A lot of those protocols are going to be things that we carry forward sort of indefinitely right now, including timed admission, increased sanitation stations for people to have access to, requiring masks and social distancing. We really capped the number of people that can be out. Being closed February through May – that’s the peak of wildflower season. We have our heaviest visitation then; it’s when people start thinking about wildflowers more and when everything is really going off along the gardens and trails.”
The center’s Spring Native Plant Sale was also placed on hiatus due to the pandemic, but Horne reported that it will be back and better than before this season.
“Instead of being one weekend, it’s going to be a couple of months’ worth of weekends,” she said. “We have thousands of native plant species; a lot of them, people can’t find other places. We’re getting back to operating; it just looks different.”
The center prides itself on being able to provide visitors with the opportunity to leave behind the current troubles of the world and simply enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature.
“It’s been such a pleasure to us to be able to offer an outdoor space and some respite and peaceful trails and room to spread out for everyone to feel safe during this time,” Horne said. “We felt very remorseful that we had to miss out on that last spring, when people really were starting to feel antsy being at home and times were so uncertain.”
Despite the hold that was placed on hosting guests, the center continued striving to provide splashes of beauty and education until it was able to reopen.
“We changed our classes to virtual classes, and we were able to extend a lot of programs to people who maybe weren’t able to reach us as easily in the past,” Horne said. “We did livestreams out in the gardens to let people at least take a 5-15 minute sort of meditation and see what was happening in real time out in the gardens and fields and meadows. We sent emails out showing what was happening in the gardens on a much more regular basis, and we got a very warm response from the community. I think everyone was really just happy to – in a time when everything is sort of turned on its head – to be grounded by the season doing exactly what we expect it to do, which is be beautiful and delight us.”
For more information on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, please visit www.wildflower.org.