Texas Hill Country – Wild for Flowers: Lady Bird’s Legacy

Texas Hill CountryGrowing up in the verdant forests of the East Texas region called the Piney Woods, little Claudia Taylor could no more have foreseen that she’d become the nation’s First Lady than anticipate that she would change the way Americans view their highway roadsides. But Lady Bird Johnson (“pretty as a lady bird,” as her childhood nursemaid said) did both. During her husband’s time in the White House, Lady Bird threw her energy into preserving the countryside and promoted the Highway Beautification Act, thereby planting wildflowers along highway shoulders and limiting the visual pollution of billboards.

Visitors to the Hill Country will thank her for this, as it is a veritable blanket of wild-flowers from March through much of summer, although April is typically the peak. Follow the two-lane roads that twist and climb through scrubby hills covered with prickly pear cactus and bluebonnets and valleys blanketed in pink evening primrose, bright yellow black-eyed Susans, and reddish purple Mexican hats—all alongside ancient juniper, mesquite, and live oak. In the Hill Country’s upper reaches, you’ll find festivals every spring weekend in the tiny towns of Burnet, Kingsland, Marble Falls, and Buchanan Dam, all clinging to the Highland Lakes, a 150-mile-long string of seven sparkling lakes formed by the Colorado River.

After LBJ left office in 1969 and the couple settled at their ranch outside Austin, Lady Bird’s passion for wildflowers only grew. Some 300 miles from the humble house where she grew up, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center (now called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) to foster preservation and reintroduction of native plants in landscaping. Visitors can roam the 280-acre grounds, take in 500 plant species, attend classes and festivals, buy wildflower seeds, and find out where to see some of the best floral patches in Texas.

Forty-eight miles west of Austin, the historic LBJ Ranch, part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, lies on the Pedernales River between the tiny twin towns of Stonewall and Johnson City, as does the LBJ State Park and Historic Site, where living history programs re-create a pioneer farmstead. In Johnson City proper, you can visit LBJ’s boyhood home, or drive to Austin and visit the wonderful Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, with both traveling and permanent exhibits.