Ladybird Johnson is one of the iconic champions of environmental protection and beautification. During her husband Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential campaign, she played a significant role in passing legislation to beautify highways, and Washington DC (Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Staff 2007). Her most famous contribution is the Beautification Act of 1965, or ‘Ladybird’s Bill’ “because of her active support, the legislation called for control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs along the nation’s interstate highway system” (Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Staff 2007). Furthermore, her influence helped create Redwood National Park and prevent “the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon” (Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Staff 2007). She continued her work even after returning to Texas, where she took charge in creating hike-and-bike trails in Austin (Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Staff 2007). However, she wanted to do more.
Wildflowers have always been an important part of Mrs. Johnson’s life. She notes in a letter to her J. R. Parten on 12/11/1984 “Wherever I have gone in America, the natural beauty of wildflowers has enriched my life and fed my soul” (JR Parten Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center). In order to continue her work with beautification of highways, Mrs. Johnson and Helen Hayes along with members of an executive committee create the National Wildflower Research Center (NWRC). They officially announced it December of 1982 on Mrs. Johnson’s 70th birthday. The mission of the NWRC is to be “a research and educational organization committed to preservation and reestablishment of native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees” (Mission Statement, Milton and Helen Smith Papers). Prior to the start of the NWRC there was very little information available on wildflowers and generating new research was key to accomplishing their goals.
There are few who can dispute that the NWRC’s biggest impact on the world is the plethora of research generated on site detailing the seeding, germination, types, and methods for growing wildflowers. Yet research generated there is not what caused the NWRC to succeed in its early days, instead it was the devotion of people closest to Mrs. Johnson including strong financial donors, community interest, and the NWRC’s ability to organize and communicate research collected but not generated by the NWRC.
The individuals who started the NWRC ranged from wildflower researchers such as Chapman Kelley, to financial giants such as Laurance Rockefeller, even to former presidents such as President Ford (Trustee List on a Memo in J. R. Parten files). Although there was an eclectic range of motives they all had one thing in common, a passion and devotion for Ladybird Johnson. Nash Castro remarks in an interview in 1996 “I think without any question that much of the zeal that was demonstrated throughout this whole process came about as a result of the affection that people have felt for Lady Bird for so long” (pg. 6, Nash Castro Interview 6, 1996). He even remarks earlier in the interview that the prestigious individuals involved participated more for their love of Ladybird than their interest in wildflowers (pg. 5, Nash Castro Interview 6 1996). Mrs. Johnson was a beloved figure even across party lines and it is no surprise that she inspired so many others to join her in ventures after she left the office of first lady.
Some of the individuals who contributed to the start of the NWRC because they believed in Mrs. Johnson did so in ways beyond the planning and running of the Center. J. R. Parten donated $5,000 to the Founder’s Fund as well as donating in 1985 and 1987 (J. R. Parten Papers, 1985- 1987). Helen Smith of Economy Furniture Industries furnished the new location of the center in 1996 “as a gift for a truly great lady’s bequest to Americans” (Milton and Helen Smith Papers 1994). Even President Ford while never attending a board meeting made sure to send an annual donation “enough to let Mrs. Johnson know that he still respects her and honors what she’s doing” (pg. 13, Nash Castro Interview 6 1996). While devotion to Ladybird Johnson came from her history and grace may have gathered the planners, funders, and organizers; devotion to wildflowers brought the communities.
Due to Mrs. Johnson’s work as first lady with the Beautification Act of 1965 there was already a national admiration for wildflowers and Texans already identified with the iconic bluebonnet. The public came out in droves to support the NWRC and soon enough there were education programs and school children coming to visit as well (National Wildflower Research Center Five Year Review 1983-1987 in the JR Parten Papers). They NWRC received emails and communications from visitors from all over the state and country. An email from an individual in Oklahoma can be found in the UT Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Records from 1996 where a grandmother’s passion for wildflowers led to a donation for preserving the Oklahoma native plants she admired. From the same file in 1996 there is a letter from an individual in Houston who after a visit to the Wildflower Center was inspired to adopt a section of the highway near her home to plant wildflowers (UT Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Records 1996).
Beyond just the passion of individuals either about Ladybird Johnson or wildflowers, the NWRC succeeded because it developed a centralized location for data on wildflowers. The Clearinghouse, as it’s known, became the primary directive soon after the NWRC’s creation because of challenges posed by its original location. Ladybird Johnson donated the original plot of land for the NWRC but quickly discovered that even though it was located on the Colorado River it didn’t have access to potable water (pg. 7 Nash Castro Interview 6). Additionally, the NWRC ended up moving locations once more in 1996 (UT Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Records). With such a tumultuous start generating research became very difficult. The Clearinghouse allowed for a research library to exist on site so research could be done with what minimal information existed. It became “the most comprehensive collection of wildflower information available in the country”, by 1987 it had answered 35,200 inquiries across the nation (National Wildflower Research Center Five Year Review 1983-1987 in the JR Parten Papers).
This isn’t to say the NWRC didn’t generate new research on wildflowers. Nash Castro notes in his interview in 1996 that the research arm of the NWRC didn’t develop as quickly as they hoped because they couldn’t “afford extensive research work, the appointment of scientists such as botanists, horticulturists, and others in more than minimum numbers to carry on a wide program of research” (pg. 8 Nash Castro Interview 6). Yet they did utilize plots to research germination, vegetation density, and plant survival rates (NWRC 1984-Field Research, Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Papers). Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., a stakeholder in the NWRC, received a packet in 1984 containing research results including the effectiveness of seed packets in producing Texan native plants and that drill seeding was the best method for planting. This may be a minimal start in comparison to the amount of information we have on wildflowers now, but with the nearly nonexistent information available in 1984, this was a huge step forward.
All above images are from the NWRC 1984-Field Research, Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Papers.
Ultimately the NWRC grew into a powerhouse of education and research that essentially created the field of wildflower research. Yet, if it were not for the passion and devotion of a prestigious group of individuals to Ladybird Johnson the research center never would have come into existence. Without the dedication and love of wildflowers by the public, the NRWC would not have gained the membership or financial support it needed to fund its groundbreaking research. Finally, without becoming a center for research from different parts of the country and other organizations the NWRC never would have established a national credibility as a research institution. While the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, renamed in 1997, will be remembered most for the impact it made on wildflower research, without its three-fold foundation it never would have become the organization it is today.
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