Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin

What images spring to mind when you think of Texas? Perhaps dry, cracked soils, a few scrubby, grey-leaved shrubs and the odd towering cactus?

If it weren’t for the cacti I’d never have believed this was Texas

It turns out this couldn’t be much further from the truth. At least in the Hill Country and Piney Woods regions of the state, where I visited last week. Texas is a huge state, second only to Alaska, and almost three times the size of the UK, so the climate and vegetation differs vastly across its breadth. I also discovered, via a quite literally alarming noise from my phone telling me to take shelter immediately, that Texas has more tornadoes than anywhere else in the world, with an incredible average of 139 each year.

If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to wait for a tornado, this photo I took at 11 o’clock in the morning gives you some idea…

The morning after the tornado warning, I bravely boarded a plane to Austin, to visit my good friends Caroline and Chris. The good friends that they are (you may also remember them from Chanticleer), they had organised to pick me up at the airport and take me to a wildflower centre, before showing me around their new home and neighbourhood on the diametrically opposite side of the city.

Richly coloured irises and a nesting great-horned owl (too small to capture without my zoom lens – you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself!) welcome you to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The centre’s seed silo is nestled between trees and climbers; I love the way the groundcovers have been allowed to sprawl

In 1994, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre opened its doors, having been founded by Lady Bird, wife of President Johnson, and the actress, Helen Hayes, a decade earlier. It is devoted to preserving and reintroducing native plants in planned landscapes; indeed Lady Bird was known for scattering wildflower seed along the banks of the Texan highways, much of which  delightfully seems very much still in evidence today.

Trees are such an important feature at the entrance to the Wildflower Center, as they are throughout this established garden

I love the prunings cart behind the Aquilegia!

Lady Bird is a somewhat troubling First Lady name to a Brit, being the name of a very small red beetle. Lady Bird, born Claudia, was once described as ‘purty as a ladybird’ by her nursemaid and the name stuck. Her father and siblings called her ‘Lady’, her husband ‘Bird’, which was interestingly also the name shown on her marriage certificate.

Erigeron showing off its love of growing in any tiny cracks it can find

But funny names aside, Lady Bird is a woman after my own heart. She is quoted as saying,

             “My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.”

and,

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

The softer and the harsher forms look fantastic side by side

I love this idea of order and disorder and of course, the link between flowers and hope. And driving around Texas, I loved the incredible array of flowers of every colour imaginable which seemed to populate every last piece of green space. I wish I could have captured this spectacular sight on camera, but sadly I wasn’t quite game enough to wander around busy highways!

Native bluebonnets at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre; it’s rare you see such a true blue colour in the floral world

So back to the Wildflower Center and a look at why it was so special. I was particularly lucky that I was there in spring, when the wildflowers are just kicking off. The area is known for ‘bluebonnets’ in particular (Lupinus texensis), which I also discovered the locals called ‘lupines’, rather than ‘lupins’. With 279 acres to play with, it was wonderful to see large expanses of their  bright blue petals, just as they were bursting bud.

This established wall has such a mix of plants growing within it, yet the local stone unifies the overall picture

But my enjoyment of it went far beyond admiring the flowers. The design of the entire centre was magnificently done; I’d say it falls into the ‘effortless chic’ category: looking as though it had just happened quite naturally, belying the skill and planning that must have gone into it.

Simple, but beautiful at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) in front of a typical Texan-style limestone building

There was great structure to it, built around the local limestone buildings, pathways and walls with carefully placed trees providing shade and atmosphere where it was most needed. But self-seeders were permitted to soften this infrastructure, ornamenting steps and walls to great effect.

Bluebonnets have been allowed to self-seed along the edge of wide steps (and just look at the colour of that glorious sky!)

It’s hard to beat plant placement created by nature, although I suspect nature may have also had a very skilful helping hand in some areas.

Oh, so exotic, Tillandsia ‘airplants’ growing wild in the trees. They absorb water and nutrients through their leaves, requiring no soil

One of the most exciting discoveries we (in fact, Chris) made was of hundreds, if not thousands, of wild airplants (Tillandsia) growing abundantly in the trees. These oh, so, designer plants, usually seen in luxury, contemporary, indoor displays were attached to each and every branch of many trees. I’d never before thought about where these unusual plants came from, but as members of the bromeliad family, I probably should have guessed they were from the warmer parts of the Americas.

Visual soil analysis; for the true gardening nerds amongst you! The only concern is the enormous quantity of limestone rock at such shallow depths

My confusion at this green, green garden of deciduous trees and soft, meadow flowers was somewhat reconciled when we saw some excavations for new pipework. Incredibly rich, dark, friable soil was exposed before us, not at all as I would have imagined in this hot part of the world. So whilst the climate is described as semi-arid, with cool winters and hot summers, it became clearer how this area supports such lush vegetation. In fact, it turns out, the region can receive up to 1,200mm of rain a year, peaking in spring to coincide with the very best of the floral show.

Wind climes in old, twisting trees draw your attention up to the sky

Not normally my sort of thing, I thought these brightly coloured mosaic walls looked fabulous in this geography

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was such a joy to leisurely stroll around. Admittedly, aided by the company of two very special people, but the wide, open, green spaces, odd punctuations of character that reminded you you were in Texas and the full sensory experience enhanced by wind chimes high in the trees and bees buzzing around, made for an absolutely wonderful day out.

Just beautiful that a look out point has been planted up with drought-loving species

Thank you, Caroline and Chris, for a fantastic trip to Austin. I’m afraid I may just need to visit again!

With my dear friend, Caroline, having a happy time amongst the flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre. Photo: Chris Stockton

16 thoughts on “Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin

  1. rusty duck says:

    What a good idea to have wind chimes to encourage you to look up. Whilst I can’t boast Tillandsias there are ferns growing up on high branches here, totally missed if you have your eyes permanently at ground level. It all looks very green and lush. A bit different I guess at the end of summer. That tornado would have put the wind up me..

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oo, your high-rise ferns sound lovely! And the wind chimes were so well done; just a subtle noise – enough to stop you but not enough to take over too much. Yes, the whole tornado thing was something. I was actually just very excited, although felt a little guilty feeling that way – they are obviously serious things for those affected by them.

  2. Louise says:

    Did you know NSW is bigger than Texas? So my husband tells me who travels around supporting staff! What a lovely way to spend time with dear friends.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Gosh, your husband does do some travel! But then everything in Australia is on a large scale. I was just thinking this morning how much time I have got back living in a very small apartment – I used to spend half the day relocating stuff around our Australian-size houses!

  3. Alison Piasecka says:

    I love the connection between nature and hope, and I am shocked at how surprising your evidence of the flowering Texas was to me! Well, there you go…another part of the world to try to visit!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you Alison, I feel relieved to hear this. Just after I pressed ‘publish’ I found myself google imaging ‘Texas landscape’, with a sudden worry that I’d just got Mexico and Texas entirely mixed up in my mind and that EVERYBODY else in the world would immediately link Texas with wide sweeps of soft, lush wildflowers!

  4. An Eye For Detail says:

    I’ve always wondered about going there..and now may have to add it to my growing list. Here in North Carolina we have wonderful, colorful huge swaths of while not really wild, at least native, flowers along the highways. They are spectacular in pink, or yellow, or orange. And I believe the credit is due in part to the Wildflower Center. Or, at least that is what I think of when I pass these colorful plantings!

    • jannaschreier says:

      That list never stops growing, does it? However many things you tick off! But I’d definitely recommend the Wildflower Center, Libby, as you can see. It sounds like I need to put North Carolina on mine too!

  5. Adriana Fraser says:

    “effortless chic” – what a great term for a great garden Janna – although I do know a garden that looks effortless, never is. The USA has amazing, diverse and copious amounts of stunning native wildflowers – how fortunate that you could see a few and tell us about them.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It is such a big country isn’t it? There is so much I still want to see there. It sounds like I might have some busy springs coming up with all the wildflowers. Need to get these trips in whilst we are vaguely on the right side of the world!

  6. Suzanne says:

    A very enjoyable post Janna. Many of your photos remind me of Perth despite a very different plant pallet, and we are never short of amazing blue sky’s. I also love the blue lupins; they remind me of my childhood. My father used to grow these (probably not the same species) in his paddocks as a green manure. Many other property’s grew yellow lupins but only Dad grew blue ones. They were fabulous to play amongst; making tunnels and open space ‘cubbies’. Happy memories indeed.

    • jannaschreier says:

      How gorgeous to hear of your father’s blue lupins. The blue looks so fantastic against their lush, green leaves. Your childhood sounds so idyllic. I remember creating ‘dens’ but I don’t think they were anything like as floral as yours clearly were! It’s sad to think fewer children do this these days. I can’t wait to show you the next garden I visited in Texas…lots of dryer climate plantings, which I connect more clearly with Perth, but it will be interesting to see what you think.

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