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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you, Caroline and Chris, for a fantastic trip to Austin. I’m afraid I may just need to visit again!