Besides books and my own mistakes, I’ve learned almost everything I know about wildflowers from volunteering at the National Wildflower Research Center, Lady Bird Johnson’s visionary gift to Texas. Perhaps my inexperience was evident on my application, because the volunteer coordinator wisely placed me where I couldn’t do much harm, in the bordering wild area fondly referred to as “outside the wall.” My spring and summer were spent dragging miles of hoses around the periphery of the grounds, through the agarita and crispy grasses, desperately trying to keep some of the previous fall’s plantings alive. A couple of redbuds didn’t make it despite my efforts, but I’m proud to say I think “Mrs. Johnson’s yaupons” pulled through.
The perks for volunteers at the center are plentiful: We get a discount in the store and the cafe, the staff thank us endlessly, and best of all, we just get to hang around that wonderful place. Never in my wildflower dreams would I have expected more, but I got it. This fall, twenty volunteers, whose names were chosen from a hat containing hundreds, went out to the LBJ Ranch to plant wildflowers. I was one of the chosen. Despite the raw weather that day, the former first lady herself, the grande dame of Texas wildflowers, came out and talked to us at length. Then, after washing up right there in Mrs. Johnson’s bathrooms, we got to eat lunch with her (King Ranch casserole, salad, cookies, and ice cream).
I desperately wanted to talk to Mrs. Johnson that day, but I was so full of admiration I was uncharacteristically tongue-tied anytime she was near. I kept my head down and raked so enthusiastically I think one of her Secret Service agents was assigned to keep an eye on me specifically. By the end of the day, I’d given up hope of dazzling Mrs. Johnson with my conversational skills. I was squatting on the lawn collecting acorns from her live oak to give to a company that sells historical tree seedlings when I looked up to see her sensible shoes before me. I managed to stand up and have a fifteen-second talk with her—about acorns. They’re not my field of expertise. I think I said something profound like, “It’s amazing that a big tree can come from this.” She said something like, “Yes, dear, isn’t it?” And then she was gone.