Lady Bird’s Place

Austin’s national wildflower center is blooming.

During the infamous drought of 1996, roadside wildflowers frizzled and fried. But at the National Wildflower Research Center, just southwest of Austin, blossoms, shrubs, trees, and grasses were sleek and sassy. Why? Because 1995’s rains watered 1996’s flowers, thanks to the largest rooftop rainwater-collection system in North America. One of the few places in Texas where you can count on seeing spectacular flowers every year, the $10 million native-plant botanical garden is remarkable—an aesthetic delight as well as an extraordinary resource. Founded by Lady Bird Johnson and actress Helen Hayes in 1982, it has grown from a huddle of dinky temporary buildings to become the nation’s preeminent center for wildflower information and experimentation. It has also extolled native-plant landscaping, but the January resignation of its visionary leader, David Northington, has led some insiders to wonder if its mission will remain as pure.

To fully appreciate the wildflower center, you have to be there. The structures, mainly of milky limestone and buff and russet sandstone, are Hill Country gorgeous. Ten of them surround an ample central courtyard framed by aqueducts and a stone observation tower–cistern on the center’s new 42-acre site, which opened in 1995. Some five hundred species of native plants flourish here. Flowers peek from beds and crevices, and trees seem to grow out of cracks in the stone. You can wander through the meditation garden, inspect books and gifts in the store, snack at the cafe, or attend lectures in the auditorium. Out back are demonstration gardens and lawns, so you can see what your yard might look like if you ripped out the Saint Augustine and planted buffalo grass. And meandering down a slope beyond the compound is a trail that crosses a comely meadow. Pausing there in the sun, mesmerized by the hum of insects and enveloped by the saunalike heat of afternoon, it’s easy to lose yourself in the glory of a Texas wildflower spring. The center, at 4801 La Crosse Avenue, off Loop 1, is open year-round (closed Mondays, 512-292-4100). There will be special events and entertainment during Wildflower Days, April 12–13.

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