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Not just a pretty place

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Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

By Saralee Tiede

The newest member of the University of Texas at Austin family also happens to be one of the most beautiful public gardens in the nation. The 279-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Southwest Austin is a tribute to the environmental leadership of a former first lady who feared that our country was losing its native plant heritage.

Lady Bird Johnson founded the National Wildflower Research Center with her friend, the late actress Helen Hayes, in 1982 on land donated by the Johnson family. Its mission then and now was to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants, and landscapes. The present center opened in 1995 after a national fundraising campaign that financed construction of the striking tower, aqueduct, and buildings, as well as the gardens. “The Wildflower Center is a little piece of Texas,” Johnson once said, “in which I hope you will see the story of why I think it is desirable and useful to understand, preserve, and spread the things that grow here naturally.”

When the Wildflower Center became part of UT last year, it was understood that it would remain self-supporting. Nearly half its funding comes from private gifts and memberships, with 10 percent from foundation and government grants, 35 percent from admissions, product sales, and events, and the remainder from endowment proceeds.

The principal fundraising event each year is the Wildflower Center Gala, an elegant garden party typically held in May. Others include Gardens on Tour, a look at standout private native plant gardens, and Luminations, when the winter gardens are alight with luminarias and torches.

The Wildflower Center is more than just a pretty place. Its native plant education and research programs have been integrated into UT’s College of Natural Sciences and School of Architecture, enriching courses in botany and landscape architecture. Also, these major environmental projects have been initiated:

  • Plant Conservation. The center is one of five U.S. organizations participating in the Millennium Seed Bank Project, developed by the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, in the United Kingdom. Seed collectors are working across Texas to “bank” seeds of native plants.
  • Sustainability. The Sustainable Sites initiative, begun by the center and the American Society of Landscape Architects and supported by the U.S. Botanic Garden, is creating standards to motivate site developers to conserve water, manage runoff, protect biodiversity, reduce pollution, and use fewer resources in large-scale landscapes. This initiative received a recent boost with a $262,000 grant from Dallas’ Meadows Foundation.
  • Stopping Invasive Plants. The Be Plantwise initiative, a partnership with the National Park Service, Garden Club of America, and National Invasive Species Council, educates the public about the environmental dangers of invasive species, which cause $35 billion in damage each year.

These and other far-reaching projects are a few of the reasons that Austin’s Lynn Meredith, chair of the center’s advisory council, says, “Supporting the Wildflower Center is really supporting the environment.”

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