Lady Bird's revolution still blooms Native: A first lady's passion for native American plants is kept alive and burning in Austin, Texas.

Sun Journal

October 26, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AUSTIN, Texas -- Geraniums? Julie Barrett Heffington is not interested. Petunias? All wrong. Pansies? Forget about them.

Heffington and her colleagues at the National Wildflower Research Center want you to reconsider all those gaudy blossoms you buy in tidy flats each spring to transplant to your pTC front yard, those sterile flowers developed not by nature but by some horticulturist.

The wildflower specialists, inspired by Lady Bird Johnson, would prefer that you plant subtler blooms, with names such as "dense blazing star" and "joe-pye weed" and "smooth beardtongue." They'd rather see you surrounded by flowers that belong to Maryland and are suited to its soils and weather.

They're asking you end your love affair with the easy and the showy. They want you to stop trying to cultivate, in your mid-Atlantic garden, that flower you admired in Arizona. They're asking you to appreciate the beauty of native plants.

"Our true mission here at the center is social change," says Heffington, the center's director of gardens and education, as she sits under live oaks, with yellow cassia and purple liatris growing nearby.

Give up the green carpet of turf grass. Plant low-maintenance buffalo grass -- and don't worry what the neighbors may say.

"Our motto," says Heffington, "is: 'Saving the world, one backyard at a time.'T"

This is what Johnson, the former first lady and the country's most famous champion of wildflowers, hoped for when she founded the center on her 70th birthday in December 1982. The stone-and-wood complex, set on 42 acres outside of Austin, is dedicated to researching and preserving native flowers, shrubs, grasses and vines.

Johnson, who lives not far away in the Texas hill country, chairs the center's board and visits often. The walls outside the auditorium are decorated with pictures of her standing in fields of brilliantly colored Indian blanket and fire wheel, photos of the former first lady and President Lyndon B. Johnson seated in a meadow of golden coreopsis.

President Johnson pushed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 through Congress because his first lady was determined to landscape the nation's roads and ease the clutter of billboards on interstate highways.

Flowers decorate median strips of interstates in the 1990s because she made native plants an issue in the 1960s. Johnson has said she took up the crusade because, "It's what makes my heart sing."

At the wildlife research center, a staff of about 30 designs gardens, schedules programs, catalogs research and fields 15,000 requests for information annually. An information packet costs non-members $10.

Ten thousand schoolchildren come through each year. Volunteers, as many as 350 a week in the busiest seasons, tend to the gardens. Fifteen-year-old Barbara Bush, the daughter of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and granddaughter of the president, has been among them.

The staff can tell you what a native plant looks like, whether it prefers sun or shade, how long it blooms, even what soil pH it needs. They can recommend deer-resistant gardens, plants that will attract hummingbirds and species that butterflies flock to.

It's not an easy sell, asking Americans to give up the colorful hybrids that decorate so many homes. But the people at the Wildflower Research Center, like missionaries preaching the word, are determined to win converts.

"It's about getting a different mind-set," Heffington says. "When I see geraniums and petunias, it doesn't appeal to me anymore. Now I think it isn't as beautiful as what nature provides."

She points to the maximilian sunflowers, which wait until October to bloom; the purple eryngo, a brilliant violet thistle, or American beauty berry, with its clusters of crimson fruits. The rock rose, part of the hibiscus family, is still showing off pink flowers. Small white blossoms cover the frog fruit.

Some visitors, Heffington reports, are immediately charmed by the notion of native gardens: "Others are agog and aghast." To some, the plantings don't look as well-groomed as many yards are. Or the gardens don't look as bright and green.

But Heffington, a former employee of the National Park Service, explains to them about wildlife. Native plants attract more of it.

"It has been said that turf grass from property line to property line is as devoid of wildlife as asphalt," she says.

A rabbit scampers out from the wild persimmon and agarita just a few feet from the bench on which she sits. Birds perch in the trees. Nearby gardens buzz with bumblebees and dragonflies. Some plants shimmer with butterflies.

Three sample gardens demonstrate the lure of native plants. One plot, which features tall grasses, has been left wild. One is planted with native flowers, but arranged in a traditional garden manner, with blooms bordering a patch of low-growing buffalo grass. Only an expert would be able to tell that this is a wildflower garden and not a plot of hybrids.

In the middle: your typical suburban-style garden, abloom with annuals.

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