Johnson: First Lady of American Flowers

I never saw what the American landscape looked like before Lady Bird Johnson came along, but my father did. When he was a kid in Texas, his parents would take him and his brothers for long drives in the country. Dad remembers his father's approach to litter control. If anybody had a paper bag or a bottle cap or an apple core, he'd say, "Get that out of the car," and one of the boys would roll down the window and toss it out. The inside of the car stayed clean, and nobody gave much thought to what the highway looked like as they blew past it. In a state as big as Texas, who would even notice one more little scrap of paper?

But that's not the Texas I knew. In 1969, the year I was born, Lady Bird Johnson started handing out the Texas Highway Beautification Awards and writing personal checks to the winners. Soon everybody was planting bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and black-eyed Susans in the hopes of winning her approval. Driving out to see the wildflowers bloom was something everybody did in the spring. As for the trash? Lady Bird thought that people just wouldn't have the nerve to throw garbage on a field of bluebonnets, our state flower. She was right.

She knew that we Texans are excessively proud of anything that comes from our home state. If she could just remind us that nothing is more Texan than our native flora, we would nurture and defend it. Today a portrait photographer in Texas can make a good living photographing families in a field of bluebonnets. We all know that those are Mrs. Johnson's flowers.

She liked to say that she wanted Vermont to look like Vermont and Texas to look like Texas, and in fact, her touch was felt across the country. In 1969, the Nixons and the Johnsons flew to Northern California to dedicate a 300-acre redwood grove in the first lady's honor. Now I live just a few miles from the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Those ancient redwoods with their understory of sword ferns usually just remind me how far away from Texas I am. But today it occurs to me that Mrs. Johnson's spirit is alive here, too. This grove is a reminder that she had something grander in mind than just pretty flowers.

She once said, "Some may wonder why I chose wildflowers when there are hunger and unemployment and the big bomb in the world." I think I know why. Lady Bird Johnson saw her country not as an abstract principle, but as the very ground beneath her feet. She wanted every state to value and protect its wildflowers and trees because, as she said, "It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become." That's what I want to remember about her. And next spring, when the wildflowers bloom, maybe I'll try to make it back home in time for a family portrait with her bluebonnets.

Commentator Amy Stewart is the author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers.

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