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Two Tenacious Texans - Travelers in the texas hill country and on america's byways can thank the work of lady bird johnson and her neighbor john thomas for neck-craning floral adventures.

In 1966, when First Lady Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson was planting thousands of tulips and daffodils in Washington, D.C., young John Thomas was herding cattle on his father's Gulf Coast ranch. While Mrs. Johnson was hiking in Texas' Big Bend National Park, identifying wildlife and local plants for a hundred tagalong reporters and environmentalists, Thomas was dabbling in a grass-seeding business and struggling to get his business degree.

On the surface, the two Texans had little in common. Thomas, 20, was more interested in rodeos than in politics. The first lady, far away from the flowers and fields of Texas, was the centerpiece of Washington society. She had wealth, power, popularity, and influence--enough to change American policy and save the California redwoods.

In time, their separate paths would lead them to the Texas hill country, where they would become neighbors and friends. Before that, in 1985, Lady Bird visited Thomas' bluebonnet fields in Eagle Lake. A successful wildflower farmer by then, Thomas was impressed that "Mrs. Johnson had never lost her sense of kinship with the land." The former first lady, who had founded the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin three years earlier, discovered in Thomas someone who shared her spirited reverence for wildflowers. Their relationship was solidified by a fused passion to beautify America, although their visions of how to accomplish this were distinct.

First lady of flowers

First and foremost, Lady Bird Johnson is an environmentalist who desires "to keep the beauty of the landscape as we remember it in our youth ... and leave its splendor for our grandchildren." During the Johnson presidency from 1963 to 1968, over 150 laws were passed that benefited the environment, including the Clean Air Act, the Highway Beautification Act, and the National Park Boundaries Act. All were laws she had vigorously supported. The Beautification Act of 1965, which drew national attention to the problem of junkyards and billboards, was the result of Mrs. Johnson's crusade.

After leaving Washington, she carried on her beautification work on a reduced scale in Texas. She founded the Texas Highway Beautification Awards in 1969 and for twenty years handed out cash awards as an incentive to the twenty-five districts of the Texas Highway Department. In the 1970s, she chaired a committee that landscaped and planted flowering trees on a popular twelve-mile hike and bike trail along the Colorado River in downtown Austin.

In 1982, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and reestablishing native plants in natural and planned landscapes. Stating that "wildflowers are the stuff of my heart," she donated sixty acres and an initial $125,000 to establish the center. Mrs. Johnson wanted indigenous wildflowers or plants along highways and roadways in every state, "not just for the beauty of it but to save the public the cost of mowing weeds."

Wildflower cowboy

Meanwhile, in Eagle Lake, Texas, as Thomas' turf-seeding and grass company expanded, landscape architects began to ask him, "Why not wildflowers, too?"

The question haunted him. For years he'd had a secret fascination with the flowers his father wanted to kill "so the cattle would have more grass." Bored with watching the herd, Thomas had admired the vibrant yellow and maroon Plains coreopsis and fire-red Indian paintbrush. Impassioned by the thought of seeding wildflowers, too, he began taking mental note of what flowers were blooming and for how long. He observed that some dominated in drainage ditches, others in rocky terrain and upland prairies. He recognized the resilience of different wildflowers in dry and wet seasons. Then he went to the library, read about botanical names, and asked his father for acreage so he could grow bluebonnets.

Today Thomas, 55, is the founder and president of Wildseed Farms. What began in 1983 with ten acres of bluebonnets for the Texas Highway Department has become one of the largest privately owned wildflower farms in the United States. Wildseed Farms grows eighty-eight varieties of wildflowers on sixteen hundred acres in Eagle Lake and in the Texas hill country east of Fredericksburg. Last year fifty thousand pounds of bluebonnet seeds were harvested, which is 70 percent of the world's supply. The operation has sixty-five employees, including horticulturists and botanists. Every day of the week, full-time operators take telephone orders for seeds people want to plant in specific geographic areas.

When Thomas relocated his family to the hill country in 1991, he transformed his farm into a sightseer's delight. Over 200,000 visitors a year come to enjoy and photograph the breathtaking array of shell- pink phlox, yellow primroses, bluebonnets, purple verbena, and other vibrant flowers. They are allowed to smell and touch the same varieties that Wildseed Farms supplies to twenty-eight state highway departments. With a printed guide in hand, they can identify sixty varieties of wildflowers in various stages of growth. During the blooming season, which lasts until the first frost, guests are allowed to cut their own bouquets from selected fields.

One of Thomas' regular visitors is Lady Bird Johnson, whose ranch is only fifteen minutes from the farm. When Mrs. Johnson attends church in Fredericksburg, Thomas knows "she'll turn into the drive at 12:30 and stop to view the flowers." Other times, when she's staying in Austin, she and her administrative assistant Shirley James will drive out "to see what John is doing." Likewise, Thomas is a regular visitor to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin; and he has helped her seeding efforts in public areas, including the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park, which lies across the Pedernales River from the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas.

Painting with flowers

Although they have not always seen eye to eye on using nonindigenous plants for beautification, their mutual love for wildflowers has made them good friends who support each other's endeavors. Over the years, Mrs. Johnson's primary mission has been to educate the public about the importance of appreciating native plants in situ; in contrast Thomas hopes that someday everyone will be able to pick bouquets of yellow, red, and orange wildflowers from their own yards and gardens-- indigenous or not.

In recent years, Thomas has been a featured speaker at seminars, conventions, and garden clubs. He stresses that wildflowers are beautiful, resistant to disease and drought, and need little care or maintenance. Each fall, Thomas offers free seminars at Wildseed Farms to assist home gardeners, telling them, "I want your wildflowers to be the talk of the neighborhood." By the time they leave, Thomas has covered the basics and dragged them out into the field for "hands-on planting experience."

With wildflowers becoming an increasingly popular landscape alternative, many highway employees and landscape architects also attend his training sessions. After taking a seminar called "How to Create More Spectacular Campuses," Mike Schweitzer, manager of landscape services at Trinity University in San Antonio, planted a wild seed mixture on the campus slopes with phenomenal results.

After hobby gardener C.W. Stevens of Grayson, Kentucky, ordered seeds four years ago, he planted them in eight large flower beds and on a sloping bank behind his house. Although his home is in a rural subdivision, word spread and people came by to view his colorful garden. Soon the chamber of commerce decided to beautify the whole town and purchased 100 pounds of seed. The next year, the chamber donated enough seed to the state highway department for wildflowers on I-64, which goes through Grayson. Interest in the wildflowers grew as motorists viewed the kaleidoscopic display that stretches one mile on both sides of town. Soon the highway department was adorning roads all over the state with black-eyed Susans and varicolored coreopsis.

All over the country, people are finding new places for Thomas' wildflowers: in grasslands, city parks, and open spaces on commercial land. In Georgia, Harry Kish's Shasta daisies and yellow tickseed had such prolific results in his home beds that he began to use the seed in his landscaping business. Last year Alabama botanist Caroline Dean suggested that people plant wildflowers on large tracts of land, firebreaks, or old-growth forests.

In Ohio, Manon Van Schoyck created a large wildflower meadow "to attract wildlife." After four years, with some reseeding, his meadow of purple coneflowers, Indian blankets, larkspurs, tickseed, and Plains coreopsis provides food and cover for birds, butterflies, insects, and mammals. "If I had my choice, my yard would be a massive prairie with mowed paths through it," Van Schoyck says. "It's visually appealing, serves as a wildlife haven, and includes sound conservation practices, such as less mowing and no watering."

There's still a lot more floral evangelizing to do, so Thomas is busy expanding his seed varieties to include those indigenous to other states. He continues to meet with horticulturists and botanists, searching out new varieties of wildflowers for experimental production. If called, he consults with highway departments about which flowers will thrive in their area and along their roads.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Johnson continues to express her concern for the four thousand native plant species in this country that are in danger of extinction--and with them an unlimited potential for food, fiber, and medicine. But at 87, she has turned the future of these plants over to supporters of her wildflower center, along with Thomas, who shares her love of wildflowers and is more than happy to carry on the cause.n

For more information

Additional Reading:Wildseed Farms

(800) 848-0078

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

(512) 292-4200

Linda Owen is a freelance writer based in San Antonio, Texas.
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Author:owen, linda
Publication:World and I
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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