Human Flower Project
Lady Bird’s Wild Highways
Lady Bird Johnson went up against the outdoor advertising lobby to build a new federal highway program, flower by flower by flower.
North Carolina wildflowers
The U.S. federal highway system was a legacy of the Eisenhower administration. And the U.S. billboard industry was instantly hip. Instead of muscling up to customers, why not let a captive audience of consumers roll right past your pitch? “Take a Puff, It’s Springtime!”
“In 1958, Congress had passed a highway bill that gave states an extra half percent in funding if they controlled billboards, but the incentive appeared ineffectual in stopping highways from being blanketed” with signs.
Enter Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. After making the drive from Central Texas to D.C. one too many times, Lady Bird pressured her husband to push through a Highway Beautification bill in 1965, “improving landscaping, removing billboards, and screening roadside junkyards.”
Lady Bird Johnson in a field of Indian blanket
Photo: Frank Wolfe, 2001
You don’t hear the word “beautification” anymore. There aren’t any more idle groups of white ladies in white gloves. But in fact, Mrs. Johnson’s efforts—whatever they were once called—streamed into present-day environmentalism and conservation.
“After President Johnson left office, Mrs. Johnson continued to be a champion of environmental initiatives. In 1982, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center (now the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center), and in 1987, she helped add the native wildflower requirement as an amendment to the Surface Transportation Urban Relocation Authorization Act.”
Now, native wildflower seeds or seedlings must be planted in landscaping all federal highways projects.
Poppies and cornflowers in South Carolina
Photo: U.S. Dept. of Transportation
It shows. There are sumptuous wildflower programs in most states now. Here’s more information about Maryland, plus a slide show from North Carolina and a groovy map of the best wildflower routes in Arkansas.
Of course, the Johnsons’ home state of Texas claims to be the Big Mama of wildflowers. And though the crop this year isn’t of the same knockout quality as in 2005, our drive round-trip from Austin to San Angelo over the weekend was filled with bluebonnets-plus.
If you’re traveling to Texas for this year’s wildflowers, make sure to check out this great message board with current sightings. To wit, Maria Bowen’s report over the weekend:
Holy Cow!!! Brenham and Chappell Hill are full of beautiful bluebonnets. I drove to Brenham and took 105 and loop around to Chappel Hill back to 290 and Saw Tons of bluebonnets. They are at full bloom. If you want your pictures taken with them, NOW is the time.
If you can’t make it to Texas this spring, you can still see Bill Purcell’s slide show.