A Photographic Tour of UT’s Other Vibrant Campus: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The Spanish colonial style of the center’s archways, aqueducts, and Observation Tower (pictured here) are meant to evoke the early architecture of Central Texas.

“Beautification is far more than a matter of cosmetics,” former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, BA ’33, BJ ’34, BL ’64, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, said in 1968. “For me, it describes the whole effort to bring the natural world and the man-made world into harmony; to bring order, usefulness — delight — to our whole environment, and that of course only begins with trees and flowers and landscaping.”

Lady Bird Johnson in a field of firewheels in the Texas Hill Country, circa 1990. CREDIT: Frank Wolfe

A little over a decade later, she, along with actress Helen Hayes, established a center in East Austin to help restore, preserve, and study native plants, or — as she might have put it — beautification, in every sense of the word. The original, 60-acre center was founded in 1982, and in 1995, opened its current botanic garden on 42 acres in southwest Austin. Today, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center sprawls over 284 lush acres covered in nearly 900 species of native plants.

In 2006, ownership of the Wildflower Center, the official state botanical garden of Texas, was transferred to UT. “I think we embody UT’s service to the state and to Texans,” interim executive director Lee Clippard says. “We have a very deep history of creating programs that have gone on to change the world.” Like Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) — an effort that began at the Wildflower Center, in collaboration with the U.S. Botanic Garden and the American Society of Landscape Architects, and is now the world’s most comprehensive sustainable landscape rating system.

Last spring, during the center’s most colorful season, COVID-19 forced an eight-week closure. This year, the garden is open for visitors — albeit by reservation, with limited capacity — and, despite Winter Storm Uri wreaking havoc on flora around Austin, the wildflowers are once again peeking their colorful heads out of the ground, ready to greet them.

“I hope people feel inspired,” Clippard says. “We want them to come here and feel better — whether that be happier … or calmer … or more connected. And we want to spread that from here to other parts of the world.”

We curated our favorite images of the Wildflower Center in full bloom over the years, in the hopes that every reader will feel as if they had a chance to visit this spring. — Sofia Sokolove

A Maximilian sunflower, whose tall and leafy stems can grow up to 10 feet.

Johnson founded the Wildflower Center to inspire an appreciation for native plants. “For people to really see the environment around them for what it is, to connect with it, to help it, to foster it,” Clippard says.

Blooming purple coneflowers, mealy blue sage, and rudbeckia hirta (brown-eyed susan) greet spring visitors at the entrance to the Wildflower Center.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wildflower Center was closed completely for eight weeks. Since then, it has slowly eased back into operations, offering an outdoor, distanced sanctuary for visitors. One guest commented that it has been both their “gym and their church” this past year.

While spring is officially wildflower season, the center is open all year. More than 200,000 people visit annually.

There are around 5,000 species of native plants in Texas — of those, around 2,700 can be considered wildflowers.

From left: You’ve likely seen scarlet muskflower, or “devil’s bouquet,” as it is sometimes called, along roadsides and in fields in South Texas. Its red flowers open in the cool of evening before closing back up in the heat of the next day; Pink evening primroses (or “pink ladies”), square-bud primroses, and Texas bluebonnets carpet the ground in front of the center’s administration building every spring.
In the Wildflower Center’s Great Hall, visitors can find helpful explainers of what’s currently in season. Through education and outreach, the center teaches 15,000 adults and children annually.
The Wetland Pond features native Texas aquatic plants that only grow in water — plus gulf toads, ribbon snakes, and, in the spring, a great horned owl named Athena who has taken up residence in a sotol planter above the pond. Overall, the center has more than 1,800 insect species, 148 bird species, and 15 mammal species.
Thanks in part to a 16-acre arboretum, visitors can find more than 70 species of native Texas trees on-site, including cedar elms.
The top of the Observation Tower, which visitors can climb a spiral staircase to, doesn’t just offer a bird’s-eye view of the lush grounds — it’s also a 10,000-gallon cistern, part of the center’s 65,000-gallon rainwater storage system.

“In some ways we are a preserve and a conservation space in and of itself,” Clippard says. “We are a laboratory for showing people how we can interact positively with our environment, but we are also managing this environment for the future.”

The center hosts evening events with names like “Luminations” where the grounds are lit with luminarias and aimless strolling is encouraged.

All things University of Texas—sports, feature stories, alumni news, and more—from the magazine of the Texas Exes. Find more at alcalde.texasexes.org.

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