Gardeners plant flower gardens in their backyards, but Mother Nature loves to plant flower gardens along the highways and by-ways. I am often surprised by how many flowers thrive in sandy soil and survive the salting of roads in winter. I drive around town and I see familiar flowers in Mother Nature’s gardens like orange daylilies, blue chicory and Queen Anne ’s lace.
While I enjoy roadside gardens, it was Lady Bird Johnson who took the appeal and usefulness of these gardens to a whole new level. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson promoted the passing of the Highway Beautification Act, but this legislation, more informally known as Lady Bird’s Bill because of her promoting the idea of beautiful highways, changed the landscape as new national highways were being established in every direction in those years. As far as I can tell that bill and all its many subsequent amendments mostly had to do with placement of advertising billboards and junk yards.
I can well imagine Mrs. Johnson being happy to have those eyesores removed, but it is also clear to me from my own memories of those days that she thought beauty in the form of flowers, along the highways, and everywhere else, could make the world better and people happier. She once wrote in her diary,”The subject of Beautification is like a tangled skein of wool, the threads are interwoven—recreation and pollution and mental health and the crime rate and rapid transit and highway beautification and the war on poverty and parks … everything leads to something else.”
Because of her belief in the power of beauty in 1982 Mrs. Johnson and the actress Helen Hayes created a wildflower center in East Austin with the goal of restoring the beauties of the landscape and preserving all the native wildflowers of that area and throughout our whole country.
I am very happy to say that Lady Bird Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1977. The citation for her medal read: “One of America’s great First Ladies, she claimed her own place in the hearts and history of the American people. In councils of power or in homes of the poor, she made government human with her unique compassion and her grace, warmth and wisdom. Her leadership transformed the American landscape and preserved its natural beauty as a national treasure.”
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has grown over the years and is now operated by the University of Texas at Austin. I got to visit the Wildflower Center during my Texas trip early this spring. I visited my daughter and her family, and then toured gardens with 94 other garden bloggers. I spent about half an hour among the Wildflower Center gardens snapping photos of native Texas area flowers as fast as possible because the weather was threatening and it did not take long for the skies to open. Torrential rains fell. Along with my sister garden bloggers I ran to the Wildflower Center gift shop where we spent the next hour looking at books about Texas wildflowers, earrings in the shape of honeybees or butterflies, jars of honey (would we have to give them up at the airport as possible bomb material?), beflowered socks and hats and scarves, dishes with flower designs, flowered umbrellas and just about every other flower item you can imagine.
During my brief time in the gardens I was happy to see that the flower beds included lots of labels. While many of the plants would not grow in New England, many of them would be perfectly happy in Massachusetts: bee balm, coreopsis, gaillardia (blanket flower), gayfeather (liatris), fleabane and others.
Our tour bus drove us through the continuing rain to our next garden. We all paid particular attention to the medians and verges along the highway this time as we looked at the native plants growing among the grasses in these unmown spaces. This is the kind of beauty that Lady Bird Johnson was hoping for as highway beautification. At least that is my memory.
I am disappointed that we don’t have that kind of beautification along our Massachusetts highways. I understand that we don’t want invasive plants like knotweed pulling down our sound barriers, or tall plants dangerously interfering with sight lines. However, many perennial native plants and grasses are not very tall. Neither are they invasive, although they will return again the following year. In addition, I would think money could be saved by having an annual autumn mowing, instead of multiple mowings that certainly keep the I-91 median very neat.
Even without highway “gardens” we are fortunate in our rural area to enjoy Mother Nature’s gardens as we drive along our lesser highways. Great banks of Queen Anne’s Lace grow along the roads providing a really great show. At this time of year they are often joined by drifts of goldenrod, both of them attracting hoards of bees and other insects who are collecting pollen and nectar. We don’t have to drive far to see and enjoy these gardens, especially in summer and fall.###
Between the Rows August 4, 2018