The Legacy of Ladybird Johnson


Time to pause and reflect on the life and good works of Ladybird Johnson, as reported so very well by the Washington Post in the past week.Ladybird2_2  First up is fashion writer Robin Givhan:

She had an appreciation for beauty and its potential to instill pride in people, to comfort them and to bring them joy.  Her focus was not on the rarefied world of museums and symphonies, but beauty in a far more democratic form: nature.

With her death Wednesday at 94, much has been said about her dogged determination to see tulips and daffodils brighten the Washington landscape and to coax wildflowers to bloom along the country’s highways.  Notice that she was entranced by wildflowers, not painstakingly cultivated antique roses or finicky orchids.  She marveled at the kinds of flowers that often fade into the background.

Givhan went on to take a stand herself, urging the fashion industry to strive for pretty clothes that can be worn by any woman, not just Cameron Diaz.  Great idea.  Never happen.

And I love this tidbit about how Ladybird, who had the misfortune to follow Jackie Kennedy as First Lady, adjusted to the public eye, "She trimmed down to a size 10, learned to use flattering make-up, but never managed to keep her stockings from sagging at the ankles."  I knew I liked her.

Next, from an appreciation by Ann Gerhart:

She hated the word beautification. It sounded sissified, she always said. She focussed on the health and pathology of the world we inhabit.  After riots erupted, she planted daffodils. Yet she carried out her vision not through garden-club fluttering but through a flurry of legislation."

Garden club fluttering?  Speaking as a former garden club president, that hurts.  But does it reflect a bias against this traditionally female social institution or are garden clubs really still just fluttering (and judging silly displays of single flowers in glass jars?  There you see my own bias.)

Garden writer Adrian Higgins also writes that Mrs. Johnson hated the word beautification because it trivializes what she was trying to do. 

She helped organize the facelift of much of Washington’s civic spaces through mass plantings of spring bulbs and flowering tres and shrubs; vestiges of that floral blitzkrieg linger even as other major U.S. cities today have far outpaced Washington in their commitment to greening. 

So, I finally see in print the assertion that our capital city is lagging behind other major U.S. cities in going green.  I immediately fired off a message to DC’s enviro Yahoo group:  "DC Not Green?" asking if people agree and if so, what can be done?  Just asking.

Higgins also mentioned that the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas
is working with the American Society of Landscape Architects and the U.S. Botanic Garden "to develop standards and guidelines for
certifying sustainable green landscapes in the same way that buildings
now are certified by the U.S. Green Building Council."  The program’s
aimed at large landscape projects  like public parks, highway
plantings, and office parks; see Sustainable Sites for more details.  Judging from how quickly the Green Building Council’s LEED ratings for environmental sensitivity are becoming de rigeur for developers, similiar standards for landscaping could have a huge impact.  We’ll stay tuned. 

But there’s more big news from the Wildflower Center.  They’re working to develop a
web-based carbon footprint calculator to help in designing
environmentally sustainable landscapes.  But get this: Higgins quotes a Wilderflower Center staffer saying, "We are finding that in many cases [meadow] grasses
may be more effective in sequestering carbon than forests."  So, like the arguments now rampant in the food industry over distances traveled, hothouses and oil-based fertilizers, it looks like the landscaping world faces some food fights of our own between competing interest groups. 

Finally, an article about Mrs. Johnson’s impact on D.C. included lists of parks and schools she had a hand in improving and made this important point:

In Johnson’s view, what she was trying to do was much more significant than merely making things look nice.  Beautification had to do with combating pollution, halting urban decay, providing recreational opportunities, attending to critizens’ mental health needs, developing public transporation and addressing the rising crime rate."

Someone from the nonprofit group Washington Parks & People is quoted:

When she talked about beautification and the environment, she was talking about forgotten natural places and forgotten people.  She connected the two.  She really was the person who founded the urban environmental movement.

Was Mrs. Johnson’s role as an environmental pioneer – right up there with Rachel Carson – widely known before this week?  No matter.  Her legacy is now clear.

From these stories we start to see the impact this steel magnolia had on the Washington, D.C. area.  For stories of her good works in Texas, we’ll have to ask our Austin readers.


  1. I never knew this much about her but always associated her with flowers. Such a contrast to hubbie.

    Thank you for giving us all these excerpts. It is a splendid legacy.

  2. Thanks for opening my eyes to all that this wonderful nature-loving woman did to encourage the greening of our schools and municipalities. She is as lovely and unpresumptuous as the wildflowers she prefered. We need to know more about people like her.

  3. I’ve read that she saved the inspirational Enchanted Rock, in the Hill Country, from developers, and she led the beautification of Town Lake ( that is the centerpiece of downtown Austin today. She also lobbied against billboards, which tarnish views along the nation’s highways.

    In Austin she was well loved, and on the day of her funeral a huge crowd gathered downtown to see her off. As the hearse and the family’s cars drove from Austin to Johnson City, where she was to be buried, her fans lined the route with signs saying things like, “Thank you, Lady Bird.” It was very moving.

  4. I am so thankful for your notes about Lady Bird Johnson. I do remember the countryside before her influence and more importantly the attitude before. She helped influence all of us to take care of and clean up our own space and so many projects were developed as a result of her determination: the “don’t litter” campaign, the “adopting a roadside” to keep clean, the regulations on billboards, and of course, the flowers and importance of native wildflowers to name a few.
    I would agree that between she and Rachel Carson, our world is a better place. Two women who believed stongly, influenced each of us and are more appreciated through the years. They truly have left this world a better place.
    It’s a wonderful thought to imagine her enjoyment of the Garden Rant and Manifesto. I believe she would have happily worn the “shut up and dig” t-shirt with pride!

  5. Hold on now, LBJ is kind of a mixed bag of a President. We do have him to thank for a lot of advances in Civil Rights… He just should’ve stayed in the Senate.

    God Bless Lady Bird is what I say. We need someone like her in the organic movement — someone who never hectored or preached, but just quietly won everybody over.

    I watched the funeral on TV, listened to speeches on the radio and proudly drove around with my Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center membership sticker on my car. Since Ann Richards and Mollie Ivins died this year too, the Texas Good Ol’ Gal ranks are feeling mighty thin.

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