On Lady Bird Johnson, Beauty, and Tulips v. Daffodils



 Photo by John Taylor.  Title: Lady Bird’s Gift

Another great column by John Kelly for the Washington Post – this time about Lady Bird Johnson’s “beautification” program.

Lady Bird’s beautification campaign started in the spring of 1965. She was involved with a group called the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, which, among other things, aimed to improve hundreds of little oddly shaped parcels of land that dotted the District, and to build playgrounds. By the spring of 1966, 750,000 tulips and daffodils, 50,000 mums, 220,000 annuals, 3,000 roses, 12,000 azaleas, 2,400 cherry trees, 1,000 magnolias and 1,000 dogwoods had been planted in the District.

“She has contributed above all to a realization that this once beautiful land is being converted into a tunnel of concrete arched over with billboards and lined with beaten-up hamburger shacks and old automobile dumps.”

It’s easy to dismiss Lady Bird because of her focus on the aesthetic — pretty flowers — but she recognized that the environment shapes our lives. Being impoverished can mean more than just not having enough money. In the documentary, she says that all our landscape needs is “joyous use and good maintenance.” It’s a simple prescription worth keeping in mind today.


To joyous use!
It’s nice to be reminded of what she did and the philosophy behind it, especially her belief that all our landscape needs is “joyous use and good maintenance.”

To beauty!
Kelly says it’s “easy to dismiss Lady Bird’s focus on the aesthetic – pretty flowers!” Indeed, the desire for beauty in our yards is under attack these days, so it’s good to be reminded of the documented benefits of “beautification.”

To the documentary!
The occasion for the column about Lady Bird was a screening of A Life: The Story of Lady Bird Johnson” made by Charles Guggenheim in 1992. Thanks to the DC Environmental Film Festival.

Now about those plant choices…
Let’s look at the plants chosen in 1965, starting with tulips, which last how long? Still, I love them, and when I went looking for photos of some I stopped to swoon over the shot below of my former back yard, but naturalizing daffodils are a much better choice, given the limits of public funding. And I wonder – would mums, annuals or roses be used today? Or cherry trees, for that matter, of which this city has more than enough.

On Woodland Ave in Takoma Park, MD


  1. I hope you are right about the choice of tulips, mums and roses for public plantings in these days when environmental changes have brought about the loss of enormous number of wildlife, birds, butterflies and other species as well. We want our communal landscapes to be beautiful, but with our new knowledge it is also possible to have them support the local food web that provides for birds, butterflies and other creatures. We can do that by planting native plants. In their new book The Living Landscape Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy end with wonderful list of native plants, region by region, that will support wildlife. The list for the mid-Atlantic includes rhododendrons, spicebush, viburnams and even roses – R. blanda, R. Carolina, R. palustris, R setigera, R. virginiana – which provide pollen, nectar, food for wintering birds, food or breeding birds, food for spring migrating birds, food for caterpillars and mammals! This lists are long which gives home gardeners and municipal gardeners lots of choices.

  2. Some of Lady Bird’s choices, such as tulips, seem quaint in today’s more naturalistic planting environment, but I am glad she planted tulips, even if they wouldn’t be planted today. I’m grateful for Lady Bird’s vision for beautification and her recognition that our environment effects our lives for positively and negatively. I’ll look for the documentary to watch.

  3. Totally understand the comment about tulips, however on my last trip to D.C., when the tulips were in full bloom, it was just to beautiful. Few places plant en masse like that. I’m guilty too, ever since I realized the daffodils would both naturalize and not be stolen by squirrels.

  4. I’ve heard it said that one needs 3 things to be in harmony with the world: beauty, mystery and community. I can’t think of anything better than a garden to express those things.

  5. In Atlanta right now Spring is fully under way… today is cold – dogwood winter – and the dogwoods are still that murky moonrise color but will be fully white and glorious by next weekend. This week it’s the cherries. Those magnificent non-native clouds of blushing pink with their swirling flurry of tiny petals are the masters of joy right now and even the apartment dwellers and suburban commuters with little interest in what’s outside the windows will pause and be moved.
    What a shame, then, to deny the planting of those soul-stirring trees by the local tree-planting force because they aren’t native. Its only the homeowner who plants them and less and less these days because the word always is “plant native”.
    Forget that our densely built city isn’t “nature”. This is a human place and the humans that live here need some joy – for many reasons, including that we all need to be inspired to claim a better place for ourselves and imagine a beautiful place to live our lives. This is good for everyone and everything that lives.
    The dogwoods don’t get planted any more either, by the way – due mostly to a decades-old, un-substantiated scare about disease combined with over management of fringe areas with herbicides that squashed their continuation.
    And we don’t see alot of spirea or forsythia anymore either. These have been replaced with either nothing that flowers or natives that flower timidly and without fanfare.
    No southern child growing up decades ago is without an Easter picture of new suits and flouncy hats with a backdrop of stunning yellow forsythia or blinding white spirea, delicate pink flowering almond or shocking red quince.
    Somehow, gathering your kids to have their pictures made in front of a dingy fothergilla doesn’t seem very joyful.
    Lady Bird was right to call for joy. It matters. Those gardeners among us that apply illogical and stern dogma to the process and erase joy from the equation may be doing more harm than good.
    I’m enjoying tulips today.

    • I think there’s a place for non-native species in our landscapes, particularly in the harsh environments of our cities. In your post you didn’t throw all natives under the bus but I’ll still point out the primary benefit of natives to me. If many non-natives flower more showily than natives, our natives across the board attract more animals to them, especially insects. If I go to a well landscaped area and something just feels “off,” I usually end up realizing that there’s a noticeable lack of animal life. While I love and appreciate showy flowers I also value the motion, color, and behavior of insects, birds, and the occasional mammal. I hate being stuck in parks, yards, or city streets that just have that devoid-of-interactions-between-living-organisms feel.

  6. David, your post moved me too. I grow all sorts of out of zone beauties in pots. As an apartment dweller I don’t have to worry about the call to plant native, which is loud here in Austin too. I’m currently enjoying petunias in shrieking colors and a ridiculously out of zone Thunbergia laurifolia vine which is just getting going. I prefer these lush, colorful, exciting plants to the cactusey look of a lot of central Texas yards. Yes I water a lot 😉

  7. I grew up in St. Paul, Mn., where each spring we were blessed by the display of tulips in the garden of Mrs. Ritter on Summit Ave. It was a real joy and traffic stopper! Alas, when she and her husband, Bernard went to their heavenly rewards, the new owners of the estate had the tulips torn out and destroyed. They said they just couldn’t handle the attention of gawkers. Pity.

  8. My first realization of the benefits of native plants came from the 5 years that I lived in Texas in the early ’80s. All due to the fine research center and preservation work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. She spearheaded formal plantings in DC but she certainly was also a champion of native plants.

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