Inspired by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
I've just returned from a visit to Austin, Texas, where we spent a delightful afternoon at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The Center attracts over 10,000 visitors a year to its 279 acres of gardens, fields, trails, and educational displays of native wildflowers and plantings. The Center also conducts research and projects ranging from local to international in scope. I was deeply inspired not only by the beauty of the plantings, but also by the Center's passionate commitment to its mission of increasing the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants, and landscapes.
Why native plants are so important
You may be asking, “What is a native plant?”
Native plants are those plants—mosses, ferns, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, and trees— that are indigenous or naturalized to a specific geographical area. They may also be defined as plants that existed in their location without human introduction. They add beauty to the landscape, of course, but they also have adapted to regional soils and climates, even harsh conditions at times, and they therefore tend to need less water, fewer added nutrients, and minimal pesticides. When a plant has been in its ecosystem for a long period of time, it is heartier and has become integral to the food chain and important to the ecological health of the entire region.
From a purely cultural perspective, native plants are part of the identity of an area. Lady Bird Johnson expressed this beautifully when she said, “Wherever I go in America, I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent…native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours.”
I learned from the Center displays that besides being excellent choices for any landscape, both residential and commercial, native plants have other benefits such as their potential source of food and medicines. Research in these areas is ongoing.
Native plants are in danger
According to Center literature, “North American native plants are disappearing at an alarming rate due to human activities, such as urban development, agribusiness and the introduction of invasive species. The loss of native plant communities has reduced wildlife habitat and the genetic diversity necessary for balanced ecosystems.” Here in Virginia, there are many foreign plants that have become a real menace, such as the Ailanthus tree, the Kudzu vine, Johnson grass, and the Multiflora “wild” rose. They take over and suffocate the native plants unless they are carefully and persistently managed. [Note: if you want to find a list of invasive species for your state, do a web search for “invasive + species + your state” or “invasive + plants + your state.”]
Where can I find native plants?
Hopefully, there are native plants in the fields, woods, and roadsides all around you, but you may not recognize them until you begin to learn about them. There are two fantastic places to do this: your local nurseries and your closest arboretum. Stroll through and read the identification labels. Ask someone to show you the native species.
Be on the lookout for classes being given by Master Gardeners or by your local Cooperative Extension Service office (U.S. Department of Agriculture). CLICK HERE to find one near you.
Can I plant native plants in my yard?
Absolutely, and this is an important step towards the restoration of native plants throughout the country. Make sure you acquire them wisely, however. Never dig up wild plants from their environment. This can be harmful for three reasons:
- You're depleting the natural population and reducing diversity in that area.
- You're creating a vacuum that nature is likely to fill with an invasive plant or weed.
- Plants collected in the wild are often too fragile to thrive in your garden.
You're much better off to purchase plants that have been propagated in a nursery or grown from wild collected seeds. They are much more likely to survive transplanting. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website has national directory links for both native plant suppliers as well as native plant organizations (everything from arboretums to garden clubs). In each directory, just enter your state or zip code to find suppliers or organizations near you.
Why I'm intrigued with native plants and wildflowers
Stick with me here as I explore why I felt so alive and inspired by being made more aware of the importance of native plants and wildflowers. The connection I felt in the Wildflower Center was deep and spiritual. This may be because the loss of native species reminded me of the damage done when native peoples and native animals have been removed from their natural environment by force or by annihilation. On a happier note, it also brought back memories of walks in the woods with my mother and an elderly friend we children called Cousin Emily. They both recognized and pointed out plants and flowers along the way, introducing them to us as they might introduce a cherished friend. As some of these became familiar to me, I had that same warm feeling of recognition when I next greeted them in my walks or travels.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that all living creatures—both plants and animals, including humans—are connected in a giant invisible web that is both incredibly strong and frighteningly fragile. In exploring and understanding these connections, we experience the joy of being part of a great whole, and we discover ways to nourish and protect our little corner of the web.
Make no mistake, while nature is amazingly resilient, I believe we are assaulting her and abusing her at an unsustainable rate throughout the world. I understand those who want to share the scary statistics and shame us into being better stewards of our Mother Earth. But I believe the way to more balanced and sustainable practices is to help people strengthen their connection with the natural world around them so they come to know and love the plants and flowers and trees as they would people. I was impressed and thrilled that the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center seems to be accomplishing this very effectively.
We care most for those whom we've taken the time to know. From caring comes love, and from love comes the will to nourish and protect.
THAT is why it's so important to get to know the other living things that share our world. Whether we realize it or not, we are connected, and our own well-being depends on the strength of that connection. Take small steps towards becoming more familiar with the natural world right in your own back yard. Finding out about plants and wildflowers that are native to your area is a wonderful and fun way to begin.
Below and above are some iPhone pix from my visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I apologize that I didn't document the names, but the photo at the bottom is one of the famous Texas Bluebonnets: