I started the National Wildflower Research Center on my 70th birthday, which was Dec. 22, 1982. I just got to thinking that all my life I have loved flowers, and all my life duty has beckoned in other directions. Now there aren’t that many active years left. All my years of trying to help Lyndon are over. The LBJ Library is well established. The LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas is doing all right too. The River Park beautification project in Austin, along the lower banks of the Colorado, is finished and furnishing a lot of pleasure to people. My children, my grandchildren and my family business are on a pretty even keel. If I were going to do anything on my own, I figured it was now.
So I gave 60 acres of land about nine or 10 miles east of Austin and $125,000. We put together a marvelous bunch of trustees, people who had worked with me in the beautification days in the White House, like Laurance Rockefeller and Mary Lasker. Our aim—it’s the passion of my life—is to encourage the use of native plants, trees, shrubs and wildflowers in the landscaping plans of the country. We have two greenhouses, a lot of experimental plots, and do a lot of monitoring, record keeping and research. We learn each season, although, Lord, there is so much to do.
We encourage the propagation of wildflowers whether along roadsides, in public parks, on the roughs of golf courses or around the entrances of these big leisure-home developments that are burgeoning all over the country. Of course, it leads you to a very regional expression, which just suits me right down to the ground. Can you imagine Georgia without dogwood, Mississippi without magnolia or Texas without the bluebonnet? I want to keep our national heritage, our wildflowers and native plants, alive for the generations that follow us. As rapidly as our population is growing, we could sure just take over their habitats, and our beautiful native flowers would be gone like the passenger pigeon.
To establish wildflowers is not hard, but it’s chancy and not immediate. You just don’t do it in the flash of an eye, in one season. But once established, wildflowers require less maintenance, little or no herbicides and pesticides, no fertilizer and for heaven’s sake, don’t mow until they’ve gone to seed. They also can get along on the water that the Lord sends. And since water is a crucial thing in lots of states, it is good to have flowers that can survive and do fairly well on less water.
I guess I’ve just always been interested in flowers. There was a garden at the brick house in Karnack, Texas, where I grew up. But I cannot say that I physically ever did any of the work. We had lots of flags—which are iris—and daffodils. Each spring I would call the first daffodil that bloomed “the princess.” Children have to make up games if they live way out in the country and don’t have playmates.
I roamed the woods and fields and country lanes by myself. Mother was dead and Daddy was a very busy man. I early became acquainted with the dogwood, which the piney woods were full of in East Texas. When I went to the University of Texas in Austin in 1930, I distinctly remember bluebonnets on the campus with bright red poppies among them.
On Nov. 17, 1934, I married Lyndon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, a town that I love. I did not carry any flowers because although we had been discussing marriage for six weeks, I really didn’t say firmly “yes” until that morning. Then we started driving from Daddy’s home in Karnak to San Antonio. Lyndon had to get the license and the ring and the minister, which he did by long-distance telephone to a friend. He had already bought me an engagement ring from an Austin jeweler, and it was a matched set. He wanted to buy the wedding ring at the same time, but I wasn’t sure enough to take that step. You can give back an engagement ring, but you can’t give back a wedding ring. So just before the wedding Lyndon told his friend to go across the street from the church to the closest store and buy an inexpensive one because we were going to get the matching one later. Lyndon’s friend told me he got it from Sears and Roebuck for $2.98.
Our first seven or eight years in Washington we lived in a series of apartments, the first a tiny one on Kalorama Road. But in November 1942 we bought a house on the same block as the Peruvian Embassy and right across the street from J. Edgar Hoover’s house. We had a vegetable garden in the backyard and marvelous, marvelous peonies—oh, they were to dream about!—and an apple tree that blew over in a storm. I loved it so much I called a nurseryman and got him to come back and prop it up. He said, “I don’t see why you want to do that; it probably won’t live.” And I said, “You just stake it up and it will live.” It did. It was still there about 15 years later when I left.
Lyndon liked me to have what I wanted, but I cannot truly say that he noticed my flower garden much. I did some of the gardening myself, but always, whenever I could find someone to do work for me, I got them. I like things that give you the most color for the least work. I would always put in zinnias and marigolds for cutting to bring into the house and put in daffodils of every kind for the springtime. We had lilacs and we had a pink dogwood tree. I love flowers on the tables. It gives you a feeling of fullness and satisfaction to say, “These came out of my garden.”
When Lyndon was President, I certainly let it be known that I hoped for the passage of the Highway Beautification Bill. I thought it was desirable because the highways belong to all of us. To have long corridors of advertisements on each side of the road took away from the aesthetic experience of traveling by car.
But Lyndon is the one who did the real politicking. I don’t remember having telephoned anybody, although I dared to talk about it to the good friends who came my way at social events, acquaintances even, and members of Congress. I am just not that aggressive. But it was my idea. You see, I am an enjoyer, a lover of this land, and it didn’t occur to me that I could have an influence on a national trend or even on anybody except my next-door neighbor. But when you are in the White House, it begins to dawn on you, as Theodore Roosevelt always said, that it is a “bully pulpit.”
Looking back I wouldn’t take all the money in the world for the marvelous opportunity we had in the White House. I loved it. But it is just like asking, as soon as you get down from Mount Everest, “Would you want to climb it again?” No. “Would you want to repeat?” No. But it’s nice to remember.