Lady Bird Johnson worked hard to beautify America's busy highways.

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Wildflowers in a mountain meadow are a gift of nature. But what about those wildflowers blooming along busy highways? Well, nature had a helper.

As the wife of our thirty-sixth President, Lyndon B. Johnson, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson wanted beauty to be a national priority. “Americans spend a lot of time traveling the highways,” said the former First Lady. “That’s why it’s so important to make them as beautiful as possible.”

Lady Bird Johnson's Wildflower Program

Lady Bird loves wildflowers. As a little girl growing up in “deep east Texas, wildflowers helped her get through lonely times. Her mother had died when Lady Bird was five years old, and her father spent most of his time at the general store he owned. Her older brothers were away at school, so Lady Bird turned to nature for company.

“Nature was my friend and my teacher,” she says. “It was a joy to me, and it’s never failed me.”

Lady Bird loved to roam the woods. With the crush of pine needles under her feet and the wind whispering overhead, she would search for the wild violets and daffodils of spring. Then, in her own little ceremony, she would crown the first one “the queen.” Though she was alone, she wasn’t lonely; wildflowers were her playmates.

After high school, Lady Bird left home for the University of Texas in Austin. Again she found joy in nature—in the vast quantities of Texas bluebonnets that covered the fields and roadsides of the Hill Country. She delighted in going on picnics and explorations with friends.

It was there that Lady Bird met and fell in love with a handsome young congressional aide named Lyndon Baines Johnson. He proposed to her on their first date.

Lady Bird was in Dallas, Texas, with her husband on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Shortly after that terrible tragedy, Vice-President Johnson became President, and Lady Bird Johnson became First Lady of the land she loves so much.

The job of the First Lady is not defined in the Constitution. Each First Lady has to create that role for herself. Lady Bird wasn't at all sure what her own role should be.

“The whole country selects the President,” Lady Bird said, “but only one man selects the First Lady—and it is highly unlikely that he was thinking of her as First Lady when he proposed!”

One day in May of 1964, Lady Bird was listening to her husband speak at the University of Michi-gan. He talked about the gradual disappearance of “America the Beautiful” due to land development and pollution. “And once man can no longer walk with beauty and wonder at nature,” he said, “his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

Listening to his words, Lady Bird remembered her childhood joy of playing in the woods with the wildflowers. She remembered how nature had been her friend. An idea began to form in her mind: As First Lady, she could do something to help keep America beautiful. She could make sure that children would always know the joy of wildflowers.

Lady Bird went right to work. She persuaded the President to propose a Highway Beautification Act that provided controls for billboards and junkyards along highways and allocated money to landscape roadsides. The act was passed in 1965.

Then the First Lady started visiting wilderness areas. Reporters and photographers followed as she rafted down the Rio Grande and hiked in the Redwood National Forest. She wanted Americans to wake up to the beauty of their heritage—to see what would be lost if they didn’t act to preserve it.

“Wherever I go in America,” said Lady Bird, “I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent. Texas should look like Texas, and Mississippi like Mississippi.” She realized that each part of the country has its own flavor—and its own native wildflowers.

Lady Bird pointed out that many wildflowers, like people, were immigrants. “They crossed the nation on the wheels of covered wagons, on the hooves of Spanish horses, perhaps even in the pockets of children.”

In 1969 a new President took office, and the Johnsons moved back to Texas. But Lady Bird didn’t stop preaching about roadside beautification. Instead, she started the Lady Bird Johnson Award for Highway Beautification, which gave prizes each year to maintenance crews who planted and cared for wildflowers and native plants along the Texas roadways. Today more than a million miles of Texas roadways are edged with wildflowers.

On her seventieth birthday, in 1982, Lady Bird started the National Wildflower Research Center (now called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) in Austin, Texas. The center encourages people to landscape with native plants and wildflowers. Information is given out regarding which plants are appropriate for planting in each region of the United States, along with advice on how to grow them.

But Lady Bird’s influence had an even farther-reaching effect. In 1987 Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen persuaded Congress to pass a bill requiring states to use part of their highway landscaping money to plant native wildflowers along their roadways.

Lady Bird is no longer First Lady of the land, but she is certainly our First Lady of wildflowers. She has made us see that highways can be beautiful. And she is the reason why wildflowers now brighten our travels through almost every state.