Adventure Travel in Austin's Own Backyard

Just south of downtown Austin, the beauty and majesty of Texas native plants are in full effect at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “Well, the bluebonnets have come and gone, but the wildflower center looks spectacular right now [early June]—awash with giant coneflowers and Indian blanket and just a whole host of other wildflowers blooming,” says Damon Waitt, the center’s senior director and botanist. Yet, aside from the acres of wildflower meadows and the gardens bursting with more than 650 different native plant species, many people don’t realize the various other activities this local treasure has to offer, or for that matter, how close to town (just 10 short miles away) it actually is. 

The Center hosts a variety of rotating art exhibits and educational events, as well as scenic walking trails snaking the grounds—including a brisk one-mile hike to the 16-acre Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum where visitors can enjoy the surroundings in a more personal way.

“Amongst the really magnificent live oaks and post oaks there are picnic areas and swings,” Waitt says. “Coming out for a stroll in the morning or the early evening is always a good idea—a good activity with opportunities for exercise.”

What’s more, the center recently opened the Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin Family Garden, named for the project’s lead donors: the younger daughter and son-in-law of Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird Johnson. 

“A lot of us had the great fortune to grow up in the country or in rural areas,” says Horticulture Director Andrea DeLong-Amaya, who was part of the team that designed the new garden as a central part of the center’s master plan in 2005. “[As a child,] I would just take off all day and, you know, say, See ya!” she says. “Most kids, especially in urban areas, don’t really have that opportunity anymore to just explore on their own and see how the world works.” 

This new 4.5-acre space offers an array of interactive exhibits for all ages, including a three-quarter-acre, native-grass play-lawn framed by fun exercise equipment; human-scale bird’s nests and wooden eggs; a living “Metamorphosis Maze” that documents the life cycle of a frog; a “Stumpery” filled with logs that can be climbed on and examined for earwigs; as well as a man-made grotto with a waterfall, streams and a working hand pump to allow children to spill water through porous limestone, on plants and even on each other. And there are secrets to be discovered throughout, such as climbable lifelike sculptures of native animals, high-interest native plants (including sweet-scented chocolate flowers or sensitive briars that shrink away at the slightest touch) and even a mud-pie-making area complete with baking tins and scoops. “Our previous gardens don’t cater to kids so much,” says DeLong-Amaya. “We want to have younger families and kids, and to really inspire the next generation to be involved with nature more.”

Perhaps one of the most important reasons to visit the center, though, might not be immediately apparent to guests, but attendants are quick to enlighten. Delivered via the blooming, budding, verdant grounds, there dwells a critical crash course in water conservation for growers and gardeners of all skill levels. “It’s important for people to see what that looks like firsthand, because if they adopt some of the practices, they can save water,” says Waitt. “There are practical reasons to come out to the wildflower center in addition to the aesthetic and spiritual ones.” —Nicole Lessin

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