Former first lady Laura Bush is following the wildflower-lined path of Lady Bird Johnson as a staunch advocate of native plants, wildlife and conserving the natural beauty of Texas.
“I always really admired Lady Bird Johnson,” Bush said recently at an event at Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. “Her efforts to use native plants really showed us that how we are naturally is enough. And the way our state is, is pretty enough, beautiful enough, with our own native plants and native wildflowers.”
In what she and her husband President George W. Bush call “the afterlife,” the former first lady founded Texan By Nature, an Austin-based nonprofit that aims to conserve native habitats and resources in Texas through partnerships with businesses, schools, faith-based organizations and the scientific community.
One of the organization’s big areas of focus is preserving the declining monarch butterfly population. Its Monarch Wrangler program is a statewide initiative to create habitats that are essential to the butterfly, and Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas was recently named the newest partner. The park has removed invasive species and planted a garden full of milkweed plants to attract the pollinators. They are also offering educational programming on the monarch migration, including seedball making and butterfly tagging.
Bush visited the park in October to see the efforts in person, and said the gardens are a great example of what people can do in their own yards.
“What people can see here … are the landscape plants that are native, that will bring butterflies to your own yard but that also are pretty,” Bush said.
The garden at Klyde Warren Park includes 350 milkweed plants, 200 of which were donated by Monarch Watch. They have natives such as green milkweed and Antelope Horns milkweed, plus the non-native tropical milkweed. There is some local controversy over whether or not the tropical milkweed interferes with monarch migration and keeps the butterflies in place longer than they should. Monarch Joint Venture advises that it be cut down in the fall, but others say it’s OK to leave it because it freezes.
“Monarch numbers are down and we know that, and we’re not sure why,” Bush said. “I think a lot of it could be fragmentation of land. There’s been a lot of development and fragmentation of native property. But we can all help by planting native plants.”
Other native plants at Klyde Warren Park include Texas red yucca, mealy blue sage, Texas mountain laurel, Salvia greggii and several varieties of native grasses.
The Bushes planted native grasses at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas and have been working the last four years to restore native prairie at their ranch in Crawford.
“We’ve had to plow for four years, the coastal Bermuda that the rancher had sown, which is an asset for a rancher, but we wanted native,” Bush said. “Our native plant man bought up little remnants of intact prairie that he had seen around there, and first we took seed from that intact prairie.”
Now they have about 100 acres restored and propagate their own seed. They also propagated Antelope Horns milkweed, a native plant.
Bush, a native of Midland, is mindful of arid climates and water usage, which is a key reason to use native plants.
“Midland is Far West Texas, it’s virtually desert,” she said. “We’re arid. Remember that and plant the things that will grow there in an arid climate like half of our state is.”
There are challenges in getting people to embrace usage of native plants. Bush recalled a neighbor near the presidential library at Southern Methodist University who called to complain about the lawn and requested it be mowed. But the grasses at the library stand up to a lot of wear, need to be mowed about three times a year, and are watered only with collected rainwater.
Various native plants sales are held in the spring and fall at places like Texas Discovery Gardens and the Heard Museum in McKinney, but the plants can sometimes be difficult to find at nurseries. “They are becoming easier to find because people ask for them,” Bush said. “You need to make sure you tell the store owners and managers that you want native, and they’ll make an effort to buy.”