Texas Department of Transportation

Wildflower Program




In the book Texas in Bloom, from the Texas A&M University press based on photographs from "Texas Highways Magazine", Lady Bird Johnson states that in spring she likes to look, "upon the wonders of the Lord, and help, provided by the Texas Highway Department. They made peace years ago. "

They did indeed make peace years ago. To understand the present-day success and popularity of the wildflower program in Texas, it is important to understand how this peace treaty developed in the late 1920's and early 1930's.

After the Texas Highway Department was organized in 1917, it was soon realized that highways were never built on natural ground - it was either cut or fill. And in many cases, the first vegetation to reappear on the disturbed land was wildflowers. This was regarded as beneficial for erosion control and attractive in appearance, and thus, led to the recognition of a beautification heritage in 1929.

This awareness proved to be the single most important development in highway beautification in Texas. This awareness led to the maintenance, preservation, and encouragement of natural landscapes along highway rights-of-way when highway construction and auto transportation was still in its infancy.

In 1932, the first landscape architect was hired by the Department to make highway personnel, as well as the public, aware of landscape needs. He in turn, instilled pride in, and convinced all those concerned that landscape development along highways could be useful, aesthetically pleasing, and above all, practical.

By 1934, plans to shape the future beautification of Texas highways were being put into action. Directives were issued to delay all mowing, except safety mowing, of the right-of-way until the spring and early summer flowering season was over. Today, this policy is in its 60th year of practice and, in fact, has been expanded upon with a vegetative management system. This will be covered in more detail later.

Another planned procedure which occurs during maintenance and construction activities is the salvaging of topsoil, especially in wildflower habitats. One of the first steps during such activities is to remove a layer of topsoil to be stockpiled. Once the maintenance or construction work nears completion, this topsoil, which contains the wildflower seeds from previous seasons, is replaced over the area to provide future wildflower stands.

Since wildflower seeds were not available commercially by large quantities in the 1930's, plans were developed to gather wildflower seeds from prominent wildflower areas after securing written permission from landowners. This was accomplished by one of two methods. One by cutting the flower area with a sickle mower after the peak blooming period and before seeds had dropped. The mowed "flower hay" was then transported to the desired location and simply scattered over the ground.

Two, where it was permissible, a more successful method was to blade up a thin layer of topsoil containing the wildflower seeds and then transport the soil and seed to the new location. Of course one would leave enough seed in the original flower area to allow it to recover within a reasonable length of time.


Reports indicate that by 1940, an estimated 500,000 pounds of wildflower seed had been spread along the highways by these methods. These methods are still in use today, although commercial seed sources and contractors are rapidly gaining momentum making it economically feasible to sow the seed by modem methods such as hydro-seeding, broadcast seeding, or drill seeding. In fact, the Department now purchases and plants approximately 60,000 pounds of wildflower seed annually.

As a result of these wildflower propagation methods, today's wildflowers in Texas have become an economic factor in the tourist industry. A third tourist season has been growing for years as people are coming from all areas of the nation to see the color unfold each spring.

Many towns and cities have organized celebrations, festivals, and special events with the spring wildflower season as the main attraction.

April has become the most event-filled month of the year in Texas with arts and crafts shows, historic home tours, fiestas, antique car shows, performing art extravaganzas, fun runs, bicycle races, rodeos, and many other events that coincide with the spring wildflower season. Some examples include:


Ennis with its Bluebonnet Trails and Walkfest


Austin, Buchanan Dam, Bumet, Kingsland, Lampasas, Llano, and Marble Falls

which offer the Highland Lakes Bluebonnet Trails


Brenham with the Washington County Bluebonnet Trails


Chappell Hill which has a Bluebonnet Festival each year


Palestine, Quitman, and Woodville with the Dogwood Trail and Fiesta


Avinger, Hughes Springs, and Linden which have their

Annual Wildflower Trails of Texas


Kennedy with its Bluebonnet Days Festival each spring


The Yoakum Garden Gate Club which holds their Annual Wildflower Trail

each April.

Although there isn't any data or statistics available on the number of people or the dollars spent, one can certainly say that the crowds grow larger and the events increase in number and size each year.


As the popularity associated with wildflowers in Texas has increased over the past few decades, along came the seventies with Department personnel reductions and a difficult economic grip causing considerable concern for the future and a need to rethink some approaches to maintenance. Of course, the landscape architecture staff was concerned specifically with landscape responsibilities. Of major concern was the rapid rising cost of mowing operations paralleled with budget cuts. It was obvious that new and innovative methods were needed. These methods became known as the vegetation management system which was mentioned earlier.

Plans for the new vegetation management system were introduced by in-house landscape architects in 1982. The purpose of this program became three fold; one, to reduce the cost of maintenance and labor; two, to create a sound native vegetation community on highway right-of-way that is aesthetically pleasing; and three, to establish an unannounced right-of-way, one that blends rather than contrasts to its surroundings.



Being aware of the diverse climate, soil, and vegetation conditions across the state of Texas, it became apparent that the new mowing and herbicide policy would require close scrutiny. Therefore, a vegetation manager was assigned to each of the 24 highway districts. Following an education process, in January 1983, 24 counties (one county in each district) were selected to implement the system on a pilot basis. Studies in each of the 24 counties were conducted to document results, allow the public to critique samples, and influence skeptics. The big question that was asked over and over again as the analysis was being conducted was, "WHY ARE YOU MOWING?. The same type of question applied to herbicides. The answers established the criteria for the new vegetation management system that was mapped and followed for 1983.

Large urban areas, towns, rural areas, interstate highways, US highways, state highways, farm to market and ranch to market roads all have different mowing and herbicide requirements. Types of mowing include: shoulder strip, safety, transition, full width, non-mow, and cutting heights for various vegetation. Types of herbicide applications include: edge of pavement treatment, guardrail treatment, curb, delineator and sign post treatment, and overspray for undesirable plants. The combination of all these ingredients gave us the new vegetation management system.

The first year's results in the 24 pilot counties reduced cost on an average of 23.1% in 1983. Total mowing cost in Texas for 1982 on approximately 1,054,000 acres was over $32 million dollars. As you can see, the savings can be very significant. The results in appearance were also very dramatic. Many summer and fall wildflowers appeared that had been suppressed by continuous mowing.

Desirable native grasses, because they did not lose their vigor, flourished and competed well with undesirable species. The right-of-way did not take on an unkempt appearance as some skeptics had warned. Therefore, public acceptance of this undertaking has been dramatically positive.

For the success of such a program, it is essential that native vegetation, including wildflowers, be utilized to the fullest extent possible. We know that following ecological range management principals of plant succession, a healthy plant community is aesthetically pleasing, self-sustaining, and able to resist invasions of undesirable species such as Johnson grass. It is due to these invasions of undesirables that mowing and herbicide treatment become imperative.

This program rapidly gained attention at the national level due to the efforts of Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Representative J. J. (Jake) Pickle of Texas. In 1984, they co-sponsored legislation calling for a percentage of the federal highway landscaping cost to be used for the -planting of wildflowers along the nation's highways. This amendment, which is known as Operation Wildflower, was passed by Congress and is part of the Federal Highway Bill.

Senator Bentsen stated that he was inspired in formulating this measure by the beautification projects of Lady Bird Johnson; and was further encouraged after reviewing the savings experienced by the Texas Department of Transportation with the new vegetation management system experiments of 1983.

Citing Texas as an example, Senator Bentsen said drivers and their passengers may be, "uplifted by the unique contribution of wildflowers indigenous to that part of the country through which they are traveling"; and "the wildflowers also would mean millions of dollars saved at a time when both state and federal governments are looking hard for ways to hold down spending.

Senator Bentsen also said he would urge Congress to follow the lead of the former first lady, "in beautifying our nation's highways and conserving a valuable national resource, while at the same time achieving significant financial savings."



Lady Bird Johnson's support and appreciation for beautification efforts in Texas by highway personnel was demonstrated through her generous establishment of the Lady Bird Johnson Award and the Lady Bird Johnson Scenic Preservation Award. The first Lady Bird Johnson Award was presented in, 1970 to honor the maintenance supervisors at the county level who had made the most significant contribution to the aesthetic pleasure and recreation opportunities for the traveling public. The winner of the annual event receives $1000 and a plaque while the runner-up receives $500 and a certificate.

The Lady Bird Johnson Scenic Preservation Award was presented to the Highway District whose employees contributed most significantly to the natural scenic beauty of Texas highways through the preservation of native annual and perennial plant species and natural topography by right-of-way purchase, alignment, design, construction, and maintenance. This award is memento of appropriate design.

Each year, the annual awards event has brought the much appreciated public support and awareness to Texas highway beautification efforts.

In 1990, after 20 years, Mrs. Johnson retired from sponsoring these awards. However, Mr. Robert Lanier, a former Highway Department commissioner, and his wife offered to continue sponsoring the Awards. The Awards are now known as the Highway Beautification Award and the Environmental Achievement Award.

Due to economic uncertainty of the 1970s, many of the old wildflower planting techniques have waned and a new vegetative management system has been introduced, but the wildflowers of Texas are more popular than ever, and equally as important.

The philosophy of the program in Texas at the present time is one whereby the Department not only plants and increases wildflower areas, but, more importantly, protects and maintains the existing investment of the past years.