Most people think to visit Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in the spring, when Mother Nature rolls out her most outrageous show of color.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is at 4801 La Crosse Ave. in Austin. Call 512/232-0100.
In March and April, after all, brilliant fields of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, yellow coreopsis, sunny black-eyed Susans, and cheery pink evening primroses entertain the senses and beckon visitors to explore.But for me, the Wildflower Center is a secret winter-time refuge.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the audacious vernal pageantry that former First Lady Mrs. Johnson adored and worked so diligently to protect. But the cool temperatures and shorter days of winter bring a more subtle and serene sense of beauty. Winter is all about contrasting textures, longer shadows, and the peaceful solace that nature offers when at rest. It’s not all a muted palette of gray, tan, and dusky green, either—I love the surprise of scarlet possumhaw holly berries and the gentle swaying of golden grasses in the breeze. On a crisp, chilly day, my favorite thing to do is meander the center’s network of trails, where swishing seas of Mexican feathergrass and seedy stems of inland sea oats lull me into wintertime meditation. Without the flowers to distract me, the jagged spears of agaves and sotols make me think of soldiers standing at attention with bayonets. I even notice the peeling, two-toned bark of a persimmon tree, a detail I’d missed in the fall, when leaves and tangerine-colored fruits filled the tree’s branches. If I’m lucky, I might catch a glimpse of a roadrunner or a rabbit scampering along the Arboretum Trail. Good thing the café has hot chocolate to warm me up.
After strolling the grounds, I always make time to browse the gift shop, which is chock-full of beautiful items that showcase Texas’ natural beauty and celebrate Texas artisans, including books, nature-oriented toys and clothing, jewelry, candles, soaps studded with Texas wildflowers, and home-décor items like locally made wind chimes.
As I browse, I pause to admire the organic shape and design of a palm-size russet and blue ceramic bowl imprinted with the leaves of lantana, cedar elm, and other native plants. The shell-shaped feet look just like the ones my girls and I collect on the beach at Port Aransas.
Handmade by artist Mary Fulton in Wimberley, the piece ($34.95) is part of a series of decorative yet functional bowls, platters, and vases that Mary calls her “Agaritaville Pottery.” She creates the pieces by pressing native leaves, twigs, and blossoms into wet clay; the plant parts burn off when the pottery is fired. Mary also sculpts pecans, acorns, shells, and other shapes that serve as feet or decorations.
“My work is inspired by my love of the outdoors,” says Mary, who has volunteered as a gardener at the Wildflower Center for about eight years. “I don’t use a wheel, because I enjoy the process of building pottery by hand, with shapes taken from nature. I use slab, coil, and pinch construction methods, and each piece incorporates natural materials.
“My work as a gardener at the Wildflower Center has led me to want to preserve the wonderful variety of leaf and flower patterns,” Mary adds. “The clay does an amazing job of capturing all of the intricate details particular to each species.”
As a member of the Wildflower Center, I can visit as often as I like and get a 10 percent discount at the store or on online items. And so I take the bowl home with me.
The dish now sits on a corner of my writing desk to remind me of quiet wintertime Wildflower Center visits. Though I have a special connection to the pared-down winter wardrobe of the native Texas landscape, I can’t help but smile when I think of spring. By then, tiny, orchid-like blooms will adorn the center’s graceful redbud trees, and bluebonnets will be just around the corner