Developed a national sustainable landscape rating system (SITES)

Tuthill Corporate Headquarters Campus. Photo from Conservation Design Forum.

Tuthill Corporate Headquarters Campus. Photo from Conservation Design Forum.

If you’ve heard of green buildings, you’ve likely heard of LEED. Like LEED before it, SITES is set to transform the way landscapes are valued. SITES is a rating system and set of comprehensive guidelines that help landscape developers achieve sustainability – by making choices about ways to use less water, to use native plants, to opt for sustainable materials, to support wildlife and more while developing a site.

Forty-five projects across the country have received certification to date under a pilot program of SITES, which is now available for any landscape project team to use. The pilot landscapes already have collectively saved more than 400 million gallons of drinkable water per year.

SITES was developed by the Wildflower Center in collaboration with the American Society of Landscape Architects and the U.S. Botanic Garden. It was recently purchased by the Green Business Certification Institute, Inc., the very same organization that implements LEED and many other green building rating systems

Keep an eye out for SITES-certified landscape projects near you.


400 acres of Blackland Prairie restored

Bluestem Park in Alliance Town Center, Ft. Worth, Texas. Photo by John Hart Asher.

Bluestem Park in Alliance Town Center, Ft. Worth, Texas. Photo by John Hart Asher.

At the Mueller Development in Austin, blackland prairie plants grow again on land that had been airport runways for half a century. In Dallas, stretches of lawn at the George W. Bush Presidential Center feature this tall grass prairie. Down the road in Fort Worth, a meandering stream and blackland prairie plants have replaced what had served as a cattle pasture and pond for decades. And on a green rooftop in Central Texas, nearly 200 types of plants and blackland prairie grasses grow above bedrooms and kitchens, challenging our notion of where prairie restoration can occur.

All of these projects are part of the Wildflower Center's efforts to restore Blackland Prairie - one of the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S. Prairie once dominated Midwestern landscapes from Texas to Canada, but less than 1 percent remains in Texas. Lost along with it are deep-rooted grasses that create a fertile soil and a resilient ecosystem that improves the environment and provides habitat to wide-ranging wildlife.

To date, the Center has restored elements of Blackland Prairie on 400 acres in cities across Texas, providing people with a chance to deepen their connection to nature where they live, work and play. 

6 million seeds saved for the future

Wafer ash seeds.

Wafer ash seeds.

Development, habitat destruction and climate change place native plants and the food webs that depend on them in danger. Storing seeds is a way to conserve native plants for future generations.

The Wildflower Center served as the Texas representative in the Millennium Seed Bank, a global conservation project overseen by the UK’s Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. All told, two staff conservationists, 100-plus volunteers and botany colleagues collected and stored 6 million seeds of 600 native species that form the backbone of Texas landscapes. Center conservationists continue to work with state agencies, private landowners and others to set aside seeds for what could be hundreds of years as part of the national Seeds of Success project.

With 11 ecoregions and more than 268,000 square miles in the state, seed collecting in Texas is no small feat. An emphasis is placed on high-priority species for restoration projects, with seeds collected and processed for safekeeping at a national facility in Colorado and at the Center’s own seed bank. 

Current seed collecting efforts are focusing on Texas ash trees - threatened by the invasive emerald ash borer beetle - and Texas native milkweeds that are critical for monarch butterflies.

Helped create 90,000 acres of native landscapes

At the Bush Presidential Center near downtown Dallas, urbanites and bees alike enjoy lush native landscapes. Photo by John Clark.

At the Bush Presidential Center near downtown Dallas, urbanites and bees alike enjoy lush native landscapes. Photo by John Clark.

For more than a decade, the Wildflower Center’s ecological designers have studied how to enhance landscapes with native plants and used those insights to help clients restore and create sustainable landscapes. The Center’s consulting work touches on all stages of a landscape’s development, from guiding the development of a site’s restoration plan, to providing detailed lists of native plants and materials for recreating ecosystems and using prescribed fire and other tools for maintaining a healthy landscape.

The vibrant work is showcased at sites as diverse as the Kennedy Space Center in Houston, a residential cliff dwelling in Austin, the Mission Reach in San Antonio and the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. 

Helped save endangered native Texas plants

The endangered star cactus ( Astrophytum asterias ) is now known only from one population in Starr County, Texas..

The endangered star cactus (Astrophytum asterias) is now known only from one population in Starr County, Texas..

Texas has 5,000 native plant species, and each has evolved to play a particular role in its ecoregion. Some plants are important food for mammals and insects, while others are critical for hummingbirds and other migrators. These plants also play important roles in ecosystems - their roots hold soil during floods or they bring nitrogen into the soil.

Not only is the Wildflower Center conserving seeds as a way to save plants, it has also helped to save endangered Texas plants, such as Tobusch fishhook cactus, star cactus and Texas poppy-mallow.

In the case of the magenta mallow, conservation staff and colleagues traveled to Ballinger, Texas, in summer 2010 to work in 90-degree plus temperatures to rescue 54 plants before a construction project began. They dug up mallows in two dawn-to-dusk days from the deep sands these plants prefer, and brought them back to the Wildflower Center for safekeeping and study. After two years, Wildflower Center conservation staff reintroduced them to an experimental population in Colorado City.

Developed a low water native turf grass

Habiturf lawn at the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Photo by John Clark.

Habiturf lawn at the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Photo by John Clark.

Lawns drink more water than we do. Up to 60 percent of drinkable city water is used to irrigate some 20 million acres of lawns in the U.S.

To turn this trend around, Wildflower Center ecologists created and trademarked a less resource-intense turf grass that is adapted for the southwestern U.S. Composed of four native grasses, this Habiturf mix requires low to no water, and little chemical input and maintenance once established. As a bonus, this native turf that has the small blades and softness of traditional lawns can go dormant during a watering hiatus. And Habiturf supports butterfly and moth caterpillars adapted to eat its blades.

When landscape irrigation accounts for nearly 9 billion gallons every day, it’s a good time to invest in eco-friendly lawn options.   

Helped rejuvenate a unique forest with 300,000 "Lost Pines"

Loblolly pine seedlings growing at the Wildflower Center.

Loblolly pine seedlings growing at the Wildflower Center.

After a devastating 2011 wildfire in Bastrop, Texas, that burned 33,000-plus acres of loblolly pines, the Wildflower Center grew more than 300,000 of these trees for restoration efforts. As of 2015, those pines loblolly pine saplings have been planted on residential properties and at a Boy Scout camp in Bastrop County as part of major restoration projects continuing in the rare Lost Pines ecosystem..

This project used Lost Pines loblolly seed that had been stored for future purposes – a reminder of the need to plan for the unexpected when it comes to keeping native landscapes alive. 

Opened a one-of-a-kind family garden

Children have less access to outdoor play and exploration than they once did, especially in a rapidly urbanizing world. To counter that, the Wildflower Center expanded in 2014 with the opening of the Luci and Ian Family Garden.

Kids now nurture their wild side jumping between tree stumps, imagining new worlds from inside giant bird nests and more. This 100 percent native plant garden offers insights into eco-friendly ways to create landscapes, such as using recycled mulches and sunken gardens to capture rainwater.

The kudos have started rolling in for the innovative space: a 2-star rating from the Sustainable Sites Initiative; the Garden Excellence Award from Horticulture Magazine; and a spot on a local “Top 10 Places to Take Your Kids in Austin” list. 

Home of the most comprehensive online North American native plant guide

The Wildflower Center has created one of the country’s most robust web-based native plant databases for North America, called the Native Plant Information Network. The free website gives users access to more than 8,000 plant profiles (one-third of all North American species), with an associated 45,000 plant images, geographic ranges, growing conditions, bibliographies and additional supporting information. 

It also provides users with lists of regional native plant suppliers and organizations, an online question-and-answer area (Mr. Smarty Plants) and more. The website is used by more than 2.4 million people each year from around the world, and those people look at pages more than 12 million times. 

The native plant database is an important tool that can help both homeowners and landscape professionals create healthy gardens and landscapes that save water, support pollinators and help the environment. Homeowners use it to find native plants for use in their home and neighborhood gardens. Landscape designers use it to find plants for clients. Plant enthusiasts use it to identify rare species and learn more about the plants in their environment. Botanists and students use it to identify and study native plants. 

The database is essential component of the Center’s national strategy to conserve native plants and create healthy, native landscapes.