Spring 2023


Photo by Theresa Dimenno


There are few places like central Texas in the spring: Bluebonnets, paintbrushes, and primrose emblazon the hills and flatlands like an endless magic carpet. Travelers come from hundreds of miles around to bask in nature’s colorful rebuttal to winter.

For Lee Clippard MS’02, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, one species of flowering shrub brings particular joy. The Texas mountain laurel, a member of the bean family, evokes childhood. Its purple bloom clusters smell like — depending on your memory — grape soda or grape bubble gum.

Photo courtesy of Lee Clippard

“Sometimes it can almost be too sweet, but I love it,” Clippard says. “It’s just a wonderful smell.”

Underlying the olfactory delights, however, is cause for concern. Climate change, land development, and invasive species are threatening the future of the Texas mountain laurel and other native plants, which are critical to maintaining ecosystems and supporting the work of pollinating insects.

In Texas, home to 5,000 wildflower species (about 900 of which can be seen at the wildflower center), a dozen varieties have gone extinct. Nearly two dozen more are endangered. Evidence of the plight can be found in a multitude of front yards.

“There’s been a real trend over the last century to mimic landscapes of England, France, and Italy, and to bring a bunch of plants from other places to do that,” Clippard says. “When there’s a yard in Arizona that looks like a yard in New York or South Carolina, it might be using plants that aren’t adapted to the region that require more resources. There are abundant plants native to each region that are worthy of use and celebration.”

Native plants, he adds, by their very nature are well adapted to their environments; they thrive in a region’s normal rainfall without requiring “extra” pesticides.

Clippard became the center’s new executive director in March after a brief stint as interim director in 2021. He had worked as the center’s director of communications since 2014. Before that, he was director of communications at the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas (where he earned his undergraduate degree in biology). The 284-acre center was founded by the late first lady in 1982 as an independent research organization. The university took over operations in 2006. The center is the official botanic garden and arboretum of Texas. Clippard, for his part, counts plant evangelism among his duties.

“The role we play,” he says,“ is to bring an awareness of native plants to the world. Our mission is inspiring the conservation of native plants.”

The center maintains an online plant database for people interested in growing sustainable gardens. But efforts to encourage awareness don’t stop there. The center hosts a popular biannual native plant sale, and Clippard is looking beyond the treetops. Nearly 240,000 people visited the center in 2021; plans are to expand the center’s facilities with the hope of boosting annual attendance to 400,000. Clippard hopes the expansion will help spread the message that change comes one native plant at a time.

“You really just need a small bed of native plants, and then, all of a sudden, you might have monarchs and other butterflies appearing in this sort of ecological desert that we’ve created,” he says. “We really can turn our backyards and front yards and green spaces into ecological habitats that are supportive of species facing various threats.”

Yellowjacket illustration by Lee Clippard

The insects he’s helping protect today are actually what brought him to UW in the first place. Though he wasn’t naturally drawn to bugs as a kid, Clippard developed a fascination in college, when he considered being an illustrator. “I drew birds and all kinds of things, but I especially liked drawing bugs,” he says. Clippard enrolled in a master’s program in entomology at CALS, figuring he wanted to be a college professor, but research didn’t entice him.

Clippard’s thesis centered on the behavior of yellowjacket foragers — the bane of many a picnic. He considered the arcane question of whether the aggressive scavengers exit and enter their nests randomly over time or in clusters.

“It had already intrigued investigators for 90 years,” says Robert Jeanne, professor emeritus of entomology at Wisconsin and Clippard’s advisor. “Some, finding evidence for clustering, concluded that it indicated some kind of social facilitation among workers, while others concluded that cluster- ing was only apparent, a statistical artifact.”

By videotaping nests and analyzing sophisticated statistics, Clippard’s work supported the hypothesis that social interactions are the cause. The regular stings the pair suffered were offset by the quality of the findings.

“Lee was a quick learner and a cheerful workaholic,” Jeanne says. “His positive outlook and enthusiasm made him a joy to have as a member of my lab group.”

Clippard, who over the years has made colored pencil drawings of bugs, relishes the mutual benefits shared between insects and plants. He quotes Lady Bird Johnson’s spirited mantra: “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

“It’s really wonderful to come to work every day with a community of people who are inspired to make change,” Clippard says.

This article was posted in Changing Climate, Healthy Ecosystems, Offshoots, Spring 2023 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .