Roadside Attractions

Some of the best places to see wildflowers and other native species these days are along America's back roads and highways

  • Les Line
  • Aug 01, 2000
NEAR WHERE I LIVE in the Taconic Highlands along the New York-Connecticut border is a narrow dirt road that wanders over the hill and through the dale and past a fair representation of the region's different habitats. In spring, painted trilliums soak up the dappled sunlight of a young hardwood forest; blue flags wave in a wet meadow to a serenade from red-winged blackbirds; and fiery columbines cling to crannies in a limestone cobble, right along the roadside. It's the kind of country lane New England naturalist Hal Borland had in mind when he wrote in the 1970s, "If you would know an area's wild plants, park your car. Get out and walk, with your eyes open and your senses alert."

Good advice. Urban drivers may not be surprised that roadside strips of greenery often are the only public habitat left for wildflowers. But even in today's rural mosaic of horse and dairy farms, corn and hay fields and country-home developments, road edges often are the best places to find representative mixes of native and naturalized wildflowers and shrubs--and the insects they attract. Strips of such habitat in some areas turn out to be the only flower-bearing public land in our vast landscapes of private land.

Even highway departments in many parts of the country, following the leads of Texas and California, have been waking up to the potential for wildflowers along roadsides--both for the plants' beauty and the health of the ecosystem. Still, some highway departments aggressively use mowing machines and herbicides to keep nature at bay, both for the sake of appearance and concern for safety.

On Texas highways, however, spring has long brought spectacular blooms of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, firewheels, pink evening primroses, wine-cups, greenthreads, prickly poppies and many other species. The Texas Department of Transportation has encouraged native wildflowers to spread over roadsides and medians since the days of Henry Ford's Model A, mowing only after the plants have gone to seed.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has an ambitious program--dubbed California Wild--to protect or reestablish native wildflowers and grasses on state roadsides. Caltrans counts off the benefits: reduced herbicide use and lower maintenance costs; improved erosion control because native plants tend to be deep-rooted and drought-tolerant; and reduced fire hazard.

"If we want highway landscaping that takes care of itself, we not only have to rely on native plants but also rebuild a functioning natural ecosystem," says Craig Dremann of Redwood City, California. His business, The Reveg Edge, helps highway departments in the West tap remnant grassland communities--such as California's original perennial prairie--to create roadside ground cover that is practically maintenance-free.

"Native grasses should be the first plants to colonize bare ground in a highway clearing," Dremann says. "It's like painting a car where you put primer on bare metal." California's indigenous grasses, he adds, grew no taller than 8 inches. "Settlers couldn't cut them for hay so they introduced annuals from Europe and Africa that could be baled and stored to feed livestock." These gangly exotics, which have spread over virtually all of the original grasslands, naturally produce herbicidelike chemicals to suppress competition.

Caltrans also has a program to set aside roadside reserves--19 to date--as examples of California's historic plant communities. At Bear Creek Management Area in Colusa County, for example, visitors see a kaleidoscope of spring wildflowers including Mariposa lilies, goldfields, larkspur, lupines, checkerbloom, yarrow and purple owl's clover--as well as evidence of the damaging effects of noxious weeds like yellow star thistle.

My favorite road, however, is an "unimproved" thoroughfare near my home. My town in New York state attempts to smooth out the ruts after the mud season, but mowers never make an appearance. So at this time of the year, summer edging into fall, I prowl the fence line by an old farm where there are displays of black-eyed Susans, a golden orange daisy that found its way east from Midwest prairies after the forests were cleared; the pale lilac pompons of wild bergamot, a source of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds; and the fragrant flower clusters of common milkweed with their unique insect community.

Moreover, every shade of yellow in nature's palette is on view, from the lemon flowers of common evening-primrose that open toward dusk and last but a day, to the burnished, nodding bells of Canada lily. Soon, as the days begin to cool and pokeweed's berries turn an outrageous purple, the roadside will be overrun by more kinds of goldenrods and asters than you can imagine or identify, although it is pretty easy to put a name to New England aster, with its profusion of purple-rayed flowers on a 6- to 8-foot stalk.

But in the next valley, where the roads are paved and well maintained, you're likely to find botanical ruin along the rights-of-way. When I recently asked a county official, who did not want to be identified, about giving a break to wayside wildflowers, he gibed, "We mow the heck out of them." And so they do. In the Empire State, the accepted custom is to manicure the medians and borders of interstate highways, bucolic parkways and two-lane roads spring, summer and fall.

If landscape architect Bonnie Harper-Lore has her way, those practices will change. As current head of a Federal Highway Administration program that was started in 1987, Harper-Lore encourages the use of native plants for erosion control and landscaping while protecting existing natural habitats in the highway corridor--which means along all the roads in our national maze of town, county, state and federal thoroughfares. To that end, the agency has produced a 666-page book for highway engineers, Roadside Use of Native Plants, that shows natural vegetation zones and lists appropriate native species for every state.

"We've maintained our roadsides since the thirties as though they were America's front lawns," Harper-Lore says. You could call it "Mower Mania"--a headline the trade magazine Roads and Bridges used a couple of years back for an article about the newest equipment. Still, Harper-Lore and other roadside-flower proponents are making progress, especially in the Midwest, where public pressure has helped officials decide to curtail roadside mowing.

In Iowa, for example, county road commissions are replanting native forbs and grasses while using burning instead of mowing or spraying to keep woody plants from encroaching on rights-of-way. Wisconsin cut back its roadside mowing four years ago, a largely economic move that brought about an explosion of wildflowers. Then there is Idaho, which boasts perhaps the most inventive roadside gardeners: Under the leadership of a state committee, volunteers freeze into ice cubes the seeds of wildflowers seen in the region by Lewis and Clark--and then throw the cubes into designated areas. The ice not only helps the gardeners hurl the seeds, its moisture helps with germination.

"My goodness, native plants are well-adapted to cold, heat, drought--whatever nature brings on," Harper-Lore says. "They don't need to be watered, fertilized, weeded." A mowing once every five years, she claims, is sufficient to discourage growth of hazardous trees and shrubs in the "clear zone," an accident-recovery area along road shoulders. "But some states really resist change," she adds. "Maintenance engineers tell me that people will lose their jobs if they do it my way."

Not all highway beautification programs use native species, and that can create problems when alien species spread and displace indigenous plants or provide less-than-ideal habitat for wildlife. For example, the North Carolina Department of Transportation plants ox-eye daisies, an immigrant that farmers consider a noxious weed. "They plant ox-eye daisies by the hundreds of acres," Harper-Lore winces, "and adjacent states want to copy them." The North Carolina agency, to its credit, is growing native plants at a 30-acre nursery, harvesting the seeds and incorporating milkweed into its roadside plantings to help the larvae of the beleaguered monarch butterfly, which depend on the plants for food.

Federal guidelines, meanwhile, now prohibit the use of federal highway funds to purposely include invasive plants for revegetation or landscaping. Of course, it's too late to close the door on aliens like star thistle, knapweed, chicory, Queen Anne's lace, teasel and ox-eye daisy that long ago found their way to America and thrived in disturbed soil. And in truth, a few of these naturalized plants have at least some redeeming qualities. For example, Hal Borland lauded chicory's flower as "one of the best blues in the floral spectrum," while noting the traditional use of the plant's roasted root as a substitute for or additive to coffee. Even now, it remains a popular brew in New Orleans.

But the stars of the road show are the native flowers. Consider joe-pye weed, which bears massive, fuzzy pink flower clusters that are alive with pollen-gathering bumblebees in late August. Or Jerusalem artichoke, a coarse sunflower that grows up to 10 feet tall in roadside thickets. Then there's jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not because its ripe capsules explode to the touch with a shower of seeds.

As for thistles, our native species shouldn't be lumped with undesirable aliens. The showiest native is pasture thistle with pale magenta flower heads that are two or three inches across. The American goldfinch delays nesting until summer when the fragrant flowers ripen and there is thistledown to weave into nests and thistle seeds to feed its brood.

No wildflower, however, is more important to a roadside meadow's animal life than common milkweed. The caterpillars of monarch butterflies and tiger milkweed moths can be found feeding on leaves, while swallowtail butterflies and hummingbird moths sip nectar from the sweet-scented flowers, and honeybees fly off with pollen sacs snagged on their hind legs. (Fact: There are at least 50 flowers in a cluster, and each one has five tiny, nectar-filled cups.) Red milkweed beetles climb the plant to devour the tenderest leaves, starting from the tip, while planthoppers suck sticky white "milk" from the stems, and carpenter ants tend herds of aphids on the lower, mature leaves. Black-and-yellow argiope spiders spin webs with distinctive vertical zigzag bands while crab spiders simply wait inside the flowers to ambush flies and bees.

All things considered, I would nominate common milkweed as the poster flower for a nationwide crusade against mower mania.

Les Line, carrying a camera rather than a notebook, collaborated with Hal Borland on the book A Countryman's Flowers, published in 1981 but presently out of print.

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