By Line, Les
National Wildlife , Vol. 38, No. 5
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. …