By Stephanie Hudak
One of the benefits of being a passenger in a vehicle is that you get to see all the things along the roads and highways. I don’t have that luxury much anymore, but when I’m driving my eyes still manage to catch the bright colors in the roadside shoulders and ditches – and I don’t mean the never ending supply of cans, bottles and paper. I mean those beautiful bursts of color from the wildflowers that take up residence there.
This parade of color starts in early spring and doesn’t quit even in the coldest months. Stopping to check out the plants isn’t always the safest thing to do on a road with cars and trucks zipping by at 60-plus miles an hour, but with caution in mind, it would be well worth the time to get a closer view of all this free beauty. So what’s out there now? Familiar ones like the bright orange of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) that the caterpillars for monarch butterflies love so much. Please don’t try to dig these up and take them home – they have long taproots that hate to be disturbed – enjoy them from afar and leave the plant for future butterflies. A pretty bouquet of white lacy flowers growing in the ditches is probably Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). More bits of white flowers now could be Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), a tiny pinwheel that seems to float in the air. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) with their bright yellow petals and dark brown centers are to be seen in lots of places now. They spread so easily and take up where nothing else seems to grow. Towering above them I’ve seen sunflowers – the real kind like you would find at Rena Holt’s Sunflower Farm. We can only assume these came from our feathered friends or tossed out of car windows, probably followed by one of those cans. There is also a Narrow-leafed Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia) that can be found.
More goodies in the summer months are in the coreopsis family, commonly known as “tickseed flower” – generally bright yellow daisy-shaped flowers. There are lots of varieties such as C. lanceolata,C. tinctoria, and C. grandiflora with differences generally found in the leaf shape. And of course, you will see the gaudy yellow/orange of gaillardia or Indian Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) since they thrive on neglect. While there aren’t many folks who would invite a thistle into their yard, aren’t they beautiful when seen from afar? The big lavender flower heads that look like landing pads will be welcome food for the birds when it goes to seed. Speaking of going to seed, before the common cattail burst out of its slender brown casing, it looks so elegant standing in watery areas along the highways. A coating of aerosol hairspray will keep a cattail from bursting so you can use it in arrangements.
You may not like the purple stains left on your patio furniture by passing birds when elderberry (Sambucus) is in fruit, but the large white flowers are so pretty layered up the branches. Talk about a worthy plant: the berries can be made into wine, jam or syrup; the flower cluster dipped in batter and fried, the petals eaten raw, added to pancakes for an aromatic flavor or made into a tasty tea. Elderberry is worth getting out of the car.
When the summer sneezing starts everyone complains about ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia – How do you complain about a plant with the name “ambrosia,” I ask you?). It’s called “ragweed” because of its messy growth pattern, but it does provide nice color. Goldenrod (Solidago) blooms about the same time, has much nicer yellow blooms and isn’t the cause of allergies, as many erroneously assume. While ragweed is pollenated by the wind, goldenrod needs insects and butterflies to transfer its heavier pollen. You might also be seeing Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) poking its yellow-flowered spires into the air. The plant was widely used for herbal remedies, particularly as an emollient or astringent. Another plant with a medicinal past is Spotted Joe Pye Weed, a tall plant sporting a large pink bloom which is very attractive to butterflies.
One of my favorite plants to spot in fall is Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), a large, open spreading shrub with branches resembling the velvety antlers of a deer, thus its name. They are all over the shoulders of the roads showing off their big red seedheads. Sumac looks great in a vase along with bare branches and roadside grasses that have taken on their winter beige color. And if you see dark brown spikes poking up that is probably Curly Dock (Rumex crispus), which would look good in that arrangement you are putting together.
Vines can be one of those love/hate things. In the spring when all of those lovely lavender blooms of wisteria are draped over towering trees it is a stunning sight – but don’t invite that one home. The bright orange crossvines (Bignonia capreolata) climbing across field fences call out to hummingbirds to stop by for a drink. And morning glories (Ipomea) that come in all sorts of colors ramble across the ground and head up the nearest vertical structure. This one is better left at the roadside too since it is so aggressive.
Spring is a long ways off but brings its own style of beauty. Don’t overlook the swaths of clover (Trifolium) in the median that comes in white, red, purple and yellow. It is beautiful before the DOT comes along to mow it. Late spring and early summer will have Cosmos (Cosmos bipinatus) popping up in shades of white, pink, and lavender; the brilliant red of poppies (Papaver) will dazzle you; pink creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) can be found draped over banks, and bright orange “ditch daylilies” (Hemerocalis) almost seem to walk their way along the edge of the road.
There are so many different plants that volunteer on the roads, in the fields and up the trees – all there just to give you pleasure. Don’t endanger your life while driving, but do take the time to safely look at all the beauty that comes to us free of charge and free of labor –Mother Nature just sharing her goodness. An otherwise boring ride from “here to there” can be turned into bright moments. Enjoy the ride! Share a hug!