Along our Highways – Turfgrass, Wildflowers, What?


by Susan
This NYTimes article has the local green listservs chatting and I’d bet my house that GardenRant readersOxeye_daisy have some thoughts about it, too.

First it describes some native plantings along a Delaware highway – aster, amonsia (sic), thoroughwort nestle and golden Indiangrass – but has this to say about the larger movement toward more natural plantings:

But the movement, which began before World War II in the Midwest, well before Lady Bird Johnson’s
beautification project in the 1960s, has more heart than muscle.
Roadsides fulfill a variety of engineering functions. They must provide
clear lines of sight and easy drainage. As for aesthetics, a Delaware
poll showed that the public prizes neatness more than nativeness.

so the pushers of native plants must fight endless battles with their
economic and aesthetic opponents: turf-grass vendors, lawn mower
jockeys who make a living cutting 20-foot median swaths in the summer
sun, or garden clubs that favor manicured beds of tulips, poppies and
lilies over meadow grasses that can look downright blowsy.

Gee, are garden clubs really the bad guys, right up there with turf-grass vendors and lawn mower jockeys??  Maybe.  But it’s more complicated than good guys and bad guys:

  • Switchgrass is highly flammable, so there’s the fear of lit cigarettes being thrown from cars.
  • Pennsylvania has planted crownvetch along highways for decades now – it thrives in poor soils and on steep banks – but crownvetch is now targeted as "villain of the native-plant proponents."  Yet here’s Penn State still weighing in in favor of it.  (Confused yet?)
  • Ditto the oxeye daisies planted in North Carolina but considered a noxious weed in Tennessee.
  • We know from our nursery friends that some jurisdictions have mandated the use of plants that aren’t actually available on the market.
  • And then there are commenters like this one:  “I like long hair on a woman but not on a man and not growing around my house.”  And the commenter who thinks the local planting of native grasses looks like "a botched hairtransplant."  What’s up with the hair analogies?

While people are arguing about plant choice, can we at least stop mowing, as they’ve done in Nebraska?  You know, save lots of money, create lots of wildlife habitat.

Photo credit – oxeye daisy.


  1. I remember writing about roadside prairie restoration in Iowa back in the ’80s. One of the big problems was the tall-growing plants acted like natural snow fences, dropping the blowing snow right on the roads.

    I also remember a visiting journalist from eastern Europe who had only been in the country a few days before going on a road trip across Pennsylvania to Ohio with our photographer. He saw the mowing crews on the Interstate medians and asked, “What do they do with the harvest?” When told nothing, they’re just mowing, he responded thoughtfully that in his struggling country, “This would be sin.”

    To a people struggling to feed themselves, that’s a lot of forage going to waste. To a people more worried about getting from here to there, what grows along our roads is just a nuisance.

  2. In Hawaii along the new four lane divided highway to Kahului they were planting a native grass that matured at about 10 inches high. It would not need mowing. They were having a major difficult time keeping the weeds and other grasses out and spent a lot of time hand weeding.

    In the mountains of North Carolina it isn’t about Oxeye Daisies or native grasses, it is about trees. If you don’t cut them down or maul them with a giant hedge trimmer it turns into forest that arches out across the highway. No can see da signs.

    The highways here, NC, are loaded with native and non-native wildflowers that seem to adapt to mowing. Queen Ann’s Lace and Chicory are very dominant. Neither are native it seems. To bad because the blue and white is very nice and it would be impossible to get rid of them.

    The simple fact of the matter is that a road is an artificial environment. It is going to require maintenance period. That means lawn jockeys, grass vendors, and garden clubs who want to beautify a particular interchange in their town. Don’t forget the litter bugs and the people who have to clean up after them either.

  3. And oh, God, could we just stop fighting about it and plant something pretty to please the eye on long drives? Except kudzu around here, of course. Fortunately, it does off on the Plateau (gets too cold here sometimes), but off the mountain going toward Knoxville — I vote against kudzu, but for poppies, whatever you want. Stop fighting about it and just make things pretty and noninvasive.

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