The Roadside Flowers

Roads are a lifeblood of civilization.  The veins and arteries that criss-cross our world have provided for our needs, wants, and ambitions for thousands of years.  

To build a road, the landscape must be destroyed and altered.  Wendell Berry writes about these scars on nature in his essay A Native Hill.  He states that "even the most primitive road" is for "haste," and "it's wish is to avoid contact with the landscape."   

But, from the chaos of destruction comes creation as nature covers the wounds with new growth like roadside wildflowers.  In places where fire is now suppressed, bison are dead to trample, and no trespassing signs dot the landscape, roadsides maybe the only places passersby enjoy impressionistic wildflowers, albeit at 70 mph.  These slivers of prairie and meadow are where disturbance occurs on a frequent basis, usually in the form of a mower blade but occasionally there's the rogue smoldering cigarette that will lay waste.  Here, especially in spring, we see color burgeon.  

 Ember-colored  Gaillardia  (firewheel) smolder on the highway shoulders in west Texas

Ember-colored Gaillardia (firewheel) smolder on the highway shoulders in west Texas

 Roadside decor.   Oenothera speciosa  (showy primrose) and a fire hydrant.

Roadside decor.  Oenothera speciosa (showy primrose) and a fire hydrant.

  Phacelia bipinnatifida  (purple phacelia) form a river of lilac on the roadsides in the Smokies.  If you pull over and squat amongst the flowers, you'll sniff hints of celery.  

Phacelia bipinnatifida (purple phacelia) form a river of lilac on the roadsides in the Smokies.  If you pull over and squat amongst the flowers, you'll sniff hints of celery.  

  Salvia lyrata  (lyre-leaf sage) is a common acquaintance to right-of-ways, especially in suburban lawns.

Salvia lyrata (lyre-leaf sage) is a common acquaintance to right-of-ways, especially in suburban lawns.

 The lemon yellow flowers of  Baptisia sphaerocarpa  (yellow wild indigo) are very visible at 70 mph and often warrant a u-turn.  

The lemon yellow flowers of Baptisia sphaerocarpa (yellow wild indigo) are very visible at 70 mph and often warrant a u-turn.  

I like looking at roadside flowers.  These right-of-way gardens are one of the best, most readily available places for people across the world to see a plant community in action.  In fact, the claim has been made that in a fractured nature these areas may be the only refugia for some species here in the US and abroad.  And, while I understand and deeply respect Berry's thoughts about damage to the landscape, to me roadsides are opportunities for contact with the landscape and offer a glimpse at how plants weave themselves together.  

It was looking at a roadside years ago that the epiphany of everything I'd read about how people look to nature to design gardens really struck me.  I've never looked at roadsides the same again.  

I look for patterns in the vegetation as I shuffle back and forth across the countryside.  Some plants cover the ground, some fill for a season, and some rise as icons, towering above the life below.  And, whether the flora are relics of a past age, hitchhikers from trucks, or immigrants seeded in by the transportation department, they are beautiful and make trips zoom by as I enjoy the moving picture.  

Growing up in rural west Tennessee I once thought that the best anti-litter campaign was to plant wildflowers on the side of the road instead of hosing it with weed killer.  I believed if the roadsides were smothered with color wayfaring strangers probably wouldn't litter them with trash.  


Over spring break, Karen and I travelled to the hill country in Texas in search of roadside flowers, specifically Lupinus texensis (bluebonnets). 

The day was perfect for photographs.  Just enough wet stuff was falling that you had to wipe your lens occasionally.  We first saw scattered plants dot the roadsides here and there...

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and then we found more...

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AND THEN MORE!

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I commented to Karen at one point that my soul felt full, overcome with all the beauty.  And, it was right on the roadsides for all to partake.  

 Bluebonnet leaves wear a necklace of guttated diamonds.

Bluebonnet leaves wear a necklace of guttated diamonds.

 The blur of haste juxaposed with the focus of wildflowers.  

The blur of haste juxaposed with the focus of wildflowers.  

 Karen photographing bluebonnets for later drawings.  

Karen photographing bluebonnets for later drawings.  

As you've probably already noticed in some photos, the bluebonnets weren't alone.  Drifts of Castilleja indivisia (Texas Indian paintbrush) also competed for the spotlight.  

 *Content sigh*

*Content sigh*

 The flowers on  Castilleja indivisia  were so saturated with color!  Besides the crop, I haven't touched this one with Photoshop.  

The flowers on Castilleja indivisia were so saturated with color!  Besides the crop, I haven't touched this one with Photoshop.  

I noticed time and time again that they occurred in different areas.  Sure, a few rouge plants crossed the lines every now and then, but there were clear demarcations.    Was it from the road department sowing them in different areas?  Varied soil conditions?  Or, parasitism?  I found research after I returned home suggesting that the parasitic Castilleja indivisia grown with Lupinus texensis will produce three times more seed.  Perhaps the paintbrushes weren't just competing for attention.  Perhaps they were stealing it.  

 Here you see a family portriat of sorts as some flowers are still young while others are showing their age with faded petals.  No matter how old, they are still beautiful.  

Here you see a family portriat of sorts as some flowers are still young while others are showing their age with faded petals.  No matter how old, they are still beautiful.  

 A single peach colored variant in a sea of coral.  

A single peach colored variant in a sea of coral.  

From this trip I realized how much I love Indian paintbrush. I found these more striking than the bluebonnets.  From a distance the Castilleja appear orange, but approaching them I realized that the bracts are really more of a rich salmon (my favorite color!) with verdant bases.  Colors blend at a distance, and I'm sure that's how the orange manifests as the eyes register the two.  


I believe that we can learn from what we see on the roadsides.  Roadsides offer us a great testing ground for vegetation that does well in mixed plantings. We can use what we see and the patterns we observe to design better plantings.  

 Nature and city life intersect at this designed plant community at the crossroads of Elizabeth Street and South First Street in Austin, TX.  Note the scattered  Lupinus texensis  filling in around tussock-type grasses.  

Nature and city life intersect at this designed plant community at the crossroads of Elizabeth Street and South First Street in Austin, TX.  Note the scattered Lupinus texensis filling in around tussock-type grasses.  

And as Bliss Carman penned in his poem that I've shared below, they certainly make life more beautiful and more enjoyable.  

ROADSIDE FLOWERS by Bliss Carman

WE are the roadside flowers,
Straying from garden grounds, —
Lovers of idle hours,
Breakers of ordered bounds.
If only the earth will feed us,
If only the wind be kind,
We blossom for those who need us,
The stragglers left behind.
And lo, the Lord of the Garden,
He makes his sun to rise,
And his rain to fall like pardon
On our dusty paradise.
On us he has laid the duty, —
The task of the wandering breed,—
To better the world with beauty,
Wherever the way may lead.
Who shall inquire of the season,
Or question the wind where it blows?
We blossom and ask no reason.
The Lord of the Garden knows.