I'm a reluctant highway commuter. On a normal weekday, I roll through about thirty miles of grassy medians on my way to my day job. Every two weeks, huge mowers grind through the miles too, leaving behind the smell of diesel and cut grass, and acres of wasted hay. But a few weeks ago, I traveled highways in North Carolina and Virginia, two states that sponsor roadside wildflower programs, and I haven't been able to look at my daily commute the same way since.
Imagine you're driving fast, 65 miles per hour or so, down a long, straight stretch of highway. Trees crowd up along the sides of the road. You climb up a gentle incline; at the top, it looks like a rainbow landed in the middle of the median, and the scent of flowers fills your car. If you're me, you consider pulling over so you can run across the three lanes of traffic to bury your nose in the wildflower explosion. I drove through Virginia and North Carolina's highway wildflower plantings during what must have been peak bloom. Yellows, purples, reds and pinks. Every once in a while I caught a glimpse of a butterfly bobbing in the riot.
I can't even do the scene justice. It was breathtaking.
The butterflies clued me in to something I suspected for a while: those miles and miles of empty lawn, miles that need to be mowed regularly, miles that turn brown and brittle during a drought—those miles could be transformed into habitat for native wildlife that depends on native wildflowers.
This isn't a new idea. Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the United States from 1963-1969, is legendary for promoting wildflower plantings, both for their effect on human happiness, and for preserving the continent's natural beauty and habitats. Her legacy includes a program from the 70's that allows state garden clubs to provide wildflower seeds for right-of-ways, and a 1987 law that requires that all landscaping projects on the federal highway system to plant native wildflowers and grasses, to the tune of one-quarter of one percent of the project budget. Today, several states sponsor roadside wildflower programs, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Lady Bird's home state, Texas. A few others promote reduced mowing policies that let native plants get a leg up on non-native grasses that fill the space.
Considering the problems facing our native pollinators, including Monarch Butterflies and our suite of native bees, I think it's time to expand the acreage. Wildflowers used to grow abundantly around plowed farm fields, but with farmers growing crops to the edges of their land and using more powerful herbicides, wildflowers have nearly disappeared from those crucial habitats. There aren't many other places for them to grow, which means there's less food for creatures who depend on them. Replacing highway grasses with native plants and wildflowers would reduce the cost of maintenance for those long stretches of highway—native plants are hardy, most grow low, bloom throughout the season, and rarely need mowing—and they would provide needed habitat for butterflies, moths, bees, ants, beetles, and thousands of other pollinators. In turn, when those creatures thrive, they and their young provide food for our birds and bats.
Everyone gets a boost.
These days when I drive to work, I mentally stock every median and roadside with a parade of native wildflowers. In my imagination, these flower-filled miles are teeming with butterflies and moths, beetles and bees. What will it take to make this a reality across the continent? For me, it starts with phone calls to my elected representatives, a letter to the editor of my local newspaper, and this blog post right here. How about you?
About Erin Gettler
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.