Gardening: Roadside attractions, Part I: Native plants bring color to the journey

Erigeron

First of three parts.

While you are driving down the road on your summer vacation, do you ever pay attention to all those plants on the side of the road? Where did they all come from? How did they get there? And how do they thrive in such horrid conditions?

Well, the easy answer is that nature abhors a vacuum. Rip up the ground, slap down a road, sling a bit of wheat or grass seed about and leave. While some of the seed will germinate, plenty of other somethings are happy to grow. Unfortunately, it is usually a something that is not native, and even often invasive. But, somehow, many of our roadside plants have created an uneasy alliance — willing to work together to survive, but still prepared to take advantage whenever possible. But let us first talk about the native plants that call these areas home.

Common milkweed grows in large colonies. Each plant has a single stem; broad, flat leaves; and round mauve-pink ball flowers that pop out of the side of the stalk about three-quarters of the way up. This plant is vital to the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly, but it also supports hundreds of other species of insects.

In addition to common milkweed, you will see other members of the family. Butterfly weed makes shorter clumps with bright orange flowers at the tips, and swamp milkweed often can be seen in the drainage ditches — taller, with smaller leaves, several branches and bright pink flowers at the top.

In the damper areas, you also will see Joe Pye weed, a plant that grows 6 feet tall with leaves in whirls around the stem and large mauve blooms late in summer. And Queen of the Meadow or ironweed — Vernonia — robes itself in dark purple at the same time. Boneset grows 3-plus feet tall and has white flowers. Elderberry, a shrub that grows 6 or 8 feet with large clusters of lacy-like white flowers and dark purple berries, also loves low-lying areas.

Look in drier, sunny areas to find yarrow with its ferny foliage and white or pink flat-topped flower clusters. The native monarda (beebalm), with a rather washed-out lavender flower, and wild basil, a low-growing plant that winds itself through the grass and blooms with light purple tubular flowers, both also love hot, dry areas. These are both a bit harder to distinguish. They look more like a lavender haze within the grasses.

Coreopsis, bright orangey-yellow, daisy-type flowers are blooming now. And various rudbeckias bloom in the same colors as coreopsis, but have the “cone” in the middle of the flower. And in late fall, you will see a number of asters blooming with white, pink or purple flowers, all along tall stems.

Pokeweed is easily distinguished. It is tall, with bright green leaves and a dark red stem. Flowers are long chains of white that dangle under the leaves. Then they give way to berries that are first green then dark purple. Birds love these berries and often will hang out nearby to grab them as they ripen. It is a wonderful plant to support wildlife, but it is a thug in the garden — easily spread, difficult to control and even harder to remove. So I am more than happy to have it on the roadsides if it will stay out of my yard.

I also don’t want to forget the goldenrods. These plants have gotten a bad rap because the most common variety grows in thick clumps and is quite the bully in the border garden. But this is another plant family that supports so many species of insects that it is a must in the wildlife garden. Also, there are members of the family that start blooming in June, with other species chiming in until late, late fall. Meaning, they provide essential food for much of the season.

I also see glimpses of the white frothy flowers of meadow rue in shadier areas, along with white spikes of cimicifuga and the dancing red and yellow heads of columbine.

The birds love the thickets of sumac. This plant looks so similar to ailanthus, the so-called Tree of Heaven, which is anything but. However, sumac is a shrub, while the ailanthus will grow into full-sized trees. There are several varieties of sumac with flowers that may be thick spikes of red, green or white. These are also wonderful pollinator plants, and they usually hum with insects when in bloom.

You also might see spice bush, with its early spring pale, yellow flowers, and red twig dogwood, which is far more noticeable in the winter with its red or maroon bark.

I know some of these may be difficult to identify when whipping by at 60 miles per hour. Often, I just register the many colors and textures rather than individual varieties. But it’s nice to know they are there. And I think it’s fascinating that our roadsides have reinvented the meadow habitat that was losing out in our modern landscape design. Even better, those plants are helping to keep our native wildlife alive, diverse and healthy.

Next: Not native, but naturalized.

Mary Stickley-Godinez is The Daily Progress’ gardening columnist.

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