There are two sides to every road


roadside flowers

Queen Anne’s Lace, Common Tansy, and Chicory bloom along our roadsides in August.

When I give talks about landscaping with native plants, one of the points I am always sure to make is that landscaping with natives doesn’t necessarily mean a yard that will look like the side of the road.  Many people have an idea that gardening with natives has to be messy.  And while it certainly can be, and doesn’t have to.  In fact, I point out that most of the plants along the side of the road are in fact not natives at all!  Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, common tansy, common teasel, shasta daises, dame’s rocket, bouncing bet – and others – are in fact imports from Europe.  Another common one that people often confuse are the day lilies – or as I call them – ditch lilies – because they line the roadside ditches along many of the roads where we live.  Because people see these plants growing along the side of the roads, they apparently look ‘ natural’ and so people seem to assume that ‘looking natural’ and ‘being native’ are one and the same.  Many people have shown up at our nursery this spring, where we grow only native plants, and asked for day lilies and lilacs – and mentioned that they see them growing all along the side of the road and that they would like some native plants like those.  And so I launch into my spiel about what native plants are another time…

purple loosestrife

purple loosestrife along the side of the road

It is interesting that while many people think the plants growing along the side of the road are native – in fact many of the plants that grow along our roadsides are considered weeds by many others of us, and some are also very invasive – which is really the complete opposite of native plants in my mind.  Roadside corridors spread invasive plants around the landscape, with ditching practices by local and state highway crews often helping to further their unintentional spread.  Our roadsides where covered with blooming garlic mustard a few weeks ago.  Now the shrubby honeysuckle is blooming all along the roads, and the dames rocket is blooming too.  Later this summer the purple loosestrife will be blooming as far as the eye can see along many of our roadways.

dame's rocket

dame’s rocket is often mistaken for ‘spring phlox’ along the side of the road

This time of year many people also ask at the nursery for the ‘spring phlox’ that they see along the roadside.  They are always disappointed when I explain to them that it is not phlox at all –  it is called Dame’s Rocket – it is not native – and is actually considered moderately invasive for our area – so no, we do not grow and sell it.  (In case you are wondering – phlox has 5 petals and dame’s rocket only has 4 – that is a quick way that you can tell the difference. Also – our tall native phlox species don’t bloom until later in the summer – only shorter native phlox species are blooming now – such as phlox subulata or phlox pilosa).  I hate feeling like I am the bearer of bad news  – as people like the idea of ‘going native’  – but thought that that meant they were going to get lilacs and day lilies and spring phlox – and now I have told them otherwise.   Luckily, we have so many other beautiful flowers at the nursery – that are in fact native, that I can usually brighten their spirits and have them back on track by the end of their visit!

wild chervil

Wild chervil is blooming all along the side of the road right now

Right now, there is a white flower blooming all along the side of the road that looks like something in the carrot family, but I wasn’t sure.  So I pulled over and snapped a picture and then looked it up online.  Turns out to be cow parsley or wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) – which makes sense.  Another flat-topped umbel flower like queen anne’s lace or the cow parsnip that blooms all along the side of the road later in the summer.

However, the interesting part of this find was the website that I ran across that told me what my mystery plant was. The site is called ‘Plantlife’ and it is all about a ‘Road Verge Campaign’.  The site explains why road verges are important parts of the landscape in the UK - providing wildlife corridors and habitat – and providing a unique character to each region as well.  I thought this was so interesting – because this is not at all how I  tend to view our road sides  – or ‘road verges’ – if you will.  I am very familiar with wildlife corridors and regional character – but our roadsides around here aren’t where that is provided.  I think of them mainly as corridors for invasive species to spread – pretty much the opposite of valuable habitat that should be protected.   I guess it makes sense though, if many of the plants growing along our roadsides are from Europe, then in Europe – they have their native plants growing along the sides of their roads – so they are actually important parts of their landscape.  On the other hand – do they not have weeds and invasive plants spreading along their roadways? And if so, why not?

I had just never thought about the side of the road in this manner before – it made me pause to consider it for a bit – and I thought it would be something interesting to share that might also give you something to stop and think about too!

© 2013, Emily DeBolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Deborah Dale says

    The only thing more frustrating than continually explaining that roadside plants are usually weeds is having to explain that the plants in your garden are native…not weeds. In the suburban utopia of ever-blooming annuals, it seems that if a plant is not currently in bloom or is showing seed heads, it must be a weed. heavy sigh.
    While having natural verges of native plants is of course preferable, gardening on the boulevard is gaining popularity around the world. Almost anything (except invasives) is preferable to resource depleting lawn. How much good could be done with replacing even this tiny strip of land fronting our property’s with a diversity of native plants.
    Texas did it with highway verges, and other states have followed that example. Let’s bring the concept to our local streets!

  2. Tony McGuigan says

    Nice to read roadsides and their ditches celebrated as habitat connectivity.

    I did not realize that Queen Ann’s Lace was from Europe. Still, a great insectary.
    Tony McGuigan recently posted..20130514 Elderberry Pond — A Greywater Habitat

  3. Ellen Honeycutt says

    Here in the South the roadsides are indeed a tangled, ugly mess – choked with chinese privet, ugly agnes (Elaeagnus), non-native grasses, some of the things you mentioned and many others. I also feel like people think that roadsides = native = messy. But occasionally I do find roadsides that are relatively undisturbed by non-natives and I agree that those serve as wonderful “road verges”. We need more of them!
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Magnolias, Southern Style

  4. Beatriz Moisset says

    How true!
    I first became aware of roads as corridors for invasive plants when visiting Yucatan. I wanted to take pictures of native plants and their pollinators while traversing the peninsula. Soon I realized that most of the things I saw along the roads were introduced, not to mention at the hotels wherever we stopped. Soon I could tell the non-natives from the window of the bus.
    The same is true of nature centers and wildlife preserves. In this case, I am talking about trails, rather than roads. I had to walk about a mile from the visitor center because the area around the parking lot and the nearest trails were dominated by non-natives. I find this even more alarming.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..One Bite out of Three before Columbus

  5. Donna@Gardens Eye View says

    In most places the side of the road is not a habitat but a bunch of weedy invasives…but in many spots along the NY Thruway and country roads, where I drive to and from work,I am finding more natives than non-natives and the wildlife they support is evident as well…
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Seasonal Celebrations-Summer Surprises 2013



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