By John L. Turner
I apologize in advance to all the driving school instructors among the audience who read this article and find their ire rising. Why? Because I confess that as I drive around Long Island’s roads and highways during the summer wildflower blooming season, I’ll routinely take my eyes off the road for a moment here and there to scan the roadside to enjoy the colorful profusion of wildflowers populating the edge. A dozen or so native and non-native wildflowers that routinely grace our road margins are my focus, beginning their ‘pageantry of petals’ in June and running through to autumn.
Two of the most common and conspicuous examples are Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace. The latter species, also knows as “Bird’s Nest” because of the resemblance of the pollinated flower cluster to a cupped bird’s nest, is a member of the parsley family and is distantly related to the garden carrot.
Most of these white flower clusters possess a little purple floret in the middle. Legend has it that the purple flower is the blood of Queen Anne of England (1665-1714), where the wildflower is native. You see, the Queen pricked her finger with a sewing needle while making lace and the single drop of blood landed in the middle of her lace embroidery. Inspect the next Queen Anne’s Lace cluster you see and perhaps you’ll see the queen’s blood drop! Why the species has this one colored flower amidst all the white ones remains a botanical mystery. Perhaps you’ll solve this mystery and become famous?
Possessing a unique bluish-purple color, Chicory can be abundant along roadsides. Also known as “blue sailors,” chicory is a member of the dandelion family. On occasion I’ve seen white or pink flowers on a plant adorned mostly with blue flowers adding a colorful element to the scene. Take the time to inspect the flower as it is a joy — a melding of beauty and design. The petals are symmetrical and radiate from the center of the flower with each petal having five evenly shaped teeth at the margin and the pistil and stamens have a pretty and unique architectural form.
Chicory root is roasted and used in making a coffee substitute, and less commonly in beer making. It is especially prevalent as a beverage in the southern United States and I’ve enjoyed it in New Orleans (in which to dunk beignets)! It is said the roots can also be roasted like turnips or parsnips although I’ve never tried. The highly nutritious leaves are used in salads.
Three milkweed species — Common, Blunt-leaved, and Butterfly weed — grow along Paumanok’s roadsides. The Common is most abundant and its ball-like clusters of fragrant pink flowers adorning the tall flower stalks is a common sight. Blunt-leaved milkweed is much less common and more easily overlooked due to its lower stature and smaller flower clusters. This species’ leaves have attractive wavy edges, unlike Common’s straight edged margins. Butterfly weed is bright orange and is the shortest of the trio; all three are important sources of nectar for pollinating insects.
Common Evening Primrose, another common roadside species, can grow in abundant stands if not mowed. These tall wildflowers have lemon-yellow petals. As the name suggests, the flowers open during the evening (and close during the day), and, presumably, are pollinated by moths and other night-flying insects. They are neither annual flowers or perennial but rather biennial, meaning they complete a two-year cycle from germination to producing seed producing flowers. The plant has been used as a medicinal herb for many decades.
Common mullein is another tall, biennial yellow-flowered plant of Long Island’s road medians and shoulders with a distinctive spike. The plant produces a basal rosette of leaves in the first year and in the second year the spike takes off, growing several feet in a few months. Unlike the primrose, this species is not native to North America but it had great utility once established here (as well as long being used in Europe and Asia where it is native). The thick, stiff stalks were dipped in fat and used as torches and the thick, cushioning basal leaves were reported to have served, in the days of old, as a natural “Dr. Scholl’s,” being inserted in shoes to cushion colonial feet.
Bird’s-foot trefoil is a smaller stature roadside flower naturalized here. A member of the pea family, it has, as its name suggests, three prominent leaflets growing amidst a packet of five. The flowers are a luscious buttery yellow. Due to its low stature it can sometimes survive being mowed.
The pink-purple spotted knapweed, a bit smaller than Chicory, is another common roadside flower. Related to asters, the numerous flower petals rise from a tight cup. This species was accidentally introduced in North America and has spread prolifically; it is invasive and considered a serious agricultural pest, but along our roadside poses less of a problem.
Perhaps the most prolific of all our roadsides flowers are the goldenrods. Several species of these important nectar-producing plants, with such a wonderfully descriptive common name, grow here and a sure sign that summer is on the wane is when they bloom by the hundreds. They are related to asters of which a few species also grow along the road.
As with so many places in the eastern United States, Long Island’s road and highway shoulders are regularly mowed. While cutting is obviously necessary to provide a safe place for a vehicle to pull off, and to prevent the growth of woody plants too close to the road which could pose a danger to drivers, the width of many mowed area along the shoulder and median is often more than it needs to be to accommodate two vehicles.
Collectively, the result is hundreds of acres of potential wildlife habitat for a wide variety of wildflowers and grasses never being allowed to evolve from what is essentially a linear lawn. Especially frustrating is mowing all of the area within a clover-leafed intersection. Why, pray tell, do we need to do this? Can’t we accommodate more elegance and beauty and habitat for butterflies and countless other living things instead of promoting sterile grass everywhere near our road network?
While writing this article I was reminded of the last stanza in “Rose Pogonias,” my favorite poem by Robert Frost, regarding a small bog graced with the beauty of Rose Pogonia orchids:
‘We raised a simple prayer,
Before we left the spot,
That in the general mowing,
That place might be forgot,
Or if not all so favored,
Obtain such grace of hours,
That none should mow the grass there,
While so confused with flowers.’
I hope Long Island’s roadside wildflower communities might be more often “forgot” in the future or if that is not possible “obtain such grace of hours” until their flowering is done.
A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.