Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Steve Windhager dreams of a day when Texas drivers can experience all the native beauty and diversity of the Lone Star State without ever leaving their cars. As drivers pass from one region to the next, they'll see the deep purple-blue hues of one of the five species of Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus spp.) across the state, the 7-foot-tall, yellow-hued giant coneflowers (Rudbeckia maxima) in East Texas, and the yellow-centered, lavender-petaled inflorescence of the Tahoka daisy (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) in the western plains. They'll all be growing with other native plants right along the roadsides.
"Travelers will be constantly rewarded with the beauty of the native landscape," says Windhager, director of Programs for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Windhager's dream, and indeed one that Lady Bird Johnson had many years ago for her native state of Texas and every state in America, is slowly being realized. Indeed, 30 of 50 states are working to establish native-plant communities along roadsides, says Bonnie Harper-Lore, restoration ecologist for the Federal Highway Administration, which promotes such practices through its Vegetation Management Program.
"It's about holding on to our regional heritage," says Windhager. And beyond that, some state departments of transportation are discovering that replacing non-natives with natives is not only better for the environment, but also better for highway safety and for landowners who live adjacent to public highways. Planting natives also may eventually cost less than planting non-natives along roadsides, if enough native plant seed sources can be found.
"The original vegetation roadside managers were really engineers," says Windhager. "They were primarily interested in keeping things from eroding. They wanted cheap, quick, easy plantings, and that was often done with non-natives that were neither attractive nor good for the ecosystem," he says. As a result, roadsides have become what Windhager calls "a vector of disease," spreading non-native invasive plants. For example, King Ranch bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum) and Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) are noxious weeds that were planted along roadsides in Texas because they grow fast and handle heavy mowing and abuse. In addition, seed for these plants was inexpensive and easy to get.
Weed seeds easily traveled up and down the roadsides as the vegetated regions were mowed, and these non-natives began overpowering natives such as the Texas bluebonnet.
"If you add up all the federal rights-of-way that crisscross the country, there are over 12 million acres, and they cut through everybody else's land," says Harper-Lore. "By planting non-natives on the roadsides, we've impacted agriculture; we've compromised nearby natural areas; and we've put weeds on private landowners' land that they may have to remove."
With federal grant money that Harper-Lore helped the Wildflower Center secure, Windhager is heading a study to learn which native plants might best be used along Texas roadsides. Researchers are collecting seeds of 45 different types of native plants and testing them on three plots along roadsides near Austin. Windhager hopes state and county transportation departments will use the information he gathers when vegetating roadsides.