July 16, 2012

Wildflowers add to scenery along highways

By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — The wildflowers along the roadways are gorgeous this year. Some states and communities have made concerted efforts to plant wildflowers along their highways. The plantings last for a couple of years before they are overtaken by grass and other aggressive plants.

The oxeye daisies and buttercups were among the earlier wildflowers, and they’re finished blooming for the year. Right now along the road I see lots of Queen Anne’s lace (white, lacy flowers), chickory (medium-blue flowers on wiry stems), red clover and black-eyed Susans (with their orange blossoms with dark brown centers). If you want to encourage these plants in your meadow, don’t mow them down until they have had a chance to go to seed. With any luck, those seeds will help the population multiply next year.

Queen Anne’s lace provides an extra benefit if you let it grow near your flower or vegetable garden because it attracts all kinds of beneficial insects that feast on destructive insects such as aphids and scale. It is a biennial, which means it takes two years to complete its life cycle. The first year it produces just a cluster (or rosette) of leaves close to the ground. The second year it sends up tall flower spikes, and once the flowers go to seed, its life cycle is over and the plant dies. But, never fear, they produce plenty of seed to keep the species going for generations to come.

The variety of plants is a good thing. The legumes, including clover and vetch, capture nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that they and other plants can use. The flat-topped flowers (often described as “umbels”) attract beneficial insects as I mentioned earlier, and the daisy-like flowers, including black-eyed Susans, provide goldfinches and chickadees with seeds in the fall. This diversity also means that if a disease or insect pest arrives, not all species will be affected.

Birdsfoot trefoil, another legume like clover, was grown in fields in this region years ago and has now naturalized along roadways all around the Champlain Valley. Its low mounds of bright yellow flowers are easy to spot now. One of its nicest features is its naturally low height — it doesn’t need to be mowed — and it survived last year’s drought with no problem.

But along with all of these beauties, there are, unfortunately, some troublemakers that are taking over and crowding out desirable plants. This group of invasive plants includes the beautiful purple loosestrife; spotted knapweed; Japanese knotweed; and phragmites (pronounced “frag-my-tees”), also known as common reed grass, all of which are visible along the highways. So unfortunately, not all of those beauties are a good thing.

This is also a good time to caution you about wild parsnip, which is in full bloom right now and spreading very quickly. This plant looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, except it has coarser leaves and yellow, not white, flowers. It causes a severe reaction to any skin that comes into contact with the plant and is then exposed to sun. Be especially careful when mowing or weed-whacking clumps or stands of this plant since that sends the juicy plant pieces flying, and be sure to keep your skin covered when working near it.

For more information on wild parsnip, visit To learn more about other invasive species in our region, visit

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450, Essex County, 962-4810, Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to