By David Knopf, News Editor
At a time of tight budgets, wildflowers are providing some bang for the buck.
Rather than the repeated expense of mowing a right of way, median or other public area, government agencies such as the Missouri Department of Transportation and Missouri Conservation can turn to planting seed for wildflowers or wild grasses.
The seed – and nature – take over from there.
Stacy Armstrong, roadside management specialist for MoDOT, said in the days of unsettled prairies, grazing buffalo often helped the process along.
The animals would get seeds stuck in their fur, she said, and deposit them elsewhere, planting wildflowers and grasses native to the area.
“They’re pretty good at spreading themselves around,” said Armstrong, whose office is in Jefferson City.
Buffalo no longer wander freely – there is a small herd grazing in a fenced-in field on Highway T south of Richmond – but seeds still seem to find a way to scatter, become rooted and beautify roadsides.
Take the dense sunflower patch on Highway 210, west of Orrick at the intersection with Egypt Road. The patch extends south to the railroad tracks and east toward Fishing River, almost to the Conservation Department’s Pigg’s Landing boat ramp.
Bill Graham, an information specialist with the Conservation Department, said it’s difficult to know if the sunflowers were originally planted or took root and spread naturally.
“They’re tough and they come out this time of year,” he said.
Larry Rizzo, a natural history biologist with the Conservation Department, identified the Egypt Road/Highway 210 flowers as Helianthus annuus – in layman’s language the common sunflower.
But there are many varieties of sunflower – a quick visit to the photo gallery at http://www.mowildflowers.net proves that – and two specialists can look at the same photo and come up with different answers.
Marlin Bates, a horticulture specialist for Missouri Extension, believes the Egypt Road/210 sunflowers are actually Helianthus salicifolius (willow-leaved sunflower).
“This plant spreads on its own (self-seeds) to form colonies, but seed is also dispersed by animals,” Bates said.
To non-specialists, a sunflower is a sunflower is a sunflower, and something that adds color to what might otherwise be a monotone roadside.
Ray County Commissioner Allen Dale said the county typically plants a purple-flowering ground cover called Crown Vetch. It’s seeded, Dale said, once the county finishes a road, drainage or bridge project and wants to restore the construction site to something like its original vegetation.
“Say we put in a (drainage) tube or something, we’ll cooperate with USDA (Agriculture Department’s Soil and Water division in Richmond) and seed along the highway,” Dale said.
Graham, the Conservation Department information officer, said Crown Vetch is a non-native, prolific ground cover that puts down shallow roots.
When the county recently freed a Crooked River logjam near Hartman Road, Dale said it had to clear a path to the river. In the process, the natural cover was uprooted.
“We’re going to go back in a put in some of that (Crown) Vetch that makes kind of a purple flower,” he said. “What it does is spread out and hold erosion down.”
Soil and Water doesn’t supply the seed, Dale said, but helps out with recommendations on what to plant.
Several years ago, when budgets weren’t as tight as they are now, MoDOT and MDC partnered in the Prairie Passage project, said M. Elaine Justus, a community-relations manager for the Highway Department.
“It was a concerted effort by the highway and conservation departments to plant native grasses and wildflowers along the highways,” she said.
Varieties of the Coreopsis are native to Missouri, and if you look closely you’ll see a likeness of the flower on some of the state’s roadside signs.
In its Adopt-a-Highway program, volunteers are offered several options of how to care for a section of roadside. One option is to plant wildflowers, which is marked by a sign decorated with the Coreopsis.
The recession has trimmed its spending, but Justus said MoDOT remains a fan of wildflowers, not just for their beauty, but as a cost-saver.
“I know MoDOT’s been looking to do more than that (placing a wildflower on its signs) because it doesn’t require as much mowing,” she said.
Armstrong, the department’s roadside management specialist, said the economic times generally limit MoDOT planting to restoration of work sites.
“We’re not doing a whole lot these days, but when we do it’s probably with a construction site,” she said. “A few years ago, we had some money and we converted about 1,100 acres to native wildflowers and native grasses.”
Until those days return, beautification rests with Mother Nature.