Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wild Roadside vs. Average Garden

Wild roadsides beat the snot out of the average person's garden when it comes to biodiversity! Maybe not your garden or my garden - but the average garden in the US offers very little biodiversity ... and I would add that is especially true in the fall.

Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
Here a buckeye butterfly gets nectar from a fall blooming thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum); beetles, bees and wasps were nearby. When you see these drifts of white flowers in the fall on the roadside, think Eupatorium.

Today’s urban and suburban landscapes have large expanses of lawn grass, green blob shrubs, blooming shrubs like knockout roses and fringeflower, and ornamental trees such as crape myrtle strategically arranged like lollipops throughout the landscape.  

These landscapes are testaments to man’s ability to “control” the natural environment and make it conform to his idea of “nature” by arranging them in groups. As a bonus, these plants respond well to pruning, allowing homeowners to create “well shaped” shrubs.

No native plants here!

Behold the blob shaped shrubs

Further control is gained by choosing “pest resistant” plants which largely consist of plants imported from other parts of the globe - shrubs like privet (Ligustrum), barberry, variegated euonymus, Indian hawthorn, and Loropetulum. Can you even imagine an insect stopping by either of those two landscapes?

Swallowtail on Pycnanthemum
These plants offer very little to the passing wildlife. While owners are happy to know that insects pass right by those yards, the butterflies often pass by as well. There are no plants for the butterflies to lay eggs on. With a reduced insect population, there are too few insects for birds on the hunt so birds are fewer as well. Sure you might see a butterfly or two as well as a few of the adaptable birds like cardinals. But those visitors are nothing compared to the wildlife that is attracted to wild roadsides.

Fall roadsides in Georgia can be a bountiful buffet for wildlife. I love the burst of blooms from plants in the Asteraceae family as well as the wild grasses (family Poaceae).

Solidago canadensis
I found a beautiful dry roadside the other day and stopped to observe it. The flowering plants were loaded with insects: butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and flies were busy enjoying the nectar and pollen those plants had to offer. The thoroughworts (Eupatorium serotinum and Eupatorium hyssopifolium) were in bloom along with the yellow goldenrods (Solidago). 

Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis)

After the insects are done pollinating these flowers (and in some cases laying eggs on the leaves themselves), the songbirds will benefit. They benefit now from eating the caterpillars that come from the eggs, and later they will come back to eat the many seeds on these plants (many tiny flowers make many tiny seeds!). The Carolina wrens have had a feast at my house this year on the caterpillars on the goldenrods.

Verbesina alternifolia

A little further down the road, I found a damp/wet roadside. It was filled with a different group of plants: ironweed (Vernonia), jewelweed (Impatiens), wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), goldenrod (Solidago), Clematis virginiana, passionflower (Passiflora), and more grasses.

Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
So when you’re considering plants to provide more fall nectar, pollen and even insects for the wildlife you love, think of the wild roadsides. Remember the members of the Asteraceae family: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), sunflowers (Helianthus),  goldenrods (Solidago), the thoroughworts and Joe pye weed (Eupatorium), and so many others - even asters themselves. Each of these provides nectar and pollen for insects, plus caterpillars and seeds for songbirds.

A former Eupatorium, now Conoclinium coelestinum
And if you've got a little piece of wild roadside, please don't mow it until spring. So many critters will thank you.

Long live the wild roadsides!


  1. I couldn't agree more which is why I plant many of these natives and more. They are gorgeous and tough right now...welcome to the critters who visit as well as a gorgeous sight to behold.

  2. Ironweed is a personal favorite--but boy, do you have to plan for its use. It IS tough as iron!

  3. A very nice post! Living outside the metro Atlanta sprawl we benefit greatly from the natural roadsides and more unkempt areas. Whenever, I drive to suburbia, I am hit by how orderly and cookie cutter all the gardens look (and as you point out non-beneficial to wildlife they are). I'll take my little piece of countryside any day! I just added some more ironweed, goldenrod, joe-pye weed this weekend.

  4. Amen! Have been avidly viditing roadside "waste places" this summer to locate wildlife/butterflies..Whilst all else flies by in their cars to their sterile lawns.. Am planting Long Island Native Plants in my garden as fast as I can .. A fellow wildlife gardener!

  5. Great piece...
    We need advocates for those wonderful patches of right-of-way blooms, I hate the way that people insist on keeping the wildflowers mowed...
    Every year more patches of blooms are lost in Macon Georgia, and it stinks!
    How are you getting the roadside shots? Every time I try to stop and "smell the flowers", there is a line of traffic behind me, and nowhere to pull off the road...

  6. Agree. I volunteer at a school butterfly garden and they pull out the goldenrod!!! Some of the best flowers grow along roadsides.

  7. Great post Ellen. The other thing about those sad landscapes is the sparseness of the plantings, no cover there for any wildlife. You definitely have some bountiful roadsides, ours are not as exciting I'm afraid as they've been taken over by agricultural weeds. Thanks for sharing all the wonderful natives you found.

  8. Excellent post and great follow up comments! :) For years now, I've been wanting to show the juxtaposition of wild, native beauty with the contrived, unnatural landscapes most people plant. I was thrilled to see your post; you make a wonderful point.

    I'd love to see more suburban areas create native landscapes where their backyards meet--not only could that provide wildlife corridors, it would also provide people with more privacy and beauty.