(This column was first published in the September 30, 2002 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Arguably our least attractive growing area is the roadside shoulder. Half soil, half gravel, saturated with salt left over from winter ice control, the air above it dense with exhaust fumes, mowers regularly chopping off flower heads, even the extra water draining off the road carrying tars and gasoline there is little support here for a botanical community.
What is amazing about this wasteland is how unexpectedly lush it is and, even more remarkably, how unexpectedly attractive it often is.
This is where those hardy weeds and grasses that we so carefully remove from our yards and gardens come into their own. It is almost as though they are thumbing their noses well, their petals - at gardeners.
A few days ago I rode my moped along a few miles of country road, stopping often to appreciate the masses of wildflowers. It was a delightful experience.
Although some of the flowers are already past their prime all of the teasels tan, the curly docks almost black and many of the Queen Annešs lace umbrellas gathered into brown nests for wintering insects there were still plenty of colors. Yellow, pink, blue, white, lavender and orange, all set off against a green background.
Even one of our worst enemies showed up well. The first flowers I noticed were delicate white racemes on crooked stems that also carried large heart-shaped leaves. This was the infamous Japanese knotweed, often called bamboo for its more usual tough erect tubes. Here, however, it was spreading low along the ground where it was quite attractive.
Our two best-known fall flowers, goldenrods and asters, were in evidence but this year seems not to have been a good one for asters. I found a few clusters of the lovely, deep violet New England variety but very few others.
Goldenrods on the other hand were much in evidence, whole fields of them. (Following the advice of Norm Zika, who was until he died one of this regionšs finest botanical mentors, I never try to identify goldenrod species. There are simply too many, Norm told me, and they tend to intergrade.) Unfortunately, there was also plenty of knobby green ragweed, the real culprit for those hay fever snuffles and headaches too often wrongly blamed on goldenrod.
Yellow was in fact the predominant blossom color. There were extensive patches of orange and yellow butter-and-eggs and in a wet area I found numbers of daisy-like bur marigolds. These are often called beggar ticks for a later role played by their seedpods.
Most dandelions had retreated to their flattened winter rosettes with only a few yellow flower-heads remaining, but in a several places dandelion-look-alikes - hawksbeards, hawkweeds and wild lettuce - were still much in evidence.
Hidden back from the road was a group of Jerusalem artichokes, large sunflowers over five feet tall. That they were not readily seen from the highway may well have saved them from harvesting as their roots swell into starchy tubers that serve equally well as raw or cooked vegetables. Two of their vernacular names, earth apple and Canada potato, attest to these roles. That name Jerusalem has no geographical or religious meaning but derived more likely from mispronunciation of the Italian name for this plant, girasole.
Among the many other flowers I note only that morning glory cousin, bindweed. There are 28 difficult-to-differentiate North American bindweed species but these were almost certainly the commonest: hedge bindweed. The fragility of their white blooms masks the ability of this vine to strangle the plants on which they twine while its extensive root system starves its other neighbors of nutrients.
Our roadsides are well worth a second look.-- Gerry Rising