Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Nature of Things: Wildflowers Add Color to Roadsides

By Tom Palmer Lakeland Ledger Published: Monday, August 4, 2008 While I was driving from Tallahassee to Gainesville on U.S. 27 this spring, I encountered something I regularly see in other states, but rarely in Florida: Wildflowers, lots of wildflowers, were growing on unmowed highway shoulders and medians. Most of them were coreopsis, a native yellow wildflower that also happens to be Florida's state wildflower. The rest were phlox, galliardia and others, a mix of native and non-native species. One patch was in the median north of Perry and the other was on the side of the road near Branford, if I recall correctly. I have yet to see any display like that around here. I first wrote about the dearth of roadside wildflowers in Florida in this space seven years ago. My position hasn't changed. Fortunately, a combination of events are bringing things over to my side of the issue. First is that there appears to be a different philosophy at the Florida Department of Transportation, based on responses I received from Jeff Caster, a landscape architect who oversees the wildflower program for the agency in Tallahassee. The following is a summary of information I received from him as a result of a query about the program. One issue that persists, but is improving, is developing the seed industry to collect, package, distribute and propagate wildflower seeds that are adapted to Florida's climate and soils in the quantities required for roadside plantings. Caster said wildflower research is still in its infancy, so it is still not known, for instance, why wildflowers do better north of Interstate 4 than south of I-4 (which is why you don't see much around here) or why the flowers have more production in some years than others. Another issue is DOT's roadside mowing practices. Caster confirmed that the price of fuel is forcing transportation officials to rethink the aggressive - I'd say overaggressive - roadside mowing practices that had been the norm for decades. Caster said many of the traditional mowing practices were developed in a time when gas cost 30 cents a gallon. He said motorists are going to see more unmowed, wilder roadsides, especially in rural stretches of highway. I noticed what appeared to be evidence of this practice while I was leading a butterfly survey along State Road 60 east of Lake Wales last month. I noticed the mower had made a single pass next to the shoulder - enough for a vehicle to pull over - and left the rest of the right of way unmowed. That was in stark contrast to a connecting county road, where the traditional fenceline-to-fenceline scorched-earth policy was still in effect. In fact, I mentioned this practice to Polk County Manager Mike Herr recently as one thing the county officials might consider if they were looking for places to save money in these tight budget years. Another issue in the past was DOT's habit of erecting bureaucratic barriers to local groups that wanted to work with the department to establish wildflower areas along local sections of state highways. Caster assured me those barriers are gone. If residents want to mount a wildflower project, they can contact DOT officials and work out details such as type of seed, quantity and location, he said. So what's next? Caster said he's working with the Florida Wildflower Foundation to encourage more wildflower planting around Florida in an attempt to build toward 2013, the quincentennial of the arrival of Ponce de Leon, who gave Florida its name in recognition of the bounty of wildflowers that existed here when he arrived in 1513. The Florida Wildflower Foundation is an important player in this effort. The foundation distributes about $250,000 a year from the sale of the Florida Wildflower license plates to support research grants to aid in the proliferation of native wildflowers in landscaping. The foundation works with diverse groups ranging from garden clubs and local governments to plant nurseries and landscape architects. As I have pointed out in previous columns, the wildflower planting is about more than roadside aesthetics. These flowers along roadsides sometimes serve as corridors for butterflies and other nectar-loving insects, such as bees, flies and beetles, that are part of Florida's ecology and flit among the plants, unnoticed by the majority of motorists who whiz by. These insects' role in local ecology range from plant pollination to providing food for birds, bats and other insect-eating animals. For more information on the Florida Department of Transportation's efforts, go to www.dot.state.fl.us/emo/beauty/beauty.htm. To learn more about the Florida Wildflower Foundation, visit www.floridawildflowerfoundation.org. [Tom Palmer can be reached at 863-802-7535 or tom.palmer@theledger.com. Read more views on the environment at http://environment.theledger.com.] This story appeared in print on page B1

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