Ruth Bass: Roadside flowers are food for bees, butterflies and thought

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RICHMOND — Miles of blue and white decorate so many Berkshire roadsides right now, one of the pleasures of midsummer. Overnight, the nondescript chicory plant pops flowers as blue as a flower can be and, if the stars are in order, elegant Queen Anne's lace weaves among them. Both are weeds. When they show up next to iris or coneflowers, we pull them out. But as the old saw goes, a weed is merely a wildflower in the wrong place. In any case, when a city or town has not mowed them down, this July display is floral poetry.

These plants rarely emerge on residential streets where lawns are mowed right to the asphalt. And in many communities, roadside mowing chops them down. But more and more environmentalists are cautioning that frequent and very wide roadside mowing is not only hits local budgets hard, but is also destroys pollinators, especially bees and butterflies.

These stretches of semiopen space along roads and highways serve as roads and highways for bees, butterflies and other children of Mother Nature. They are connectors, a way for small creatures to move about and forage along the way. They are also breeding places for the bee and butterfly worlds.

More and more, communities are rethinking the idea of grass along the highway. In sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike, once sheared, wildflowers flourish in a canvas of yellow, blue, white and pink. It's logical to suppose that this unlandscaped color taps some anti-stress node in the brain of the driver. Well, perhaps not the one who whips past at 90, cuts in front of you, swings right and without pause completes his slalom back to the left lane.

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Sometimes these displays bring a gasp. A swath of blue bonnets stretching way down the road in Texas is an amazing sight, and it's not rare — they're everywhere. Blue lupines, occasionally punctuated with a few pink rebels, create gorgeous roadsides near Penobscot Bay in Maine and on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Along newly opened Woodlawn Avenue last week, tiny yellow flowers and purple thyme were a relief amid the GE desert. Invisible from behind the wheel, wild bees and bees from managed hives are gathering nectar.

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These plants are needed to conserve pollinators. One year, as we worried that rainy weather would keep bees from our small apple trees, a guest at the kitchen table wanted to know why we cared. We had to explain that those pretty blossoms can't make an apple unless a bee comes by to wiggle his nectar-gathering parts and create the link. A man in his 70s, he was amazed.

Environmentalists know a clear zone on either side of a road makes it easier for drivers to see a deer approaching and to read traffic signs. But they'd like that zone to be no more than six feet wide and let the pollinators have the rest until Oct. 1. By then, a wider mowing will take care of unwanted shrubs and not kill any butterflies.

The disappearance of so many monarch butterflies, for instance, is affected by the decline of wildflowers. So wild milkweed has joined holly and astilbes in a garden here, and last week the first monarchs arrived. After years of letting milkweed grow in the field, we now see monarchs in multiples and find their handsome striped caterpillars on milkweed leaves. Anyone looking for a new way to while away virus-caused home hours can use up days trying to find the little green capsule that the caterpillar will create.

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It's clear that the more cultivated lawns we have, especially if they're treated with pesticides, the fewer harbors we'll have for pollinators. That's one reason environmentalists have turned their sights on recommendations for roadsides that still have wildflowers. They've become essential sources of food and shelter.

In the meantime, roadsides have exploded with chicory, its flowers like tiny pieces of a perfect sky, and its midsummer buddy, Queen Anne's lace, with delicate blooms that look like miniature antimacassars. May few of them fall to the blade.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.


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