Environmental Review Toolkit
Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

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Roadside Use of Native Plants

By John T. Kartesz

Born and raised in rural farm country in western Pennsylvania, it was only fitting that I would become acquainted with wildlands and wild plants early in my childhood. Perhaps it was there, along the long meandering country roads where my family faithfully collected black raspberries and hickory nuts, that the influence of the native flora made an indelible impression on my life. Although the specific details of some of my recollections have blurred over the decades, I can still vividly recall how the buttercups, trilliums, columbines, Dutchman's breeches, and squirrel corn dotted the hillsides in the spring, and how they were replaced routinely by the asters, bonesets, and goldenrods in the fall.

In my pursuit to better understand plant diversity across the continent, I have traveled long hours along roadways in every state and virtually every Canadian province. In doing so, I have gained a deep and rich appreciation of the significance of the floras native to each of these areas. Indeed, for many aspiring botanists, their first impressions of nature are often seen through the windows of their family cars, as they travel. From the majestic beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway flora in the Great Smoky Mountains, to the spectacularly showy roadside desert flora of southern Nevada and Arizona, to the lush and intriguing Californian flora along scenic Route 1, to the vividly colorful native roadside plants of the Parks Highway in Alaska, our North American highways represent some of the most magnificent displays of wild plants in the world.

What is personally gratifying about the roadside floras, at least in those areas mentioned above, is that they are dominated nearly exclusively by native species. Unfortunately, this is not the situation for many of our highways in other locations. Historically, many of our rights- of- way have been deluged with exotic species, mostly by accident, some deliberate, and some by well- intentioned but poorly informed individuals in their attempts to "beautify" roadside landscapes. Regrettably, today, a full 17% of our North American flora, and up to 33% of some of our individual state floras (i.e. Massachusetts), are composed of plants that are exotic or introduced from foreign lands. Nowhere is this more evident than along our highways. Even along some of the most remote roads within our national parks, evidence of introductions abounds.

Over the decades, the management of roadside vegetation has changed dramatically, in part for the better, by adopting policies that are sound and in concert with nature. The various themes and principles that the Federal Highway Administration and contributors have presented in this informative work provide an enlightened understanding of the problems, along with possible solutions. It is essential that the general public along with local and regional managers become aware of the types of problems associated with roadside floras. By becoming more aware of the ideas articulated here, we may realize that more carefully designed plans and scientifically applied strategies can help avoid some of the problems of the past. Therefore, this work is both timely and necessary to stimulate meaningful thought and provocative discussion on how best to manage our roadside floras.

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Questions and feedback should be directed to Deirdre Remley (deirdre.remley@dot.gov, 202-366-0524).

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