Roadside markers mean roads, of course. Blacktop, hazard lights, and dodging traffic to reach the sign off the opposite lane of the state highway. But we’re also talking roadside, and that’s where the greenery comes in.
New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation contracts the seeding of flowers along sections of interstates (and some state routes, too). To find out more about that program, you can contact NHDOT’s landscape specialist. In this post, though, I’m talking about real wildflowers: the kind that crop up in empty lots, forest floors, and other uncultivated places. Rugged plants undiscouraged by poor soil, odd drainage, and the occasional wheel crushing. Natives, welcome wanderers, or invasives, they add interest and beauty to our travels. These are some of my favorites, grouped road warrior-style, by how you can find them in New Hampshire.
Drive-by big bangs for your buck
You don’t need to stop the car to enjoy these showy gems. In fact, you may have some in your yard; it’s just that the delight of serendipitously spotting these in passing can’t be beat.
Day lilies: You see these close to houses. The bright orange “classic” variety were imported from Europe and live in drainage ditches because gardeners thinned a patch and simply tossed the corms (bulbs) out of the planting area. See them late June through late July.
Black-eyed susans: The wild ones are mostly yellow-petaled. They are typically biennial, which means you don’t see flowers until year two. If you want these at home, try taking a seedy deadhead home and scattering the seeds. Blossom mid July-mid September.
Rosa rugosa: Also known as beach rose. They love nutrient-poor, sandy soil, which is why they make great dune borders. They’re technically invasives, but I haven’t heard the complaints about them as I have over the Dreaded Purple Loosestrife, which one must admit is quite pretty, too. Roses flower in June, then develop attractive fruit called rose hips that make good tea, jam, and wild fauna food.
You’re out standing in the field
These charmers are little; you can see them best by getting your face right down close. Fortunately, they tend to like more grassy companion plants than those three listed previously. I name them in the plural because they can color the ground when in number.
Violets: I know that you can identify violets. I’m just saying that they’re lovely, especially in number. They bloom in our yard just before the lawn gets too long to obscure them, in May.
Orange hawkweeds: AKA orange paintbrush, red daisy, flameweed, devil’s weed, grim-the-collier, devil’s-paintbrush, fox-and cubs, king-devil, missionary weed. Look rather like dandelion flowers, but with a few differences. First, the flowering stalks produce a group of flowers, rather than just one. Also, they have simpler shaped leaves, not the spiky “lion’s teeth” type. If you consider them as weeds (i.e., they’re growing in your lawn), they pull up easily. They seed with the same white blowaway puffballs. The first 15 Google sources I saw about hawkweed were “noxious plant” sites, i.e., invasives. Durn them ferners!
Bluets: These are super-tiny (blossom-span about ½ inch) and the palest blue. Also known as quaker ladies, they tend to grow in little bunches. You can see them by squinting toward the ground in the spring months.
Pull over and show me some ID
You’ll probably see these from a distance, but need to get out of the car to really appreciate these flowers. Here’s your vocabulary word of the day: these plants are ruderal, meaning they like lousy, disturbed soil such as that found on roadsides and in vacant lots.
Common mullein: These are weird, phallic beasts that can grow to over six feet tall in their second year (they, too, are biennials). The long flowering stalk is covered with myriad yellow florets. They can flower any time between June and September.
Butter and eggs: A much nicer name than its Latin, Linaria vulgaris, or other common name, common toadflax. Not to bicker, but the inner orange is more like egg yolk, and the outer like egg white (except in the variety with light yellow instead of white). At least I agree that the name properly attributes richness to the coloration. They last well in a vase arrangement. Look for them June through October.
Bouncing bet: Or common soapwort, crow soap, wild sweet William, or soapweed. Colonial-timers might have called a perky English washerwoman “Bouncing Bet,” and apparently, the plant produces a juice that lathers up soapily, neutralizing parental complaints toward children who tumble around in the scrub. These also bloom long, from June to October.
The secret garden
These plants seem happier in woodsy soil, so they’re technically not usually roadside. But they round out a bunch of my favorites, so here you are.
Canadian mayflower: I used to think of those single glossy heart-shaped leaves under the evergreens as lame-os of the kingdom Plantae. It turns out that, when they grow their second leaf, and if it’s May (Mother’s Day weekend is ideal), you’ll see their sweet little blossoms, which call to mind a half-gone puff of smoke.
Columbine: These are specimen plants of the wild (but if you want one, go to a garden center, please). Finding one will make you glow inside, as if you’ve uncovered buried treasure. Unmistakable in yellow and red splendor, nodding spurred flowers on graceful slender stalks. Again, hiking in the woods on Mother’s Day will improve your chances of seeing one.
Lady’s-slipper: Round out your May walk by spotting a rare orchid. “Showy” is pink-lipped and white petaled (and native); “yellow” is, well, yellow, but with reddish-brown petals and sepals (petal-looking things that are not petals, to use the botanical definition). These are technically not illegal to dig up and transplant, but don’t waste your time or ruin the chance find of another hiker–they’re virtually impossible to grow outside of the nanoenvironment where you find them.