There is enough color along our roadsides to fill any painter’s palette.
On a recent walk, I noted 25 species of wildflowers in my journal, but that is a scant representation of what is out there.
Take Goldenrod, for instance. I just jotted down the word “goldenrod,” but there are oodles of varieties. Some are elm shaped, others likened to plumes, wands, clubs, and there is even a flat-topped variety. If one is patient enough to check each species out real close and personal, the variations are striking. I am lucky enough to have been spared allergies, so my nose to blossom inspections do not drive me to the medicine cabinet later on. Seeing fields of goldenrod gently dipping windward en masse is a glorious sight to see. Color aside, there is music in the rhythms of wind stroked grasses and flowers. It brings to mind the ancient and still compelling notion of the music of the spheres.
Among our most beautiful roadside residents this time of year are asters and chicory. There is something about the latter’s cornflower blue flower that fills me with indescribable pleasure, as if it somehow had a key to my soul. At one point on the way back home I stopped, took out the camera, and kneeled down to take a few close-ups of several closely bunched flowers I did not recognize and could not readily identify with my usually reliable guidebook. A neighbor had been getting her mail and looked down the road to see me kneeling down. When we met she wondered if something was wrong. Her property line ended right at that spot. She thought I might have spotted some sort of mischief and was relieved when I told her it was just me taking a few pictures. Her eyes lighted up when I said I had been out cataloging wildflowers.
“I love wildflowers,” she said, “I just wish they would stop all that roadside mowing they do. Now I don’t have as many flowers to see.”
Given that roadsides are among the best wildflower gardens nature provides, the incessant mowing that takes place throughout the summer has always struck me as both unnecessary and aesthetically indefensible. Having driven hundreds of miles of narrow country roads in England and Ireland, banked on either side by impenetrable tangles of often lush and lovely vegetation, I see no reason for wasting time and fuel as we do in this country. The availability of cheap fossil fuels here is all too often the tail that wags the dog. There are far too many dogs out of touch with their tails. All along Route 2 in North Dakota, roadsides are protected wetlands. Our wildflowers deserve equal protection. Many people do not have the time or are physically unable to hike the deep woods where wonderful flora of all kinds abound. It would be nice if my neighbor, who used to walk three miles a day, could saunter down her road from time to time to be inspirited by the flowers she loves.
Among the gorgeous blues, yellows, whites, lavenders and pinks, the stately chicory always stands out. Poet Margaret Deland, who describes it as a “peasant posy,’ writes this about it in a poem: “In upland pastures dim and sweet-/But by the dusty road/Where tired feet/Toil to and fro.”
My own tired feet have been enlivened by its presence on many walks. There are few tableaus lovelier than a chicory stalk or two rising up out of a tangle of red clover, crown and cow vetch, sow thistle and Queen Anne’s lace, herself one of nature’s grand creations. Its beauty aside, which is the only way I have ever tasted it, chicory has often been used as a coffee substitute and, according to one source, during several wars was often mixed with coffee to keep the price down. Of the many names admirers here and in Europe have assigned chicory, my favorite is ‘blue daisy.” Ironically, Yeats reminds us that a thing of beauty is a joy forever while at the same time often standing in for carrots and offering itself up as an herbal remedy for jaundice, spleen issues and constipation. Something so beautiful need not be useless. The marriage of beauty and utility is a tough combination to beat!
Over the next several weeks asters in several hues of white and blue and lavender will dominate the fields and roadsides of our area. Goldfinches, late season breeders, will feed on chicory seed and other late blooming flowers, and as autumn opens the door to winter, fields, woods and roadsides will transition into variations of green and brown that too have their particular allure. I will walk the roads quietly, nourished by the artistry of late summer’s painterly gifts, confident that if it plays its cards right, the coming year will be a better place for flowers and humankind.