An early July ramble down just about any country road in the Capital Region will reward the traveler with views of Mother Nature’s daytime fireworks display — bursts of orange day lilies, pink dianthus, white-and-yellow daisies and brilliant blue chicory.
The flowers spring from gravelly soil heated by asphalt and tainted by road salt, beautifying places where no one would ever bother to plant a garden.
Most of the plants are introduced species that took root when soil was disturbed during the road-building process, said Jackie Donnelly of Saratoga Springs, a plant enthusiast whose blog “Saratoga Woods and Waterways” documents the wide variety of flora and fauna found in and around the Capital Region.
“They’re roadside plants. They’re very pretty though. Who could not love Queen Anne’s lace? My daughter carried it in her bridal bouquet. And chicory is as beautiful a blue as you could imagine,” she said.
Two native species that bloom by the roadside are goldenrods and asters, which flower later in the season.
This year, everything’s blooming on schedule, unlike in 2012, when wildflowers bloomed three weeks earlier than usual due to a lack of winter snow and the unseasonably mild spring, Donnelly noted.
The large amount of rain that has soaked the region recently hasn’t affected this season’s wildflowers, but the heat is taking its toll, said Ruth Schottman of Burnt Hills, who has been teaching natural history classes since 1965 and for years led spring wildflower workshops for the Adirondack Mountain Club.
“I’ve noticed that on these very hot days the chicory flowers close very early. They only last one day, but normally they will open very early in the morning and then close sometime mid-afternoon to late afternoon. [Thursday] I noticed that they closed by noon already,” she said.
Non-native plants often are looked down upon due to their invasive nature, but roadside flowers are an exception, according to Schottman.
“Many of them are alien plants that found a good home and nobody accuses them of becoming invasive because they can’t take the shade in our forests. They may invade people’s lawns, but that itself is a foreign element,” she pointed out.
Lately, some not-so-attractive invasive species have been crowding out their prettier roadside counterparts, said Donnelly. Wild chervil, which looks a bit like Queen Anne’s lace, is one of them, and garlic mustard, which has bunches of small, white blooms, is another.
A flower-strewn roadside offers a tempting opportunity to pick a bouquet, but not everything that blooms there should be picked. Wild parsnip, which has a flower that looks sort of like a yellow version of Queen Anne’s lace, is one to bypass.
“People should avoid brushing against it or cutting it and getting juice from the plant on themselves because if it’s still on their skin and they are exposed to the sun, they will get quite a bad sunburn in that area,” Schottman cautioned.
When picking wildflowers, it’s also smart to keep an eye out for poison ivy, another native plant that is becoming more prolific on the roadsides, Donnelly said.
“It has rather pretty little flowers dangling in clusters,” she said, noting that the noxious vine blooms in June.
Despite its rash-inducing properties, the plant is valuable to wildlife, Donnelly noted. Its berries provide food for birds and its flowers are full of pollen, which is sought after by bees.
Goldenrods, with their sunny yellow plumes, are another roadside plant that is not often appreciated by the public. They’re widely thought to cause allergies, but that’s not actually the case, Donnelly said.
“Any plant that’s that showy has super heavy pollen that doesn’t waft on the air. It has to be that showy to attract pollinators because its pollen can’t waft on the air. The problem is it blooms at the same time as ragweed, but ragweed is almost invisible as a flower. It’s just this little, tiny greenish thing, so nobody notices ragweed. They only notice gorgeous goldenrod,” she explained.
Ragweed pollen is known to cause hay fever in those who are allergic. Its symptoms including sneezing, itchy eyes and a stuffy nose.