“This is fascinating – what can we do to get this sort of thing started in North Carolina?” With these prophetic words, First Lady Dottie Martin inspired the North Carolina Department of Transportation to begin a roadside wildflower program in 1985. What started as 12 experimental acres has grown to include plantings along interstate and primary routes across the Tar Heel state.
With additional encouragement from the Garden Club of North Carolina, the North Carolina Wildflower Program now encompasses 1,500 managed acres using one-third each of annuals, perennials, and North Carolina native wildflowers. One hundred percent of these wildflowers are grown from seed, not plugs or root stock.
Working with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, North Carolina State University researchers, and much trial and error, today much more is known about planting, managing and maintaining wildflowers than in the early years. Managing grasses and undesirable broadleaf plants is the key to a successful program, and these cooperative efforts help achieve the desired results.
“North Carolina’s topography and location in the mid-Atlantic region affords us two annual planting cycles,” explains state roadside environmental engineer, Don G. Lee. “During July, autumn-blooming wildflowers like cosmos, zinnias and sunflowers are seeded along the roadsides. In October, spring and summer-blooming wildflowers like toadflax, corn poppy, rocket larkspur, lance-leaved coreopsis, and 12 other varieties are sown. These seeds germinate and over-winter as rosettes and then begin flowering the following spring.”
With 30 years of experience, roadside employees know which flowers bloom in sequence. By planning specific combinations of flowers like red poppy, California poppy, and toadflax, they manage to increase the span of blooms on individual sites. And by planting ‘meadow-effect’ beds, the plantings appear to be natural and unplanned. In contrast ‘special effect’ beds show the creativity and ingenuity of the crews installing the plantings.
Revenue generated by the sale of personalized license plates plus donations are the principle source of funding for the North Carolina Department of Transportation Wildflower Program. The program is a keystone to North Carolina’s travel and tourism industry, which is the second largest industry in the state with an annual economic impact of over 18 billion dollars.
North Carolina’s roadside wildflowers are a huge hit with residents and tourists. One traveler wrote to the NCDOT about driving from New Jersey to Florida several times a year saying, “North Carolina is the prettiest drive. The carpets of color, the lilies, wildflowers, etc., make for a very enjoyable drive. Keep up the good work. Thank you for making what could be a boring drive colorful and happy!!”
Another traveler wrote, “I just wanted to appreciate the wonderful job you guys are doing. I enjoy the drives on the North Carolina highway. They are very beautiful and of very good quality. The trees alongside most of the road add to the pleasant experience. May God bless each one of you who strive to make this happen. I hope you keep up the good work and other states follow your model.”
For more information, visit the North Carolina Wildflower Program.
Photos courtesy of the North Carolina Wildflower Program.