NEW MARKET, Va. - Remember the clumps of iris and daffodils you saw flowering along rural roadsides while on that cross-country trip last year? The brilliant poppies and butterfly weeds blooming in interstate medians?
Real dazzlers, weren't they? And that's exactly what they're supposed to be -- eye-openers. Think of them as attention-getting, accident-preventing displays for drowsy drivers.
"We choose many flowers simply for their visibility," said Scott Johnson, landscape program manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "You'll see us often using beds of poppies in spring and cosmos in summer. Both give a great show.
"But another purpose is safety," Johnson said. "Studies have shown the wildflower displays keep people from getting highway hypnosis. Big splashes of randomly appearing color break up the trip more. Some blooms will just blow your socks off."
Roadside flowers also tend to discourage littering. "People won't toss their trash as much because they don't want to desecrate the area," Johnson said.
Most states with the help of federal "enhancement money" sponsor highway beautification programs of one kind or another. Some go exclusively with wildflowers, using their official state flower (or shrub) as a centerpiece. That would mean, for example, seeing an abundance of apple blossoms in season along roads in Arkansas, goldenrod in Nebraska, Indian paintbrush in Wyoming, rhododendron (big laurel) in West Virginia and bluebonnets thick in fields and along busy highways in Texas.
Others states opt for popular and affordable perennials like daylilies. Still others "double-crop," using bulbs for instant color in spring followed by a second planting of long-blooming annuals. And then there are the themes.
"We'll be planting a lot of red, white and blue next year when Jamestown celebrates its 400th anniversary," Johnson said. "There will be a big push statewide, with many communities doing the same thing."
Florida is adding to the number of its wildflower displays to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the nation's interstate highway system.
"You'll be seeing a great deal more color as you travel Florida freeways this summer," said Tate Martin, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
But you don't want the sites to be so garish or grow so large that they block the view or become distractions, said Nile Easton, a public information officer with the Utah Department of Transportation.
"That's becoming a problem with some of the private roadside memorials," he said. "Some were so elaborate and stacked with flowers and signs that people were swerving as they looked. It constituted a driving hazard."
Many state and federal agencies have instructive Web Sites for people wanting to brighten the look of their properties.
The Florida Wildflower Advisory Council recommends a lengthy list of wildflowers for private use. The Federal Highway Administration, Oklahoma and Virginia are among those providing links suggesting where to buy, what to plant and when to plant wildflowers in your yard or along neighboring roadways.
On the Net:
For more information about roadside flowers, see this Federal Highway Administration Web Site: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/rdsduse/index.htm. Or check the wildflower program suggested by the Virginia Department of Transportation: http://www.virginiadot.org/infoservice/prog-wflowr-default.asp.
You can contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick(at)netscape.net.