The Nature of Eureka

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Roadside Wildflowers

I’m the road, driving 900+ miles from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, deep into the Florida panhandle. Most drivers keep both eyes on the road, but I sneak a peek at the vegetation passing along the way, slowly watching it change along the way.

A coauthor of one of my books, the late Jim Duke, and I once submitted a proposal to a publisher for a field guide to wildflowers along Interstate 95 stretching from Maine to Florida. They rejected the idea, though the whizzing-by of forms and colors along the highway on a road trip is revealing. And frankly, it’s how most people experience wildflowers.

One of the revealing aspects is the fact that governments at the state and regional district levels have no cohesive plan. While one government agency actively develops and produces native wildflower seed for roadside beautification, another government agency fills up large tanks with herbicides to spray long, wide, brown lifeless strips along the highway.

Saves money for someone. Makes money for someone else. Invite tourists to enjoy beauty. Feed them a visual desert. No wonder the collective we—of any and all political stripes —question the functioning of government entities. But I digress. Back to the wildflowers.

Arkansas highways on the long stretch from Eureka Springs to the Louisiana border generally offer much recognizable beauty. Now we see the unmistakable orange glow of butterfly weed (Aslepias tuberosa), the purple flowers atop clumps of purple bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and various yellow-flowered members of the sunflower family which dominate wildflower color from mid-July to autumn.

Of course, in the Mississippi Delta in eastern Arkansas most roadside vegetation is dominated by long stretches of corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton. Mile after mile, town after town, it’s the same landscape, the horizon broken by the swooping bright yellow crop duster, nearly twanging the powerlines like a musician missing a note on a steel guitar in this Delta blues country.

Large, dinner-plate sized flowers of the native Hibiscus moscheotus, swamp rose mallow in colors of white to pink to rose, line the ditches between roadside and crops.

One usually finds that the same plant blooms earlier in the southern part of its range, but I was intrigued to observe that from the Arkansas Ozarks, down through the Delta, eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida panhandle, all the way to outside my hotel window at Wakulla Springs, elderflower (Sambucus canadensis) source of elderberries were all blooming at the same time. Nature always surprises.