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TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TARA MITCHELL

The unseen world of little bluestem grasslands.

FROM THE MARCH 2021 ISSUE OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE MAGAZINE.

 

Roadsides are a tough place for any form of life. The land is never free of human disturbance, be it from mowing, drainage and guardrail repair, tree cutting, installation of signs and utility posts, or vehicles that don’t stay the course. The soils are often compacted, dry and infertile, and polluted from salt and runoff. Remnants of debris—plastic bags and bottles, fast-food wrappers, coffee cups, pieces of cardboard, toys, and miniature liquor bottles—lie tucked away in the vegetation. On heavily trafficked roads, there is the continuous roar of cars and trucks whizzing by, wearing, irritating, never-ending.

Roadside vegetation is increasingly becoming a jungle of nonnative plants. In some places, there exist impenetrable stands of Japanese knotweed and common reeds. Elsewhere, the ubiquitous jumble of bittersweet, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle eats away at the forest edge. In more suburban areas, barberry, burning bush, and English ivy, having escaped the confines of manicured landscapes, creep unnoticed through the understory, changing the soil chemistry and the ecology of adjacent forests. From the perspective of vegetation, the roadside is a double war zone: man versus nature and plant invaders versus long-established plant communities.

But sometimes, when the soils are dry and infertile and the land is sufficiently exposed to the wind and the beating sun, there exists (when the mowers allow) extraordinary beauty in long stretches of little bluestem grassland. These grasslands may not be particularly noticeable during the summer, but by late August, when the foliage turns a coppery-red hue and the fluffy white seeds glint in the sunlight, the land is transformed. When mixed with the pink haze of purple lovegrass in bloom and a sprinkling of goldenrod, rabbit tobacco, and aster, the combination can be stunning. (more…)

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