Our roadsides tell a story

Blue flag iris/Photo courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery
Blue flag iris/Photo courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery

By Alyssa Nyberg

As the snow that covers our roadsides finally begins to melt away, I can’t help but wonder what treasures we will find. Although we drive them every day, our roadsides are one of the most commonly overlooked natural spaces in our communities. Our roadsides tell a story. They tell about the present but also the past.

Beer cans, plastic bags, soda cans, Styrofoam containers strewn along the roadsides tell of the on-the-go society that we are. Occasionally, there is the random shoe, always just one. I have always wondered how you can lose just one shoe.

Non-native invasive plants like Canada thistle, reed canary, and purple loosestrife became a problem along our roadsides beginning in the late 1900s. The seeds of these plants are spread accidentally by mowers and cars and can overtake an area in just a few short years.

The deep rich greens of the fescue and brome grass, which are the dominant groundcover along the roadsides of Kankakee Sands, are European grasses. These species were shown to grow well on poor soils and have a long growing season, so they were planted in the mid-1950s.

Delicious asparagus spears found along the road remind us of when settlers were establishing homesteads in the area around the late 1800s.

But amongst all these different plants and debris, there are little gems of our natural history from a time when the Potawatomi Indians roamed the land. Plants native to our Newton County soils can still be found growing in our roadsides, and not just any old plant, but special native plants with a high value to pollinators and native fauna. In the dry roadsides, we find native plants such as the phlox, blazing star and puccoon, reminders of the time when savanna once covered the dry sandy soils. Along the ditches and in wet areas we still find the blue flag iris, cardinal flower, gentians and a myriad of sedges from when Beaver Lake and its backwaters covered the landscape.

These roadside native plant populations were the foundation of our 8,000 acre prairie restoration in Newton County. Small amounts of seed from these native plant stands were harvested. They were combined with the seed harvested (with permission) from private properties and Department of Nature Resources properties and were used to create our 80-acre wildflower nursery. The bulk of the seed used in our restoration plantings has come from this nursery, located across the street from North Newton High School.

We are not the only ones who appreciate the roadsides. All during the year, they serve as wildlife areas. Birds delight in the seeds of the plants growing along the roadsides. Animals take cover. Birds of prey find their dinner.

At Kankakee Sands, we do our best to eradicate non-native species along our roadsides and encourage the native prairie plants. We also discourage tall plant species which hinder the ability to view the intersections. We also have dedicated volunteers who pick up the garbage tossed out onto these important acres of land.

What story does your roadside tell? Will you change the story? You can. Pick up garbage, remove invasive species and encourage native plants.

Our roadsides reflect our community’s values. We all take pride in our community. Let’s take pride in our roadsides too.

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The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.


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