By recent reports, the Finger Lakes Region is not in a state of drought – yet. However, local yards are brown enough to make the Mojave Desert look lush in the dry season. Even so, as I am out and about I notice that the landscape is not without color as some roadside flowers flourish even without the rain.
Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), the origin of which is traced to Eurpoe, western Asia and northern Africa, has been naturalized in the United States. While it is considered an invasive species in some areas, this prickly plant does have value for wildlife including being a host for some butterfly species, as a source of pollen for honey beas, and the seeds are a favored food for goldfinches. The bull thistle requires two growing seasons to go to seed, passing its first year as a rosette of leaves and setting down a large, fleshy taproot which aids in its tolerance to drought. The second year, the plant grows to three to six feet in height, forming a flowerhead called an inflorescence with pink-purple florettes, giving it asthetic value for gardens.
Common chickory (Cichorium intybus) is a relative of the dandelion characterized by bright blue flowers. Also naturalized in the US from Europe, common chickory can grow to be up to five feet tall, though I usually observe them at about two feet in height. It sets a deep root which helps it resist drought-like conditions. As a relative of the endive sold in the produce department of stores, it is its self edible if bitter in taste. Common chicory has many medicinal uses and is widely used in agriculture to help reduce parasite loads of livestock.
Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), also known as wild carrot, is a native to Europe and southwest Asia and now found widely across the US. Domesticated carrots are cultivars of a sub-species of Queen Anne’s lace. The plant is characterized by its circular umbrel of tiny, white flowers with one red flower in the center. The taproot, which aids in this plant’s ability to flourish during dry years, is edible, though amatures beware for a mis-identification might land you with poison hemlock and a nasty allergic reaction or even death. Queen Anne’s lace has also long been used as a contraceptive and abortifacient, so women of child-bearing age should take caution when using wild edible plants or even eating second-generation domestic carrots that may have come from seed stock prodcued from cross-pollination with Queen Anne’s lace.
While in wet years you might madly try to erradicate these plants from your garden, in other, dry years, it may be worth while to take a moment to appreciate them. With subtle beauty and adaptations that make them fierce competators, they are able to brighten up the roadsides when the weather is too extreme for everything else.