The beautiful, lush plants along the roads are a blur at 60 miles-per-hour, but once you slow down and really look, a ditch full of native wildflowers and trees opens up a whole new world—at least it did for Trees Forever’s Roadways Manager Carl Barnhart.
White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) is always one plant that catches Barnhart’s eye.
“I think it just sticks out to me because it was the first roadside plant I really learned to identify,” Barnhart said.
During his first year at Trees Forever, Field Coordinator Patty Reisinger introduced him to the plant at the annual Iowa Roadside Conference.
“I always looked around at what’s in the ditches, but that day, I started to take notice of each little thing,” Barnhart said.
White wild indigo has beautiful cream-colored flowers in June and July, and after dying back in the autumn, the leaves turn a charcoal color.
Like many native plants, white wild indigo provides food for pollinators. Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s book The Living Landscape recommends the plant for landscaping in the Midwest because it is a pollen and nectar producer and provides food for caterpillars.
Native plants also absorb water that runs off the highway and adjacent fields, which reduces soil erosion, cleans the water and helps reduce flooding.
“I’ve looked at those native plants my entire life, but I never realized how important they are,” Barnhart said as he recalled his first-eye opening experiences at Trees Forever. “It’s pretty cool when you start to think about things that native plants do. So that is something that has grown in me since I’ve been here—the understanding of how important native plants are.”
Barnhart is on the administrative side of the Iowa’s Living Roadways programs, all of which help communities integrate native plants into their local landscape.
Barnhart now keeps a plant identification book handy and even finds himself pointing out native species to friends and family, but the importance of these plants affect him on a much deeper level.
“Now I see it important too as a father,” Barnhart explains. He is committed to teaching his daughter about how deep native plants’ roots go and all of the great things they do for the environment.
Find out how your community can integrate more native plants into the landscape and participate in one of the following programs:
Iowa's Living Roadways Community Visioning
Iowa's Living Roadways Trails Visioning
Iowa's Living Roadways Projects
Iowa Living Roadway Trust Fund
Pollinator Habitat Conservation