Sunday, September 14, 2014

Botany in Roadside Ditches

It's a seldom occasion when I champion the protection of obviously degraded landscapes like roadsides. In an effort to find Helianthus angustifolius in the southern Ozarks, however, I found myself becoming increasingly upset by the wanton and excessive use of herbicides on rural roadsides, and, worse yet, in ditches that clearly hold water (and invertebrates) much of the growing season. In this situation, the search for H. angustifolius and Solidago leptocephala, the only places we found these desired plants were on roadsides, the two roadside ditches that had been spared widespread herbicide application that serves to homogenize and kill everything in its path.

It's scary enough to learn that most of the American food supply consists of GMO foods and that industrial farms in Missouri have at their disposal a genetically altered seed bank that allows for massive-scale spraying of glyphosate and every other chemical legal on the market (with few if any actual studies on the detrimental impacts to human health....but I'm not going to address all of that and my political alliances). To add insult to injury that biodiversity in Missouri is crashing not just from the deer overpopulation problem, exotic species invasion, and development pressure, but even on the damned roadsides where a few Element of Occurrence Records persist despite plowing and logging and grazing and every other anthropogenic disturbance that degrades natural systems, even roadsides are blasted with ever-increasing potent herbicides to wipe out populations and the assorted biota that have tried to adapt to life on a roadside.

We found a ditch. We found a really nice ditch on a rural road in the Ozarks that had rare plants in it. In that one ditch, we located thriving populations of H. angustifolius (it really should be tracked by Heritage. It's just not going to magically show up on prairies in the Osage Plains where it once was in the 1950s), Solidago leptocephala (once known from sand prairie country, but likely extirpated with all the center point irrigation and plowing), and Eupatorium hyssopifolium. Next to this nice roadside that hasn't been sprayed, we found a little Heteranthera loyal to agricultural ditches and Rhynchospora corniculata, super showy. Everywhere else on the roadsides and what was once a native landscape? Herbicide, farming, herbicide, development. Even the monarch butterfly advocates are concerned about the new crops that can withstand glyphosate--all those milkweeds and other "weeds" that so many (except pollinating insects, birds, and other wildlife) find so baneful are being sprayed to oblivion.

It was actually pretty depressing to find most of the herbarium specimen records for certain fall composites restricted only to roadside ditches that have been spared herbicide treatment. It's not sustainable. And it's depressing. But I sure did see some neat plants this week.


Scott said...

I'm been wanting to ask - did you go back and collect seeds from these?

Allison Vaughn said...

I didn't, but the Helianthus would really be a fun one to grow. I'm in the process of outlining a boundary to protect the uncommon Polymnia pictured, and we have plans to burn one of the other sites, but the roadsides, especially those rice patty ditches with Thalia dealbata, are really rich and there is no level of protection against our highway department. Also, I filed EORs for these sites....