Award-winning roadside wildflowers

Roadside wildflowers
Tickseed, Lyreleaf sage and fleabane flourish along SR 520. Photo by Sondra Driscoll

East Orange County roadside wildflower project wins award

by Loraine O’Connell

In a first for Florida, a project to manage naturally occurring wildflowers — versus displays that have been planted — has been recognized for its success.

The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs recently gave a “Paths of Sunshine” award to Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District 5 for successfully protecting and nurturing a natural wildflower display along a stretch of State Road 520 in east Orange County.

Sondra Driscoll, a longtime resident of east Orange, initiated the project about 18 months ago by reaching out to the Florida Wildflower Foundation (FWF) with a concern. “I drove out in the morning and there was a sea of wildflowers,” she recalls. “It just made my day.” When she drove back from her errands, though, “they were all mowed down.”

Driscoll had just attended a meeting during which FWF Executive Director Lisa Roberts talked about how her organization was assisting with FDOT’s wildflower program. She contacted Roberts, who got in touch with FDOT District 5 wildflower coordinator Allen Mattox. He contacted the FDOT Brevard Operations center, under which the road’s maintenance falls.

Meanwhile, Roberts asked Driscoll to email District 5 officials photos she had taken of the site before it was mowed. Driscoll followed through with shots of Lyreleaf sage, Mock bishopsweed, Fleabane and Coreopsis. FDOT’s response was immediate, she says.

FDOT’s wildflower program “has been around for a while,” says Mark Harper, contracts coordinator for Brevard Operations. Statewide, he says, “we try to pick a spot, plant seeds and cultivate them to grow.” But Driscoll’s request was different because the wildflowers were already there – all they required was time to set seed so they could thrive.

Within a day of seeing Driscoll’s photos, Harper drove to the site. Sure enough, “the mowers were on 520 headed in that direction,” he recalls. “They would have been there by the end of the day.”

Harper called the mowing contractor to discuss alternatives. He also talked to Roberts, who contacted FDOT in Tallahassee to request that an FDOT consultant visit the site.

The consultant “walked the area with us and found even more species,” Harper says. As a result, FDOT designed a mowing plan for the site, including a no-mow zone.

“When we do mow, we won’t cut it as low,” Harper says. “We want to keep the competing weeds out to make for a more robust [wildflower] plot. We mow only a few times a year, and timing is critical.” The site near Wedgefield stretches about 6,500 feet along S.R. 520’s south side, Harper said, plus about 2,500 feet on its north side.

In addition to the 520 project, FDOT and FWF collaborated on a plan for an area on east SR 50 near Savage Christmas Creek Preserve where threatened Leafless beaked orchids grow naturally. The site includes about 1,000 feet on the south side of the S.R. 50 and 4,000 feet of the median.

Based on the projects’ success, FDOT recently announced intentions to protect 2.3 miles of wildflowers along SR 520 and three-quarters of a mile along SR 50.

Says Harper: “The neat thing about wildflowers is the more you look, the more you find.”

Calopogon multiflorus
Grasspink orchid (Calopogon sp.) blooming on SR 50.
Photo by Sondra Driscoll

FDOT’s Districts 2 and 3 also received “Paths of Sunshine” awards from the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs for wildflower projects that were planted. All winners receive wildflower seeds to plant along their respective districts’ roads. The Florida Wildflower Foundation provides matching seed awards. 

Loraine O’Connell is a freelance writer in Central Florida.