Just beyond the guard rail, hearty green stems support lavender orbs that careen off in directions that lack discernible order. Bees sip on nectar; feet become laden with gold dust– the currency of reproduction. Surely these flowers smell good, too. On closer inspection, the orbs consist of dozens—maybe even hundreds—of slender, white flowers crowned with the light purple hue that deceivingly seemed to make up the entirety of the orb. I later discovered the name of the plant that first stole my attention as I walked down the winding strip of asphalt that leads visitors in and out of enchanted corridors at The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
It’s called Teasel. While the July sun freckled the back of my neck, my deep-seated compulsion for ownership took over. Maybe store-front-window advertising came from the human desire to stop on the side of a trail and pick whatever flower was pretty enough to break that hunter-gatherer sense of focus. But Teasel flowers aren’t for picking. Spikes climb every stalk like radial ladder rungs. Spindly sessile leaves encage the flowers from the pinch of a reaching thumb and forefinger, but permit the pollenating bumble bees that seem to ignore the sharp tips of the green enclosure. If I truly want this flower, I’m going to pay in a currency that’s only measured in splinters, pokes, and stubbornness.
While these flowers may seem like the Cain and Abel of roadside plants—one deceptively purple, calloused and spiky, the other a smooth column of green fiber, boldly displaying its petals—their similarities transcend their location both geographically and on the visible light spectrum. Despite their seeming permanence in the landscape, they are both outsiders, an ocean away from whichever Eden they once called home. Instead, they classify as invasive species, crowding out the native species that formerly grew in these areas. Roadsides provide the perfect environment for these plants: relentless, direct sunlight and dry soil with low nutrients. As ecologically detrimental as these plants may be, they grow and reproduce successfully within the land the American highway system has so graciously provided them—some 12 million acres of rights-of-way bordering scalding blacktop and rumble strips.Continuing on my walk, past the cluster of Teasel, I approach patches of a different purple flower with deeper hues that resemble indigo rather than the pastel lavender of Teasel.
Fanning out in fleshy petals, it’s Chicory. Unlike Teasel, its stem invests in numbers rather than defense mechanisms. Spikes are exchanged for more flowers—or at this point in mid-July—more buds that will soon peel back their sepals as the bluish hues of purple find the daylight. In the sun, they will dot roadsides and highway embankments across Kentucky until they die and bloom again next summer. I pick an entire plant—four flowers at once. Maybe that’s another market strategy we stole from nature: the discount, used in times of abundance. I don’t regret my decision to remove one of the plants. Chicory is in no way endangered; I have seen the plant follow the curve of roadside ditches for over a mile at a time.
With plants such as Teasel and Chicory, there are two schools of thought. The environmental scientist shudders at the sight of an invasive weed—a pretty, flowering weed nonetheless—as it engulfs parcels of land that were once home to an assortment of native species. The biologist, however, praises the plant that can make its home in an inhospitable environment and thrive. As for me, I’m going to continue to enjoy the natural (and in some cases, invasive) beauty of Louisville’s parks.
The Parklands of Floyds Fork is one of the nation’s largest new urban parks projects and is a donor-supported public park. Under construction now and opening in phases, it is a system of four new parks, connected by a park drive, world-class trail system and the Louisville Loop. 21st Century Parks is the nonprofit responsible for the development and long-term management of The Parklands. Avery Jones is a summer intern at 21st Century Parks, participating in the Yale Bulldog Program in Louisville. You can find out more about The Parklands and how to support the project through membership atwww.theparklands.org or by calling 502-584-0350.