Roadside Flowers

  • By Josh Shaffer
  • Photography by Joey and Jessica Seawell

The Department of Transportation’s wildflower program brings back-road scenery to North Carolina’s busiest highways.


Little of beauty shows up on the side of a highway.

It’s where cars break down. It’s where hitchhikers stand. It’s where litterbugs toss drink cans and cigarette butts.

There’s nothing much to see but a gas station sign on a pole, a shredded tire from a tractor-trailer, or the remains of an unlucky deer.

Nobody fusses much about these places, places we pass in a hurry on the way to somewhere prettier.

But for 27 years, North Carolina has persisted with the stubborn idea that those humdrum strips of road should offer some reward beyond six lanes and reflective highway markers.

A driver crossing the state on Interstate 40 should see more than asphalt and weeds between Wilmington and Asheville. The hot, flat ribbons linking Raleigh and Charlotte ought to show off scenery more often found in meadows — the catchflies, the toadflax, the oxeye daisies. As a driver, the sudden flash of red from an acre of corn poppies ought to make you pull off on the roadside, stop the car, step over the bits of gravel and broken glass, and walk knee-deep into the blooms. 

Even in this budget-slashing era, the North Carolina Department of Transportation still treats 1,500 acres of lowly roadside as the state’s flower garden.

You find lanceleaf coreopsis on Exit 2 of Interstate 26 outside Asheville, dame’s rocket in the median of Interstate 77 near Charlotte, and sweet William along N.C. Highway 11 in Hertford County. 

“We soften the blow of what the concrete does to the landscape,” says Don Lee, roadside environmental engineer for NCDOT. “There’s an art to it.”

All dressed up

In Raleigh, much of the NCDOT’s work involves asphalt and concrete rather than fertilizer and wildflower seed. The bulk of the attention goes to managing a long list of requests for bigger, wider highways and divvying up construction money from the state’s pot.

Most civil engineers excel at tearing up the ground, not tending it.

But in 1985, North Carolina first lady, Dottie Martin, began dressing up the state’s roadways with help from tourism promoter Hugh Morton, who owned Grandfather Mountain.

She gained inspiration from Lady Bird Johnson, who lobbied for wildflower protection, handed out beautification awards, and wrote checks to the winners. Johnson’s efforts soon saw bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes sprouting from the sides of Texas highways.

Purists in the horticultural world sometimes frown on North Carolina’s program, which relies on imported seeds rather than native species. They call it misleading to sprinkle nonnative flowers across North Carolina and boast about natural beauty. Today, native plants make up only about a third of the plantings, and most seeds come from large wholesalers.

But the effort to spruce up something as bare as a highway also draws envious letters from other states, including one from the garden club of Michigan.

“One lady told me that any state that cared that much about wildflowers, she wanted to live there,” says Nancy McLean, a Raleigh resident and member of the Garden Club of North Carolina.

The wildflower program’s comparatively small budget, about $1.5 million a year, keeps it going these days as the government trims other programs. Most of the money comes from the sale of vanity license plates.

And the competitive spirit helps, too. The staff members of 14 NCDOT divisions statewide vie for annual bragging rights. In 2011, top honors went to division one, which stretches from Williamston to Nags Head. Members of the state garden club serve as judges. They pore over photographs of median strips and interchanges, looking for maintenance, proper growth, bloom longevity, and visibility.

“You look for wow factor,” says club member Anne Clapp. “You look for, ‘At 80 miles per hour, are you going to stop?’ ”

‘Look at me’

Keep in mind, these flowers spring to life in soil meant to have concrete spread on top of it. 

The land NCDOT tries to turn into the state’s welcome mat comes from the bottom of a dredge pit. When the nutrient-starved earth arrives for testing, the lab technicians often ask, “Where did you find this stuff?”

Along the coast, NCDOT staff members sometimes give up on the sandiest soil and just plant longleaf pines.

Once they sow and fertilize the seeds, the plants are on their own. All workers can do then is pray for rain, and hope against hurricanes and tornadoes.

In the mountains, the soil is often too rocky to plant flowers, and big swaths of acreage are scarce. But tourists combing the Blue Ridge Parkway demand color.

“They may not come just for the flowers, but they expect them to be there,” says Richard Queen of NCDOT division 14, which covers the state’s western tip. “If they don’t turn out as good, we hear about it.”

One important strategy is juggling seeds to maximize showtime. A wildflower’s bloom lasts just a few weeks, and the rest of the year, it looks like a weed.

So you plant them in shifts.

On the coast, workers run a seasonal rotation: first a mix of oxeye daisies and coreopsis, then white and yellow daisies, then brown-eyed Susans — three different blooms all in the same patch of ground.

If it’s horticultural engineering, so be it. It’s nice. It’s nostalgic.

Don Lee started in the wildflower program near the beginning of his NCDOT career, and he admits that at first, he didn’t get it. But now he receives calls from corporate bosses requesting wildflower plots on the interchanges outside their headquarters because they know that the flowers impress high-dollar visitors.

“They get off at the airport and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Tourists also call and ask for the most flower-heavy routes, so NCDOT lists them online, letting a driver track them county by county, highway by highway.

But Lee is most impressed by how many people voluntarily send money, without being asked, to support a state government program.

“We get checks in the mail all the time,” he says. “Checks!”

It takes a tough plant to make it in the state’s toughest dirt, a spirited flower that doesn’t mind heat, notice thirst, or wither from constant exhaust and truck noise.

It takes a special flower to shout, “Look at me!” from a stage as unflattering as the side of a highway, and an uncommon state to sow beauty in a landscape of litter.

Western Wildflowers

The NCDOT keeps detailed records of plantings and blooming times. Visit for more information.

Buncombe County

Interstate 40 (Exit 37)
Mixed Corn Poppy, Oxeye Daisy

Clay County

U.S. Highway 64
Oxeye Daisy, Red Corn Poppy, Catchfly

Haywood County

Interstate 40 (Exit 27)
Oxeye Daisy, Red Corn Poppy

Henderson County

Interstate 26
Oxeye Daisy, Coreopsis

Piedmont Wildflowers

Catawba County

Interstate 40
Toadflax, California Poppy

Davidson County

Interstate 85 and U.S. Highway 64
Sweet William, Nodding Catchfly

Durham County

U.S. Highway 501
Mixed Corn Poppy, Pink Catchfly, Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Iredell County

Interstate 77
Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Red Corn Poppy

Scotland County

U.S. Highway 74
Oxeye Daisy, California Poppy

Eastern Wildflowers

Bertie County

U.S. Highway 13/17
Mixed Corn Poppy, White Clover, Pink Catchfly

Carteret County

N.C. Highway 24 and N.C. Highway 58 Interchange
Mixed Corn Poppy, Toadflax, Red Corn Poppy

Dare County

U.S. Highway 264
Red Corn Poppy, Pink Catchfly

Duplin County

U.S. Highway 117 and N.C. Highway 50
Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Granville County

Interstate 85 at U.S. Highway 158
Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Sampson County

Interstate 40 East (Mile Marker 355)
Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Wayne County

U.S. Highway 117 and U.S. Highway 70
Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Wake County

U.S. 264 East (before N.C. Highway 39)
California Poppy

Wilson County

Interstate 95 and U.S. Highway 301
Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh. His most recent story for Our State was about the North Carolina State University Vet School (March 2012).

This entry was posted in April 2012, Gardens & Gardening, Outdoors. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Roadside Flowers

  1. Larry Cravey says:

    I’m with Judy (above) about the planting of milkweed to attract monarch butterflies. Since they seed prolificaly and spread by rhyzomes, they are a problem to grow in small gardens, but some of the sunny spaces on the highway would be just the place for a “stand”.

  2. curt peters says:

    On Saturday, I was driving south on i-85 and saw two patches of sunflowers. One was located just south of exit 154 near Meban and the other located just below mile marker 117.
    Can you tell me the exact locations; I’d like to photograph them…safely.

  3. Dalma Werth says:

    We just returned from North Myrtle Beach to Ohio. via I 74/76 up thru Rockingham, Greensboro and Winston Salem. Along the highway were these real pretty tall, spikey flowers that looked puffy. Could you tell me what they are?
    Really enjoyed traveling thru your state, very pretty scenery. Looking forward as more of your state roads become Interstates.

  4. Susan Doyle says:

    Last weekend we traveled from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. so my husband could participate in the Nation’s Triathlon. Let me just say what a pleasure it was zooming along Interstate 85 through North Carolina! The highway was smooth, free from construction, but the best thing was the glorious wildflowers all along the route in particular, the sunflowers, I think outside Greensboro. We all need more beauty in our lives. What a gift you have given travelers through your state. Thank you very much!

  5. Judy Overby says:

    I am very grateful to the NC D.O.T. for making up for some of the damage done to the natural beauty of our state and the habitat for songbirds and beneficial insects that has been destroyed by utility companies choosing to use chemicals to control “weeds” and underbrush. I feel these companies are partially to blame for the endangerment of the Monarch Butterfly. Thanks to the D.O.T. this butterfly has a chance within North Carolina to survive it’s migration with the available food source. I would like to see them plant milkweed, the host plant of this butterfly. I am thankful also for the plants available as a food source for our American Goldfinch. There is a field of Zinnias planted near where I live in Lee Co. The Goldfinch nest late in the season allowing seeds of flowers to mature to feed their babies which is their only food source. Thank you NC D.O.T. for the zinnias and sunflowers and all the flowers that beautify our state!

  6. Herb Lower says:

    I always enjoy driveing south and will go a few miles out of my way to make sure part that any drive passes me thru the carolinas. Love the flowers.

  7. Pingback: Maypop | Our State Magazine

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  9. DELLA ROGERS says:

    HELLO. It would be nice if those wild flower seeds were available for the public to buy.
    I went to the store and attempted to buy corn poppy, sweet william, etc… but i would like
    to just buy a pound or 2 of a mixture, and spread them around in my neighborhood.

    • Judy Overby says:

      If you send an email to the NC D.O.T. they can tell you where to purchase the wildflower seeds.

  10. Dianna Suttle says:

    After having traveled across our nation by car on several occasions, and living outside of N.C. for over 20 years, I was pleasantly surprised to return home to the beauty of the roadside wildflowers! What an unexpected treat for the eyes. North Carolina is indeed one of the most beautiful states in the union.

    • Hi Dianna,
      My eldest daughter is 8 months pregnate and I wish to photograph her in an open field of wildflowers. Can you give me a location or an area that has flowers?
      Many thanks!

  11. Brian Tucker says:

    Hello – I just had an idea for some of the vacant or in need of areas along the Beltline, 40 E & W , and other state maintained roads : Maybe some of the area towns that have garden clubs could take over an existing flower garden along the highway, maintain it, and the state might be able to provide a sign designating there pride and joy of that garden area. Just a thought to help save tax dollars and let garden clubs show what they can do. I live in the Raleigh area and know of a once beautiful Day Lily spot on 40 near Rock Quarry Rd …. it looked so very nice when it was in full bloom. Now I don’t know what has happened to it. Thanks, Brian

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