- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Flowering plants originally from Europe dominate many country roadsides in southeastern Pennsylvania farmland, as elsewhere in North America.
Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, butter-and-eggs, bouncing-bet, alfalfa, red clover, two kinds of thistles, common mullein, and teasel are some of the more common European plants blooming profusely and beautifully along many cropland roads in midsummer.
They create lovely, natural bouquets that brighten roadsides and provide nectar and pollen for insects and seeds for mice and certain types of small birds.
Queen Anne’s lace can be up to 4 feet tall and has flat clusters of tiny, white flowers. This is the ancestor of domestic carrots and has flowers similar to those on that vegetable. Dried flower clusters curl up in winter and resemble small birds’ nests.
Chicory can reach 4 feet and has blue blossoms that generally only bloom in the morning. Yellow-and-black male American goldfinches, and other kinds of birds, are striking among chicory flowers when eating its seeds. Large, mixed patches of Queen Anne’s lace and chicory seem to reflect blue skies, patched with white cumulus clouds.
Butter-and-eggs are so named because of their bright-yellow blossoms. This is a kind of snapdragon that has snapdragon-shaped blooms. Butter-and-eggs probably escaped from flower gardens.
Bouncing-bet, or soapwort, according to legend, is named for a well-endowed washerwoman. This species has pale-pink blossoms. And, when crushed, its leaves lather into soap, a reason European colonists introduced it to North America.
Alfalfa and red clovers, both escapees from hayfields, have lovely flowers. Those of alfalfa are purple and sweet-smelling, while those of red clovers are hot pink. The blossoms of both plants are attractive to a variety of bees, butterflies, and other insects that sip their nectar while pollinating those blooms.
The invasive nodding and Canada thistles have pretty, pink flowers on bristly stems. But bees, butterflies, and other insects sip nectar from their blossoms and small, seed-eating birds, particularly American goldfinches, consume their seeds.
Goldfinches delay nesting until midsummer, when they use seed fluff from thistles to line their dainty nurseries.
Common mulleins are biennial plants that have one or two flower stalks during their second summer. Each flower stalk has several yellow blooms that produce seeds in little pockets after they are pollinated. Seeds fall out of the pockets, and many are eaten by birds.
Medieval Europeans dipped mullein stalks into animal fat, filling the holes, and later lit those stalks to be torches at night.
Teasel is also a biennial species, producing bristly flower heads with many tiny, lavender blooms during their second summer. Medieval Europeans used teasel flower heads to tease out wool.
When riding along country roads, watch for strips of European flowers. They are pretty and their species have interesting histories.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.