WILD FLOWERS Common plants give rivers and roadsides uncommon beauty


Driving along Maryland's interstates in the spring, there is no sight as pleasant as watching fields of golden dandelions flash by.

But finding one out by the patio means weed whacking time.

"In a lot of cases, a wildflower in one spot can be considered a weed in another," said Patrick Kelly, horticulturist for Londontown Publik House and Gardens in Anne Arundel County. "The distinction is pretty much where they're growing."

We declare the black-eyed Susan the official state flower, meanwhile, irate Maryland gardeners spend many a spring morning ripping dandelions from their steel grip on the yard.

Of course, all flowers were simple wildflowers before they were cultivated, and many of today's wildflowers are gardening favorites.

"I love them," said garden designer Brenda Entwistle. "I try to use them a lot in my designs for clients."

According to Mrs. Entwistle, who has been designing gardens ** for 15 years and is a frequent volunteer at Londontown, wildflowers are not only attractive plants around the home but are also very hardy.

Patricia Alholm, public information coordinator for the National Wildflower Research Center in Texas, agreed that there are many merits to cultivating wildflowers.

"One of the greatest advantages to utilizing wildflowers around your home is you don't need to use any pesticides or fertilizers, and much much less water," she said. "They don't need it because they've adapted so well."

Wildflower varieties such as the columbine, violet, bloodroot and bluebell are garden favorites and do well in Maryland's climate.

And for those who are garden-illiterate but still appreciate the beauty of flowers, there are plenty of opportunities to see these in their natural habitat.

From highway roadsides to shady woodlands to meadows, wildflowers such as spring beauty, yarrow and bluebells are sprouting up all across the state, responding to the wet winter and spring.

"I wouldn't say we're going to be up to our armpits in wildflowers," said Mr. Kelly. "But conditions have been good this year."

Wildflowers grow in a multitude of climates. According to Peter Mazzeo, botanist for the National Arboretum in Washington, "They grow from the coast up into the mountains, in wet areas, dry areas. . . . They grow all over the state -- literally," he said.

However, while the rain will boost wildflower growth, the cool spring will probably delay blooming for a week to 10 days, said Mr. Mazzeo.

While both the Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore and the National Arboretum have extensive wildflower collections, if you want to see them, Kathy McCarthy recommends Great Falls near Potomac where wildflowers are in abundance.

"That's the place I send everybody who wants to see wildflowers," said Ms. McCarthy, regional ecologist for the Maryland Heritage program.

Many of the state's estimated 2,200 wildflowers can be found on and along the banks of the Potomac River, she said.

Wandering along the river banks, you may spot a lavender bell-shaped flower beginning to bloom. These flowers, Virginia bluebells, can usually be found along stream banks and in areas where a river has flooded in the past but has now receded.

Dutchman's-breeches is another common flower in bloom this time of year and can also be found along the river bank and flood plains. This wildflower has several flower heads on one stalk, and its light petals resemble a pair of upside-down old-fashioned britches, similar to the garden-variety bleeding heart.

Trout lilies, similar to regular lilies but smaller, are usually found in the woods along the river. This bright yellow species of lily earned the name trout because its leaves are green with brown mottling, resembling the spotted skin of the fish.

Go for a walk through the forest and you may run into a patch of bluets just beginning to bloom. This four-petaled blue flower usually grows in dense clumps on trailsides and roadways. Spring beauty, a low-growing white flower, can also be found on the forest floor in abundance this time of year.

For Ms. Alholm, searching the countryside for blooming wildflowers is a yearly ritual and a rite of spring.

"It's just the sheer joy of them," she said. "They're part of nature's bounty. If we didn't have them, we'd miss them."

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