Taking a Closer Look at Roadside Wildflowers  

by Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Elaine Mills    

Many of the wildflowers seen along local roadways or on day-trips to the beach or mountains (those yellow, orange, purple or pink blurs) can be viewed close-up in the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden in Arlington, VA. This garden is one of the Demonstration/Teaching gardens maintained by MGNV to support Virginia Cooperative Extension’s educational programming.


Tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) is one of the many yellow wildflowers that brighten our roadsides and can be found along the trails in Arlington parks. The variety of goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) called ‘Fireworks’ for its sprightly yellow blossoms arranged along a graceful stem, can be seen in both the pollinator and gazebo gardens at the Glencarlyn Library. (This is not the plant that makes people sneeze; that is ragweed.)

Each summer the yellow petals of brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) and orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), often called black-eyed Susans, are abundant along the 3rd Street walkway to the library entrance and on the path into the shade garden. Later in the season, you can see their black seed heads standing upright to feed finches and to self-seed, starting new plants for next year’s crop.


Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) along the Skyline Drive

Six-feet tall and bright yellow, mullein (Verbascum thapsus) also self-seeds and is often seen blooming along roadsides. Though not native, and in some areas invasive, many love its dramatic rosette of woolly leaves and tall yellow-flowering stalks which appear in different locations in the garden each year. Another yellow flower that is ubiquitous to roadways, trailsides, and the garden, is the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Much beloved by children, dandelion is often one we gardeners would rather not claim, even as it makes its claim on us!


In nature there are few orange wildflowers. One often seen along roadsides and common to most of us is the orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva). Though common, be aware Hemerocallis fulva is not native – it comes to us from Asia – and has invasive tendencies. Each orange bud does indeed bloom for just one day, but there are usually several buds on each stalk. Years ago, Master Gardener Paul Nuhn planted orange daylilies between the blue hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) on the 3rd Street side of the garden. Every year they faithfully continue to add an orange counterpoint to the blue hydrangea flowers.

Another valuable orange wildflower is butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) which resides in the garden alongside the parking lot and in the Monarch Waystation cemetery gardens. Butterfly-weed is one of several native milkweed plants, the only host plants for monarchs. Butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of a host plant, which serve as food for caterpillars when they hatch. In the case of monarch butterflies, milkweeds are the only plants their caterpillars can eat.

Pink, Purple, White

Two other locally native milkweeds grow along our roadways as well as in the parking lot garden at the Glencarlyn Library and the Monarch Waystation cemetery gardens. Both swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are pink flowering and have scented blooms, though their leaves and growth patterns are quite different. Common milkweed is aggressive in a home garden, but if you have a field or a large lot, the blooms are pretty and the interesting pods hold seeds attached to beautiful white floss.

Asters come in all three colors: pink, purple and white. In late summer, they can be found blooming along roadsides up and down the eastern US. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is the most common with its array of small daisy-like purple flowers above tall stalks. Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is a shorter, lesser known native, that blooms in September with small bright white flowers all along its stem. In our Glencarlyn Library garden, New England aster grows along the side fence next to the back patio gardens and heath aster thrives in the 3rd Street native plant garden.

Liatris (Liatris spicata), sometimes called blazing star, ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), and Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium dubium)   are each unique native plants with unusual growth and flowering habits. Look for their identifying signage in the library garden. Enjoy their late summer blooms in shades of purple and pink when out for a walk in our parks or driving along the road. Notice as well how much they are loved by bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

Once you’ve located these “wildflowers” in the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden and are able to view their growing habits, color variations and basic structure close-up, you’ll be more easily able to identify those blurs of color along our highways and byways!

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