Blue Ridge Naturalist: My Driveway Garden

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The lovely-but-tiny red flowers of the Hairy Bedstraw (Galium pilosum) are best appreciated with a hand lens. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

I absolutely love my 300-foot-long driveway garden. A gravel driveway is favored by many species of plants, especially rather small ones that you might not notice or pay attention to when they are in the mixed company of larger plants.

My driveway is yet another garden of delightful surprises every year, introducing me to flowers that I never before knew existed. Thus whenever people tell me they’ve paved their driveway, I can’t help but feel that they’ve lost a golden opportunity to see and learn about the wildflowers of our area.

I also feel that they might have lost the chance to meet new insects whose lives are closely tied to those particular kinds of blooms, and to notice bigger animals that might have taken advantage of the gravel pathway (which would feel much more natural to them than a surface of asphalt) to travel through their property.

Our first view of a Box Turtle for the year is often of one walking across the driveway from the forest to my planted flower gardens. And Red Efts (the terrestrial immature form of the Eastern or Red-spotted Newt) can often be found wandering around on the gravel following rainstorms when everything is wet.

Snakes, birds, and mammals regularly make use of the driveway. We’ve watched copperheads and rat snakes poking their faces down into the spaces between the rocks as if seriously searching for something. Unfortunately, I do not know what.

Brown Thrashers enjoy taking dust baths whenever a big-enough area somehow becomes pebble-less. We now try to maintain such an area close enough to the house to enjoy the goings-on.

And foxes used to be seen crossing the driveway at dusk. Unfortunately, both the Red and the Gray Fox have virtually disappeared from my area. The proof is evident by the noticeable increase in Eastern Cottontail Rabbits. (I believe the foxes have been extirpated, along with the coyotes I used to hear.)

But returning to my driveway garden, as my absolute favorite color is red, I was thrilled when numerous Hairy Bedstraw (Galium pilosum) plants showed up there.  This wasn’t an easy plant to identify, however. My Peterson guide to wildflowers doesn’t include it.

The Newcomb guide contains this plant, but it tells us the bloom color ranges from greenish white to purple. The plants in my driveway are a true red (luckily for me!), which is an unusual turn of events in my experience.

I’ve purchased many plants that were supposed to have red blooms but ended up being various shades of pinkish purple. As a result, you would think that purple was my favorite color when you look around my yard. (The lesson to be learned is that you should never take the color of plant blossoms on faith—buy your plants when they are blooming, if possible.) So it’s rather amazing that red isn’t mentioned for Hairy Bedstraw, yet my plants are—for once—the color I adore.

Mind you, this is a tiny flower, but it’s absolutely lovely in close-up—as are many of the driveway plants.  Bluecurls (Trichostema dichotomum), American Penneyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides), and Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are best viewed with a hand lens.

Another favorite of mine is Venus’ Looking-glass (Specularia perfoliata). The enchanting name makes me think of fairy tales, and the small purple blooms are pretty, but the heart-shaped leaves that clasp the stem are what really capture my fancy. It’s in the Lobelia Family, so many of its larger “cousins” are well known cultivated plants.

Venus’ Looking-glass is described in field guides as a plant of “sterile fields, clearings,” while Hairy Bedstraw is said to be a plant of dry woods and thickets.  While these details do not exactly match the characteristics of my driveway garden, those of St. Andrew’s Cross (Ascyrum hypericoides) hits the nail on the head: “dry sandy or rocky soil.”

St. Andrew’s Cross is in the St. Johnswort Family, but it has such flattened yellow flowers that the first time I saw one of these plants (in a wilderness area), I couldn’t imagine what it was. I didn’t manage to identify it from field guide drawings that gave the impression that it was an upright plant when it actually grows more as a dense, discretely mounded ground cover. But once it showed up in the driveway, familiarity facilitated recognition.

The wildflowers in my driveway garden share the trait of growing well among small rocks surrounded by precious little soil for root growth or moisture retention. They are truly plants of great stamina that can even manage to obtain enough nutrients to be healthy even though they haven’t much access to organic matter. They are plants to be admired, really.

Yet I’ve noticed there can be a bias in wildflower field guides when it comes to how the location of these plants is described. When the plants are native, the places where they tend to be found are usually described simply in terms of the physical characteristics of the site (dry, fields). But sometimes, when the plants are not native to our area, the places you will find them are described more in terms of human opinion of the plant’s non-native origin rather than in a straightforward characterization of the site.

For example, Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis), an alien species of which I have very few even though it’s considered by many people to be a serious “invader,” includes the term “waste places” in its Peterson guide write-up, as does the alien Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis) and Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis).  This site description is rarely found, if it’s found at all, for native plants.

Of course, many alien species do tend to be found in areas degraded by human activities, such as along railroad tracks, roadsides (current and historical), hiking trails, and within former or still active cow fields. They are therefore quite commonly seen because they are able to take advantage of destroyed soil profiles of compacted dirt containing little organic matter. They keep the ground productive (i.e., they provide habitat for wildlife) that bare dirt can never do.

Over four dozen species of plants comprise my driveway garden, with a bit less than 50 percent of them non-native. Many of these driveway plant species are not found anywhere else in my yard, not only because they obviously prefer dry, rather nutrient-poor soil, but because they are so small that they could easily be crowded out by much larger plants—whether those plants are native or non-native.

It’s a fact of life that there’s always this push-and-pull within the plant world. The plants that are best suited to a site persist, although they, too, will be replaced over time as conditions change.

Even my driveway garden changes from year to year, depending upon whether new gravel is added or new soil builds up among the rocks. It’s a classroom of sorts, one that provides beauty along with an education.

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