Environmental scientist grows wildflowers and prairie grasses next to highways

Photo of a grassy field full of pink and purple wildflowers.

According to Indigo Underwood, “there’s a lot of areas that can be great little habitats, but are just being overlooked.” These “great little habitats” can even include the edges of interstate highways, where Indigo has been growing grasses and wildflowers native to their local prairie ecosystem.

In a recent interview, Indigo told us all about their past and present botanical work, including the research they are conducting as a PhD student in Environmental Science at Oklahoma State University. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You worked as an educator in the agricultural extension program before starting your PhD at Oklahoma State University. What was that job like?

I would do some turfgrass research and turfgrass consultation. People would call in with turfgrass questions, or I’d go out to some sites and try to help them solve their turf problems. I would also work with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and train their crews on proper pesticide use and management of their roadsides. 

One of the projects I got heavily involved in was about the milkweed on Oklahoma’s roadsides. We had all these different sites and we wanted to see when the monarch butterflies are visiting and what happens when you mow, because ODOT [the Oklahoma Department of Transportation] is going to have to mow these slopes occasionally. It’s just a safety issue, especially in an area that can get wildfires. And so we were looking at different mowing regimens and seeing what came up and how the monarchs responded. 

Photo of Indigo Underwood outside in a garden, sitting behind some bright green plants.
Indigo Underwood is an environmental scientist who works to grow and protect native plants on roadsides, in landscaping, and in other managed areas (Courtesy of Indigo Underwood).

What are you doing for your PhD research?

I’m back to working with ODOT, but this time, their number one issue is johnsongrass [an introduced grass species that spreads rapidly]. So that will be the focus of my PhD: working with ODOT and trying to fine-tune the equipment that they already have, or equipment that they can easily get to make the roadsides better by removing johnsongrass. And I’d like to get native grasses back in and see if that improves the invertebrate habitat.

And on the side, I want to grow native wildflowers with buffalograss [a prairie grass native to North America]. But I want to put them under more of a lawn regimen and see if we can get any of these wildflowers to stay short enough to meet current city codes and not be considered weedy. So basically I want to turn lawns into short grass prairies.

Are there many wildflowers that can grow on roadsides?

There’s a lot of native wildflowers growing on Oklahoma’s roadsides. I often just stop on the side of the road and take photos of wildflowers in Oklahoma. But when you’re driving 70 miles an hour, a lot of these are gonna look like just a little tiny blur. You have to know what you’re looking for. 

There’s two or three different types of Echinacea I’ve seen on the roadsides here. There’s Rudbeckia, Dracopis, Dahlia, and lots of other really cool flowers. And lots of milkweed! I don’t remember how many different species of milkweed there are in Oklahoma, but just outside of Stillwater, I’ve seen three or four different species just walking along the roadsides.

Photo of a monarch butterfly with its wings extending, sitting on a yellow flower
Growing wildflowers on roadsides can help conserve insect pollinators such as monarch butterflies (Courtesy of Indigo Underwood).

What management strategies do you recommend for these roadsides?

All they do to the back slopes of highways is mow them. And they say they mow them at five inches. But sometimes it looks like they’ve dropped that a lot lower, and they mow them at two inches or lower. So we’re trying to get them to reduce the mowing of those areas to once a year or less. And then when they see problems like the johnsongrass is out of control in this area, or we have woody plant encroachment in that area, then they should focus on just that area, and not treat the entire length of the highway. 

Do you like to teach gardeners and landscapers about your work?

I definitely enjoy doing that! In fact, before I started my PhD, the Oklahoma Nursery and Landscape Association contacted me and said, “Hey, we’re doing these webinars, would you like to do a webinar?”

So I talked about the wildflowers I find on Oklahoma’s roadsides. I’d love to see some of these plants in Oklahoma nurseries. There’s quite a few native plants that you can easily get in Oklahoma, but I want to see more of them in nurseries and I want to see more of them used in landscapes. And so if there were contractors or landscapers in the audience, and they could see these pretty flowers on the roadside, hopefully they can start convincing homeowners to plant them too. 

And then I’ve taught the turfgrass segment for the Master Gardeners before. So I’ve gone to different places in the state and done the training for the turfgrass segment. But I’ve also done specialty segments where I focus on native plants and native grasses for these Master Gardener groups. It’s something I enjoy talking about, something that when I get the opportunity to present it, I love to do it. 

What’s the most exciting part of your work?

Honestly, I get extremely excited about plants. But also, being out on the roadside, I get to see things like scissor-tailed flycatchers and eastern bluebirds. I’ve seen bald eagles before. And it’s just fun to see the wildlife! I even almost stepped on a speckled kingsnake once, and I’ve found tarantulas on the roadside. Being out in nature, with these native plants and animals, and seeing them and enjoying them while doing research, it makes it all worth it.

Published by Sam Zlotnik

Sam Zlotnik is a science writer, ecologist, and evolutionary biologist with a B.S. and M.S. in biology and a B.A. in psychology. He is currently completing a Ph.D. at the University of Florida where he studies the behavioral ecology of leaf-footed bugs. Sam writes about a range of scientific topics, from environmental and health news to animal behavior, evolution, and biodiversity conservation. You can read more of their writing at samzlotnik.com.

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