March 2015

Don't Mess With Texas' Wildflowers

Many may not realize what an attraction the spring wildflower bloom is in Texas — or even that it has such an impressive wildflower crop. But each spring, throngs of those in the know flock all over the state — from the Gulf Coast to the Hill Country — to get a glimpse of fields swathed in bright colors such as flame orange, yellow, blue and pink. Texas’ sprawling size, diversity of landforms, and multitude of weather conditions and plant habitats make wildflowers abundant.

These fields also generate a lot of green — in the form of tourism dollars pouring into the state’s economy. This is something not lost on Dennis Markwardt, maintenance field support manager with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), based in Austin.

“The wildflower program brings in thousands and thousands of tourists every year,” Markwardt says. “If you go out to the Hill Country and try to get a hotel on a weekend during wildflower season, you won’t find any available. It draws people from all across the state and country. When they are in bloom, you will see people everywhere taking pictures in and around the flowers. All of them use gas to get out there, all of them buy from the restaurants — it draws in a tremendous amount of tourism for the state.”

Texas is home to more than 5,000 flowering plants. “Here in Austin, the Texas bluebonnet is the one flower that people are going to associate with us the most,” Markwardt says. “But we’ve also got Texas paintbrush and gaillardias and coreopsis — almost the entire state experiences a wildflower crop. No matter what the weather is, if you had a good year here or bad year there, somewhere in this state we’re going to have a good wildflower season.”

Flowers provide beauty and serve a purpose.
What does that have to do with TxDOT? The answer is that a good majority of the wildflowers blossom alongside the state’s 1 million miles of roads and highways and 800,000 acres of rights-of-way, which is TxDOT’s domain and, more specifically, Markwardt’s domain as maintenance field support manager. Meaning Markwardt not only is responsible for keeping the state’s roads safe and well-maintained, but he’s also the caretaker of one of the largest wildflower crops in the world.

“The wildflower program has been installed since the 1930s,” Markwardt says. “We have a memo in my office that says, ‘Do not mow the right-of-way until the wildflowers have set seed.’ That’s driven what our mowing program and our herbicide program is, and dictates the need to protect our wildflowers out there. For us, that means making judicious use of herbicides and using the right herbicides in the right places. Above all, it’s making sure we don’t affect our wildflower crop for the following year.”

The wildflowers aren’t there only to provide beauty — they also serve a practical purpose as a desirable groundcover. Their dense presence helps stabilize the soil and fight off other vegetation that is less than desirable. And to help ensure they continue to bloom, TxDOT plants tons of wildflower seeds each season.

Of course, it’s not just beautiful wildflowers that call Texas roadsides home. The state’s sheer size and diverse conditions also mean there’s a multitude of undesirable species of trees, brush and weeds constantly trying to replace the wildflowers, which would ruin the roadside aesthetics and create potential safety hazards for motorists.

For example, in south Texas, it’s mesquite and huisache. In the central part of the state, there’s cedar, oak and all types of broadleaves and brush. In the east, it’s Johnsongrass. “One of the great things about managing vegetation in this state is we’ve got such a wide variety, it makes all of our jobsa lot more fun,” Markwardt adds with a grin.

The trick comes in treating the tough undesirable plants while maintaining the delicate desirable wildflowers. And that’s where herbicides play a significant role.

Herbicides take down brush while leaving the flowers.
“When we make applications of herbicide across the state, we make sure that we protect the wildflowers,” Markwardt says. “Part of that is spraying certain chemicals at certain times of the year and not spraying certain chemicals at certain times of the year.”

More than that, it’s using herbicides that are tolerant of the wildflowers while being effective in controlling tough brush species such as mesquite.

“The first thing that we look for in a herbicide at TxDOT is safety,” Markwardt says. “We want to look at the toxicity of the product and how it affects the environment. We want to see how it’s going to affect our applicators and how it might affect the public. We strive to make sure the products that we use are the safest products that we can possibly use. But beyond that, we need to make sure the product is effective and that it fits into our program and into our long-term goals.”

Capstone® specialty herbicide is one of those herbicides. And using it as the foundation of TxDOT’s side-trim treatment has proven to be very effective.

“We use Capstone quite a bit all across the state. We’ve had great results using Capstone, and the product has really done what we’ve intended it to do. We use it mainly for side trimming of trees and brush. Effective side trimming creates safer road conditions, it increases drainage and visibility, all these type of things.”

Mechanical cutting can be dangerous, time-consuming and expensive work, making the use of herbicides a good alternative in many situations. Using a herbicide to chemically side trim a tree controls the parts of the tree that are presenting hazards to nearby roadside access, motorist safety or visibility. When used correctly, certain herbicides have demonstrated their ability to effectively “prune back” the treated limbs.

“Capstone has proved to be a good fit for TxDOT because we can use it in such a wide variety of locations — basically across the entire state. Even with the size of the area we manage, we only utilize nine herbicides for our whole program. It goes back to keeping things simple, because we want everyone to use it properly. It’s also because when we find something that works, we stick with it.”

A virtual roadside army to fight invading weeds and brush.
It takes a virtual army of people and equipment to cover so much territory. TxDOT employs more than 1,300 personnel — operators, back-up operators, maintenance supervisors, etc. — who all must be knowledgeable in the state’s program. So many people spread out over such a wide area is a main reason why Markwardt says TxDOT strives to keep its program simple — in order to keep everyone on the same page and minimize mistakes. TxDOT also owns 325 herbicide trucks, which are all designed and built in-house.

“One of the great things about TxDOT is our herbicide truck fleet,” Markwardt says. “All of our herbicide trucks are built in-house by TxDOT personnel, and that brings consistency to the program. I can have an applicator working in Beaumont one day, and put him in El Paso the next day and know that he will be on the same piece of equipment. Because we build this equipment in-house, it’s made to do exactly what we need it to do.”

The cornerstone of TxDOT’s balanced approach is Capstone.
“Our program’s success has meant that we’ve given Capstone presentations all across the U.S., and what I’ve learned is there are a lot of municipalities that are really receptive to this side-trimming program,” Markwardt says. “When you look at the cost savings against a manual tree-trimming contract that can run from $1,500 to $3,000 a centerline mile, versus going out with a side-trim application of Capstone and Vista® XRT for $140 a centerline mile, while still making that road safe to drive down, people are always going to be receptive to that.”

But not just the municipalities — the taxpayers. “From a taxpayer standpoint, when the taxpayer starts realizing how much money this saves us, they are very receptive to it also,” he says.

TxDOT realizes the advantages of a balanced approach between herbicide and mechanical treatments. And that balance helps keep its roadsides safe and full of wildflowers every spring, and the tourists coming back.

“Herbicides should play a crucial role in all vegetation management programs, if it’s truly a management program,” Markwardt says. “A good program contains a balanced approach of mowing and herbicide use. To me, without the use of herbicides, I don’t know how anybody could afford to implement a vegetation management program.”