Friday, August 2, 1996
Median grass giving way to wildflowers

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One day, the grass was a living wave of green rolling down the median of Interstate 74.

The next day, it was dead. Brown. Whithered. Ghostly.

What killed the grass on I-74? A gasoline spill from a terrible accident? A fast-acting fungus? Killer worms?

''Roundup,'' says Matt Manion, acting assistant superintendent for Cincinnati's highway maintenance department, of the weed killer that has been used.

But, I protested, the grass looked so nice. It had a lush, tropical rain forest shade of green and a decent height. When the wind blew, the blades swayed like a field of wheat.

''Be patient,'' he replied. ''It will be gorgeous.''

When, next spring?

''There's some growth now.''

So far I've only seen some signs sprout up in the median. They're painted with the words Natural Area and Cincinnati Urban Prairie and a blue jay. At least, I think it's a blue jay. It's hard to tell when you're flying by at 65 miles an hour.

Wait'll September

The man from highway maintenance assured me the median would be alive in September with prairie grass and wildflowers. It's part of 45.6 acres of land along Interstates 71, 74, 75 and 471 that the city is going to stop mowing, cutting and spraying and turn into chemical-free, bug-friendly urban prairies.

''We're restoring the land,'' he says, ''and inviting the butterflies, the birds, the bees and other wildlife to come back home.''

This invitation to winged creatures is being issued at a savings. Urban prairies are low maintenance. They don't have to be mowed every spring, summer and fall.

After the wildflowers start blooming, the citified prairies should save taxpayers $142,600 a year, or $3,127 per acre, in upkeep.

Highway beautification and money aside, I favor weeding out interstate grass and planting prairies for a far better reason. They can save lives.

Studies have found that speeding drivers slow down when they see a patch of bright colors. I'd much rather my tax dollars went to planting wildflowers instead of buying radar guns.

Can't wait

Matt Manion has had callers complain about the dead grass on the interstates. When he tells them who did it and why, they ask: ''Are you people crazy?''

He's heard that - and worse. His department puts up with drivers' guff when it snows and roads have to be salted.

''Just wait,'' he tells them. ''In September, our urban prairies will be blooming with black-eyed Susans.''

Being an impatient sort, I couldn't wait to see what a stand of these yellow wildflowers looks like in an urban prairie.

Jenny Gulick, Cincinnati Parks' natural resource manager, drove me to two of them. One's in Mount Echo Park. The other's in Rapid Run Park.

At Mount Echo, she bolts from her car to admire the wildflowers she helped plant in April and May. Their vivid colors and spicy scents dazzle the senses. Spread over 7,500 square feet of ground, the patch ''is more a meadow than a prairie.''

The flowers surround a black locust tree and blanket a steep, curving hill. ''When this was grass, it was difficult and dangerous to mow,'' the self-described ''nature girl'' notes. ''Now, it's all wildflowers. Just look.''

White daisies and green yarrow cover the ground. Orange butterfly weed and the red, yellow, purple and brown weave of Indian blankets reach for the sky.

Black-eyed Susans stand waist high. Bobbing in the breeze, their dark, maroon heads are encircled by yellow petals.

''When you see the sun shine on a stand of black-eyed Susans,'' she says, climbing into her car, ''it's like you are looking at the sun on the ground.''

At Rapid Run, black-eyed Susans, red coneflowers and lemon mint protect the roots of a 50-year-old hackberry tree.

Bumblebees buzz from flower to flower. Butterflies do some petal hopping. A cardinal sings overhead.

''People think so much is going on out there in the real world,'' Jenny Gulick says as a muffler-less van blasts past.

''But if you just stop and take time to see what's going on among these wildflowers, you'll find the rhythm of life.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.