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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Donna Krischan
© Donna Krischan

August 2005

Let the cup be unbroken

Encourage natural plantings that won't be cut down in their prime along roadsides.

Lynn Kuhns


Cup plant is a prairie sunflower with opposite leaves that form a "cup" around the stem, trapping moisture that attracts insects and birds.

The tender springtime flowers are all dried up, but there's still steadfast growth as nature plows ahead to set seed and survive. Unfortunately, the roadsides that just recently were flush with prairie grasses, reeds, brambles and bright wildflowers have been shorn by public works crews. Their noisy tractors can reach with mower blades far past the road's shoulders into ditches to cut down plants that some people consider weeds. That happens several times each summer in my area. Miles and miles of roadside plantings could provide shelter and forage for wildlife, as well as lush, colorful country scenes.

I'm sure some think that the roads are now safer for motorists. And maybe others think it looks nice. But when our rural roadways are wide and racetrack bare, the tendency for motorists is to speed even faster. And I have to ask what's better looking, and better for our countryside wildlife, than leaving the roadside alone...green, vibrant and growing?

The answer lay silent at my feet. Just a bit north of my Town of Winneconne home is Sunset Trail, a mile-long residential road. One conservation-minded neighbor there – a retired USDA Forest Service Ranger who keeps his yard more lush and natural than mowed and manicured – was amazed that those huge mowers came all the way down his quiet, dead-end street. When he first saw the mowed-down stubble of wildflowers and prairie grasses left dying and drying near his driveway, he flagged me over on my morning walk and pointed to the rubble of inch-long ragged stems left behind.

He pointed out where cup plants, whose cheerful, sun-flowery yellow blossoms can bloom well into September, were felled and wilting. He showed me how their leaves form cups where birds and butterflies often come for a drink. Hummingbirds regularly visit and in fall, goldfinches could have enjoyed the seeds.

I later read that cup plants, or Silphium perfoliatum, are prairie forbs in the Asteraceae family – a sunflower closely related to the compass plant. Also called Indian cup, ragged cup and carpenter weed, they flourish from Michigan across to North Dakota, down to Texas and over to Alabama. Originally a native of the tallgrass prairie, this hardy perennial can grow from three to eight feet high topped off with a spray of cheery-yellow, daisy-like flowers. My neighbor explained that even after white lilacs have browned and purple thistles have puffed away their heads, cup flowers will brighten the hot and humid hearts of our Midwestern summers. Like a cherished antique teacup, they endure and serve.

The plant's intriguing arrangement of the opposing leaves provides its moniker. Riding opposite each other on a squarish stem, large, coarse-textured leaves fuse together at their base to form generous, funnel-like cups. There, morning dew can collect even on the hottest summer days offering moisture to birds and insects.

"They actually can hold rainwater," my elderly neighbor said as he lifted a felled cup plant stem to show me. What's neat is they actually form their own micro-climate. Many years ago, folks settling the prairies and woodlands considered them a welcome sign...a living message that things could grow, and thrive there. It's a sad irony that the colors mowed down on that quiet roadside are seen by too few people as a sign of this giving, growing season; a simple message that we should just let summer be summer.

Consider this broken cup image as inspiration for natural landscaping. Diplomatically share your concerns about roadside natural habitat with government officials, neighbors, school and civic groups. Suggest a more nature-friendly kind of landscaping and a gentler style of maintenance. See cup plant as a signal that the generous habitats of roadsides, farms and woodlands can flourish if we know what to do, what not to do, and how to help others to do the same.

Lynn Kuhns writes from Winneconne.