If plans work out, Lee’s Summit roads are about to become a colorful, lively wonderland.
Lee’s Summit is taking part in a pilot project to plant highway medians with 40 acres of wildflowers to create habitat for monarch butterflies, which are in danger of disappearing.
This month, sites along Missouri 291 between Langsford Road and Interstate 470, at the highway interchange, and at Missouri 350 and U.S. 50, among other sites, will be sprayed with an application of herbicides to kill the grasses now present. A second dose will follow, then this winter native wildflower and grass seed mixed with milkweed will be planted.
Milkweed is the host plant for monarch caterpillars, the only plant they’ll eat.
For the months before next spring, dead patches will fill the area. Signs posted in the project areas will indicate where the plantings will be.
“It’s going to get ugly before it gets pretty,” said Kim Fritchie, chairwoman of the Lee’s Summit Beautification Commission.
The first flowers should bloom in late spring 2018 through fall, with the plantings getting denser and more colorful in following years.
The commission, along with Vireo, a Kansas City landscape architecture firm, recently completed a Right-of-Way Enhancement and Beautification Study.
The commission was contemplating next steps for fundraising to implement the study when it learned Lee’s Summit could get $20,000 in funding, part of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for creating monarch habitat in the Kansas City region.
Mary Nemecek, conservation chairwoman of Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City, said that organization, collaborating with the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative and several partners, won the overall grant of $229,868 in 2015. It has several components, including habitat creation in parks in Johnson County, and included money for the 40 acres of highway habitat. The Missouri Department of Transportation suggested Lee’s Summit for the median project, she said.
Nemecek said Texas and Iowa already have successful programs using medians.
“This is the first native planting of wildflowers (in medians) in Kansas City area,” Nemecek said. “We used to look at medians as throw-away areas, but with so much habitat loss, it’s important to make use of them. I hope it catches on, a little spark that spreads in Kansas City.”
Planting trees and the more formal landscape designs, which are part of the city’s study, will take more fundraising and there is an indefinite timeline for those to happen, Fritchie said.
Native plantings have several advantages over imported grasses planted in many areas.
Prairie plants grow deep root systems, so are drought resistant, and storm runoff is reduced. According to the National Highway System, right-of-way grasslands help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that influences climate change. They provide important habitat for preserving pollinators, which also can help to pollinate food crops.
And less maintenance is required. One acre of mowed lawn, at about $30 per mowing with 14 mowings a year, costs $420. Compare that to native grass and flowers, which need two mowing a year, Fritchie said.
“They look attractive and save money in the end,” Fritchie said. “You can see why MoDOT is so excited about that.”