Along The Ray, an 18-mile stretch of I-85 that starts at the Georgia and Alabama state line, cars and trucks race by roadside meadows, where pollinators are buzzing along the vibrant wildflowers. A new University of Georgia thesis documents two efforts to better integrate grasses and wildflowers into a transit ecosystem.

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Matthew Quirey, the thesis’ author, recently earned his Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Georgia College of Environment & Design. His ongoing work focuses on the country’s first attempt to cultivate Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass, on an interstate roadway. He also studied the cultivation of meadows full of tall native grasses and wildflowers that bloom all year. His data is from 2018-2019.

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“Most people think that the purpose of these wildflowers is just for beauty,” Quirey said. “But we’re seeing that they create some real roadside management benefits, if we can help them establish good root systems and strength. Erosion can be a big problem along Georgia’s interstates and highways, and wildflower meadows could help stabilize the soils in the right-of-way.” Quirey also sees potential for the wildflowers to benefit bees and other pollinators. In recognition of his valuable work, Quirey has been named The Ray’s landscape design and research fellow.

hand holding Kernza wheatgrass

Researchers are also studying the potential of wildflower meadows as carbon offsets. The right-of-way meadows are efficient and cost-effective, because perennials don’t require annual replanting.

“We always envisioned more wildflowers on the roadsides of The Ray,” said Harriet Langford, founder and president of The Ray. “What we have actually been able to do with Georgia DOT and UGA is so much more. Higher-growing meadows planted on roadsides can work harder for us. They can provide food and habitat for pollinators and meadows can control storm water that rushes off the highway during heavy rain. Our work will help Georgia DOT and all state DOTs cultivate native wildflower and grass meadows across the state.”

The Ray has also installed or experimented with many new technologies, including a roll-over tire check station that sends inflation information to drivers, a section of pavement that generates solar power when heavy vehicles drive over it, reusing scrap tires as road material and creating a vehicle-to-vehicle data ecosystem. The highway is named after Ray C. Anderson (1934-2011), a Georgia native and green business pioneer, in 2014.

+ The Ray

Images via The Ray