Roadside Botany 101
The next time you go for a drive, consider the weeds growing alongside the road. To many, they’re just an eyesore, but to roadside weed control specialists like Kevyn Juneau, they represent a safety hazard, a significant economic cost, and a threat to an area’s ecological balance.
Juneau, a Ph.D. student and plant community ecologist at Michigan Technological University, has a passion for plants and ecology?the study of how organisms interact with their environment. Now he is applying that knowledge to a transportation career that helps people and protects the environment.
“I had no idea that this was even an option in transportation,” he said. “I didn’t realize that states hired botanists or organismal ecologists on their staff in order to look at plants and animals. I thought they were just concerned with plowing the roads or paving the roads and building bridges.”
Roadside weed control plays an important role in the safety of the transportation system and the protection of the natural environment. Weeds can block a driver’s view, they require mowing or other labor-intensive methods of control that can harm the environment, and their root systems can cause damage to road surfaces and interfere with drainage. Research has shown that the construction and management of the road network doesn’t just speed up human travel?it provides thoroughfares along which weeds can spread like wildfire, crowding out native plants and blighting fields used for growing crops.
“Doing roadside weed control, I’m able to be one of the first lines of defense of the weeds going into farm fields,” Juneau said. “That way we can take the pressure off the farmers so the farmers don’t need to use more herbicide or have reduced production in the fields.”
Juneau is studying integrated weed management, which takes a broad, environmentally friendly approach to controlling weeds. Managing weed growth requires a deep understanding of how plants interact with each other and their environment. Ecologists must study a local ecosystem to learn which plants are native and which ones are invasive, and they must have a detailed knowledge of plant anatomy and physiology to determine the most effective methods for controlling plant growth. These specialists must also make sure the methods for maintaining roadside vegetation are efficient and safe for the environment.
“I’m studying how we could better control weeds by using a variety of different methods,” Juneau said. “So we don’t just use herbicides?we look at the ecology of the plant and try to use that against the plant in order to better control it.”
For example, to combat one particular weed, the Canada thistle, ecologists can plant a species of grass that out-competes the thistle for sunlight and nitrogen.
“We’re using the plants to get rid of the Canada thistle as opposed to using herbicides or chemicals or mowing,” he said.
Juneau has an undergraduate degree in general biology from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and a master’s degree in entomology, the study of insects, from the University of Florida. In high school, Juneau’s favorite subjects were earth science and biology. As an undergraduate, he took several classes in ecology.
“I love science, and I love biology and ecology so I knew I was going to be in this field,” he said. ?
Juneau said students should think broadly about college and their careers. Joining clubs and participating in new activities can help students “see all these different viewpoints and understand how other people think,” he said. As Juneau’s experience shows, transportation careers are not limited to engineering, but can cover a broad range of sciences.
“It’s really important that we get this big, really well-trained mix of people working together on these projects so that we cannot just improve the human lifestyle,” he said, “but we also make sure that it’s sustainable or environmentally friendly.”
The FHWA’s Environmental Review Toolkit web page is a great resource for students who would like to know more about this aspect of the transportation system. You can also explore more information about invasive species management, as well as the role of plants in the national ecosystem, by visiting the United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service.