Caltrans Reveals the History Behind ‘Freeway Flowers’ in San Diego

by Jennifer

San Diego has been adorned with vibrant colors this winter, courtesy of above-average rainfall, which has led to an abundance of wildflowers gracing the landscape. However, these blossoms lining the freeways aren’t merely a product of chance; their presence traces back decades.


Stephen Alvarez, a Senior Landscape Architect with Caltrans, shed light on the genesis of what locals affectionately refer to as “Freeway Flowers.”

“The story begins with Lady Bird Johnson’s initiative, which took root in 1985,” Alvarez explained.

Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady during President Johnson’s tenure from 1963 to 1969, was an early advocate for environmental conservation, particularly emphasizing the beautification of highways throughout the United States.

“Under this program, a portion of federal funding allocated to highway construction was designated for seeding,” Alvarez elaborated. “While the flowers you see today may not all be indigenous, they were deliberately chosen for their aesthetic appeal.”

The original focus was on drought-tolerant wildflowers, a concept that evolved over time. Since 1995, Caltrans has prioritized the use of native species in their landscaping endeavors.

“Our current seeding practices exclusively involve native species, including iconic varieties like California Poppies, Golden Fields, and San Diego Sunflowers,” Alvarez stated.

Seeds are dispersed whenever soil disruption occurs, a proactive measure undertaken by Caltrans to combat erosion resulting from construction activities.

Alvarez acknowledged the presence of non-native flowers along the highways, citing the Wild Chrysanthemum as one example due to its propensity for easy spread and distinct yellow hue.

“While the visual appeal of native wildflowers enhances the roadside experience for drivers, their ecological significance cannot be overlooked,” Alvarez emphasized. “They play a crucial role in soil stabilization, safeguarding our waterways from erosion.”

Despite the allure of these blossoms, Caltrans advises against stopping along the freeway to admire them, emphasizing that they’re intended for enjoyment during the drive.

As San Diego continues to bloom with vibrant hues, the legacy of “Freeway Flowers” stands as a testament to the intersection of environmental stewardship and public infrastructure.


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