Lighting up the autumn – fall wildflowers

In Fall, Uncategorized by couchiching

“Summer is over” or at least that’s what we’ve been hearing from the media and advertisers as kids are back in school and vacation time has ended for many.

But in the natural world, fall-blooming native wildflowers are just coming into their splendour.

September is a perfect time to get outside and discover the bursts of colour and texture these plants provide to the landscape; not to mention their importance in the ecosystem.

The most commonly seen group of wildflowers blooming this time of year are the goldenrods. First things first about these plants: They DO NOT cause hay fever symptoms. Their pollen is simply too heavy to be carried on the wind to cause an allergic reaction. The usual culprit for hay fever is ragweed which does have windborne pollen.

Goldenrods are not weeds, they are in fact native species. Most people tend to think that all goldenrods are the same type of plant since the differences between species is difficult to see. And that’s fine, it’s wonderful to simply appreciate their brilliant yellow, showy blooms and the hum of activity on the flowers from bees, wasps, and other small insects. Goldenrod flowers, loaded with nectar and pollen, are particularly attractive to honey bees and having a steady source of food in the fall is crucial.

For those who like to challenge their plant identification skills, there are about a dozen commonly found goldenrod species in our area and another ten or so rare or uncommon.

The easiest goldenrod to identify is the tall goldenrod because it is the only species that gets round galls on the main stalk. The galls are produced by a tiny insect that lays its eggs on the plant. When the larvae hatch and start feeding on the stalk, the plant grows a deformity which results in the gall.

Asters are in abundance now and their delicate blooms are typically white to pale mauve and dark purple. Just like the goldenrods, aster species can be difficult to tell apart, especially since some of them can hybridize creating much confusion.

Asters belong in the Composite family and have delicate daisy-like flowers that have yellow centres.

One of the most spectacular asters is the New England aster. The flowers have full, dark purple petals with yellow centres. Most asters and goldenrods can be found in meadows and along roadsides where they take advantage of sunny conditions.

A less common but quite unusual wildflower is the white turtlehead. This name probably came about because the roundish white blooms resemble the heads of turtles. The scientific name for this plant is Chelone glabra. In Greek mythology, there was a nymph named Chelone who insulted the gods. As punishment, she was turned into a turtle. Look for turtlehead plants along stream banks and shorelines. It can often be found growing beside bottled gentian.

Bottle (or closed) gentian gets its name from the unusual form of the blooms which stay closed: they never open up. The large, sky blue flowers look like they’re just about ready to burst forth, but never do. Only large bees are strong enough to push their way into the middle of the bloom to reach the nectar. The flowers appear in clusters, surrounded by oval-shaped leaves at the top of the plant.

Next time you’re taking a fall hike to look at the changing autumn leaf colour, take the time to enjoy our fall wildflowers. They are just as beautiful in the autumn finery and so important in maintaining diversity.

Gayle Carlyle is a volunteer with The Couchiching Conservancy, a non-profit land trust that protects ecologically sensitive land in the Orillia region. For more information, visit couchichingconserv.ca.