Late summer & fall still have flowers to offer

Though the year is now on a downward slope, with crickets now out-singing birds, the gardening season is far from over. Look to our local meadows and forests for some lovely late-season bloomers that are still a knockout in the garden. These late bloomers are also very important food sources for insects and birds stocking up for their winter hibernation or migrations.

Asters are among our most prolific native fall bloomers, and appear as carpets of snow in their forest floor habitats when in bloom. Look for white wood aster (Aster divaricatus) and blue wood aster (Aster cordifolius), each with smallish, daisy-like flowers in bright white and pale lavender. While these species perform well in moist, semi-shaded environments, the lilac-hued New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) is better for dry and sunny sites. Different cultivars offer color variations, such as the deep plum ‘Purple Dome’ and hot-pink ‘Vibrant Dome.’

Grasses come into their own in late summer and fall with stunning seedheads that catch light like sheer curtains. Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is one of the most romantic, with a literal cloud of candy-pink tufts floating above the clump from September until frost. Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), one of the few grasses that can tolerate shadier sites, are also loaded at this time of year with their distinctive drooping seedheads. Native switchgrasses are also in bloom now, with varieties like ‘Shenandoah’ (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’) already in its brilliant burgundy fall colors.

Other flowers you shouldn’t overlook for the late season include white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), in bloom in damp sites from now through October and a larval host for the rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton). Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) is a particularly good choice for our area’s alkaline soils, and the dark leaves of the variety ‘Chocolate’ make the small white flowers stand out elegantly in the late-season garden. And don’t forget the cheery, bright-yellow perennial sunflowers (Helianthus and Heliopsis spp.), found in our area growing in thick clumps on roadsides and forest edges.

An ironweed plant near Yellow Springs

(Photo by Mike Kay)

Another attractive perennial plant in blossom in our area now is the New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis). This tall growing, herbaceous perennial is found in stream bottoms and lowlands in much the same areas as cardinal flower and Joe-Pye Weed. The ironweed has an attractive purplish flower that stays in bloom from early August to October. Ironweed gets its name from the strong stems that make the plant stand erect throughout the winter. New York Ironweed is a native species found throughout most of the eastern part of the country. New York Ironweed has very rich nectar which is a favorite of hummingbirds and bees. Extracts from the ironweed plant have been used to cure a number of stomach ailments. A native ironweed with yellow blooms and an unusual stem is the wing-stemmed ironweed (Veronia alternifolia). This plant can be prolific; the ironweeds are more at home in natural settings than in gardens. Both ironweeds grow 4-8 feet tall and seed readily.

Article by Michelle Donahue and FCFCDB member

Nature Note for 9/7/14