It's mid-September, and, while still pretty hot, we are in the midst of an unmistakable change in the seasons. There are fewer butterflies fluttering about. The nights are longer and spiders are taking advantage of that to build their webs. And bees, wasps, and other insects seem a bit frantic in the rush to gather the last vestiges of summer. How to sum up the season as fall approaches? How about this: the whites, the yellows, the purples, and the berries.
Among whites, White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) is the star of early fall. This incredibly sweet aster now dots the forest and floodplain floor, bringing along with it a lot of all-around happiness. As if that is not enough, it is host to the Pearl Crescent and Checkerspot Butterflies.
I see a lot of the pink non-native Hibiscus here and there along the stream valley, so it is always great to see the real deal - Swamp Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) with its distinctive large white flowers with crimson centers. I found this beauty along the stream edge in a wetland area of the floodplain. Swamp Mallow is a pollinator powerhouse, attracting native long tongued bees, ruby throated hummingbirds, many insects, and acting as host to numerous butterflies including gray hairstreak, painted lady butterflies, skippers, and several moths. Don't be fooled by the pink hibiscus flowers. They are probably cultivars and do not belong in the forest.
This is also the time of year when White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) comes alive with billows of fluffy white flowers. White Snakeroot thrives in the basic mesic forest and floodplain. While incredibly pretty, it's leaves and stems are dangerous! They contain a toxic substance called tremetol which causes problems of the heart. So don't eat the leaves or stems or allow your dog to eat them! Despite this, amazingly, this plant has a history of medicinal use. Native American tribes used the roots to create teas and poultices to treat a variety of illnesses, including, yes, snakebites.
Mystery creature! What on earth is this? At first glance I thought it was a mushroom of sorts, but iNaturalist id's it as "Cottony Cushion Scale," a scale insect. So this is officially a mystery creature. Pretty cool looking, no matter what.
Yellow is ubiquitous in fall, and the Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) are finally blooming along the stream valley wherever there happens to be a spot of sunlight. Pictured below is the bloom of what may be Wrinkle-leaf or Rough Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) but also seen are members of any number of Goldenrod species, including Slender Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) and Blue-Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). All belong to the small stream floodplain plant community. What's special about Goldenrod other than the happy yellow it brings us? It has a long history of medicinal use and the ailments Goldenrod has been used to treat is very, very long. And the flowers and leaves can be used to make a simple tea infusion. In fact, I may do that right now.
Back from my spot of tea, we turn to Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), shown below being pollinated by Common Eastern Bumblebees. Found in moist wooded slopes and open woodlands, riverbanks, shaded lowlands, and fields, Wingstem blooms from August through October. It is specially favored by bees (as shown here, enjoying it while upside down), Native American tribes had numerous medicinal uses for Wingstem although it is less commonly used that way today.
I was quite excited to come across a stand of blooming Citronella Horse Balm (Collinsonia canadensis) along the floodplain. I almost missed it because its flowers were slightly past peak and are very small and quite muted. Why the excitement? Well, first the name - who can resist it? And the leaves have a lemony citronella fragrance when crushed and can be used to make teas. The Iroquois used it to make a poultice to treat headaches and the roots were used for a variety of medicinal purposes. It was also used to treat a number of horse ailments (hence the name). It may not look like much, but Citronella Horse Balm is a special and fairly uncommon floodplain inhabitant.
Remember the leafless Naked Flowered Tick-Trefoil (Desmodium nudiflorum) a few months back with its long stems lined with little purple face blooms? Well it's cousin is back! Panicled Tick-Trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum), that is. It's now blooming in the stream valley. It's a host plant for the Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly and attracts long tongued bees and caterpillars of Hoary Edge skipper, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Southern Cloudywing skipper and Northern Cloudywing skipper. There is one downside -- the seedpods will attach themselves to your clothes and be annoying difficult to remove!
Another incredible find -- Leafy Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus carolinianus), appearing along the floodplain in early September. It was so very small as to be almost imperceptible. While the one I observed was very low, this plant can grow to four feet tall. This is not one of the more commonly observed plants in the stream valley. It has historical medicinal uses but they are not well documented.
I would be remiss if I did not feature the dainty early fall flowers of the American Hog-peanut, (Amphicarpaea bracteata). This viney ground cover carpets the woodland and floodplain floor in large swaths, and does so very gently and amicably. Its tendrils are so very thin and do no harm. And when it blooms in the late summer and early fall, the bees flock to it. Spotted seed pods follow the flowers and can be cooked and eaten like lentils if one is so inspired. It also creates underground pods that can be eaten raw or boiled like a nut (hence the name).
The spectacular berries of the Indian Cucumber (Medeola virginiana), set against the distinctive red markings on the inner leaves, literally stopped my in my tracks. Wow. The Indian Cucumber goes through so many transformations over the course of the year and this is in some ways the most special. Alas, the berries are not edible, but the roots of this special plant are. Best to leave them for others to see and enjoy.
Last but not least, are the red berries of the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), now in evidence. We know that tea can be made from fresh or dried leaves and twigs of this shrub. The berries, if you are lucky to find them, are super special. They are edible, with a spicy and complex taste, like allspice. .They can be used as a spice or rub.
By the time we meet again it will be fall. Enjoy the vestiges of summer, and embrace the changing season.