Get your tickets now for the 19th Annual Sourland Mountain Festival, on July 13th, before they're gone!

Spring means flowers.  It means simple little flowers—a few white petals, a dimpled yellow center—emerging from the newly warmed and softened forest soil.  It means shrubs and trees covered with larger, more complex flowers.  All these flowers are just what the insect world has been waiting for; after a long winter, there is food at last.  When summer replaces spring the feast is unchanged for the leaf-eating insects, but the nectaring insects must move from the forest to the field.  The trees and shrubs have completed their work of providing for the next generation of forest plants. Their flowers have largely disappeared, having evolved into fruit with seeds ensuring the sustainability of their species. Now their focus is entirely on producing leaves that will provide the food they need to grow, prosper, and ripen their fruit.

But the insects that rely on nectar for sustenance need not look far because in June the fields become flowering paradises for bees, butterflies, and other nectar-eating insects.  The flowering of the forest is a short, spectacular outburst while the flowering of fields will last into the autumn months.  It lasts through September, often most of October, and sometimes even into November.  The meadow flowers die at about the same time that days no longer have temperatures that are warm enough for nectaring insects to fly, about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Of course, flowering plants do something besides producing seeds and food for insects, they provide delight and beauty for humans.  Let’s look at a few of the lovely September flowers.

Canada Goldenrod

Goldenrods have two reproduction techniques, by seed and by sending shoots off of their roots. They also alter the character of the soil around them by emitting chemicals that create conditions beneficial to them and often harmful to other plants.  This versatility makes them great at spreading; goldenrods are so effective at propagation that you never see one goldenrod. If you see a goldenrod it is part of a clump, or a stand, or even of a vast golden yellow blanket.    

White Wood Aster

Bees tend to concentrate on one species of flower at a time, so species with hundreds of flowers in a clump like the asters, or species that occur in large patches like goldenrod, increase their chances of being pollinated. I started to count the number of flowers in one clump of white wood asters but stopped after I got to about 300.  There were more flowers, there were some buds that had not yet opened, and there were the remnants of flowers that had bloomed and gone by.  That effort of counting left me with the satisfaction that a clump of white wood asters has many flowers.

New England Aster

Asters got their name from the Greek word that means star, even though they come in colors that no one has ever seen in a star.  New England asters are beautiful enough on their own, but they frequently flower near goldenrods, making a spectacular combination.  If the two species are in flower beneath dogwood trees whose leaves have turned to yellow, red and purple, the scene is even more wonderful. 

Coreopsis

Beginning in late August and continuing through September, coreopsis decorates fields, roadsides, and other places that receive little maintenance attention.  It spreads readily and therefore often occurs in great patches.  The seeds get a free ride to a new location because they have small barbs that stick to animals, or to the clothes of humans who pass by. Several plants distribute their seeds this way; others are distributed because they are an indigestible part of a fruit that is eaten by animals. Sometimes seeds become widely dispersed by being attached to wind-borne fluff; sometimes they leap a foot or so when a passing animal brushes a plant.  Oak and hickory trees are famously planted by forgetful squirrels; their intent may be to build a cache for winter scarcity by burying acorns and hickory nuts, but sometimes they never return to the buried treasure. 

White turtlehead

White turtleheads are uncommon in the Sourlands. The exceptionally beautiful Baltimore checkerspot butterfly uses white turtlehead as a principle host for its eggs. When the eggs hatch the larvae eat the leaves and use the plant for protection from predators.  The scarcity of the turtlehead may lead to the scarcity of the checkerspot butterfly and explain why I have yet to see one in the Sourlands.  I have been unable to find an advantage to an animal whose food is limited to a few plant species.  One reason for the diminishment of monarch butterflies is that their larvae exclusively eat the leaves of milkweed plants, which have diminished in number.

Smartweed

Most people consider smartweed a weed because it voluntarily grows in places that are untended; it is perfectly at home growing from a crack in a curb.  It is native to North America but also occurs in Asia, where it is frequently used as an herbal medicine.  It is believed to stop blood clotting, ease diarrhea, clean fungi from the skin, and reduce swelling and redness.  As is usually the case, doctors and scientists are hesitant to endorse the use of this herb for any medical purposes because there has not been exhaustive research on its medicinal effect. This practice helps people avoid hoaxes but it also denies the lore gained over generations of practical application.  

Thistle and sleepy orange butterfly

Thistle and monarch butterfly

Even the most inattentive visitor to an autumnal meadow notices the thistles.  There are two species of thistle common to the Sourlands, and both stand above most of the other flowers in a meadow. One of them, tall thistle, can be ten feet tall, while the other, field thistle, grows to seven feet.  They both have big purple flowers that are a magnate for butterflies seeking nectar.  Praying mantises also know that butterflies are attracted to thistles and I frequently see them in a thistle, near a flower, waiting with hopes that lunch will be a butterfly.

New York Ironweed

Many flowering plants that are native to America but were not seen in Europe by the colonizing Englishmen were dismissed as weeds, despite their beauty.  The name “weed” has stuck to over three dozen flowering plants native to New Jersey.  Like the other flowers of September, New York Ironweed is a valuable source of nectar for bees.  There will be no nectar available during the winter, so it is important for bees to collect as much nectar as possible in the autumn so that the nest can survive the winter on stored food.

Blue mistflower

Blue mistflower is not very common in the Sourlands because it grows best in sandy soils, which are scarce in our landscape. In places at the shore it is sometimes seen as an invasive weed—invasive because it spreads readily by seed and by rhizome.  The term “invasive” is usually only applied to European or Asian plants that propagate so aggressively that they reduce plant diversity, but some native plants can also be invasive. 

Narrow-leaf mountain mint surrounded by goldenrod

If you pick a leaf of mountain mint and crush it under your nose you will be rewarded with a wonderful minty aroma. You can also get that aroma in the middle of winter by crushing a dried seed head under your nose.  The aroma of flowering plants is not limited to the aroma of blooms; there is often an enticing aroma from other parts of the plant.

By Jim Amon.