Autumn Shows Its Beauty

Flamboyantly splashed along sunny roadsides, stream banks, and throughout the countryside, a profusion of flowers invites us to celebrate the seasonal miracle of transformation unfolding all around us. Photo by Becky Nystrom

As late August days grow cool and crisp, the soft green lushness of summer’s splendor gives way to autumn’s golden fields and exuberant floral tapestry. Flamboyantly splashed along sunny roadsides and stream banks and throughout the countryside, a profusion of flowers invites us to celebrate the seasonal miracle of transformation unfolding all around us. Whatever their species, and wherever they bloom, autumn’s backyard beauties bring reminders of seasons swiftly passing and gently nudge us to embrace the glorious gifts of now in the natural world.

Enchanting spires of blue vervain resemble blossom-covered candelabras in the sun, while a multitude of Aster species, including the deep purple New England aster, tiny blush-pink-and-white calico aster, and pale violet crooked-stemmed aster, offer tumbling masses of exquisite star-like blooms, each in turn composed of hundreds of tinier disk and ray flowers.

Exquisitely delicate Queen Anne’s lace, scarlet-red cardinal-flower, rosy joe-pye-weed and distinctive black-eyed Susans sway among fuzzy clouds of cream-colored boneset and blue-sky spikes of lanky chicory, all captivating our attention with their vibrant colors and intricate complexity of design and functionality.

Especially abundant are the cheerful yellow plumes of lovely Solidago, or goldenrod, greeting us in perfumed profusion throughout our region. Comprised of about 125 species native to northeastern America, the goldenrods, like the asters, are members of the composite or sunflower family. In our area, tall, Canada, sweet, rough-stemmed, late and lance-leaved goldenrods are especially common, all transforming sunny fields and hillsides to brilliant hues of gold and yellow from August through October.

Although some consider goldenrods and other wildflowers to be “mere weeds,” their intricate beauty, complexity of design and exuberant growth clamor for deeper examination and appreciation. Native people believed goldenrods had healing powers of renewal, and the genus Solidago, in fact, is derived from the Latin solido, “to make whole.” Sweetly-scented, nectar-laden, rich in pollen, and highly valuable to wildlife, goldenrods remind us to celebrate the sunny days of autumn, even in the midst of daunting change and challenge, and more difficult days soon to come.

Sometimes goldies are misunderstood. Because these flashy flowers are especially abundant and obvious, their pollen is often blamed, in error, for the miseries of hay fever. The real culprit, however, is the obscure, drab-colored ragweed plant, Ambrosia, whose profuse, dust-sized, windblown pollen is readily released (flying up one’s nose) at the same time goldenrods bloom unabashedly. Goldenrod’s heavier, sticky pollen can’t catch easily on the wind but is designed instead to cling to the fuzzy bodies of bees and butterflies.

For all the flowers of autumn, it is truly a time of great urgency, for these late summer lovelies must successfully create their next generation by attracting pollinators, transferring pollen, and setting seed and fruit before chilling frosts transform them to dried, withered wisps of brown and gray.

All a-buzz with honeybees, wild bees, wasps, butterflies, ants, beetles, hummingbirds, moths, and other creatures intoxicated by heavy floral fragrances, enticing colors, and the promise of food, fall wildflowers attract and reward their eager helpers with gifts of sweet nectar, nutritious grains of pollen, and even edible flower parts — all to seduce their little “go-betweens” to efficiently deliver pollen from flower to flower, ensuring successful floral sex. And time is short. If wildflower reproduction is to be successful, pollinators must deposit the pollen grains (which are really little “sperm boats”) onto the sticky female parts of the same floral species from which the pollen was gathered so that eggs waiting deep within the flower’s ovaries may be fertilized, and diminutive embryos may then develop.

In turn, each tiny embryo will be wrapped within waterproofed, protective seed coats and nurtured and nourished within the seed using stored oils, starches, and proteins provided by the mother plant. Each seed, embracing one embryo, will in turn be enclosed within a developing fruit, which may be fleshy or dry, winged, plumed, or barbed at maturity.

Wind, rain, and snow of late fall and early winter bring eventual dispersal of the fruits and seeds, as will animals upon whose fur hooked fruits may cling or who ingest the fruits and drop the seeds in convenient piles of fertilizer. These incredible and creative strategies ensure successful distribution of the young plants far and wide. Wrapped snug within their seed coats, our little infant wildflowers will endure winter’s worst, patiently awaiting the warmth and light and rains of spring and the promise of a new season of beauty and life to come.

Becky Nystrom is a Professor of Biology at Jamestown Community College, a founding trustee and director emeritus of the CWC, and a longtime CWC supporter and volunteer. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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