Monday, October 19, 2020

Fall is Burstin' Out All Over

After the heavy hitters of late summer are past--the Hibiscus, coneflowers, bonesets, et al--it's easy to think the season of native wildflowers is over, but this fall has been a surprise in the beauty and variety that nature held in reserve for these sweet autumn days. 

One that's been a big hit at Herrontown Woods is Hearts-a-bustin', though I prefer to call it Hearts-a-burstin', because when I see it my heart does more burstin' than bustin'. 

This native euonymus (E. americanus) would be a common shrub in the forest if not for the deer, who love to eat it, stem and all. They keep it browsed down to a couple inches high, so we had to take some of those and grow them out in cages so that visitors could see the ornamental seed capsules on the shrubs, one of which has risen to eight feet thus far. It helps, too, for the ornamental seed production, if it's growing in a clearing where the trees aren't hogging all the direct sunlight, like our Princeton Botanical Art Garden.

A little earlier in the fall when the capsules were just starting to open, you could see why it is also called strawberry bush. 

A solitary white snakeroot is growing near a Hearts-a-burstin' planted behind Veblen House. It can easily be confused with boneset and late-flowering thoroughwort. When I first moved to Princeton almost 20 years ago, white snakeroot was common in some areas, even weedy, being one of the few native wildflowers that deer didn't eat, but it seems much less common now. 

A few fall flowers in Herrontown Woods manage to bloom despite deep shade. Wood asters adorn some of the trails, 

occasionally accompanied by a wreath goldenrod.

More subtle is beechdrops, which parasitizes beech tree roots rather than producing its own nourishment through photosynthesis.

Along a busy street in a frontyard raingarden fed by runoff from the roof, blue mistflower blooms profusely for an extended period while staying low. 
New England aster also brings color to the garden late in the season.

The white of late-flowering thoroughwort makes a good foil for New England aster's rich color.

Another cloud of white late in the season comes from what I call frost aster. Because it can become too numerous, I would in the past make plans to enjoy the bloom, then cut it down and remove it before the seeds were released. But once it's bloomed, it quickly fades into the background of landscape and thought, foiling the best of intentions to control. 

Turtlehead grows quietly and unobtrusively during the summer, bending around other plants to attain its tall, skinny, awkward state of maturity. The blooms make for a top-heavy look, but this year were solidly ornamental.

Indian grass is particularly pretty when growing in a distinctive clump, rather than crowded in a field. Like many prairie grasses, it responds beautifully to the wind.
Bottlebrush grass is more of an understory grass, and unlike most native grasses it gets an early start in the spring. 

This one's called woolgrass, for its wooly appearance, but is actually a sedge, with edgy triangular stems. Unlike most native sedges that get an early start in the spring and move quickly to flower, woolgrass takes its time, gaining more height and slowly developing its inflorescence, which is ornamental at all stages, particularly when backlit. Though typically found growing on wet ground, it has been thriving through our wetter summers when planted upland as well, as here in the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

There are many species of native sunflower. They can make a big and very welcome show in the fall after other tall yellow wildflowers like cutleaf coneflower and cupplant have faded. A powerline right of way in the Sourlands preserve is one of the few places where they really show their stuff around here.

In North Carolina, they had names like "giant," "showy," "woodland," and a rare one called "Schweinitzii." I knew giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) from only one derelict patch growing along a roadside outside of town, and decided to do it and myself a favor by taking a tiny bit of the patch and planting it in my garden and in a sunny opening in a nature preserve I managed in town. As often happens, what seemed like a species on the brink in the wild turned out to be prolific and expansive in the garden. 

The sunflower in the photo, though, is sunchoke, a sunflower that has long carried the name Jerusalem artichoke. Each year, I think I'll eat its tubers, which I don't, even though they have an appealing nutty flavor when eaten raw, and can work well in a stirfry. And each spring, I attempt to pull out every last sprout, tired of its aggressive underground spread. Then in the fall, longing for summer blooms to continue, I am thankful to find that my eradication efforts have once again failed to completely stem the tide. 

These are some of the flowers that ease the transition from summer's glory to a palette of browns and grays. Let their colors, and the rich spectrum of autumn leaves, penetrate deep into your soul, to carry you through the winter to come.

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