Sunday, September 6, 2009

Late Summer Wildflowers

We usually think of spring as the time for wildflowers, but a surprising number of flowers bloom throughout the summer. Some of my favorites appear towards the end of summer - I know that when the purple ironweed blooms, fall is not far away!

Queen Anne's Lace, Daucus carota, also known as wild carrot, is a familiar sight along roadsides and open fields. It was introduced from Europe and is considered an invasive weed in many areas, as it can outcompete native plants; however, the leaves do provide food for the caterpillars of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. The large, carrot-like taproot is edible. Not surprising when you consider that the "wild carrot" is actually the ancestor of our modern cultivated carrots. Use extreme caution if you decide to take a nibble - Queen Anne's Lace closely resembles the deadly poisonous Water Hemlock! Both are members of the parsley family, Apiaceae, which also includes Fennel, Caraway, Anise-seed, Rattlesnake Master (an unusual prairie plant), and Celery.

The flowers of Queen Anne's Lace are compound --composed of many tiny flowers clustered together. They often have one or more dark purple-red flowerlets at the very center, drops of Queen Anne's blood where she pricked her finger while making lace, at least according to legend.

Ironweed, Vernonia altissima, one of my favorite "weeds" of late summer. They usually begin blooming in August in meadows and along roadsides, and their tall vibrant purple blooms are a favorite of bees and butterflies. Ironweed is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae.

Wild Forget-Me-Not, Myosotis sylvatica, is another exotic species, introduced from Europe and Asia. It prefers rich, waterside soils, and has been blooming all summer along the marshy inlet at the base of the amphitheater. Forget-Me-Nots are often used as a symbol of enduring love. In a rather sad legend about the origin of the name, a knight fell into a river while walking with his sweetheart, and tossed her this flower that he pulled from the river's edge, shouting "forget me not," before the weight of his armor pulled him under.

Virginia Spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana, is a native perennial that blooms mid-spring through summer. It is a member of the Dayflower family - individual flowers often close up by afternoon on sunny days, and each flower only lasts a day or two. The camera didn't capture the color well here - flowers are actually a deeper blue-purple.
A close up of the flower reveals a possible source for the name "Spiderwort" - each anther is surrounded by several tiny filaments that might resemble a spider's web.
This is another member of the Spiderwort or Dayflower family that can be found growing in the park, the non-native Common Dayflower, Commelina communis. This one was found along the trail to the pond by the EDC, and with the two big petals reminded us of a little Mickey Mouse.
Virginia Knotweed, Polygonum virginianum, is common throughout the woods of Eagle Creek. When the seeds are ripe, they will explode away from the stem at the slightest touch, giving the plant its other common name of "Jumpseed."
By far the most noticeable late summer wildflower at Eagle Creek is White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. The clusters of white flowers create dense stands through much of the forest understory of the park. White Snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol and is poisonous when eaten, which probably explains its success in areas with high deer populations.
When European pioneers began settling the Midwest in the early 1800's, many of them became ill and even died from the mysterious "milk sickness." One of the most notable victims was the mother of Abraham Lincoln, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. It was not until the 1900's that the cause of milk sickness was officially determined: tremetol poisoning, from cattle that had grazed on white snakeroot plants (Although she never received official recognition, Dr. Anna Bixby probably discovered the cause several years earlier: Normally, cattle avoid the bitter leaves, but if they were being kept in woodland areas with few other sources of forage, they would eat it if they had no other choice.