Wildflowers in the Fall
By Donald Dow
“Yet, though it is like this, simply, flowers fall amid our longing and weeds spring up amid our antipathy.” – Dōgen
The wildflowers that bloom in the fall are my favorites. Wildflowers have their seasons, except winter, though we’re only barely at the cusp of spring when the most precious wildflowers appear. Before the trees leaf out and while the forest floor is still sunny and warming and wet from snowmelt, we get the small delicate flowers we call spring ephemerals – flowers that rise up right out of the dirt between the leaf litter, such as trout lily, bloodroot, and spring beauties. Later the heat of summer brings out hardy, memorable beauties, the tickseeds, the ironweeds, the lilies in the ponds, and so many others. The orchids in the shade belong to summer as well, or at least the late spring, waiting for the forest breezes to become dank and still. Summer flowers are there to impress. Great swarms of pollinators, day and night, are moving through fields, stream, and forest edge to get their nectar: bees and wasps, butterflies and moths, birds, beetles, and mosquitoes too. A flower’s got to show itself off if it’s going to get attention. That we’re impressed is accidental. We’re hardly connoisseurs. Birds and insects are going to see a broader range of colors than our paltry mammal vision – reds and purples we literally can’t conceive, and flowers have developed their colors in tandem with the evolution of their pollinators’ capacity for sight. Photographers have been able to trick out some of the hidden patterns in flowers using infrared and ultraviolet light photography, but as stunning as some of those images can be, they’re just diagrams of what we’re missing out on.
The flowers in the fall are tighter, smaller, and rather than stun us with their massive beauty or seduce us with mystery, they overwhelm us with prolixity. They’re everywhere. They’re even, and even especially, showing up in all the crappy, marginal places that shouldn’t get flowers at all: drainage ditches, untended medians dividing crumbling urban or suburban roads, back lots and parking lots, on the hills supporting railroad bridges, and anywhere just out of the corner of your eye. The poet and naturalist John Landretti wrote an essay called “On Waste Lonely Places” that eulogizes the leftover spaces of the contemporary American landscape, like highway onramps and cloverleafs, the kind of places that yield up an intimacy that the grandeur and sublimity of mountain ranges or mighty rivers just can’t. “The places I came to know best,” he writes, “were the ones in which I found myself at dusk.” That’s what I often think about when I park my car or walking the dogs in the early twilight and realize that everywhere around me bushes of small asters are in bloom. We tend to think about some natural scenes as destinations, as places worth striving toward. The scenes of fall wildflowers seem accidental, and because we’re often alone with them, more intimate.
It’s not just the small late-blooming asters: it’s goldenrod, it’s snakeroot and boneset. Dog fennel and ragweed too. Stemmy, woody, thatches of fall flowers are suddenly at the edge of every road, office park, apartment building, park, or playground. Small, tight flowers in pale colors on long stalks. Some like ragweed could hardly be considered flowers at all. Some, like the bushes of small asters are sweetly beautiful when seen in the right light. You could drive for hours and not see the end of it. I’m not exactly sure how far this would spread – these are plants that are native to this area, and in the case of late-blooming asters and goldenrod, there are many species and more than one genus that can be found close at hand. Still I know it must cover quite a large area.
Just before the full-ditch efflorescence of all, there are some harbingers that come from other areas. Some of the most striking late-summer roadside flowers are the common mullein and the chicory flower, both introduced from and quite common throughout Europe, where they also grow in ditches and abandoned fields. Mullein is hard to love, though easy to be impressed by. Its leaves are broad and large and massed in a large circle flat against the ground, and its flower stalk that’s covered in quarter-sized yellow blossoms grows straight up for five to six feet. Dried out by the time we’re fully into fall, that stalk makes for a great imitation spear for children to throw. Chicory, a large blue daisy-like aster, a single flower on a medium stalk, is much easier to love, but both flowers are striking, and they’re both seemingly universal. A roadside ditch in late summer is more or less the same if you’re anywhere in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere. I have confidence that in the fall the same sort of roadside scene happens across a wide swath of the globe as well, even if the plants aren’t all the same.
Spotted knapweed is one of these fall wildflowers, but like chicory and unlike the goldenrod and asters, a visiting weed. Chicory doesn’t seem to excite much alarm: it’s widely used as livestock feed, it also has a long history as a coffee substitute, medicinal plant, and ingredient in field salads. It’s easily controlled by mowing. But knapweeds and spotted knapweed in particular seem to inspire a loathing unmatched by any other ditch weed. Despite its ubiquitous spread across the continental U.S., park rangers, foresters, and state agricultural departments are determined to counter its dominating presence by any means. Agricultural extensions list thirteen different insects that can be introduced to an area to fight back against the plant. I’m not sure, but that seems like a record of some kind.
Knapweed is fairly attractive – it looks like a poor imitation of bee balm, or a glorified and enhanced clover flower. Half empty, or half full, your pick. It’s a weed, but then so are all the wildflowers I’ve mentioned. Some people may balk at goldenrod being called a weed. It’s gorgeous, especially in large quantities, and that brilliant yellow in the fields and at trailheads is part of the magic of cooler weather. But being a weed is more about the weediness of the plant, and not so much the attitude of the beholder, no matter how much people might protest. In Michael Pollan’s first book, Second Nature, he confronts the romantic notion that a weed is a flower we haven’t learned to love and puts it to a test. He decides not to weed a flower garden for a season, making no distinction between what he wants and what nature wants to put there. The result is a tangled, unattractive mess. The volunteer plants soon consume the garden entirely and displace the previously selected residents. And so Pollan confirms what botanists already know: weediness is a plant’s ability to flourish in disturbed soil. That’s why they plague gardens. Weeds are not just what we don’t want; they’re an open defiance of what we want. Europeans, the most active and widespread of colonizers, brought many of these high-weediness-factor plants across the world when they were going about their colonizer business, plants that had evolved alongside the Europeans in the European ditches and fields, had found that disturbed soil is disturbed soil almost anywhere, and are now presumably content to evolve alongside everyone else. Soil doesn’t need human activity to disturb its existing microbial, mycelial, mossy networks that tend to favor certain types of vegetation over others: fire, wind, and flood do a good job of that too. It’s just that we humans do it with regularity and gusto.
Goldenrod, again, is a weed. It grows best in disturbed soil. It’s quick to take root in a field left to rewild, the side of roads, edges of lots, and everywhere else we find weeds. Maybe even somewhere where someone works at hacking back the weeds and overgrowth all summer, but by fall meets those plants that survive with a shrug now that it’s too late to worry much about them. And fall is when goldenrod reveals itself in its glory. Like many weeds, goldenrod tends toward a monoculture, crowding out other plants so it may dominate the sunniest patches, which is to our benefit. A stalk or two of goldenrod on their own are beautiful. A whole patch of nodding cones of bright golden-yellow is glorious and joyful, a scene that uplifts its surroundings and sacralizes the sunshine, and the impact on our emotions is just about the same whether if we’re finding it deep in a meadow or by the side of the road.
The asters are weeds too, and unlike the knapweeds, are treasured by gardeners specializing in native plants. But they don’t need much encouragement to send out each fall those long stems covered in tiny blossoms that range, depending on the species, from white to blue to purple. Mostly white, and fairly plain when you’re looking at just a single blossom. That’s the aesthetic of the season: a proliferation of small, monotone, woody blossoms that overwhelm and charm in their sheer number and repetition, mostly white and yellow, and a few edging on a faint purple. There are dissenting notes: pokeberry has its almost gruesome red berries out the same time, but that’s a different conversation. The flowers are in agreement among themselves, and the somewhat less common weedy natives too, like boneset and rabbit tobacco, speak in wedding-dress whites alone. Even the names of the weedy fall wildflowers are humble. Snakeroot, for example, a lowliest of names. Even less attractive as a plant when it’s not in bloom than goldenrod or late-blooming asters, snakeroot’s flowers in the fall merge at the end of stalks into soft, curved platforms of blinding white. I’m always ambivalent about its presence in the gardens all summer, but it’s going to get in somewhere no matter what. And by the time it blooms I’m not going to remove it.
It’s that humble, unshowy appeal that makes its case through determination, repetition, and scale that gets me. And unlike the showier summer flowers, with the weedy fall wildflowers there’s not much unseen mystery. They may not be for us necessarily, but the distance between what pollinators might see and what we can see narrows considerably in the fall, and we have an opportunity in which the flowers and the pollinators both seem closer and more familiar to us. Like with Landretti’s marginal wastelands, our appreciation of the scenery becomes more intimate. More personal. These are not grand shows of color and majesty: there’s nothing that sublime about bees tumbling over tiny white petals in a ditch.
I’m not completely sure why these wildflowers all blossom at this time, but I can hazard a guess. Flowers take energy to produce, and weeds need time to settle in and make the soil their own. These aren’t lilies that have been soaking in the mud for weeks before it’s warm enough for them to send up their stalks. So no springtime blooms for them. They need to ensure they have time to do the hard work of colonizing new territory before they can blossom, and so they save it for the last possible moment of warmth. And it’s not for naught: while the frenetic activity of summertime has quieted into fall’s more somber pace, there are plenty of pollinators around eager for whatever nectar the flowers can provide. The asters and snakeroot seem to attract a lot of monarch butterflies, as the last generation of summer’s monarchs needs substantial energy sources for their migration to Mexico. Goldenrods seem to support an entire ecosystem of pollinators and the spiders and other insects that prey on the pollinators. If you scan enough goldenrod blossoms carefully enough, you’ll eventually find the goldenrod crab spider, an ambush predator hiding in the flowers that’s implausibly the same color. The spider can change its color from molt to molt, switching between white and yellow depending on which flowers it will be hunting from.
The reduced palette of color in the fall seems at times a simpler language where we might find common ground with wildflowers and other organisms that depend upon them. Although an insane gulf of time separates us from any commonality with insects, at some level our capacity for sight and our sensation of need, of grasping for sustenance, have the same roots. It’s not implausible that some organisms may even feel something akin to beauty or awe in apprehending a flower. Sometimes too it may seem almost possible to reach in our imagining toward the experience of having our senses, our thirsts, and our appetites driven into the soil along with the fibers that hold us in place and hold us up, and in that momentary flash of insight we might grab tightly at the soil as flowers do.
But being who we are, and what they are, whatever that might be, there will be a distance between us. Our thoughts and sensations might share a history and a world with the interlocking realms of necessity linking the blossoms to the organisms that surround them, but our lives and their lives are incommensurable. For one thing, unlike the flowers, we can’t help but to see through to the end of vegetative growth and winter’s approach. That’s our experience of meaningfulness. Emily Dickinson, the great philosopher of wildflowers, wrote about the impossibility of squaring the irrevocable passage of time with nature’s beauty in the poem “There’s a certain Slant of light.” She calls that impossibility “the internal difference – Where the Meanings, are –”, and “the seal Despair.” “When it comes,” she writes, “the Landscape listens – / Shadows – hold their breath – / When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance – / On the look of Death.” Death not so much because we metaphorically associate winter with death, which often seems to me to be a rather clunky and labored way to think, but in that all passings are at some level about that great passing. I remember reading somewhere in Emerson’s journals that we could count out our lives in salads taken from our gardens. The end of the season of flowers means that next season will come with the knowledge that there will be one less season for me to experience. The fall wildflowers are not about us, but they are all about us. And each flower I see is about me and about not-me and not about me at all. That’s what makes them so beautiful.
Donald is an amateur naturalist, a writing instructor, and a university administrator at Rutgers.