Nature Notes

Signs of the Season

By Greg Lecker

Gardens and road construction are in full bloom in late summer. So too are the native plants moving into another stage of their life. Within the tri-lobed leaves of high-bush cranberry are its ripening berries which the shrub will hold onto until next spring unless they become fruit for wildlife. Joining its color is goldenrod.

Highbush Cranberry and GoldenrodHigh-bush Cranberry and Canada Goldenrod

Among the last plants to flower – and among the longest-lasting blooms, goldenrods flourish from August to October. When most people think of goldenrod, they envision the plant known as Canada goldenrod. Borne on 2’ to 5’ tall stalks, arching spikes of numerous yellow flowers attract many insects. Its leaves are thin and rough. Contrary to popular belief, goldenrods are not the cause of hay fever, because goldenrod pollen is moved by insects and not by the wind (its pollen is too heavy—only about 1-2% of airborne pollen is from goldenrod). The culprit is the less conspicuous, yet ubiquitous, ragweed which flowers at about the same time.

One plant that cannot be missed is the tall Joe-Pye Weed.

Joe-Pye WeedJoe-Pye Weed

Joe-Pye weed grows in sunny wet conditions like meadows, along road ditches, and streams and does well in rain gardens. It grows taller on wet sites and shorter in dry conditions. Leaves grow in whorls of three to five lance-shaped leaves. Leaves grow in ascending layers along a tall rigid stem. Dried leaves and flowers were used in a tea to induce sweating. The plant is reportedly named after a medicine man who practiced similar herbal applications.

Swamp MilkweedSwamp Milkweed

Swamp milkweed could be a little brother to Joe-Pye weed. Both prefer wet to dry sites; and the flowers of both attract Monarch butterflies. Like common milkweed (but unlike butterfly weed), swamp milkweed contains a sticky, milky sap.

Not sticky as one might think are the mushrooms that are growing in prevalence at this time of year. Mushrooms are among the most commonly visible fruiting bodies of fungi. While morel mushrooms appear in the spring; many if not most mushrooms are more abundant in the late summer and early fall.

Gilled MushroomsGilled Mushrooms

Gilled mushrooms are not a specific genus or species of mushroom; but rather, “gilled” describes a group of mushrooms that employ tiny vertical plates or blades to increase the growing surface for the spores that the mushroom produces. Imagine that you are germinating seeds; and you have limited window sill space. If you built shelves to stack seed trays, you could multiply your growing space. The gills of a mushroom greatly magnify the growing surface beyond simply the underside of a mushroom cap. The spores fall out of the gills onto soil – or onto a piece of white or black paper if you were to place a mushroom cap gills-side down. The color of the spores and the mirrored pattern of the gills that the collected spores produce on the paper is an important tool in identifying mushrooms.

Also growing in the woodland is a favorite of mine – the native zigzag goldenrod which provides late season color.

Zigzag GoldenrodZigzag Goldenrod

From fibrous rooted crowns, its stems grow up to 24-30” high in a “zigzag” configuration. Elongated toothed leaves alternate along crooked stems. Yellow “fireworks”-like flowers grow from each connection of the leaf with the stem. In addition to its unique flower location, this plant differentiates itself from other goldenrods by its habitat – woodland rather than prairie.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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