This plant is one sign that summer is ending
“Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty ...”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer’s decline into autumn, once again, has been slow and gradual, but far from imperceptible.
I remember thinking the other day, while letting the dogs out in the morning, how much later the sun seems to be rising.
Nevermind that school has started back up and that college football again seems to be dictating the tenets of our daily social fabric.
But there are the other signs, too: black and yellow garden spiders in the yard, russet hickory nuts on the ground, and the first few goldenrods and blue lobelias along the roadsides.
Of course, there are various other plants that start blooming in the early autumn. This is one of them.
You might think that the common name “farewell-to-summer” would be a good common name for it.
That name is, in fact, a common name you may have heard of, but it’s usually applied to a much different plant.
This towering show-stopper likes to grow along roadsides or in moist meadows or thickets, sometimes reaching an impressive height of 10 feet and forming big patches.
It’s not only impressive where it grows in the wild, but it makes a spectacular addition to a garden.
You’ll find it growing from New England into the Midwest, and all the way to Texas and central Florida.
The image we have represents something of a change for this column, as I am showing you a pressed and dried specimen from the Herbarium here.
The specimen itself is quite flat and quite dry, yet still retains a good bit of the color. It was collected in Edgefield County in 2002. The color will eventually fade out.
The stems are conspicuously hollow – the scientific epithet refers to this feature – and smoothish, sometimes ridged.
Dark green leaves appear on short stalks, four to six at once at each node.
The leaf blades are narrowly elliptic, and somewhat toothy, with plenty of tiny, shining glands on the lower surface; use your hand-lens to see them.
The inflorescence is always at the top end of the plant, much-branched, and rounded or dome-shaped. This being a member of the sunflower family, the individual flowers are quite small, these with a tubular, pink corolla.
Three to eight flowers are crowded into a head, each head surrounded by several purplish bracts.
Each flower produces a single one-seeded, slightly angled achene at its base.
Atop each achene will be a tuft of furry, pinkish-purple hairs (this would be the pappus) which produces something of a downy effect.
Now with several hundred heads (thousands?) on a single plant, the effect is very colorful, and this is therefore one of more attractive wildflowers.
Quite a spectacle, especially when visited by lots of bees and large butterflies. Look for it now on one of these warm, early autumn days.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.