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Some lingering October wildflowers

A late-flowering New England aster blooms on an October day. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A growth of sneezeweed still in full bloom in October. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

Early October is a dazzling time in the Northland. And whether we have clear skies or not, there is no shortage of colors. It seems like nearly every kind of deciduous tree will hold leaves with colors that differ from the greens that we saw all summer. Reds stand out as attention-grabbers and it’s hard to not notice the scarlet arboreals at this time. About a dozen kinds of woody plants — trees, bushes and vines — take this route and they now glow from the sunny sites along roads, yards, parks and the woods’ edge.

Looking over the autumn forests shows us that yellows far outnumber reds. Nearly twice as many kinds of trees are now covered with yellow branches. Yellow may be on small woody plants, only about a foot tall, to the long-living and very large maples and oaks. Living here, we see an abundance of the glowing aspens now covering entire hillsides. The foliage colors steal the show now. Along many different routes, we seek out the colors each year and we never get tired of these repeat foliage performances. And even in swamps, the coniferous tamaracks will soon add their yellow-gold to the fall.

Looking among the branches now may also reveal the presence of avian migrants that are pausing as they pass through. Just in the last few days, I have seen the tiny winter wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers. And the feathered fliers have also included the larger flickers, sapsuckers, thrushes and robins. This bird movement included flocks of Canada geese, sandhill cranes, hawks, eagles and turkey vultures.

No migrants fill the scene more in early October than the little brown birds, the sparrows. Each day on my walks, I note the presence of white-throated, white-crowned, swamp and song sparrows and in the yard are flocks of the grayish juncos. The diverse sparrows could number more than 10 kinds in a single day. They remain in the region for a few weeks, usually feeding on the ground and frequently come to feeders. Though not too colorful, they are abundant and active enough to give us another look at the fall migration.

But the tales of this season continue. The bumblebees and hornets that were so common in the goldenrods earlier in the summer have now faded. Dealing with the cold in a style of their own, the entire colony of these social insects die in the fall except for the queens that deal with winter as hibernators. Others, like the grasshoppers and crickets, are laying eggs before they succumb to the impending chill. Some, such as the ladybugs hibernate as do the woolly bear caterpillars that are so easy to see now. But as I look over the wildflowers for insects, I noticed that the wildflowers themselves are largely faded. Most have gone to their next phase and hold seeds instead of the florets.

As I walked and biked in the area in this past week, I saw that a scattering of wildflowers still had blossoms. These included clovers, sweet clovers, butter and eggs, yarrow, hawkweeds, evening primrose and the ubiquitous dandelions. The plants that so dominated the roadsides and open spaces in the past weeks, the goldenrods, are now mostly faded and hold fluffy seeds. Sunflowers and asters that grew and flowered with the goldenrods seem to linger a bit longer.

Not all the yellows are in the trees. I found a rather large patch of a couple of kinds of sunflowers persisting in the scene. Two kinds, Maximilian’s sunflower and sneezeweed, appear to still be blooming. These hardy flowers, more common to the west of us, seem to be coping with the October chill quite well.

But it is the asters that provide the greatest amount of fall flora flowers at this time. Along some bike trails and area roads, I found white rays still open on calico and marsh asters. Adding more colors, purples were here, too, on Lindley’s, large-leaf and swamp asters. But the dominant aster that has waited until late in the season to show its dynamic impressive colors is the New England aster.

The name does not do this plant justice since it grows far beyond New England and can be found in much of the state and further west in prairie country. Plants are robust, at least 4 feet tall, with flowers on numerous heads on the top of the stalks. The rays are crowded here and form clusters of deep purple colors. Growing sporadically in the Northland, these hardy New England asters are the latest aster to flower and may extend for a couple of weeks into October. They seem to shrug off the frosts as long as they can. No doubt, New England asters have become a favorite in flower gardens as well. Seeing these asters with such a deep rich purple-blue color in October adds more to the scene of colors from the plants that appear now to fill the entire rainbow spectrum.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.
Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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