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Fireweeds show the season is progressing

A fireweed blooms early in its flowering season. Note the location of the florets. (Photo by Larry Weber)

The morning is foggy as they often are in mid-August. The moisture on the grasses and other roadside plants allows the huge number of spiderwebs to be seen easily. Were it not for the fog, dew and calm conditions, I would not see as many as I do. In the swamp are the bowl-shaped sheet webs. The nearby field, recently mowed, is littered with dozens of funnel webs. A close look reveals a hole in the center of these flat webs. On the tops of many roadside dead plants are small cobwebs. But it is the circular webs on tamaracks and willows in a wetland that grab my attention. I estimate there are at least 100 of these orb webs here.

With now about 14 hours of daylight, shrinking fast, the summer is advancing on to its next stage. I walk past bushes of ripe raspberries and adjacent blackberries. It is the latter that now outnumber the former. I'll remember the location and return later to gather these plump tasty dark berries. (Blackberries are more common to the south of Duluth and I am fortunate to be able to find such patches, even if the bushes are thorny.)

Also on the roadside I see dogbane. This plant, a cousin of milkweed, is quite common here. The white flowers of July did a great job attracting attention of butterflies. Now it is the leaves that I note. Many dogbanes now hold bright yellow leaves, being one of the first plants to take on the colors associated with fall. Some small trees, pin cherries, also have leaves of colors besides green: a blending of red, orange and yellow. In the woods, starflower, rose twisted-stalk and sarsaparilla are also with yellow leaves.

I see some roadside movement. Here on the ground are several flickers. These woodpeckers, probably a family from the summer, are slowly moving south and pause to feed on ants. Other families I've seen lately include ruffed grouse, barred owls, hummingbirds and various species of sparrows and warblers.

The last of the breeding and calling summer frogs, the green frogs, are now silent. But with the young frogs dispersing, we still see many. Toads and wood frogs are in the yard and garden while gray tree frogs (usually green at this time) often climb up on the house. As I look into the woods, I see more mushrooms on the forest floor. It seems like there are new ones here each day, thanks to warmth and wet weather of the recent weeks. I expect this late summer phenomenon to continue.

As the sun rises now, I see the growths of fall wildflowers. Goldenrods, asters and sunflowers all glow from the open spaces. The local bees, wasps, flies and beetles are visiting these native plants. It's good to see bergamots and blazing-stars here too while Joe Pye weeds and bonesets abound in the wetlands. Another plant I've enjoyed watching this summer is the fireweed.

Fireweed gets its name from the fact that it is early to grow back and return to a burnt-over area. It is only one of many plants to do this and fireweed regularly grows on other disturbed sites, so the name has limited use.

But the flowers possess other characteristics of note. Flowers are borne on long spikes sticking up from above the surrounding leaves. Each blossom is of four petals on the top side. I consider the fireweeds to be part of the dynamic July flora, along with milkweed, evening primrose, cow parsnip and purple fringed orchid, that makes up a roadside bouquet for midsummer.

Unlike many of the others, fireweed can still be found in bloom. The blossoms begin to open low on the spike. Each day I came by here during the last month, I saw different florets opening. Starting at the base, these purple flowers climb up the spike with the last ones, the top ones, to flower late in the season. As I walk by today, I see these terminal blossoms.

Since the bottom ones open first, these flowers were first to get pollinated and begin to form the seeds. While the flowers are still in bloom on the top, the seed pods are developing lower down. Though these seed capsules are pods, they do not look like the oval ones forming on milkweeds at this time. Instead, fireweed pods are long and thin.

While maturing in the drying air of autumn, these seed pods break open and release the seeds. Like that of milkweed and thistle, seeds are attached to fluffy material and are able to drift in the wind. Soon my walks will go by plants with fluffy seeds and no flowers.

While observing the changes in the fireweed through the summer, I see that these common purple-flowering plants mark off and reveal the changing of the seasons each day. The location of the flowers on the plant and the seed formation tell us the season is moving on.

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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