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The tall tall sunflowers of the season

Blossom of a tall sunflower, about 3 inches across. Note the number of rays. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A tall sunflower, very common on the roadsides now, maybe up to 10 feet tall. (Photos by Larry Weber)2 / 2

As we begin the month of September, we are more likely to look forward to the coming autumn than to think of this time as summer. The autumnal equinox, this year on Sept. 22, marks the passage of seasons. The days that continue to lessen in daylight reach the point at that time where we have more hours of darkness than light. This will continue for the next six months. But now in early September the days are more fall-like each day. However, warm temperatures let us know that summer has not completely exited.

Looking back at June, July and August, what we usually refer to as summer, of 2016, we see that each had an average temperature above the normal. And though it varied greatly in the region due to the storms that passed through, we were at or beyond the usual precipitation as well, warm and wet. I have found it to be a great time to observe how the Northland nature has responded to these conditions.

With ample rainfall, the vernal ponds lingered far into the summer. This provided plenty of time for the developing tadpoles to reach maturity and move onto life on land. Seeing frogs and toads each day now is the result. The warm and wet conditions were good for an abundance of insects, which most of us remember well from the summer. The many bugs provided for lots of food for the growing spiders and songbirds. Both seem to have done well this year and we note the products of their breeding season now. I have especially been glad to see the abundant spider webs and the flight of nighthawks and warblers at this time.

In the woods, the mushrooms have proliferated and I find about a dozen kinds each day. A recent walk in the shaded forest revealed corals, false corals, puffballs (including giant ones), stinkhorns, russula, lactarius, amanita, hygrocybe, marasmius, boletes, chanterelles and a beautiful growth of orange-yellow sulphur fungus (chicken-of-the-woods). It's also been good for the berries and fruits. I now find blackberries, highbush cranberries, apples, crabapples and hawthorns in large numbers each day while some blueberries and raspberries may be lingering here, too. Earlier strawberries had a great season as well. But maybe it is the wildflowers from late in the season, still in bloom now, that greatly show the responses of plants to this warm and wet summer.

In July, I noted the flowering of evening primroses, fireweeds and milkweeds. While a few evening primroses are still open in these dew-covered mornings, the fireweeds have gone to seed and the milkweeds formed pods that will open their ripe seeds later this fall. The bouquet of August keeps developing through late summer and I still find more in bloom nearly every day. These flowers are varied, but goldenrods, asters and sunflowers dominate.

Other natives in the open spaces now include bergamot, blazing stars and Joe Pye weeds. All seem to have thrived in the warm and wet days. Though there is a tendency to notice and react to the non-native plants also present, these native flowers cannot not be seen as they grow tall and blossom along the roadsides and fields. Goldenrod species are quite diverse in size and while some are only about 2 feet tall, others can be up to 8 feet. (One is even called the giant goldenrod.) Asters also hold their white and purple flowers on stems that range from 2 to 5 feet.

But it is the sunflowers that have been demanding attention. Sunflowers and their close cousins, the coneflowers, make up about a dozen kinds in the region. Like lots of the fall wildflowers, they have a very long blooming season. Several opened their florets already in July and continue for two months or more. These early ones, black-eyed susans and oxeye sunflowers, don't grow so tall, but another one, the tall sunflower does.

Rightly named, the tall sunflowers frequently reach up to 8 feet. But in response to the weather conditions of the summer of 2016, they have exceeded this height and I found several that extended to 10 feet.

While domestic sunflowers may get this big, no wild ones are beyond this species. Unlike the domestic ones, the heads of the wild sunflowers are only about 3 inches across and many grow on a single plant. Sunflowers are composites, composed of two kinds of numerous flowers, the central disc surrounded by the yellow rays. (These rays are often called petals.)

Other sunflowers and coneflowers such as woodland, rough-leaf and Maximillian's sunflowers along with green-head and gray-head coneflowers have been along the roadsides as well this season. All are yellow and tall, but none are bigger than the tall sunflowers. Still yellow and still common now, they will fade and with the coming frost, forming seeds later in the fall. But let's enjoy these tall tall sunflowers, a product of the warm wet summer, now, in early September.

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