Mystery plant: As summer fades, this plant starts to bloom
Saturday, September 8, 2018
Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty...
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
Summer’s decline into autumn, once again, is being slow and gradual, but far from imperceptible. I remember thinking the other day, while letting the dog out in the morning, how much later the sun seems to be rising. Never mind that school has started back up, and that 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. (You might be able to relocate the patch featured in this photo, which was shot recently along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Pisgah, not far from Asheville.)
This is one of several closely related American wildflower species, whose taxonomic disposition is somewhat controversial. Their relationships seem to lie with other genera such as blazing-stars (Liatris), ironweeds (Vernonia), mist flowers (Ageratum) and the true “bone-sets” (Eupatorium); research continues on their accurate placement.
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, each of 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, late summer days.
[Answer “Joe-pye weed,” Eutrochium fistulosum]
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Biological Sciences in Columbia, S.C. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, call 803-777-8196, visit www.herbarium.org or email email@example.com.