Nature Notes: Wildflowers in Their Glory
Only two more weeks to enjoy the wildflowers. Unlike most parts of the country where the spring and summer blooms are the brightest, most colorful, and most abundant, Long Island’s best wildflower season is in the first month of fall. California and Oregon, for example, have only a few species of asters, while Long Island has many. Though those two states have their share of goldenrods, they are few and far between, whereas on Long Island you often find four or five species blooming in close proximity.
The best place to view them now, either through the windshield or while leisurely bicycling or walking, is along the edges of the woods, in grasslands and old fields, along coastal strands and, would you believe it, in salt marshes and along swamps and fresh marsh edges. Just about any roadside on the South Fork sports a few native wildflowers in bloom at this time, but you may have a hard time telling the natives from the aliens.
It’s also a good time to view the colorful fall grasses. The native purple lovegrass is dominating the medians and shoulders of the Sunrise Highway and the Long Island Expressway. It’s the most widespread expression of it since I started mapping the wildflowers along Long Island roads 31 years ago. Little bluestem is golden tan to purplish at this time and stands out nicely against the sea of purple occupied by the lovegrass. Incidentally, the lovegrass is the closest thing we have to western tumbleweeds. When the seeds are ripe, it doesn’t take much of a wind to send the plants on their way, bouncing up and down as they move along. That could be why they had become so ubiquitous by the end of the last decade.
Right now the largest patches of the white orchid, nodding ladies’ tresses, on eastern Long Island are to be seen on the sloping south shoulders of the Montauk State Parkwway that runs through Hither Woods. If you are driving, you might have to stop your car and get out to take a look. In past years, the state highway mowers would mow them just before they started to bloom, but not this year. We wonder if it has to do with the New York State Park’s oversight or budgetary problems. Come to think of it, the latter reason could account for the wonderful purple lovegrass veldts, as well.
Go to any shore, ocean or bay, or even upper salt marshes for that matter, and you can’t miss the dazzling yellows of the seaside goldenrod, Solidago sempervirens. It may be the most common goldenrod species in the state, given that we have a thousand miles or more of coastline. This species has as its neighbors American beachgrass and the blue-flowered beach pea, which plucks its nutrients out of the damp air that regularly sweeps over the shores and beaches, especially at night.
On the low duney strand best seen from Cranberry Hole Road in Promised Land, you will find many gray goldenrods in flower. Its stalks are never quite erect and its foliage is almost as gray as that of dusty miller. In the red cedar old fields scattered here and there look for tall goldenrod rising to four feet or more. These three aforementioned goldenrods have flowers ranged in a thyrse at the top of the stem. The blue-stemmed goldenrod found along Swamp Road and other roads in the Northwest part of East Hampton has the golden flowers scattered along the stem, halfway up to the top.
Two other goldenrods in a different genus to be found in damp places such as dune slacks and wet depressions out in the open are the slender fragrant goldenrod and the taller lance-leaved goldenrod. The flowers in these two are in a flattish array expanded laterally from the top of the stem. The slender one’s leaves smell like licorice when crushed, thus the colloquial name “fragrant.” Look for two silvery-whitish pearly and/or sweet everlastings. They used to be picked and sold on the streets of New York City for flower arrangements. They have a nutmeggy smell and last almost forever.
We have more than enough asters in flower now. In my mind, the prettiest of the blue-flowered ones is the New England aster, which is sometimes prolific along Dunemere Road in the Village of East Hampton proximal to the Maidstone Club Golf Course. The blue-flowered New York aster is common in brackish and fresh marsh situations, while the white wood aster is found along the shady edges of woodlands such as Old Stone Highway and Stony Hill Road in Amagansett. On Landing Lane in Springs and here and there on the wetter edges of Old Stone Highway you can find the tallish flat-topped aster, which blooms white.
In our high salt marshes, the salt marsh hay zones per se, there are two salt marsh asters, both of which are quite rare in the state but common on the South Fork. Some have whitish flowers; most have bluish flowers. A diminutive plant with violet fl owers often grows along with them and with the greenish pickleweeds. It’s the salt marsh gerardia, a close cousin of the federally endangered sandplain gerardia that grows in Shadmoor State Park and a few other Montauk spots.
The white-flowered heath aster is common along the edges of Cranberry Hole Road and of Daniel’s Hole Road in Wainscott. You are liable to find the grass-leaved aster growing beside it, and if you are very lucky, to see a New England blazing star, not an aster, blazing away purple-like nearby. It’s a state rarity. A ground-hugging variety of the heath aster is spotty along the tops of Montauk’s ocean bluffs. It makes a very nice groundcover that blooms blue at this time of year.
Along weedy hedgerows and overgrown shoulders (such as Indian Wells Highway in Amagansett), look for one of the South Fork’s most common and tallest asters, and the one with the most widely spreading flower-laden branches, the panicled aster. If you look closely, you might find another white-flowering but more diminutive aster, the calico aster, growing beside it.
A tall bushy-topped plant with abundant white flowers that used to be rare, it has suddenly become quite common. It’s the white snakeroot and it’s peaking now along damp swales, open or shaded, such as the one on the east side of Springy Banks Road just south of Wigwam.
One of the great local places to see many different asters and many different goldenrods blooming together along with gerardias and blue-stem grasses is the East Hampton Airport. The grasslands bordering the runways are now covered with a fine blend of native fall flowers.
In my own yard I have many different asters and several goldenrods. They are not favorites of the deer and generally survive through the summer in good fashion to bloom in September and beyond. That could be a reason why our asters and goldenrods (and possibly the white snakeroot) are so common at this time of year. The deer have spared them for our enjoyment and feasted on the more bourgeois flowering plants growing in most of our gardens.