Clellie Lynch: Oceans of gold
in fall fields,
in rumpy branches,
saffron and orange and pale gold,
"in little towers,
soft as mash,
sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,
full of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerets "
"Goldenrod," Mary Oliver
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.— The dazzle of summer disappears, as September soft-shoes onto the stage bringing cool nights and clear sunny days. Autumn slowly saunters in with late flowering weeds and wildflowers. Verdant leaves of tree and bush fade to a softer shade of green punctuated here and there with bits of red, maroon, yellow and orange. Carefully cultivated flowers in the various beds around the house have only a few remaining blooms (some plants are totally bloomless and leafless, thank you Mr. & Mrs. Deer and your feckless, frolicking fawns!), joined now with splashy goldenrod volunteers that I encourage along with pod-laden milkweed.
As I amble along the road early in the morning, I hear more insect choruses than birds, though today robins flutter from treetop to treetop chucking to one another, a flock of cedar waxwings fly away sreee-sreee-ing, chipping sparrows hop into the road and then back into the brush as I near. Warblers, silent this cloudy morning, are mere silhouettes darting behind leaves and then out onto branches. I finally identify a parula. The resident red-shouldered hawk shrieks and shrieks as if he is still baby-begging for a meal, though by now I would think any fledged hawklet could feed itself.
All along the roadside wildflowers are blooming: yellow jewelweed, tiny white asters, larger purple asters, white turtleheads, boneset and many brilliant sprays, plumes and wands of goldenrod. Time to visit the nearby Ooms Pond Conservation Area where the un-mown and un-hayed fields are awash with many species of goldenrod.
Danny and I arrive at the pond, park near the water and take the path towards the glowing field, momentarily distracted by a Cooper's hawk slashing through the sky above us. While the goldenrod along roadsides grows in semi-shade and out of fairly poor soil, here at Ooms Pond (on maps called Sutherland Pond) growing conditions are near perfect for this lovely plant, with blooms atop every stem and spiky branch. We face a veritable ocean of goldenrod!
Weed it may be, but it is stunning to see the different species thriving on these rolling hills. Goldenrod, species Solidago, is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae, along with many, many other common wildflowers: asters, yarrows, chicory, knapweed, sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed, ragweed, coltsfoot.
Throughout North America, there are 100-120 different Solidago species. Three states, Kentucky, Nebraska and South Carolina, chose goldenrod as either their state flower or state wildflower. Here in the Northeast, 20 or so species fill in bare spots along roads, in gardens, in forests, and often completely cover fallow fields as they do at Ooms. The more common ones in our area are Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis; blue-stemmed, S. caesia; smooth or giant goldenrod, S. gigante; zig-zag goldenrod, S. flexicaulis; rough-leaved, S. patula.
Tiny yellow flowers with rayed florets cover the top of the main stalk or each of the branched stalks. These floral heads may present as a lush plume, a spray, a flat top, a single wand or club or, my favorite, those with a firework display with multiple yellow sprays. This is referred to in the old Peterson wildflower guide as "elm-branched." Newer guides use terms such as "pyramidal panicles or clusters", i.e. plumes, "recurved, one-sided branches", i.e. for sprays all heading in the same direction.
Sometimes these botanical specimens are quite difficult to tell apart, species often distinguished from one another by differences in the leaves: shape, size, alternate or basal, veined or no. All are wonderful in floral arrangements, cultivated overseas for just that purpose, for their beauty and decorativeness. Perhaps here too you can purchase a goldenrod cultivar for your flower bed, though it would be just as easy to find one in the wild and transplant it to blend in with your other perennials.
Sweet or anise-scented goldenrod, Solidago odora, may be made into an infusion to treat minor maladies. Because this plant is aromatic, the leaves were infused into bitter concoctions to disguise the awful taste. Canada goldenrod was used by Native Americans to treat fever and sore throats.
And Edison attempted to grow a goldenrod cultivar from which he could extract rubber for possible industrial uses. He did manage to produce a 12-foot tall variety that yielded 12 percent rubber. Henry Ford gifted Edison a car with tires supposedly made from goldenrod. Ford experimented with many plants, plastics and other things to improve his cars. He even developed an ethanol, for he believed that eventually the world would need a substitute for gasoline. Who knew? Crops for cars might be just the thing to be tinkered with again.
VISIT OOMA POND
Take the two-mile walk around Ooms Pond on Rock City Road, Chatham, NY you'll be graced and guarded by almost hedges of 5-foot tall goldenrod. Monarchs abound, more so this year than in previous years. A pair of yellow sulfur butterflies pirouettes over and around the sea of golden flowers, never alighting long enough for me to identify. Honeybees with saffron-laden legs are all over these blooms, for this profusion of flowers is one of the last of the season for good nectaring.
What a floral display! Look too for the tall, still pink Joe-Pye weed, the last yellow flowers of bird's foot trefoil, the white Queen Anne's lace now with smaller and smaller blossoms, the purple wands of loosestrife and lavender swirls of the spotted knapweed (which is neither spotted nor nappy) and near the damper areas, swamp beggar-ticks with insignificant florets, but very noticeable purple stems.
If you are lucky, you may see the great egret that has been working the edges of the pond for the last week!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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