Gold­en­rods and the Last Chance Café

The Review - - OBITUARIES - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Up­per Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at mike@ schuylkill­cen­ter.org.

As sum­mer slides into fall, a won­der­ful trans­for­ma­tion be­gins hap­pen­ing in mead­ows across the area — sum­mer flow­ers give way to clas­sic au­tumn blos­soms like gold­en­rod and asters. Th­ese are hugely im­por­tant plants, as they rep­re­sent the very last shot that thou­sands of species of in­sects have for pollen and nec­tar be­fore win­ter set­tles in.

For bees and but­ter­flies, a gold­en­rod field is es­sen­tially their Last Chance Café.

There’s a great ex­am­ple of this at the Schuylkill Cen­ter. Very close to our front door is a small na­tive plant gar­den over­flow­ing with gold­en­rod and its cousins aster and snake­root — and the flow­ers there are lit­er­ally abuzz in bees, flies, wasps and more. (And yes, while bees and wasps sting, they tend not to on a full stom­ach and rarely do when undis­turbed.)

In the co-evo­lu­tion of in­sects and flow­ers, some­thing remarkable hap­pened. As the weather cools, it gets harder and harder for bees, wasps, and but­ter­flies to fly from flower to flower search­ing for nec­tar — as the mer­cury drops, it is dif­fi­cult for cold-blooded in­sects to move. So na­ture re­sponded by evolv­ing com­pos­ite flow­ers, plants that have bun­dled their flow­ers in mas­sive clus­ters, al­low­ing a bee, say, to ef­fi­ciently walk across hun­dreds of flow­ers with­out need­ing to fly.

Take dan­de­lion, for ex­am­ple. Pull one “pe­tal” out of the flower, and you’ll find the toothy-edged pe­tal has some fuzz cling­ing to it. That fuzz, oddly enough, rep­re­sents a com­plete but greatly re­duced flower, and that one pe­tal is ac­tu­ally the prod­uct of the an­ces­tral flower’s petals fus­ing into one. So one dan­de­lion is ac­tu­ally — lit­er­ally — hun­dreds of flow­ers. That’s the con­cept, the bundling of huge flo­ral clus­ters to cre­ate a tar­get­rich en­vi­ron­ment, and the fam­ily that per­formed this trick is the com­pos­ites, a huge and sprawl­ing clan of wild­flow­ers.

Gold­en­rods and aster are com­pos­ites, of­fer­ing clus­tered of nec­tar-packed flow­ers stand­ing cheek-to­jowl, al­low­ing for hy­per­ef­fi­cient nec­tar col­lect­ing. And in the year­long pa­rade of blos­som­ing flow­ers, gold­en­rods and asters are the tramp clowns that bring up the rear of the pa­rade, the ab­so­lutely last chance for hon­ey­bees to col­lect pollen and nec­tar. They’ll keep blos­som­ing into the first frost.

De­spite their eco­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, gold­en­rods are re­viled in our cul­ture be­cause just as they bloom, so does rag­wort, a flower with mi­cro­scopic pollen that wafts into the wind — and into our noses. So when showy gold­en­rod blooms — achoo! — so does rag­wort, and gold­en­rod gets all the blame for the rag­wort’s prob­lems. It’s also at this time of year you’re treated to TV com­mer­cials of peo­ple stand­ing in gold­en­rod fields wav­ing a white flag with an ex­hor­ta­tion to buy their hay fever med­i­ca­tion. Memo to al­lergy suf­fer­ers: gold­en­rods pollen is just too heavy to get launched on the wind; in­stead, it sticks to the legs and bod­ies of in­sects like bees and wasps. It’s wind-pol­li­nated flow­ers like rag­wort that make us snif­fle.

Of course, be­cause gold­en­rod fields at­tract so many bugs, you’ll find many preda­tors there, too, like pray­ing man­tises and crab spi­ders hid­ing among the petals wait­ing for an un­sus­pect­ing wasp. Swal­lows and dragon­flies cruise above the flow­ers — and hawks above them, wait­ing to grab a bird. Pea­cock flies lay their eggs in gold­en­rod stems, the eggs rub­bing the flower the wrong way to pro­duce a tu­mor­ous swelling that sur­rounds and cra­dles the egg. Look for gold­en­rod ball galls dot­ting the stems of plants in a field, fly lar­vae sleep­ing the win­ter in their safe lit­tle home. But downy wood­peck­ers know about galls and land on the stems to peck open the galls to grab the tasty larva tucked in­side.

For honey bees, but­ter­flies and more, gold­en­rod fields are the Last Chance Café, the last flow­ers of the fall sea­son, the last chance for nec­tar and pollen. As such, they are crit­i­cally im­por­tant plants — and eco­log­i­cal gold mines filled with im­por­tant pol­li­nat­ing in­sects.

Here at the Schuylkill Cen­ter, we’ve got gold­en­rod in sev­eral lo­ca­tions be­sides our front door, like the Grey Fox Loop, down un­der the PECO power lines close to the river and at the Port Royal cor­ner. Our but­ter­fly meadow doesn’t have gold­en­rods, but many other com­pos­ites are there to lure happy bugs, as daisies, sun­flow­ers, black-eyed Su­sans, pur­ple cone­flower and JoePye-weed are all com­pos­ites — it’s a big and wildly suc­cess­ful fam­ily of flow­ers. Mor­ris Arboretum also has a great gold­en­rod field at its en­trance; gold­en­rod even loves waste ar­eas, so you’ll find them grow­ing in va­cant, “weedy” lots.

So next time you visit the Schuylkill Cen­ter, stop in at the Last Chance Café.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO — SCHUYLKILL CEN­TER

This nec­tar-filled gold­en­rod grow­ing at the Schuylkill Cen­ter’s front door is be­ing worked on by a very happy bum­ble­bee.

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