by Sarah Treanor Bois, Director of Research & Education for the Linda Loring Nature Foundation
With Labor Day comes the end of summer, cooler temperatures, and back to school for many. Getting out into the forest and field this time of year brings a botanical bounty as a stunning display of Nantucket’s wildflowers awaits.
Botanically, the first signs of the end of summer are the yellow blossoms of late summer asters. The Sickle-leaved Golden Aster (Pityopsis falcata) is usually the first. As the name implies, the leaves are arranged around the stem like so many little scythes. Flowering in early to mid-August, it’s the first sign of the impending autumn. Rare in other states, the small, yellow, daisylike flowers are plentiful along Nantucket’s sandy pathways and dirt roads.
The yellow hues continue to dominate the late summer/early autumn wildflower show. We have over 15 species of goldenrods on Nantucket. They range in shape from the flattopped flowers of the Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) to the showy spikes of the Canada and Elliot’s Goldenrods (Solidago canadensis and Solidago latissimifolia). The Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) is a showstopper with a nodding, golden plume like a wand across the sand dunes. The large fleshy leaves, while functional at retaining water in sandy and salty conditions, are almost like banana leaves. Not just beauties to behold, goldenrods are extremely important nectar sources for many pollinators. They are especially important for monarch butterflies which are bulking up in preparation for their long migration journey ahead.
Many other asters show their stuff at the end of August and beginning of September. Aster blossoms appear “daisy-like” which are called composite flowers. Composite blossoms are actually two types of flowers. Disc flowers form the flower head’s “eye,” while ray flowers look like petals on a simpler flower. Many purple, white, and a few pink species come into bloom now. Late Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum patens) has purple ray flowers and yellow disk flowers. The leaves are rough, clasping the stem like little cat tongues. The Bushy American Aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum), is like a tiny bunch of small, white daisies and is common along the coastal plain.
Aside from the goldenrods and asters, there are several other blooms to be seen as the summer wanes. Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) can be seen now through mid-September. Found along wetland edges, the large hibiscus blossoms range from white to deep pink, but most we see are a pale pink. They can grow up to four feet tall, so just walking near a wetland, you may catch a glimpse of a Rose Mallow nodding your way.
While wildflowers tend to steal the show, our native grasses provide a backdrop of spectacular colors. Little Blue-stem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) is the dominant and defining grass of our sandplain grasslands. This bunch-forming grass can grow up to two feet tall on Nantucket. In the fall, the feathery seeds show a wave of blueish purple stems in the autumn breezes.
In addition to the wildflowers, the island’s many fruit-bearing shrubs are offering up their colorful bounty. The birds are delighting in the abundance of fruit as they pack on the calories for their impending migration. Arrowwood’s (Viburnum dentatum) delicate white lace-top flowers now give way to juicy, dark-purple fruit. Not palatable to humans, these berries are picked off quickly by our avian friends. Deep purple and sometimes golden Beach Plums (Prunus maritima) are delicious to all kinds of wildlife, including humans. Many have been seen picking the fruits along Madaket Road.
One of the most spectacular fruits that often get mistaken for flowers is seen in Sumac, winged or smooth, (Rhus glabra and Rhus copallinum). The dark red fruit spike is like a velvety torch. Dense thickets of sumac can be seen along mowed edges and paths such as those at the UMASS Field Station property on Polpis Road. Sumacs are early successional shrubs and love those mowed areas and abandoned fields. The red fruiting spikes are a favorite of many migratory bird species.
Now for the big show, the highlight of fall, the headlining act; the New England Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa var. novae angliae). It’s also a great name for a band. The New England Blazing Star is a purple beacon of color among the heathlands and grasslands of Nantucket. The bright spike grows two to three feet tall and has up to 30 flower heads per spike. A torch of spectacular purple-ness, the New England Blazing Star is one of Nantucket’s state-listed plants. It is currently listed as a “Species of Special Concern” under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. On the island, we are fortunate to have many individuals of this plant along the sandy roads and scattered among the sandplain grasslands especially along the south coast.
Want to learn more about Nantucket’s fall wildflower display and check some of them out for yourself? Take a walk along one of Nantucket’s many walking trails. With more than 50% of the island under conservation, there are multiple habitats to get out and explore. Check out a conservation property near you or sign up for a hike with Peter Brace at walknantucket.com There are local resources for trail guides and maps at nantucketconservation.org/properties and nantucketlandbank.org/properties-map