monarch on blazing star
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An Early Fall Prairie Walk

Mornings are getting colder, days are getting shorter – unmistakable signs of the approaching fall. I invite you to join me for the closing piece in our series of prairie walks (did you miss the spring or summer walk?), one on which we’ll meet some of the most interesting wildflowers and will learn about their connections to famous people. All the flowers in this edition are of yellow and red colors – perhaps to prepare us for the wonderful fall season ahead.

Starting with a flower that is undoubtedly familiar to lovers of the outdoors in all 50 states, the showy yellow black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) have been gracing our meadows since June and will hopefully do so until the first frosts. (The first blooms this year were recorded on June 18, and they’re still going strong!)

black-eyed susans

Black-eyed Susans. (All photos in this post were taken by the author, Associate Fellow Tanya Iretskaya, near the Leopold Center in Baraboo, WI.)

It is a North American native closely related to the coneflowers (Echinaceas) with which it shares most medicinal properties – boosting the immune system, fighting colds, flus, infections, and serving as an astringent and diuretic.

It received its Latin name in the 18th century from none other than Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy, the system for naming living organisms. Hirta refers to the hairiness of the plant, while ‘Rudbeckia’ honors Linnaeus’s teacher Olof Rudbeck, Jr. and his father, both renowned Swedish scientists and university professors. Also worthy of note, is that Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prize, is a direct descendant of the Rudbecks.

Continuing along the aristocratic theme, the golden yellow and black were the colors of the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore, for whom Baltimore, Maryland is named after, and hence the black-eyed Susan became the state flower. In fact, it is still the reward for the winners of the Preakness horse race that takes place there. The black-eyed Susan was also the inspiration for Louis Tiffany who used it to create one of the designs of the prized American antique – the Tiffany lamp.

rough blazing star

Rough blazing star.

The gently-purple and lavender colored rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) first bloomed in Leopold Country on July 25th. Other names for it include button snakeroot (for the button-like flower heads), tall gayfeather (it can grow up to six feet tall! Though ours are about three to four feet in height.), rough gayfeather and rough liatris. Rough is the exact translation of the Latin ‘aspera’ and refers to the rough and narrow basal leaves and the hairs on the central stem.

This plant’s blooming period will continue until early fall. The top flower heads will always open up first (as evidenced in the photo), and it takes about three weeks for each individual plant to complete its blooming. It prefers dry to mesic dry habitat – as its roots will rot in wetter soils.

From the flowers to the roots, the rough blazing star provides for insects, animals, and humans. Despite the flowers have no smell, it doesn’t stop pollinators from coming to it – from the monarch and fritillary butterflies to bees and hummingbirds. Even groundhogs, rabbits, and deer readily include its leaves and stem in their diet. And the roots of this wildflower were traditionally used by Native Americans as a pain reliever and the leaves as an antiseptic wash.

Intense red, scarlet, vermillion, crimson, showy, vivid – all these are epithets can be used to describe the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Found in the wetland areas, it first bloomed on August 8th, and can usually be seen until the end of the month at least. Its common and Latin name both refer to the color of the Roman Catholic cardinals’ robes, and the genus honors Mathias de l’Obel, a sixteenth-century scientist who served as physician to the Flemish Prince William of Orange, and later as a botanist to English King James I.

cardinal flower

Cardinal flower.

The cardinal flower belongs to the Bellflower family, and indeed its flowers remind one of trumpets. As the flowers are long and tubular, they’re hard to get into for most insects; it’s mainly hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies that delight in the cardinal flowers’ nectar.

It is also known as Indian pink, and, in fact, Native Americans had many uses for it – from medicinal (boiling the roots to treat sores, mashing all the parts to combat cramps) to ceremonial (throwing tobacco made of this flower into the winds to ward off storms). It was also traditionally used as an aphrodisiac and love charm. One should be warned, however, that if taken in large quantities the plant is toxic to humans due to the lobeline and lobelamine alkaloids it contains.

Ending the series is the true harbinger of fall for the Midwest – blooming goldenrod (Solidago spp) that all of a sudden covers the prairie in a layer of yellow. Another exceptional plant that hides a lot within. While there are more than a hundred species of goldenrod, pictured here are two of the most common found on the Leopold property: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensins) and stiff goldenrod (also known as Oligoneuron rigidum).

It has an unending list of medicinal properties and has been employed and recognized as such for centuries. It’s Latin name Solidago refers to ‘solidare’ meaning ‘to strengthen’. Some of the uses include healing our digestive, respiratory, and urinary systems, as well as serving as a dermatological aid for open sores, skin irritations, and even as a toothache remedy. It is also used as a dye or in tea. (Its young leaves are edible).

goldenrod

Canada goldenrod and stiff goldenrod (upper right corner).

What it is not responsible for, though often wrongly accused of, is inducing hay fever. The real culprit is ragweed, which flowers at more or less at the same time, but goldenrod not release pollen into the air like ragweed, it’s rather heavy and sticky anyway. Instead, it is mainly insect pollinated by bees, flies, wasps, and butterflies.

Have you ever crushed its leaves and inflorescence? I encourage you to! To me their smell reminded that of pine trees and their resin, a component of rubber. Well, if you thought the same, you are in the footsteps of some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. Goldenrod’s dry leaves do contain up to 7% rubber naturally. And, at the outset of World War I, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and their friend Harvey Firestone spent a considerable amount of time and research effort trying to extract it from the plant and make it commercially feasible domestically, rather than relying on imports. Edison owned a proper garden in his estate in Florida for experimenting and testing thousands of plant species, and goldenrod proved the most promising as it produced the most latex and grew quickly. There was even a car manufactured with tires produced out of goldenrod rubber (a Model T offered by Ford to his friend Edison). Unfortunately, the synthetic rubber later proved much more efficient and cost-effective in production, and the work with goldenrod was abandoned. History left us a nod to their work, however, a name for one of the goldenrod species, Solidago edisoniana, after Thomas Edison.

When goldenrod is blooming all around us and it paints the prairie yellow, it is one of the signs that it will soon be time for another academic year ahead and that the summer vacation is over. And, so ends this blog post series, too. I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on these walks, reading and learning about the wildflowers that color the prairies. Perhaps, one day we’ll meet on the trails here in “Sand County?”