Following a prolonged stretch of nearly perfect fall weather, Mother Nature delivered much-needed torrential downpours to rejuvenate our parched lawns and gardens.

Following a prolonged stretch of nearly perfect fall weather, Mother Nature delivered much-needed torrential downpours to rejuvenate our parched lawns and gardens. Since soggy soils and wet turf necessitated a temporary delay in the mowing of my lawn and other fall gardening projects this weekend, a nature walk seemed the ideal way to spend a pleasant September afternoon.


Donning my English gardening boots, I set out for a stroll in my damp meadow where a wealth of wildflowers have naturalized over many years serving as a magnet for birds, butterflies and other wildlife visitors. Unfortunately, a colony of giant reeds (Phragmites) has infiltrated the meadow and while their reddish plumes are handsome at this time of year, this invasive 12-foot grass threatens to take over the entire meadow in the years to come.


As I made my way through the moisture-laden tangle of foliage, a dozen gregarious goldfinches scattered, only to reappear moments later to resume plucking seeds from pods on the statuesque stems of bright lemon-yellow evening primroses. These tap-rooted, biennial plants produce flower stalks the second year and bloom for weeks, the flowers opening in the evening and persisting until midday the following day.


Glorious goldenrods (Solidago) abound in my little wild patch, offering weeks of color with their dense clusters of teeny-tiny yellow daisies. Many species can be seen thriving in meadows and along roadsides throughout our area, each featuring slightly different flower forms including dense panicles, graceful open plumes, compact wands, or flat-topped varieties with delicate willow-like foliage. Bees, butterflies, and a host of other insects congregate on goldenrod providing a continuous source of activity and interest for observant nature-lovers during the fall season. These hardy perennials have often been scorned due to the unfortunate misconception that they cause hay fever in the fall. Ragweeds, which bloom during the same time frame, are the actual culprits, their inconspicuous green flowers of no interest to pollinators so they must rely on wind to transfer billions of small pollen grains to ensure cross-pollination and seed production.


Occasionally, some of these native goldenrods find their way into my cultivated borders. Although I usually eradicate these wild intruders due to their vigorous nature, several hybrids with restrained growth habits have been welcomed into my garden including S. ‘Golden Fleece’, only 15 inches tall with delicate sprays of bright yellow flowers on compact plants and S. ‘Fireworks’, reaching 3 to 4 feet with handsome dark green foliage and dazzling 18-inch long flower spikes in late September and October. It should be noted that goldenrod hybrids have long been popular with European gardeners who have developed multiple cultivars, often using American natives in their parentage.


A lovely clump of New York ironweed (Vernonia), with broad clusters of rich violet flowers atop 3-foot stems, is stunning among several stands of goldenrod; although a native plant, the ironweed actually escaped from my garden into the meadow. In my perennial borders, the ironweed often attains a height of 6 feet or more, serving as an architectural accent and attractive companion to stately clumps of the green-coned, yellow daisies of Rudbeckia nitida Herbstsonne whose blooms last well into October. Ironweed seedlings have emerged throughout nearby borders and while I welcome their late bloom, I usually dig up wayward plants due to their tough fibrous root systems, from which it derives its common name, making it difficult to pull out once established. A new introduction, V. ‘Iron Butterfly’ offers a totally different look, perhaps more suitable for a mixed perennial border, with delicate foliage and a much more compact habit, growing only 30 to36 inches tall.


Our native fall-blooming asters offer a wonderful diversity of heights and colors, all characteristically producing a profusion of single or semi-double daisy-like flowers with yellow centers in vibrant tones of rich royal purple, glowing pink, vivid raspberry and glistening white. Lovely growing among mauve-tinted Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium), the dense rose pink spikes of smartweed (Polygonum coccineum) or goldenrods, the showiest, most colorful members of the genus tend to be the New England asters (A. novae-angliae) and the New York asters (A. novi-belgii) now categorized botanically as Symphotrichum. Butterflies and bees find the multitude of daisies irresistible, especially Monarch butterflies who will begin to gather along the East Coast in the coming weeks to make their annual fall pilgrimage to Mexico.


As I continue my journey into a shadier wooded area, wood asters (formerly A. divaricatus, now Eurybia divaricata) take center stage, having naturalized throughout with clouds of tiny white daisies. Nearby, dense stands of a tender annual, jewelweed, are putting on quite a show, and I cannot resist pausing to squeeze swollen seed capsules, which sends seeds catapulting in all directions. This ever-present member of the Impatiens family, also known as spotted touch-me-not, produces a profusion of dangling, bright orange, tubular flowers that are a favorite of the hummingbirds. If the foliage is picked and held under water, the source of its common name of jewelweed becomes apparent, as the leaves shimmer, appearing to be made of polished silver.


While many of these wild plants may be viewed as weeds or appear somewhat coarse in a traditional perennial border, they provide a spectacular floral display when many of our gardens are most in need of color. With the current trend favoring the use of more native plants, which tend to survive and thrive during our erratic weather patterns, these hardy persistent natives, especially Joe-Pye-Weed, goldenrods, asters, and ironweeds may soon be welcomed by a wider audience into our local gardens and landscapes.  


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.