Flowers of late Fall

In Alice Walker’s famous novel, The Color Purple, purple in nature is a symbol of all that is common, but too often overlooked by many people as they go about their daily lives in the world. None of us need be guilty of this oversight here in the Hudson Valley, least of all at this season, when the last showy flowers of fall are still in bloom in our fields and along our byways and roadsides. Most prominent among these are the asters, especially the New England aster, whose large, intensely purple blossoms grace even the most ordinary places, such as the “weedy” edge of the “park and ride” lot along Route 32, on the north side of the Village of New Paltz. Though many come and go in their cars, or stop here to take a walk on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, how many stop to notice the profusion of wildflowers, including these splendid asters, that bloom just beyond the pavement from summer through fall?

There are many species of aster in our area, some white-flowering, such as the heart-leaved and white woodland aster. Purple asters include the New England, New York, late purple, and smooth aster. “Aster” is the Greek word for star, a name that well describes these many-rayed flowers. Each “ray” is actually a separate floret, rather than a petal, and there is a bunch of tiny florets at the center of each bloom, forming a yellow buttonlike disc that turns reddish as the florets are pollinated. Like goldenrods, daisies, black-eyed Susans, and sunflowers, asters are not single flowers but composite flower heads, which turn into wind-dispersed tufts of seeds when they are finished blossoming.

Another, less common, purple composite flower in bloom at the same location, is the ironweed. Ironweed’s deep purple flower heads lack the petal-like rays of asters, containing only tube-shaped “disc” florets, as is the case with the summer flowers of thistles. They are worth seeking out and admiring for their delicate beauty, which belies their common name, a reference to their tough, wiry stems. What’s a “weed,” anyway? I like Emerson’s definition: a plant whose virtues haven’t been discovered yet!

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Wild sunflowers, unlike the giant cultivated varieties, have certainly been placed in the “weed” category. One of these, the Jerusalem artichoke, is also in bloom at the park and ride. This plant’s name doesn’t fit it very well, for it is neither an artichoke nor does it hale from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is probably a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, “Girasole” means “turns toward the sun,” referring to a habit traditionally associated with sunflowers, which I have been unable to confirm by observation. Sunflower heads, seen at different times of day, do not, in fact, seem to orient themselves this way. “Artichoke” refers to the use of the plant for food. But it is not the base of the flower that is eaten, as is the case with the true artichoke (more closely related to thistles), but rather the tuberous roots of this sunflower which are starchy and can be boiled and eaten like potatoes. However, it is the flower itself, now at the end of its blossoming season, which most offers itself for our appreciation. Though less imposing than the tall domestic sunflowers grown for seed, and for flowers so large they nod on their stems, these wild sunflowers are lovely sunbursts of color that seem worthy of celebration in their own right, as in William Blake’s poem:

“Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done …”

Writer’s note: After a full year of writing this column, I am changing its focus (beginning next week) to a more open-ended, place-based format, which will feature a different trail, landscape feature or water way each week. Each place will be visited once, or more than once in different seasons. I appreciate your readership, and look forward to my second year writing “Nature at Your Doorstep.” Any suggestions from my readers of natural places to consider for the column (within a 30 mile radius of New Paltz) are most welcome — just send them by e-mail to richparisio@gmail.com.

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