Northland Nature: July’s roadside botany continuesUnlike several of the months of spring, the first half of this summer month has been warmer than normal. These temperatures, along with the rains that we recorded in June, has made for excellent conditions for what I like to refer to as July’s roadside botany.
Unlike several of the months of spring, the first half of this summer month has been warmer than normal. These temperatures, along with the rains that we recorded in June, has made for excellent conditions for what I like to refer to as July’s roadside botany.
In the open spaces next to the trails, roads and highways, multiple plants thrive. And it is hard for the passerby to not notice these thick and colorful growths. Here we’ll see all of the colors of the rainbow and sizes that range from a few inches to several feet. Not only do these wild flowers of summer show such a variety of colors and sizes, but they also represent a huge diversity of plant families.
Taking a closer look at this display is a lesson in botany. Families most notable are the composites and the legumes. Among these two groups are hawkweeds, daisies, black-eyed Susans, oxeyes, thistles, goldenrods, clovers, sweet- clovers, vetches and birdsfoot trefoils.
The buttercup family is here too, as are some lilies, parsnips and mulleins. Not all of this crowd is appreciated by us, and several are labeled as weeds, unwanted plants. Arriving from other parts of the world, they have been able to take advantage of the open soil and sunlight to flourish and become naturalized. Others are native and I find it a delight to locate these in bloom at this time of midsummer.
Unfortunately, some of these natives have the term “weed” as a suffix. This connotes alien and invasive plants, when they are neither. Most notable of these mislabeled plants are the milkweeds and fireweeds. Each holds purple flowers that abound on the plants and bloom along the roadsides of July.
Milkweed, so named due to a white sap, has flowers borne on ball-shaped clusters attached to the main stem. Each cluster is composed of numerous aromatic florets. A close cousin, the dogbane, also a native, with its white flowers, is common here too.
Fireweed gets its name from the fact that it will grow back on the open space created by a fire. It also grows in many other appropriate sites. Its flowers of four purple petals stick up from the top of the stem. Blossoms open first at the bottom of this spike growth and then proceed up. By the end of its flowering season, the fireweed blossoms are open at the apex while the lower flowers, the first to bloom, will have become seed pods.
Both milkweed and fireweed attract myriads of insects and they are great places to watch butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and flies, just to name a few.
Other native plants in these open spaces now are white, orange and yellow. The largest of all the flora at this time, the cow parsnip, often reaches eight feet tall, but holds numerous tiny white florets in an umbel shape. In the wetter sites, its cousin, the water hemlock, thrives. This plant may be tall, but not as robust as the cow parsnip. Both of these plants are in the same family as the well-known and non-native Queen Anne’s lace, which is blooming now too. I find it more common to the south of the Twin Ports, not common here.
A bright orange flowering plant is quick to grab our attention. And at this time of summer, the native wild lilies show just such colors. Known as wood lilies or Michigan lilies, the three-foot stems hold large flowers with big bent orange petals. They add much to the rest of the colorful scene.
The four petals of the evening primrose live up to this name and open each night at dusk. While most of roadside floral bouquet thrives in the daylight hours (some even closing up at night) and attracts the diurnal insects interested in nectar and pollen, the evening primrose makes use of the insects that move about at night.
Pollinators of the evening primrose are usually the moths. This group of insects is extremely varied, and with many species flying at night the flowers get plenty of visitors during the dark hours. Flowers don’t open until sundown, but I have found that they will remain open at dawn and, adorned with dew, they may be best observed at this time.
Whether native, non-native or naturalized, the plants that make use of the few feet of space along the sides of the roads at this time offer a great sight of summer flowers. And with all their variety, they give a lesson in roadside botany.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.