July roadsides are full of summer wildflowers. Passing by on any road now will show us a variety of colors as clovers, vetches, fleabanes, trefoils, sweetclovers, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, primroses, dogbane, goldenrods, tansy, thistles, cow parsnips and water hemlocks all add to the scene. Earlier ones — daisy, lupines and hawkweeds — have gone to seed.
But with all this flora now, I find two kinds that are best examples of July flowers: fireweed and milkweed.
Unfortunately, both have “weed” as part of their names, but neither is an alien nor a pest — often desired and enjoyed. Both have clusters of purple flowers. Those of fireweed are a deep purple and stand up on a spike above the rest of the plant. Clusters of milkweed are light purple and grow in a ball-shaped cluster at the sides of the stem. Plants are in groups and once beginning to flower, they last for weeks.
During my daily walks, I have been passing a growth of hundreds of fireweeds. During recent weeks, I watched as they progressed. The buds grew and finally one plant led the way by opening its flowers. Others were soon to follow and within a week of the first to bloom, I noted about 200 flowering. Blossoms open from the base of the spike and progress to the top. There is a change here every day.
With milkweed (common milkweed, not the swamp milkweed or the brightly colored butterflyweed — both also in the region) buds are slower to open. Once begun, they last through many weeks of summer. But recently, I found a patch of milkweed that was earlier than the others.
Road work done a couple years ago formed a barren spot of sandy soil on a dead end. Empty soil sites do not remain that way for long and many plants have taken residence here. I found hawkweeds, yarrow, daisy, fleabane, blueberries and raspberries. In the midst was a large thick thriving patch of milkweed.
The site was south-facing and able to get plenty of sunlight. Under these conditions — ample light, moisture and limited plant competition — the milkweed flourished. And while most milkweed in the area was not yet in bloom, this group was in full flower. I stopped for a closer look.
I estimated about 150 tall and robust plants here. Each had at least two ball-shaped clusters of flowers. More than 300 clusters, and each held many florets. As I walked, I quickly noticed that I was not the only one to be among them. The site was alive with insects.
Large butterflies of tiger swallowtails, great spangled fritillaries and Monarchs (both the adults and dozens of caterpillars), as well as tiny skippers fluttering about. Here, too, were bumble bees and milkweed beetles and the opportunistic dragonflies patrolled.
A delightful odor permeated from the floral clusters, helping to attract attention. Most insects came for nectar, but there is more going on here.
The petals of milkweed are arranged in a V shape and at the base, they hold pollen in a “saddle bag” container. The design is that insects would get their feet caught here and when pulling free, they carry the saddle bag of pollen off with them. This scheme works well for large insects, like bumble bees, but can be a trap for some smaller ones.
As I wandered among the plants, I saw skippers that got their feet caught and could not escape, their small, yellow bodies hung on the clusters.
Despite this, milkweed is a delightful addition to the July flora.