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Northland Nature: Opportunistic asters grow post-storm

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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A closer look at individual largeleaf aster. Note the color of the rays and note the many large leaves. Contributed / Larry Weber

As we approach the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall (Sept. 22), we look forward to cooler temperatures, leaf colors, migration and ripe apples. We can also look back on a summer to remember.

Weather statistics tell us that summer 2021 was the hottest on record. Though few, if any, heat records were set, we did have a near-record number of days of 80 degrees or higher. The summer had other natural happenings of note.

Fires here and to the northwest of us gave us much smoke and haze. Drought was prevalent in much of the state and country. Storms in various parts of the country caused devastation and the following floods. These natural events are hard to appreciate at the time, but they lead to changes and nature’s reclamation.

I saw a great example of this on a smaller scale recently when I was driving a local road. To the side, in the midst of a forested growth, was a large patch of wildflowers in bloom. I had driven this route for many years and it wasn’t until the last few weeks that I saw this thick growth.

I had never seen such a profusion of these wildflowers here before. Stopping, I examined the plants and recognized them as largeleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla). And then I realized what had happened. This was the result of a summer storm.

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A thick growth of largeleaf asters grows where a forest was before a storm brought down hundreds of trees and opened the site to the asters. Contributed / Larry Weber

It was not summer 2021, but 2020 in mid-August, when a short-lasting, but strong, wind came through the region. During less than a half-hour, this straight-line wind hit local forests and downed hundreds of trees. Some, like the woods that I looked at, were hit hard and many trees succumbed, all showing the west to east wind direction. However, most of the surrounding area was not hit as hard and I noted only a few places that showed results like this.

The summer became autumn and winter; the downed trees were salvaged. Spring and summer developed. Along with other growths in the following season, this open site, now devoid of trees, was filled with largeleaf asters that now, in late summer, were flowering. Not here before, I wondered where they come from.

Largeleaf asters are very common in the Northland. Of the approximately dozen aster species that live here, it is the most likely seen in woods. Most asters grow and flower in late summer and fall in open sites. Quite diverse, they are white, blue or purple and grow in roadsides, fields and swamps.

But largeleaf abounds in the woods. It also represents an example of a wildflower that most of us are quite familiar with and recognize better by the leaves than the flowers. A woods walker in summer will probably see huge heart-shaped leaves that may cover the forest floor. (Some refer to this plant as “woodsman’s toilet paper.”)

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In the shade of the woods, very few will flower, but all can if the opportunity happens. Plants are able to flower, but need to wait for available sunlight. That chance came when the sunlight penetrated here due to the downed trees. Similar things happen after fires and logging. And the patient plants are quick to take advantage of this flowering opportunity.
All of the numerous plants flowering at this time had the namesake aster flowers, with composites looking “star-like.” Their rays ranged from white to purple; disks are often yellow, giving quite a show.

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Asters often linger well into fall and I expect these will, as a follow-up of a storm of summer 2020.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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