COMPOSITE FAMILY - Compositae: Golden-rods


When these flowers transform whole acres into "fields of the cloth-of-gold," the slender wands swaying by every roadside, and Purple Asters add the final touch of imperial splendor to the autumn landscape, already glorious with gold and crimson, is any parterre of Nature's garden the world around more gorgeous than that portion of it we are pleased to call ours? Within its limits eighty-five species of golden-rod flourish, while a few have strayed into Mexico and South America, and only two or three belong to Europe, where many of ours are tenderly cultivated in gardens, as they would be here, had not Nature been so lavish. To name all these species, or the asters, the sparrows, and the warblers at sight is a feat probably no one living can perform; nevertheless, certain of the commoner golden-rods have well-defined peculiarities that a little field practice soon fixes in the novice's mind.

Along shady roadsides, and in moist woods and thickets, from August to October, the Blue-stemmed, Wreath, or Woodland Golden-rod (S. caesia) sways an unbranched stem with a bluish bloom on it. It is studded with pale golden clusters of tiny florets in the axils of lance-shaped, feather-veined leaves for nearly its entire length. Range from Maine, Ontario, and Minnesota to the Gulf states. None is prettier, more dainty, than this common species.

In rich woodlands and thicket borders we find the Zig-zag or Broad-leaved Golden-rod (S. latifolia)--its prolonged, angled stem that grows as if waveringly uncertain of the proper direction to take, strung with small clusters of yellow florets, somewhat after the manner of the preceding species. But its saw-edged leaves are ovate, sharply tapering to a point, and narrowed at the base into petioles. It blooms from July to September. Range from New Brunswick to Georgia, and westward beyond the Mississippi.

During the same blooming period, and through a similar range, our only albino, with an Irish-bull name, the White Golden-rod, or more properly Silver-rod (S. bicolor), cannot be mistaken. Its cream-white florets also grow in little clusters from the upper axils of a usually simple and hairy gray stem six inches to four feet high. Most of the heads are crowded in a narrow, terminal pyramidal cluster. This plant approaches more nearly the idea of a rod than its relatives. The leaves, which are broadly oblong toward the base of the stem, and narrowed into long margined petioles, are frequently quite hairy, for the silver-rod elects to live in dry soil and its juices must be protected from heat and too rapid transpiration.

When crushed in the hand, the dotted, bright green, lance-shaped, entire leaves of the Sweet Golden-rod or Blue Mountain Tea (S. odora) cannot be mistaken, for they give forth a pleasant anise scent. The slender, simple smooth stem is crowned with a graceful panicle, whose branches have the florets seated all on one side. Dry soil. New England to the Gulf states. July to September.

The Wrinkle-leaved, or Tall, Hairy Golden-rod or Bitterweed (S. rugosa), a perversely variable species, its hairy stem perhaps only a foot high, or, maybe, more than seven feet, its rough leaves broadly oval to lance-shaped, sharply saw-edged, few if any furnished with footstems, lifts a large, compound, and gracefully curved panicle, whose florets are seated on one side of its spreading branches. Sometimes the stem branches at the summit. One usually finds it blooming in dry soil from July to November throughout a range extending from Newfoundland and Ontario to the Gulf states.

The unusually beautiful, spreading, recurved, branching panicle of bloom borne by the early, Plume, or Sharp-toothed Golden-rod or Yellow-top (S. juncea), so often dried for winter decoration, may wave four feet high but, usually not more than two, at the summit of a smooth, rigid stem. Toward the top, narrow, elliptical, uncut leaves are seated on the stalk; below, much larger leaves, their sharp teeth slanting forward, taper into a broad petiole, whose edges may be cut like fringe. In dry, rocky soil this is, perhaps, the first and last golden-rod to bloom, having been found as early as June, and sometimes lasting into November. Range from North Carolina and Missouri very far north.

Perhaps the commonest of all the lovely clan east of the Mississippi, or throughout a range extending from Arizona and Florida northward to British Columbia and New Brunswick, is the Canada Golden-rod or Yellow-weed (S. canadensis). Surely every one must be familiar with the large, spreading, dense-flowered panicle, with recurved sprays, that crowns a rough, hairy stem sometimes eight feet tall, or again only two feet. Its lance-shaped, acutely pointed, triple-nerved leaves are rough, and the lower ones saw-edged. From August to November one cannot fail to find it blooming in dry soil.

Most brilliantly colored of its tribe is the low-growing Gray or Field Golden-rod or Dyer's Weed (S. nemoralis). The rich, deep yellow of its little spreading recurved, and usually one-sided panicles is admirably set off by the ashy gray, or often cottony, stem, and the hoary, grayish-green leaves in the open, sterile places where they arise from July to November. Quebec and the Northwest Territory to the Gulf states.

  "Along the roadside, like the flowers of gold
    That tawny Incas for their gardens wrought,
  Heavy with sunshine droops the golden-rod."

Bewildered by the multitude of species, and wondering at the enormous number of representatives of many of them, we cannot but inquire into the cause of such triumphal conquest of a continent by a single genus. Much is explained simply in the statement that golden-rods belong to the vast order of Compositae, flowers in reality made up sometimes of hundreds of minute florets united into a far-advanced socialistic community having for its motto, "In union there is strength." In the first place, such an association of florets makes a far more conspicuous advertisement than a single flower, one that can be seen by insects at a great distance; for most of the composite plants live in large colonies, each plant, as well as each floret, helping the others in attracting their benefactors' attention. The facility with which insects are enabled to collect both pollen and nectar makes the golden-rods exceedingly popular restaurants. Finally, the visits of insects are more likely to prove effectual, because any one that alights must touch several or many florets, and cross-pollinate them simply by crawling over a head. The disk florets mostly contain both stamens and pistil, while the ray florets in one series are all male. Immense numbers of wasps, hornets, bees, flies, beetles, and "bugs" feast without effort here: indeed, the budding entomologist might form a large collection of Hymenoptera, Diptera, Coleoptera, and Hemiptera from among the visitors to a single field of golden-rod alone. Usually to be discovered among the throng are the velvety black Lytta or Cantharis, that impostor wasp-beetle, the black and yellow wavy-banded, red-legged locust-tree borer, and the painted Clytus, banded with yellow and sable, squeaking contentedly as he gnaws the florets that feed him.

Where the slender, brown, plume-tipped wands etch their charming outline above the snow-covered fields, how the sparrows, finches, buntings, and juncos love to congregate, of course helping to scatter the seeds to the wind while satisfying their hunger on the swaying, down-curved stalks. Now that the leaves are gone, some of the golden-rod stems are seen to bulge as if a tiny ball were concealed under the bark. In spring a little winged tenant, a fly, will emerge from the gall that has been his cradle all winter.