by Eleanor Dietrich
Pictured above: Narrowleaf sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). Photo by Eleanor Dietrich
Sometimes we think of spring as having the showiest wildflower display, but I think this time of year wins that title. Somehow nature has worked this out. Pollinators are abundant, gathering their provisions before cold weather comes. The fall wildflowers are taller too, having had the whole summer to grow.
One of the abundant late summer to early fall wildflowers is blazing star, also known as gayfeather. The genus is Liatris and there are 19 documented species in Florida. It is in the Asteraceae family, and each group of flowers is made up of many individual flowers that are tubular in shape. The flower stems of this plant can be quite tall, and it often grows in colonies, so you can see the beautiful lavender color waving in the wind. The flowers on the long stalk begin opening at the top then continue down over time, giving it a long bloom season. It is a favorite of butterflies. Many nurseries that carry native plants have this for sale, so you can also have it in your garden.
Dotted horsemint or spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) is in the mint family, and all parts of the plant are aromatic. What makes this plant showy are its pink bracts (a leaf-like structure right under the flowers). The actual flowers are yellow with purple spots, or dots, on them, which give the flower its name. The flowers have two lips, the upper one longer and the lower one lobed. It grows to 3 or so feet tall, often in open, dry, and sandy areas, including roadsides. It seeds easily, resulting in large groups of plants. It is said that American Indians used a leaf tea of this plant to treat flu, colds, fevers, and coughs; and medical doctors once prescribed it to treat digestive disorders.
Narrowleaf sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) (pictured above) may be the queen of fall wild-flowers. The flowers are large, the plants are tall, and colonies of them may fill the damp roadside areas. Plants are available at nurseries that sell native plants, and if you want to include them in your garden, give them plenty of room to spread. This flower can be identified by the combination of the dark center and the very narrow, stiff leaves down the flower stalk. It is a composite; what look like yellow petals are actually individual ray flowers, and the center is also composed of individual tubular disk flowers.
Narrowleaf sunflower is quite common and you will see them in a variety of places. The Panhandle’s Apalachicola National Forest is a wonderful location to see them in abundance. Fall is a perfect time to enjoy a day trip there along State Road 65. You can stop and enjoy shopping and lunch along the way. To help plan your trip, see www.flawildflowertrips.org. Check out the “Fall on SR 65” Flickr album to see more fall wildflowers.