Those Spectacular Late Summer Wildflowers (Don Robinson)


Those Spectacular Late Summer Wildflowers

Although late summer has sadness about it, as it foretells the end of the growing season and fewer trips to our cabin, I am always blown away by the variety of wildflowers I see blooming along the roads, riverbanks, trails and bike paths. This article should help you identify them and tell a little about some of this fabulous display of nature. Click the 'thumbnails' to get a larger photo. I try to have a ‘group photo’ and a close-up of each. The pictures are my own, and I shrunk them so they will fit into our limited web space. Still the total for this article is 3.6 megabyes (Mb) of our 20 Mb. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you want a full-sized picture (about 2.2 Mb each).

If I find a non-native wildflower in my yard, I get rid of it, but I let the native species grow. I hope my natural-looking yard doesn’t bother my neighbors. I am still a little sore about the unknown neighbor who cut a nice stand of blue-eyed grass and some paw paw trees I planted from seed along the riverbank. I am sure whoever did it thought they were doing me a favor, but they don’t know me well enough, I suppose.

Bergamot Monarda didyma is really not a late summer as much as a mid-summer flower, but I happened to catch one still blooming in late August. This is in the mint family, and those crushing the foliage may find a familiar scent. Bergamot oil is what gives the distinctly unique flavor to ‘Earl Grey’ tea. There are various other colors living wild, and the red or purple varieties are the showiest. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees are attracted to them. The photograph here is of a light pink variety.

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Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta is the state flower of Maryland. They have compound flowers, the central flowers are brownish-purple and the ray flowers are yellow-orange. Look for them along roadsides and in gardens.

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Bouncing Bet Saponaria officinalis is also called Soapwort as the juice from the plant will form lather when mixed with water. It contains saponins, that is, soap-like substances which are poisonous, so don’t drink the lather.

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Cardinal Flower Lobelia cardinalis is one of my favorite late summer flowers. It is quite brilliant scarlet and seems to occur in solitary patches along the riverbanks. The tubular flower, as in all lobelias, has three lower petals and two upper petals with the stamens united into a tube. Pollen at the end of the tube is carried to other flowers by hummingbirds. The structure of the flower is such that a hummingbird seeking a treat gets a baptism of pollen on his head as his beak enters the flower tube (see photo). Since the flower has no scent, neither bees nor butterflies are interested in it. It seems to be in bloom for a long period, though each of the compound flowers is open for a short time, they open up in sequence from the bottom of the stem upwards until at last the top most flowers bloom.

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Chicory The roots of Cichorium intybus can be roasted and ground and used as a coffee substitute. This was common during Colonial times, the early pioneering period, and during the Second World War. There are coffee brands that still contain chicory. Read the labels carefully next time you go to the market. This sky blue flower opens in full sunlight and closes when cloudy or after sundown.  Each blossom opens for one day only. It seems to grow in places not tended, and often I see large groups of them intermingled with Queen Anne’s lace along roadsides. This plant is related to endive.

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Common Tansy Tanacetum vulgar Long ago, raw meat was rubbed with this to ward off flies. The plant once had medicinal use to induce miscarriages, but with care since an overdose could be fatal. It is in the yarrow family, whose white aromatic variety blooms earlier in the year. The yarrow has been used to staunch the flow of blood from wounds. They grow to around 3 feet and are perennial.

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Eastern Blue Curls Trichostema dichotomum (also called bastard pennyroyal) is a flower you might tread underfoot when walking on a trail since it is very small, unlike many of the late summer flowers. Seldom have I seen a plant over a foot tall. This is another favorite of mine. It grows best where there is little competition, in dry areas. When people drive their ATVs across what looks like a dry path, any of these plants generally are crushed under the wheels. A few survive near my house in Largent because they are in the center of the path. Hopefully no three-wheelers will start trespassing to crush the few that remain! This annual is not in every area of WV, in fact, a map I saw on the web shows it hasn’t officially been found in Morgan County. The one pictured is from Hampshire County.

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Evening Primrose Oenothera biennis blossoms remain open through the night. For that reason, Germans call them night candles. There are several blossoms to each head of this 3-5 foot tall biennial. The blossoms are about 2 inches across and have an x-shaped stigma.  This one can often be seen along roadsides or fence rows. The entire plant is edible and was a staple among several Native American tribes. Oil made from its seeds is used as a health supplement.

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Giant Sunflower Helianthus giganteus can grow to 12 feet tall, but is not the cultivated one grown for birdseed. Despite the plant’s name, the flowers are not large. The leaves are generally toothed to help distinguish it from the woodland sunflower. We have one growing behind our house that gets so tall that it falls over every year. The toothed leaves are seen in the group photo at the bottom.

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Goldenrod There are at least 29 different species of goldenrod in West Virginia.. Always a harbinger of Autumn, these lovely yellow flowers include Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), Blue-stemmed goldenrod (S. caesia) Sweet or Anise-scented Goldenrod (S. odora) Stiff Goldenrod (S. rigida), Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (S. rugosa), and Showy Goldenrod (S. speciosa) among others. These plants are incorrectly blamed for causing hay fever, when in fact most hay fever is caused by ragweed. Problem is, they bloom so spectacularly at the same time of ragweed’s more modest flowering, that folks just don’t notice the real culprit. I suppose goldenrod would be a good indicator, though not the cause, of the Autumnal miseries so many folks suffer. Once when I was riding my bike with my wife, we spotted a nice patch of goldenrod. Always the show-off, I knew about the goldenrod spider, and we discovered to our delight (and my amazement) that nearly every yellow head had at least one yellow crab-like spider lurking. For a look at the true culprit of the hay fever sufferer, check the tall weed behind the giant sunflower in the photograph above.

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Joe Pye Weed has several species in our area and is my wife’s favorite wildflower. Eupatorium maculatum is ‘Spotted’, E. purpureum is ‘Sweet’ which when crushed, gives of an odor of vanilla, and E. fistulosum is ‘Hollow’. It gets its name from the Native American healer Joe Pye who showed the settlers different herbal remedies. He used this one to cure fevers, and the settlers once used it during an outbreak of typhus.  This tall plant can grow to more than six feet, and the lovely pink or purplish head can often be seen in clusters along roads, along riverbanks, or the wet edges of fields. In the summer of 2004 I saw a fantastic stand of these along what will eventually be part of the Allegheny Highlands bike trail. The numerous soft-looking colorful flower heads loomed over me and my bike on both sides of the abandoned railway path. I will mention that in one photo here, Japanese honeysuckle, that sweet-smelling but terrible pest can be seen growing up the stem. This perennial will eventually succumb to the twining pest’s vines.

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Jewelweed Impatiens The juice contains a soothing fungicide making it an effective treatment for athlete’s foot as well as an antidote for poison ivy and the burning of nettle stings. In our family, we enjoy carefully picking the seed pods and giving them to the unsuspecting and having them give a squeeze. The powerful little explosion scattering the seed and startling the unwary gives the common name of ‘touch-me-not’ to this flower. There are two common varieties near our place on the Cacapon. Pale Jewelweed (I. pallida) has a solid pale yellow flower and Spotted Jewelweed (I. capensis) has a yellow base covered with orange-red spots.

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Mullein Verbascum thapsus blossoms are yellow and open up along the spike. This biennial doesn’t bloom during its first year but just forms a rosette of velvety leaves. Mullein’s dried spikes were covered with grease and used as torches during the US Civil War. The plant once was used medicinally and is still used by herbalists as an expectorant and as an anti-viral agent as well as a diuretic. It is not a native plant, but Eurasian.

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New York Ironweed Vernonia noveboracensis Ironweeds are called such because of the tough stem, and there are several other varieties. The species name is from the Latin novum (new) and Eboracum  (the ancient name for York). These grow tall, sometimes to over 6 feet and have showy deep purple flowers in bunches at the top of the plant. It is mostly found in rich, moist bottomland fields.

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Queen Anne’s Lace also called Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, a native of Europe and India, is the ancestor of the carrots we put on the table. The long taproot of first year plants is edible. Note that the taproot of a second year garden variety of carrot is also pithy and inedible. The plant is a biennial. The central blossom of its compound flower head is always a dark purple, contrasting with the white. After blooming, the flowerhead shrivels and resembles a small bird’s nest.

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Spotted Knapweed Centaurea maculosa is considered an invasive pest from central Europe, but looks a lot like the cultivated garden flower called a ‘bachelor button’ and is related to it. It is a biennial or short-lived perennial that readily reproduces from seed and grows from 1 to 3 feet tall.

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Teasel Dipsacus fullonum are familiar in commercial dried floral arrangements. Here are photos of some in bloom. This plant is a terrible pest in the wild, and very hard to eradicate once it is started. It chokes out native vegetation in time and has no native enemies besides man.

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White Wood Aster Aster divaricatus grows in the wood and along the wood’s edge. They bloom late, clear into October, and the blossoms on the same plant can have both reddish and yellow centers with white rays. They begin as yellow and turn reddish as the flowers mature. They usually are about 1-2 feet tall or even less, and are perennial. The leaves are sort of lanceolate, toothed and heart-shaped. I am finally learning to let them grow in my yard instead of cutting them down before the flowers show themselves.

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Wingstem Actinomeris alternifolia, also called Golden ironweed because of the flower’s color and its tough stem, can grow quite tall, to around 8 feet. It is a common sight along natural riverbanks of the Cacapon in late summer, and often grows in stands of many plants. The name wingstem comes from the way the leaves continue along the stem after the joint, making the stem appear to have ‘wings’ as the photo shows.

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Woodland Sunflower Helianthus strumosus My wife Holly and I came upon a few beautiful stands of this around Okonoko on an August bike hike in 2004. Look for this one in small sections of deep woods where the sun penetrates the canopy, or along wooded roadsides. It grows 3-7 feet tall and has lanceolate leaves, distinguishing it from the Giant Sunflower listed above. The yellow flowers of both plants are similar. I don’t have a separate photo, as my camera was left behind.