This is a really gorgeous time of year and the temperatures are now moderate enough to make getting out for a walk, a real pleasure. But this makes my task harder because there is such a smorgasbord of delights to write about that I risk having the column seem totally disjointed – I mean more than usual!
If you can manage a walk along Baxter Creek you won’t be disappointed. There is colour and form everywhere. I was thinking just the other day that a really keen gardener would be coveting the many natural compositions that bring flower and fruit and leaf together to make incredibly beautiful displays. The many types of berry draw the eye at this time of year–and especially this year because they are so plentiful. Even before you get into the trails, you will notice the native elders are heavy with heads of dark purple berries in Medd’s Mountain Park . The birds will soon be feasting on them. And I’m hoping I’m on hand when the thrushes are eating their fill before they head south on their migration. Fascinating to watch, thrushes often feed from the ground, jumping to grab each berry. I don’t know why, since they spend so much time in trees, they don’t go along the branch to make access to the berries easier. The Highbush Cranberry, or more accurately Cranberry Viburnum, is now displaying heads of brilliant red fruit. Luckily for us the birds leave these until well into the winter when the acidic fruit has mellowed enough to make them palatable. t means food for them later in the winter and a glorious touch of colour for us now as well as in the winter landscape. Also along the trails are numerous small trees with bunches of purple berries of so dark a colour they are almost black. These are Common Buckthorn and unfortunately a very invasive non-native woody plant. But they have proved a valuable source of food for our native birds. To round out this selection of berries also be on the lookout for the bunches of burgundy coloured fruit on the chokecherry bushes.
As I looked approvingly at this harvest of berries I noted with even more approval the floral composition created by our native clematis climbing in among the berries. Clematis virginiana decks itself in heads of small starry white flowers in August and early September. These flowers then give way to spidery seed heads that dry into fluffy masses – this gives them their common name of Old Man’s Beard. Also trailing among the berries you will see Wild Cucumber, which too creates a frothy white flower to compliment the colour of the berries. In the wetter areas the Joe-Pye Weed is now heads of seed where a month ago they were pink flowers. A near relative of this plant but with white flowers is Boneset. Some of these plants are still sporting good looking flowers. If you like flowers of a true blue colour, keep your eyes peeled for the Giant Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica. You’ll find it in shadier spots. Its botanical name recalls that it was once used to treat disease. Even though in nature it grows in rather shady spots it does very well in the garden in sun. At the Community Garden it has been very floriferous this year.
But for my money, the real glory of fields and roadsides at this time of year is the aster. This daisy-flowered plant comes in several colours: white, light purple and mid-purple. They seem perfect growing in amongst the goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace. And you don’t need to walk far to see them; there is a good display near the mill by the millpond. We usually call these asters New England Asters. Like many other good wildflowers they were taken to England and hybridized to make them even more showy and to increase their range of colour. Over there they acquired the name of Michaelmas Daisies. They were called this because they bloomed in late September at the same time as the important church celebration commonly called Michaelmas. Purists will know it by the rather grand title of the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
If all of this colour is still not enough to tempt you out for a walk, wait, there’s more! The first of the leaves are beginning to change colour. I noticed near the Old School some of the sumac is beginning to turn a brilliant red. Sumac’s long, composite leaves are impressive in themselves, but when they turn red they are a sight to behold. Another composite leaf but this time on a vine is Virginia Creeper. It too is beginning to boast fall colour. And instead of being content changing a single colour it turns several: coppery, reddish and even a very attractive deep plum colour.
The swallows have now all migrated to places much further south. Just after my last column came out I was around the millpond and I was admiring a large number of Barn Swallows swooping over the pond and skimming the surface. I was certain this meant they were congregating and feeding in preparation for their long flight south. But that very evening I was at 4th Line Theatre and the Barn Swallows there were still zipping in and out of the barn. Surely that meant they were still feeding babies and so not yet ready to fly south. 4th Line Theatre always offers a good evening’s entertainment–the swallows flying across the stage simply add to the enjoyment! Chatting with friends at the September Millbrook Farmers’ Market, I was happy to hear that at their place on Fallis Line the number of breeding swallows was greater this year, and in fact not just greater but most of their Barn Swallows successfully raised two broods.
One of the unexpected benefits of writing this column has been readers telling me their latest sightings and their experiences (witness the conversation in the paragraph above on swallows). One kind reader was moved to write me a letter, thanking me for my column. It is pleasing to know that people find my column worth reading. This letter writer then went on to stir real envy in my heart. She wrote that she had recently seen a Five-lined Skink! This is our only native lizard. And I have never seen one! I have read that when they’re young their tails are a bright blue. Such envy!
A world of vivid colours awaits you. So get out! And enjoy!