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Autumn's Fleeting Beauty

Posted on 9/30/2014 by State Nature Preserves
Waterloo Wildlife Area, Athens County. Fall Color Lake Shore

There are few wonders of the natural world more beautiful or anticipated than autumn coming to the eastern deciduous forest. Summer’s prolific emeralds drain from the trees and their canopies, leaving the landscape painted in a mosaic of scarlet, orange and yellow. The cooler days and decreased humidity give way to skies of the most crisp and spectacular sapphire blue and are backlit by the golden glow of the season’s waning sunlight. Winter’s inevitable chill hangs on the horizon and looks to envelope the world in its drabness of grey and brown but not before one last gasp of wildflowers and color.

Field of Canada Goldenrod

Some of Ohio’s most recognized and abundant fall wildflowers are the aptly-named goldenrods (Solidago spp.). Their vibrant golden-yellow color and diversity of species allows for an aesthetic touch to just about any habitat and act as a significant source of late-season nectar for insects. Additionally, the reputation of these fine floral specimens have long suffered from the incorrect and perpetuated belief that they cause hay fever. The real culprits are the ragweeds (Ambrosia spp.) and their wind-carried pollen.

Pawpaw Fruit

Your eyes undoubtedly absorb the brunt of autumn’s activity and allure but you’d be remiss if you didn’t experience the season with your taste buds as well. Fall coincides with the ripening of many native fruits and the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is second to none. Also known as poor man’s banana, this member of the chiefly tropical custard apple family (Annonaceae) is the largest native edible fruit in the United States and has what can be described as a custard-like consistency with a banana/mango-like flavor. They are highly favored by wildlife as well as people and don’t hang around for long when ripe.

Nodding Ladies’-Tresses.  Description below.

Most of Ohio’s orchids grace the world with their charm during the spring and summer months but that’s not to say fall doesn’t save some for the end. The ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes spp.) and their spiraled stems of snow white, crystalline flowers are the last group of orchids to flower each season and aren’t too hard to notice when sparkling like jewels in the sun. Look for Ohio’s nine different species in a variety of habitats; from dry fields and barrens to wet fen meadows.

Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve

Of all the places to experience and soak in the splendor of the season here in Ohio, the famed Hocking Hills just might be the very best. The region’s iconic sandstone rock formations and scenic vista views are second to none and attract the crowds year after year. Its rolling forested hills are set ablaze with color each October and nicely contrasted by the evergreen nature of the accompanying hemlocks. Large committees of vultures can be seen riding the thermals of the deep valleys and hollows as they make their ways further south to warmer climates. By the time January rolls around, I often find myself wishing I could have sprouted wings and joined them.

New England Aster. Description Below.

Autumn not only brings out the yellows of the goldenrods but the purples and blues of the asters as well. The majestic purple rays of New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are a common sight all throughout the state and have been utilized in the horticulture trade as well. Our numerous other asters come in many different sizes and arrangement but few are more attractive or impressive than the New England aster.

Rough Blazing Star. Description Below.

Throughout the growing season plants use different methods and/or combinations of, to know when to break dormancy and begin their growth and/or flowering cycle. During the spring, many wildflowers and woody plants utilize soil temperature to know when to get busy, while in the summer and especially fall it’s more a matter of the ratio of sunlight to darkness in a day. The decreasing amount of sunlight during the latter half of the growing season lets plants like the pictured rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) know now is the time to flower. Going into the future it will be important to study the effects climate change has on the phenology of our native plants and how they adapt.

Lesser Fringed Gentian. Description Below.

Autumn certainly saves some of the best for last in the lesser fringed gentian (Gentianopsis virgata), so I decided to follow suit. This spectacular species' flowers only open their sublimely fringed petals of the most astonishing blue in sunny conditions. It's a real treat to patiently watch them unfurl their dew-covered petals on a crisp fall morning. Lesser fringed gentians are quite rare throughout the state and only occur in high-quality calcareous wetland habitats such as fens, seeps, and shorelines; which are becoming scarcer as time goes on. A closely related species, the greater fringed gentian (G. crinita) also occurs in Ohio but is restricted to the northern third of the state where it occurs in wet meadows, prairies, sandy swales and low, wet woods. Once you’ve seen these wonders with your own eyes there’s no forgetting their elegance.

Autumn is only starting to sink its teeth into Ohio’s landscape so there’s plenty of time to lace up your hiking boots and see many of these sights and wildflowers for yourselves. Plan a visit to one of your local state nature preserves or arrange for a weekend camping trip to any one of Ohio’s numerous state forests or parks. This time of year is as beautiful as it is fleeting and with another harsh winter not too far ahead I couldn’t stress enjoying the last bit of warmth and color more. I plan to and hope to see you out there too. Happy botanizing!

Andrew Gibson