Golden(rod) Days of Summer

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly lights upon a goldenrod flower.

When the goldenrod begins to bloom, I know it must be close to August. I remember my childhood Augusts in North Carolina as the month before school began, when the corn was ready to be cut for silage and the tobacco was yellow and ripe for pulling. In August the air was warm and heavy, and the fresh-laid tar on the main road oozed between the road rock and stuck to the bottoms of my bare feet as I walked home from the barn.

On those August days, my grandmother (Nanny) would take me for walks down the dirt, country roads near our farm and collect wildflowers and seed pods for dried flower arrangements. As we walked, she would and tell me the names of all the plant friends we passed by or stopped to touch or view. Goldenrod was always August’s star – abundant along the roadsides and full of other life forms.

Yesterday as we walked the trail at Mason Farm Biological Preserve, I noticed the goldenrods were just starting to bloom. And on those bright yellow clusters of flowers perched dozens of butterflies – swallowtails, skippers, duskywings, sulphurs – as well as bees and flies and beetles. As many as 115 different species are known to frequent goldenrods in the mid-Atlantic states. It’s an important nectar plant for migrating fall butterflies.

When not sipping on goldenrod nectar, these butterflies (Can you find all four of them?) slurp up dung.

Those butterflies don’t just nectar on flowers, though. We saw a few congregations of them slurping on fresh scat ( the animal poop, not the singing style) along the trail. They unfurl their long proboscises and suck up the liquid in fresh scat. Why, you ask? Apparently they get much-needed nitrogen and sodium (both scarce in nectar) from critter dung.

But back to the goldenrods… contrary to popular belief, goldenrod does not cause allergies/hay fever. Its pollen grains are much too large and heavy to be airborne allergens. So, take a mindful minute or two and get outdoors to look at the goldenrod flowering in your neighborhood. Who do you see? How many species of butterflies and other insects can you can find attracted to those gorgeous yellow blooms this summer and fall? Be grateful for all the wild and wonderful life around you and let me know what you see.

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