A Northwoods Almanac for August 27 – September 9, 2010
Goldenrods in Bloom
Late August and early September marks the time when acres of goldenrods blaze along roadsides and in open fields. Though ten species of goldenrods are listed as occurring in our area in Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest (Black and Judziewicz), I seldom bother trying to identify the individual species because many goldenrods are difficult to differentiate. Mabel Osgood Wright, an American nature writer in the early 1900s, wrote, “If a botanist is ever condemned to the severest punishment that the underworld can mete, the penalty will be to write a monograph accurately describing and identifying all the known goldenrods.” Not wishing to enjoy the wonders of the underworld, I’m content just knowing these rods of gold are a goldenrod, or Solidago, as the genus name is known. Some 90 species are known in North America, and all are native. Europeans have only a few native species, and thus have imported and cultivated many American species in their gardens.
Solidago derives from the Latin solido, meaning “to make whole or heal.” Goldenrod was known variously as “the plant that consolidates” for its reputed ability to staunch bleeding and heal wounds, and as gizisomukiki by the Ojibwe, which translates as “sun medicine.” Donald Law, an English herbalist, said that because goldenrod was used to treat so many maladies that “it is as much a panacea as any plant could be.”
Bees heavily gather nectar in the acres of flowers, and if you should get stung by a bee that is collecting goldenrod nectar, the flowers of stiff goldenrod were said by the Meskwaki Indians to be made into a good lotion for stings. Since goldenrod is insect-pollinated, it’s equally important to note that it is not a source for hay fever as it is so often accused.
My wife Mary weaves rugs and wall hangings for a living, and the flowers of goldenrod have been used for centuries to make a reliable yellow dye.
I’ve no idea if goldenrods have any true medicinal value, but to worry about either identifying them or using them in some medicinal manner detracts from their simple virtue of being beautiful. Perhaps September should be known as the golden month, for the early September wildflower plumes of goldenrod and the late September gold of sugar maple leaves.
Spotted Knapweed and Friends
When we first moved to Manitowish in 1984, we noticed a few exotic spotted knapweed plants on our property. Over the first two decades we lived here, it didn’t seem to increase significantly, so we paid it little mind. In the last few years, though, its growth has exploded. I now see fields the purple spotted knapweed along roadsides, often intermixed with the yellow of either tansy or birdsfoot trefoil, two other exotic species. While lovely to look at, like the pretty purple loosestrife in the wetlands, their beauty deceives.
I suspect our prolonged drought initiated this invasion, given spotted knapweed’s preference for invading dry and sandy areas. To remove it, pull it by the roots, but be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves – the stems can irritate the skin.
On 8/21, Mary and Callie were driving through Ontario near Georgian Bay when they saw a flock of nighthawks migrating south. They arrived home the next morning, 8/22, and later that afternoon near Fisher Lake north of Mercer, Mary and I also saw a flock of nighthawks in migration.
Nighthawks were being reported in migration throughout the state this last week, so be sure to keep an eye skyward for these unique migrants. On 8/21, one observer on the Holcombe Flowage reported seeing at least 225 nighthawks over a period of about 30 minutes, mostly in groups of 10 to 15. Then on 8/22, he reported seeing at least 450 nighthawks west of Wausau, some of which were flying in "kettles" of around 80 to 100.
He noted that he stopped right under a flock of about 80 and listened, but never heard them make a sound.
The nighthawk’s darting, wheeling flight, and the bold white stripe on each wing makes them easily identifiable.
Given the extraordinary amount of rainfall and warmth we’ve received this summer, one would think our trees would hold on to their leaves, and turn color, later than usual this fall. But a number of trees are already changing, and perhaps our eight years of drought prior to this June explain why. Plants in our area were universally stressed in the spring due to the prolonged lack of moisture. Mary and I commented many times how this spring was the earliest, driest, and most pleasant we could remember in all our years here. We hiked bug-free and puddle-free from early April until the beginning of June when the rains began. Springs like that just don’t happen in the North Country!
In previous years I’ve written about how complex it is to forecast fall leaf change. I’ve quoted Peter Marchand who in his book Autumn (2000) wrote: “We are aware now that any growth processes dependent upon accumulated sugars or starch reserves can be affected by environmental conditions in some cases extending back into the previous growing season, and this complicates our attempts to explain (and certainly to forecast) year-to-year differences in autumn color considerably.”
I don’t know of any research that details how eight years of drought followed by one of the rainiest summers on record impacts fall leaf change. Thus, we’re in a bit of uncharted territory, but it seems logical to expect an early leaf fall given the extreme stress of this spring. However, I learned a long time ago that my logic doesn’t always parallel the natural world’s logic. So, as always, we’ll just have to do our best to both accept and enjoy whatever happens.
La Nina Rains
Rains have continued to pour down in August, and according to the National Weather Service are attributable to a La Nina that they forecast will last through the northern hemisphere into early 2011.
Despite all the rain, water levels on many area seepage lakes are still far below normal, while other drainage lakes and rivers are brim-full.
Pat and Ron Drought on Spider Lake, Mercer reported being “absolutely astounded at the number of hummingbirds around our feeders in recent weeks. You have to watch out that you don't get dive bombed when on the deck. In over 40 plus years of feeding hummers in the northwoods, we have never seen more than 3 or 4 at our feeders. Now, there are so many that we have trouble counting them. They empty the feeders daily.”
While the Drought’s hummingbird numbers are likely due to an influx of successful local families of hummer, they may also be due to early migration. Birders in southern Wisconsin were reporting “swarms” of hummingbirds appearing at their feeders as of 8/15, the result of some early migrational movement.
The rule of thumb for hummers around here is that the local birds are usually gone by September 15. However, I always encourage folks to leave their feeders up until the end of the month in case of late migrants still moving through.
“Our” hummers are typically on their way to Central America, though some apparently winter along the western Gulf Coast. They normally arrive in Costa Rica by late September to early October.
The males precede the females in migration, while juveniles of both sexes lag somewhat behind the adult females in the fall. The overland migration in North America is nearly synchronous with the peak flowering of jewelweed (Impatiens biflora), suggesting that this flower is an important nectar source and may influence timing of migration.
Planet watching in September is particularly good at dusk. Look for Venus and Mars low in the southwest and Saturn low in the west.
We’re down to 13 hours of daylight as of 9/6. The new moon occurs on 9/8.