A Morning among the Goldenrods


(This 758th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 9, 2005.)


There is a field just west of where Hopkins Road passes over the Lockport Expressway that is typical of so many abandoned rural lots at this time of year. When I visited it early this month it was bright yellow with goldenrod.


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I walked out into the field and soon found myself surrounded with the waist high and in some places even shoulder high wildflowers.


There may have been a half dozen species there. I think that I correctly identified just one. It was late or smooth goldenrod, Solidago gigantea, with its graceful plume-like fronds, its long lance-like veined and finely toothed leaves and the purple splotches on its stem. But I am not even certain of that.


For the goldenrods really are tough to differentiate. Our wonderful botanist poet, Norm Zika, once warned me, "Don't try to separate them. They're fodder only for specialists." His words echoed those of author Neltje Blanchan: "To name all these species, and those of the asters, the sparrows, and the warblers at sight is a feat probably no one living can perform."


In fact the goldenrod species found locally bears this out. The number to be found in Erie County alone, as listed by that excellent web resource, the New York Flora Atlas is 16, and Patricia Eckel has found still more in western New York: 35 together with dozens of varieties are included on her website, MADCap Horse.*


I'll admit that I did at first try to key a few species by using two field guides, Newton and Peterson-McKenny, but I soon set them aside and simply enjoyed being among these beautiful wildflowers.


As soon as I did so, I realized that I was in an entomologist's paradise. Insects were everywhere among the goldenrod fronds. What first caught my eye was a stink bug, its flattened body and triangular back giving it the appearance of a small shield. This one was brown but others are more brightly colored. I left it alone, not wanting to test the disagreeable odor that gives it its name. (Some of these bugs invade homes at this time of year.)


Honeybees and bumblebees were also much in evidence. They were stuffing their big bodies right down among the tiny yellow blossoms until they almost disappeared. When I looked closely, however, I could see the baskets on their hind legs filled with the pollen they had collected. Instead of the yellow you would expect from the plant color, those baskets were now a kind of pinkish orange.


I found many other insects as well. Clearly, goldenrods have adapted to a perfect niche. Now when other plants have passed their blooming cycle, the goldenrods and asters take over and the pollinators -- bugs and beetles, bees and butterflies -- flock to them to fatten up and store food for the harsh winter ahead. In the process the insects play their part in completing the flowers' life-cycles. They carry that heavy pollen from the male to female plant parts, allowing seed formation.


As I thought about this, I considered that word "heavy". Until recently, goldenrod was considered the major cause of that nasty allergy, hay fever. Now we know that the culprit is ragweed, whose unprepossessing greenish flowers don't need to attract pollinators because their light pollen is carried by air to other plants -- and unfortunately to some of us.


Not all the insects I found were vegetarians. Predators were there as well. They took longer to find because most are camouflaged. I would never have seen the flower spider if it had not held in its long front legs a housefly it had captured, for it was almost as yellow as the goldenrod on which it stood. This kind of crab spider changes its color like a chameleon to match its surroundings.


And finally I found the insect for which I retain an illogical childish fear: a praying mantis. Perhaps it is because they are so large. I simply don't know, but to me these 3-4 inch stalkers are the stuff of nightmares.


This one insect was not enough, however, to spoil a delightful morning spent among the goldenrods.-- Gerry Rising

* That strange site name is a mnemonic botanists use to tell the trees that have alternate leaves: M is for maple, A for ash, D for dogwood, Cap for Caprifoliaceae, the plant family which includes the viburnums, and Horse is for the horsechestnut family, which includes the buckeyes.