Late Summer Wildflowers

— Written By Craig Adkins and last updated by

One of my favorite times of year is August as nature begins to unveil its annual display of late summer blooming wildflowers across Caldwell County. This magnificent display of color, during an otherwise hot and dry month, rivals any spring wildflower show that many of us covet after a long, cold winter indoors.

As an educator and gardener I have come to realize that there are two groups of people with differing opinions regarding my August excitement. There are gardeners, nature lovers, and plantaholics that cherish the outstanding beauty in nature’s blooms of red, white, pink, purple and golden yellow. We see them along the roadside, in ditch banks or randomly scattered in meadows, and fantasize about having them displayed in our landscape or perennial beds from August through the fall.

Then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum. They look at the same fall painting by nature as a collection of weeds and unsightly vegetation that breed rabbits, snakes and other unwanted critters. They fantasize about how neat and tidy that same area would look brown and dead after an herbicide application or controlled burn to the roadside or ditch bank.

During my career I have observed and visited many native plant nurseries and greenhouses that offer a very wide selection of these coveted native wildflowers (or weeds depending on one’s perspective). Plant collectors, Arboretums, botanical gardens and plant breeding companies are constantly introducing named selections or cultivars of these same late summer blooming natives with outstanding or unique ornamental characteristics. Since many of these are perennials, you can count on them to come back year after year providing the blooms and laying the foundation for a much anticipated colorful fall. And, since perennials will increase in numbers each year, you will have treasures that can be passed along to your best friends and gardeners.

If you have a passion for late summer bloomers like me, then in the coming weeks there are many that you should be on the lookout for as you travel on the country roads around the county. Here are some of the more common ones worthy of mention, and is only a small number of the natives that will be strutting their stuff.

One of my favorite colors is red, so I’m always on the lookout for bright red flowers just like hummingbirds that frequent them. A native to be watching for in ditch banks and dry streams is ‘Cardinal Flower’ with its brilliant scarlet red flowers. This beauty blooms for weeks on a solitary flower spike with individual red tubular flowers emerging from bottom to top of the flower spike. Another native that will be flowering red through August is ‘Bee Balm’ which is a favorite of bees and hummers.

White blooming natives to observe include ‘Queen Anne’s Lace, ‘Virgins Bower’,  ‘White Snakeroot’, and many species of white blooming asters including ‘White Wood Aster’. ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ (‘Wild Carrot’ or ‘Yarrow’) is found in fallow fields and roadsides, and is noted for it’s big umbel shaped flowers that may be pinkish in the center. My first experience with this native was as a young boy growing up in the South. All that it took was one trip through a patch of ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ to understand why the older folks commonly called it ‘Chigger Weed’. With this said, it makes a fine native to admire in the perennial bed. Another white native is ‘Virgins Bower’ or our native Clematis vine. Beginning in August this native vine is covered with very fragrant, creamy white flowers that rival many of the cultivated and named Clematis vines that gardeners trellis on poles or mailboxes.

Pink beauties to watch for include the ‘Swamp Milkweed, ‘Pink Turtlehead’ and ‘Obedient Plant’. ‘Swamp Milkweed’ is a favorite of many butterflies as it displays its attractive flowers on a very tall stem. It may be found in wet meadows and marshes, and makes a great plant for the wild or butterfly garden. ‘Pink Turtlehead’ may be found along stream banks and wet meadows showcasing its 4-ranked pink flowers. And ‘Obedient Plant’ is a great perennial for the garden producing stalks of pink flowers that are often used as cut flowers.

The late summer purple bloomers are always eye-stoppers when planted or growing in masses. There is something about the color purple that gardeners and nature lovers can’t seem to resist. Be on the lookout for one of the many violet to lilac-blue fall blooming native Asters growing in masses to the very tall and robust ‘Tall Ironweed’. Ironweed is probably one of the most brilliant late summer plants reaching almost 10 feet tall. A number of dwarf cultivars have been selected that stay 3 to 5 feet in height for those intimidated by big wildflowers. While Ironweed becomes a tall plant, the largest in this color group is the native ‘Joe Pye Weed’. This plant reaches heights upwards of 15 feet and showcases pinkish-purple very large flower heads that are often covered with masses of butterflies. There are dwarf selections of ‘Joe Pye Weed’, with the cultivar “Little Joe’ being a favorite among gardeners. ‘Mistflower Ageratum’ is another keeper usually found in masses covered with compact, bell shaped flower heads with 40 to 50 bluish purple disc flowers in the flower head.

The largest color group of late summer bloomers fall into the yellow to golden category. It’s almost impossible not to see a yellow to golden blooming native now through the first fall frost. For starters, not all goldenrods are created equally as there are over 20 different species in western, NC. Goldenrods are fantastic perennials for the landscape, and contrary to what most believe are not responsible for fall allergies. Then we can jump to the very tall group of the fall blooming yellow Asters. This includes ones like ‘Ox-Eye’, ‘Green-headed Coneflower’, ‘Narrow Leaved, Giant and Woodland Sunflowers’, ‘Jerusalem Artichoke’ and ‘Crownbeard’ to name a few. These are the ones 5 to 10 feet tall with yellow to golden flowers along most Caldwell County roadsides now through fall. And, interspersed among the ditch banks and in meadows are some of the lower growing yellow Asters like ‘Coreopsis’ and ‘Bur Marigold’

There are many other late summer blooming wildflowers that are not mentioned above. In the coming weeks be sure to watch as the countryside explodes with magnificent color. Hopefully you will remember to not leave home without the camera, smartphone or tablet in case you run across a picture worth snapping. And, be wary of any slow moving vehicle in which the rubber necked driver has a bumper sticker which reads “I BRAKE FOR WILDFLOWERS”.