Most summer evenings, shortly before dark, my wife and I take a walk through the hay field on the highest point on our property.
It’s not really a hay field, it’s just an old field being encroached upon by the adjacent woods. I try to keep the invasive autumn olive at bay, but it’s a losing battle. I keep trails mowed so we can walk without fear of ticks and poison ivy.
As June gave way to July, a variety of summer wildflowers began dotting the sea of grasses. Though most are naturalized Old World intruders, they add diversity to the greenery.
Grasses, of course, dominate the field, but they provide structural support for growing wildflowers. One of my favorite flowers is ox-eye daisy. These ecological invaders are so tough they thrive in my gravel driveway, but in the field they add a touch of class.
For most of the summer, we keep freshly picked daisies on the dinner table. Even more common is the dainty white yarrow. It thrives along roadsides and in disturbed habitats.
Multitudes of tiny white flowers crown the stems above its lacy fern-like leaves. Native Americans and early settlers drank yarrow tea to treat colds and fever.
At a glance, Queen Anne’s lace is easily confused with yarrow, though its large flat flower head is quite distinctive. If in doubt, pull it out of the ground and smell and taste the root. Your nose and taste buds will confirm that Queen Anne’s lace is the wild form of the garden carrot.
A much courser plant, common mullein, is a biennial, so it takes two year to bloom. The leaves are large, soft, and velvety. The main stem grows to six or seven feet and is topped by a spike of bright yellow flowers.
Typically, only a few flowers bloom at a time. Early settlers lined their boots with mullein leaves for insulation, and Native American sometimes smoked the dried leaves.
Chicory is a ubiquitous roadside weed that readily invades old fields. The petals of its lavender flowers are toothed at the tip, and the flowers arise directly from the stem. The roots can be roasted, ground, and added as a flavor to coffee (but don’t expect much).
Fleabane (native) is the name assigned to several species that look like miniature daisies. The bright yellow central disk is surrounded by many long, white, narrow ray petals. It produces multitudes of seeds so that it can invade disturbed habitats. Early settlers used it to discourage fleas, hence the name.
Ironweed (native) is not yet in bloom, but it will be in a week or two. In moister soils it can grow to more than eight feet tall, and its small purples flower grow in dense clusters. It’s a favorite nectar source for many butterfly species.
Where there’s ironweed, there’s often Joe-Pye-weed (native). Joe, too, has not yet bloomed and prefers moist soils. Its pale purple flowers are not overly impressive, but butterflies love it. Note whorls of four or five leaves at nodes along its six to eight foot height.
Indian hemp (native) is probably the most common herbaceous plant in the meadow, and it also lines our gravel road. Its small white flowers grow from the top of a plant that can reach heights of four feet. Though its sap is milky, it is not a milkweed. It’s in the dogbane family. Right now it’s forming skinny seed pods about six inches long. Native Americans used its tough, fibrous bark to weave rope.
Common milkweed (native) is among the most fragrant of wildflowers, though visually it’s rather drab. This is the common roadside milkweed. It has small lavender flowers which produce the familiar bulbous pods. Inside the pods are dozens of seeds bearing silky parachutes.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, and tiger swallowtails seem to prefer it as a nectar source. But leave it to my favorite native wildflower to brighten the entire hayfield. Butterfly milkweed’s brilliant orange blossoms attract myriad butterflies, including fritillaries, swallowtails, and skippers. And of course, it’s a host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars.
As the sun sets, we mosey home with another fistful of wildflowers for the dinner table.