Driving or riding along the road, one can’t help but notice that the countryside is changing slowly to a more autumn setting. Many trees are beginning to show signs of changing colors as well as are dropping leaves. But much of one’s attention is drawn to the color yellow that has lately become much more prominent. Dotted along the country roads, ditches, and old fields, you’ve likely seen masses of yellow flowers. What’s blooming are goldenrods and swamp sunflowers.
Although some might call it just a pretty weed, goldenrod is a spectacular wildflower. It is a native perennial that lights up the countryside when you least suspect it – late summer and fall. Plus, there is just something about the way the color yellow is displayed on its tall stalk. It’s unique, it’s attractive, and it’s wild.
The beauty of goldenrod is very much ignored mainly because of a false reputation. Many folks who suffer from allergies mistake blooming goldenrod as the culprit that has gotten their sinuses all aggravated. But bright yellow goldenrod isn’t the cause of hay fever. It has been wrongly accused for the pollen problems created by ragweed and various grasses. Goldenrod has brightly colored flowers to attract color-sensitive insects. Its pollen grains are relatively large, heavier than air, because they are designed to be carried off by flies, bees, butterflies, even ants or birds, but not by the wind. Ragweed, which blooms about the same time, can usually be found growing next to goldenrod along the road.
Most people know about goldenrod but rarely consider it worthy of being planted in the home landscape. In fact goldenrod has many attributes that make it a very good choice for gardens, especially natural ones. Since it is native, it can survive in some of the poorest soils and harshest areas. It being found growing along highways is evidence enough to prove that point. Goldenrod is also very tolerant of our Southern summers, whether they be hot and dry or wet and mild.
Goldenrod blooms each September and October regardless of its living situation. It is also low maintenance; it’s a tough old weed that keeps on thriving with very little to no care. Lastly, goldenrod’s long sturdy stems make it a top pick for fall flower arrangements. Its cut flowers will last more than a week in a vase.
The other stunning yellow fall wildflower is the swamp sunflower. What makes them different is they blend in with all the other “weeds” throughout most of the year and suddenly flower in the fall when very little else is in bloom. Their yellow color goes well with the green landscape background and all the other shades of autumn. It even gives goldenrod a run for its money as to which yellow wildflower is the best looking.
Swamp sunflower, also known as narrow-leaved sunflower, can be found growing throughout much of the eastern United States. It is most commonly found along roadside ditches, but also thrives along fence rows, in swamps, wet pinelands, coastal salt marshes, and moist disturbed sites. It is a native wildflower; an upright perennial that can be between 4 to 6 feet tall. It has dark green leaves that are narrowly lanceolate with a rough, sandpapery texture. It produces 2-3 inch yellow flowers on dark yellow to brown disks in late summer and autumn.
These sunflowers prefer to grow in moist, sunny locations; however, they will live in well-drained soil if adequate water is supplied during dry spells. They are hardy in USDA zones 6-9. Being a perennial, after the first frost they will die back to ground but will return in the spring. They propagate by seed and vigorous underground runners.
Although swamp sunflowers can be found growing in the wild, they can also become a part of your home landscape. They look great when mass planted, placed along borders, or cascading over walls. They can even be mixed in with your other perennials. These sunflowers also attract butterflies so they would be a nice addition to your butterfly garden. You can cut the plants back in June so they will be bushier when they bloom later in the year in October. Then they will take center stage and brighten everything around them.
Enjoy the sights and sounds of autumn. It only occurs once a year and lasts for just a short while.
By Shane Harris, County Extension Coordinator for Tallapoosa County.