Wild Ideas: Some blooms and butterflies survive deluge   

Filled with envy that my brother and his wife are spending a couple of months in beautiful, dry Arizona, I’ve been trying to find some bright spots, literally, in the continual deluge here. Some wildflowers and butterflies that seem to be coping well with the rain are among them.

The fall wildflowers now blooming down at the lower ponds where I live in Old Hollow are mostly damp-loving species or wouldn’t be there. Most are asters, in the huge Asteraceae (aka Compositae, the aster, daisy or composite) family. Sorting out the flowers that are daisy-like in this family is a real pain. Basically, they are composite flowers with two main components: a ray flower, consisting of multiple florets (commonly called “petals”) that rings a disc flower filled with tiny florets. The asters at the pond have ray flowers that run from white to purple, and disc flowers that are yellow.

By Pam Owen
Too big to feed easily on these tiny calico asters, a migrating monarch butterfly hangs onto the stem from below

After much perusing of my guide books and apps, I concluded that two of the three daisy-like asters are in the genus Symphyotrichum. The first, the calico aster (S. lateriflorum), is shrubby, reaches over my head and has many clusters of tiny white blooms, about one-third inch across, on each stem. The other appears to be purplestem aster (S. puniceum), with lovely lavender blooms that are larger, and hairy stems that turn purple or burgundy as they age, as do the disc flowers on both of these asters.

By Pam Owen
An ailanthus webworm moth feeds on purplestem asters, whose stems turn purple or red as they age

I had to get help from wildflower expert Sally Anderson, with the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Plant Society, for the third aster. This flower is also daisy-like, about a half inch in diameter, and has a yellow disc larger than the length of the white ray florets surrounding it. I had thought it looked like fleabane, but I think of these common natives as blooming earlier in the season. Sally suggested it is fleabane, the daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus), and gave me some ID points to confirm the ID, which I did. While most sources I checked do say the flower ends its bloom period much earlier in the year, one did say that it can bloom through September.

By Pam Owen
This daisy fleabane, with half-inch flowers, usually blooms earlier in the year

Other plants blooming down at the ponds that are in the Asteraceae family do not look like daisies. Goldenrod (genus Solidago) and Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), which are scattered here and there, are both going to seed. With more than 100 goldenrod species, many of which look quite similar, I gave up trying to sort them out long ago, but I think these these are likely Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), one of the most common species.

I took heart that, any time the rain stopped, hundreds of tiny bees, wasps, bugs and other invertebrates descended to feed on the what remains of goldenrod blooms up at my house. Considering this goldenrod is taller than I am, it may be tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). On sunny days, its flowers have been covered with such creatures.

Some wingstem up and down the mountain is also going to seed, and the ironweed (V. noveboracensis, in the same genus) already has. Blooms of the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), in another plant family, is still blooming around the pond, but most of the blooms have gone to seed or just gone.

Butterflies are taking advantage of the remaining asters at the ponds. As I was photographing the flowers, a monarch started nectaring on them. With its weight, the butterfly had problems staying on top of the tiny blooms and mostly hung under them, clinging to the stem. Monarchs are in migration now and will nectar on pretty much anything in bloom, along with tree sap or other liquid sources of sugar. Only one other species, the introduced cabbage white butterfly, has been nectaring on flowers recently where I live.

Unlike most butterflies, eastern commas and red-spotted purples (see sidebar for descriptions) don’t need flowers for their food. They are quite happy feeding on what the rain has supplied along the driveway: a slurry of nutrients, including rotting organic matter and animal excrement, salt and other minerals. I often find both species in my dog’s dish when I’ve left it outside. While the comma will generally linger long enough for me to get a photo, the purples keep fitting around and are much harder to photograph.

As I’m writing this on Monday (Oct. 1), we’ve had three days with some sunshine, and the insects have been busy on the fall flowers I’ve mentioned here. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s three-month outlook for this fall shows a 40 percent chance of temperatures being above normal for the northern half of Virginia, and a 33 percent chance of rainfall being above average. The Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, has between a 33 and 40 percent chance of having below normal precipitation.

I left Seattle years ago partly because of the rain. Perhaps I need to rethink that.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Comma or question mark?

The eastern comma (Polygonia comma) has orange-and-black wings that are scalloped on the edge, which help in distinguishing it from other orange butterflies, including several fritillaries. Almost identical to this species is a cousin in the same genus, the question mark (P. interrogationis), which is also quite common in Virginia but not as common as the comma. The two species can be distinguished from each other by white marks on the underside of their hindwings that give them their respective names, as shown on the website of the North American Butterfly Association.

By Pam Po
An eastern comma looks for leftover food in a dog dish

The red-spotted purple, whose wings are black and blue on top with red spots that may be muted, along with brighter red spots underneath, can be confused with several dark swallowtail butterflies. But the red-spotted purple has no “tail” and both it and the comma and question mark are medium-sized, smaller than swallowtails and great spangled fritillaries, which are also common in our area.

SCBI nature lectures begin

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute has started its annual free nature lecture series:

  • “Black Bears of Virginia: Natural History and Management,” by David Kocka, wildlife biologist, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (Oct. 3)
  • “Loggerhead Shrike Conservation: Saving North America’s Butcherbird,” by Leighann Cline, animal keeper, SCBI’s Center for Species Survival (Oct. 10)
  • “The Disappearing Asian Elephant: Applying Conservation Science to Save Their Skins,” by John McEvoy, movement ecologist, SCBI’s Conservation Ecology Center (Oct. 17)
  • “When the Stork Doesn’t Deliver: Understanding Reproduction in the Endangered Whooping Crane,” by Megan Brown, reproductive biologist, SCBI’s Center for Species Survival (Oct. 24)

For more information, go to the SCBI website.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 322 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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