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THE TALL MIDSUMMER WEEDS — MEMBERS OF THE COMPOSITE FAMILY.
IN the warm days of August most of the singing amid the treetops has ceased, and life has taken on a different aspect for both bird and man. Every winged dweller in wood and meadow finds food in plenty, with never a hungry bill to fill beyond his own. We listen to the grasshoppers’ summer symphony and count it a signal for relaxation, an audible proof of the fact that the time has come when it is too hot to do anything but keep quiet. Nature, however, does not idle, nor does she slacken her energy in time of heat; the borders of the highway are the best evidence of this fact. At no time of the year are the hedges and thickets so crowded with luxuriant and rank vegetation, nor have we seen until now such an aggregation of tall, striking weeds. The margin of the highway in May was flat and empty compared with its present aspect. Now, on the edge of the meadow and at the side of the road, a midsummer family has taken up its quarters, most of whose members are sufficiently tall to look over the fence. Many of them measure three and four feet, and several six and even twelve feet in height.
These magnificent weeds are nearly all members of the great Composite family, the records of which occupy a large section of Gray’s Manual.
The first familiar flower which Gray mentions is the ironweed (Vernonia Noveboracensis); this is common near the seashore. It grows from three to five feet high, and its clusters of purplish magenta flowers, from which the bees gather quite a little honey, somewhat resemble tiny sweet sultans or bachelor’s buttons; but it is a rude, stocky, useless weed, with a stout, hard stem which cumbers the ground. It blooms in August. Next come the Eupatoriums, a coarse tribe not without some saving, useful qualities. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is perhaps the best-known member of this group, and we can always tell it by the way the seems to perforate the opposite-growing which taper to a point. The flowers are dull white, small, and uninteresting. The plant grows from two to four feet high and has a coarse hairy stem. It is a bitter herb, whose medicinal properties we are well acquainted with, but one whose flowers we would never suspect the bee finds stored with honey; such is the case, however.
Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) is another tall relation with dull pinkish flowers. The leaves are very rough and veiny, and the simple, stout stem grows from two to twelve feet high. This is rather an aspiring weed, which furnishes the lowland landscape in summer with the most consummately æsthetic pink tone which it is possible to imagine. A good patch of Joe-Pye weed under a hazy August sky produces one of those delicious bits of cool pink, set in dull sage-green, such as an impressionist likes to paint. The commonest weed by the roadside becomes one of the most beautiful things in the world when the strength of its color is portrayed on the impressionist’s canvas. We may look at it skeptically, but the artist reveals a real not an imagined beauty, which all of us have eyes to see quite as well as he.
If the general color effect of Joe-Pye weed is attractive, the delicate beauty of white snakeroot (Eupatorium ageratoides) is greater. This beautiful weed grows beside nearly every woodland road in the North. The flowers are dainty copies of the soft, woolly blossoms of the ageratum in our gardens; the leaves are ovate-pointed, long-stemmed, and coarse-toothed. The whole character of the plant is smooth, not hairy, and its slenderer stems grow from three to four feet high. It is one of the refined members of the Eupatorium family group.
Passing the multitudinous golden-rods and asters, to the most important of which I have devoted a chapter further on, we come to two of the commonest shorter weeds of the roadside: these are robin’s plantain (Erigeron bellidifolius) and daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus). The former looks like a blue aster out of season; it blooms in May and June along moist banks and shaded byways. The latter appears like a miniature aster, either perfectly white or slightly tinged purple; it blooms from early June to late September. Both of these plants grow, at most, not over twenty inches high. The sweet scabious (Erigeron annuus), however, is a plant with a more imposing presence. It is a tall weed, usually three and sometimes five feet high, with a stout, much-branched stem beset with little hairs, and narrow upper, but broader lower (coarsely toothed) leaves. The white or purplish flowers have short rays and broad, dull-yellow centers. This is a very common weed in the waste places beside the road, and one which I often find in company with the coarse burdock.
Next among our tall weeds (but these are not so very tall) are the familiar white everlastings. Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) is quite the handsomest species. It grows from one to two feet high, and the stem is leafy to the top which expands in a large, broad head of white flowers. The best way to distinguish this species from the common ones is to examine the little petals (really scales of the involucre) under the magnifying glass; if these are white, obtuse, and rounded, radiating with age, the flower is that of the pearly species; if they are ovate and oblong but still obtuse, the flower is one of the species Gnaphalium polycephalum; if they are yellowish white, oval, and pointed, the flower is that of G. decurrens. Other differences between the three species, all of which are common on our roadsides which pass the hillside pastures, are these: G. polycephalum grows from one to three feet high and is fragrant its leaves are lance-shaped with narrowed base and wavy margins, the upper surface free from wooliness. G. decurrens grows about two feet high, and its narrower leaves partly clasp and extend down the stem; they are cottony on both sides. The leaves of A. margaritacea are long, lance-shaped, quite green above, and they clasp the stem.
Another familiar wayside weed, one of those tramps long since arrived from Europe but still “on the road,” is elecampane (Inula Helenium). This is a tall, stout herb, with stems from three to five feet high, whose mucilaginous roots have been used as a horse medicine. The flowers are yellow with extremely narrow rays and coarse yellow disks; the leaves are large and woolly beneath, the upper ones clasping the stem slightly, and the lower ones distinctly stemmed. Elecampane is usually found on damp ground where the road passes the swamp, in which thousands of grasshoppers and crickets swell the grand chorus of a midsummer day’s song. The drowsy music is not easily separated in my mind from a weedy wilderness of burdock, golden-rod, and elecampane; for that matter we do not have to peer beyond the topmost leaves of the latter plant to see a musician or two; undoubtedly, if we look sharp, we will behold a grasshopper (more properly speaking, a locust) sitting contentedly on his high perch, a listener if not a performer. His name is Melanoplus bivittatus, and he with his red-legged cousin, Melanoplus femur-rub um, the commonest of our field locusts or grasshoppers, finds the succulent leaf of the Inula furnishes a very delectable luncheon in the middle of a hot day. These two insects are always perched on the big, dusty leaves of the roadside. I have never seen either of them alight and sit still; they always turn at least a quarter of the way around, and thus make sure of covering the four points of the compass in as many acrobatic leaps.
We now come to the tallest member of the Composite family, the ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), which grows from four to twelve and occasionally eighteen feet high. This extraordinary plant is commonly found in waste places. Its tall, straight stem with large, deeply three-lobed whose leaves and terminal stalks of greenish flowers is one of the most striking things of the highway border. In the fall, if a dried dead stalk is broken, we will find it contains an unsubstantial white pith with a sheen like frostwork.
The tall and slender but stout-stemmed ragweed when growing in damp, rich soil, often shoots beyond the twelve-foot mark. I have found one specimen which measured over thirteen feet, and William Hamilton Gibson records one that measured eighteen feet four inches.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbekia hirta) is the next flower which engages our attention; its deep golden, orange-yellow rays and its purple-brown “cone” are familiar to us all. But few of the flowers are left by midsummer — they were in their prime in early July. It is not a tall plant — rarely a few stems stand two feet high. Our common garden sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is a near relative of Rudbekia. An allied species often found on the roadsides of the North and East is Helianthus giganteus, a small flower with bright-yellow rays and a fairly good yellow center; this prefers the shaded nooks and corners of fields and woodlands. Not far from the sunflower, perhaps in some moist spot near a passing brook, we may find we have come in contact with the troublesome weed named beggar-ticks (Bidens frondosa); wherever we have touched the plant our clothing is covered with its exceedingly tenacious, two-pronged seed vessels. The insignificant flowers are rayless, and rusty yellow in tone, and the leaves have from three to five divisions. This uncomfortable roadside weed is from two to six feet high; it blooms from June to October.
Also in the wet ground there is every chance of finding (at least as far North as Pennsylvania and Connecticut) the budding stems of the tall sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), which may be from one to six feet high. The flowers, about half an inch broad, are yellow-rayed and have duller yellow disks; sometimes the brighter rays droop. The leaves are lance-shaped and toothed. This weed blooms in September.
Along our roadsides in the East is a common European weed whose white-rayed flowers closely resemble daisies; this is the Mayweed or chamomile (Anthemis Cotula). Its finely cut leaves and small flower heads, with yellow centers in high relief, are sufficient means for its recognition; but, by bruising the leaves the strong familiar odor of chamomile proves the identity of the low-growing plant beyond a doubt. The common daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum) we may find still in bloom beside the chamomile.
Golden ragwort or squawweed (Senecio aureus) is common in the lowlands, and blooms as early as May or June. It grows from one to three feet high, has a very variable leaf, and bears pretty golden-yellow flowers which look like small, deep yellow daisies. It is one of the first members of the Composite family to bloom, and we will hardly find a flower left by the first of August.
If we should happen to pass a wooded clearing which has been burned over, here we will see the coarse, heavy, grooved stems of the fireweed (Erechtites hieracifolia), with its alternate, lance-shaped, cut-toothed leaves waving in the passing breeze. The stem grows from one to five feet high and terminates in an ample panicle of small white flowers somewhat tubular in shape. It is a rank-smelling (often hairy stemmed) weed of unattractive appearance. But quite its equal in disagreeable odor is the common burdock (Arctium Lappa), which one invariably finds in the waste ground beside some old, abandoned farmhouse. Every one knows how tenacious the little hooked tips of the burs are; children frame baskets with the clinging things, and those who visit the deserted house on the neglected byway, usually carry away numerous burry souvenirs of the occasion on their clothing. But burdock has an æsthetic if not a homely interest, for the artist finds it an indispensable and picturesque accompaniment of the “old farmhouse” which is the theme of his picture.
The Canada thistle (Cnicus arvensis) is another dweller in the highway and the pasture which came to us from Europe. Gray calls it “a vile pest in fields and meadows.” The flower heads are not more than an inch long and very numerous; the tips are lilac-magenta.
The common thistle (Cnicus lanceolatus), with the large and handsome flower, is also naturalized from Europe. The base of the deeply cut leaf runs down the stem in prickly wings; the flowers are also lilac-magenta. Our tallest thistle (C. altissimus) is common in copses and on the borders of the road and field from Massachusetts to Minnesota and Southward. Its stem, from three to ten feet high, is leafy quite to the flower head, which is purple or rarely white, and from one and a half to two inches long. The leaves are very woolly beneath, wavy, and the topmost ones are not very deeply cut. This species is indigenous. On sandy roads near the coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia, is a yellow thistle (C. horridulus), with a stout stem one to three feet high, partly clasping, smooth, green, yellow-prickled leaves and flower heads, about two inches long and an inch and a half broad, yellow, or rarely purple-topped, and surrounded at the base by a circle of prickly leaflets (bracts). This species is also indigenous. In early September we will probably see the little yellowbird picking at the ripened thistles in the pasture; he is after the seed, and if we watch him we will see how nicely he aids Nature by setting whole clouds of thistle down afloat.
The most perfect of all blue wild flowers now follows in our list: it is par excellence- the roadside beauty. This is chicory (Cicorium Intybus), a dandelionlike flower whose charming misty blue set in soft green must be seen in broad spreading masses to be appreciated. The flower is too familiar to need description here. Its roots are ground, roasted, and used either to flavor coffee or to furnish a straight substitute for it.
Still another dandelionlike flower we will see on the rattlesnake weed (Hieracium venosum). This scrawny stemmed plant grows from one to two feet high, and bears on its many branches small yellow flower heads composed of strap-shaped florets. The leaves, clustered at the root, conspicuously purple-veined above and purple-tinged beneath, are oblong, thin, pale, and slightly, if at all, toothed.
A hawkweed (Hieracium Canadense) which is quite common on the woodland roads in the North bears yellow flowers slightly resembling the species described above. It has a simple leafy stem growing from one to three feet high, bearing at the top a somewhat flat flower cluster. The leaves are lance-shaped or oblong, acute, and sparingly coarse-toothed; the uppermost leaves slightly clasp the stem. I have found this flower in bloom in northern New Hampshire in August. Hieracium scabrum is a roughish, hairy stemmed species with a stout, simple stalk two to three feet high, having reversed egg-shaped or oval leaves without teeth, and a narrow cluster of many small. flower heads which are thickly clothed with dark, glandular bristles. This is a very common species of dry, open woods, and it frequently appears on the shady roadside.
We now come to the last section of importance in the Composite family, the tall Prenanthes. The commonest member of this group, lion’s foot or gall of the earth (Prenanthes serpentaria), we are quite sure to meet in some shady stretch of the highway. This weed bears pretty, drooping, bell-shaped flowers, variously colored with green, dull purple, and dull yellow-white. The leaves are somewhat angularly shaped; the lower ones are variously three- to seven-lobed, with margined stems; the upper ones are oblong, lance-shaped, mostly undivided, and they almost clasp the main stem. This plant will also be found in the tangled brush of the clearing, where its inconspicuous flowers are scarcely relieved against a confused and green background; it blooms in late August.
The tall rattlesnake root (Prenanthes altissima) is an imposing species common in the rich woodlands of the North, which sometimes attains a height of seven feet. It bears a long narrow panicle of inconspicuous green and dull-white flowers, which top off the slender weed with a slightly curved, loose, leafy cluster, and also spring from the junction of the leaves with the main stem. The leaves are variously shaped, but all have distinct stems; they are triangular, ovate, toothed or cleft, and frequently three-to five-parted. Still another species, P. alba, sometimes called common white lettuce, is also quite frequently found on the woodland road in the North; this grows from two to four feet high and bears in conspicuous white or greenish florets, enveloped in purplish scales. The leaves are also very variable. These three species of Prenanthes are characterized by drooping flowers.
Another species common throughout the extreme North is P. racemosa; this bears purplish flowers which are nearly erect. The stem rises from two to five feet in height, and bears oblong, lance-shaped leaves, toothed, smooth, the upper ones slightly clasping the main stem, and the lower ones tapering into margined stems next to the main stalk.
The tall rattlesnake root has but one rival of imposing stature; that is the marvelous ragweed. Whenever we see a slender climbing stalk beside the road, it is pretty sure to be one of these two giant weeds, which spend the greater part of spring and summer in an effort to reach the sky.