Wild Georgia: October is showtime for dazzling goldenrods

Early October is peak time for some of Georgia’s most beautiful, but least appreciated, wildflowers, the goldenrods. They are one of the glories of a Georgia autumn as they sport their dazzling yellows in fields and along roadsides and fence rows.

When I was attending the Georgia ForestWatch’s annual retreat at Vogel State Park in North Georgia’s mountains last weekend, I came across a large patch of goldenrods blooming next to some sumac trees whose leaves already had turned the deep red-wine color of fall. The yellow flowers against the backdrop of red leaves took my breath away.

Their beauty aside, goldenrods lure an incredible array of insects that interact with one another in fascinating ways. As I watched last weekend, several insects, mostly bees, buzzed around and lighted on the nectar-rich blooms. On sunny afternoons, bees at goldenrod flowers may be almost as loud as they are at clover blooms in spring.

In addition to bees, goldenrods are extremely important to numerous other insects -- wasps, flies, moths, butterflies -- that sip nectar and collect pollen. The insects, in turn, help pollinate goldenrods.

Some, though, like caterpillars and aphids, are not so beneficial -- they eat the plants’ leaves and stems. In addition, specialized flies known as gall flies lay their eggs in goldenrods' stems and leaves so that their newly-hatched larvae can begin eating quickly.

A third insect group that hangs around goldenrods is predators -- wasps, praying mantises, lacewings, ambush bugs, assassin bugs, beetles -- that prey on all the other insects. Some of them also lay their eggs in the plant. There is even a resident goldenrod spider -- a tiny, yellow arachnid that hides in the blooms.

Georgia has more than 30 goldenrod species. Some, such as sweet goldenrod (or blue mountain tea), gray goldenrod, tall goldenrod and rough-leaf goldenrod, are found throughout the state. There is even a white-flowered goldenrod, sometimes called silver-rod. It grows mostly in the mountains.

A wealth of other wildflowers is in glorious bloom now -- sunflowers, asters, boneset, snakeroot, wingstem, tickweed, ironweed, jewelweed, mist flower, downy lobelia, coreopsis, cardinal flower and many more.

We members of the Georgia Botanical Society found many of these early fall flowers and others in lush bloom last weekend along the riverside trail in the East Palisades unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Particularly eye-catching were the bright yellow blooms of wingstem growing in tall, dense colonies. They should still be in bloom this weekend.

Whereas white and pink seem to be the predominant wildflower colors of spring, yellow and purple now dominate.

IN THE SKY: The moon will be new on Thursday. On Friday it will be a thin crescent low in the west just after dark, said David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Science Museum. Mercury is very low in the east just before dawn. Venus and Mars set in the west about an hour after sunset. Jupiter rises out of the east just before sunset.