By Laura Eisener
Today is the first day of meteorological autumn, and the day after August’s second full moon. A bit of orange can be seen on maples across Birch Pond on Walnut Street. The calendar may say it’s September, but there are plenty of flowers in bloom and warmth in the air to make it still feel like we have a bit of summer left.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are blooming in every neighborhood. Their sunny blossoms brighten the day, and once gone to seed they will help give nourishing seeds to the many songbirds for whom this is their favorite food. Most have yellow petals, but a few varieties have orange, russet and even red tones in their petals, and a few, such as ‘Italian White’ and ‘White Night,’ have pure white petals. The disk florets of most are dark brown, but ‘Sunbeam’ and ‘Starburst Greenburst’ are two varieties that have green disk florets, making the centers of the flower heads a vivid green color in the midst of yellow petals. While the familiar sunflowers have to be grown from seed every year, they are very rewarding.
Late summer bloomers that can reach a height comparable to sunflowers, our common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) often starts blooming in July, and plants may continue flowering into September. Each individual blossom, however, only lasts about 12-20 hours, usually opening in late afternoon and closing sometime the following morning. If the day is cloudy, they may not open at all. The plants grow tall and narrow, and the blossoms may be five or more feet above the ground level, or if the plant has been cut, chewed or broken, the stems may be much shorter with flowers much closer to the ground. There are usually many flowers near the top of the stem, some still in bud and others open or faded at any given time in late summer. By fall, some of the leaves will turn reddish, whether or not flowering has finished. Goldfinches seem especially fond of the seeds. Since common evening primrose is native, it can be found in many places. There is quite a bit of it in Rumney Marsh, and it thrives in poor soils along the side of the road or in disturbed ground. Despite the pretty flowers, it is often viewed as a garden weed. It is sometimes cultivated for its seed oil, although studies have not proven any medical effectiveness.
Along with the blooming of the evening primrose comes the mature stage of an insect known as the primrose moth (Schinia florida), a tiny (about an inch long) but colorful moth with pink and yellow wings. This moth spends most of its life in several juvenile stages, but changes into its adult (breeding) form when the evening primrose blooms. Like the plant it relies on, this moth can be found over most of eastern and central United States, although it may not be familiar to most people because of its small size and the short period of time it is a colorful adult. Both its body and forewings are a creamy yellow and pink, the wing pattern resembling a marbled mixture of both colors with a solid pale yellow border at the wing tips. The smaller hindwings are cream colored.
Another reason this fairly common insect is not better known is that it is nocturnal. While it may sleep during the day in evening primrose flowers, the one I saw in my yard had dozed off in the center of a compound leaf of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) right underneath the primrose plant. The color contrast made it more noticeable, since the yellow petals provide some camouflage when it is in the primrose blossom. The eggs are laid in the flower buds, and the young insects hatch quickly, going through several developmental stages before burrowing in the ground to overwinter.
The eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is one of the larger butterflies to visit our gardens, with a wingspan of about five inches, and one of the most frequently seen. It can lay its eggs in a variety of plant species in both the rose family (Rosaceae) and the magnolia family (Magnoliaceae), and it enjoys the nectar of a wide variety of plants as well, although butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is one of its favorites.
Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.
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