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Counting gold in the midst of August

| Sunday, Aug. 12, 2001

Each month has a distinctive color.

January is white. Snow blankets the landscape and softens the sharp edges of rocks and hides the debris of autumn. The landscape sleeps under a crystalline comforter.

March is gray. Sullen clouds conceal the sun and spread a cold rain that erases the snow. The moisture readies the landscape for spring.

May is multihued. A broad palette of green slowly wraps skeletal trees. The forest floor mirrors the canopy like a still pond's reflection.

August is yellow. Golden traces outline streams with tall coneflowers towering over summer sluggish water. At the edges of the woods, between the cool of the forest and the heat of the open field, sunflowers lean away from the shadows and stare at the sun with golden petaled faces. In front of the sunflowers a mantle of goldenrod basks in the bright midday. In the evenings, the yellow sun falls toward the horizon through blue-gray haze until it shades to orange and is cut flat by the western edge of the earth.

August is yellow with the bloom of field wildflowers and the hot days of a waning summer.

In April the wildflower show is on the forest floor. In August the performance moves to the open fields. August overflows with yellow flowers. Most of these are plants in a group known to botanists as the composites or the aster family. These are plants with blossoms that are not just a single flower - like a violet or a trillium - but made up of a head with many florets or tiny flowers. Many of these have two types of flowers in the head, the disk florets and the ray florets.

Look at the common sunflower in your garden, and you'll see these two types of florets. In the center are hundreds of small tubular flowers. If you use a hand lens you'll see that these have tiny, symmetrical petals as well as all the other parts of a typical flower. These make up the disk, or center, of the flower head. Around the edge are the ray florets. Each has just one large strap-shaped petal that leans to one side. Plants with disk and ray florets are in one group within the aster family and include the sunflowers, coneflowers and sneezeweeds. Another common group in the same family are the goldenrods. Both of these groups are common in the August landscape.

We are familiar with the mammoth Russian sunflowers that are often a centerpiece of our home gardens. These are a cultivated version of the common sunflower that is native to the Midwest but can be found growing wild here in western Pennsylvania.

Sunflowers native to Pennsylvania include swamp, thin-leaved, woodland, sawtooth and showy. They are characterized by prominent yellow ray flowers, and simple opposite leaves. Another member of this genus is the Jerusalem artichoke that is cultivated for its large fleshy roots, and also can be found growing wild throughout the state.

One of the most diverse genera within the family is the goldenrod. There are 28 species in Pennsylvania and nearly 100 in eastern North America. They are a beautiful group of wildflowers that unfortunately have an undeserved bad reputation. When it comes to allergies at this time of the year, goldenrods are not the culprits.

As a rule, most flowers with showy blossoms have large petals or vivid colors to attract pollinators - usually insects. The pollen of these plants is large, heavy, and often sticky. This helps the pollinators gather the pollen, or in some cases it sticks to them when they visit the flower for nectar. Heavy pollen is too big to be carried by the wind, so it doesn't get into the air or, ultimately our noses.

But hiding between the bright beautiful sprays of goldenrod lurks the real culprit - ragweed. This species has flowers that lack petals, but produces prodigious amounts of small, light, powdery pollen. Like dust, ragweed pollen is perfect to be carried by even the slightest breeze. Walk the fields of August and your eyes will witness the beauty of the goldenrod - your nose will suffer the results of the unseen ragweed.

There is one other slight misconception about goldenrods. Not all goldenrods are golden. There is one species that has white flowers and is appropriately called silverrod.

Goldenrods can be found through the month of August in a variety of habitats. Early goldenrod is one of the most common and is in flower at the beginning of the month. Others follow and learning to identify all the different species is a challenge for even the most dedicated botanist.

One of my favorite August sights is a field in full bloom - a bullion hued carpet waving gently under the summer sun. I like to find a back road, far away from the interstate and just take a leisurely drive watching the landscape drift by. Even better, I stop the car and take a lazy walk along the edge of an old field that is now the domain of the goldenrod, or where a small stream meanders along the edge and moistens the soil to allow the sunflowers to grow straight and tall.

This is the time to count my riches of gold in the midst of yellow August.

Paul g. Wiegman is a writer, educator, photographer and naturalist who works with a number of local and state organizations. Write to him c/o Tribune-Review, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601; or e-mail him at pwiegman@ix.netcom.com .

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