Language of Flowers for Ecologists — Autumnal Hues

Sunflowers & morning glories in August

This is my favorite time of the year. There is the food, the cooling temperatures, and the lengthening night. But there are also the best flowers! This is the garden I wait for all year long. Sunflowers to asters, these are the flowers that speak to me. They are also most of the flowers that do the heavy lifting in the pollinator garden. They are essential. So here is part three of my list — the Autumnal Garden.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.): The sunflower is the queen of the August garden. She is the symbol of loyalty, adoration, and — oddly for a genus of mostly annual species — longevity. Native to the Americas, sunflowers are cousins to asters and daisies. Many species are in cultivation for myriad uses — oil from the black seeds of helianthus annus, cut flowers, tubers from sunchokes, and of course bird seed. A field of sunflowers is a living dance of finches and sparrows, butterflies and bees, and the large nodding flower faces turning slowly to follow the sun.

Marigolds (Tagetes spp. & Calendula officinalis): Marigold can refer to a number of flowers. The derivation of the name is literal — these are gold flowers for Mother Mary — so a great number of flowers fit. However, these two, tagetes and calendula, are the marigolds in my garden. Calendula is the cool season lovely that grows in terra cotta pots and makes tea and skin creams and happy cut flowers in the vase. They bloom a few weeks from seeding as long as the weather is cool. Tagetes marigolds are the American annuals that flower from mid-July to late into the autumn. They are grown as much for their bug-repelling scent — which I find captivating — as for their sunny disposition in the garden. They are the symbols of optimism and good luck. Weave garlands of marigolds to send happy thoughts to your ancestors on All Soul’s Day.

Zinnias (Zinnia spp.): Named for the German anatomist Johann Gottfried Zinn, zinnias are American natives, more aster cousins. Most are from the deserts of the US Southwest and Northern Mexico. They bloom in radiant color even to our eyes; to bees and butterflies they are nearly phosphorescent. Symbols of remembrance and friendship, zinnias are true friends to migratory insects and birds. The flowers are loaded with pollen (making a splendid autumn honey, by the way) and the seeds are large, nutritious and numerous just when birds need the extra boost. They don’t look so nice when running to seed, but do allow this to happen after you’ve enjoyed the show. You will have bird friends for life.

Cosmos (Cosmos spp.): Another American native, a genus in the aster family, cosmos are mostly annuals that reseed readily and spread cheery blossoms in August meadows. The lovely garden variety is mostly cosmos bipinnatus, with perfectly orderly blooms in pink, red, lavender and white. The flower name comes from this tidy form — which also leads to the flower’s symbolic meaning, order and harmony. Cosmos are the saviors of the asparagus bed. Plant cosmos to blend in with the feathery foliage of asparagus and bring some life back to this otherwise ragged part of the August vegetable garden. Butterflies and bees flock to the flowers, and all the finches love the seeds.

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.): This is an enormous genus of mostly American annuals and short-lived perennials. The name means “unfading” and refers to the ability of amaranth flowers to retain their rich color when dried. The name was originally applied to a European cousin, celosia, now a part of the amaranth genus. This huge group of plants contains annoyances like pigweed, beautiful garden flowers like love-lies-bleeding (one of the most unfortunate names I’ve ever encountered!), and delicious grain — possibly the main food plant of the Aztecs (huāuhtli in Nahuatl). So important to Aztec culture was it that cultivation of amaranth was banned by the conquering Spaniards. December was given over to celebration of the amaranth harvest and the amaranth deity Huitzilopochtli. To this day, amaranth grains are toasted and mixed with honey, molasses, or chocolate to make the sublimely sticky snack alegría for Midwinter festivals.

Hummingbird mint / giant hyssop (Agastache spp.): Neither a mint nor a hyssop, but related to both, the agastaches are my favorite flowers. The scent of an agastache garden is unparalleled, pure nirvana. The name is ridiculous however. These dramatic flowers are named with a roughly Greek-ish compound that refers to the stalk’s resemblance to a head of grain. Maybe in a certain light. If you ignore all the flowers. And the millions of insects — and, yes, hummingbirds — vying for a taste of the nectar. Agastache leaves make wonderfully calming teas. The flowers come in every color imaginable, and some that we’ve yet to imagine, let alone name. The plants are exuberant and bushy but upright. Native to North America, they are durable, xeric and adaptable to most climates. Migratory insects and hummingbirds absolutely rely on these plants for energy boosts. Autumn isn’t autumn without agastache.

Stonecrop / sedum (Sedum spp.): The stonecrop family is so morphologically diverse it’s impossible to classify these plants. But they all have succulent leaves and a unique form of photosynthesis, known as crassulacean acid metabolism, which is a complex adaptation to arid climates. The plant collects carbon dioxide through its open stomata at night, then closes off these pores during the day to reduce water loss. The carbon dioxide is stored as acid until the sun rises. Then it’s converted back to carbon dioxide to be turned into sugar through photosynthesis. I find this fascinating. But bees (and most other pollinator species) just love the flowers which come in a wide array of colors, most blooming in the autumn garden. The fat fleshy leaves and stalks can also be rainbow hued — from palest blue to lime green to a deep velvety maroon that approaches black. In warmer regions, these plants also give needed structure to a winter garden.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): A North American genus that is the symbol of good luck, autumn, and the incipient school year. Goldenrods are untamed fireworks in the garden and form carpets of rich gold in meadows and along roadsides from August to frost. Goldenrods are the staple foods of native bees and other pollinators, and bees make use the pollen to make a delectable honey — which is an excellent antihistamine. They are also foods for humans. The young leaves of many species are delicious in omelettes and teas. The seeds of many can be toasted and used like poppy-seed. Solidago is a compound word meaning “to make whole” and refers to the extensive medicinal uses of this genus. Native Americans would chew the leaves to relieve toothache and sore throats. Poultices that draw out the plant sap are used to close and heal wounds and abrasions. Traditional herbalists use solidago to treat kidney inflammation caused by stones and infection. There have also been many attempts to extract the plant’s rubber, though thus far this has remained but a tantalizing goal. Since the rubber is only contained in the leaves, perhaps breeding a large-leaved variety would get us there.

Joe Pye weed / boneset (Eutrochium maculatum & Eupartorium spp.): Here is a naming imbroglio! Joe Pye is rumored to have been a Native American herbalist who used this weed to treat typhoid. But no other herbal traditions make use of eutrochium maculatum, commonly named Joe Pye weed, and indeed there don’t seem to be any medicinal compounds in the plant. Joe Pye weed used to belong to the aster family genus, eupatorium, which contains boneset (also called snakeroot) which was used in herbal medicine, not to treat bones but dengue fever, also called break-bone fever for its intense pain. As this plant is deadly to humans, I can’t think this treatment went well, but the name stuck. Both eupatorium and eutrochium grow in the same marshy areas and make the same compound flowers from late summer and into autumn, but Joe Pye weed is far more beautiful. It blooms in vibrant purples, reds and pinks held high above the grasses and goldenrods in meadows and along rivers and streams. There are lovely diminutive cultivars for the garden that serve as staple foods for many butterfly species. They also make good dried flowers, almost an entire bouquet from one flower stalk. 

Ironweed (Vernonia spp.): Another aster cousin native to the Americas, this plant is in my list purely for its pure purple flowers. The color is so intense it can cause traffic accidents when it explodes into bloom along roadsides (well… maybe). Pollinators seem to agree; they cluster around the flower heads, waiting for an open landing spot. Like many American plants, the ironweeds are cultivated in Africa for many uses, principally for the oil from its seeds. Some ironweeds are eaten as leaf vegetables, but I just can’t see that one. I’ll stick to the honey — and drinking in the rich royal color!

Mums (Chrysanthemum spp.): Another naming conundrum. For a brief time, mums were not in the chrysanthemum genus, and you can still find florist mums confusingly labeled dendranthema in gardening catalogs. Tansy, the tanacetum genus, used to be a chrysanthemum but has since been restored to their own genus. Leucanthemums, the daisies, used to be chrysanthemums and many plants sold as “mums” are actually daisies. But when all is said and done, these are all —

Asters! (Aster spp. and family): This enormous family is spread all over the globe. The name means “star” and refers to the radiant petals, the prototypical flower-shape. Maybe they should be called “flora” instead. They come in all colors. North American natives tend to the cool end of the color spectrum in vivid blues, purples and whites. But there are asters in every color. Mums alone have been bred for every color except blue and black. (There are, sadly, no true black flowers for reasons that I don’t understand.) Asters are the last hurrah in gardens, meadows and woodlands. For that reason they are essential — aesthetically and as food for many creatures. They symbolize wisdom, faith and constancy. The Michaelmas daisy, a North American aster, is the symbol of valor; bouquets of this purple beauty adorn the Michaelmas table in my Harvest Home.

And that is the end of my list. I hope I have inspired you to go find a few new plants to be your companions, creating a lovely garden in every sense. Most of my favorites are natives to North America because that’s where I live, but there are equivalents wherever you live. So if I haven’t talked about your garden, go find a book that does. I am quite sure it exists. Here, there or elsewhere, go learn all you can about who lives in your garden and what will make them all happy. Because that will make you happy in turn, as a gardener — more reward for less work — and as a living being.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021