Fall Colors – feast for the eyes and wildlife

When you think of autumn colors, usually images of blazing yellow, orange, and red leaves come to mind. Its not just the trees that provide the colors of fall outside. While some leaves are starting to turn yellow early, look to the fields and roadsides for brilliant color now. 

Unfortunately for many, it is also allergy season. Ragweed produces small green flowers which release billions of grains of pollen freely into the wind. It reaches its height during mid-September, causing millions of people to have headaches, itchy eyes, runny noses, and congestion. 

Most of the showy flowers of the autumn meadow need pollinators to transport their pollen. Unjustly blamed for hayfever, they produce nectar, seeds, and shelter for local wildlife. 

If you take a walk around a woodland or field right now, you will find many of my favorites. Goldenrod produces and airy, rich yellow flowerhead on plants about 2-4 feet tall. They contrast beautifully with the deep purple flowers of ironweed. Named for the toughness of the stem, ironweed grows on 3-7 foot tall stems. 

Garden centers in fall have plenty of asters. A native plant, asters grow in several shades of blue, purple or white asters. In the wild or in your yard they attract scores of butterflies. Wild bergamot, a member of the mint family produces a mop-headed pink to purple flowerhead. A favorite nectar source, it has can also be used to make a medicinal tea. 

Jewelweed is a member of the impatiens family. It grows in moist areas and produces orange and yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. They are an important food source for hummingbirds before their fall migration. The juice from the stem can be used to relieve the itch from poison ivy and stinging nettles. Known as the ‘touch me not’ plants their drying seed pods burst when touched. 

Grey Dogwoods produce white berries in the fall that feed hundreds of bird species and squirrels. A native shrub, they can form dense thickets that also provide shelter. Look for them in fencerows and hedges, their leaves are turning a deep plum. 

Our summer wildflowers have done their job to attract pollinators. Now what remains on the stems are the fruits of their labor, seed heads. A bit of a pain when they hitchhike on our clothes and dog’s fur, these seeds are an important food source for wildlife. The engineering of seeds and their unique ability spread is amazing. 

Learn to identify wildflowers before picking them. While many of our native plants have edible or medicinal value several are also poisonous. Pokeweed, for example, produces dark purple berries on magenta stems which birds love but are extremely poisonous to humans. 

Whether you consider them weeds or wildflowers they provide a rich palette of color to the autumn landscape and an important late food source for migrating and local wildlife. Wander among them and watch the butterflies feast, before frost brings relief for the allergy sufferers and an end to the colors.

Julie Borgmann

Julie Borgmann

Executive Director
Julie Borgmann is the Executive Director for Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her passion is connecting people to nature for conservation and wellbeing.