Ontario’s beautiful fall wildflowers

Autumn is officially here and, just like the garden itself, gardening topics are dwindling as winter sets in–at least if you live north of the 49th parallel. From now til spring I’ll be posting a little less often but I promise to keep in touch as inspiration strikes. I find reaching out to my fellow gardening enthusiasts and those patient people who’ve kindly given up some of their time and attention to my posts a very special pleasure of mine.

So I thought I’d kick off this quieter season with a thank you to everyone with the most colourful and cheerful post I could muster. Hence, my latest round-up of wildflowers.

The Bruce Peninsula in southwestern Ontario is home to an astonishing variety of wildflowers. One of my favourite places to view them is in and around the Oliphant fen which offers up a parade of wildflowers, coming and going, from March until the first hard frost in late autumn. Surprisingly, September is a particularly colourful month for the area–far more so than spring, I think. You’d never know it from looking at the area from a distance. Here’s a typical view of the fen, below–island-like hummocks topped with cedar and tamarack in a sea of grasses bordered with more cedar and scrub.

But if you look closer, a whole world of colour and life reveals itself.

Here are some of my favourite September wildflowers, grouped by colour.

The cluster of tiny fringed blooms covering the top of a spike is Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua). Incredibly, they are actually an orchid, native to eastern Canada and the U.S. The plant can grow up to two feet tall with the flowers spiralling up the stem in two or four rows, blooming from July to November. They love wet conditions, hence their occurrence regularly in the fen.

The white berries are, I know, not a flower, but I had to include them in this autumn round-up because they are a real joy to find. Often called Dolls Eyes because of their slightly creepy resemblance to, well, porcelain eyes, the actual name of the plant is White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda). The flowers on this plant aren’t terribly noteworthy but the berries are outstanding, and BTW poisonous.

The wee five-petalled beauty is Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca). I love how the delicate petals are decorated with distinctive soft grey lines. Despite its name, it’s not a grass. The rather high-faluting moniker comes, evidently, from a Greek dude named Dioscorides who, way back in the day, discovered a similar plant on a mountain called Parnassus which happened to be sacred to Apollo.

Both the photos above show a plant new to my gallery because it has taken me the longest time to identify it. But I knew that those wonderfully hairy buds had to give it away at some point: Glaucous Rattlesnakeroot (Nabalus racemosus). These photos were taken a couple of weeks ago so the heavy buds are doing their characteristic nodding. Once they bloom, the white-to-pink flowers will sit upright.

Asters just have to be some of the happiest flowers you can find. And I love how they wait to throw all those good vibes around just as the weather starts to cool.

When I first discovered Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata), above, I couldn’t believe my eyes. As clouds drifted past the sun, changing the intensity of the sunlight from brilliant to muted and back again, the flowers seemed to change, too–vibrant purple in direct sunlight and a softer, deeper blue when shielded by a cloud. And to top it all off, the petals are edged with a subtle fringe, rather like eye lashes.

Above is Knapweed but I’m not sure which one. There are a couple of varieties growing in Ontario, none of which are native and at least one which is considered invasive. It’s a shame, really, because I think it’s a really lovely flower.

Himalayan balsam

Here’s another beauty which is actually not good to discover. Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) looks like our native sweet pea, Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius), from a distance with its bright pink orchid-like blooms. Up close, the plant gets even better with fanning petals framing a speckled throat. Bonus: when you touch the mature seed capsules, they explode, projecting seeds as much as 5 metres away–great for scaring the bahjeesus out of the unaware. But as aliens go, this one is decidedly bad news.

Himalayan balsam are native to the Himalayas [she wrote, pointing out the deeply obvious]. They were introduced to North America in the 1800s as an ornamental and quickly outgrew their welcome. The plant can cover an area and aggressively crowd out native perennials.

I’ve had a fascination with Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) from the moment I discovered them years ago. There are 18 different species of carniverous plants in Canada but only one species of pitcher plant (shown above). The veined tubular leaves at its base are the business end of the plant. Each tube fills with rainwater and unsuspecting insects fall in, having been lured by the plant’s sweet scent. Once in the tube, an insect is trapped. The walls of each tube are slippery and covered in downward-pointing hairs, making escape impossible.

SIDE NOTE: I’ve always wondered if horror and science fiction writers and movie directors get their inspiration from the natural world. Between plants and insects, there is so much gruesomeness going on that there’s really no need to make anything up.

I love the petals of our native Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) (see above). Each one is scalloped at the tip creating a jaunty frill. You’d think this plant got its name for causing allergic reactions but actually the name comes from the fact that its leaves were once dried to make snuff.

That rusty brown plant in the centre of the photo, above, is Dock (Rumex spp.) I don’t know which kind. There are 34 species in Canada–twenty are native and the rest introduced. At least one can be found in every province and territory in the country.

I know I’m stretching it a bit by including dock in a group of wildflowers. But I figure this plant, in all it’s dry, dark splendour, does such a good job providing contrast to its fresh, pastel spangled neighbours.

So long, for now

I hope you enjoyed perusing this photo collection of Ontario wildflowers, all shot in September. If you want to see more of my wildflower photos, check out A Rare Fen In Full, featuring more shots of some of the flowers seen here and June And July’s Spectacular Ontario Wildflowers for shots of native orchids, Indian Paintbrush, lilies, Lobelia, Iris, Plantain, Clover and more.

Have a wonderful fall and winter, everyone. Take care, keep safe, and grow boldly.

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