Jill Sell is co-founder of Three Women in the Woods: Words and Images, a non-profit arts collaboration with a mission to conserve and preserve the country’s woodlands.

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Facts and Folklore About Late-Blooming Wildflowers
by Jill Sell       #Flowers

In October, we tend to think the native blooming plants’ seasons are completed. But there are a number of beautiful native wildflowers whose blooms, foliage and seedpods add interest to October and late fall woodlands and prairies. Several species adapt to home gardens and can be found in garden centers or ordered from specialty native plant nurseries. Plus, each has an old story to tell.

Black-Eyed Susan and Sweet William

Gardeners who are romantics at heart (aren’t we all?) can’t resist the tale of a dark-eyed woman and her heartbreaking attempt to find her lover, Sweet William, aboard a sailing ship. The story is told in the poem, Black-Eyed Susan, by British poet John Gay. Lines include: “All in the downs the fleet was moored/the streamers waving in the wind/When Black-eyed Susan came aboard:/‘O! Where shall I my true-love find?/Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true/if my Sweet William sails among the crew.’”

Many gardeners plant black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Sweet William (Dianthus barbarus) together, because of their appearance compatibility without even knowing the tender poem.

The native, black-eyed Susan blooms into late autumn. (Some gardeners say its blooms will last longer if exposed to afternoon shade.) Its bright yellow ray flowers with dark brown centers are 2-3 three inches across and grow on stems up to 2 feet tall. The plant is considered an annual to a short-lived perennial and does well in moist to dry soil.

Black-eyed Susans are common in many rural, suburban and even urban gardens. A number of cultivars have been developed, and dwarf varieties are available. Just be forewarned — black-eyed Susans are also on the menu for deer, rabbits and other wildlife, which have been known to consume the entire plant. Best reason to plant them: Cut flowers will last a week or more indoors.

Maximilian sunflower blooms into October and adds a sunny spot in a home garden where other wildflowers may be fading.

Maximilian Sunflower

The Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) may not have the biggest, showiest head of all sunflowers. But its ability to bloom during late summer and fall and to stay green until very late fall makes it a welcome choice when most other plants have gone to sleep. Maximilian sunflowers can grow to 8 feet tall and are used as living screens in yards to cover outdoor air conditioning units, sheds or utility poles. The plants’ spreading habit is a gift for gardeners who want to fill in a particular area, especially where erosion control is needed. A grouping serves as cover and food for wildlife.

This yellow sunflower prefers moist, clay-like soils. If overfertilized the plants will grow tall and weak and heads will droop or break stems. What it doesn’t like is shade. It is a good choice for native prairie gardens. We can thank Maximilian Alexander Philipp, a German prince who was more interested in botany than royalty and who studied the great American Plains, for the plant’s name. Maximilian sunflowers were also a favorite of Native Americans, who used the plant for food, oil and thread. Best reason to plant them: Sunflowers just make you smile any time, especially late in the season.


Common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a native perennial that was one of the most popular home remedies until aspirin took its place. Herbalists vary as to the origin of the plant’s name. Some say the plant, with its clusters of tiny, flat white flowers, was used by Native Americans and early colonists to treat dengue, a viral infection. The muscle pain from the infection was said to be so intense it felt as if one’s bones were breaking. A bitter tea made from dried leaves was used to treat the fever and colds.

Others look at the plant’s appearance and say that’s the source of its name and use. The leaves do not have individual stems and are attached directly to the main stem of the plant. It looks to some that the stem grows right through the leaf. That gave some herbalists the idea that the plant could be used to set bones. Boneset leaves were wrapped inside bandages around early splints.

Common boneset prefers moist to wet soils and blooms from June into October. It grows to the height of about 4-6 feet. Best reason to plant it: It’s interesting to have such a historical and important native wildflower in a backyard garden.

Another common name for black cohosh is fairy candles, based on the folklore idea that the wildflower looks as if wood sprites could use the white flowers to light their way through a dark woodland.

Black Cohosh and White Baneberry

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) has many common names, including black bugbane, black snakeroot and black rattle root. But the name “fairy candles” perhaps is the most gentle and imaginative. The fluffy white spikes of tiny white flowers suggest a way for woodland sprites to find their way through the dark forest. The plant’s other common names refer to its seed that rattle in seedpods, which form after the perennial plant ends blooming in late September or early October. Because it was once used as an insect repellant, the name bugbane also became popular.

Black cohosh’s claim to fame came about because of its herbal reputation to treat feminine concerns, including menopause. Studies vary about the plant’s effectiveness for eliminating symptoms. The National Center for Contemporary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) both provide significant information about the plant’s benefits.

Black cohosh (a low-maintenance choice for woodland gardens) features flower stalks that grow to 6 feet tall. The plant prefers moist soil and dappled sun. Propagation is by seed, but that is more difficult to accomplish than by root division. Best reason to plant it: Its seedpods add interest to an autumn garden.

White baneberry is the perfect wildflower to grow in a home woodland garden if the gardener is looking for an unusual fall fruit.

A cousin of black cohosh, white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) blooms only for about two weeks in May and/or June. Its small white flowers are arranged in a rounded cluster that contains about 10 to 25 flowers. It’s a bloom that is delightful, but not showy. But the modest flowers are not the reason gardeners covet the plant in backyard woodland gardens. It’s the dramatic and mysterious fruit that develops in fall.

The waxy, blue-white berries are about a 1/2-inch long and are vertically grooved. Each has a dark purple, dark brown or black dot. The plant is also called “doll’s eyes” because of the fruit’s appearance, a reference to the eyes that were once made for vintage china dolls. The berries are located at the ends of bright red stalks. In the best tradition of Halloween lore, the plant looks to some as if the eyes of deceased individuals have been collected on one plant. Add the fact that the word “bane” is old English for “murderer,” and you have a great spine-tingling story.

But it gets even better for our macabre tale. All parts of this 2-foot tall perennial are toxic. Fortunately, the berries are bitter and most anyone who would attempt to eat them would think twice. The plant also causes external skin reactions, so many gardeners use gloves when handling the plants.

White baneberry is not an easy plant to grow in a residential garden. In the wild, the plant prefers cool woodlands, and duplicating the conditions can be challenging. But propagation is possible, and fresh seeds should be sown in fall. Best reason to plant it: It’s a terrific conversation piece in any woodland garden.

Photos by Jane Rogers


Posted: 10/06/14   RSS | Print


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