As you walk the Arboretum grounds in October, you will find an abundance of flora and fauna that are inspiring subjects for sketching. This month of transition, from the greens of summer to the reds and golds of fall, is a joy to behold. Early autumn brings a last blast of flowering natives, while the trees and grasses are finishing their cycles by fruiting and then fading.
My focus this month is on the asters and swamp sunflowers now in glorious bloom, with pollinators and butterflies busily sipping their nectar and collecting their pollen.
In the Arboretum's entrance garden are stunning mounds of the blue-violet aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) 'October Skies.' Its starry one-inch-wide daisy-like blossoms with yellow centers are a favorite of pollinators, including pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), skipper (Hesperiidae family), and common buckeye (Junonia coenia Hübner) butterflies. Among the asters are spikes of the native grass broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) accenting this garden in a lovely random pattern.
As you drive into the parking lot, you won't be able to miss the tall masses of swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), which simply glow! Also known as narrow leaf sunflower, its vibrant chrome-yellow blossoms with deep brown centers are so bright, they seem to be illuminated from within. This member of the aster family is the host plant for the silvery checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis) and blooms from late September until first frost. Each stem bears a multitude of flowers and narrow dark green leathery leaves. One plant can reach 6–8 feet tall and will spread 4–6 feet.
In the "Parking Lot Alive!" plantings are two other asters of note. The New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) is taller and a deeper purple than 'October Skies' and has a similarly sized flower with a yellow center. It is the host plant for some of the butterflies previously mentioned and for several moths. Heath asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides) intermingle with the goldenrod and other asters, both in the planted beds and along the meadow edges. Masses of dainty white rayed flowers with yellow centers cover the plant and are a delightful accent amid all the purples and yellows.
This just scratches the surface of what is visually exciting right now at the Arboretum. See if you can also find these plants to sketch. Behind the Visitor's Center, facing the South Meadow, peek around the side of the building to your left and enjoy the planting of the shrub Viburnum nudum 'Brandywine,' which displays clusters of pinkish berries now turning a dark blue among deep red leaves. Walk toward the woods along the South Meadow and look to your right at the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) grove for ripening fruit on the female trees. At the edge of the grove and to the right of the entry to the woods, find devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa). Its crowning white clusters of late-summer flowers have matured into small black berries on red stems. Beware the wickedly sharp spines that cover the woody parts and some undersides of leaves on this unusual deciduous shrub!
At the edge of the woods, past the native bee house and to the right, is a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) tree, bearing burgundy leaves and bright red berries as well as buds for next year's blossoms. Along the trails, keep an eye out for mature false Solomon's seal (Smilacina racemosa) fruit. Look for a clump of brilliant red berries, no more than a foot off the ground, on the tip of an arching stem with alternate oval leaves. Now is also the time to see the amazing fruit of the strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus), a striking combination of fuchsia, purple, and bright orange.
As you continue your walk, keep looking and observing. What else can you find to sketch?
Words and sketch of swamp sunflower by Diane DuBois Mullaly
Fine artist/Maryland Master Naturalist