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Mountain Home Magazine

Harbingers of Change

Sep 01, 2021 10:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow

Have you noticed? The bees are really busy all of a sudden. Crickets are singing in the evenings. Hummingbirds are zooming to and from the feeders almost constantly. Apples are ripening (this seems to be a good apple year), corn is tall, hay’s in the barn. What signals the beginning of the end of summer to you? Do you need to look at a calendar? The natural world, as confused as it may be at this juncture in human history, gives us a jillion signs that the seasons are changing. For me, it’s when the bee balm, the mullein, and the goldenrod strut their stuff.

Of the three, I think it’s the bee balm that first pronounces the inevitable, but isn’t the herald lovely? Around here, I usually see the red version of Oswego tea/bergamot/bee balm first in the shady areas along creek beds starting about mid July. What a spectacular color contrast between those crimson spikes and the emerald ferns. The pale purple bee balm shows up in force a week or two after. On some sunny fields and side hills, that profusion of purple is like a bee balm explosion. And there is a beautiful magenta version I’ve been seeing in gardens, my own included. For some reason the deer didn’t bite off those blossoms like they did the red ones last year (the literature says bee balm is deer resistant—ha ha, not in my garden).

Bee balm is a member of the mint family. It’s in the genus Monarda, and is named for Nicolás Monardes, a Spanish botanist who wrote a book in 1574 (!) describing plants in the New World. Not only do pollinators love it, it has antifungal and antibacterial properties, making it useful to humans. And here’s a cool factoid: I had always thought that the distinctive flavor of Earl Grey tea came from bergamot oil made from the bergamot/bee balm plant. No. It comes from bergamot oranges.

Mullein keeps a schedule similar to bee balm’s—their growth is not quite concurrent but they do often share some common flowering time. Mullein kind of resembles cactus—it’s tall and cylindrical, and you’ll occasionally see the plants with arms or an interesting kink at the top. Their hairy, lighter-than-olive-green foliage sometimes travels up the stem, and sometimes forms a sort of layered skirt around the bottom of the plant. It often likes the same gravelly side hills the purple bee balm does. The plants grow singularly and in clumps. Mullein’s yellow flowers line the stalk, opening individually before dawn and closing in the afternoon. It is native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia, but was introduced to the Americas and is now considered a weed in most of the places where it grows. Though it can thrive in a wide range of habitats, it is not considered a threat to agriculture. Mullein has a long history of use in traditional and herbal medicines, having anti-inflamatory and anti-spasmodic properties. Its roots, flowers, and leaves are used in a variety of ways to treat a variety of ailments, including unhappy backs and bladders, mucus-filled lungs, and achy ears. In this country’s western states, mullein once had the nickname of cowboy toilet paper. One can only imagine…or perhaps would rather not.

Goldenrod smells like fall, I think. It’s another plant the pollinators love. There is nothing glitzy about its foliage, but my horses will sometimes eat it—they don’t seem to much care for the flowers—and we can eat the young leaves, too, although I confess I never have. Goldenrod, whether you consider it a weed or a wildflower, is a genus of over 100 species in the Asteraceae, or aster, family. It is native to North America; some species have been introduced to Europe where they are cultivated and enjoyed as garden plants. It has been erroneously blamed as the culprit for late summer/early fall hay fever, but the real bad guy is ragweed. It flowers at the same time, and has the kind of light, airy pollen the wind can pick up and deliver right to your nose. Goldenrod pollen is heftier and more gooey. It’s a plant that likes good drainage but is not fussy otherwise. It seems to grow well most everywhere, to the dismay of those who don’t appreciate its cheerful golden flowers.

Did you know Thomas Edison experimented with goldenrod to produce rubber? Me neither. Goldenrod leaves have naturally occurring rubber; Mr. Edison grew some versions of the plant containing increased amounts. A Model T that Henry Ford gave him even had tires made of goldenrod. Mr. Ford subsequently collaborated with George Washington Carver and the Tuskegee Institute on plant studies, ultimately developing a synthetic rubber using goldenrod. It’s something to think about before declaring war on the goldenrod in your garden.

As I’m writing this in August, the wild blueberries are finished and the first blackberries are ripe. The summer solstice is nearly two months gone, so we’ve already had close to eight weeks of days getting shorter. July is not in charge anymore.

September will soon concede to October, which in turn gives way to November…you get the picture. The mullein stalks are dry and brown, the bee balm’s flowers are just a memory, and the goldenrod has gone to seed. See you all next year, with or without a calendar.