Monday, October 3, 2011

Fields of flowers

Broad fields of coastal-plain golden-aster bloom in early autumn.

Simply Living
October 3, 2011

Some things are so common, they become unnoticeable.

Blue skies are like that. When I moved to sunny Florida from overcast Cape Cod, I was constantly aware of the continual brightness. Every day I'd awaken to find rays of sunshine streaming through my windows. Although I was initially awed, after about a year of living in the Sunshine State the novelty of one brilliant day after another began to fade. Bit by bit, my mindset adjusted. I stopped being keenly aware of the sky above and began to take daily doses of brightness for granted.

"It's another picture-perfect day!" someone might say. "Oh, yeah," I'd respond matter-of-factly, glancing upward. "So it is."

The same thing can happen with wildflowers.

It took me about a week of driving past large fields of golden-aster before I realized the land I was passing was bursting with blooms.

During early autumn in Central Florida, huge expanses of coastal-plain golden-aster are flowering. The small, daisylike blossoms are about an inch across, with about 20 dandelion-colored petals encircling a slightly darker center. Multiple flowers open atop ungainly 2- to 3-foot-tall woody stalks. While each bloom is a sweet little flower, the entire package — stalk, stem and blossom — is unimpressive and ordinary.

In my rural neighborhood, golden-asters cover acres of undeveloped land. They also appear in small clusters alongside roadways and mailboxes and in just about any other place where land is untended and weeds can grow.

The fact that golden-aster isn't a showy plant might contribute to its anonymity. Unlike larger, brighter or more unusual blooms, this humble flower is easy to miss. What isn't as easy to overlook is the plant's ability to dominate acreage. Once aware of its existence, you will notice these wildflowers everywhere.

There are three reasons that golden-aster has proliferated so successfully. It tolerates a wide range of conditions, it's extremely hardy and it has an effective method of dispersing seeds.

The plant does best in dry, sandy soil — the type found in pinewoods, oak scrub and disturbed areas. It likes sun but proliferates freely in shady habitats as well. Extremely moist locations are a no-no for this no-nonsense perennial. And when it comes to propagation, golden-aster has it down pat, dispersing individual seeds in its puffy, round seed balls through air as well as by contact. This plant rarely succumbs to disease or insect attacks, but it does attract a fair number of butterflies and moths, which find it a suitable source of larvae food.

With so much going for it, you'd think this herbaceous Florida native would be a must on any gardener's wish list. Think again. The plain truth is, despite its attributes, golden-aster isn't as attractive as other plants in the aster family. Demand is low, so few native plant nurseries carry it. Beauty sells. Anything less...not so much.

If, instead of golden-aster, I drove by acres of sunflowers, coneflowers or phlox, I bet it wouldn't have taken me a week to notice them. Then again, like the Florida sky so blue, over time even stunning flowers might have gone unnoticed.

We live in a world filled with splendor. To enjoy it, all we have to do is open our eyes to the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. Golden-aster may be a fairly nondescript wildflower, but when seen from a distance, it fills the land with a golden hue. Blatant beauty may sell, but subtle beauty survives, and if the landscape around my neighborhood is any indication, golden-aster is nothing less than a thriving survivor.

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