- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Autumn reminds us that winter is coming, with its short daylight each day and cooling temperatures.
And in spite of fall’s many beauties — including lovely flowers, colored leaves and berries, exciting bird migrations, and crop harvests — autumn sometimes conjures sad feelings in me because it represents summer’s end and winter’s coming.
The first subtle signs of fall occur in southeastern Pennsylvania during the middle of August, with shorter amounts of sunlight per day, migrating swallows, and some leaves on black gum and red maple trees turning red.
But autumn climaxes in the unique and attractive month called October. There is no other month like it. October is the month between summer’s warmth, green plants, and beautiful flowers and winter’s cold, which brings those grays and browns when deciduous trees are bare.
October is the time of dying vegetation and wildlife preparations for winter. But there is beauty in the dying and excitement in the preparations.
Several kinds of pretty flowers still bloom along sunny country roadsides, stream sides, and cornfields and in abandoned fields in October. Some of those attractive blooms are yellow ones on goldenrods, evening primroses, and butter and eggs; pink blossoms on smartweeds, bouncing bets, red clovers, and knapweeds; and white flowers on white asters.
The small, white blossoms of white asters dominate some meadows and fields in October to the point that those open habitats look like snow fell only on them. These aster blooms are the last great source of nectar for bees and a variety of other insects, particularly pearl crescent butterflies that ate the tissues of asters when they were larvae.
Because pumpkin and soybean fields are not plowed until later, there is an abundance of decorative colored leaves in those sunny, human-made habitats in October. Tall red root, lamb’s quarters, and pokeweeds sport red leaves in those fields. And foxtail grasses turn yellow on those same lands.
Seeds form on weeds and grasses that are edible to mice and a variety of seed-eating birds, including sparrows and horned larks. Red foxes, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and screech owls catch and eat some of those mice and small birds through fall and winter.
And along rural roadsides in October, staghorn sumac tree leaves are red while the foliage on sassafras trees are red, orange, and yellow. Meanwhile, Virginia creeper leaves are red, and poison ivy foliage is red, orange, and yellow on roadside fences and poles, adding more beauty to farmland.
Staghorn sumac also produces red berries, and poke and sassafras grow purple ones that are pretty to us and edible to mice, American robins, cedar waxwings, and starlings.
Grasshoppers, field crickets, woolly bear caterpillars, yellow sulphur butterflies, and other kinds of invertebrates are noticed among the roadside grasses in October. They help make farmland more interesting and are food for kestrels and skunks.
When riding or walking along local farmland roads in October, watch for these lovely plants and animals. They will lift spirits and brighten days.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County parks naturalist.