Transitioning into Autumn

Late Summer / Early Fall

Psychologically, New Year’s Day is the day after Labour Day. The leisurely pace of summer ends, school’s back in session, people return from trips, blogs and podcasts are updated more frequently, summer reruns are replaced by new shows — life is energized. There’s a crackle in the air. Perhaps it’s conditioning from years of being in (and actually liking) school. My reading inclinations change from the lighter summer fare of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery fiction, to science, natural history, philosophy, art history — in short, anything intellectual. It’s automatic. I don’t say to myself, “Enough of this fluff! Let’s get on with the real stuff!” I don’t even think about it, until I realize I’m reaching for different kinds of books, and I start thinking about acquiring more Teaching Company courses.

Although the transition to autumn in nature is gradual, it seems sudden. As if the day after Labour Day the goldenrods and asters explode into full bloom and tree leaves begin turning red, yellow, or brown, according to their kind. As if nature itself were prompting us to get on with the new season.

In Ontario the nights begin to cool, and even though the days can remain quite warm, you feel the difference in the early morning. Dawn happens a little later, which, for people like me, makes it a little easier to achieve. I don’t have to get up quite as early to photograph the pre-dawn and daybreak colours.

Autumn is my favourite season. It’s the combination of quickening of the spirit with the beautiful vivid colours before the landscape becomes tired and monochromatic. It’ll be awhile yet before autumn reaches its peak beauty, but I’m highly partial to its transition time when the colours start appearing and the grass is still summery green

And every year I make a feeble vow to learn the names of the goldenrods and the asters that dominate the early autumn colour palette. I’m decent at spotting and identifying birds (except for fall warblers), but plant ID always eludes me. I make the vow, then look at what’s involved in learning the species, and I flinch.

Take the asters. They come in white and purple and I think I can usually ID New England aster correctly, though I wouldn’t stake my rep on it.  It’s discouraging to find out how many species are out there. The excellent online guide to Learning the Asters of Ontario lists the following as just the most common ones:

#1. Here is a list of the common Asters that occur in Ontario. This is a beginner’s list. Get to know all of the species on this list before moving on to list#2.

* Arrow-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum urophyllum)
* Calico Aster (Aster lateriflorus)
* Flat-topped White Aster (Aster umbellatus var. umbellatus)
* Frost Aster (Aster pilosus)
* Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
* Heath Aster (Aster ericoides)
* Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophyllus)
* New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
* Panicled Aster (Aster simplex)
* Purple-stemmed Aster (Aster puniceus var. puniceus)
* Smooth Aster (Aster laevis var. laevis)

There are two more lists after this one, the less common species and the rare ones.

Equally daunting is Learning the Goldenrods of Ontario:

#1. Here is a list of the common Goldenrods that occur in Ontario. This is a beginner’s list. Get to know all of the species on this list before moving on to list #2.

* Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
* Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
* Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)
* Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis var. nemoralis)
* Hairy Goldenrod (Solidago hispida var. hispida)
* Rough-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago patula)
* Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa spp. rugosa)
* Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)

#2. The infamous three. These three species are very similar and very difficult to tell apart. In fact, two of them are often lumped together as one species.

* Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
* Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis var. scabra)
* Late Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)

#3. These are less common Goldenrods in Ontario. You should only tackle these as the last step of learning Goldenrods.

* Bog Goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa)
* – not found often due to its habitat (bogs) Large-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla) – only found east of Lake Superior
* Northern Goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata)
* – only found in the far north on Hudson Bay Ohio Goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense)
* – found mainly on the Bruce Peninsula & Manitoulin Island Silverrod (Solidago bicolor)
* – found in the E Lake Superior region and scattered other sites Stout Goldenrod (Solidago squarrosa)
* Upland White Aster (Solidago ptarmicoides)
(now classed as a Goldenrod, in spite of its common name and appearance)

You get the drift. If you want to be a serious naturalist, you have to do some serious study and memorization. I’m not against this, in principle, but the older I get, the more porous my memory becomes. I can just remember the names of the baristas at Starbucks, but I have to work at it and re-ask them their names periodically, or I forget.

So, as much as natural history appeals to me, intellectually, I’ll stick to the photographer’s classification of asters and goldenrods: white, purple, and yellow. I live by the GEPO principle: “Good Enough, Push On.” (Pronounced GEP-po)


1. As all the naturalist sites point out: goldenrods don’t cause your allergies. Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is carried by insect from plant to plant. Goldenrod just happens to appear at the same time as the potent ragweed plant, which is more inconspicuous. Ragweed pollen is tiny and light, and is dispersed by being carried airborne. Ragweed pollen is a potent allergen and accounts for much of the province’s autumn hayfever suffering. Goldenrod is an innocent, and very pretty, bystander.

2. Aster/Goldenrod honey is the last honey of the season produced by bees, and honey aficionados consider it one of the tastiest. You can purchase some of this golden-bodied, amber and delicious full-bodied fare from Bee Sweet.

4 thoughts on “Transitioning into Autumn

  1. Great post Gene! I completely agree about the “quickening of spirit” occuring in autumn. I love the smell of wood smoke in the evening and the foggy hazy sunrises this time of year. It’s my favorite time of year as well.

  2. Gene: How about a barista photo mini-project? It might help with the name recognition, and 5x prints as a thank you might be really appreciated. I know Starbucks has an official no photography policy, but I bet that could be overcome, even if it means “taking it outside”. 😉

    As to the plants, I think it’s easier than you might imagine. Create folders for families and/or genera, and file the photos accordingly. This way, when you’re filing them and when you’re searching you’ll be forced to use the Latin names. Practice breeds familiarity!

    Cheers, and happy Thanksgiving to you, Marion and Trev. Miss you and hope to see you soon!

  3. Earl, sorry for the lateness. This one wasn’t flagged to me in email and I just now approved it.
    I’d be uncomfortable doing a barista photo project. I think it would make some of them uncomfortable too, and I don’t want to do that.
    Latin names? Uh, thanks, but no thanks. Life’s too short 🙂

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