Ragweed, ironically called Ambrosia – “food of the gods” has done its best to fly into sneezes and water people’s eyes and is now, at last, a shadow of its former self. Most other wild plants have likewise gone to seed. Yet how very beautiful this stage of life is!
Mind you, most ferns, so lovely in the spring do not age gracefully. They crumple and turn ever more brown, more wizened.
Then one day they’re gone.
Wait, I spoke too soon. The burnt umber of bracken ferns has a definite flare.
Luminous goldenrods (Solidago canadensis) aren’t very glamorous in decrepitude. Their once blazing plumes shrivel into nondescript clusters of ashy grey. Though occasionally those cloudy stems resemble trees frosted by moonlight; mostly goldenrod are homely this time of year.
But many plants, though they themselves are dwindling, produce seeds in a spectacular way.
Take dandelion’s (Taraxacum officionale) seed puff, for example. What a gossamer little white sphere this flower becomes, one that will dissolve at the first breath of wind. Goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius), with its complicated geometry, is likewise held together only by stillness.
And note the gorgeous crown of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) in her dotage. Each germ speck within this pale gold crown is rayed with tiny hairs. Queen Anne’s crown is like a hand holding a Milky Way of stars. The seeds are said to be medicinal and are also used as flavouring. But utilitarian purposes aside, it is enough simply to behold such heraldic eleventh hour beauty.
What about milkweed’s (Asclepius) pod, each half, a sultan’s slipper bursting with silk-shrouded seeds that will sail down the wind, lighter even than the Monarch butterflies who preceded them. I love the tear drop shape of the pod with its pointed end and the nest of fluff inside.
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) too produces streamers. Those exuberant spikes of pink and purple become thin arms by September. Then comes a cobwebby miasma to float the seeds out, and finally, after the pips have left, a swirl of brilliant gold, coils around the once colourful stem.
On a more prosaic level there are Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album)
aka “poor man’s spinach.” It was so prolific in our weedy garden this summer it was like a throw-out, a nobody. Yet it’s full of vitamins and minerals when young, and as pleasant-tasting as any other new green. At first I didn’t recognize the gem-studded plant I encountered the other day. But it was lamb’s quarters in a new dress, positively coated in seeds.
Gleaming rose hips surely rival soft-petaled roses for beauty. The hips are bright balls of hairy nuggets. If you are willing to take the trouble to extract the umpteen million hard little seeds from each hip, you can make a vitamin C rich tea or even a jam. Moreover, if you bite carefully into one of those rosy globes before it withers, you will encounter a delicious fruit – though there’s only a small burst of tart-sweet softness before you hit the seeds.
Most of the above mentioned are air travelers. Though some, like rose hips, fall to the ground. Then there are those, like jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) that explode!
Just last week, or the week before, jewelweed trembled with dangling pods that grew fatter with each passing hour. At last, all that was needed was a feather touch, and pow! the case snapped back like a spring and spat its seeds out into this uncertain world.
Witch-hazel (Hamamelis), likewise, fires its offspring out into the world. I’d love to witness this. All I’ve ever seen is the empty shell in the fall, still holding a faint tinging memory of the explosive energy that blew it apart.
Seeds drop or drift, catch on a passing creature, or shoot into the air – millions on millions of them. Each one is a potential universe gathering energy into a knot of unbearable pressure until the sudden bang of creation implodes it into life. Now in October, when life gives way to death, I look at the fragile parents who offer their progeny to the dying living world. Their job is done.
But like an empty house collapsing in the grass, they are beautiful in their demise.