‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse
For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Even though I’ve noticed many beautiful species in the landscape, I’ve never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind.
So, recently I decided to get to know some of the plants in my area. I began by exploring near my home on the Chesapeake Bay while photographing every flower I saw. Then, I set about trying to identify each species using plant databases. It was much harder than I thought it would be.
It turns out that nature’s garden is far more complex than my own, with a seemingly infinite number of variations. And each species has a particular purpose, whether it’s to furnish pollinators with nectar, baby butterflies with food or grazing animals with forage.
Bee on common milkweed
Happily, learning the names and habits of my local wildflowers has proved enormously rewarding. No longer anonymous, the roadside plants now carry meaning. And their colorful stories have opened up a whole new world to me.
You could say that where I once saw weeds, I now see a garden.
TEN GREAT CHESAPEAKE BAY WILDFLOWERS
Here are ten wildflowers making waves on the Chesapeake Bay in July. Most of them can also be found up and down the east coast and in many other parts of the country. See if you don’t run into some of them in your own area!
THIMBLEWEED (Anemone virginiana)
A member of the buttercup family, thimbleweed has large, showy white sepals that resemble petals and a seed head that looks like a thimble. In my photo here, the seed head is still hidden by the yellow flowers.
Thimbleweed flowers are especially loved by hoverflies.
At the beginning of July, these striking wildflowers with paddle-shaped leaves pop up all around the Chesapeake Bay. Their fragrant domed clusters of mauve flowers are a highlight of summer.
Common milkweed provides food and habitat for a wide range of insects, most importantly, the monarch butterfly.
MONARDA (Bee Balm)
There’s a beautiful stand of scarlet monarda growing next door at our neighbor’s. The deep red, tufted flowers with spiky hair hold their own on tall, sturdy stems in the toughest of ocean breezes. When you lean in close, you can’t mistake the plant’s distinct minty smell, a favorite among bees.
Monarda’s tube-shaped nectaries attract pollinators with long proboscis (nectar-gathering appendages) like butterflies and bumble bees.
A bumble bee in monarda
QUEEN ANNE’S LACE
On the flip side of the spectrum, Queen Anne’s lace stores its nectar right at the base of its flowers. This makes it a magnet for pollinators with short proboscis who can reach it simply by walking across the flower.
Queen Anne’s Lace
Because of this structure, Queen Anne’s lace attracts a whole host of insects including ants, flies, beetles and honeybees.
Swallowtail butterfly on Queen Anne’s lace
COMMON WHITE YARROW
Common yarrow is a familiar sight along Chesapeake Bay roadsides from April to October. Its flat-topped clusters of small white flowers are carried on stems that measure just around 3 feet. Feathery, fern-like leaves emit a grassy, almost astringent, fragrance.
Common white yarrow
The nectar of the flowers has a distinctive smell that attracts many insects, including bees, flies and wasps.
Fly on yarrow
ST. JOHN’S WORT
A low shrub with dense clusters of yellow flowers, St. John’s wort has been used for centuries to treat wounds and mild cases of depression. The plant blooms around the Chesapeake Bay from July through September.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a favorite of the greater bee fly, Bombylius major, a bee mimic.
Greater bee fly, Bombylius major
A woody vine, trumpet vine is a tenacious climber. Climbing by miniature claws to as high as 50 feet, it laces the branches of trees and shrubs while covering itself in showy, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers. The semi-evergreen leaves change from dark green in summer to reddish-purple in winter.
Trumpet vine is sometimes referred to a ‘hummingbird vine’ because it is so attractive to hummers.
A member of the aster family, daisy fleabane has hairy stems and leaves. Its flower is composed of short, petal-like white rays and a large, bright yellow central eye. The name fleabane comes from an old superstition that held that dried clusters of the plant could get rid of fleas.
Daisy fleabane can set seed without cross pollinators. However, its seeds are supposedly a favorite snack of ground finches and sparrows.
As its name implies, this short-lived perennial grows primarily in fields and wide open spaces. A ring of green, leaf-like structures called bracts cups its large purple flowers.
American goldfinches also use the thistle down to line their nests.
Thistle down of field thistle
JAPANESE HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera japonica)
Introduced to North America in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant, Japanese honeysuckle has since become invasive around the Chesapeake Bay. Spreading rapidly by long underground runners, it takes root wherever it touches moist ground. It also like to girdle young trees and shrubs, which cuts off their flow of water.
On a good note, Japanese honeysuckle’s sweet-smelling, delicate white flowers come in pairs and turn a soft yellow with age. Their nectar is a favorite among hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.
Interested in learning more about your area wildflowers? One of the very best databases for wildflowers is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas. You’ll find many full color photos of each species as well as detailed information. Check it out. It will make your next afternoon walk infinitely more interesting!