by: Karen Beattie, NCF Science and Stewardship Department Director
Nantucket has experienced an uncommonly wet growing season so far this year. The abundance of rain has produced lush and verdant vegetation across the island that is persisting into the recent hot and dry weather conditions more typical of summertime on the island. Take a walk on any of the Foundation’s beautiful conservation lands and you will find that wildflower season is in full swing, and this year in particular appears to be a particularly prolific one. Below is a summary of some of the current species in bloom on the island and places where you can observe them.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful and flamboyant native wildflowers we have here is orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Sadly, this once common species has become very rare due to being picked and dug up for transplanting into gardens (which is very rarely successful). Another common name for orange milkweed is pleurisy root, so named because the Native Americans used it to treat pulmonary ailments. It inhabits dry, sandy soils in open grasslands and can be found at Sanford Farm and Head of the Plains. The almost-florescent orange colored flowers are very attractive to humming birds, bees and butterflies, particularly monarchs. If you are lucky enough to find an orange milkweed plant growing in the wild, please take only pictures and leave it be for others to enjoy- including the many pollinating insects that benefit from it!
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the more abundant relative of orange milkweed, is also in full bloom right now. This species is particularly attractive to monarch butterflies, who use it as a larval host plant. The plant has milky sap that is poisonous and full of toxins, which become incorporated into the caterpillar and adult monarchs after they feed on the leaves, making them poisonous to birds and other predators. Common milkweed is also the larval host plant for red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), who similarly incorporate the milkweed sap toxins into their bodies. The contrasting orange/red and black bodies of both monarchs and red milkweed beetles is an example of aposematism, an evolutionary adaptation where distinctive coloration serves as a warning to potential predators that the species is not palatable or poisonous. Common milkweed can be found in dry, somewhat disturbed soils that receive full sun at Tupancy Links, Sanford Farm and Head of the Plains.
Another summer beauty in full bloom right now is the wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum). Although the common name gives the impression that this is a forest species, it is found in dry, well-drained soils in shade, partial shade and full sun. In fact, it responds favorably to dormant season brushcutting management and can be found along road edges and in mowed firebreaks in the Middle Moors, Squam Farm and Norwood Farm. The color of the blooms, which are attractive to pollinators, varies from red to orange, with an occasional rare yellow individual. Although the range of the wood lily is one of the most widespread of all lily species in North America, it is also relatively rare due to past collecting, so please do not pick!
This time of year is the beginning of the bloom period for numerous species of asters, which will be adding color to our island landscapes from now until late fall. Toothed white-topped aster (Seriocarpus asteroides) is one of the most common asters found in Nantucket’s open grasslands and heathlands at Head of the Plains, the Middle Moors and Sanford Farm. Although this species is found throughout eastern North America, it is considered rare in nearby Maine where it is at the northern limit of its range. Another common aster that is just starting to bloom is sickle-leaved golden aster (Pityopsis falcata), which grows as small, round mounds with delicate yellow blooms – a rare color for asters. This species is restricted to the coastal plain from New Jersey to southeastern Massachusetts. You can find it on Nantucket in dry, upland habitats and protected coastal sites with sandy soils and full sun. In fact, the characteristic sickle-shaped leaves are an adaption to prevent desiccation and damage from salt spray.
There are many months left to enjoy Nantucket’s diverse and beautiful wildflowers. For the rest of the season until the first frost, we can look forward to new species coming into bloom. Numerous purple and white fall blooming asters and yellow goldenrods, with a few rarities such as the New England silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) and New England blazing star (Liatris novae-angliae) are coming soon to a Nantucket Conservation Foundation property near you!
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!