In late August the elderberry bushes are nearly finished fruiting, and as the dark purple berries fade a new palette emerges across the fields: purple ironweed and goldenrod, now fully in bloom. Ironweed intrigues me perhaps because, unlike goldenrod, it is a flower I didn’t grow up with, but one I first met as an adult in southern Ohio. It’s also a plant that starts as a humble florette of spear-shaped leaves at your feet in May. Then you turn around in August to find the flower head nodding down at you from 3 feet above, leaving you momentarily to wonder: has the osteoporosis begun? Am I shrinking?
According to the experts, Ohio hosts 5 species of ironweed, but only New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) are widespread. Both can be large plants, and it took a hand lens and a close up look at the bracts from which the petals emerge to determine that Tall Ironweed is probably the dominating species here. I say "probably" because it turns out that different species of ironweed have been known to hybridize and produce viable offspring that carry traits of more than one species. Feel like the complexity could drive you crazy? As a relative once told me: "Families are complicated." Turns out to be true in the floral world also.
Predictably, the butterflies are all about the ironweed, especially the swallowtails. Only Joe Pye Weed seems to draw them more. I’m planning on cutting and hanging some ironweed to see if the bright purple color remains when dried.
In the meanwhile, enjoy the gallery below.
Sources: accessed August 2022
Hawke, Richard. “A Comparitive Evaluation of Ironweeds”
“Perennial of the Week: Ironweed.” Buckeye Yard and Garden Online
Prairie Ironweed. Buckeye Botanist.