Mysteries of Old Fields in Grey and Bruce

By Nikki May

Did you know that there are at least a dozen different goldenrod species in this area? Many of them look the same from a few feet away, and some look very similar within a few inches. So it is not surprising that most people think that there is just one ‘Goldenrod’. Members of Saugeen Nature learned to tell a few of them apart on a cool morning in early September at the Kinghurst Nature Reserve. We also discussed the aster family, which presents similar difficulties. Read on to learn some simple characteristics that you can use to pick out different species in the fields and ditches of Grey and Bruce Counties.

The classic goldenrod ‘look’ is a tall plant with one or several pointy bright yellow heads. If you look closely, these tops or heads are made up of hundreds of tiny flowers that attract butterflies and bees by the thousands. The most common goldenrod species are actually three closely related family members that can be differentiated from their relatives by the fact that they have long pointed leaves with three prominent veins running the length of the leaf. The character is called ‘triple nerved’. Canada Goldenrod is one of these three and is differentiated by the fact that its stem is hairy to about midway down, and then smooth to the bottom. A close relative is Tall Goldenrod. It has the triple-nerved leaf, but its stem is entirely smooth below the flowering head. Finally there is Late Goldenrod, whose stem is hairy all the way down. Late Goldenrod is also distinguished by the fact that it frequently has galls; a rounded swelling caused by an insect which lays its eggs in the stem.

Three other goldenrods which are more easily identified from a distance are Grass-leaved Goldenrod, whose flowering heads are rounded, not pointed or pyramidal, and whose leaves are very thin, like a coarse grass; Grey Goldenrod, which is usually shorter than the others, only has one stem and that looks grey because it and the leaves are densely covered in short hairs; and Rough -stemmed goldenrod, whose leaves are broader than the Canada Goldenrod series, and whose stems and leaves are very rough and scratchy to the touch.

The asters of Grey and Bruce present similar problems. In this family, the flowers all look like small daisies with multitudes of fine petals. The most iconic is the New England Aster, which forms clumps of deep purple flowers along the roadsides and in old fields later in the season. A closeup look reveals that the leaves of this plant clasp the stem, a distinctive character that enables you to confirm the identification. A similar species, whose flowers are usually a paler mauve colour, is Calico Aster. Look for a clump of pale purple flowers with different coloured centres from rose to yellow. If the aster has a pointed clump of white flowers and a purple stem, look at the leaves near the base. If they are shaped like an arrow-head, then you are looking at Arrow- leaved Aster. Other common asters with white flowers are Heath Aster, a short clumpy plant that has hundreds of tiny leaves along its stems, including the branches that bear each flower; and Frost Aster, a taller plant which has many small leaves, but also a long thin leaf at the base of each flowering branch.

Members of Saugeen Nature left Kinghurst a little wiser that morning, and well-entertained by the many insects and birds that were sighted during our outing. If you are interested in joining us for outings or indoor meetings such as the upcoming screening of The Messenger in Hanover, go to our website at for more information.

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