Cooler temperatures and shorter days mark the onset of autumn, and the golden colors of the season begin to surround us. Among the amber and scarlet hues making an appearance in the landscape, one cannot help but notice three of our most common fall-blooming native plants: Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata), Zexmenia (Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida), and Prairie Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis).
A member of the sunflower family, Goldeneye is a bushy, drought-tolerant, multi-branched plant that tends to grow in colonies, providing rich swaths of golden color along our roadsides and in open areas. It has narrow leaves and numerous 1.5 inch daisy-like flowers at the tips of long, slender stalks. Growing to 3 feet tall in full sun or up to 6 feet tall in partial shade, this plant is native not only to Texas but to Arizona and New Mexico as well. It prefers relatively dry, partially shaded areas such as woodland edges and open prairies, and in Mexico is also known by the common name Chimalacate.
The mid to late fall blooms of Goldeneye not only provide seasonal color, but provide for native wildlife as well. Goldeneye is a larval food plant for both the Bordered Patch and Cassius Blue butterflies, and if spent flower stalks are left to stand through most of the winter, they will provide good seed forage for Lesser Goldfinches and other birds. Infusions of this plant are still used today as an antibacterial treatment for baby rash.
Often called Creeping-oxeye or Hairy Wedelia, Zexmenia is a small shrub 8 inches to 2.5 feet tall, that blooms continuously from May to November, although often most profusely once the weather has cooled. The woody stems and rough-hairy green foliage give rise to showy, 1 inch wide butterscotch-orange flowers on long stems that extend vertically above the pointy-lobed leaves. Hardy, long-lived, long-blooming, and non-aggressive, this drought-tolerant plant appreciates full sun and dry, well-drained soils. It is another host plant for the Bordered Patch butterfly, a nectar source for many species of butterflies, and its seeds are a favorite food of bobwhite quail.
Prairie Goldenrod, also called Gray Goldenrod or Field Goldenrod, is a slender-stemmed plant 1.5 to 2 feet tall, that blooms from June through October. A member of the aster family, it has thin, coarsely-toothed leaves and yellow flowers that are borne on the upper side of hairy stalks, arching out and downward to create a vase-shaped flower cluster. Individual plants bloom at various times, extending the flowering season, but they are most noticeable in fall, especially when paired with purple Gayfeather and red Autumn Sage. An excellent addition to a wildflower meadow or a sunny garden, Prairie Goldenrod is naturally found in dry, open woods and upland prairies, and does well in full sun to part shade. A carefree plant, it can become invasive if left alone, but is also easily controlled.
Of special value to bees and butterflies for its pollen and nectar, and to several species of finches for its seeds, Prairie Goldenrod was also used by Native Americans to treat jaundice and kidney disorders, and as a wash for burns and skin ulcers. The Navajo burned the leaves as incense, and used the seeds for food.
As you wander along roadways and pathways this fall, admire these fields of gold that delight not only our senses, but provide a bountiful harvest for our wild neighbors as well!