The phrase "stop and smell the roses" might be a cliché, but I still like it. It suggests value for what we experience when we slow down and take in our surroundings. It also suggests the wonderful richness we encounter when we observe nature’s finer details.
I had my own awakening to the intricacies and richness of nature when I started to learn wildflower identification in my work as a naturalist. I was particularly struck by the shapes and structures of flowers. By paying more attention to them, I became much more tuned into the diversity in flowers. It carried over into a broader appreciation for the diversity of life.
Late summer and early fall offers a chance to encounter a spectrum of variation in one family of flowers — composites (also called Asteraceae). This is one of the largest families of flowers in the world, with over 23,000 species. Many garden flowers are part of this family, as well as many of the tall, colorful flowers that bloom in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in late summer and fall.
The familiar garden daisy is a good example to introduce the composite family. Here is the surprise of this family of flowers. We might see a daisy as one flower. However, it is really a cluster of many small flowers growing together in a flower head. Disc flowers grow in the center. What we might consider a petal is actually a separate flower, known as a ray flower.
Pull apart a daisy to see the individual flowers. A magnifying glass helps to see its finer structures. Disc flowers are tube shaped. Their reproductive parts are easily visible, extending above the tube. Look for the anthers that produce pollen and the stigma that receives pollen.
Ray flowers are strap-shaped. Additional petals have become reduced in size and sit at the base of the flower. Some ray flowers are infertile, lacking structures for reproduction. However, in the daisy, you should be able to find them at the base of the flower. Flowers are designed to attract and direct insect pollinators. Since ray flowers are often the showiest part of the composite, they do the heavy lifting of attraction even when they aren’t fertile.
Composites vary in the number of disc and ray flowers. You can try to identify specific species, but I think there is value in honing observation skills by looking for differences between species without identifying them. Some composites just have disc flowers, some just have ray flowers, and many have both.
Asters have both flower types. The New England Aster is one of the largest, with flower heads that can be two inches wide with 50 violet-purple ray flowers.
Goldenrods also have both. However, their disc and ray flowers have the same bright golden color and are similar in size, creating a challenge for distinguishing the floret types. Chicory, a blue flower that grows in old fields and along roadsides, has only ray flowers (along with dandelions). Boneset, a white flower that grows in the woodlands, only has disc flowers.
The variation in composites described here is only the tip of the fascinating variation and complexity that can be found in nature. Next time you come to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, take the time to observe details in your surroundings. Consider joining a park ranger who can help you see the natural world. Ranger programs are listed in the quarterly Valley Guide. It is available at Boston Store Visitor Center. Programs are also listed online at www.nps.gov/cuva.
Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.