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Abloom with fall color: annual wildflower weekend

Common sunflowers brighten up the fall prairie. Wildflower enthusiasts across Kansas are celebrating the wild autumn blooms this weekend at their 32nd annual meeting and wildflower weekend from now through Sunday near Great Bend.
Common sunflowers brighten up the fall prairie. Wildflower enthusiasts across Kansas are celebrating the wild autumn blooms this weekend at their 32nd annual meeting and wildflower weekend from now through Sunday near Great Bend. Wichita Eagle

Mother Nature has saved the best for this time of the year.

Go out to the prairie and see.

“A lot of people think that autumn is the time to look at trees,” said Jeff Hansen, board member and webmaster of the Kansas Native Plant Society. “But just look at the flowers. The fall grasses turn oranges and yellow, other plants are turning.”

In September, the fall blooms of Kansas wildflowers are at their height.

The sunflowers, goldenrods and gayfeathers are starting to come out, turning the prairie into a palette of yellow, gold and purple.

Soon, asters and many other late-summer flowers will join them.

For many, this “second act” of Mothers Nature’s paintbrush is as awe-inspiring as the spring blooms.

“It is one of the times of the year that is a very good time,” said Nancy Goulden of Manhattan, another Native Plant Society board member.

“Plants are a product of evolution. They’ve got to get those seeds out there before the weather gets bad, and they bloom now so the seeds will be in the soil during winter. It is part of the natural strategy.”

Wildflower enthusiasts across Kansas will celebrate the wild fall blooms during their 32nd annual meeting and wildflower weekend through Sunday near Great Bend. The theme of this year’s meeting is “Wetlands, Wildflowers and Wildlife.”

Their itinerary includes tours of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Brocher Prairie, plus presentations and photo contests.

Mother Nature will continue her presentation until the first frost, said Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center.

Travel along any highway or, better yet, back road of Kansas and look for yourself.

“Lots of people think wildflowers are a springtime phenomenon or summertime, except for people who really understand flowers,” Gress said. “There are a large number of species that are fall bloomers, and this is as good as time to get out and check out fall flowers that are not available any time of the year.”

It is the season of everlasting, a white flowering plant that American Indians traditionally gathered and used to treat colds and coughs. It smells like vanilla and maple syrup.

It is the time of Jerusalem artichokes — not an artichoke, but a plant that blooms like the sunflower and has edible tubers.

“It can grow to a height of 12 feet with stems half the size of my pinky,” Hansen said. “And the tubers? You have to get out the shovel and dig down to find them.”

It is the time of gayfeathers.

“Since a lot of people giggled when they heard gay and it didn’t mean happy or jolly, it is also called blazing star,” Goulden said of the purple flower. “They are usually found in the Flint Hills, midway up on the hills.”

And grasses: little bluestem, big bluestem, switchgrass, Indiangrass and purpletop.

“This is the best time for looking for grass because the seed heads are up,” Gress said. “It takes a special skill to identify grasses in their working clothes. Once they get their seed heads up, then it takes the colors and shapes of a prairie as we typically think of it.”

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