Wingstem: Rangy Aster of Fall


It is easier to believe we are well into autumn looking out at first light at the leaf-strewn world. The five maples that are our summer conditioners of air now begin the courtesy of letting weaker, lower-in-the-sky light and warmth into our windows.

And so, the leaf-peepers–those many who find it worth $4 gas–will begin to haunt the Parkway and the high places to observe the Grand Turning. Who knows what this summer’s alternating wetness and drought and overall cooler-than-usual conditions will do to fall colors.

All the best guesses are about as reliable as the woolyworm at predicting the vagaries of atmospheres.

That being as it may, should you travel the Blue Ridge Parkway in the coming weeks, you’ll surely see the head-tall yellow flowers of Wingstem. (There will also be for a few more weeks the various goldenrods, orange touch-me-nots and white bonesets among others.)

Wingstem grows in profusion along the New River Trail near Radford University. Knowing that not one of my field tripping students knew it by name (poison ivy was actually recognized by ONE student and that was the limit of their nature lore) I asked them to look carefully at the plant and give it a common name.

See the inset. (Click image to enlarge) You cannot observe this feature driving along at parkway speeds. You’ll have to get out and have plant in hand to see the “decurrent leaf tissue” that runs four ribbons of green down the entire stem.

“What common name would you give this plant?” I’d ask. “Does the name wingstem make sense?”

And hopefully thereafter, hearing a plant called “Touch Me Not” would make them stop and think that there was some feature of the plant that warranted the description.

You can play that game with your kids. WE just discovered this plant. What can we call it? (Based on shape, texture, smell, features like milky sap, color of flowers…)

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Glad to finally have a name for this plant, Wingstem. They grow in profusion around here, and in winter, when they’re dried, I collect them in bundles and then cut them into foot long sections to use as tinder in the wood stove. Best fire-starter I’ve ever seen. Makes my firebuilding job a lot easier all winter.