Chloris is having her last hurrah and it is quite a party.
No, Chloris is not a bride-to-be during the busy fall Vineyard wedding season having a bachelorette party in Oak Bluffs. She is the Greek goddess of flowers and while she has given us a showy summer and fall, her reign of blossoms is coming to an abrupt end.
Groundsel bush, one of the last native flowers of the season is showing off its good looks and saying adieu to Chloris and her Roman sister Flora. Like the blushing bride, this flower is beautiful in white. And similar to the bride that can’t decide whether to keep her name, hyphenate or combine names, or take her betrothed’s name, groundsel has its own confusing name issues.
This was a tough flower to research, since it goes by many pseudonyms. Here I will call it groundsel — but it is not the common groundsel, Senecio vulgaris. Other names for the groundsel of which I speak are groundsel tree, groundsel bush, sea myrtle, silvering, consumption weed, cotton bush, salt bush, high tide bush, and even oil willow. Any of these aliases can be used to describe this plant.
Each name has its own love story. In Texas, it is called oil willow because it can be found in the sand flats that are often good places to drill to find oil. Salt bush and high tide bush speak to its location in the salt marsh or on sandy dunes, where it successfully fights the tides and salt water. For the sickly, it is a remedy for consumption and other respiratory distress.
Cut through the morass and go with Baccharis halinifolia, the scientific name that honors another god, Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry (which goes well with this wedding theme.)
If you are still not sure what plant I am describing, look to the name silvering or cotton bush for a clue. It is the plant that has white bristly seed heads and can be seen along Beach Road and at a salt marsh near you. The bristles are called pappus and help the plant by providing a wind-loving medium to spread its seeds. In fact, with a 17-kilometer wind, the seeds can drift 140 meters (sort of like tossing the bouquet for the next generation). Also fitting, since the aforementioned Chloris was the wife of Zephyrus, god of the West Wind.
What this plant won’t provide to the end-of-season celebration is food. Although some insects can drink the nectar of its flowers, it is not a good animal food plant for anyone except the deer that can nibble on groundsel’s twigs.
Groundsel seeds are poisonous and its leaves contain cardioglycoside, a compound that is toxic to livestock and can cause staggering, convulsions, trembling, and gastrointestinal distress. If a sheep were to make the mistake of consuming as little as one per cent of its body weight in the leaves of this plant, it will die. This is a fate worse than that of the members of the bachelorette party who may have gone too far with their celebrations.
On the more positive side, groundsel can be a good habitat plant. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds and green herons can nest in its dense foliage. During flooding, groundsel can provide emergency cover for muskrats that need to find higher ground.
Whatever your cause for celebration this fall, it’s a pleasure to party along with this engaged (and engaging) plant in this last floral hurrah for the season. I will look forward to its blooming anniversary next year, too, with perhaps more relish than the bride with the year-old wedding cake.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of
the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary