August is known by many as the “moon when the berries are ripe.” I’d like to add “and many wildflowers bloom!” Every day, I see something new in the wildflower community on this island. Asters, of course, will get attention now for several weeks, and steeplebush is very colorful and handsome with its towering pink blooms. There is no doubt how this steeple-like flower earned its name. This member of the rose family has flowers that bloom slowly downward from the top in succession. Because of this, the steeple-like flower spikes keep their beauty for a long time.
Countless flies, beetles and bees visit the lovely steeplebush, which yields little or no nectar but does yield an abundance of pollen. If insects fail in their service to this plant, steeplebush can cross fertilize like most of the rose family.
The undersides of the steeplebush, or hard hack, are very woolly, so the plant is protected from perspiring too freely. The woolly hairs act as an absorbent layer to protect their pores from clogging with the vapors that rise from the damp ground in which the plant grows. If these pores clogged with moisture, they would be unable to throw off waste from the plant. All plants are largely dependent upon free perspiration for normal growth, but those whose roots are stuck in wet ground are constantly sending up moisture through stems and leaves. There are lots of things happening in the vegetation around us of which most people are unaware.
Don’t be tempted to eat all the fruit you see now. Many are edible, but a few will make you very sick. The scarlet fruit of nightshade is one to avoid, for they are very poisonous! Deadly as it is to eat, this plant is especially interesting in that you can find both the purple-lavender flowers and scarlet fruit on the plant at the same time. The bright red berries are egg-shaped in drooping clusters, and all parts of the plant contain the alkaloid-like material solanine. Although nightshade is closely related to tomatoes and eggplants, it can be eaten only by wildlife. Those creatures enjoying it are skunks, raccoons, mice, many songbirds and game birds. There actually are 1,000 species of nightshades and about 30 kinds found in this country. Look nightshade up in a reliable reference so you know what to avoid. It is a beautiful and interesting plant to see.
Earlier in the spring Clinton‘s lily or Clintonia was in bloom with its lovely bell-shaped flowers. Those blossoms now have been replaced with indigo-blue round fruit. Actually the fruit is more beautiful than the flower, so it’s well worth trying to find. Look for it in our island’s woods. This plant is sometimes called bluebead lily.
August is often hot and sultry, hardly a leaf moves, and we all find our special ways of trying to keep cool. Mammals feeling the heat are less active and only move long enough to find something to eat. Many feed at night. Birds hide in cooling trees and are less vocal than in July. Turtles enjoy a sunbath on a favorite log, then slip into the water to cool off. Red newts remain hidden under logs and stones or in moist tunnels in the woods, but when the fog rolls in or a bit of rain falls, they come out in search of insects. If you have chickens, you may notice that they stretch out on the dirt in the sun and seem to enjoy the heat of an August day.
Along all the coasts of our country and Canada, there are good birds and mammals to see. I’ve just returned from a few weeks in Newfoundland – my fifth trip in a row to this beautiful country. Whales were very active in the water there, and sometime we saw many whales all around us spouting and leaping out of the water. They are such large mammals it is always an awesome experience. As we watched humpbacks one day all around the boat, an orca, killer whale, came in like mad, showing-off jet skiier and created some excitement. The orca is not often seen where we were.
Locally, there are many opportunities to go out whale watching, and I urge you to do so. Any trip on the sea will be of interest whether you see a whale or not. As all fishermen know, the sea is full of surprises. Take your camera and binoculars and enjoy a trip. Naturalists on board help identify and point out interesting birds and mammals and large fish. Don’t be landlocked this summer!
Nighthawks are on the move even now. Watch for this slim-winged bird that resembles a “cigar with wings” in the sky. Nighthawks are active especially in the late afternoon and evening. In spite of its name, this bird is not a hawk, but is a bug-eating cousin of the whippoorwill. The bird has an enormous mouth and flies about with its mouth open so it can catch large moths and any other large flying insects it comes upon. This bird’s wings are close to two feet in length, and it appears in the air as a slim-winged, dark bird flying erratically. Looking up at it, you often can spot a broad, white patch that, when viewed against the light, looks like a hole or window in the wings. This interesting bird ranges over an enormous area, including from South America to the Arctic Ocean. There are several reports of this bird nesting on Mount Desert Island through the years. These birds do not build a real nest; they merely lay their eggs on a flat roof or bare ground.