Nature Connection: Enjoying The Bounty Of Late Summer Riches

By: Mary Richmond

Staghorn sumac flower heads can be used to make tasty lemonade type drinks. MARY RICHMOND ILLUSTRATION

Late summer is one of my favorite times of year. I find myself feeling somewhat nostalgic watching the flowers fade and the birds gather on wires by the sides of roads. I also find myself thinking ahead to cooler days and longer nights. What I really love, though, is the beginning of the letting go that happens across the landscape. People drive back home over the bridges, leaving us our beaches to enjoy without the crowds. The echoes of those happy crowds remain in memory, though, which is not a bad thing. A lot of happiness happens on our beaches.

Flowers are dying and seed pods are forming all over. Don’t despair the time of goldenrod and asters is upon us. Both are native plants, feeding lots of insects, birds, and even mammals. They are the last bloomers for many of our pollinators, but the seeds also feed a multitude of small birds and mammals so please leave them be if you find them growing on your property. Remember, it’s not goldenrod causing your allergies, it’s the ragweed, which is in bloom right now. This dry summer has been a boon for plants that cause allergies as the pollen easily becomes wind borne.

If you pick beach plums or rose hips for jellies and jams you already know it’s time to get out the pans and baskets and go picking. If you collect hickory or beechnuts now is also the time. Some collect acorns to make flour. They are only now ripening but it won’t be long. Elderberries and even some late huckleberries are being gobbled up by birds, so if you want some, good luck.

I always allow one or two pokeberries to grow in my yard. I pull and dig the other seedlings up or I’d be stuck in my house beneath a jungle of pokeberry bushes. They can get quite big. As soon as the deep purple berries ripen the birds are all over them. Mammals such as red foxes and raccoons also enjoy them, which you can find proof of in the scat they leave behind.

A lot has been written about the toxicity of pokeweed berries, and it’s true, you and your pets should not eat them. Honestly, though, I’ve had many pets and lots of children through my yard over the years and not once have we had a problem. The berries can be crushed to make a fun ink that kids and adults alike can enjoy. I think the fear of toxicity gets overplayed. Just be careful.

Many people are rediscovering dying fabric and papers with natural dyes. Lots of local flowers, nuts, galls, and even twigs can be soaked, boiled, and processed in various ways for use. Now is the time to collect many of these materials, but as you do so, please be aware that nuts and seeds are important food sources for a lot of wildlife. Be careful about what you harvest and leave plenty behind. 

One of my favorite plants to pick and use as summer fades is the staghorn sumac flowerhead. These are easy to find as this sumac is especially common along roadsides and trails. The flowerheads are a pretty crimson or dark pink. They can be prickly and full of seeds, which of course the birds and bees love. It only takes a few to make a fun lemonade type drink and it’s so easy to do. There are lots of recipes and directions online. It also makes a lovely, subtle dye or ink for drawing or painting.

Late summer is the time when nature’s abundance is at its peak. Food is everywhere. Young birds and animals are on their own now and watching them can be entertaining as well as heartwarming. Seeing a bird that just last week was begging from a parent happily finding its own food is a wonderful thing. 

Sometimes, it can be heartbreaking, too. Young hawks have a heck of a time learning the ropes and if you live near one or two that are not overly successful, you’ll hear them crying constantly. Some days I imagine their parents rolling their eyes and saying, hey, bud, if you spent all that time and energy hunting instead of whining, you probably wouldn’t be hungry.

Every year I watch the young ospreys learn to fish, and I’m always amazed. Learning to grab a squirrel is one thing but a fish swimming in the sea? There are a whole lot of things to consider. There’s depth of water, speed of fish, size of fish, managing one’s own speed, talons, etc. It’s a lot. I often want to applaud when I see one successfully snag a fish.

Late summer is full of calling insects and tree frogs. Caterpillars are turning into butterflies and the last litters of rabbits are being born. Leaves are leathery and tough after a dry summer and many have already died and fallen, skipping the colorful transition altogether. It’s a time when snakes are sunning themselves, baby turtles are hatching and sprinting for safety, the bass and bluefish are beginning to move on, and the baby herring have mostly returned to the sea.

School has begun in many towns and traffic jams are giving way to school bus routes. It’s a busy time of year. Even though some would have us putting out pumpkins and skeletons, summer is still very much with us. Enjoy her last hurrahs while you can. She will fade away quietly, just like the last of the summer flowers.