Fresh Pond Almanac

October at the Meadow

The stunning wave of color that washes through the deciduous trees of New England every fall will arrive and peak in Lusitania Meadow in October. At the Meadow, most of the trees around the clearing will participate in this yearly event, with the exception of the pines on the south side close to the reservoir, which will remain green throughout these months, and throughout the winter. The transition in season also brings a transition for us at EwA every year, as the high field season starts to end and paperwork season begins. We’ll start work on our annual conservation report in October, a project that culminates in the report’s release to the public in January.

EwA citizen scientists and interns survey the Lusitania meadow 📍 for arthropods every single week during the warm seasons. This gives us the opportunity to get to know the meadow intimately. Each week highlights different relationships between the plants and their visitors—fascinating stories unfold. This almanac is a wonderful means to share with our communities what we observe and record at Lusitania over the course of the year.

📅 Once a month, we open EwA documentation sessions to the public. Check us out on Eventbrite and come experience with us the magic of this wonderful meadow—an oasis in the middle of a very busy city.

Some ecological activities are starting to wind down as the leaves fall in October, and others are ramping up. Animals that hibernate are eating everything they can to put on winter weight; insects are racing to lay eggs, pupate, or prepare to overwinter; and many plants are going to seed. This is the time of year we are losing minutes of sun fastest—between September 1st and October 31st, Boston’s days lose over two and a half hours of daylight. The average daily high temperature in Boston in October is 16.3ºC (61.4ºF), with an average daily low of 8.1ºC (46.5ºF). The mean monthly maximum temperature is 26.2ºC (79.1ºF), and the mean monthly minimum is 1.6ºC (34.9ºF). In 2019, Boston saw a monthly maximum of 26.7ºC (80.0ºF) and a minimum of 6.1ºC (43.0ºF). Although not a regular occurrence, parts of the Boston area sometimes see their first overnight frost in October. While days below about 13ºC (55ºF) will slow most insect activity to a crawl, there is still plenty to see on October’s warmer days.

New England Aster

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is an important late-blooming member of the Lusitania Meadow flora. New England aster belongs to the genus symphyotrichum, having been reclassified out of its former genus Aster.

New England aster prefers open, moist habitats like our meadow. You can find lots of New England aster, and asters of other varieties, along the meadow margin on either side of the loop📍.

New England asters can be distinguished from other asters by their hairy leaves, their plentiful, long, thin ray florets, and beautiful purple color. Their flowers close at night and in bad weather. New England asters are also more resistant to mildew than other species.

Together with late goldenrods (the focus of our September almanac), asters are some of the most ecologically significant fall flowers of the Meadow’s ecosystem. The two plants often grow together, and purple asters next to yellow goldenrods make for a striking display of complementary colors. It is said that this cohabitation helps both plants to attract more pollinator visitors. This cohabitation has been known for a long while by the traditional cultures of America. A Cherokee myth ends with two sisters being turned into flowers to avoid being hunted down by a warring tribe, with one sister becoming an aster and one becoming goldenrod.

🌿 Traditional Uses

Native American cultures have a long tradition of usage of the New England aster for religious, medicinal, and other purposes and it is a highly valued plant for that reason. Many Native American tribes burned the flowers and leaves of asters for multiple purposes, ranging from being included in Inipi Ceremonies (a sacred purification rite), to use in treating mental illness, headaches, nosebleeds, and congestion. Aster was also used for smudging and added to some traditional smoking mixtures. Dried or steamed aster blossoms were used for similar purposes as well. Aster tea was used as a treatment for things like earache, gas pains, stomach aches, and fevers. Aster roots were used regularly as well – the entire plant has a privileged place in the culture of many tribes. (Source)

New England Aster Visitors

While individual aster florets do not produce a particularly large volume of nectar, the sheer density of flowers in an aster patch attracts many pollinators. Here, insects can find plenty of pollen and nectar to forage from numerous flower heads without having to devote extra energy to finding a new flower or flower patch. The large size of New England Aster flower heads relative to other asters makes this a favored plant for some larger pollinators, who have an easier time negotiating the terrain.

Numerous bees visit New England aster, including leafcutter bees (genus Megachile), bumblebees (genus Bombus), small carpenter bees (genus Ceratina), and sweat bees (genus Agapostemon). The larger bees, such as bumblebees, tend to feed while perched instead of on the wing, and the large flowers of this aster offer an efficient food source for this technique. Small ichneumonids (a parasitoid wasp), bee flies (genus Bombylius), and hoverflies (genus Syrphus) also feed on aster nectar, with hoverflies feeding regularly on the pollen as well. Bee flies are parasitoids of bee larvae and follow bees back to their nests to lay their eggs. 

Moth and butterfly visitors to the flowers of the many species of American aster (genus Symphyotrichum) present at Lusitania include painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), monarchs (Danaus plexippus) migrating southward, pearl crescents (Phyciodes tharos), sulphurs (genus Colias), and many skippers (family Hesperiidae). Arcigera flower moth (Schinia arcigera) caterpillars feed on the flowers and seeds of plants like asters, pupating in late fall, and emerging in late summer of the following year to mate.

All the pollinator activity of New England Aster flowers tends to attract ambush predators of those pollinators. This group of flower prowlers is very similar to the set of predators we saw preying on Goldenrod pollinators in EwA September’s almanac of the meadow. Ambush bugs (genus Phymatinae) paralyze and digest their prey using secretions from their piercing mouthpart called a rostrum. Crab spiders (genus Thomisidae) lie in wait in the nooks and crannies of flowers, often preying on pollinators a few times their size.

🔎 Nature Activity » Finding Flying Milkweed Seeds

Fall is a great time of year to see the dehiscence, or splitting open, of dried-out seed pods. One of our most visible and remarkable such seed pods around here is that of the milkweed (Asclepias spp.).

The seeds in a milkweed seed pod each bear a fluffy, silky bunch of hair (or “floss”). In the height of summer, a typical milkweed plant has many flowers, but only 2% of flowers will turn into a seed pod. When the pod dehisces, exposing the dried-out seeds within, the seeds are free to be borne away on the wind using those light tufts of floss.

Some late-nesting birds use milkweed floss as nesting material. Goldfinches typically nest in late summer or even early fall and are known to frequently raid milkweed seed pods for floss. Chickadees and titmice are also known to forage milkweed floss, using leftover floss for nesting material in the spring. Keep an eye out this fall and see if you can spot some milkweed floss still in the pod, flying in the wind, or in the beak of a bird!

The Leaf Litter Layer

Turning away from the meadow towards the edge of the clearing, we can see many leaves falling to the forest floor in October. When our deciduous trees drop their leaves onto lawns, roads, and sidewalks, those leaves are often treated as waste and quickly moved or disposed of. But the accumulation of dead leaf biomass on forest floors every year is an important part of maintaining a very ecologically important habitat: the detritus layer, made up largely of leaf litter. Not only does leaf litter provide a habitat for a unique set of organisms, but it is also a crucial site of nutrient and energy exchange for forest ecosystems.

The most obvious residents of leaf litter are the organisms that feed on the litter itself: detritivores. The set of organisms that consume leaf litter is extremely broad, including fungi, nematodes, bacteria, rotifers, springtails, and tardigrades. More familiar detritivores include earthworms, woodlice, millipedes, snails, and insect larvae like cicada nymphs. These detritivores are important in cycling energy and nutrients from this dead plant matter back into the ecosystem. Their consumption of detritus returns important nutrients like fixed nitrogen to the soil. If this leaf litter layer is removed, those nutrients are removed from the ecosystem with it.

While we haven’t recorded the presence of any salamanders at Fresh Pond yet, the leaf litter layer does provide important habitat for animals like salamanders (Urodela). While not detritivores themselves, salamanders are specially adapted to the moist layer between leaves and soil, where they live for most of the year. Eastern Red-Backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), which are present in the area, consume a diet that consists largely of detritivores like earthworms, slugs, and insects. Leaf litter can be crucial forage for overwintering birds in between periods of snow cover and provides forage for birds like robins, turkeys, and many others year-round.

The spectacle of autumn leaves is at its most brilliant when the leaves are still in the tree, but those leaves will leave a legacy in their ecosystem that far outlasts those reds and oranges. The leaf litter becomes so ubiquitous during this time of year that it almost becomes hard to notice, but the activity humming beneath our feet is ever-present.

Of course, there is plenty more to see at Fresh Pond at this time of the year. Check the trees and up in the sky. You will likely see our usual October avian residents and a few migrants on their way to auspicious winter lands. Among those are our resident Brown creeper (Certhia americana), the migrating Chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina), and Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) on their way to the South.

Enjoy your visit. 📅 Join our many Plant & Wildlife Documentation Walks, and if you can, come help the meadow: volunteer with us in the field (we survey Lusitania’s biodiversity and its phenology every week). Share your findings with us (you can comment below)! We will be back next month with a new slice of life in the meadow.

EwA Useful Links

🌱 EwA at Fresh Pond plant observations in October

📸 EwA at Fresh Pond insect occurrence observations in October

📊 EwA at Fresh Pond arthropod counts visualization (to date)

📖 Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (2014) by Heather N. Holm

📖 The Book of Swamp & Bog: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands (1995) by John Eastman  (Author), Amelia Hansen (Illustrator)

by Mike McGlathery | Updated October, 1st 2023

First posted on October 6th, 2020. Editing & layout by Claire O’Neill. With the exception of the milkweed seed (source Pixabay), all the photos in this article are visual records that the EwA team collects at our various study sites, including at Fresh Pond. Click on any picture, and you will land on the record and its owner (the records shown in this article are from Claire O’Neill). Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). See EwA’s biodiversity occurrence records specific to this place in the EwA at Fresh Pond iNaturalist project.

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