Just like Kankakee Sands, You’ll be Golden!

By Alyssa Nyberg, Restoration Ecologist at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands

It’s all too easy to overlook things, isn’t it? As we move so quickly from place to place, from task to task, we often miss the nuances and details that make life so interesting. In the fall, with goldenrods painting our Kankakee Sands prairies an amazing palette of sunshine, buttery yellow, and gold, it’s tempting just to say, “yep, that is pretty” and move on to other things, focusing our attention elsewhere.  

But out there right now, from early September to mid-October, are 15 different species of goldenrods in bloom and one of the prettiest is aptly named, showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa).

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). Photo by Jeanette Jaskula.

Most other goldenrods–stiff goldenrod, tall goldenrod, Canada goldenrod – have the benefit of being four to five feet tall and grabbing our attention. But none has the same charm as the short, showy goldenrod. Growing only two to three feet tall, this squat little goldenrod has six-inch long, strap-like leaves which alternate up the stem and feel rubbery to the touch. The showy part is at the very top of each of the stalks – there sits a large, bulbous panicle of many small golden flowers, hundreds of flowers! These nectar-filled flowers are visited by a myriad of butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and beetles.

Goldenrods are indeed worth their weight in gold, as they are an important nectar source for the late fall insects. Adult monarch butterflies, in particular, find goldenrods of immense value.

The gorgeous, showy goldenrod is a wonderful choice for a landscaping plant – it is stiff and sturdy, allowing it to stand upright and not flop over. And lucky for us in the Kankakee Sands area with our sandy soils, showy goldenrod does well on sand and in full sun, like so many of our prairie plants do.

If you slow down to admire showy goldenrod, you just might find that hidden among the flowers is a perfectly camouflaged, goldenrod crab spider. There it sits intensely awaiting the opportunity to literally grab its next meal of the aforementioned butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and beetles which are coming in for nectar. This is a well-named spider – it does indeed hold its front legs back just as a crab would do, and it can even walk sideways in crab-like fashion. And as its name implies, it is often found on goldenrod plants, but is also regularly found on milkweeds. The goldenrod crab spider has a bit of a secret weapon – it has the ability to change color based on its surroundings; it can become yellow, or green, or white or even pink by shedding its old exoskeleton for a new one!  

Goldenrod crab spider on common milkweed leaf at the Kankakee Sands Nursery. ©A.Nyberg/TNC
Goldenrod crab spider, white morph. ©T.Edmonson/TNC

Want to admire goldenrods up close and personal and try to find a crab spider on the prowl? Wonderful! Please join us on Saturday, September 24 to celebrate Kankakee Sands 25th Anniversary. It’s a full day of family-friendly, fun activities – from a morning yoga session and a photography workshop to bison corral tours and hikes at Conrad Station Savanna. There will also be free food, arts and crafts, and informational displays, as well as staff and volunteers on hand to chat about all things bison, prairie and goldenrod. We’ll be offering prairie walks through the south bison pasture in which you will be able to see a variety of goldenrods in bloom and together we can hunt for crab spiders!

For more information about our 25th Anniversary Celebration, visit nature.org/events, and just like Kankakee Sands in September, you’ll be golden! 🙂

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The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,400-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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