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An island of rainbows

The colors of fall on Nantucket

Don't forget the beautiful red hues of bearberry and cranberry. More food sources for the native wildlife and migrating birds.
Orange and yellow together! Goldenrods are a great nectar source for feeding monarchs.
New England Blazing star and European mantis. The green really comes through.
Fall purples abound as seen in the endangered Eastern Silvery Aster.

The crisp change in the air happened last week when the heat and humidity finally broke on Nantucket. We are in that golden month where the days still have a summer quality – good enough for swimming, boating, fishing, and the like – while the nights are cool and sleeping much easier.

Those of us fortunate enough to still be on the island in September are relishing the kids being in school, the diminished traffic jams, and the beautiful fall colors. While we generally think fall reds and oranges, there is truly a rainbow to behold in nature this time of year. Let’s get out and enjoy it before this rainbow gives way to the browns and white of winter.

A rainbow of fall:

Red – Black Huckleberry (Gaylusacchia baccata), is one of the first native shrubs to show fall colors. Even in early September, the yellowish-green begins its transition to a bright red. As a dominant shrub of the heathlands of Nantucket, there is plenty to be seen across the landscape.

Orange – Monarch butterflies abound this time of year as they emerge from their chrysalises readying themselves for their journey south. Early October is a great time to witness gatherings of monarchs in Madaket as the set off west from the island before going south.  

Yellow – The golden rods of late summer and early fall are not to be beat in New England. Nantucket boasts some 17 or so species of golden rods from Seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) to the slender grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia caroliniana), and the fuzzy grey goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). 

Green – The monarchs aren’t the only game in town. The sandplain grasslands and heathlands Nantucket is known for are home to a suite of bright green caterpillars. Both the Io moth (Automeris io) and the Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) caterpillars are seen this time of year. Watch out, though. The guard hairs on their backsides pack a punch and have been described as a long-lasting stinging nettle. These creatures are better seen and not touched.

Blue – The small, waxy berries of the Northern Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) are finally ripe. These tiny berries (which are actually nuts) are an important food source for migratory birds like tree swallows and yellow-rumped warblers. The gray/blue “berries” hold on into the late fall as long as they aren’t eaten and are, thus, an important resource as the late summer fruits are gone.

Purple – Nantucket is ablaze in purple in the fall. From the state-listed New England blazing star, the multitude of fall asters, and delicious beach plums, purple is an easy color to spot around the island. The pollinators are attracted to the purple hues in flowers and wildlife (both human and animal) love the purple fruits.

Get out an enjoy the rainbow while it lasts. Need a guide? The Linda Loring Nature Foundation runs plant and nature walks the third Friday of each month, the next one is Friday, September 18th from 9am – 10:30am. Meet at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, 110 Eel Point Rd.  We’ll explore what’s flowering, what’s fruiting, and what’s crawling among Nantucket’s grasslands and heathlands. Led by Linda Loring Nature Foundation Director of Research and Education, Dr. Sarah Bois. Free for LLNF members, $10 general public. For more information see:  or (508) 325-0973