I probably should explain. The word "sere," rarely used these days, means dried up and withered. Which perfectly describes old fields and meadows in the Hudson Valley as October looms. Except for lingering goldenrod stands and a spectacular display of assorted asters, the showy wildflowers of summer--the daisies, Susans, Queen Anne's lace, bergamot and thistles among others--have all gone to seed, their foliage now shriveled and brown. Milkweed pods are fat and about to burst. Huge burdocks, armed with spiny seed balls that grab your clothes or a dog's fur, dare you to pass through.
At this time of year, most nature photographers in the Northeast are waiting for the big show, the explosion of fall colors in the deciduous forests that cloak our hills and valleys. I've never been one to focus on the broad picture. I prefer the details. And in the sere season they abound in so-called waste places. Consider the teasel that I came across in a large, weedy patch in Ithaca, New York, behind the brick shell of a factory that once may have been a textile mill.
You can find common teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) in most wildflower field guides, although this alien plant's small lilac flowers are not very impressive. They open in rings around the egg-shaped flowerhead, at first forming a belt around the spike's center, then progressing up and down to form two bands. The generic name comes from the Greek word for "thirst" and refers to another species, the cut-leaf teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus). This teasel's leaves form cups around the tall, prickly stem that hold rainwater, a trick to keep sap-sucking aphids from climbing the plant.
But what's really neat about teasel is the dried flower head. Brought here from Europe, teasel was widely cultivated for use in napping or "teasing" woolen cloth. At first the work was done manually by "cloth dressers" using cross-shaped wooden "handles" to which a dozen or more teasel heads were tied. The hooked barbs, it was said, were strong enough to pick up the fibers but would not tear the fabric. By the late 18th century, however, mechanized teasel gigs had taken over the teasing task in New England's mills. So the dried teasels we find in our old fields and along roadsides today remind us of a colorful episode in the early American textile industry.