Last week I walked my street for more than a mile without ever seeing a bee.
While that may seem unremarkable at a time when stores are already stocking Christmas decorations, to me it’s a sign that something’s amiss. That’s because I’ve dedicated a few minutes of most autumn afternoons to photographing more animals than I could count on our little plot of land: bumblebees, mining bees, sweat bees, pearl crescents, orange sulphurs, common buckeyes, Eastern-tailed blues, wasps, syrphid flies, monarchs, common checkered skippers, and creatures I cannot yet name:
There were a few signs of life around the rest of the neighborhood when I went on my walk: a funny-faced pit mix who likes to pretend she’s tough stuff behind her invisible fence; a squirrel peeking around from behind a tree to ensure I wasn’t after his walnut; a flock of geese overhead; birds in the roadside canopies harmonizing with the perpetual cricket chorus; and a man on a large mower that leveled his front yard while he went along for the ride.
All in all, it was pretty quiet for a mile-long stretch, a silence I’ve come to expect. I’m familiar with the lack of plant diversity—and the resulting dearth of what could be abundant animal life—on the turf-dominated landscapes throughout our town. In the past the barrenness has so discouraged me that I’ve sometimes forgone some much needed exercise. But now, determined to get my head on straight after a neck injury this summer, I’ve walked up and down the road so much that I suppose I’ve grown a little to used to the unnatural solitude that grass and pavement force upon us.
It was the sound of buzzing bees that brought me back to my senses and made me realize what I’d been missing on my journey. In front of the only other plant-filled property on our long road were bumblebees, sweat bees, and orange sulphurs—a whole community of animals much like those in my meadow. With few grass blades in sight, my neighbor Wayne’s yard is a refuge, much like mine, for species still searching for sustenance even as we humans begin retreating inside to our TVs and fireplaces.
My own gardens haven’t always been such a rich refueling station for animals as the seasons change. A few years ago I noticed butterflies and bees zipping around our property, presumably searching for flowers, after almost everything had gone to seed. Desperate to help them, my husband and I started planting more native fall blooms—swamp sunflowers, smooth asters, New England asters, goldenrods of every size and stripe. But even more beneficial to our wild inhabitants is what we have stopped doing altogether—namely mowing the field behind our house. Now that broomsedge, purpletop grass, and other native grasses are beginning to take hold, they put out a natural welcome mat for all sorts of uncultivated fall flowers, including late-flowering thoroughwort, more goldenrods, and especially frost asters that sprout throughout the meadow. I no longer have to worry about whether we have enough to feed the migrating monarchs or the tattered but still flying fritillaries or the gourmand bees who feed their young pollen only from certain fall-flowering species but turn their proboscises up at everything else.
You don’t need a two-acre expanse to create such opportunities for our wild friends. In fact, small yards in cities can support abundant life, especially when native plantings connect these habitat fragments across the landscape. On my property, the patio, roadside, and container plantings offer their own kind of buffets.
These flowers won’t be here for much longer. This morning I awoke to a freeze warning, in effect until 9 a.m. By now many of our tiny friends are retreating to their winter hiding places. But I’m still planting this week for those who are left—and the many more who will visit throughout the next season. In some areas of the country, it’s not too late to add life-sustaining native trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers to your yard. And though the stores are now filled with traditional spring bulbs like daffodils and tulips, those flowers won’t do anything for the specialist bee who emerges just in time to gather pollen only from the flowers of spring beauties or the one who takes pollen exclusively from violets to feed her young. Even generalist foragers like bumblebees, who visit a wide variety of blooms, will likely have better luck with natives like Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells than with plants sold en masse at big box centers. Not only are many still treated with systemic pesticides that can contaminate pollen and nectar; some highly bred plants have had nutritious floral resources largely removed for the sake of extra petals and other aesthetic characteristics pleasing to human eyes.
One day I hope to walk my street and hear the sounds not of lawn mowers but of busy bees visiting their favorite flowers lining the driveways, the front walkways, and the roadsides. Last month the Natural Resources Defense Council predicted a major shift away from lawns over the next 10 to 15 years. But we don’t have to wait that long. We can act now, one property and neighborhood at a time, planting the seeds of a flower revolution wherever we go, starting with our own front yards.
You can find native plant sales and nurseries in your area by checking out the website of your state native plant society. If you don’t live close enough to a nursery that sells native plants, search online for sources like Izel Plants, one of my favorites in the mid-Atlantic, or Prairie Moon Nursery in the Midwest.
“There is a crack, a crack, in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Things fall apart. Sometimes they’re the little things: the doorknob to the attic, the light in the refrigerator, the timer on the clothes washer. Sometimes they’re much harder to replace: trunks that support huge canopies of beloved trees in our backyards or muscles that hold up the physical and emotional weight of our own heads.
Over the past month, all these minor and major breakdowns have come to pass on the little patch of planet my husband and I call home. Just after we discovered an irreparable crack in our old ash tree after some strong-winded storms, I began feeling a pain in the back of my head that quickly felled me for almost three weeks. Many doctors’ visits and scary hypotheses later, I’ve learned the reason: Though I try to stand straight and tall like our old tree did for so many years, bending but not breaking in the face of prevailing winds, the efforts have not been adequate. More often than not, I sink into my shoulders, especially at the computer, spending long hours leaning in the same position toward a world reduced to a 15-by-25-inch screen. Our tree swayed too much and too often; I have not swayed enough.
As I recover with the help of physical therapy and “postural reeducation” (a fancy term for breaking decades of sitting, breathing, sleeping, and lying down incorrectly), I have been feeling like Rip Van Winkle, discovering that even in the span of only a few weeks, much has changed in the garden. The long-awaited joe pye weed blooms are just about to open, while the bee balm that was barely in flower in early July has already exhausted itself into a midsummer mildewed state. The Carolina wren babies have fledged, but the goldfinch families are just getting started. The butterflies we thought would never appear are here in every color and size—tiger swallowtails, monarchs, common buckeyes, fritillaries, clouded sulphurs, red-spotted purples, American ladies, azures, and members of other species who don’t sit still long enough for me to identify them.
Among those willing to pose for my camera, I’ve noticed more wear and tear than I would have expected at this time of year. Like me and the tree, many of these creatures are a little weathered now. Yet even those with only half their wings keep going. Their lives are much shorter than ours; most adult butterflies on this continent live an average of two weeks to a month.
I’m lucky. I get to stick around longer than that, and I don’t have to worry about other animals chomping on me. But this relatively modern comfort that we take for granted is in part responsible for my own tattered state. I sit and write because I can—because I don’t have to fight for survival against predators who want to gobble me whole—and it is both a luxury and a curse.
The butterflies don’t have that choice and can’t head to the urgent care clinic for wing repairs, so they press on until they’ve exhausted themselves. Over the years, their perseverance has inspired me. The animals in the following photo essay aren’t picture-perfect, but their age and experience convey a different kind of beauty—that of creatures who don’t take life for granted or give in to setbacks. Their wings may be torn, but these butterflies are not broken. They are still flying, and still trying. They are survivors.
Postscript: This week, Humane Gardener’s #WeedsNotWeeds series is featured in the Chesapeake Conservancy’s “Trips and Tips.” Be sure to check out this great newsletter, which provides details about fun and informative nature-focused events and activities in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Last year, a friend emailed to say she thought my proposed title for an upcoming presentation—”Creating a Wildlife Garden”—was a little silly. “If a vegetable garden grows vegetables, then a wildlife garden grows wildlife,” she wrote. “It sounds like you’re planting the seeds of baby rabbits!”
She was a marketing director with expertise in areas I hadn’t even thought about, so I certainly wasn’t going to question her. Besides, she had an interesting point.
In some sense, though, we do “grow” animals when we garden for wildlife. By adding plants and other habitat elements where they can eat, take shelter and raise their young, we are nurturing entire life cycles of species who may otherwise have nowhere else to go in the surrounding grass-dominated landscapes of suburbia. It’s just sometimes hard to see them. More often than not, my camera picks up on treasures I’ve failed to notice with my own eyes, serving up wonderful surprises in magnified images on my computer screen.
Often it feels like a game of hide-and-seek, adding to the joy of discovery in my own backyard. “Peekaboo!” I like to whisper when I do catch them diving into the flowers and taking cover under the brush. “I see you!” But mostly I keep my distance, grateful for a camera that allows me to watch them without disturbance. As these photos show, simply observing native plants provides a wonderful glimpse into the quiet worlds of animals who make their homes among the leaves and flowers.
The products and potions lining the shelves of local nurseries and big box centers used to mesmerize me so much that it was as if I’d thrown the rational part of my brain onto the compost pile with the rotting squash rinds. Overpowered by the sights and smells of floral abundance nearby, I didn’t even think to question what was really in those packaged promises of gardening nirvana.
I can’t remember what finally activated my B.S. detector, but once it went on, many things smelled rotten, and it wasn’t just the contents of the bags of festering cow poo from industrial feedlots. Plenty of products billed as eco-friendly have negative impacts on our fellow species, either directly or indirectly. Some come from cruel operations that confine animals in cages and pollute the broader environment, while others contain ingredients harvested from fragile ecosystems that provide critical habitat for wildlife.
Rather than supporting exploitive industries or robbing distant ecosystems to improve our own, we can purchase more humanely manufactured items or, better yet, rely on materials we already have in our backyards. Here are just a few of the strange products of 20th century commodification that we’d do well to avoid in the 21st, along with tips for finding humane alternatives.
1. Predator Urine: Cruelty in a Bottle
Marketed by one company as “the all natural, organic and humane way” to defend garden borders from wild nibblers, bottled urine is anything but humane. The product comes from fur farms, says Mary Beth Sweetland, senior director of investigations and research at The Humane Society of the United States. Produced also for hunters as a way to hide human scent, the urine is collected from coyotes, foxes and other animals raised in wire cages. Earlier in her career, Sweetland was part of a 1990s investigation that captured sickening images of the animals’ pitiful lives, including a particularly haunting one of a fox with his right front leg bone exposed. To feed the animals, the company ground up live hens in wood chippers. “Nothing has changed insofar as how urine is collected,” says Sweetland. “It’s all from caged animals on fur farms.”
The best alternative? Adopt a dog and enlist her help in marking your territory, or make your project even more DIY. Every couple of weeks in the summer, I ask my husband to go on pee patrol—an effective way to protect Joe Pye weed and other plants from nibbling so they grow tall enough for the butterflies to enjoy. It may sound ridiculous, but isn’t it so much more sane than imprisoning wild animals and bottling up their waste products for interstate transport to unsuspecting consumers?
2. Mail-Order Ladybugs: A Not-So-Special Delivery
Those ladybugs billed as natural biocontrols for the home garden are vacuumed up from where they congregate in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. “If you’re an organic gardener, this goes against everything organics is about,” says entomologist Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, owner of Buglady Consulting, “because organics is about being good to the environment, being sustainable, being ecological.”
Though companies harvesting ladybugs claim there’s no real impact on the populations, “I don’t know if they have any science to back that up,” says Wainwright-Evans, who recalls one season when ladybug sellers ran out of their supply. “But just from a common sense standpoint, if you go to an ecological area and remove a major portion of the population or even 25, 30 percent, there is going to be some impact.”
And if you don’t already have the habitat to attract ladybugs, these voracious feeders aren’t likely to stick around anyway. Companies selling “conditioned” ladybugs claim to ship them ready to eat, having held them until they are practically starving, Wainwright-Evans says, “but how do they know when they get to that point?” Rather than importing animals to release in your garden, make a home for those already present in the region by adding wildflowers, shrubs and trees where many insect species can eat, reproduce, and provide natural balance.
3. Animal-Based Fertilizers: A Bloody Business
Many organic potting mixes and fertilizers sold en masse contain byproducts of slaughterhouses and industrial operations raising animals in intensive confinement. The lists of ingredients—bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, and pasteurized poultry poop—aren’t just nauseating to read. They can also sicken pets tempted to snack on them.
Yet you wouldn’t know it for all the corporate greenwashing. Marketers for the most visible brand promise a “simple, down-to-earth gardening” experience with soil made “simply from organic things.” Their green bags pair kitschy cartoon drawings with verbiage that sounds like it was adapted from the script of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; on the packaging for blood meal, a devious-faced eggplant dons a cape above the promise of a “luscious way to feed your plants for bodacious blooms and vibrant color.”
A product summary on Home Depot’s site takes it one step further by warning consumers about what they’ll get if they don’t accept the pitch: “pale, sickly, lifeless gardens.” It’s an interesting assumption to make, as my free-of-slaughtered-animals garden is anything but lifeless, buzzing and humming with bees, butterflies, birds, and countless other organisms making their home here.
Rather than seeding the “bodacious blooms” we grow for butterflies among the sad remains of once-sentient beings who spent most of their short lives packed into dark warehouses and feedlots, here’s a better idea for reducing the waste and misery of factory farms: Don’t buy anything they’re selling. Nature knows what she’s doing, and plants grew for millennia without our help.
In fact, many native species such as purple lovegrass don’t fare as well in overly composted or fertilized soil. And vegetables proliferate among natural materials from our own gardens—namely compost and leaves that are all too often sent to the landfill. “Why waste those nutrients?” asks Jim Nardi, author of Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. To enrich his gardens, he doesn’t go to the store; he shreds leaves gathered from neighbors and mixes them into the soil, adding food for millions of underground creatures and creating a far better substrate for root and water penetration than any bottled product could, whether organic or chemical-based. “You can add synthetic fertilizer, and you’ll add plenty of nutrients,” he says, “but it doesn’t do anything for the structure of the soil.”
4. Mystery Mulches: A Masquerade?
What’s in that mulch from the local big box center, and where did it come from? It’s hard to know for sure. Some bags could be filled with the wood of cut-up virgin forests that take centuries to regenerate. Despite efforts to limit the logging of mature bald cypress trees, these stalwarts of rich wetland ecosystems—which help control flooding and provide food and shelter for many wild species—still meet untimely ends as garden mulch.
Other mulch products may be filled with raw construction debris; cloaked in red and chocolate brown dyes, some could contain contaminants invisible to consumers blinded by the bright color choices. “That’s an example to me of sort of treating your yard like the inside of your house,” says William Cullina, executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “You have to kind of think about ecological function when you go outside too, and it’s beyond just the sort of color-of-the-rug decisions.”
Cullina recommends using soft-wood mulches that break open to reveal spongy insides with a dark color that matches the exterior, indicating the product has been composted. Mulch from local landfills is recycled and potentially more environmentally friendly, but, as Cullina notes, this recycled yard waste could still contain harmful mystery ingredients such as persistent pesticide residue: “The problem there, obviously, is you really have no idea what the people that rake up those leaves are putting on their lawns.”
Leaves, grass clippings, and shredded branches from your own yard—or from the yards of neighbors who avoid using chemicals—are the most effective and sustainable mulch, not only suppressing invasive plants and other weeds but providing nesting and foraging areas for birds, small mammals, frogs, toads, and insects.
5. No Re-Peats in the Canadian Bogs
Peat moss comes from sensitive wetlands that have evolved over thousands of years and provide habitat for rare flora and fauna. While industry marketers say they harvest only a fraction of the peatlands in Canada—and that restoration efforts post-harvest help the bogs regenerate—ecosystems are fundamentally altered by such disturbance. For a product that isn’t even as useful as the natural materials already in your own backyard, this scraping of the land seems especially wasteful. Often used inappropriately as mulch, peat moss in the garden dries out and blows away. Mixed into soil, it adds little to no nutrients. Compost and shredded leaves are much better alternatives.
It can be hard to avoid potting mixes containing peat moss, which is added to improve water- and air-holding capacity, but it’s possible to make your own or at least reduce your use of peat-based mix by blending it with compost. Many gardeners have tried coconut coir as an alternative, though the long-distance transport from overseas introduces other environmental issues. Cullina suggests peanut husks as a potentially sustainable alternative sourced closer to home—something I plan to try this year.
Do you have any other tips for alternatives to products that exploit animals or harm their habitats? Share them here!
Unlike the many summer butterflies who proliferate on our warm-season blooms, the mourning cloak isn’t much of a flower fancier, instead taking her sustenance from sap upon emerging in early spring. She doesn’t linger for her glam shots either, sensing our apparently formidable presence and absconding before we even open the front door.
A tough cookie, she’s one of the longest-living butterflies, surviving the winter in tree crevices, leaf litter, and cracks in structures with the help of internal antifreeze substances. Yet she’s afraid of my shadow, often taking off into the trees when I’ve hardly yet realized she’s there. A nervous Nelly, she doesn’t float so much as flit—a common behavior among spring butterflies inhabiting the canopies.
Last year I spent a week of early afternoons in hot pursuit of my elusive friends, sitting in several locations around their favorite elm tree and waiting with what I thought was infinite patience. It wasn’t until my knee became a surprise runway for a butterfly landing—and I caught only the tail end because I was engrossed in my iPhone—that I realized how unready my spirit was for the privilege of close encounters with this shy species. (I described the experience in a post called Emergence.)
Forced to sit still, listen, watch, read and think for long stretches this past winter while writing a book, I have undergone my own metamorphosis since the last time these beautiful creatures awakened. This season, it hasn’t taken long to learn how to revise my approach—both physical and mental—to studying them. More than anything else, it helps if you put down your tool of distraction long enough to examine their flight patterns and basking behaviors. Moving deliberately is also key. In Butterflies through Binoculars, Jeffrey Glassberg provides tips that seem to be written directly to my clumsy old self: “Unfortunately, butterflies are pretty good motion detectors. So, you need to slow down. And be more graceful. The more slowly and gracefully you move, the less likely you will frighten the butterfly.”
The last thing I want to do is frighten any creature, so this year’s sightings of mourning cloaks and other butterflies in the brushfoot family have had me tiptoeing around the front yard as if I have tiny brushfeet of my own. When a mourning cloak landed directly in the path through our front garden as I headed to the post office last week, I postponed my outing, retrieved my camera, sat on the stoop, and waited. It didn’t take long before the return appearance, and over the next half-hour I moved my legs and arms ever so slightly to get closer to the little beauty. In the process of watching the butterflies over the next few days, I saw them blow over in high winds and then right themselves again once the gusts had passed. I noticed their wings becoming more tattered. I discovered other insects that I’d never have come across—including a beautiful painted hickory borer—without the spring butterflies as my guides.
It was an Eastern comma butterfly’s repeated refills from the tap of elm tree sap that led my camera lens to that hickory borer cruising up the bark nearby. But the comma herself kept a wide berth, darting away as I tried to capture an image but then flying teasingly over my head after I gave up and decided to refill the birdbaths and weed the elderberry patch instead. One afternoon I parked in my chair and took photos from a 30-foot distance, lamenting that the Eastern comma still did not think me evolved enough to join her inner circle.
But no matter; it must mean I’m not ready yet. I will keep trying, stopping and waiting to see what these butterflies have to teach me. If I’m lucky enough, I may even feel a little tickle on my knee again one day. I just hope I’m still ditching my phone long enough to enjoy the experience.
Much gardening advice—even from animal-friendly corners—revolves around strategies for tricking mammals out of a meal in some way: planting “deer-resistant” plants, coating leaves of coveted species with unpalatable powders, or adding impenetrable fencing around the whole garden. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying these methods, they’re often implemented in a vacuum, without accounting for the barren spaces that exist just outside the typical vegetable or flower patch in American suburbia. How refreshing would it be if we gardeners spent as much time focused on what species to plant for animals as we do on how to subvert these hungry creatures in our midst?
Resistance to deer, rabbits, and other wild visitors is often futile anyway, as mammals diversify their menus based on availability. It’s easier and more rewarding to reject the dominant paradigm of herbicide-laden turfgrass in favor of creating or preserving natural areas for wildlife grazing. This strategy of sharing the land has certainly been effective on my property: Throughout the seasons, my husband and I watch rabbits and deer foraging much less often on the species we planted than on the grasses, perennials, and groves of tree saplings seeded by wind and birds all over the former lawn and at the woods’ edge.
The reason for our success comes down to simple arithmetic: When there’s enough to go around, we can all enjoy nature’s gifts. When we vastly deplete our natural resources, converting more than 40 million acres of the national landscape to turfgrass and paving over much of the rest, we leave little left for wild animals to eat, hide, nest and rest in.
For the ecologically minded gardener with an interest in taking a pass on grass, it can still be difficult to find relevant and appropriate information about some of our most common plants. Many state agencies, universities, mainstream gardening organizations, and pesticide companies are narrowly focused on maintaining monocultures of agricultural crops, golf courses, and the bland suburban lawn. Any species that get in the way are treated like pimples on the face of a 15-year-old, zapped with chemicals or popped out of the smooth green mirage.
Humane Gardener’s ongoing #WeedsNotWeeds series highlights some of the species victimized by this mind-set, at the expense of the animals who depend on them. Some of the plants featured are easily found at native plant nurseries; others are more likely to sprout on our properties and inspire the inevitable question: “Is this a weed?” Here’s a more life-affirming inquiry when puzzling over plant IDs: “Is this a native plant that can help other species?” More often than we’d think, the answer is yes. In the second installment of #WeedsNotWeeds, I’m highlighting a tree, a vine, a grass, and two flowering herbaceous species that satiate and shelter our wild friends.
Nimblewill/Nimbleweed (Muhlenbergia schreberi)
For years I pulled this plant, assuming it was Japanese stiltgrass or some other invasive species. My attitude was not helped by the general opinion among gardeners and farmers that this grass native to much of the U.S. and Ontario is “pesky,” “troublesome,” “a pest in lawns,” and “very aggressive in areas where it’s not wanted.”
That last description, found on the site of a Wisconsin lawn care company, begs the question: Is nimblewill “tame” in areas where it is wanted? The answer seems counterintuitive, even ridiculous: Yes, where nimblewill is seen as desirable, as in my yard now, it’s not aggressive at all. It’s simply part of a larger community of native plants, some more reserved and others with equally vigorous tendencies. And far from damaging wildlife habitat in the manner of Japanese stiltgrass, nimblewill actually creates it, providing food for grazing deer, insects, and birds.
Horticulturally, there is also much to recommend this plant. Because it’s content in moist, shady or partly sunny sites, it can even be used to stave off stilt grass. Ironically, one site that suggests numerous methods of killing nimblewill also features a photo illustrating its major botanical asset: It stays green during summer droughts when everything around it shrivels to brown.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
“You’ll probably want to chop those down,” our kind neighbor said of the tall sumacs spreading near a row of pine trees he’d planted along our shared property line. “They’re poisonous. I’ll come over with my chainsaw and help.” Not knowing any better when we first bought our house, and wanting to be good neighbors in return, we obliged.
Something didn’t sit right with me, though, and a few years later I learned that those tall trees hadn’t been poisonous at all. They just had the misfortune of sharing a common name (and family relations) with a plant in a different genus: poison sumac, or Toxicodendron vernix. It would have been far more neighborly of us, at least for the wildlife species in our community, to leave that stand alone and let it colonize the empty corner of our backyard. The fruits of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) feed about 300 songbird species and serve as an emergency food source in the winter. Animals also take cover in the beautiful canopies, squirrels and rabbits like the bark, and deer graze on the fruits and stems.
For people, this tree provides sustenance and beauty, its berries flavoring drinks and its graceful, palm-like leaves dramatically setting off the large red fruit clusters. It doesn’t need any coddling; the bareroot plants I ordered online grew tall and fast, spreading into an overlapping canopy visited by seemingly all the birds in the neighborhood. Planted at the woods’ edge, two of the trees leaned too far toward the sun and fell last summer, but the downed wood was quickly visited by nest-builders and woodpeckers foraging for snacks. With the help of our bird friends spreading the berries, we now have two more staghorn sumac groves sprouting behind our patio and in our front yard, their fuzzy thin trunks a welcome sight this spring.
Fleabanes (Erigeron philadelphicus and Erigeron annuus)
A biennial native to most of the U.S. and Canada, the flowers of Philadelphia fleabane resemble those of an English daisy variety I grew from seed when I first began gardening on this property 16 years ago. Not surprisingly, English daisies are considered invasive not just in parts of the U.S. but also in the lawns of their homeland (sound familiar?).
Fleabane, of course, has long been similarly outcast in its native territory, including in my own yard at one time. Only after I grasped the irony of removing a native that wanted desperately to grow for the sake of planting a nonnative of questionable value, I stopped propagating English daisies and started letting the fleabanes show their pretty little heads to the world. The bees and other tiny pollinators now join the party, finding nourishment in the early-blooming flowers when little else has awakened yet.
Daisy fleabane, or Erigeron annuus, is a similar species that’s also widespread in the U.S. and Canada; Erigeron pulchellus, or robin’s plantain, is another in our yard. All three feed grazing deer, rabbits, and other mammals.
Virginia Copperleaf/Three-Seeded Mercury and Rhomboid Mercury (Acalypha virginica and Acalypha rhomboidea)
When a colleague asked me to identify this plant growing in his garden several years ago, it took me longer than it should have to find the answer. Three-seeded mercury is one of many native species that seems to straddle a kind of no-man’s land on the Internet, with information about animal dependencies available only on wildflower and naturalist sites. Though mourning doves, sparrows, greater prairie chickens, and other birds are said to eat the seeds of these Acalypha species, that relationship appears to mean little to lawn service companies, one of which warns homeowners that “proper lawn mowing and watering habits” are not enough to eradicate Virginia copperleaf—and that those methods are merely ” a supplement to professionally applied herbicides.”
That advice is unnecessary, to say the least, as this annual is easily pulled. And why yank it? Turning a rusty orange late in the season, the plants add fall color in the ground layers. They also feed deer, so when they showed up beneath my winterberry hollies where birds feast in cold weather, I let them spread.
Native to the Eastern U.S. and Canada, Acalypha rhomboidea and Acalypha virginica can be hard to tell apart, but the latter has hairier stems, narrower leaves, and more lobes on the bracts that surround the inflorescence at the base of the petioles.
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
If I could choose only a few plants for my property, Virginia creeper would make the cut. That’s partly because the vine tops another animal-friendly list—the top five highly recommended plants for birds migrating along the Eastern corridor.
Producing blue berries rich in nutrients and antioxidants needed for long avian journeys, Virginia creeper provides habitat for many permanent residents, too. Its leaves and stems feed deer, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and sphinx moth caterpillars, while its thick growth welcomes small animals to take cover and nest.
Often confused with poison ivy, the deciduous vine is easy to distinguish by its five leaves. (See these great tips for identification help.) It adds lush beauty to fences, walls and tree snags; as a groundcover, it controls erosion on shady slopes and fills in barren spaces—even, as I saw on a road trip this summer, in median strips of highways cutting through our nation’s largest cities. If there were a botanical version of Survivor, this plant would surely make the final round.
What are your favorite #WeedsNotWeeds? While many of the plants featured in this series are native to a broad swath of the continent, others are exclusive to the Eastern region. I’d love to hear from folks outside this area about their experiences with maligned native plants that sustain our wild friends!
We zigzag from tree to tree, seeking refuge under the leaf umbrellas. Drizzle turns to deluge as we dash beneath a tall canopy to plot our escape. The sky booms. My dad takes my hand, and I look up to see if he shares my sense of foreboding. But he’s smiling at me, his eyes twinkling. He says something funny, and we start laughing. I feel happy. Hand in hand, we make a break for it, dodging the downpour with the help of our tree friends, even though we’re already dripping wet.
This is my first memory of being alive, two months before my third birthday. Decades later, the rain-soaked hike remains foundational to my worldview. The trees took care of me on that day and many others, and so did my dad. It only makes sense that I have spent the rest of my life loving them back.
That’s not just my theory. Research correlates such childhood experiences and adult role models with lifelong respect for the natural world. While humans reap documented benefits from venturing beyond manmade environments—including stress reduction and greater physical health—our early interaction with nature is also essential to the survival of other species. As Richard Louv concluded in Last Child in the Woods, future decision makers are unlikely to protect what they don’t understand: “If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Even the title of Louv’s book, which introduced the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” resonates with sustainability educator Chiara D’Amore. “I felt like the last child in the woods,” says the 36-year-old, who used to spend hours alone outside while her friends were glued to their video games. “That was me.”
For her doctoral research on the positive influence of family nature clubs, D’Amore started a group in Maryland two years ago. Columbia Families in Nature has been transformative for participants, including the deaf girl whose newfound confidence on uphill hikes amazes her mother, the families walking in a river or meadow for the first time, the boy and his mom who “feel like a part of nature” now, stopping to help an injured bird they would have ignored in the past, they told D’Amore. “We can’t just walk by.”
Whether out of fear of the unknown or lack of knowledge, many parents are hesitant to head into the wild, says D’Amore. Clubs remove barriers through guidance, camaraderie and a feeling of safety. But you don’t need a formal group to give the gift of nature. If you’re hiking in a park, enhancing your yard or walking through your neighborhood, these tips can help engage the little ones in your life.
Nature Knows Best
It’s no surprise that shrinking wildlife habitat coincides with a dearth of kid-friendly spaces. Flat turfgrass provides few places to dig, hide or explore. What children gain in new ball fields, writes Louv, they lose in opportunities for self-directed play: “Research suggests that children, when left to their own devices, are drawn to the rough edges … the ravines and rocky inclines, the natural vegetation.”
When designing such elements for natural play spaces, Julie Dieguez recalls favorite memories: the natural cave of a forsythia bush or the pine trees that sheltered her “Madam Zula” table, where she and her sister put half of a split-apart, star-speckled rubber ball on their heads and told fortunes to neighborhood kids. Such magical forts can also sprout from sunflower hedges and bamboo fences, says Dieguez, whose company, The Wild Child, helps organizations and families bring kids outdoors.
“They are what you make them,” she says. “For us, it was usually a house, sometimes a hideout. But in all cases, it was a special place that was just ours.”
Wildlife-friendly plants add opportunity for discovery. Milkweed is the “crown jewel,” says Dieguez, who witnessed more than a dozen monarch chrysalises hatching while eating pancakes with her daughter in their backyard.
The Simpler, the Better
Kids are like cats: They just might snub expensive toys for cardboard boxes. Jumping in leaves, climbing rocks, making mudcakes, leaping across sliced tree stumps—this is the stuff their dreams are made of.
Scavenger hunts for skunk cabbage or signs of beaver chewing are a favorite activity, says D’Amore. Before group outings, she does a “pre-hike” to find logs harboring salamanders and other close-up opportunities. “You can’t orchestrate that,” she says, “but any time when I can help draw people’s attention to slowing down and looking and pausing and getting quiet, we come across a turtle or a frog or even a centipede or worm, and the kids just go gaga over it.”
You don’t need a naturalist’s knowledge to get started. “As adults, our default is that we think that something needs to be really intricate and complex to be interesting to a child, and that’s so not true at all,” says Dieguez. “In fact, in a lot of cases the more simple it is, the more they have to use their imagination.”
At autumn “leaf parties” D’Amore helps organize with Transition Howard County, families make pollinator gardens from cardboard and leaves laid over turfgrass. The goal is increased habitat connectivity, but the children’s main job is to jump in the piles. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of leaves and sticks to keep them happy,” says D’Amore. “At one of the last leaf parties … all my daughter wanted to do was play with the woolly bear caterpillars.”
Tap into Your Kid-Brain
To learn respect for animals, it helps if you can relate to them. Nevada environmental educator Margie Klein uses her hands to model a stealthy coyote. “To survive in the environment, the coyote has to keep its ears open all the time but its mouth closed,” she tells her young charges. “Let’s be quiet coyotes.”
If kids chase animals or carelessly rip leaves off bushes, Klein asks, “What would it be like if this was your home?” To discourage them from collecting wildlife as pets, Klein poses illuminating questions. “Horned toads only eat a certain kind of ant. So I tell the kids,” she says, in an almost-whisper, “ ‘Do you think you could find enough of this one species of ant to keep it fed every day?’ ”
On desert walks near her home, Klein and her grandson look for tracks, nests and other signs of animals: Has anyone been bedding down in the bushes? Are there shallow scrapes where jackrabbits have slept? Who chews on leaves? Which seeds will birds eat?
Klein uses food to talk about scat; cocoa puffs represent plant-eater pellets, Tootsie Rolls mimic meat-eater scat. Fox scat looks like granola bars because foxes are omnivores. “You’ve got to find ways to connect it to a child’s mind and make it interesting for them.”
By letting kids lead the way in conversation and in the woods, you can avoid the feeling of “a forced march through a museum,” says D’Amore. “It’s that old adage: It’s about the journey.”
Long after my dad and I ran scattershot through the storm, I continued my nonlinear path. Sometimes the one-block walk from school took two hours, but my mom understood there were important discoveries to be made in the crackly leaves on the curbside or the water beneath the sewer grate. The world wasn’t a place to barrel through or admire from afar; it was a place to touch, smell, hear and be a part of—my place, and one that, all these years later, I would remain committed to protecting.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of All Animals.
Humans have devised a good bit of verbal trickery to justify abuse of our surroundings. If we’re tired of a certain kind of animal—or simply don’t like the looks of him—we label the whole species a “pest.” If we think a particular plant is too independent-minded for the boring cookie-cutter aesthetic standards of our corporatized culture, we call it a “weed.”
Even the official definition of “weed” is entirely arbitrary: “a plant that is not valued where it is growing,” Webster’s tells us, “and is usually of vigorous growth; especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.” I won’t be the first or last to point out the irony of such a description sprouting from the minds of a species that has taken over the planet faster than any plant ever could.
If animals had a say in the matter—if they could write their own assessments of their surroundings—what would they tell us? We’ll never know for sure, but based on our observations, we can be certain that the flowers and trees we often treat as trash are treasures for wildlife. Some of these native plants need little introduction, having finally revealed their long-neglected beauty thanks to a growing interest in life-sustaining gardens. Others are still commonly saddled with stereotypes, appearing most often in derogatory lists of “weeds” created for large-scale agriculture.
In an ongoing Humane Gardener series, #WeedsNotWeeds, I’m going to highlight both the native plants in the limelight and those in the still-maligned-light. Here are five to get us started.
New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
A plant frequently sold by native nurseries, the gorgeous ironweed wouldn’t normally top my list of species in need of defenders. But it didn’t take much research to learn why it was ever dubbed a “weed” in the first place: Cows and horses find it unpalatable, so it has an easy time spreading in pastures where farmers would prefer to grow grazing plants. But butterflies, bees, and birds need to eat, too. To provide a nonstop buffet from late summer into fall, add native ironweeds to your garden. In my meadow, ironweed thrives and reseeds among Joe Pye weed and native sunflower species.
As its common names imply, this native plant colonizes burned or disturbed sites. In my yard, it has appeared in an abandoned vegetable garden, sprouting in the shadow of volunteer goldenrods. Though the tiny composite flowers are hard for us to discern, they’re delicious to bees large and small, as well as to wasps and flies. This isn’t so much a species you purchase—I’ve never seen it sold except in dried form for medicinal use—as one you let bloom where it plants itself in naturalized areas. For help with identification at different stages, check out these Name That Plant photos.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Jewelweed never fails to remind me of my own ignorance—and of the fallibility of human language and perspective. Its spectacular flowers are a magnet for hummingbirds; bees and butterflies also visit. Unfortunately for those animals, when we moved into our home 16 years ago, I saw jewelweed growing along the back fence and insisted on removing it. As I extolled its beauty even while yanking it out, my husband tried to stop me from my militancy. But eventually he joined in after I showed him the name of the plant. Neither of us realized back then not to trust labels.
Though it grows throughout much of the U.S. and Canada in shady, moist areas, jewelweed has not come back in my yard. Last summer while walking up the street, I saw it repatriating a lot where a developer had clear-cut an eighth of an acre before abandoning his project a few years back. Sadly, by the time of my next walk, the jewelweed had been mowed down. The next time I see it there, I will collect a few seeds—a great way to give the population a protected home while also ensuring my new plants are already adapted to local conditions.
Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum)
If you ask a duck, mourning dove or goose whether this is a valuable plant, they may be too busy nibbling to respond. Smartweed seeds also feed bobwhites, ring-necked pheasants, rails, mice, muskrats, raccoons, fox squirrels, and dozens of other species. Birds and other animals seek cover among the leaves. Last summer, after digging up turfgrass to plant native river oats (Chasmanthum latifolium), I discovered smartweed and Japanese stiltgrass moving in together around the edges. I trimmed down the stiltgrass to keep it from seeding and let the smartweed continue to proliferate. We’ll witness the next stage of this experiment when the weather warms.
Horseweed (Conyza canadensis)
You can’t keep a good “weed” down. Some populations of this native plant have developed resistance to herbicides, including glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup. The spraying of glyphosate on Midwestern corn and soy fields has been implicated in losses of the monarch butterfly’s only larval host plant, milkweed—which, like horseweed, grows in pastureland and on roadsides and disturbed sites.
It turns out that horseweed is also a friend to the monarch, providing an important nectar source during fall migrations. And it feeds butterfly and moth larvae, including beautiful caterpillars in the Cucullia genus. I like to think of horseweed’s persistence and refusal to stand down in the face of giant chemical companies as Mother Nature’s conspiracy to fight on behalf of all these interdependent species.
Though I’ve seen even native plant enthusiasts cast aspersions on this plant for its supposedly aggressive tendencies, it doesn’t persist indefinitely, instead gradually giving way to perennials. When horseweed popped up to keep my new Virginia roses company last summer, I cheered it on—and so did the monarch I saw visiting the plant in late summer. Viva la revolución!
What are your favorite #WeedsNotWeeds?
(Jewelweed photo by Will Heinz; all others by Nancy Lawson.)
As I went on a mission to rid our woods of invasive Japanese barberry, the plants organized their own offensive to rid the woods of me. They poked and prodded and pricked, all the while displaying taunting evidence of a new generation destined to pick up the fight next year: a red berry fallen into the stream, dozens of new seedlings sprouting under logs. For every barberry I cut down, at least three more lay in wait.
Removing invasive plants, barbs or no barbs, doesn’t feel particularly life-affirming. In the long term it makes way for many more wildlife-friendly species to thrive on my property, but in the moment such broad-scale butchery makes me feel like the grim reaper. It’s not the barberry’s fault it ended up here in the woods of suburban Maryland, far from its real home in the mountains of Japan. Imported as a garden ornamental in the 1800s, the once prized species is now considered a noxious invader in a number of states because of its impact on wildlife habitat, yet, paradoxically, is still widely sold and planted.
In my woods, the bushes certainly seemed to have no rivals but me. Around the time these thorns in my side lodged a thorn right through my glove and into in my thumb, I fantasized about possible antidotes to all this unpleasantry on an otherwise mild November day. If only a new native plant would make itself known, I mused as I carried out the last bunch of spiny branches my sore arms could tolerate cutting, it might make up for this prickly afternoon. The idea wasn’t entirely preposterous. Just a few weeks before, my husband and I had found nine Eastern red cedar volunteers peeking through the invasive ground ivy in our front yard. Other species I never planted, from the blue-eyed grass and heath asters to the sassafras and the mockernut hickories, have made a good life here, asking for nothing of us except freedom from being mowed down.
Still, during that reluctant battle with barberries, my attempts to correct the sins of our country’s horticultural past and present in whatever small way I could were getting the best of my spirits. The plants had established such a roothold, and there were so many of them, that controlling their spread started to feel futile. It was nice to think about just happening upon a pioneering native species popping up elsewhere, but as I passed a leftover mat of Japanese stilt grass we’d tried for years to control at the woods’ edge, the possibility of an equally significant surprise native planting seemed ever more remote.
Just as I was coming upon a broad expanse of once barren field, though, I saw in a new, golden light a plant I’d passed by many times before. Standing tall in the warm autumn glow were masses of burnt orange grasses, their delicate fluffy seedheads sparkling up and down the blades. It was a species I’d admired in previous years, in small patches, when we’d tried to let the grass around our slowly growing tree plantings go wild, only to be repeatedly thwarted by multiflora rose and other invasive opportunists. This time it appeared our mid-summer decision to let nature take its course had finally been rewarded. Stretched out before me, in three large colonies intersected by mowed paths to the compost pile, were hundreds of clumps of this grass so vibrant it reminded me of sunshine and of the sun itself.
It also reminded me of a $15 plant I’d almost bought at a native nursery a few months before but left behind after overspending my gift card. And good thing I’d abandoned the unnecessary purchase, as a little research revealed that the grass clumping its way through our field was indeed the same species: Andropogon virginicus, or broomsedge, a species that is often the first to pioneer abandoned pastures. Thriving in soil considered infertile by conventional definition, it can hold its own once established, emitting alleopathic chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants. Best of all, broomsedge provides important cover and nesting habitat. Birds and rodents feed on its seeds, deer and caterpillars feed on its leaves, and bees use the plant for nesting material.
Of course, as is the case so often with underappreciated native plants, all the merits of broomsedge add up to a whole lot of nothing for traditional agricultural interests. Still viewing the species as a weed because it often goes untouched by their grazing animals, many farmers follow the conventional advice to replace broomsedge with densely growing European fescue. In the process they are also replacing vital habitat used by quail, meadowlarks and other grassland birds, who need the escape pathways formed between clumping warm-season native bunch grasses.
As I lamented my barberry and celebrated my broomsedge, I began to wonder if gardeners in Japan are doing the same thing in reverse. The broomsedge that enriches wildlife habitat here has been introduced there and in other places, including Hawaii, where it has no natural competitors. And the barberry that has become such a scourge on our corner of the planet is surely an important source of sustenance or spot for nesting for the wild animals with whom it co-evolved in Japan. Every plant is native to somewhere and has a place in the local ecology of its homeland. And every plant introduced beyond its range has the potential to wipe out other species unable to adapt quickly enough to its presence.
It’s easy to become discouraged by human manipulation of a natural world that can’t keep up with such rapid alterations, but the power of nature’s helping hand in healing itself provides an infinite source of hope even on my small plot of land. Despite a seemingly overwhelming number of habitat-destroying plants, I’ve seen so many examples of natives holding their own and sometimes thriving among them. Some are even outcompeting their nonnative neighbors. The trick for us gardeners is to be patient enough to identify these gems before we carelessly destroy them, and to let natives beget even more natives.
In the case of my recent discovery, it came with a special bonus. An email to an ecologist confirmed not only the colonization of broomsedge in our field but the origin of a gorgeous grass with deep purple seedheads mixed among it. It was so pretty and so unknown to me that I’d made the mistake, once again, of assuming it was a too-good-to-be-true new invader I’d soon need to pull. But purpletop grass, or Tridens flavus, belongs here in this field, along with the caterpillars it hosts and the birds and other animals who find cover and sustenance in its blades and seeds.
Somewhere in Japan, I hope, another wildlife gardener has made a similar discovery. I only wish we could meet up to exchange our plants, together reversing the damage done by those who may not have known better. A simple handoff is impossible, of course, as is a return to the way things were. But improvement of habitat is definitely doable, because we do know better now, and we don’t have to know everything to get started in restoring ecological function to our landscapes. We just need to be humble and curious enough to watch and learn, letting the most overlooked teachers of all—the plants themselves—be our guide.
How’s a person supposed to get any work done when such exquisite creatures are flying in front of her face all day? That’s the question I’ve posed to the birds and bees and butterflies doing their best to distract me from a book project this summer. They’ve remained conspicuously silent on the matter, but my sister has confirmed my suspicions about this winged conspiracy: “There are so many,” she said of the pollinators crowding the swamp milkweed and green coneflower near my patio, “it’s hard to look away!”
Although my blog writing has become more sporadic in light of the looming deadline, I can’t let this week—the one-year anniversary of the launch of Humane Gardener—go by without paying homage to all creatures great and small who’ve made it possible. With gratitude to them and to the many wonderful members of our two-legged species I’ve met along the way, I offer these tips.
Step 1. Make Friends.
You don’t need to earn a landscaping degree or hold a PhD in bee biology to start a wildlife garden. But it helps to have people in your life who are willing to share with wild abandon.
If it weren’t for my friend Sally, we would not have such a proliferation of great spangled fritillary butterflies. Though they’re attracted as adults to the nectar of many native species, their caterpillars can eat only violets. From the three plants Sally uprooted 15 years ago, we now have thousands that provide essential habitat for these little beauties.
At only two weeks old, our newest milkweed patch is much younger than Sally’s violets. But I’ve already found monarch eggs on each of the seven little transplants. And that’s thanks to Molly, who generously offered up her extras at a time when my battered milkweed in the front yard seemed to be getting too tired to support fall migrations.
My gardens are filled with such gifts: the aptly named “queen of the prairie” flower from Lisa, the tasty strawberries from Janet, the sweet-smelling mountain mint from Stephanie, the exotic-looking native hibiscus from Jan, the misunderstood but much-beloved-by-pollinators dogbane from Angela, the giant late-flowering asters from Christine.
Whenever I see all these plants and the life they sustain, I am grateful for the friends who care so much about our earth that they want to share its bounty.
Step 2. Give Back.
Preying on insecurities of new gardeners, a whole industry has grown up around promotion of fancy bagged products and potions. But more often than not, these external inputs are counterproductive, disrupting natural soil cycles and maiming bees, butterfly larvae, and countless other sensitive creatures who feed and reproduce on our plants or in the ground.
Using what you have on hand—and returning materials back to the earth—is more sustainable and infinitely more doable on a small budget. On our own two acres, carving gardens out of the sea of turfgrass used to be a daunting task. After spending too many sweltering afternoons jumping up and down on a shovel wedged into hard clay, I began papering it over instead. This method preserves both rich organic matter and my fragile back. It also means I can use natural materials already on site, as Maryland natives grown in their preferred light and moisture conditions usually thrive in existing soil.
While the most commonly recommended method is to layer paper or cardboard beneath compost or mulch and let it all sit a few months before planting, I prefer not to wait that long. To make an insta-garden, I dig holes in the grass, put my plants in, surround them with paper, soak the paper with water to hold it in place, and top it all off with whatever else I have handy—leaves, old coconut fiber from hanging pots, potting soil from transplants, and (when I run out of options) mulch from the landfill. The beauty of this method is that, even as the new plants grow taller and the surrounding materials start to break down, animals and wind begin sowing seeds of other species in the spaces between. And before I know it, the earth erupts in flowers sown by both me and by nature.
Step 3. Think of the Children.
Much attention has been paid to the plight of monarch butterflies, and for good reason. The wanton destruction of the only plants they can lay their eggs on—those in the milkweed family—has led to a steep decline in their numbers. But milkweed is only one host plant among hundreds needed to support the life cycles of many butterfly and moth species in our gardens.
A pearl crescent reminded me of that last week while I planted Molly’s Magic Milkweed to expand my monarch offerings. She made quite a show of enjoying the damp newspaper and mulch used to smother the grass of the new garden, but her presence had broader meaning for me. This milkweed is nice and all, she seemed to be saying, but I need asters for my babies! While I happen to have many species of aster in my garden—including heath asters, smooth asters, and New England asters—I can’t say I planted them intentionally for pearl crescent caterpillars. In the fall I will add more in honor of my small-but-mighty friend.
Step 4. Call in Quality Control.
Host plants for caterpillars? Check. Nectar plants for butterflies? Check. Is there something you’re still forgetting? You can always count on the catbird to let you know. Like many birds, and especially baby birds, they are voracious consumers of insects. To ensure you have a plentiful supply, stay away from pesticides and other chemicals that kill grasshoppers and ants and everyone in between. Manufacturers of these products like to promise you the perfect rose garden, but a garden too toxic for a bee and too nutritionally deficient for a bird is no garden at all.
Birds also need native fruits and seeds in varying supply when migrating, breeding, and overwintering. Shrubs offer both berries for sustenance and dense habit for nesting and cover from predators. Fortunately I was able to let my catbird friend know that this garden-in-the-making would soon be a thicket of native roses, a family-friendly spot for rose-hip dining and baby bird rearing.
Step 5. Let the Team Take Over.
Once you have a few spots planted with species native to your area, sit back and watch the magic happen. Leave as much of your garden as possible the way nature intended: Let perennial stalks stay up overwinter so the seedheads can feed birds and stems can shelter bees. Provide bare, undisturbed patches near your pollinator plants so ground-nesting bees can raise their babies. Let leaves fall where they may to give shelter to caterpillars, pupae, salamanders, and many other animals during the cold, dark days.
You’ll be amazed by how many furred, feathered, and antennaed friends swoop in to offer their help once you make your home theirs, too.
Welcome to the Humane Gardener Monarch-y, where every day this week we’ve hosted royal visitors.
Mine, All Mine!
To clear up any confusion about why common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is taking over our front yard, I posted a sign after registering our property as a Monarch Waystation. It was like an instant welcome mat for this male, who reigned over our little patch of earth yesterday. His gender is identifiable by the black dots on his hindwings.
What’s for Dinner?
Just in time for the king’s banquet, the liatris began blooming. Later in the season, the monarchs will visit other nectar favorites: the asters budding in the background, the ironweed and Joe Pye weed in the meadow behind our house, and the boneset and goldenrod I’ve let seed throughout the gardens. Nectar-producing flowers that bloom in succession ensure a continuous supply of food for many creatures who stop by our habitat.
Can’t You Beetles Read the Sign?
As adults, monarchs feed from a variety of flowers, but while in bloom, common milkweed is by far their favorite in our yard (even though they are often forced to share). Since milkweed species are the only plants they can eat as caterpillars, a patch of its flowers must feel to a monarch like the front porch lights of his ancestral home.
Hey! You! Get Off of My Flower!
A line has already been forming at the echinacea, too, even though it’s just beginning to bloom. This bee didn’t mind a little company from the glam squad, though.
Some Privacy, Please?
On Wednesday I followed this little one as she rested on a thistle, a potted rubber plant, some milkweed, and some black-eyed Susans. I’m not sure what she was up to here as she dallied on this sassafras leaf, but she seemed to be basking after a rain (or possibly after just emerging into the world).
Seriously? We’re Trying to Make Babies Here.
Today another royal appeared to be ovipositing on this swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)by the back patio. Monarchs like to lay their eggs on newer leaves, and planting more than one native milkweed species can help round out the nursery at different times of the season. To keep things fresh for late-summer breeding, gardeners can also cut back tattered milkweed to encourage the growth of new leaves. Just be sure to check for eggs before pruning. (Training videos from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project can help you learn how to identify monarchs at different stages of their life cycle.)
A Log Moat Around the Butterfly Palace
Thanks to my husband, Will, our little Monarch-y is protected from county mowers by logs gathered from neighbors. Will helps me lay out the milkweed carpet for everyone who flocks to these plants—not just monarchs but skippers, bees, fritillaries, milkweed beetles, moths, spiders and many other members of the royal brigade.
We hear a lot about what other species can do for us, often through attempts to quantify their value in economic terms. Statisticians put pollinators’ contributions to U.S. food crops in the $15 to $30 billion range, and researchers have even calculated price points for individual species. Did you know, for example, that a single Southeastern blueberry bee has been found to visit nearly 50,000 blueberry flowers in a year, pollinating up to $75 worth of berries?*
Though the thought of all that effort heightens my admiration for both the animals and the scientists who have taken the painstaking time to study them, the ubiquitousness of this kind of “What’s in it for me?” framework gives me pause. Even the very word “pollinator” itself, at least as it’s often used now, is reductionist, singling out only one functional aspect among many that characterize this vastly diverse set of creatures.
The approach is understandable in a society plagued with short attention spans and even shorter-term thinking, but I fear that emphasizing the financial benefits we derive from animals may have the opposite of its intended effect. As Richard Conniff described so eloquently in a New York Times opinion piece, economic value is often successfully invoked to the detriment of our fellow species. “[U]sefulness is precisely the argument other people put forward to justify destroying or displacing wildlife,” he writes, “and they generally bring a larger and more persuasive kind of green to the argument.”
Around the time I read Conniff’s essay last fall, someone suggested I write a blog on the economic value of pollinators. I’ve tried, but the numbers are contradictory, and the story never seems to hold up. There’s a reason for that: Our pollinators—and indeed all the animals on this planet—have a priceless role to play, even if we humans haven’t figured it all out yet. Beyond what they do for us in the immediate present, the hard work of insects results in seeds and fruit that are critical to the diets of a quarter of our birds and many mammals. They’re also in and of themselves a meal for wildlife ranging from baby birds to foxes to bears. As the most diverse and numerous group of animals on the planet, insects are the very cornerstone of life itself. How can we possibly quantify that?
In honor of National Pollinator Week, I’d rather not talk about their financial value—which, as Conniff writes, should be obvious by now. I’d like to let these wondrous creatures—beautiful and strange and deserving of our respect and appreciation in their own right—help tell their stories through close-up views of their daily existence. Taken in only a couple of days this week on just a few plants, these photos gleaned tiny surprises I didn’t even see until I zoomed in. If only we could always train a macro lens on nature with our naked eyes, how much more would we understand of the bigger picture unfolding before us?
To be a bee or not to be a bee?
Watching the buzz around my possumhaw viburnums, my father and I wondered if these were baby bumblebees. They’re certainly fuzzy enough. But those little hairs captured so much pollen that it was hard to say for sure what lay beneath, and there was something about the bulkiness and movements of these insects that suggested a different species. Sure enough, they’re one of many that evolved to mimic bees, possibly to keep predators at bay. Commonly called the hairy flower chafer or bee-like flower scarab beetle, Trichiotinus piger also has some gorgeous headgear: a set of antennae that look like antlers or tiny twigs.
Also covered in pollen—to the point of looking like an albino insect (top)—were these notch-tipped flower longhorn beetles (Typocerus sinuatus). Only after finding one with a mere dusting of pollen (above) on another patch of possumhaw viburnum was I able to discern the markings. Beetles are thought to be the original pollinators, along with flies, appearing millions of years before bees.
It was practically a beetle festival, with our new plantings of viburnum attracting a diverse crowd. This second type of flower longhorn beetle, Metacmaeops vittata, looked more smooth-bodied and less prone to masquerading in full-on pollen makeup while enjoying the open, flat blooms. Her larvae are wood borers, preferring tulip poplar—another abundant species on our property—as a host. When these plants produce nutritious pink and blue berries in the fall, the birds will have this and all our other industrious beetles to thank.
Don’t look at me—I’m plant debris!
In trying to capture a photo of a small bee on this dogwood, I saw a reddish dangling bit hanging off the flower but didn’t think anything of it until I downloaded my photos onto the big screen. To my eyes, this creature looked like a piece of debris. And that’s how she likes it, apparently fooling a lot of species into thinking she’s a leftover plant part. So tiny that she’s sometimes grouped with an informal assemblage of moths called “microlepidoptera,” this is probably a grape plume moth or a Himmelman’s plume moth. Though many moths are considered important specialist pollinators, especially of night-blooming plants, the 10,000 species on this continent remain underappreciated. As the authors of the Xerces Society’s Attracting Native Pollinators note, “The muted colors of moths, their largely nocturnal lives, and the reputation of only a few species as crop or wardrobe pests results in their typically being overlooked at best or despised at worst.” I’m so grateful my camera was more attentive than I.
Accept no imitation?
The real deal: Bumblebees have a lot of imitators in the animal world, but none quite so bumbly and fuzzy as the bees themselves. We have added lots of natives for them, but we also leave in place some long-ago planted lamb’s ear and catmint to help tide them over during the transition from late spring to summer blooms. This year we have had far fewer bees so far, an observation I’ve heard echoed by friends and colleagues around the country. Though we have not used chemicals of any kind in the landscape during the 15 years we’ve lived on this property, I can’t say the same for all my neighbors and have wondered if this is playing a role in the sudden decline.
This is my milkweed, too!
Who says milkweed is just for monarchs? Many kinds of insects enjoy drinking from the flowers, eating the leaves, mating on the plants, and even eating each other in the milkweed patch (not necessarily all at once or in that order!). This great spangled fritillary has come to feed again and again on the nectar, keeping an eye out (or actually many eyes—butterflies have compound eyes with numerous lenses) for predators like me. I wish I could thank her and tell her I need nothing more from her; what she and her kind have already given us is far more than enough.
*This often-cited statistic is based on a 1997 study related to Southeastern blueberry bees in Alabama that was published in a journal of the International Society for Horticultural Science. Though the original research estimated the value at $20, recent citations have increased that number to $75, accounting for inflation in the price of blueberries. Subsequent research has shown varying levels of seed set in blueberries pollinated by this native bee, and scientists are looking at a number of different factors that influence pollination by these and other species. One thing’s for sure: Loss of habitat plays a key role in our native bees’ abilities to pollinate crops. As the Xerces Society pointed out in its book, Attracting Native Pollinators, transported honeybees are needed to supplement blueberry crops in Maine because wild bees lack consistent food sources from spring through fall.