Category Archives: Featured Species

Top 2017 Discoveries in Our Humane Garden

Image of mourning cloak butterfly

As a human in the modern world, I’m experiencing a bit of habitat envy. I crave more chances to sleep longer, pick my own fruit, and curl up with loved ones under a tree. If the universe determined our fates based on personalities and preferences, I’d likely be assigned to sloth-hood: slow-moving, plant-eating, tree-dwelling. The bumblebee lifestyle would be a good fit, too, allowing me to visit flowers all day and cozy up with family at night.

But I’m not complaining. This year has yielded extraordinary opportunities to spread the word about the importance of caring for wild plants and animals in our backyards. If it’s meant less time in my own garden, I don’t regret it. And I’ve learned to live vicariously through the creatures taking shelter there. Even brief strolls through our little oasis have brought countless insights into their often hidden world. Follow along as I recap 11 unforgettable moments in our 2017 humane garden.

1. The Eclipse Wasp

Image of Trogus pennator wasp

When her iridescent blue wings close, she is twilight. When they open, she’s as brilliant as the sun. How fitting, then, that I first discovered this otherworldly wasp in my garden just as the solar eclipse was starting on the afternoon of August 21. The sight of such a brilliant animal just feet from the ground was even more spectacular than anything I could have spied in the sky. Known scientifically as Trogus pennator, she appeared to have no common name, so I dubbed her the eclipse wasp. Harmless to us, she has an unusual nesting site: the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies. She injects a single egg into each caterpillar she finds; when the egg hatches, the wasp larva feeds on and eventually kills her host. To those who find this gutting of butterfly babies distasteful, I suggest remembering that birds devour caterpillars, too, and we don’t hold their predatory ways against them.

2. The Devoted and Drenched Dad

Image of cardinal carrying Abbott's sphinx moth

A summer downpour didn’t stop this papa cardinal, spotted one day through a screen door to our deck, from feeding his hungry family. Wondering about the identity of the unlucky soul about to end up in a baby bird’s belly, I checked my copy of Caterpillars of Eastern North America and discovered his name: Abbott’s sphinx moth caterpillar. Though I’d never seen one before, I guessed that we had plenty, as this species’ host plants—grape and Virginia creeper—proliferate in our gardens. Most chicks need an abundance of caterpillars in their diets, so these volunteer vines provide a plethora of baby food to young bird families.

3. The Superman Ant on a Mission

Taking a quick break from writing to refresh the birdbaths one day, I happened upon a familiar-looking butterfly skating oddly across our patio. Closer inspection revealed an ant carrying the wing of a silver-spotted skipper. How that butterfly met her demise, I’m not sure, but the scavenging ants made sure she did not die in vain.

4. The Hitchhikers

Image of blister beetle with fire-colored beetles

At first glance, this might look like the opossum of the insect world, a devoted mama carrying young ones on her back. That’s what my husband, Will, and I assumed when we came upon this scene under our ash tree last spring. But the diminutive hitchhikers are no mini-mes. They’re a completely different species. Called fire-colored beetles, they are attracted to cantharidin, a caustic chemical exuded by the larger blister beetle to deter predators. The tiny passengers may lick, chew or nip to extract the coveted potion, which some beetle species pass along to females while mating to confer protection to their offspring, according to the book Beetles of Eastern North America.

5. The Special Delivery

Image of fawn by patio

Whenever Will says, “Nancy, come here and look at something, and come quietly,” I know I’m in for a treat. This time it was a special delivery in the patio garden right outside our basement door. All our outdoor plans ceased that late spring week; we barely set foot into the backyard for fear of disturbing this newborn fawn. Except to stand, stretch and turn around, she didn’t move much either. We knew her mother must be close by, calling her baby to nurse but otherwise keeping her distance to avoid attracting predators. We saw no signs of distress—no crying, no flies, no indication of discomfort or confusion. Still, I couldn’t help but worry. Just as I started to wonder aloud if we should be concerned about her well-being, we woke up one morning to find our baby had left as quietly as she’d arrived. She was strong enough now to join her mother, who would find new spots to hide her precious cargo each day and plenty of food for her family in our deer-friendly garden.

6. The Buzz That Fell on Half-Deaf Ears

Being half-deaf all my life, I’ve missed a lot. Punchlines elude me amid roaring laughter, and having them repeated to me is of no use when I’ve already missed half the joke. But maybe this forced tuning-out of human noise has given me more sensitivity to nature’s music, including the dramatic soundtrack of bumblebee buzz pollination. Turn up the volume on the video, and between the lower drone of wing flapping, you’ll hear it, too: the distinctive high pitch of the bee’s flight muscles vibrating at a rapid clip to shake the pollen out of the anthers of this wild senna. It’s an amazing trick that some flowers—including those of tomatoes, blueberries and other human food crops—require for pollination. Only some bees can perform it, though, and the honeybee, a domesticated animal originally introduced from Europe, isn’t among them. We’d be awfully hungry without our buzz-pollinating wild friends—yet another reason to skip the hives in favor of nurturing habitat for the native bees already in our midst.

7. The Bird Who Thought Our Yard Was a Forest

Image of scarlet tanagerWhen this scarlet tanager joined our happy hour one evening in the height of summer, I knew it was a rare event. Little did I know how rare until I posted the photo and received responses from avid birders saying they had yet to spot one on their treks through the woods. Described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “frustratingly hard to find” because of their preference for high canopies of “large, undisturbed tracts of forest,” scarlet tanagers seem unlikely candidates for suburban backyard stopovers. This one kept us company for at least 20 minutes while feasting on the ripening fruit of staghorn sumac trees.

8. The Ant Hill That Wasn’t an Ant Hill

I’d read about it, written about it, and seen it from a distance in the past. But until this summer, I’d never actually gotten close enough to photograph a ground-nesting bee emerging from her hole, gathering pollen, and returning to her nest repeatedly. That seems strange in retrospect, since these soil dwellers are everywhere, comprising about 70 percent of our 4,000 or so native bee species in North America. They’re generally small and solitary, so it takes patience and a zoom lens to stake out such minifauna. One helpful clue to their whereabouts is the presence of mounds that look like anthills. Though they work alone, many bees create these nests near each other; I found mine along the edge of a mowed path that runs through our meadow down to the compost pile.

9. The Frog Who Thought He Was in a Jungle

Image of gray tree frog

Image of gray tree frog

As their name implies, tree frogs like to hang out high in the canopy. And sure enough, their vocalizations led my binocular-aided eyes to one atop a sassafras tree this summer. But sometimes the diminutive frogs descend to much lower altitudes during breeding season, seeming to take a particular liking to our potted rubber trees. In mid-May, just hours after I’d moved a few from their winter home in the basement to their summer spot on the patio, this little guy made himself right at home atop one of the sturdy leaves. Thin-skinned amphibians are especially vulnerable to the onslaught of chemicals and power equipment in a typical home landscape, so I feel especially protective of each one I find.

10. The Hamburglar Bun Gourmand

Image of crow with bread in birdbath

Image of crow with bun in birdbathOur birdbaths serve many purposes: quenching animals’ thirst, helping birds clean their feathers, and—apparently—giving crow connoisseurs a place to prepare their meals. This hamburger bun of unknown origins got a thorough soaking last March before the bird took off with the dripping mass gripped firmly in his beak. Was he cleaning off the human refuse before deigning to eat it himself? Was he softening it up to make it more palatable? Theories abound, but this is a common behavior among our highly intelligent feathered friends. I’m just happy I got to see it, even if through a fuzzy window screen.

11. The Plant That Inspired Our Neighbor to Go Wild

How many species can one plant support? At some point we stopped counting, but our neighbor walked by when we were still trying. “What is this plant called?” she asked. “Can you give me some seeds?” I was surprised by the sudden interest. She’d never wanted tall plants but didn’t seem to care that this boneset towered above her. She’d  never wanted prolific spreaders but could clearly see this self-starter had sprouted from a crack in our driveway. What sold my friend on Eupatorium serotinum? It certainly wasn’t me. Nothing I can say comes close to the sales pitch made by the bees, butterflies, mating wasps, bee flies, and moths crowding every bloom each summer. The moment confirmed my belief that wildlife of all kinds are the best ambassadors for the native plants that sustain them. We just need to have the courage to let them shine in our gardens for all the world to see.

Featured images, top: Tachinid flies also use caterpillars as a nesting site; when eggs hatch, the fly larvae feed on the caterpillars. Despite all this predation on baby butterflies and moths, we have dozens of winged beauties making it to adulthood in our garden, including the mourning cloak who emerged from winter dormancy in early March. (All photos by Nancy Lawson and Will Heinz)

Night Beauties: 4 Ways to Help Moths in the Garden

Image of brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar on heath aster

For every documented butterfly species in North America, about 15 times more moth species inhabit our gardens and natural areas. Yet they’re far less known to us than their charismatic day-flying counterparts, perhaps because most moths are active long after we’ve hit the sack.

Though they often escape the notice of humans, moths are essential to many other species, including plants that depend on them for pollination and animals who eat them for nourishment.  As caterpillars, they’re a mainstay of the diets of baby birds. As adults, they feed everyone from bats to bears; in fact, researchers have found that grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park eat up to 40,000 miller moths (adults of the army cutworm caterpillar) each day.

Our judgment of an animal’s worth should not be measured only by their potential to be prey for other species, though. Like all our wild neighbors, moths have intrinsic value of their own and deserve just as much respect, appreciation, and freedom from harm as butterflies do. Here are a few ways you can help these unassuming creatures in your garden and neighborhood.

1. Put down the spray bottle

Image of grape leaf folder moth
As caterpillars, larvae of the beautiful grape leaf folder moths do exactly what their name implies, spinning silk to tie leaves around themselves and nibble without being seen.

Much of the easily accessible information about moth caterpillars is confined to academic and agricultural sites that refer to these animals as “pests” because they dare to chew holes in leaves. All sorts of chemical potions are recommended for destroying the supposed enemy. But everyone has to eat, and I rather appreciate nature’s vegetarians. The grape leaf folder moth pictured above has likely taken up residence in our yard because this year we have an abundance of wild grapevines, their larvae’s favorite food.

image of tiger milkweed moths
Tiger milkweed moths like to hang out in packs on butterflyweed and other milkweed species.

Tiger milkweed moths also set up shop at this time of year, though the caterpillars are more gregarious than the adults. Sometimes gardeners are upset by the voracious appetites of these fuzzy creatures, worried there’ll be no food left for the monarch butterfly larvae, who also depend on milkweed. But these two winged species tend to have different palates. Tiger milkweed caterpillars join the buffet when plants have aged a bit, while monarch caterpillars prefer young, fresh milkweed leaves.

2. Plant native species they recognize

Image of brown-hooded owlet caterpillar
A brown-hooded owlet caterpillar munches on a heath aster, a white-flowering native that volunteered in my garden a few years ago and has since spread.

Plant names are sometimes embedded in the common names of some moth species or their caterpillars. There’s a good reason for that; like butterfly larvae, moths in the teenage phase often nibble only on vegetation they coevolved with. Common oak moth larvae eat oaks, locust underwing moth larvae munch on locust trees, and caterpillars of the hickory horned devil—whose more appealing adult name is “royal walnut moth”—dine on hickories and walnuts.

Image of bicolored pyrausta
A bicolored pyrausta (we think) visited a cutleaf coneflower by my patio last weekend.

But many moth names seem to bear no relationship to the plants the animals depend on: Brown-hooded owlet moths eat asters and goldenrod, and Pandora sphinx moths eats Virginia creeper and grapes. The larval host plants of some species aren’t even yet known; after moth expert Dr. David Adamski helped me tentatively identify a small orange moth in my garden as a bicolored pylautus, I searched references for her preferred foods only to learn that scientists haven’t yet figured it out. The lesson for me? Plant even more native plant species! You never know who might need them.

Yuccas and yucca moths provide an exquisite example of the fascinating mutualistic relationship between animals and plants. The yuccas receive the benefit of pollination from the moths, and the moths lay their eggs in the flowers, where larvae hatch and eat the abundant seeds. Wondering why I’d never witnessed moths among the many yuccas scattered around our gardens, I finally ventured outside around 10 p.m. earlier this summer and found more action than I’d ever imagined. It really gets going at the 27-second mark in this video taken by my husband:

3. Let there be dark

Image of giant silk moth
A polyphemus moth in our neighborhood appeared to be on her last legs – or wings – when my husband scooped her up from the road and placed her in the grass.
image of polyphemus moth caterpillar
A polyphemus moth caterpillar, brought to a presentation at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., rests on an oak leaf.

Recently while researching a magazine column about gardening for bats, I was alarmed to find that some experts support leaving lights on to unnaturally attract moths for an easy food supply. Light pollution negatively affects giant silk moths and has led to the decline of other large species, including the royal walnut moth. “The preponderance of lights where there used to be forest is taking a heavy toll on these wonderful animals throughout their range,” writes entomologist Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. “Royal walnut moths have already disappeared entirely from New England.”

image of hickory horned devil
We felt lucky that our garden was home last year to the royal walnut moth’s caterpillar, called the hickory horned devil, a species threatened by light pollution.

As adults, these moths live for only a few days and don’t eat; lacking mouth parts, they survive only on the energy they stored up as caterpillars. Their primary function is to breed, but if they spend their nights circling the security lights in someone’s front yard, they run out of energy to mate and lay eggs.

Though bats are declining in number and face many threats themselves, it doesn’t make sense to harm one type of animal to help another–not to mention the fact that hurting species that serve as bats’ main food supply will only exacerbate the plights of bats, too. To save these moths from further decline, turn off outdoor lights at dusk, or install motion-detecting lights that don’t burn throughout the night.

4. Don’t equate tidiness with godliness.

Image of hummingbird moth
When not flying among our flowers, hummingbird moths rely on the garden’s leafy layer as caterpillars, taking shelter there in the winter.

We’re used to seeing hummingbird moths enjoying the wildflowers in our gardens, but they’d never reach this beautiful adult phase if we raked out too many leaves from the understory. These creatures overwinter as pupae in the natural ground layers, emerging in spring and summer as adults.

In fact, many species of butterflies and moths take shelter there, along with toads, queen bees, and countless other creatures who need to wait out the winter storms in decaying plant material we too often blow and rake away. This fall, leave the leaves and other natural material in place, and watch how many more species begin to take up permanent residence in your humane garden.

Photos by Nancy Lawson. Video by Will Heinz. Featured image: A Datana moth rests on a spicebush leaf.




Peekaboo! Who’s Hiding in the Plants?

Image of baby rabbits in golden ragwort
This spring, we grew bunnies in our garden! Though its leaves are said to be toxic to mammals, golden ragwort (Packera aurea) provides wonderful cover for nesting animals.

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.

Image of silver-spotted skipper on wild bergamot
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) obscures this silver-spotted skipper, one of many visitors to the nectar-rich plant.
Image of pink turtlehead and bee
A tiny metallic bee exits the all-you-can-eat buffet of a turtlehead (Chelone lyonii).
Image of earwig in coral honeysuckle flower
An earwig becomes much more intimate with this coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) than my zoom lens ever could.
Image of bee in Virginia bluebells
A bee commandeers the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), an important nectar source early in the season.
Image of swallowtail on ironweed
A female Eastern tiger swallowtail isn’t exactly hidden by this New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis). But a closer look finds someone much smaller–a skipper–sharing the flowers beneath her.
Image of swallowtail butterfly on hibiscus
A male Eastern tiger swallowtail has better luck being a wallflower behind the giant bloom  of Hibiscus ‘Lord Baltimore,’ a hybrid of native hibiscus species.
Image of katydid on common evening primrose
Katydids are hard to distinguish from the leaves of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).
Image of northern pearly eye on garage door handle
A northern pearly eye spends a long time extracting something (minerals? rain drops?) from the screws of the garage door opener before traveling to the keyhole to find more treats.
Image of hummingbird moth on verbena
A hummingbird moth samples the menu in a pot of verbena on my deck. (Once I realized why this nonnative is so attractive to pollinators with long proboscises–because of its accessible corolla–I planted more varieties of native phlox that would bloom throughout the season in the garden.)
Image of slug on swamp milkweed
A slug is more than welcome to show up on the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Sure, he’ll ooze a little, but who am I to judge? Our species leaves much slimier, less natural, and more harmful substances in our wake all over the planet.
Image of baby bluebird in house
Young bluebirds try to stay invisible until their hungry bellies get the best of them.
Image of monarch on sassafras
A monarch butterfly enjoys basking for a while on a sassafras leaf and doesn’t seem to be  in any hurry to get to the milkweed. Perhaps he has just hatched and needs to dry his wings–or maybe he’s as curious about me as I am about him.

The Butterflies Awaken

Image of mourning cloak on bark

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.

Image of mourning cloak on swing
After watching a mourning cloak’s flight path toward this wooden swing surrounded by switch grass, I traced her path and approached quietly from behind to further observe her. Said to be named after similarly colored attire once worn during grieving ceremonies, mourning cloaks inspire anything but sadness. They’re a harbinger of spring, one of the first visible creatures to beautify the still-brown landscape.

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.)

Image of mourning cloak on swing
Mourning cloaks live much longer than most butterflies – up to 10 months or so. Most adults will likely die not long after mating and laying the eggs of a new generation in the spring.

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.”

Image of mourning cloak in wind
Trying to hold himself up in the wind, this mourning cloak shows the bark-like camouflage of his outer wings.
Image of mourning cloak in wind
After a cold winter, strong March winds didn’t deter this fellow either; he repeatedly pulled himself upright while basking in the intermittent sunshine.

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.

Image of mourning cloak caterpillar
While removing what I thought was garden “debris” a few years ago, I came across this mourning cloak caterpillar, likely on his way to pupating. The experience taught me not to sweep away leaves where many small creatures overwinter, nest, and feed.

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.

Image of Eastern comma on elm
The white comma mark on the outer wing of the Eastern comma butterfly explains her name. A related butterfly, the question mark, displays a similar marking but with a dot to complete her punctuation symbol.

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.

In late summer last year, this Eastern comma wasn’t nearly as bothered by my presence while I watched him puddle in the driveway. Though the species likes to inhabit woodlands, they are frequent visitors to yards that include their host plants (elms and nettles for Eastern commas and willows, elms, hackberries and birch for mourning cloaks).

Image of Eastern comma profilePhotos by Nancy Lawson




Image of ironweed and skippersHumans 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.

Burnweed, Fireweed, Pilewort (Erechtites hieracifolia)Image of horseweed

As its common Image of burnweednames 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)

Image of jewelweedJewelweed 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)Image of Pennsylvania smartweed

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) DSC_0249

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.)

Splendor in the Grass

Image of broomsedge
A tale of two species: A battle with invasive Japanese barberry led to a thrilling discovery of this native colonizer.

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.

Piles of chopped-down Japanese barberry lie waiting to be carted away. Imported as an ornamental species in the 1800s, the bush escaped from cultivation and takes over native wildlife habitat.

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.

Image of broomsedge
Broomsedge provides cover, nesting, and forage opportunities for wildlife. Its leaves are larval hosts for several species of butterflies.

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.

Image of broomsedge
Unremarkable during the warm months, broomsedge comes into its own in the fall, its brilliant orange leaf blades covered in jewel-like seed heads. Though still called a weed in agricultural circles, gardeners and golf course landscapers have come to appreciate its beauty.

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.

Image of purpletop grass
True to its name, purpletop grass shines a brilliant purple in summer. Wrongly assuming it was a too-good-to-be-true invasive, I neglected to photograph it at its prime and almost pulled it out.

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.

The Monarch-y’s in Town!

Welcome to the Humane Gardener Monarch-y, where every day this week we’ve hosted royal visitors.

Mine, All Mine!

Image of monarch on signTo 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?

Image of monarch on liatrisJust 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?

image of monarch and milkweed beetleAs 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!

image of monarch on echinaceaA 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?

Image of monarch on sassafras leafOn 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.

image of monarch on swamp milkweedToday 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

Image of monarch sign and logsThanks 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.

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Image of hoverfly on Virginia rose
Unlike many of their nonnative cousins, Virginia roses bare their reproductive parts and entice pollinators like this hoverfly. A bee foraging on a nearby “Knockout” rose was not so lucky.

The sweat bee circled the perimeter, casing the rosey joint before nose-diving into the outer layer. Finding nothing, he tried a different tack, going around the bend into adjacent petals. Coming up short again, he reappeared head first and ascended the protective border of the inner circle.

Just a few steps from the anthers, he was on the verge of finally reaching his destination. But the flower remained stubbornly closed to visitors, and my friend flew off on an empty stomach.

The scene was akin to watching a child trying to open a child-proof container, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The bee’s chosen restaurant was a Knockout rose, bred for its hardiness, disease resistance, long bloom times, and just about everything else that humans desire but bees don’t give a damn about.

If there’d been a Yelp category for bee-friendly establishments, the dejected rose visitor would have found reviews from other pollinators with similar experiences. And he would have steered clear of this unwelcoming hedge and instead joined the hoverfly dining on my new patch of pollinator-friendly native Virginia roses in our backyard.

A rose by any other name, it turns out, is sometimes not so sweet at all when gardening for wildlife. Many modern and highly cultivated types provide little for our animal friends, their shapes and colors and structures so altered as to make finding food an exercise in frustration. In short, these manicured flowers may be a convenient and over-the-top feast for our human eyes, but they often fail to nourish our fellow species.

Image of sweat bee on Knockout rose

Image of sweat bee on Knockout rose
Around and around this sweat bee went on a Knockout rose before finally abandoning his mission.

Introduced with much fanfare in 2000, the same year my husband and I moved to our 2-acre property, the Knockout line once seemed like the perfect plant for a flower lover who’d been raised with a healthy fear of unhealthy roses. My pragmatic mom had occasionally expressed a quiet longing for the voluptuous blooms, but always with a note of regret about how difficult they were to grow. My plant scientist dad acknowledged the otherworldly aspect of roses but preferred species that required far less coddling.

My parents are from Portland, Oregon, where seemingly anything grows and entire festivals are devoted to celebrating the ancient floral symbol of love and death and regret. But they settled near Washington, D.C., a region with its own kind of lushness that hasn’t forgotten its muggy wetland roots and powdery mildew-filled, black-spot-tainted atmosphere. It’s great for some plants—like those that evolved here and thrive on the humidity—but not so accommodating of flowery fussbudgetry meant for cooler-headed climates.

Which is why much of America—its median strips, its parking lots, its storefronts and libraries and post offices and parks—ended up with ubiquitous hedges of the flamboyant and seemingly carefree Knockouts. In our own space, they quickly became a centerpiece of our front yard, needing nothing from me but a little water in the beginning and a lot of admiration in successive years. Even a vole who cut them off at the knees with his teeth didn’t manage to do any permanent damage.

Image of Knockout rose
This was the first of six Knockout roses I planted more than a decade ago. Most are now dead, likely from a virus, and I’m replacing them with more native plants that sustain wildlife.

They were roses that could stand on their own, without support from toxic chemicals, and that was why I’d bought them. What was not to love?

Over the years, though, I realized that the only other creatures who shared these affections were my one-time vole visitors. As I watched sparrows eat the seeds of the switchgrasses I’d planted nearby and bees collect pollen from the wild senna that volunteered between the bushes, I was dismayed to realize that, in spite of their gregarious-looking ways, these roses were at heart a very lonely species.

This year, as the Knockouts nearly succumbed to either extreme cold or the rose rosette disease virus that’s now known to attack them—possibly a combination of both—we cut the dead branches back to the ground and made way for more senna and switchgrasses  to take over. And I went on a mission to find roses that were meant to be here. Planted two weeks ago on a gentle dry slope in our backyard, the five Rosa virginianas are already thriving. Native to much of the eastern United States, they aren’t just disease-resistant and beautiful throughout the year; they also provide nectar and pollen for native bees and other pollinators, nutrient-rich hips and cover for birds and mammals, and foliage for caterpillars and leaf-cutter bees.

Image of Knockout rose center

Image of Virginia rose closeup
Maybe the bashfulness of modern roses is a relic of the Victorian era. To see the anthers of the Knockout rose the sweat bee had visited (top), I had to pull back the petals and hold them for the camera. Native roses (above) are not nearly so reticent, their perfect five-petaled blooms showcasing the heart of the flower for all to see.

Though we’ve been trained  to think of the fluffy-bloomed peacocks of the rose world as the most exquisite, to my eyes there’s something much bolder about our single-petaled native roses. Unapologetically baring all their reproductive parts, the flowers’ contrasts of pink and yellow beckon animals to come feed. And when the animals respond, it’s clear that flora and fauna are old friends who know precisely what to do when they meet again. Like any good host, the flower offers its tasty treats in just the right-sized cup for the tongues of its visitors, who return the favor with the gift of pollination.

The next time I visit my new Virginia rose patch, I hope to find Mr. Sweat Bee and his friends there, enjoying themselves at the open bar instead of wasting their time on roses that refuse to serve their kind. Those plants are manmade constructs that have little to do with the needs of the natural world. I don’t blame people for not knowing this; it took me years to figure it out. But once you know, you can’t un-know, nor should you try. The plants and animals have taught us that lesson over and over again. It’s our job now, as fellow citizens of this beautiful but degraded planet, to stop ignoring them, start turning down the volume on all the marketing ploys that encourage us to carry on ignorantly in our human-centric ways, and act in the best interests of all species. It’s not hard. We just have to restore our humility enough to follow their lead—to whichever flowers they take us to.



5 Gorgeous Reasons to Go Native Plant Sale-ing

If my recent post about chemicals lurking in mass-produced plants wasn’t enough to persuade you, here are five more reasons to do your spring garden shopping at native plant sales and nurseries (like the ones listed here).

Yes, this is shameless eye candy. But it is eye candy with a purpose, supporting a bounty of life in the landscape.

1. Swamp milkweed
Image of swamp milkweed

Why I love it: Aslcepias incarnata is one of four milkweeds in my garden. Each comes into its own at slightly different times of the season, providing a continuous supply of foliage for the monarch butterfly caterpillars who depend on milkweed leaves for survival. The blooms host a pollinator party every day.

Who else loves it:  Swamp milkweed also feeds queen butterfly caterpillars, hummingbirds, and bees. (For more on milkweeds native to your region, see this helpful list from the National Wildlife Federation.)

2. Beautyberry DSC_0100

Why I love it: I often lament the undeserved names native plants were saddled with centuries ago. But beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is one bush with a label worthy of its radiance. Purchased on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my beautyberries are at the edge of my front garden. They’re also at the edge of their native range, a broad swath of the southeastern U.S. that reaches the coastal plain of Maryland but not the Piedmont. This might explain why they stay rather small here, since native plants grow best in the local soils to which they’re adapted. (I’m OK with that; it likes it here well enough, and I like it here, too!)

Who else loves it: High in moisture content, the berries are food for more than 40 bird species, including the northern bobwhite, American robin, brown thrasher, purple finch, and eastern towhee. Foxes, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, deer, and armadillos also eat the drupes.

3. Coral honeysuckle Image of trumpet honeysuckle

Why I love it: Why doesn’t everyone love it? That seems a more appropriate question. Lonicera sempervirens, native from Maine to Florida to Illinois to Texas, is a hometown hero with exotic flair, adding color all summer long to my garden. In warm years, it starts as early as April and flowers until November. (By the time this photo was taken on May 3, 2012, in Howard County, Maryland, the vine was in full regalia.) Unlike the invasive Asian honeysuckles, trumpet honeysuckle blooms prolifically where planted but does not take over habitat. Instead, it creates it!

Who else loves it: Also called coral honeysuckle, its flowers feed hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Its fruits attract quail, purple finches, goldfinches, hermit thrushes, and American robins. And its leaves are a larval host for spring azure butterflies and snowberry clearwing moths.

4. Possumhaw viburnumDSC_0033

Why I love it:  I never thought I’d love berries as much as I love flowers, but this bush changed my mind. As the fruits ripen, the colors change from light pink to deep pink to blue. Viburnums don’t typically flourish in the baking heat of my yard. But Viburnum nudum is adaptable in a variety of conditions. Near the treeline that borders our property, it gets a little of everything—some sun, some shade, and varying levels of water, depending on the season.

Who else loves it: As the name implies, opossums eat this fruit, as do raccoons. Many birds, including cardinals, woodpeckers, and robins, feast on it, too. In May and June, the white flowers host bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

5. Golden ragwortimage of golden ragwort

Why I love it: I bought a single pot of Packera aurea about 12 years ago. If I had to count them now, it would take me days. We have thousands. But that doesn’t mean this plant is invasive—quite the opposite. Its shallow roots are easy to pull, and it spreads only where it’s planted. After it finishes blooming in early spring, the leaves stay lush all summer and provide a natural groundcover.  In lieu of seas of barren mulch, we grow golden ragwort under chokeberries, dogwoods, and in the bare spaces between meadow plants. When flooding forced me to rip out my beloved fern garden where I’d planted that very first ragwort, it took only one season to bring it back to life in another spot.

Who else loves it:  The flowers attract early pollinators, including little carpenter bees, cuckoo bees and various Halictid bees.

One last tip: When choosing plants, look for ones that match your yard’s light and moisture conditions. As hardy as they are, many natives need to be in the right spots to thrive (though some will have a party just about anywhere). Also be on the lookout for affordable deals, such as bulk offers on small plugs for grasses and perennials or special sales of bareroot trees and shrubs. Young plants can grow into mature specimens just as quickly as older ones, and buying more than one will help you create more cohesive, natural plantings for wildlife.

Happy gardening!

Happy as a Hornet

Built by a thriving and gentle family of baldfaced hornets, this abandoned architectural marvel made of all-natural materials is recreated from scratch in new spots every season.

Last summer, we dined al fresco near a hornet’s nest, drank sweet wine near a hornet’s nest, swam with our niece and nephew near a hornet’s nest, planted gardens near a hornet’s nest, worked on our laptops near a hornet’s nest, napped near a hornet’s nest, invited friends to come party with us near a hornet’s nest, and generally lived a life free from harm near a hornet’s nest.

The one thing my husband and I didn’t do alongside the living work of art hanging in the maple tree by our patio? We resolutely avoided stirring up the hornet’s nest, despite grave admonitions from well-intentioned visitors that perhaps we should consider it.

That’s because, while the practice is so common as to be enshrined in a centuries-old metaphor, it’s rooted in a misunderstanding of the natural world. The very definition of the phrase exemplifies the anthropocentric view that the wild animals in our backyard have it in for us: To “stir up a hornet’s nest,” according to one old Webster’s definition, is to “provoke the attack of a swarm of spiteful enemies or spirited critics.” More modern definitions of “hornet’s nest” include “a hazardous or troublesome situation.”

There’s a hole in that logic looming larger than the entryway to the nest itself: If the queen of the baldfaced hornet family who decided to set up shop here wanted to make trouble and thought of us as an “enemy”—or thought of us at all, for that matter—why would she raise her babies right in front of our faces? And if her goal were to criticize us, she severely misjudged her audience; we felt honored to offer her prime real estate.

Baldfaced hornet's nest
Workers build, repair, and guard the nest. They also help feed insects to their young.

In the distant past my response likely would have been less welcoming or at least more tinged with fear, a common reaction in a culture that emphasizes individualism over harmonious relationships with our natural surroundings. But a lifetime spent working and playing alongside backyard wildlife of all kinds has made me realize on a visceral level what I already knew in theory: No animal is out to get us. That goes for everyone from the solitary bears to the communal foxes to the highly social “superorganism” species like honeybees, all of whom have a role in the ecosystem, even if it’s not immediately apparent to us.

The baldfaced hornet, actually a wasp related to the yellow jacket, is no exception. Though its name implies something more sinister, the species is called “baldfaced” only because of the white patterning on its predominantly black body, not because of any particularly bold or shameless behaviors. Some people I know are far more baldfaced than the baldfaced hornet.

Certainly, baldfaced hornets can deliver a fierce sting, but only when their nests are threatened. The one time they showed even vague aggression toward me last summer was when I deserved it: I got too close while using an iPhone to photograph their Architectural Digest-worthy mansion made of nibbled wood. Two of the resident guards flew quickly toward me, as was their right, and then left me alone after I beat a hasty retreat. “We’ll let you get pretty close,” they seemed to be saying, “but at this point we draw the line.”

And who wouldn’t lash out and be “mad as a hornet” in response to such an interloper? An ability to defend the hearth from home invasions and chemical attacks is key to survival. Most of the time, as they go about pollinating and foraging for other insects, these animals are focused on more fun things in life: eating and reproducing. While galavanting around the garden, they’re downright gentle toward us humans.

Long after next year's brood has left the nest, the structure provides food and shelter for other animals.
Long after next year’s brood has left the nest, the structure provides food and shelter for other animals.

Months later, while photographing the snow-capped empty nest, I think about who might be inside there now. Though baldfaced hornets are sometimes food for larger animals like raccoons and skunks, this summer’s insect estate seems to have been protected enough to escape notice during high season. Recently the back side has been pockmarked with holes, probably by birds looking for spiders and other squatters. The queen has long since died, having hatched a final brood who left to find cozy winter refuge under bark or among fallen logs.

That brood will not be back, as new queens find their own spots to build their homes. But perhaps we’ll have another family, in another tree next July, working hard to build a house, make a living, and realize their own version of the American dream—including, at least in this little space, the freedom from harm.

For more information and a video: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, BugLadyUniversity of Maryland, Bug of the WeekNature Documentaries

The Magic of Skunk Cabbage: A Plant for the Ages

To counter the effect of this week’s nonstop reports about our planet hurtling toward its inevitable manmade doom, I’ve been heading back in time to see what we might learn from the age of dinosaurs.

It doesn’t require Dr. Who’s TARDIS to get there or Doc Brown’s DeLorean to get back home. A hat, some rain boots, and my own two feet are enough to tread the winter-hardened path to my property’s edge.

First I cross the patio, a symbol of the Anthropocene, the proposed new age of human activity so dramatic and sudden it’s irreversibly altering the earth’s natural systems. Here, alongside native plants grown for wildlife, are the remains of containers I filled last summer with species from around the planet—a kind of embodiment of global trade and human ingenuity.

Next I walk through an acre and a half of former cropland, a reminder of the Holocene epoch that saw the dawn of agriculture and major civilizations. Here, too, in a small attempt to reclaim what’s been lost to development, I’ve busily planted natives every season. But no matter what we call it—sustainable landscaping, wildlife gardening, ecological restoration—this is still human manipulation, a dynamic little island of life at the mercy of whoever happens to be paying the mortgage.

Finally, at the crumbling fenceline where open expanse meets majestic tulip poplars, decaying logs, and opportunistic ferns, I arrive at my destination: the Mesozoic era, when T. rex  roamed the Earth alongside at least one of the same species still growing in my vulnerable patch of woods. Here, where I’ve done nothing at all, the beauty of human neglect manifests itself in ways ethereal and prehistoric.

Only a few feet into the woods, fallen logs left to their own devices harbor primordial plants and provide much needed wildlife habitat.

I’ve been taking this walk during a week when news from the environmental front is particularly troubling: One group of scientists honed in on the start date of the Age of Man, suggesting it had begun with the development of nuclear weapons and plastics, while another reported that we’ve crossed another boundary of planetary degradation—the threshold for unsustainable deforestation. There is also alarming new research indicating that native pollinator species are at risk of contracting disease from honeybees plagued by colony collapse disorder, as well as dire warnings aimed at well-intentioned gardeners who’ve been hurting monarch butterflies by planting the wrong kind of milkweed.

But pushing their way through it all, out of the ice and muck near the stream in my backyard, are plants whose evolution predated human interference with nature by millions of years. As a species, they’re so old they’re believed to have evolved to their near-current state during the Cretaceous period. As individual specimens, they’re so deeply anchored by their rhizomes they can live for decades or possibly even centuries.

When it emerges through the muck and leaf litter, skunk cabbage is so subtle in coloring it can be hard to find. But if you keep looking, you'll be rewarded with nature's first sign of spring.
When it emerges through the muck and leaf litter, skunk cabbage is subtle in coloring and difficult to find. But keep looking, and you’ll be rewarded with nature’s first sign of spring.


Deemed a harbinger of spring, skunk cabbage nonetheless gets little respect, partly because of the gracelessness of its name. But Symplocarpus foetidus has magical powers. During these grayest of days, the flowers are the first to forge through the freezing ground and take down Old Man Winter. Thought to expend as much energy as a chipmunk or a hummingbird, skunk cabbage actually creates its own heat and melts surrounding ice and snow. It emits an odor some find disagreeable but others—especially flies and just-waking black bears—can’t resist. In fact, the plant has been such an important part of bears’ diets that some early settlers called it “bear-weed.”

Last April was the first time I paid much attention to this animalistic species. Feeling desperate to be near water after a dreary, cold winter, I walked through the still leafless yard and was taken aback by what awaited at the stream. Prettier than any hosta or other imported species grown for leafy beauty, the giant-leaved skunk cabbages covered the bank and had even popped up in the water itself. After months of gloom, the sight of such deep and unabashed green was nothing short of glorious.

A sight for winter-weary eyes: skunk cabbage in April.
A sight for winter-weary eyes: skunk cabbage in April.

While I didn’t eat it the way bears do (its raw leaves would burn our mouths), I drank in the sights and sounds of a space I can only describe as primeval. There’s a reason for its otherworldly aspect: Though still common in most of its range, skunk cabbage grows in wetlands left relatively undisturbed. Its contractile roots bind it tightly to the earth, sending it deeper into the ground with each passing year. But tough as it is, this wildflower needs a habitat that’s constantly under threat of deforestation and changes in water levels; it’s already considered endangered in Tennessee and vulnerable in three other states.

Bypassing this species in their own backyards, many plant lovers have reserved their celebration of the Araceae family for the phallic monstrosities entombed in the glasshouses of botanic gardens. An impressive specimen, the tropical Amorphophallus titanum emits the stench of rotting flesh when it blooms every two to ten years. But skunk cabbages, part of the same family, are arguably even more impressive. Likely employing their rare heat- and odor-emitting mechanisms for the same reason their flamboyant relatives do—to attract pollinators—the much smaller wildflowers have to brave the freeze to get it done. And one study from researchers in Japan showed they not only know how to heat things up but can actually regulate their own temperature in response to fluctuations in the external environment.

We could take a cue from the fellow countrymen and women of those researchers. Inspired by the skunk cabbage’s monklike appearance when it emerges from the muck, the Japanese call it Zazen-sou, or Zen meditation plant. It’s a name so fitting for a plant that has quietly, if odiferously, persisted in the face of unprecedented habitat destruction. While scientists and politicians continue to debate the exact date we first started destroying the planet, the skunk cabbage lives on in defiance, inspiring us to stop talking about when and why and start focusing on how: How are we going to harness the Age of Man for the good of all creatures, using our own species’ wisdom and skill to protect and nurture the animals and plants we have left?

Check back for skunk cabbage updates in the coming weeks, as we observe one of nature’s miracles through her seasonal life cycle.

Respect the Caterpillar!

Why plant invasive butterfly bush when you can feed both adult butterflies and the caterpillars of dozens of species with plants like this joe-pye weed?
No one eats the leaves of butterfly bushes for a reason: They didn’t evolve alongside our caterpillars. Plant natives like this Joe-pye weed, which feeds dozens of species. Then rejoice when you see signs of munching on the leaves—it means you’re a lifesaver for wildlife!

We’re taught from an early age to think of blemishes and natural signs of growing older as flaws in need of removal or destruction. A still tasty but slightly bruised apple rarely makes it to market, and when it does, few shoppers buy it. A birthmark that could have been a thing of beauty is surgically removed. Wrinkles that were years in the making are lasered and collagened away.

It’s the same way with plants. At the first sign of “damage,” we’re expected to impose our will over the natural order of things. A leaf with holes or raggedy edges is a  weakness, and, according to the Landscaping Industrial Complex,  will surely lead to our entire garden’s undoing if we let it.

Caterpillars are especially victimized by this warped pursuit of false perfection. Often labeled “pests” and “menaces,” these essential denizens of healthy backyard ecosystems are treated like foreign invaders in their own land. They’re sprayed, picked off, hosed down and otherwise attacked for the crime of daring to feed themselves. A popular product, BT, is organic but nonetheless lethal; marketed as safe and natural, this bacteria-based treatment is anything but for caterpillars, whose guts rupture after eating it.

Just as often as we malign these animals, though, we simply don’t think about them at all. And that’s a problem, too. Most insects, including many caterpillars, are specialists, meaning they need certain native plants to survive. But many of the plants traditionally used in butterfly gardens are nonnative and do nothing at all for butterfly babies. As I explained in a recent column in All Animals magazine, the confusion runs deep and isn’t helped by poor nomenclature; gardeners across the country still revere the butterfly bush, despite its inability to support caterpillars. To make matters worse, the species, originally from Asia, is now a known invasive, taking over wildlife habitat in the U.S. and even, ironically, contributing to a demise of butterfly populations in England.

The steep decline of monarch butterflies in recent years has jolted the public into action and put a spotlight on the necessity of milkweed for species survival. But I’ve begun to wonder whether enough attention is being given to the impacts of our war with nature on all the other butterfly and moth species struggling to survive in ever-shrinking habitats. Just last year, three species of skipper butterflies in Florida were declared likely extinct, and many more around the country are in peril.

How profound will continued losses be? As entomologist and professor Doug Tallamy has pointed out in his book Bringing Nature Home, 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species depend on insects to feed their young. To put in perspective the number of insects that requires, Tallamy notes that it takes an average of 9,100 caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees.

It’s abundantly clear that nature needs our help now more than ever—and that’s true not just for iconic species but for all the living creatures on our planet. Here are five ways to support habitat for caterpillars—and, by extension, many other animals in your backyard:

1. Host the Host Plants: Plants in every layer of the garden support caterpillars, from tiny native violets to towering oak trees. Online resources, including these helpful lists for Eastern-region gardens and Southeastern gardens, can help you get started.

Monarchs are now the most well-known insect specialists, inspiring a movement to plant more milkweed. Gardeners should plant several species of milkweed that mature at different times, ensuring food for monarch caterpillars throughout the season. This butterflyweed, an orange-flowered native, has reseeded in several places on my property.
Monarchs are now the most well-known insect specialists, inspiring a movement to plant more milkweed. Gardeners should plant several milkweed species that mature at different times, ensuring food for monarch caterpillars throughout the season. This butterflyweed, an orange-flowered native, has reseeded in several places on my property.
Sassafras trees the dark leaves shown here feed Easter tiger swallowtail and spicebush caterpillars. Virginia creeper vine is host to the Pandora sphinx moth caterpillar.
We tend to think of butterfly gardens as overflowing with flowers. But our native trees, bushes and vines are critical to the survival of many butterfly and moth species. Sassafras trees (the dark leaves shown here) feed Eastern tiger swallowtail and spicebush caterpillars. Virginia creeper vine is host to the Pandora sphinx moth caterpillar.
Just across from the sassafras grove that serves as one of my butterfly "nurseries" is this nectar plants to feed this spicebush swallowtail and other wild citizens of the garden.
Just across from the sassafras grove that serves as one of my butterfly nurseries are nectar plants to feed this spicebush swallowtail and other wild denizens of the garden.

2. Leaf Well Enough Alone: When we treat our outdoor spaces like living room carpets—leaf-blowing and mowing and fertilizing—we are issuing a death sentence to so many creatures who live among the leafy, grassy layers. By letting organic matter decay under trees and in your garden’s in-between spaces, you can provide shelter for overwintering chrysalises as well as eggs, caterpillars and pupae of many butterflies.

While placing pots atop a retaining wall this spring, I spotted this little mourning cloak butterfly in the making wandering through the detritus of last years garden. This caterpillar feeds most often on willows but also eats American elm, paper birch, poplars, aspens, cottonwoods and hackberry. Unfortunately, as with so many species, humans sometimes label them as "pests" and spray trees to kill the larvae.
While placing pots atop a retaining wall this spring, I spotted this little mourning cloak butterfly in the making wandering through the detritus of last year’s garden. This caterpillar feeds most often on willows but also eats American elm, paper birch, poplars, aspens, cottonwoods and hackberry. The adult butterflies are long-lived, overwintering in loose bark and tree cavities. Unfortunately, as with so many species, humans sometimes label them “pests” and spray trees to kill the larvae.
Trimming back some of the tall dead grasses in late spring, I found this spicebush swallowtail chrysalis that had overwintered deep in the mound. Needless to say, I put him back and stopped trimming after that.
Trimming back some of the tall dead grasses in late spring, I found this spicebush swallowtail chrysalis that had overwintered deep in the mound. Needless to say, I put him back and stopped trimming. Even gardens that look dormant to our eyes are always filled with life.

3. Share the Wealth: If you enjoy growing vegetables and herbs as I sometimes do, your local lepidoptera will likely enjoy it, too. Don’t be surprised to find a black swallowtail caterpillar on your dill or a hornworm on your tomatoes. Though many people react in horror to the presence of hornworms, they are welcome in a balanced garden, where parasitic wasps often control the population by laying their eggs in the worms. And those hornworms who manage to escape that fate grow into stunning moths that help pollinate the garden.

Having a humane backyard often means sharing your bounty with creatures like this Eastern black swallowtail, who was cruising over an onion plant on his way to parsley, dill or others in his preferred group of hosts: the carrot family.
Having a humane backyard often means sharing your bounty with creatures like this Eastern black swallowtail, who was cruising this summer over an onion plant on his way to the dill, just one of his preferred species.
Gathering mint one day for a watermelon salad, I didn't notice I'd also gathered up a hornworm. I put him back in the garden so we could both enjoy the fruits of nature's labor. Some hornworms turn into beautiful hummingbird moths, so named because they look and fly like tiny hummingbirds.
Gathering mint one day for a watermelon salad, I didn’t notice I’d also gathered up a hornworm. I put him back in the garden so we could both enjoy the fruits of nature’s labor. Some hornworms turn into beautiful hummingbird moths, so named because they look and fly like tiny hummingbirds.

4. Learn Your Species: Like any proper host, you can help your guests have a pleasant stay if you learn just a little bit about their needs. That starts with understanding who they are and what they look like at all stages of their short lives. Of the many sites I’ve turned to, the Butterflies and Moths of North America is one of the most comprehensive.

Even a humane backyard in a pot can sustain caterpillars and other wildlife. At least six American lady caterpillars were munching on this licorice plant on my deck, so I potted up several more host plants they can digest and placed them next to it.
Even a humane backyard in a pot can sustain caterpillars and other wildlife. At least six American lady caterpillars were munching on this licorice plant on my deck, so I potted up several more host plants and placed them nearby.
The resulting adults, American lady butterflies, were only too happy to sink dine on the nectar of the butterfly gods: orange zinnias.
The resulting adults, American lady butterflies, were only too happy to dine on the nectar of the butterfly gods: orange zinnias.

5. Give a Little Respect: Take care to avoid all chemicals, including organic ones that may be healthier for you but deadly to our garden friends. Always be on the lookout for what lies beneath (a monarch caterpillar meandering over to a tree to form a chrysalis) or who’s hiding above (a swallowtail caterpillar curling up in a sassafras leaf). Spread the word about these animals, who are not “creepy,” as a recent well-meaning but poorly worded Washington Post story labeled them, but beautiful in their own right, quietly making their way through the world without much notice. But notice we must. And even more than that, we must take action—before they have nowhere left to go and all the butterflies, and their babies, have disappeared.

A red-spotted purple dines on rain-soaked cracks in the driveway. Its caterpillars dine on cherries, poplars, oaks, hawthorns and other trees and bushes.
A red-spotted purple dines on rain-soaked cracks in the driveway. Its caterpillars eat cherries, poplars, oaks, hawthorns and other trees and bushes.
Also undemanding and unassuming, the Eastern-tailed blue flies low and likes flowers close to the ground, thus going largely unnoticed by people. The caterpillars eat buds, flowers and seeds. They have a fascinating symbiotic relationship with ants, who protect the larvae in exchange for the pleasure of eating a honeydew substance emitted by the caterpillars.