When Soledad Robledo moved to the countryside, she faced new challenges she hoped The Humane Gardener book would help answer: “How can I coexist with nature?” she wrote in an email from Chile last summer. “How can I remove uninvited guests? How can I convey this learning to my community?” A few months later, she followed up with this thoughtful submission to our ongoing feature, “Where in the World Is The Humane Gardener?“
Where in the world is The Humane Gardener?Rinconada de Los Andes, Chile
Who’s reading: Soledad Robledo
How The Humane Gardener has inspired me: First, home gardens supposedly had to follow certain aesthetics, with exotic flowers and neatly kept spaces. My idea of what a “beautiful” backyard is has changed. Now I’m aware that nature has various designs, shades and textures. And most importantly, it’s full of life.
Education is key. I had no idea that lawns didn’t welcome the natural cycles. But then again, my childhood house’s grass was nice, but not many insects were around. Besides, lots of water had to be used to keep it green throughout the year. Let’s not even mention the chemicals that advertising persuaded us to buy!
I thought nature only existed in mountains and natural parks. But animals and vegetation do exist, on a smaller but equally important scale, in the neighborhood park or on an apartment’s balcony. People like you and me have the power to heal the planet by the actions and lifestyles they choose to live by. And that starts at home.
How do I help nature?
My family and I saved as many native plants as we could the minute our house began to be built. There are several Acacia caven trees, which get water through their long roots. Springtime sprouts the delicate purple Conanthera campanulata flowers by the dozens. Also, my husband and sister saved a tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) that was about to be cut down and transplanted it at our house. A giant hummingbird visits it every day!
We didn’t cut down any dead trees. Then we planted some ivy by one of them. It looks poetic. I’ve even seen birds resting on them. All trees equal life.
Last but not least, if an uninvited guest such as a cricket or beetle came in, I’d politely take it outdoors where it’d meet up with the rest of its buddies again. But this wouldn’t be the case for mice. We eliminated one last fall. That made me feel so guilty that I made up my mind to find a humane solution next time. So about a month ago when a little mouse visited the kitchen, my dear husband helped me get it into a box, releasing it in a nearby ravine immediately. Today, I truly understand that all creatures have to be respected.
Inside our homes, if we don’t like something, we can change it without much thought. Tired of the pumpkin-colored wall? Repaint it blue. Too cold at night? Turn up the heat.
Our ability to pick and choose the elements of our indoor environments makes perfect sense. It’s our home, and we can do what we want with it.
But when we apply the same strategy to the world outside our front doors, we’re forgetting one key difference: It’s no longer just ours. It’s a space we share with billions of other living beings, from the large mammals to the microscopic soil organisms. Each has a role in the ecosystem, as well as unique needs and approaches to survival.
As citizens of this dynamic community, we can choose to move through these mutual spaces with more intention, taking the time to understand the effects of our actions on other creatures. Shifting to this perspective sometimes involves a rewiring of sorts, as we challenge our long-held assumptions and passed-down myths about the behaviors of wild species.
In my own evolution as a gardener, I’ve found that many of my initial beliefs were ill-informed at best—but more often just not informed at all. Because I love animals, I wasn’t inclined to do anything about their random acts of plant nibbling, but I also didn’t even understand who was doing it, or why.
In the hands of humans who are less sympathetic toward other species, such lack of knowledge can, of course, lead to tragedy for our wildlife. People still shoot opossums for the mere crime of existence. They pour poisons down mole holes and trap and relocate groundhogs to their inevitable doom. They call in “nuisance” wildlife control operators who have been known to do all these things and worse.
Stopping this madness by learning to see the world through other species’ eyes has been central to the work of John Hadidian, senior scientist for wildlife at The Humane Society of the United States. During his career, John has radio-tracked raccoons to study their behaviors, rescued box turtles, foxes, and groundhogs from the path of demolition, helped develop humane geese and pigeon population control programs, and guided research for evaluating deer impacts in urban parks. He launched one of the nation’s first services to offer compassionate solutions when wild animals take up residence in attics, walls, and other parts of human homes. And he wrote the book on all of it. An invaluable resource, Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife has helped me repeatedly in my own yard, turning it into a frontier of constant discovery.
As many times as I’ve talked with John over the years, I always learn something new, as I did again during a recent presentation he gave to a group of master gardeners. Below are some highlights.
The scenario: Who done it?
A squirrel? A raccoon? A woodchuck? Those were a few of the responses to the question of who ate the tomato (shown below). In the crowd of plant-protective gardeners, John’s big reveal of the true identity of the drive-by snacker in his garden—a box turtle—elicited a collective, affectionate gasp. The reaction was far more sympathetic for the herp perp than it likely would have been for other animals, and that was part of the point. When we assume too much about what’s going on in our yards and initiate a blame game against various species for stealing the fruits of our labors, it can be humbling to learn how wrong we’ve been.
The solution? Tolerance and understanding. Take the time to determine who’s really in your garden before deciding on a course of action. And grow more plants—there’s plenty to go around, especially for turtles, who can’t even reach very high. “Let the box turtle have that first row of tomatoes,” John advises. “That’s fine. Share.”
The scenario: Help, there’s a raccoon in my trash/chimney/birdfeeder!
Spilled garbage could easily be the handiwork of neighborhood dogs or other animals. But even when it has the pawprints of our favorite furry bandits all over it, it’s ultimately not their fault either. “It’s not a raccoon problem,” says John. “It’s a trash problem.”
And why wouldn’t members of this tree-based, generalist species take advantage of their surroundings? They’ve been adapting to every U.S. biome for the past million years. By contrast, we didn’t come along in our current form until 800,000 years later. It’s no wonder our trash cans are their food, our chimneys are their dens, and our bird feeders are their local drive-thrus.
The solution? “Don’t create opportunities when you don’t need to have them,” says John. Secure your trash can with a bungee cord, buy an animal-resistant container, or store garbage in the garage at night. Seal chimneys with chimney caps once you’ve verified they’re empty. If a mama raccoon has already taken up residence there, she and her babies will be gone soon enough. If for some reason you can’t wait, a humane service can help encourage the family to move to an alternate den site.
Protect raccoons from becoming too habituated to bird seed buffets by limiting seed amounts, adjusting feeding times so there’s little left at night, or simply shutting down the restaurant for a while.
The scenario: Rooftop squirrelliness
It was party central for the cute rodent set: “One weekend squirrels got into the room where all the expensive computer-ware was and kind of did some rewiring,” John says of one of the buildings occupied by his previous employer, the National Park Service. “And all of a sudden the problem was elevated to an actual crisis.”
Before that, unbeknownst to agency biologists, property managers were simply trapping and relocating—an ineffective method that invites more squirrels to the property to fill the vacuum. The practice can also mean a death sentence for relocated animals, who must compete for food and shelter in unfamiliar territory.
The solution? Change the environment. “We went out and walked around, and the first thing you see, of course, is the squirrel highway,” says John of the branch hanging over the roof, “and a building that’s probably not too climbable otherwise.”
A tree crew came to cut the branch that afternoon. “And there was never another invasion by squirrels in the time I was there.”
The scenario: Groundhogs Being … Groundhogs?
Once they dig in, groundhogs can create elaborate burrow systems that last for generations. John has seen some in Washington, D.C., that he believes have been in existence since the Civil War.
Yet instead of admiring their industrious ways, fear-mongering wildlife control operators grasp at straws when trying to persuade homeowners to kill them: “Groundhogs are deceptively pleasant-looking creatures with chubby bodies and squatty legs,” reads the website of one large company. “When cornered, however, they are aggressive defenders of their territory, another reason why you’re loathe to see one in your yard.”
Who isn’t an aggressive defender of their territory when “cornered”? That’s called survival.
The solution? A dose of understanding and, if necessary, humane exclusion. The best approach, as always, is to try to live alongside these animals, who mean us no harm. But for gardeners who’ve lost plants to groundhogs and want to take effective, humane action, a fence with an L-shaped footer in the ground will do the job. Since groundhogs can also climb, John recommends fencing that wobbles in a way that makes scaling it nearly impossible.
Digging up burrows to a depth of three feet once animals have vacated is also an option for preventing new arrivals. (It’s not one I would pursue, as I enjoy the presence of groundhogs, but it’s far preferable to the killing methods employed by so many. One local politician I met at a recent event took great pleasure in relaying how he’d shot a groundhog family living under his deck, though he couldn’t name any actual damage done yet by the animals. It hadn’t occurred to him to explore more humane approaches before launching his outsized preemptive strike.)
The Scenario: What scenario?
Among all the maligned animals in our landscapes, opossums may top the list, simply because some people find them aesthetically displeasing or frightening. “I don’t know how many people I’ve had call me up excited about a giant rat they just saw,” says John.
But these animals are much more afraid of us than we are of them—and for good reason. They are subjected to relentless abuse: set on fire, doused in boiling water, sprayed with insecticide, attacked with bricks, and intentionally hit by cars.
North America’s only marsupial—and a denizen of this planet since the age of dinosaurs—deserves better. Because the moms give birth to live young who nest in their pouches, they need no established home range and will leave as quickly as they’ve arrived. Their passing presence should be welcomed. “Ecologists call them terrestrial gleaners,” says John, “which means they eat a lot of carrion and insects and other things that could be injurious to gardens.”
The solution? Chill out.Since there is no problem, other than misplaced hatred from humans, there is nothing to solve here. They’ll move along soon enough, and so should we.
“Chances are if you have a problem—and I don’t even really know what a problem with an opossum even looks like—it’s going to be gone the next day,” says John.
An inventory of our photos has revealed that this species is a celebrity in our yard, attracting legions of six-legged fans and two-legged paparazzi. Because of its star quality for wildlife, I’ve mentioned it so often it deserves its own name in lights. With spring officially three weeks away, these are great plants to put on your shopping list. Here’s why.
Why do I love Joe Pye weed?
How could I not? One year dozens of butterflies at once fluttered about a single plant. (I tried getting an official count but lost track at 37.) I didn’t originally buy Joe Pye for its animal magnetism, though. All I knew was my friend Sally adored it, and that was enough. Sally had moved away, so any reminder of her warmth was a welcome sight in my garden.
Why do wildlife love Joe Pye weed?
Animals love the plant for the same reason I love Sally, a woman so kind and full of life she borders on the magical. A generous and dynamic host, Mr. Pye welcomes insect diners at all life stages. He draws adults to his flowers while feeding 41 species of caterpillars who eat his leaves. In the fall his seeds nourish hungry birds. His strong stems bend in the wind, but they don’t break. He is a lifesaver, just like Sally, who has rescued and comforted countless numbers of pets, wild animals, and humans during her long career in animal welfare.
What nonnative plant can Joe Pye replace?
I’m glad you asked! If you have butterfly bush, remove it and plant this instead. Buddleia may appear to be helping butterflies, but it’s all a mirage. Unlike Joe Pye and many other natives, butterfly bush doesn’t support any caterpillars and invades habitats that do. Having had experience with both plants in my garden at the same time, I can also say that, given the choice, the butterflies much prefer Joe Pye. It’s not even a contest.
Where should you plant Joe Pye weed?
I have several species of Joe Pye in somewhat randomly chosen spots, and all have thrived. Though the plant is generally listed as sun-loving, Maryland heat can be so relentless that in my yard the most prolific Joe Pye thrives in a spot with a little afternoon shade. Joe Pyes also supposedly need moisture, but in my experience they can hold their own in a range of water levels once established—and it takes little time for them to put down roots. In late summer, the plant’s flowers are so large and in charge they can weigh down the stems a bit. You can keep them more upright through mass groupings or surroundings of native grasses that act as natural supports.
Where can I get Joe Pye weed?
I’ve picked up many a Joe Pye at native plant sales, botanic gardens, and established retailers. One year I bought them at a native plant arboretum, another year at a native plant nursery, and a third year at a traditional nursery that has a small line of locally grown native plants. I’ve even found Joe Pye at a big box store, where once a few hand-labeled pots—possibly a local farmer’s overstock—showed up and sat untouched for a week until I rescued the whole shelf’s worth. You can also find online sources, but no matter where you live, it’s helpful to make sure the plants are native to your locale and can support local ecology. A new book by Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke, The Living Landscape,offers recommended species lists by region.
What should I look for in Maryland?
A number of species take the common name Joe Pye weed. Recommendations for the mid-Atlantic from Tallamy and Darke include Eutrochium maculatum, Eutrochium fistulosum, and Eutrochium dubium; I’ve also seen Eutrochium purpureum on regional lists. You may find the genus listed as Eupatorium instead of Eutrochium;taxonomists have attempted to revise the classification in recent years to separate the whorl-leaved Joe Pyes from their opposite-leaved relatives, the bonesets. (Two boneset species in my yard, Eupatorium serotinum and Eupatorium perfoliatum, are also pollinator magnets.)
What is your experience with Joe Pye? I hope it is like the one in this video.
The “cardinal” rule of bird feeding? Don’t feed when it might cause harm. That’s the recommendation from my friends at The Humane Society of the United States. While they and other experts believe it’s generally safe given proper precautions, some evidence points to negative impacts. Based on the research, a moderate approach is wise. Provide as many native plants as possible, ease up on feeding in warmer seasons when natural food is abundant, and supplement when sources are scarce or buried in snow. If you feed birds in a remote, cold region such as rural Maine—where there may be little natural food and few feeders for miles around—ask someone to fill your feeders if you leave town. This helps birds who may have become dependent on your supply, says HSUS senior scientist John Hadidian. Read more tips here.
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.
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.
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.
One day on a stroll through the Sonoran desert, I happened upon the continent’s smallest butterfly, an animal described by professional photographers as “notoriously difficult to find.” Wing to wing, he was the size of my thumbnail, his glittering color pattern discernible only through a zoom lens. At half an inch or less, his species is, in fact, in a tie with several others for the title of smallest butterfly in the world.
My sighting would be more impressive if I could tell you that the Western pygmy blue was on my bucket list for years. That I trekked thousands of miles to spend cold nights and hot days dodging thorns and camping in the shade of a palo verde tree. That I carried just enough water in my pack to keep me alive until I found him.
But the truth is more mundane: To meet this common but rarely seen animal, I did nothing more heroic than heading out the front door for a walk.
Yes, it was a little hot at midday in the suburbs of Scottsdale, where my husband and I were visiting his parents for Thanksgiving. And sure, I did get a thorn stuck, somewhat inexplicably, inside my bra. At some point, the air even got so dry that a contact lens fell apart in my eyeball.
But that was the extent of my hardship on our Arizona vacation. To put it mildly, I don’t have the physical constitution of an extreme explorer. I get cold easily. My name means “full of grace,” but my body does everything in its power to defy the concept. My eyesight is so bad and weird the doctor told me I’m a fascinating subject for her research. I get cranky when I haven’t slept enough, and unfamiliar places tend to make me sneeze, especially while traveling.
So how did I get lucky enough to see an animal rarely spotted even by seasoned enthusiasts in hot pursuit of her kind? And why is a species whose status is described as “demonstrably secure” frustratingly hard to find?
As it turns out, the Western pygmy blue is simply overlooked by human eyes because of his size. He is so small and flies so low that he’s all too easy to pass by. In truth, I almost did the same; my camera can take the credit for catching the first glimpse of him, as I zoomed in on desert marigolds gracing the late-season landscape.
While I hadn’t set out on this trip to find the Western pygmy blue—and had never even heard of the species before—there were a few much larger animals I’d been determined to meet. It wasn’t our first visit to this otherworldly place where desert meets suburbia, but this time would be different. This time, in the land of Mars-like terrain and large backyard mammalian species, I’d put down my work, get up earlier, and never again miss the party with variations on the same theme: “Three bobcats [four javelinas; two roadrunners; a coyote] just walked by the window; too bad you were still [in bed; on your phone; insert other lame non-present behaviors here]!”
Knowing my goals for the trip, my mother-in-law, Loreen, planned numerous outings at times and to places most conducive to sightings, including the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area to find javelinas and the patio of the Tonto Bar & Grill to see coyotes visiting the adjacent golf course. And see javelinas and coyotes we did, though not always in the places we expected; as we left the restaurant, one young javelina was enjoying himself right on the front lawns of local residents.
And isn’t that how it often is? The treasures come when you’re not really looking, and often when you’re closest to home. They come when you’re willing to walk more slowly, see more deeply, and feel more acutely the rhythms of nature in your own backyard. They come when you embrace the idea that little lives matter—are in fact critical—to every other life on the planet. They come when an entire community invests in the notion of maintaining habitat not just for humans but for all animals living in their sphere.
Ninety-nine percent of the planet’s known animal species, the Western pygmy blue included, are smaller than the average bumblebee. To see this tiny butterfly and her fellow native Arizona species up close, I flew to Arizona. But once there, just as here, I had only to step outside the door, where a world of beauty—and small but significant wonders—awaited.*
[As an expression of my gratitude for all creatures during this week of giving thanks, I’d like to celebrate a groundhog who helped heal my heart. This essay was originally published in 2010.]
My dog died during the second week of June, the kindest month, on a table in the vet’s office when she could no longer stand without leaning against walls. On her final ride I could not restrain myself from violating the personal space she normally required, this animal who had always doled out love in short bursts and on her own terms but otherwise demanded a wide perimeter. All I could do was wrap my arms around her sedated, shaking body and hope she knew what I meant.
No one is ever prepared for the emptiness that lies ahead, the split-second moments of forgetting that conjure silhouettes of a dead pet in all her favorite spots. As I would soon come to realize, most of those flashes of wishful thinking would haunt me in the one place Mattiebo and I wanted to be together more than any other: the garden.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that her departure left gaping holes in my life. One was under the deck, where on warm days my wiry pixie dog liked to drum up dramatic dust storms, making her bed in the soft dirt. It was an ongoing project, made more complicated by my husband’s repeated insistence on filling the hole back up again, as he feigned annoyance and predicted the far-fetched calamities that would soon befall us if the dog dug too deeply and disturbed the structural integrity of the deck stairs.
Mattiebo and I liked to feign annoyance back, though we were secretly grateful for his attentiveness, since it wasn’t in our nature to properly care about things like the house falling down around us. She was too busy raising her worshipping nose to the winds and defending our borders. I was too busy ensuring the peppers were planted far enough apart and the sunflower seeds were sprouting.
Periodically our goals clashed, Mattie’s and mine, and she would take her job of scaring school buses and delivery trucks so seriously that she trampled my new plants while running up and down the fenceline and barking ferociously. But the flowers were forgiving and bounced back. And the schoolchildren rode their bikes by on the weekends and laughed.
After she died, I took stock of the evidence of her life and found that I could hardly bear to be in the garden we had cultivated together. Once a source of solace, it became a place of longing. Planted firmly in the tall, drooping grasses were my memories of Mattie peeking out of them, her bandit face topped by what looked like a green Medusa wig. Squirrel sightings seemed odd without the little bright flash in tow—a white-tailed deer appendage of a behind and belly on an otherwise black-and-tan mongrel.
My husband didn’t take it upon himself to fill the holes anymore; they sat for a long while, empty and hopeful, a tribute to an industrious dog with her own inner life. My attempts at gardening grew half-hearted, less a passion than a laborious effort to try to regain something that was gone for good. With my companion missing, I had no one to chat with about the baby worms and the just-waking bees and the kind of day that was in store for us, no one to share the joy of a raccoon sighting or a mysterious crosswind holding the promise of a much needed rain. I had no reason to get up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and sink my knees and hands into the dirt. In short, the outdoors felt less like a sanctuary of abundance than a reminder of all I had lost.
A year and a half has passed. The metaphorical holes still unfilled, I am a more haphazard gardener, forcing myself into a routine out of habit and obligation and a hope that one day it will help me heal from the death of not only my dog but my cat eight months later. Recently I got my first sign that, as winter approached, it was time for that healing to begin. Going out for a run, my husband saw a woodchuck in the back garden and called me to the window. Munching in the grasses, our unexpected guest appeared to be stocking up, letting his mouth be his guide across the space in zig-zags and circles.
Here was a creature who loved my garden as much as Mattie and I once had. We watched his gentle meanderings until the appearance of a feral cat—and the subsequent noises I issued in an attempt to prevent a fight—sent him scurrying toward a wall made of stacked railroad ties, behind a rhododendron surrounded in summer by ostrich ferns. It’s a place I know well: Cool and dark, the soil enriched for years by pine needles and fallen leaves, it once provided a safety zone where Mattiebo could see and not be seen, keeping watch on her small herd from a distance. Back then a shallow pit in the earth sculpted to conform to a hot mutt’s belly, the area has taken on new dimensions in the shape of a small mound with a carefully crafted entryway, still hidden by vegetation and sheltered enough from the elements for peaceful hibernation.
In that protected spot just beyond our comfortable reach, where she clawed out a sanctuary of her own, one of the holes left behind by my beloved friend has finally been filled.
This essay originally appeared in All Animals magazine, a publication of The Humane Society of the United States.
The first time she visited my garden, my sister-in-law Mika left me with a gift: a new way of looking at old names for revered flowers and, more broadly, a fresh awareness of the role language plays in garnering respect for other living species.
“What do you call these?” she asked as we passed a profusion of pastels fronting the vegetable garden. “In Japan we call them hyakunichisou. It means ‘flower of one hundred days.’ ”
“That’s beautiful,” I responded. “We call it zinnia, and I have no idea what it means.” (A subsequent search online revealed that it’s just another in a long line of anthropocentric labels we assign our species, derived from the surname of European botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn.)
Upon seeing a cluster of cosmos bursting into bloom, Mika left me with another gem: “These are akizakura. It means autumn cherry blossom.”
The exchange reinforced my growing belief that what we call things matters. While I’ve often encountered arguments in both my professional and personal lives that titles aren’t important, it’s not a sentiment I share. We have language for a reason. When used appropriately, names help us understand where we fit into the world and reflect circumstance and perspective. When misused or manipulated, they can have broad negative impacts on those who can’t speak for themselves, whether they are victims of a modern war waged with “smart bombs” or casualties of a backyard battle fought with EPA-registered toxins carrying elegant labels like “Green Velvet” but spelling death for many critters in their path.
Even the word “turfgrass” is still associated with children and dogs and picnics and lazy afternoons on the golf course; we rarely hear it described as what it has really become: a wildlife-destroying weed that covers more land mass than any other crop. It’s invasive and imported, soaking up chemicals and wasting fossil fuels just to maintain its existence. Though the movement to curtail the obligatory lawn has gained traction in recent years, damage caused by our obsession with grass shows no sign of slowing.
Whether we think of it as truth in advertising or just accurate labeling, more honest names for our surroundings—such as Destroyer of Habitats and Mass Wildlife Killer instead of “grass”—would go a long way toward heightening public understanding. Some legacy descriptions of our most life-sustaining flowers, including Joe-Pye weed, butterflyweed and ironweed, carry a false notion of abundance not seen since the days of Lewis and Clark, when the nation was still flush with wild landscapes. But what gardener is going to want to pick up a plant at the store with the word “weed” on the label?
My Species of the Week carries a similar stigma. If I had the opportunity to rename the common evening primrose in a way that better reflects its value to the modern world, I would call it Moth Life Giver, Bee Brunch or maybe Goldfinch Candy, indicating the rich buffet every part of this plant provides to our wildlife.
Known at certain times in its history by more and less flattering names—from king’s cure-all to weedy evening primrose to hog weed to my favorite, the German “Nachtkerz,” or night candle—the common evening primrose is neither a true primrose nor as common as it should be. But Oenethera biennis does, in fact, bloom in the evening, providing nectar for nocturnal moths.
Growing along roadsides and in abandoned fields and disturbed areas, this species survives by following the path of so many other native plants: It finds a place no human seems to care about—at least not yet—and colonizes it until the grass mowers and leaf blowers and sod strips and poison solutions come by and casually knock it down.
Watching a goldfinch industriously drill into the seed heads on my patio last weekend, I was reminded of how this plant had ended up in my garden: with the help of my avian friends, who’ve given us many gifts around our property. At first skeptical of its intentions—it has an unremarkable basal rosette that doesn’t send up flowers until the second year—I had had enough positive experiences with native volunteers to keep my judgments in check.
When the plant matured the following year and finally flowered, I was glad I hadn’t pulled it. Native to most of the United States and Canada and long valued for its medicinal properties, common evening primrose feeds not only moths and birds but bees, caterpillars, beetles, small mammals and deer. It emits a sweet scent and brightens the night garden. It’s attractive to Japanese beetles—something that might keep some people from planting it, but I’ve found it to be a great deterrent, keeping the beetles away from nearly everything else. And it doesn’t seem to mind the damage, sending up more flowers as the old ones get eaten. This summer I even watched it endure a phenomenon known as nectar robbery committed by hungry carpenter bees.
As the feasting goldfinch last Saturday spent more than half an hour working her way around one plant, I was also reminded of the value of providing food for wildlife the way nature intended. Our humane backyard now feeds birds with the seeds of live plants that sprouted from other seeds that were planted by other birds, in a cycle that should be endless and self-sustaining in all of our communities.
But it won’t be if we continue to mow carelessly over the precious few native landscapes we have left. It’s time to start calling our decades-long attack on the environment what it is—a death march for wildlife—and stop relegating our native species to the margins of our existence, like so much litter on the side of the road. Common evening primrose and other such plants may be listed as abundant on species status inventories, but it wasn’t long ago that milkweed was abundant, too. The images of the American lawn as a place to play with loved ones mask the dead zones that lie beneath and the ripple effect on so many other species who have fewer and fewer areas to get the sustenance and shelter they need.
It’s up to all of us who care about animals and nature to stop believing in the mirage of words and sales pitches about what constitutes an appropriate landscape and start creating a new paradigm, one that restores the outdoors back into a home for all creatures. That means challenging the status quo and questioning the entire framework of our modern life that has somehow persuaded us to think of nature as being not in our backyards but always somewhere off in the distance. It means reconsidering even seemingly everyday words that haven’t changed for hundreds of years. And it means remembering to let the birds and others in the wild, rather than the toxin-filled garden shelves at the home improvement store, lead the way in our quest to plant the seeds of restoration.
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 Animalsmagazine, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.