Tag Archives: wildlife habitat

What Do Wild Moms Need Most? Plants!

Image of raccoon family in tree
Photo by John Harrison

What are you and your family having for dinner tonight? No matter which dishes are on the menu—squash, pizza, salad, pasta, or French fries—fruits and vegetables will inevitably be a part of it. Even diehard carnivores with a distaste for greens can’t avoid relying on the plant kingdom, however indirectly.

And whether you’re eating that food at a table or on the sofa, there’s a high possibility that dead trees were used in the construction of your furniture. It’s also likely that a strong wooden skeleton holds up the walls around you.

Our reliance on plants for food and shelter is indisputable, yet for some reason we forget that other animals share that dependency. Worse, we remove those plants from the landscape on a mass scale, taking away the vegetation that animals need for their nutrition and the fallen leaves and dead trees they use to build their homes.

In celebration of Mother’s Day, we can give the gift of habitat to wild moms by planting more live plants and leaving the naturally decaying plant matter in our gardens.  Here are just a few of the mothers and babies we’ll be helping when we do that.

Mother bees craft fresh leaf pieces into baby blankets

Image of leafcutter bee mom by Christy Stewart
Mother leafcutter bees use leaf pieces of grapevine, roses, and other plants to line nests in logs, tree snags, brick or other materials with small cavities. They spend up to three hours making each nest for a single egg, leaving behind pollen and nectar provisions for their future children. (Photo by Christy Stewart)

Mother rabbits hide baby bunnies among fallen leaves

Image of baby rabbits
Rabbit moms find cozy spots among decaying leaves to create camouflaged nests. They even pull out some of their own hair to line the bed for their newborns. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Beneath logs and leaves, mother salamanders guard eggs

Image of red-backed salamander by Michael Benard
Some salamander mothers, including this red-backed salamander, coil around their incubating eggs for weeks to protect them from predators and disease. Logs, leaves, and rocks provide both shelter and food sources, including insects, spiders, earthworms, centipedes, and other invertebrates. (Photo by Michael F. Benard)

Raccoon mothers uses trees cavities as nurseries

Image of raccoon family by John Harrison
Holes in live trees or standing dead trees offer safe, warm places for raccoon mothers, squirrel mothers, bird mothers, and countless other wild moms to raise their young. (Photo by John Harrison)

Butterfly babies need host plants like we need spinach

Image of American lady caterpillar on pussytoes
Most plant-eating insects evolved to eat the leaves and occasionally the flowers of only certain plant species. We can help butterfly and moth caterpillars by planting their host plants; this little beauty will go on to become an American lady butterfly as long as she can dine on pussytoes, or plants in the Antennaria genus. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Mother bees make baby food from pollen and nectar

Image of bee on bluebells
Mother bees make special food for their young out of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. This early spring bee, likely in the Habropoda genus, is gathering the goods from Virginia bluebells and storing them in her orange pollen baskets. Gardeners often overlook spring and fall plants, but it’s important to remember the creatures who depend on them for their very survival. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Mother birds make baby food from insects who eat plants

Image of Carolina wren gathering insects
Most bird parents, like this Carolina wren, need spiders and insects to feed their young. They need so many, in fact, that even tiny chickadees gathers thousands of caterpillars to raise just one brood of chicks to the fledgling stage. This food supply would be severely diminished without the native plants that feed insects. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Plants protect young deer while moms go off to forage

Image of baby deer by Sally Fekety
Deer, rabbits, and bobcats are among the mammals who leave their young in vegetation while they look for food. Without a minivan to tote around the toddlers and teenagers, mammals must find protected places to put them. Plants provide that. Do a wild mom a favor for Mother’s Day, and plant a native tree, shrub, grass, vine or wildflower. You’re guaranteed to help somebody’s babies! (Photo by Sally Fekety)

Find more tips in my recent All Animals magazine column, “How to Make Your Yard Family-Friendly,” and check out my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.

(Featured image by Michael F. Benard)

Ice Parade

This morning Nature served up a cold drink on the rocks. She was kind enough not to thaw until I’d had a chance to capture the icy beauty of our native plants.

Image of iced redtwig dogwood on ice
Redtwig dogwood
Image of bergamot on ice
Bergamot and echinacea seedheads
Image of iced redbud
Redbud branch
Image of Eastern white pine with ice
Eastern white pine
Image of American holly with icicles
American holly
Image of Joe Pye on ice
Joe Pye weed
Image of lichen with ice
Lichen on fallen log
Image of robin in icy tree
Robin singing, “It’s time for spring!”


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.