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Suddenly, Vermont

[This post was written a week ago, but I didn’t have time to post it!]

About a month ago, the wood ducks arrived -surprise!  They’ve come every year for the past five years, and their migration might be long, but their arrival always seems sudden.  Suddenly, wood ducks, know what I mean?  And that is life.  Suddenly, wood ducks. 

In our family, just as slowly and quickly as a long migration, jobs have changed, houses and yards have been bought and sold and packed (almost packed), and now, we are staring down a move to Vermont on Monday, driving a U-haul across the country, and arriving on Wednesday.  As you can imagine, all this feels very surprising.  Suddenly, Vermont.

A sulphur butterfly stops by.

With the pandemic and small children, we couldn’t go out to look around, so we’re heading to a house and yard (and future garden) we’ve only seen in pictures.  No doubt, more surprises are in store.  Ha!  

A painted lady butterfly visiting purple coneflower.

As you can imagine, some of my first thoughts have gone to my garden here.  It’s hard to put into words how thankful I am to these plants and trees, and the fireflies, and bumblebees, and butterflies, and all the insects and birds around my house.  Planting this garden, and watching so much life just arrive over the years, has changed my life and given me direction, and I am so completely grateful for it.  Sometimes I think one of the main reasons for a higher power, or a spirit to the Universe, or cosmic consciousness, or however you put it, is to have someone or something to thank, somewhere to tell our most profound gratitude.  Maybe I sound like a truly insane gardener, but that is just how I feel about my garden -I got to talk to God about it.  You guys probably know what I am talking about. But enough with the gratitude, let’s get to the complaining!

Beautiful female tiger swallowtail on beautiful coneflowers.

Here is a list of plants I totally Love, that technically, I should not grow in Vermont, if I am going to abide by the native gardening ideal of only planting regionally native plants (which, as you can imagine, I always thought I would gladly abide by).  I warn you, this little list is brutal:

  • Purple poppy mallow. I love this plant.
  • Purple coneflowers
  • All the other coneflowers!
  • Meadow blazingstar!!!
  • Prairie sage
  • Stiff goldenrod
  • Prairie dock
  • So Many Others

The area of Iowa where I live is historically part of the prairie ecosystem, whereas New England is a temperate deciduous and mixed forest, and some meadows, lots of wetlands…  So… gardening will be very different.  Don’t get me wrong, I love meadows and forests and ferns, but Oh Man, there are some amazing prairie plants it’s hard to imagine a life without!  A life without purple coneflowers -are you kidding me?! No purple coneflowers?  

Brown belted bumblebees love purple coneflowers.

“Ideally, we encourage you to protect, collect, and sow seed from native plants that originate within or near your own community.

While native plants are ideal, introduced plants are often an irreversible presence in our humanized landscapes.  Many of these species can offer copious floral rewards for pollinators.  Select introduced plants with caution, however, and carefully avoid invasive or noxious plants to protect native plant communities and the wildlife that depend upon them.”

100 Plants to Feed the Bees: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive, by The Xerces Society

In the past (I admit it.  I’m not proud of it.), there has been a very slightly rigid, perhaps puritanical, bent to my gardening, with thoughts like: the tough among us get creative and embrace the limitations of a strictly native palette (which I know is a ridiculous thought).  But now, I can see that it is easy to “embrace your limitations,” if you live in the prairie region because there are hardly any limitations!  The plants here are just incredibly diverse and beautiful.  But give up coneflowers?!!  Oh, How this challenges my naturally unyielding spirit.  You see, if I were a librarian, I would shush non-natives.  If I were a teacher, I would write their name on the board.  No Mercy.  (Even though it’s not their fault they’re here, and they are just trying to live their lives). 

I’ve always loved this shot of the bumblebee under the purple coneflower umbrella.

Some of you might be thinking, “Huh?  What the heck is she talking about?  Purple coneflowers are native plants!”  Well… in the Midwest, yes, but in the northeast, I am afraid not.  They can be planted there, they grow there, insects love them there, they are native to North America, but they are not actually native to the region.  They are a prairie species, and technically, native to just certain areas of the Midwest.  I know, it’s super sad irritating for people like me.  And it definitely raises the question, what exactly do we mean by native?  

The idea of nativity, as often applied in native plant circles, is fairly straightforward.  A plant is considered native to a region if  it was recorded in that region as European settlers first arrived and took botanical notes.  If it can be found in the botanical historical record, it is native.  Of course, we know that this botanical record is quite spotty and just a snapshot of plants in time, but it’s what we’ve got.

A female Eastern tiger swallowtail yellow morph visits purple coneflower.
Pale purple coneflower. Blooms earlier than purple coneflower and is more delicate.

When we get to Vermont, I will try to talk to some experts, get their thoughts, and proceed to mull over the following:


1. Should gardeners help plants migrate north?  Climate change has insects on the move, as I know from my exciting run in with crickets, so should we think about shifting some plants’ ranges north?  (You see me angling for more plants here?)

2. Are some plants so good for pollinators, and so non-threatening to native plant communities that you should probably just include them in your garden, even if they aren’t really native to the region? (no doubt you see me angling for purple coneflowers in this one?)

3. Maybe I should just loosen up and go with Doug Tallamy’s suggestion of making sure 70% of the garden is strictly native, and let myself have 30% of the garden in coneflowers?

4. Maybe purple coneflowers plus cognitive dissonance are not as beautiful.

5. Maybe there’s a lot to be said for just opening one’s heart to new places and their plants.

6. Maybe I can embrace the limitations of a strictly Vermont native palette. Ferns are awesome, too.

At any rate, life is good: lots to think about, lots to do. And I better get back to packing!

Purple coneflower, prairie sage, and black-eyed Susans. One of my favorite spots in the garden.

Resources:

100 Plants to Feed the Bees: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive, by The Xerces Society

Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy, Homegrown National Park

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Biodiversity, You Complete Me

It’s a two sweater night in Iowa.  It never occurred to me to wear two wool sweaters before, but it seems to be the right level of sweaters these days. After many months of being home, with all the staying put and winter, it seems some beliefs have really sunk in, like rocks in the garden.  One thing I believe these days, is that, in a native garden, the flowers, leaves, and garden design are just the very beginning of the beauty.  If you’ve ever sat out with a Joe Pye weed on an afternoon, you probably know what I mean.

Two bumblebees and a monarch walk into a bar… just joking! This is sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

There is a peaceful electricity in a native garden, a deep sense of well-being that I believe comes from togetherness.  Plants together with their insects; insects together with their plants.  People together with flowers and insects, again, surprised at all the life and blooming, buzzing, fluttering, singing, sleeping that goes on.  Togetherness in the garden: beautiful and good for the heart.

Bumblebees love Joe Pye weed. Spotted Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee. If you ever spot one on your Joe Pye,weed, please report it to http://www.bumblebeewatch.org

You may have seen in the news that a late January executive order has set the U.S. on an effort to conserve 30% of U.S. land and ocean territory by 2030, in an effort to reverse the extinction crisis we are in. After decades of documented declines, across birds, frogs, insects, marine life, and more, a United Nations report on biodiversity from last year, revealed that an estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction, with many expected to go extinct within decades, if humanity continues land development, agriculture, resource extraction, pollution, poaching, and letting invasive species run wild, as we have done for the last century. It is a huge undertaking, but if we want humanity to survive and flourish, we do not really have a choice. I think the native plant community’s beloved Doug Tallamy puts it best:

“Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that determine the earth’s ability to support us are run by the plants and animals around us. It is plants that generate oxygen and clean water, that create topsoil out of rock, and that buffer extreme weather events like droughts and floods. It is insect decomposers that drive the nutrient cycles on earth, allowing each new generation of plants and animals to exist.  It is pollinators that are essential to the continued existence of 80 % of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants, and it is birds and mammals that disperse the seeds of those plants and provide them with pest control services.

And now, with human-induced climate change threatening the planet, it is plants that will suck much of that excess carbon out of the air, build their tissues with it, and pump the surplus into the soil for long-term storage – if we would only put them back into our landscapes. Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. “

Gardening for Life by Doug Tallamy
Little green solitary bee, climbing through Joe Pye weed flowers.

But It’s Not Too Late

“The [Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services] Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global… Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), United Nations Sustainable Development Blog

To reach the goal of 30% of U.S. land being protected, we will have to increase protected lands by 400 million acres, which is twice the size of Texas. At this point, this very beginning point, there is not yet a clear path to get there, but one thing that is clear is that the effort will need to involve private land owners (especially in the Midwest and Eastern U.S.) and people inviting nature back into places it didn’t occur to us that nature needed… like our yards, our schools, our churches, parks, our roadsides, big box stores… the list can go on and on.

When Normal is Crazy

Is this Normal or Crazy?

I took this picture near my home, but it could be anywhere in the Midwest. Non-native shrubs, mulch, and shorn grass are fairly typical of what modern Americans currently accept as adequate landscaping. But the truth is, the above is land that supports no life. Now just as a thought experiment, imagine this development operating under the 30 x 30, life-supporting paradigm. I can easily see, purple coneflowers, Joe Pye weed, sunflowers, lots of milkweed, monarchs, goldenrod, bumblebees, native grasses, crickets singing, goldfinches, a little rabbit, a little path through to a little open spot with a bench. Now, which landscape would be better for humans? Not only better, but more fun? Why have we settled for so little for so long? Point is, it is so ridiculously easy to imagine something so much better than the old normal.

Swallowtails, monarchs, bumblebees, and many others fly in for Joe Pye weed’s nectar (it’s apparently also extremely attractive to nocturnal moths). But the plant itself is a feast, providing food for the caterpillars of 41 species of butterflies and moths!

I believe native gardeners have an important role to play in getting us to the 30 x 30 goal, especially in the “only if we start now at every level” part of the equation. Because we are ready right now. We’ve been ready. We have our seeds in the fridge right now! You say you want me to plant 30% of my yard in native trees, flowers, and grass? I say, How about 50%?! (That’s the 2050 goal.) No problem! We can be the first yards to show how sharing life with nature is a more beautiful life. We can make everybody so jealous of our butterflies that they’ll want their own butterflies. We can put in pollinator gardens at our schools, churches, libraries, city halls. We can spread the word, and maybe most importantly, help build grass roots support for 30 x 30. And plant by plant, we can help show the way towards this necessary paradigm shift, a cultural awakening where we open our eyes, look at the barren fields around us, and realize: this normal is crazy.

A Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail blue morph, part of the infamous “North American Mimicry Complex,” visiting Joe Pye weed. Swallowtails seem to love Joe Pye weed.

30 x 30 is huge. Policy and power finally acknowledging that we need a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with nature, from emptying land to make way for people, to filling the world with habitat and learning to coexist. Deep down, I think most of us can sense that, right now, our culture needs just this type of change: more beauty, more kindness, more fun, more togetherness.

Resources:

The U.S. commits to tripling its protected lands. Here’s how it could be done. by Sara Gibbens, National Geographic

Biden’s Historic Action on 30×30, by Alison Chase, Helen O’Shea, Kate Poole, and Zak Smith, Natural Resources Defense Council

Gardening For Life, by Doug Tallamy, Homegrown National Park

UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’, U.N. Sustainable Development Blog

Silent Skies: Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished, by Jim Daley, Scientific American

Top “10” Lists of Wildlife Plants, by Alonso Abugattas, Capital Naturalist

Bringing Nature Home: How you Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Doug Tallamy

Pollinators of Native Plants, by Heather Holms

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Let’s Think About Seeds: The Cold Treatment

Sometimes it is best to turn our minds from current events, and return to the beauty of old, continuous events, like sleeping trees, crusty snow, slow and fast approaching spring, quiet seeds sitting on the dining room table… Yes, let’s think about seeds.

Some native flower seeds.
Some native flower seeds, in all their many forms. The fossil-like ones are Western Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis).

An important trait for seeds (and for gardeners to know about) is that, as they reach maturity, many seeds enter a protective dormancy. These dormant seeds are delaying germination until they receive the proper seasonal cues that indicate it is the right time to germinate and grow.  There are many ways that seeds stay dormant, from impermeable seed coats to hormone signaling.  But luckily for gardeners, most seeds can be woken up with the same type of treatment: The Cold Treatment.  

The cold treatment sounds mean, but really it is just a way to mimic winter (nothing mean about pretending to be winter).  During the cold treatment (also called cold, moist stratification), seeds absorb moisture, chemicals in the seed break down, and the moisture and cold provide the environmental signals needed for germination to begin. Depending on the species, cold treatments typically last from 10 days to 3 months. And that is why, nearing mid-January, I begin to think about seeds, and getting my 60 day cold treatment seeds ready to go into the fridge.

Beautiful New England aster seed poof ball (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

The Cold Treatment That’s Right For You

So how does one do a cold treatment?  Well, there are several easy methods, but when you look out into the vast expanse of cold treatment information on the internet, there are two main techniques you will see recommended:  Moist vermiculite/sterile sand vs. Moist paper towel/coffee filter. 

In one, you mix seeds with moist vermiculite (or sterile sand), and in the other, you fold seeds into something like a moist paper towel (or coffee filter).  Which technique is best for you depends on how you will eventually plant your seeds.  If you plan to grow seeds in individual cells or pots, by all means go with the paper towel!  It will allow you to see the seeds after the treatment (that’s mostly impossible in the vermiculite method) and transfer them individually to their little spots.  On the other hand, if you think your children will likely find some mortal peril, while you are dutifully picking seeds off of a paper towel, and you need to quickly scatter your seeds on an open tray or directly into the garden, by all means, go with the vermiculite!  

These open trays were all sprinkled with seeds mixed with vermiculite. For home gardening, this open tray method works well for me. Teasing roots apart has never been a problem in the spring (fall can be another matter though!)

How One Gardener Does A Cold Treatment

Now, in no way at all am I saying that my method is The Best Way to do a cold treatment or start plants.  It is really just how I can manage to get it done between cleaning up broken snow globes and making sandwiches.  And for me, it is mostly Good Enough (which, in some cases, is hard to distinguish from perfection).   

Supplies:
Snack-size plastic baggies
A permanent marker
A medium sized bowl
Vermiculite or sterile sand
Water

Procedure:
1. I label my little baggies with the species name, the number of seeds in the bag, and if they are surface sown (because I won’t remember that in a month). 

Dried butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)seed pods in winter.

2. Usually, I fill about ¼ to half of the bowl with vermiculite, and slowly add and mix in water, until I can squeeze the vermiculite and it stays together in my hand, but no water comes out.  In other words the vermiculite is moist, but not sopping wet.  However, I recently read someone else’s technique where they want just a few drops of water to come out when they squeeze, and that is what I am going to try this year. 

It seems there is a little wiggle room here on the moisture, so don’t let the pressure of making this moisture decision deter you from undertaking cold treatments -you can do this!  Seeds in the wild experience a variety of moisture levels as they overwinter naturally, so from a biological perspective, you want enough moisture that your seeds will fully imbibe (technical term for absorb) water to initiate the changes in their physiology, and on the other hand, you don’t want them to be surrounded by so much moisture that they are deprived of oxygen.

3. I grab a little handful, maybe 2-4 tablespoons, depending on how many seeds I’m starting, of the moist vermiculite and put it in a bag and then I add my seeds in and mix it all together, and zip up the bag.  Usually I start something like 100-400 seeds of something.  I try to go by hundreds because I’m thinking ahead to when I will scatter this mix onto open flats a.k.a. germination trays.  For me, thus far, I find about 100 seeds per tray works pretty well.  But I do adjust this based on past experience with certain species -ones where almost every seed germinates I would do less than 100 per tray, and those where it’s been more sparse, I would do more.  

4. I throw the small bags into a larger bag that says if it’s a 30 or 60 day treatment.etc., and toss it all in the back of the fridge for 10 days to 3 months, depending on the species requirements.  

5. Every couple weeks, I check them and make sure nothing’s too dry or molding, or sprouting early.  If too dry, I add water.  If there are seeds molding, I remove the offenders. If they are sprouting early, I plant them.

5. At about the right time, I get them out, fill up a tray with moist potting soil, and then sprinkle the vermiculite/seed mix, onto the top of the tray, then cover them with  a couple more sprinkled handfuls of potting soil (unless they’re surface sown), and just like that, the seeds are cold treated and planted. Hooray!

A Joe Pye weed seed about to take flight.

Below, I will put links to a number of very good additional resources on how to complete cold treatments.  And somewhere out there, there may even be The Best Way to do a cold treatment. Please let me know if you find it!!

I’d also like thank Ann Casper, a grower at Prairie Moon Nursery, for explaining the pros and cons of vermiculite/”goop” vs. the coffee filter.

Cold Treatment Resources:

Germination Codes and Seed-Starting Basics for Native Plants, Prairie Moon Nursery *Excellent pictures and instructions for both methods!

Native Seed Propagation Methods, Missouri Botanical Garden
*Interestingly recommends first 24 hours in extra moist conditions, then adding extra vermiculite to reduce moisture for the rest of the cold treatment.

Native Plants: Learn to Grow Your Own Webinar

Other Resources:

Dormancy and Germination: Making Every Seed Count In Restoration. O.A. Kildisheva, K.W. Dixon, F.A.O. Silveira, T. Chapman, A. Di Sacco, A. Mondoni, S.R. Turner, A.T. Cross, Restoration Ecology Vol. 28, No. S3, pp. S256–S265, August 2020

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Letting the Garden Garden: Native Self-Seeding Annuals

One of my favorite flowers in the garden is a plant that some might mistake for a weed: Annual fleabane.  Now, a fleabane doesn’t sound like much, but I love this plant, and each year I am excited to see where it will grow – a spot in a garden bed?  The lawn? A planter? Anywhere?  It is all ok with me. 

Annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), two self-seeding annuals, brightening up the evening. Black-eyed Susans self-seed like crazy and are regularly “edited.”

Annual Fleabane is a graceful, 3 to 4 foot tall plant that blooms from early June through much of the summer, with little white daisy-like flowers. They are bright and cheerful during the day and seem to glow at dusk.  And on an evening (even if I am just taking out the compost), when I pass through the annual fleabane, with the fireflies flashing, I feel like I’ve wandered into a magical place -all the more magical because I did not plant this plant!  I’ve never planted it.  Years ago, annual fleabane just arrived in my garden and planted its own plant-self.  

A few fireflies with the glowing annual fleabane.

Depend on Disturbance

Annual fleabane is in a class of plants that has recently been getting a little more attention: Self-seeding Annuals.  Short-lived plants that will grow and bloom pretty quickly, set seeds, and then… die.  But their seeds carry on!  And once in the garden, the cycle of blooming and seeding should continue, as long as your garden has a little open spot for them.  

Summer azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta) visiting tall bellflower (Campanula americana). Tall bellflower is another beautiful self-seeding biennial that arrived in the garden 5 years ago and has self-seeded ever since.

Many plants that fit into this live fast, die young life plan are considered to be disturbance dependent. In nature, they are depending on bare ground creating events: a flood, or fire, a tree falling over, or a new buffalo wallow, something that opens up a patch (or thousands of acres in some cases) of soil and creates a space that is mostly free of competition for light, water, and nutrients.  Disturbance dependent plants need to grow fast and spread many seeds before bigger rooted, bigger bodied, longer lived plants take residence and out compete them.  

Blanket flowers (Gaillardia aristata) are loved by bumblebees. They bloom their first year and will re-seed in an open, well-drained spot without much competition.

In my garden, a disturbance mostly means our dog digging for moles, or me smothering a spot with a forgotten tray of plants, or the kids playing with the jet setting on the hose.  As galling as some of these disturbances can be, annual fleabane and other self-seeding annuals need these dynamic, ephemeral patches of bare earth in the garden where their seeds can continue making a go of it.

Native Gardens: Playin’ Chess, not Checkers!

“A traditional gardener’s definition of success is when a plant survives, but an ecologist doesn’t view that plant as successful unless it also reproduces.”

Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Garden Revolution, How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change

In the excellent and useful book, Garden Revolution, How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change, Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher write so well about how to ecologically design meadows (or prairies) so they are successful and self-sustaining in the long term. And most of the ecological lessons for larger plantings are just as useful in a smaller home garden. One point they raise is the importance of including plants with multiple reproductive strategies. Seed droppers, wind dispersers, animal dispersers, rhizomes, stolons, you name it, these guys are arguing for biodiversity. And although they have noble reasons for doing so, like supporting more complex ecosystems, they also have an eye to practicality: filling the many ecological niches (a.k.a. the many ways plants grow and function) in a garden, means there is less opportunity for weeds to fill those niches, and that a garden can become less maintenance over time.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a self-seeding annual, and Prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) is a rhizomatous species. Both volunteered to help fill this garden spot under the Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaves.

For example, let’s say the ground got a bit messed up when you were transplanting purple coneflowers. Well, if you have enough fast growing, self-seeding annuals dropping seeds in your soil seed bank, that spot is more likely to be filled by black-eyed susan, or annual fleabane rather than some lousy garlic mustard (or some other exotic invasive) -that is the general idea.

Now, if you do not have children or dogs who will blissfully destroy your garden for you, you can be intentional when creating bare earth in the garden. In Garden Revolution, they discuss this: placing seeds heads of cardinal flower on bare ground right where they’d like to see them in a couple years; gathering seeds, scratching up the dirt and helping easy spreaders spread, right where they want them. Last fall I gave it a go because I’d like more annual fleabane in the lawn. I know it sounds a little crazy, but for me, leaving patches of annual fleabane to grow up and walk through, or pass by, here and there in the lawn, creates such an ethereal atmosphere and an expanded sense of being in the garden. The garden -not just for garden beds anymore.

Some annual fleabane in the lawn and background -beautiful and just right to my sensibility. But just last night, I read in Garden Revolution, Larry Weaner describe the growth habit of annual fleabane as “rank.” What?! I’m shocked. I guess beauty is in the eye and all that. It does look scraggly at the end, but it’s super easy to cut out then.

The Case for Self-Seeding Annuals, Continued

Some of these self-seeding annuals are plants that are already common in the garden, like black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), or some often arrive of their own accord, like tall bellflower (Campanula americana). But I guess I feel like a bigger case needs to be made for this class of plants because while looking things up for this post (and my own garden), it became apparent that, while many are easy to find, some of these plants are just not available. For example, I would really love to get large flowered clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra subspecies trachysperma) -very difficult to find the seeds! And I’m sorry, I know I’ve been talking about annual fleabane, but you can not buy the seeds anywhere! I’m sorry! What gives! (Fortunately, if you keep an eye out, you might be able to just find annual fleabane in your yard.)

So here is my extra case for self-seeding annuals, beyond biodiversity and weed suppression (which are truly good reasons in themselves).

  1. Self-seeding annuals are fun. I’m not just saying this because I am enthusiastic about these things. It is true.
  2. These plants pop up in surprising places and keep the garden design lively and changing.
  3. Unexpected plant combinations can be inspiring.
Annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus) grew mixed with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa). An unexpected combination that looks so delicate!

4. Many bloom their first year and have a long bloom time!
5. This is especially good for the first year or two in a planting, adding flowers before longer-lived perennials come into their own.
6. They plant themselves!  (I really, really appreciate this.)
7. Many are host plants for a variety of moths and butterflies, and
8. Some support pollen specialist bees.
9. A lot of these guys are pretty short, which can be useful in the garden.
10. Surprise reasons that I don’t know right now that are even better than the reasons above.

With all that said, after some searching and cross-referencing, here is a list of native self-seeding annuals and biennials that I am excited to include in my Mid-west garden (and many are native to other regions as well).

Native Self-seeding Annuals! (and some biennials!)

Many thanks to Dr. John Hilty of Illinois Wildflowers for the use of the following photos and for maintaining his great online wildflower resource (each flower name links to Illinois Wildflower’s botanical information when possible).

And if there are any plants you think I have missed here, please let me know!!

A printable list can be found here:

Partridge pea
Chamaecrista fasiculata

Larval host for the little yellow, sleepy orange and orange sulfur butterflies.

Yellow Sneezeweed
Helenium amarum

Larval host of the aster borer moth, and the rigid sunflower borer moth.

Mistflower
Conoclinium coelestinum

Larval host for the clymene moth and the lined ruby tiger moth.

Spreads by rhizomes and seeds. Considered aggressive in some places. Considered more of a short-lived perennial.

Blanket flower
Gaillardia aristata

Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia hirta

Self seeds like crazy here!
Larval host plant for the silvery checkerspot.

Plains coreopsis
Coreopsis tinctoria

Larval host plant for the wavy-lined emerald moth and the dimorphic gray moth.

Snow on the Mountain
Euphorbia marginata

Tall (or American) bellflower
Campanula americana


This flower arrived in the garden on its own.

Anise hyssop
Agastache foeniculum

The flowers are visited by the specialist bee, Dufourea monardae.

White snakeroot
Ageratina altissima

This flower also arrived in the garden. It’s a very welcome addition in the fall.

Likely larval host plant for the eupatorium borer moth, burdock borer moth, ruby tiger moth, lined ruby tiger moth, and the gracillariid moth.

Considered a short-lived perennial.

Annual fleabane
Erigeron annuus

This is another one that will just show up.

Larval host of the lynx flower moth.

Swamp marigold
Bidens aristosa

Larval host for the goldenrod stowaway moth.
Photo courtesy of R.W Smith, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Spotted jewelweed
Impatiens capensis

Flowers attract Ruby-throated hummingbirds. Larval host plant for the obtuse euchlaena moth, pink-legged tiger moth, white-striped black moth, and toothed brown carpet moth.

Spotted bee balm
Monarda punctata

Self-sowing in very well-drained soils. Larval host plant for the pyralid moth and the gray marvel moth.

Common evening primrose
Oenothera biennis

Just a single plant showed up of this guy last year. Hoping to find more next year.

The primrose miner bee specializes on this plant, and it’s a larval host plant for the pearly wood nymph, grape leaffolder moth, white-lined sphinx, and a momphid moth.

Biennial gaura
Gaura biennis

Larval host plant for two momphid moths, the primrose moth, and the gaura moth.

Large flowered clammyweed
Polanisia dodecandra trachysperma

The reason I want this plant so much is that I once saw them covered with eastern tiger swallowtails (if I’m remembering correctly) in St. Louis. I’ve been on the look out for this plant ever since.

Brown-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia triloba

This one was here when we moved in, along the edge of the yard.

Provides pollen for the specialist bee, Andrena rudbeckiae.
Larval host plant for the caterpillars of the tortricid moths.

Celandine poppy
Stylophorum diphyllum

Blue waxweed
Cuphea viscosissima

Photo courtesy of Alan Cressler, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Rabbit tobacco or sweet everlasting
Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium

Cardinal flower
Lobelia cardinalis

A favorite nectar source for ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Wild columbine
Aquilegia candensis

Larval host plant for the columbine duskywing and a species of borer moth. A short-lived perennial according to Garden Revolution.

Foxglove beardtongue
Penstemon digitalis

Larval host plant for the chalcedony midget moth.
A short-lived perennial according to Garden Revolution.

Quick Garden Tips

Just a couple tips when trying to encourage these guys in the garden:

  1. Try to reduce mulch in the garden, or reduce mulching in early spring. Mulch that suppresses the germination of weed seeds will also suppress the germination of self-seeding natives. Mulching later allows for seedlings to grow a bit and then you can mulch around them.
  2. If an area is quite thick with self-seeded seedlings, go ahead and thin them out to a good plant spacing, so the ones left can grow well.

I’m very curious to know what your favorite self-seeding annuals might be. Please let me know in the comments!

Resources:

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher

Illinois Wildflowers, by Dr. John Hilty

Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden, by Alan Branhagen

Prairie Moon Nursery

Growing Home with Native Self-Sowers, by Jared Barnes

Tips for Using Self-seeding Plants in the Garden, by Megan Shinn

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants That Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter, by Kristin Green

Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants, by Jonas Reif, Christian Kress, Jurgen Becker

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The Long-Blooming Garden: A Planning Tool for Pollinator Gardens

Part of the invisible beauty that runs through pollinator gardens is the spirit of reciprocity.  We gardeners, who have been given so much, shout out with our flowers, “Come!  Eat, drink, live! and be merry,”  calling in bees and butterflies, from near and far. And one of the most important considerations in our beautiful pollinator gardens is to try to provide food for as long as possible: pollen and nectar, from early spring to late fall.  Now to make sure we have a long bloom time, with a handful of species blooming all the time, we need a sense of which and how many flowers will bloom when.  Oof -my brain is starting to feel complicated. If you are like me, a task like this requires a little planning.

Thinking About Planting Seeds

There is no better time than November to start thinking, planning, and ordering seeds for next spring’s garden.  Why seeds?  Well, for me, I need to order seeds because I want a huge, crazy ton of plants (and I don’t think I’m alone in this!), and I don’t want to spend very much money. 

Trays of young plants
Easy to start a crazy ton of plants, hard to plant them all! I think about 90 trays were started this year in the picture for the local wildflower gardening club. All from little tiny seed packets.

While plants are typically $4 – $13 or more a piece (plus the crazy shipping costs!), a seed packet of 200-1000 seeds/future plants is $3 – $5 !!  And that is why I begin thinking about seeds in November.  But that’s so early!  The aromatic aster is still blooming!  Why November?!  The Cold Treatment is why.  

Aromatic aster still blooming while a bumblebee flies by.
Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), still blooming! What a champ!

Many seeds require something called a “cold treatment” in order to germinate.  A future post will discuss how to do a cold treatment, but just quickly here: for a cold treatment you get a little bag, label it, put some damp sand or vermiculite in the bag, mix your seeds with the sand, and then, depending on the species, you refrigerate it for typically 1 to 3 months.  Then you get it out and plant your seeds.  This mimics winter and breaks the dormancy of the seeds so they are ready to germinate. Without it, germination rates can be lousy, or even Zero! 

So, working the timetable backwards, if we want to start planting our home-grown plants out in about mid to late April, we should probably start our cold-treated seeds about March 1st, let’s say.  Many wonderful, awesome species require a 60 day cold treatment, so to make that March 1st deadline, they need to go into cold treatment about January 1!  Hmm!  So Here We Are, Late-November, trying to figure out bloom times and garden designs and seeds orders.  No problem.  We’re right on time.

The Beautiful Spreadsheet!

In a previous spring post about Planting a Pollinator Garden: The Quick Start Guide, I mentioned how useful a spreadsheet can be for  determining where gaps are in your garden’s blooming, but in the spring, I did not want to blind you with the full glory of the spreadsheet, because it is truly most useful now, for fall planning.

Here is an example of a garden spreadsheet for a “quick pollinator garden” which has a number of species in bloom throughout the season. It was created simply by cutting and pasting the desired species from the larger Flowering Times spreadsheet, which is linked further on, and then organizing them by bloom time.

Using a spreadsheet like this is an adaptation of a planning technique shown in Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury, a really useful book by two extraordinary gardeners. And looking at the spreadsheet above, we see that in this garden there will be about 6 or 7 species in bloom through summer, but that the spring looks like it could use some additions to increase species diversity.

I’ve found this type of flowering time spreadsheet really useful for visualizing the garden over time: which species will bloom when, how long the garden’s bloom time will be, and how biodiverse the flowers are at any moment, spring through fall. And understanding and planning your garden in time means that the insects who come to your garden can stay possibly their whole lives (what a nice thought), and you can enjoy abundant insects and flowers all gardening season long.  

Variety in species and flower types is important because there are a variety of pollinators with different sized bodies (and tongues!) and they can’t all access the same flowers. Here’s a mid-summer mix of great coneflower, blanket flower, common milkweed, wild quinine, purple coneflower, prairie blazingstar, star coreopsis, and anise hyssop.

The Big Flowering Times Spreadsheet!

A list of native perennials’ bloom times. Flowering times are based on my Mid-west experience and info from mid-western nurseries, so bloom times may need altering based on your regional climate!

Above is a section of the Flowering Times spreadsheet you can link to and/or download to help with planning.  It is a compilation of many species’ bloom times, plus a little extra planting information. The Flowering times shown are based on my Mid-west experience and info from mid-western nurseries, so bloom times will need altering to match your local bloom times. And many species are listed, but by no means, are all species included -feel free to add them!  And if you see any ways you’d like to make the main document better, please let me know, and I can make you an editor of the Flowering Times spreadsheet.  Many hands make light work, or maybe many hands just make work more fun.

Luckily, some early spring bloomers just plant themselves. These are spring beauties, Claytonia virginica.

So! To check out your planned garden’s bloom time situation, you can just find all the species you’ve got your heart set on, cut and paste them into a new spreadsheet, organize them by bloom time, and voila! A way to see what will be blooming when. Good for pollinators, but great for garden design: for co-ordinating flower combinations, plant arrangements, and so on. I know I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years, staring back and forth, from my helpful spreadsheet to my garden map, trying to visualize what each month will look like. And on that note, I guess I better get back to it.

What is your favorite native? and why? Always looking for recommendations this time of year!

Resources:

Planting: A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

Prairie Moon Nursery

Missouri Wildflowers Nursery

Prairie Nursery

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Falling Leaves

As of yesterday’s rain, almost every leaf has fallen off the trees -is it a coincidence that I felt myself looking forward to spring this morning?  I really miss the leaves when they are gone, so I try to remind myself: the leaves are not really gone, they are simply on the ground.  

Some of the last leaves falling from the oak tree. Watching leaves fall seems to quiet the mind, especially if you don’t have to rake them up.

For years gardeners have gotten advice about “fall clean-up.” That they should cut back dried plants, rake up leaves, maybe use leaf blowing machines, put leaves in bags to be carried away -all in the name of tidiness (oof -so much work!).

But, more and more, gardeners interested in supporting birds and butterflies and pollinators are discovering an ancient truth: it’s better if they don’t do all this stuff.  Dried plants and leaves on the ground are actually important winter habitat for a variety of struggling insect populations: fireflies, bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies, and moths.

Firefly on a purple coneflower
A firefly hanging out on purple coneflower. Fallen leaves feed the snails and others decomposer insects that young fireflies eat.

The New Fall Do-Nothing Advice

“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

It cracks me up just how Taoist new gardening recommendations are.  The advice for a nature garden these days is more like: It’s fall now.  Don’t worry about it.  Definitely don’t do anything about it.  Maybe put your hoses away.

1. Leave the dried plant stalks.

  • It’s prettier this way, with the brown, dried seed heads.
  • The birds like/need to perch and eat the seeds. 
  • With native plants, there are often little insects (including solitary bees) sleeping the winter away in the stems, so definitely don’t compost them now.   
  • It’s recommended to wait until early march to cut plants back, leaving the bottom two feet of the stem intact to provide habitat for a new year of stem-nesting solitary bees

These days, some garden designers really think of “winter interest” first, when choosing plants.  Winter interest includes things like the form and colors of dried grasses, choosing plants with seed heads that will be long-lasting, choosing trees and bushes with interesting bark, and arranging plants with winter in mind.  For example, placing dark seed heads in front of a lighter dried grass for contrast.  The new interest in garden design for winter is definitely a good thing, considering the garden is in its winter form for at least 5 months in the midwest and that many little insects really need these plants left in place for shelter. 


Dark dried tennessee coneflowers contrast the plants behind them.
Here are November Tennessee coneflower seed heads in front of little blue stem and old field goldenrod, moving into winter.

2. Leave as many leaves in your yard as you can manage. 

There are a number of great ways to do this and simultaneously build your garden.  

Our dog resting in the oak leaves
Let sleeping leaves lie.
  •  Letting leaves just lie where they fall, and not chopping them up with the mower (that’s what I do, or not-do). When leaves are chopped up, cocoons, caterpillars, and eggs are also chopped up. Additionally, chopped up leaves degrade faster, leaving less available food for the leaf pile food chain in the spring.
  • But if you are especially concerned for the welfare of your grass, as some people I know are, then you could find another spot for them in your yard.  Three to four inches of leaves makes a great weed suppressing mulch in existing garden beds, while improving soil as they break down, and a few inches of leaves won’t smother emerging perennials in the spring.  (But a note of caution: a very thick layer of leaves may lead to some smothering).
  • If there is a mature tree in your yard where you find you are always raking away the leaves to save the grass, well, you could consider turning the area under the tree into a perennial bed that the tree will simply mulch for you. 
  • In any spot you want, you can use a thick layer of your leaves to create garden beds, smother grass, and shelter many wonderful insects.  Creating a new garden bed, along a fence line, next to the deck, etc.  is a great use for leaves.  Sprinkling some wood chips on top will help keep them in place over winter.   

For the Love of Fireflies

About 5 years ago, I started doing nothing with the leaves.  The primary reason was because I was trying to encourage fireflies in my backyard, and after a little research, it seemed like that “leaving the leaves” was a top suggestion for firefly conservation.  The leaves feed the slugs, snails, and worms that are the main food for firefly larvae (not to mention countless millipedes, roly-polies, spiders, mites, and billions of soil organisms that depend on fallen leaves). 

Part of the leaf food web. Leaves feed many, many decomposers, which in turn feed, fireflies, and local frogs and toads, chipmunks, birds, and on and on! (I made this slide quite a few years ago, and am not sure who took most of these photos! Apologies!)

Now it may have been a coincidence, but the summer after we left our leaves (and did not mow them), we had an amazing summer of fireflies.  As far as I could tell, we went from sparse fireflies, to the craziest number of fireflies I’d ever seen.  Now was it all down to leaving the leaves?  Probably not entirely, but no doubt all those fireflies did benefit from the extra snails and slugs, who had benefited from the leaves.  And as you can imagine, from then on, I have left the leaves.  

What’s good for the fireflies is good for the other guys

Bumblebee queens often overwinter in little burrows a couple inches underground, and it’s thought a thick layer of leaves can provide extra protection from some of the harshest winter weather.  

Butterflies and moths use leaves for overwintering habitat for different life stages. 

  • Caterpillars: The great spangled fritillary, woolly bear caterpillars (aka Isabella tiger moths), tawny emperor butterflies, and Baltimore checkerspots all wrap themselves in leaves and spend the winter in leaf litter
  • Eggs: Red-banded hairstreaks on lay eggs on fallen oak leaves which become the first food of their caterpillars.
  • Cocoons: Luna moths disguise their cocoons as dried leaves to blend in to leaf litter.
White oak leaves on the ground
Who is in there?!

There are so many good, beautiful, and fun reasons to not rake up your leaves (almost nothing is more fun for little kids than catching plump toads and fireflies). So give yourself a break this year and all the years to come. Just watch the leaves fall and don’t do a thing about it.

Have any other non-rakers out there seen the benefits of doing nothing? Let me know!

Resources:

Leave the leaves!, Xerces Society

Fall cleanup with ecology in mind, with Doug Tallamy, A Way to Garden, by Margaret Roach

Firefly.org, Conservation and Research

Wildlife Connections: Leaf Habitat, University of Kentucky

Bewitching Butterflies and Moths with Fall and Winter Habitat, Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Brown Gold: The Gift of Fall Leaves, Backyards for Nature, Valley Forge Audubon Society

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New England Aster: The Ins and The Outs!

All year long in the garden, I have stood on the deck, looked out, and thought, “Hmm, I need more flowers.”  This is what I always think, and it’s as true as ever.  More New England aster!  It seems like it only makes sense to have purple stretching back as far as the eye can see -all the way to the back of my backyard.  So I’ve begun taking notes where I will move transplants next spring.  Luckily, New England asters divide easily and readily self seed in my garden, and each year there are plenty of new plants to move around. 

A monarch visiting New England aster
The last Monarchs on their migration stop off to visit New England asters.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is one of the last blooming flowers in the fall, filling the garden with lovely, bountiful, purple flowers.  The flowers attract many, many pollinators, from the last monarchs passing through, to so many different kinds of bees.

Beyond feeding multitudes of pollinators, asters in general, are what Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, refers to as “keystone plants.” Asters are known to be host plants for 112 species of moths and butterflies -that’s a lot of caterpillars eating asters! They are definitely a species you, your family, many bees, butterflies, moths, bugs, and birds can all enjoy having in the garden.

A Big Floppy Plant/How to Prune New England Asters

New England asters have an interesting growth form…  Ok, the truth is, if left to their own devices, they often get a bit lanky and scraggly and flop over, and then they frequently lose the leaves from the bottom half of the plant, which looks totally crazy!  But really, all this can be worked with!  And New England asters are worth it, just wonderful, big, purple plants that buzz with life in the fall.

Purple and pink New England asters with aromatic aster in front.
Three shades of asters with fluffy butterfly milkweed seeds mixed in. The light blue in front is aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). The pink and purple in back really show the range of color for New England aster. The pink here is a just a self-seeded genetic variation, and technically flopped over, but that’s ok. If you don’t want to wait for a pink aster to come your way by chance, you can purchase a pink cultivar called “Pink Victor.”

One way some gardeners like to deal with scraggly New England asters is to cut them back.  For plants that are a few years old and doing well, cutting them back results in shorter, bushier plants with more branching, less flopping, and often more flowers. After some research, it seems like the best method is to prune them twice, as described on Pat Sutton’s Wildlife Garden. Once near Memorial day and then again near July 4th. 

Super common for New England aster to be covered with bumblebees and other pollinators.

The memorial day cut should be about ½ to ⅔ the length of the plant, or 1 to 2 feet from the top.  The second July 4th cut isn’t as extreme, but just cutting back some of the new growth that resulted from the first cut. In fact, the second cut can prune selectively (for example cutting the front of the plant shorter than the back of the plant) to influence the eventual height of the blooms. (Make sure to leave the clippings under the plant so any caterpillars on those stems can climb back on the plant.)

On some plants, ones that might have stayed a bit shorter, you can even skip the second cut, and those plants will likely bloom earlier than the plants pruned twice. And like this, you can extend the bloom time of New England aster. Imagine: a garden with un-pruned, once pruned and twice pruned plants. I wonder how much that would extend the bloom time? I’m going to try this next year, and I’ll let you know.

Un-pruned New England aster supported by aromatic aster and purple coneflowers.
Un-pruned New England (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) aster supported by the short and strong aromatic aster on the left, and the stiff stems of dried purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).

If you do not have time or energy for cutting back asters on holiday weekends, I understand. All the same, an un-pruned aster can be a great plant at the back of a border (my crazy un-pruned plants often reach six foot plus), and it can intermix well with short and tall species, in a more meadow-like garden.  It does great when grown behind or mixed with a stalwart plant that can hide its stem and lend it a bit of support. 

E Pluribus Unum

With asters, what we think of as the flower, is actually made up of many, many tiny flowers, which is why they are sometimes referred to as the composite family. The edge of the inflorescence is made up of “ray” flowers, which, in this case, carry the purple petals (one petal per ray flower), and interior “disc” flowers, which are tiny tubular flowers, in the disc-like center.  In New England aster, these little disc flowers open from the outside in, and they look like little cups, holding the nectar that so many pollinators come to drink.  

A painted lady butterfly visiting a New England aster flower.  Ray and disc flowers are open.
A painted lady butterfly visiting New England aster. Here you can see into the outer ring of ray and disc flowers. Each disc flower is sporting it’s own anthers which hold the pollen.

At first, New England aster, with its sometimes scrappy demeanor, might not strike a gardener as particularly delicate. But something especially beautiful happens with this flower: they close their flowers at night, and open them again in the morning.  I don’t know why, but I love flowers that open and close.

Although it’s not a subject that has been studied much, the prevailing thought is that plants that close their flowers at night (and on cold and rainy days) are protecting their pollen from moisture.  In some species, uncontrolled rehydration of pollen grains, from dew or rain, ultimately reduces the viability of the pollen, so you gotta keep that pollen dry!

Peace in the Garden

I learned a lot trying, and mostly failing, to get my camera to capture a flower closing, but perhaps the most important thing I learned is how peaceful it can be to just watch videos of evening flowers and bumblebees. Have you heard of Slow TV? Where Norwegians just have a TV show of a train ride in real time, or people knitting a sweater in real time. Very peaceful. But I think they might want to add a slow flower program. This could be the first episode. Watching a bumblebee fall asleep and sleep in a New England aster flower. (If bumblebee bees are out and about at bedtime, they’ll often just find a nice flower to sleep on.) This little bee stretches and gets comfortable on the far left of the plant, the breeze rocks him to sleep, the crickets sing, and all the other little sleepy flower activity goes on.

Do you have New England asters? A favorite pruning technique?

Resources

Asteraceae/Compositae (Aster Family), Ohio Plants

Why Do Flowers in Namaqualand Close? Flower closure in relation to the environment and pollen sensitivity to moisture, by Amrei Von Hase

Pat Sutton’s Wildlife Garden

Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy

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Singing in the Garden: Insect Songs of Autumn

For years now, my heart has grown more and more tender towards crickets.  From the flower beds, the fall field cricket’s sweet little end of summer chirps are so beautiful, and then… fall begins.  So many insects are singing now in the garden, creating such rich layers of trills and chirps. And over the last month, it has been truly so rewarding to learn who exactly is singing a few of these beautiful little insect songs. The world comes alive in a new way, and just like that, there’s another thing to enjoy this time of year, another thing to love. And the songs are fun to learn.  

The fall field cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus). Looks like he’s having a good day.

Some songs in nature we can easily individuate: specific birds sing specific songs, specific frogs, toads, whales, specific children, and so on.  When we think about insects singing, sometimes we might be able to say it’s a cricket or a cicada, but beyond that, insect songs become a bit of a blur.  Who is that singing out there?

An unidentified conehead (a type of katydid), camouflaged in the purple coneflowers. If you can tell what species this is, please let me know!

The Singing Insects!

Almost all the songs we hear in summer and fall come from only two orders of insects: the orthoptera (crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids) and homoptera (cicadas).

However, within those groups there are many different singers, with each species having their own unique song.  There might be a few too many songs for the home gardener to learn them all, but with a little close listening, it is really pretty easy to learn the handful of loudest singers around your home.

Over the last month, listening to crickets and trying to sneak up on them, has been so enjoyable, such a nice break in my day, I really recommend that you try it. Nothing beats back a rough week like finding a black-legged meadow katydid, after some intense listening (and getting a ladder).  Victory comes in many sizes.  I see you, Katydid!

A black legged meadow katydid singing from the top of an American plum tree (Prunus americana). Katydids and crickets sing by stridulation, rubbing upper and lower wings together to vibrate the wings and produce so many different kinds of sounds, from rasping sounds to pleasant chirps and trills.

A Surprising Trig

Little can raise one’s spirits like finding an unexpected and surprising cricket in the yard. This is a true story. Last week, there was a very loud insect in my yard. For this post, I was, of course, trying to identify the loudest crickets around my house. It really sounded to me like the slow tinkling trig (trigs are a type of cricket)(Anaxipha tinnulenta), but the range of that trig was not supposed to extend beyond southern Missouri. I told my husband of my suspicions, perhaps in an excited way. He thought I was crazy. I explained to him about something called Enthusiasm for Crickets.

I ended up sending a couple videos of the song to Dr. Thomas J. Walker and Dr. David H. Funk who had written the paper, Systematics and acoustics of North American Anaxipha (Gryllidae: Trigonidiinae) (from which I gathered they were the experts on this topic). Lucky for curious gardeners, most insect scientists are very approachable, and that was the case here! Dr. Funk quickly confirmed that the song was an exact match for the slow tinkling trig, and Dr. Walker, based on that confirmation, notified me that they would add a point on the Singing Insects of North America‘s range map for this species. (how exciting!)

The song in question! Coming from somewhere near this heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

Apparently, with climate change and warming, this species (among many others) has been expanding its range north. Because it is the northwestern-most observation of the slow tinkling trig, it would be helpful if I could also collect a specimen. I have tried sneaking up on this guy before to get a picture, and was super unsuccessful. But I now have an insect net and have begun doing some “sweeps.” So we shall see!

You might have thought that would be the end of it. Me, too. But then, it continued. This week I heard another really loud cricket in my yard. To me, it really sounded like the jumping bush cricket (Orocharis saltator). But again, this cricket’s range had not yet extended into Iowa. So again, I sent off the songs and pictures to the authorities, Dr. Funk and Dr. Walker, and indeed, it was the jumping bush cricket, in Iowa.

The jumping bush cricket in southern Iowa!
The jumping bush cricket (Orocharis saltator) hanging out in a butterfly roost (butterflies don’t really roost in there, but the crickets like it).

The first time that I was the first official person to find a northernmost cricket, it was super exciting. The second time… it was exciting, don’t get me wrong, but I kind of got this feeling like: Wait a second, what is going on here? Surely I’m not the only one in Iowa listening to crickets. Where-the-crickets are the avid amateur grigologists (cricket scientists)? Or maybe even the department of natural resources people who might be keeping track of these things? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps there are not as many people carefully listening to crickets as we might have thought.

But you could become one! And who knows, if you live north of me, I think you could probably easily nab the northernmost cricket observation title for both of those little crickets.

Learning A Few Insect Songs

“We encourage you to take part in the development of a new aesthetic… where the cacophony of confusing insect sounds magically transforms into a delicate concert of creatures dear to the heart.”

Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliot, Songs of Insects

Songs of Insects, A Guide to the Voices of Crickets, Katydids, and Cicadas is an amazing online resource for identifying the singing insects of central and eastern North America by song or by sight, and also learning more about each species.

To begin, I would recommend finding one song you can clearly hear in your yard, and trying to sneak up on the singer. Get a picture if you can, or if not, a video that records the song, or maybe you are just so close that the song reverberates itself into your brain. Then go to the Songs of Insects thumbnail guide to species to check out which one it might be.

  • If the song is kind of raspy and dry, look to the katydids.
  • If it has a chirp or tone, look to the crickets.
  • Try to pay special attention to rhythms of songs, as that can really help in identification.

Once you really begin to listen for individual songs, after a bit, this chirping trilling language does become clearer. The songs come into focus and you will probably be able to hear that there is a much greater diversity of orthoptera in your life than you realized. 

Right now, the following species are some of the most singing guys around my home in southern Iowa. The names link to the Songs of Insects ID pages.

Fall Field Cricket
(Gryllus pennsylvanicus)

I finally found this guy singing! Woohoo! It took awhile! Singing field crickets go quiet when you get near. I think the trick to finding these guys is to just lay down where you think they’re singing, look for cracks in the ground and wait. In this manner, I finally saw two singing!

Black-legged meadow katydid
(Orchelimum nigripes)

These guys are really pretty easy to sneak up on.

Round-tipped conehead
(Neoconocephalus retusus)

Coneheads are similar to katydids, but their heads are shaped like cones! This species is also pretty easy to find.

Slow tinkling trig
(Anaxipha tinnulenta)

A beautiful high-pitched song, but so hard to find! They like to sing from woodland edges. This is a bit of a chorus in the beginning. These guys are really hard to find!

Jumping bush cricket
(Orocharis saltator)

A chorus here singing from the silver maple. Like toads, two singing near one another will take on different tones.

Carolina ground cricket
(Eunemobius carolinus)

This cricket sings in the basement and out in the yard.
I have never found this cricket!

Photo by Ryan Hodnett, CC

A very big thank you to Dr. Funk and Dr. Walker for all their help and communication on insect identification and other cricket topics -I very much appreciate it!

And another big thank you to the Songs of Insects. What an amazing website!

Are there many insect songs around your home? What species is the loudest right now? I would love to know!

Resources:

Songs of Insects, A Guide to the Voices of Crickets, Katydids & Cicadas, by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliot

Singing Insects in North America (SINA), edited by Dr. Thomas Walker

The Orthopterist’s Society

Systematics and acoustics of North American Anaxipha (Gryllidae: Trigonidiinae), by Thomas J. Walker and David H. Funk. Journal of Orthoptera Research 23(1): 1-38. 2014

Crickets of the genus Gryllus in the United States (Orthoptera: Gryllidae: Gryllinae). WEISSMAN, D., & GRAY, D. (2019). Zootaxa, 4705(1), 1–277

Listening in Nature, When you Listen to Katydids, Listen to the Rhythm, by Lisa Rainsong

Katydids, by University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program

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Prairie Dock Forever

Prairie dock!  Silphium terebinthinaceum (what a word)!  When I first saw a picture of prairie dock,  I thought, “WHAT?!  How have I never seen this plant?!”  I was about to bust right open, sitting on my couch, looking at my plant catalog. “Where has this plant been all my life?!” I shouted internally. 

Prairie dock flowers with the sky.
The top few feet of prairie dock reaching for the sky.

Appreciation of Life’s More Spectacular Foliage

Prairie dock has enormous leaves, as rough as sandpaper, with beautifully scalloped edges.  The biggest leaf in the garden this year is 17 inches across and 28 inches long!  These are the sort of leaves that inspire a gardener to measure leaves.  When the sun shines through and other flowers become silhouettes, it can stop time; stop a cricket mid-chirp; the toad holds his breath; the gardener stands still. Prairie dock leaves can do that.

Flower silhouettes on a prairie dock leaf.
Aster and black-eyed Susan silhouettes.

The roughness of the leaves makes them deer and rabbit resistant, and the deep reaching taproot (up to14 ft) makes prairie dock resistant to drought, and to being moved. It sounds like it will just keep coming back (for a long time!), so make sure to plant it where you want it.

Prairie dock is a close relative to compass plant Silphium laciniatum, who has been shown to live to one hundred years, and some suspect that prairie dock is equally long-lived. Before I knew this, I planted about ten plants at our town pump station -and they look great there- but it’s a little funny to think they could be there for the next 100 years, and I hope they are! (Really, I can’t think of anyone in 2115 who wouldn’t want prairie dock there.)

Prairie dock spreading a bit.
Prairie dock, spreading a bit at the pump station, but it hasn’t done the same in my yard. The soil at the pump station is much drier and leaner than in my yard. Here the prairie dock is mixed with the silver prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) and a bit of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

Towering Flowers

In the garden, the first striking feature are the leaves, which reach almost full size by early summer, but in August a tall flower stalk shoots up. This year our tallest prairie dock is 12 feet tall! It’s the tallest plant in our garden, beating out the 9 foot pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplifolium), and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) at 10 feet.

Prairie dock is such a big plant that it’s really hard to capture in a still photo, so here it is on video, in all it’s glory!

Prairie Dock’s Pollinators

A few years in, and there are many flowers and flower buds. They’re beautiful and very attractive to all sorts of pollinators: bumblebees, small solitary bees, halictine bees (green bees, sweat bees), bee flies, monarchs, and even hummingbirds all like to visit. 

Monarch butterfly visiting prairie dock.
A monarch visiting prairie dock first thing in the morning.

Since I was planting prairie dock at the town pump station (sort of a public place), I was a little more curious than usual how long it might take prairie dock to bloom. I asked the seed company, and was told 7 years!  Now, it might be a function of the regular drought stress in Iowa, but one plant at the pump station (it was the worst drought in decades) bloomed it’s second year, and most of my plants have bloomed by their third summer. 

They can handle medium wet to medium dry, as well as periods of drought.  But if you live in a place with medium-wet conditions, I don’t know, they might just live the good life and take a little longer to bloom.  But the leaves alone are reason enough to have prairie dock in the garden.

As a host plant, Prairie dock sticks to lesser known guests, who specialize on prairie dock and compass plants. It’s home to the silphium beetle (larva and adults), as well as two gall wasp species, who form galls inside the flower stalks. As well as a little specialist aphid, Iowana frisoni.

Do you have any prairie dock in your yard? If you do, how old is it? How long did it take to bloom?

Resources

Iowana frisoni Hottes (Hemiptera: Aphididae) redescribed, with notes on its biology. Favret C., Tooker J.F., Hanks L.M. (2004).  Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington,  106  (1) , pp. 26-34.

Prairie Dock, Illinois Wildflowers

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), By Christopher David Benda, U.S. Forest Service

Silphium Terebinthinaceum, Prairie Dock, Prairie Moon Nursery

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Dancing Monarchs and Meadow Blazing Star

Early August is here, and the Monarchs are swooping down on us.  There are endless things to write about in the garden: Joe Pye weed, prairie dock, summer azures, puddling, annual fleabane (still blooming!) -these are all things I was trying to write about, but the monarchs can not be denied.  They really have the run of the garden right now, bossing all the other butterflies around.  I just saw a monarch and a hummingbird run off a female swallowtail.  Grumpiness takes wing.

Monarchs on their favorite flower, meadow blazing star, Liatris ligulistylis
Monarchs visiting their favorite midwestern flower, meadow blazing star, Liatris ligulistylis

Liatris ligulistylis!

I am sure that the number one reason we have so many monarchs visit us around this time each year, is the blooming of the meadow blazing star, Liatris ligulistylis.  Often referred to as the “monarch magnet,” this plant is no joke!  This year, we had monarchs landing on the very first, barely opening blossom.  

A monarch visits a meadow blazing star that is growing under and in the peach tree.
A monarch visits a meadow blazing star that is growing under and in the peach tree.

Funny that when I planted these meadow blazing stars a few years ago, it was a mistake!  I somehow mislabeled them (a mix up with shooting stars, you see), so I merrily thought I was planting a twelve inch tall plant under the peach tree and right at the front of the pond bed.  These places would have been odd choices for meadow blazing star, a 5ft tall, sort of lanky plant, but they have turned out to be so great because they’re so easy to see from where we like to sit on the deck. 

We watch the monarchs come and go, usually I’d say there’s about 4 or 5 or so, chasing each other, swirling around, flying inches overhead, and nectaring on meadow blazing star.  They are daily almost bumping into me while they chase each other and mess around.  It feels like I’m witnessing special August magic, and I feel so lucky to have this plant and these butterflies in my backyard. I guess what I’m saying here is… you got to plant this plant!

Monarch butterflies dancing around their favorite nectar flower, Meadow blazingstar, Liatris ligulistylis

What’s in that nectar?!

Why are they so crazy/the craziest about meadow blazing star?  Well after a lot of searching, I think I can say that no one really knows why, nor have they bothered to look into it!  As far as I can find, no one has done a nectar analysis of this species, which to my mind, is rather astonishing, but there you are.  Pollination ecologists!  Restoration ecologists!  Somebody with the proper tools!  Maybe do this?  It feels like an exciting question to me: the most attractive plant to the iconic and threatened monarch butterfly, whose mysterious nectar draws monarchs in from afar, yet no one knows what the monarch seeks so voraciously… is it simply the sugar, or could it be…. something else?! (see? super exciting!)

The make up of nectar is complex. It consists of water, sugars, amino acids, lipids, among numerous other organic chemicals.  Each species of flower contains different ratios of these components, and so each species has unique nutritional benefits, and no doubt a unique flavor. A number of studies have shown that amino acids in nectar are particularly beneficial for butterflies, playing a role in increasing lifespan, egg production, egg size, larval size, and even increasing survival in some butterfly species. And so, what is the secret formula of meadow blazing star nectar? Hopefully, we’ll find out some time soon.

In the meantime, nothing should stop you from planting many, many meadow blazing stars, and changing your life and yard with beautiful, dancing monarchs.

Monarchs have wonderful polka dots on their bodies.
Who can wear polka dots like monarchs? No one! But we can try.

Growing Meadow Blazing Star

Meadow blazing stars are really easy to start from seed with a 2 month cold treatment. They’ll look like a blade of grass the first year, but will very likely bloom the second year (if you don’t accidentally rip them out when you’re weeding -this has happened to me a number of times! and it’s terrible. It’s probably a good idea to flag them in some way for the first year.).

They need full to part sun, and they like a medium-wet to medium-dry soil, but the corms (very similar to bulbs) don’t want to be in a wet spot in winter. I would suggest planting 5-10 (or more!) every year to keep up your numbers because I have heard that voles love to eat these corms. So annually adding to your meadow blazing stars might be a good idea. In the right place, and if you don’t have too many voles, blazing stars (the Liatris genus in general) can live for decades.

If you’re looking to extend your liatris season (or live in the east), try Liatris aspera, or rough blazing star. These are also attractive to monarchs (although not quite as attractive as meadow blazing star), they bloom earlier in the summer, and are a bit shorter.

meadow blazing star has great foliage for the early summer garden
Meadow blazing star spikes in June. Great foliage, mixed here with black-eyed Susan and annual fleabane.

And of course my number one piece of advice is to plant them quite close to where you like to sit. Even if you think it’s an odd place for a tall plant, they have really attractive and interesting foliage as they grow in spring, and I bet you’ll grow to love having them and the monarchs so close by.

Resources:

Meadow Blazing Star for Monarchs, Monarch Butterfly Garden

Meet the Blazing Stars, In Defense of Plants

Nectar chemistry. Nicolson S.W., Thornburg R.W. (2007). In: Nicolson S.W., Nepi M., Pacini E. (eds) Nectaries and Nectar. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-5937-7_5

Variation in nectar composition: The influence of nectar quality on Monarch success. Arnold, P. (2016). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation)

Nectar Sampling for Prairie and Oak Savanna Butterfly Restoration. Arnold, Paige & Michaels, Helen. (2017). Applications in Plant Sciences. 5. 1600148.

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Edible Summer Wildflowers

There’s nothing like going out to the garden and eating your flowers to make the dogs days of summer more bearable (ha!) -especially when they can beautify a huge glass of cool water. Or garnish your favorite garden squash.

Garden phlox and purple coneflowers garnish yellow squash.
I love yellow squash, and it’s even better covered with phlox and purple coneflower petals.

10 Summer Wildflowers to Eat

After checking and double checking, I can confidently say the flowers of the following native plants are great in the summer garden, and good for the summer kitchen as well. But please make sure you always properly identify your wildflower before eating it! And if you have pollen allergies to certain types of flowers, please also avoid eating them. Let me know if you give these a try!

a bumblebee visits a Monarda fistulosa flower

Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot
Monarda fistulosa

Ohio spiderwort flowers, Tradescantia ohiensis

Ohio Spiderwort
Tradescantia ohiensis

Ohio spiderwort made the spring list, but here it is again because it’s still blooming!

Evening primrose flowers

Evening primrose
Oenothera biennis

Photo by Radio Tonreg CC

A bumblebee visits nodding onion flowers

Nodding onion
Allium cernuum

All flowers in the genus Allium are edible!

Garden phlox, Phlox paniculata, in bloom

Garden phlox
Phlox paniculata

Yucca flowers

Yucca
Yucca filamentosa

Photo by Maja Dumat CC

A female Eastern tiger swallowtail visits a purple coneflower

Purple Coneflowers
Echinacea purpurea

Squash  flowers

Squash!
Cucurbita spp.

Summer and winter squash blossoms are all edible. Make sure to harvest the male flowers!

A wasp visiting mountain mint flowers

Mountain mint
Pycnanthemum spp.

All mountain mint flowers are edible!

Carolina rose flowers, Rosa carolina

Carolina rose
Rosa carolina

All wild roses (Rosa genus) flower petals are edible! Remove the white portion because it can be bitter. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson CC

Resources:

Plants for a Future

Edible Wild Food, by Karen Stephenson

Dining Wild: Native edible plants are naturals for home gardens, farms by Nadia Navarrete-Tindall

Eat the Weeds, by Green Deane

Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, by Kelly Kindsher

What’s Cooking America

The Natural Gardener

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Bumblebees!: Nesting Habitat

In North America we have 46 species of fuzzy, little bumblebees.  They generally follow similar life history patterns: queens emerge, find a nesting site, seek pollen and nectar to establish a colony, workers emerge, they grow the colony, generate new queens and male bees, those fly off and mate, new queens find a place to over winter, a cozy little hibernacula of their own, and all the other bumblebees die.  (Sorry to end their story on such a morbid note, but that’s where everything ends in the end, right? ) No!  Of course that’s not the end!: the new queens emerge the next spring and the whole thing starts over again.  That is the general, well-worn, well-loved pattern, but we see differences in species’ phenology, or timing.  

Some bumblebees emerge early and some emerge a bit later.  And in general, it’s thought that each species is following the blooming phenology of their preferred habitat.  Early emerging bumblebees have a stronger woodland association, using woodlands for early blooming spring nectar and pollen and nesting, and late emerging bumblebees have a grassland association, using grasslands for finding flowers and nest sites.

In late April, you can hear early bumblebees buzzing around the redbuds.

According to the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, over 1/4 of North American bumblebees are threatened with extinction, and when looking over these bumblebee declines, researchers in Great Britain and North America, have seen a trend that bumblebee species with late emerging queens (who are seeking flowers and nest sites in grasslands) are more likely to be showing population declines.  And really, this makes sense.  In Great Britain, North America, and other places, too, grasslands have been, and continue to be, declining.  For example, a recent study out of Michigan notes that their agricultural grasslands/hay fields, full of timothy and clover (a good resource for bumblebees), have decreased by over 92% since 1925.  

A big brown-belted bumblebee (I think) visits July blooming swamp milkweed.

As for grassland loss in Iowa, well, first we have the astonishing history of the destruction of the prairie, with over 99.9% of the prairie lost to agriculture and development after European settlement. In more recent history, though, Iowa and the Midwest have continued to lose grasslands, especially over the last 15 years.  A land-use study out of the University of Wisconsin, demonstrated that, grasslands accounted for 77% of the land used for agricultural expansion between 2008 and 2012 -a loss of about 5.7 million acres of grassland, due to the 2005 Renewable Fuel Standard (a.k.a. ethanol mandates).

But what has all this meant for bumblebees in Iowa?  The fact is, research is scarce, but the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation considers 5 of Iowa’s 16 bumblebee species vulnerable to extinction, and one species endangered.  

A bumblebee visiting a purple coneflower in July.

An answer to habitat loss is to create or restore high quality habitat, but when it comes to what really makes high quality bumblebee habitat, there are still many unknowns. What exactly are the most preferred flowers, nesting sites, and overwintering sites for each species? We just don’t have super researched answers yet. But that said, we definitely have enough information get started making bumblebee friendly gardens at home.

Add Bunch Grasses to Your Flowers

“Creating and conserving nesting habitat in natural areas and habitat fragments can potentially be a significant contributor to the reproductive success of bumble bees.”

Xerces Society, Conserving Bumble Bees

A number of studies have suggested that a lack of nest sites may be a limiting factor for bumblebee population growth. In a natural setting, bumblebee queens will usually nest under a clump of grass, or an abandoned mouse or chipmunk burrow, or cavities in dead trees, or in rock piles. But special attention should probably be paid to the bunch grasses. A 2005 study in Iowa showed that bumblebee abundance in prairie remnants was significantly predicted by the percent of grasslands in the surrounding landscape (suggesting additional nest sites and flowers were likely beneficial), and a couple studies out of Europe showed bumblebee queens actually prefer withered grasses and tussocks as nest sites. Considering their loss from the landscape, it seems that planting grasses, specifically bunch grasses, is a great step forward. And gardens are a great place to start.

It’s been shown that gardens, parks, and urban areas can provide significant nesting habitat for bumblebees. In 2004, a citizen science effort in England, found about 3 bumblebee nests per acre, with the majority of nests found in people’s gardens. And lucky for our gardens, bunch grasses are beautiful and versatile, adding wonderful textures and colors, weed suppression, and habitat.  

Little bluestem, in the foreground, is an excellent addition to pollinator gardens.

A bunch of choices:

Bunch grasses come in many heights, colors, and with a beautiful diversity of seed heads. Here’s just a few good options. There are many more! Photos courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Little bluestem
Schizachyrium scoparium
A blue-green grass that turns a beautiful red in the fall.

Prairie dropseed
Sporobolus heterolepis

Indian grass
Sorghastrum nutans

Can be aggressive

Big bluestem
Andropogon gerardii

Bumblebee Garden Maintenance: Less is More

To help with your bumblebee habitat, it’s recommended to not cut back bunch grasses, but to leave them be.  The fallen grass is used for overwintering hibernacula for queen bees, as well as nest sites the following spring.  Similarly, areas with leaf litter, brush, and fallen logs also provide beneficial nesting and overwintering sites.  So, I guess what I’m saying is, we can plant grass and flowers, and then forget about it.  Don’t mow as much.  Don’t rake up your leaves.  Don’t pick up all your sticks and fallen logs, in fact, just leave some piles around (in secret locations if you don’t like the “naturalistic” appearance of brush piles). And as always try to eliminate pesticides and herbicides from your yard.

Have you found any bumblebee nests in your yard? If so, where was it?!

Resources:

Conserving Bumble Bees, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Narrow pollen diets are associated with declining Midwestern bumble bee species. Wood, T. J., Gibbs, J., Graham, K. K., and Isaacs, R.. 2019. Ecology 100( 6):e02697

Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in the North American Midwest. Jennifer C. Grixti, Lisa T. Wong, Sydney A. Cameron, Colin Favret. Biological Conservation. 2009. 142:1.

Diversity and Abundance in Tallgrass Prairie Patches: Effects of Local and Landscape Floral Resources, Heather M. Hines, Stephen D. Hendrix, Bumble Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae), Environmental Entomology, Volume 34, Issue 6, 1 December 2005, Pages 1477–1484

Cropland expansion outpaces agricultural and biofuel policies in the United States. Tyler J Lark et al 2015 Environ. Res. Lett.10

Quantifying and comparing bumblebee nest densities in gardens and countryside habitats. Osborne, J.L., Martin, A.P., Shortall, C.R., Todd, A.D., Goulson, D., Knight, M.E., Hale, R.J. and Sanderson, R.A. (2008), Journal of Applied Ecology, 45: 784-792.

Habitat preferences of nest-seeking bumble bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in an agricultural landscape, Birgitta Svensson, Jan Lagerlöf, Bo G. Svensson, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Elsevier, February 2000

How to Garden for Bumblebees, by Tom Oder

A Quest for Bumble Bee Nests: The Missing Link, by Amanda Liczner

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Pollinator Week!: Not So Common Milkweed

Today is the last day of National Pollinator Week, designated 13 years ago to raise awareness about the urgent issue of declining pollinators.  Most of the usual parades, speeches, and balloon drops were canceled this year, but at my house, the week was marked by the blooming of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Common milkweed has beautiful flowers, and smells as amazing as any orchid, but what it is really known for is being the most eaten milkweed of monarch butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus plexippus).  (Over 90% of monarchs choose to lay their eggs on common milkweed.)

A monarch on meadow blazingstar.

The Migratory Monarch

Monarchs are part of a truly astonishing natural phenomena: a multi-generational, continental migration.  North from Mexico in March, monarchs search out milkweed and lay the year’s first generation of eggs in Texas.  The new butterflies continue migrating north, reaching throughout the Eastern United States and into Canada by early June. This is their summer breeding area, and they search out milkweed and lay the second generation of eggs.  The third generation is typically laid in July, and the fourth generation in August. These late summer butterflies, make the long journey back to Mexico, where they overwinter in a small number of colonies (this last winter there were 11 colonies), in select Oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) forests , until the spring warms up, milkweed begins to grow, and they begin their northern migration again.    

Monarch migration map, created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Because Monarchs overwinter in colonies, it allows researchers to measure their population size.  They measure the density of monarchs on the fir trees and the hectares (1 hectare = 2.4 acres) of fir trees covered in butterflies.  They’ve been using this methodology since the mid-nineties, and are able to reach a very good estimate of how many Monarchs have returned, and how the population is faring.

Monarch overwintering area 1993 to 2018, Graph by Andre-Phillipe Drapeau Picard CC

What we have seen over the last 30 years, is that monarch butterfly populations have declined by over 80%.  From an average of 9.3 hectares (22.9 acres) in the 1990s, to 5.8 hectares (14.3 acres) in the aughts, to 2.8 hectares (6.9 acres) in the last decade.  The lowest point for the population was reached in the winter of 2013-2014, with the population occupying just .67 hectares (1.6 acres) of forest, translating to something like 33 to 43 million butterflies. This frighteningly low population drew attention. In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to list the monarch butterfly as endangered (a decision on this is now due in December of 2020), and the Obama administration set out a presidential memorandum supporting pollinator and monarch habitat restoration and the planting of milkweed.

Disappearing Milkweed

Over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent that a main driver of the monarch’s decline is loss of milkweed due to agricultural expansion, and the Midwest’s wholesale adoption of herbicide resistant corn and soybeans. If we go back to the beginning of the century, we see that, at the same time as the monarch population was dropping, their food source, milkweed, was also in a steep decline.  Starting in the 90s, the adoption of herbicide resistant crops (Round-Up Ready corn, soy, etc.), enabled farmers to achieve much tighter control of weeds.  For example, in Iowa in 1999, common milkweed was detected in 51% of corn and soybean fields.  But over the next decade, with increasing adoption of herbicide resistant crops, one study showed that, from 1999 to 2009, agricultural milkweed was reduced by 97%, reaching 99% elimination by 2013.  Another study in Iowa, from the same time period found 100% elimination of milkweed from monitored fields, but no matter, the reality is the same: by some recent date, agricultural milkweed was eliminated throughout the Midwest.  

Habitat for more than monarchs.

The land area this represents is vast.  At this point, over 90% of corn and soy planted in the United States is herbicide resistant, and so the total land in herbicide resistant crops comes to about 66 million hectares (scientists and their metric system!;)), or more than 163 million acres.  To put this in perspective, Iowa is 35.7 million acres.  Minnesota is 51.2 million acres.  Illinois is 27 million acres.  And then there’s still 50 million more acres of corn and soy!  Land that was once monarch habitat has been reduced to a milkweed and flower desert.  And so how many milkweeds are we talking about here?  It’s estimated that this agricultural conversion translates to a loss of 850 million milkweed stems.   

The Plan

A conservation goal for the monarch population is that they reach an average overwintering population size to occupy 6 hectares of forest in Mexico.  At this level, research suggests the population would have resilience against extreme weather events, and reduce their chances of nearing extinction by 50%.  To reach this solid number of monarchs, we will need a correspondingly respectable number of milkweeds. 

graceful milkweed plant
Milkweed has such beautiful colors.

Unfortunately, by some super twisted twist of fate, it turns out that the low density, agricultural milkweed was actually the most productive milkweed, in terms of producing monarch butterflies, historically averaging 3.9 more monarch eggs than other milkweeds on the landscape. So to replace it,  we will actually need to plant an estimated 1.3 to 1.6 billion milkweeds to make up for its loss.  What?!!  What the!  GAhhh!!  Ok, don’t freak out.  We can do this, and people have been doing this. Researchers have been looking at just how this can get done. What’s life without a few big goals, right?  

“The main finding of our study is that an all-hands-on-deck approach could be essential to restoring the massive amounts of milkweeds needed to make the monarch population healthy again.”

Wayne Thogmartin, U.S. Geologic Survey researcher

The Deckhands

  • Conservation Reserve Program land (CRP)
  • marginal agricultural land converted to the Conservation Reserve Program
  • governmentally protected grasslands
  • roadside rights of way
  • powerline and rail lines
  • urban and suburban areas

A great paper from 2017, “Restoring monarch butterfly habitat in the Midwestern US: ‘all hands on deck’ ” by Wayne Thogmartin et al., demonstrates that the “all hands on deck” approach would be able to meet the milkweed needed to support a 6 hectare monarch population, but with a big caveat. It would mean looking to the agricultural sector to move 1/2 of the current marginal crop land into the Conservation Reserve Program, or a similar set-aside status. Given current government subsidy programs, crop insurance, and ethanol mandates, planting marginal land in row crops is still economically incentivized, and so marginal land entering a conservation-like status is not a certainty. But the 2018 farm bill did provide for an additional 3 million acres to be moved into the CRP program (equivalent to a bit less than a quarter of marginal crop land), so although it remains a large task, it looks like things can still move in the right direction.

Ask not what milkweed can do for you. Ask what you can do for milkweed.

But what are they asking of us, the urban/suburban, gardener/gardening club types, native plant enthusiast/maniacs? Well, they separate different levels of urban intensity with different expectations of stems of milkweed per acre, but on average for an urban/suburban area, in their highest level participation scenario, they are anticipating 3 milkweed stems per acre. My first reaction was to think they were certainly asking too little, but then I did the math for my town. My little 25,000 person town covers 10,580 acres, so that’s going to be about 32,000 milkweed stems. That sounds totally daunting, but lucky for us, with milkweed, one plant, left to it’s own devices, will likely become at least 10 stems in a couple years (though it would be great if a botanist/horticulturalist could verify this line of thinking!), which would knock down the number we truly need to plant to about 3,200. And we could round up to 4,000, to account for any milkweed crop losses, no problem. That’s totally do-able, right? It’s a lot. It will take a big effort, but I think it’s totally do-able.

Milkweed plays a big role attracting monarchs at the Public Library’s pollinator garden.

So, there is a large task ahead, especially for us in the Midwest, because the Midwest is where the huge losses occurred, and the Midwest is considered the monarch’s core breeding range.  In fact, a stable isotope analysis has shown that, historically, the majority of overwintering monarchs came from the Midwestern corn belt.

So!

Urban/suburban Gardeners! Let us pick up our trowels!  In a world full of complicated questions, here is a simple question: Can you plant more milkweed?  And more importantly, can you think of two neighbors and three or more friends that you can convince to plant common milkweed?  Milkweed is needed not just in native plant enthusiasts’ yards, but in many yards, across the city, all the parks and empty lots, grocery store parking lots, along our city roadsides, in the medians, traffic circles, churches, libraries, every single school. Oh, the list goes On.  Widespread, chemical free milkweed (and nectar flowers), in town. This is our job.

But we don’t have to plant milkweed alone. There are many organizations working to save monarchs and pollinators. And importantly, there is a wonderful organization helping to create partnerships and provide coordination for this huge, multifaceted conservation effort, the Monarch Joint Venture. If you feel like getting to work, finding a local group, planting some milkweed, planting some nectar plants for migration (can’t forget those!), their website is a great place to find resources or find a group to work with.

Resources:

Restoring monarch butterfly habitat in the Midwestern US: ‘all hands on deck.’ Wayne E Thogmartin et al 2017 Environ. Res. Lett. 12 074005

Milkweed restoration in the Midwest for monarch butterfly recovery: estimates of milkweeds lost, milkweeds remaining and milkweeds that must be added to increase the monarch population. Pleasants, J. (2017), Insect Conserv Divers, 10: 42-53.

Monarchs in decline: a collateral landscape‐level effect of modern agriculture. Stenoien, C., Nail, K.R., Zalucki, J.M., Parry, H., Oberhauser, K.S. and Zalucki, M.P. (2018), Insect Science, 25: 528-541.

Neonicotinoid-contaminated pollinator strips adjacent to cropland reduce honey bee nutritional status. Mogren, C., Lundgren, J. Sci Rep 6, 29608 (2016).

A 10,000 Foot View of Monarch Conservation, Monarch Joint Venture

Monarch Conservation Implementation Plan 2019, Monarch Joint Venture

Pollinator Week: Pollinators, Plants, People, Planet, Pollinator Partnership

Monarch Butterflies, The Journey North

Interpreting surveys to estimate the size of the monarch butterfly population: Pitfalls and prospects. Pleasants, J. M., Zalucki, M. P., Oberhauser, K. S., Brower, L. P., Taylor, O. R., & Thogmartin, W. E. (2017). PloS one, 12(7), e0181245.

Massive Milkweed Restoration Could Help Save the Monarch Butterfly, by John Daley, Sierra Club

Pollinators and 2018 Farm Bill, by Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society

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Mimicry and the Swallowtails

Swallowtails, so beautiful, so fast. They begin to speed through our yard in late May or early June, and continue showing up now and then throughout the summer. In southern Iowa there are 6 species of swallowtail butterflies that we can see:

  • the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  • black swallowtail (Papilio polyxene)
  • giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
  • spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
  • pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor)
  • and the zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

The first three are found throughout the eastern U.S., and the last three don’t go much further north than Iowa -the last two, zebra, and pipevine swallowtails are considered visitors, and not truly resident butterflies (so it’s extra special if you see one!). If any of these awesome swallowtails visits your yard, and they slow down enough for you to get a look at them, hopefully the following photo gallery can help you easily ID your swallowtail. And if you know which swallowtails are in your area, then you know which host plants to plant for next year (hooray!). Interestingly (and perhaps inconveniently), each species has a different host plant for their caterpillars! What?! Let’s break it down!

Swallowtail Identification

Eastern tiger swallowtails

Black swallowtails

Giant swallowtails

Pipevine Swallowtails

Spicebush swallowtails

Zebra swallowtails

The North American Mimicry Complex

Now, if you were looking at some of the species up above and thinking, “What! These look the same!” you would be right. What we have here in our swallowtails is a case of mimicry. Among various species, what we see is that often, if there is a truly disgusting butterfly (to the taste of toads, birds, and other predators, of course), through natural selection and millions of years, numerous other butterflies end up looking like the gross butterfly (the scientific term is “unpalatable”). In a sense, the disgusting butterfly, by virtue of being so disgusting, creates a predator-free space, and we see that simply looking like the disgusting or toxic butterfly, allows a delicious butterfly to enter that predator-free space -no one even wants to risk eating them. In the case of swallowtails, a dark butterfly with blue on the bottom wings -forget about it! No way does anyone want to eat that nasty butterfly. They gain longer lives, increased reproduction, and over evolutionary time, mimicry develops. Mimicking an unpalatable or toxic “model” is called Batesian mimicry.

“Perhaps, the peak of Batesian mimetic perfection, diversity, and complexity is seen in butterflies…”

Krushnamegh Kunte from THE DIVERSITY AND EVOLUTION OF BATESIAN MIMICRY IN PAPILIO SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLIES

And we see that about 25% of the approximately 200 species of swallowtail butterflies are mimics. In fact, half of our local swallowtails have ended up mimics. Me personally (if it were up to me!), I would have them all look different, but it’s not up to me, it’s up to natural selection.

Caterpillars of the swallowtail North American mimicry complex. From left to right: the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor), Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), and spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) Photo by Ansel Oommen, CC

According to Sylvio G. Codella, entomologist and evolutionary ecologist at Kean University, what we have here is an “extensive North American mimicry complex,” consisting of the eastern tiger swallowtail, the black swallowtail, the pipevine swallowtail, the spicebush swallowtail, red-spotted purples, and female dianas. So just who is the nasty butterfly?? It is the beautiful-nasty pipevine swallowtail.

And once again the swallowtail mimics

Why Pipevine Swallowtails Are Repulsive

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars feed exclusively on plants in the genus Aristolochia (a group of plants known as Dutchman’s pipes).  The caterpillars store aristolochic acids from the plants, and render themselves, their pupae form, their adult form, and their future eggs distasteful and toxic.  

Aristolochia macrophylla, is probably the most widespread Dutchman’s pipe vine, and the one most commonly sold, but according to an article by the North American Butterfly Association, woolly Dutchman’s pipe vine, Aristolochia tomentosa, might be a better suited choice for Midwest gardens. 

Attracting Swallowtails

When encouraging butterflies to visit your yard, the best strategy is to plant both host plants for the caterpillars and preferred nectar plants for the adults. Host plants will get a swallowtail’s attention, and if they can find some nectar plants, too, they might just decide to stay for awhile.

Midwestern host and nectar plants for swallowtails
SpeciesHost PlantsNectar Plants
Eastern tiger swallowtailWild black cherry, Prunus serotina
Sweet bay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana
Tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera
Crabapple, Malus spp.
Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium spp.
Wild plum, Prunus americana
Garden phlox, Phlox paniculata
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
Black swallowtailCurly-leaved parsley (very attractive by some reports)
Dill
Fennel
Golden alexanders, Zizia spp.
Milkweeds, Asclepias spp.
Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium spp.
Blazingstars, Liatris spp.
Giant swallowtailPrickly Ash, Zanthoxylum americanum
Common Hoptree, Ptelia trifoliata
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa
Ironweeds, Vernonia spp.
Thistles, Circium spp.
Spicebush swallowtailSpicebush, Lindera benzoin
White sassafras, Sassafras albidum
Milkweeds, Asclepias spp.
Joe-Pye weed, Eutrochium spp.
Bazingstars, Liatris spp.
Thistles, Circium spp.
Jewel weed, Impatiens capensis
Pipevine swallowtailDutchman’s pipe vine, Aristolochia spp.
Woolly Dutchman’s pipe for the midwest, Aristolochia tomentosa
Phlox, Phlox spp.
Ironweeds, Vernonia spp.
Thistles, Circium spp.
Zebra swallowtailCommon pawpaw, Asmina trilobaBlackberry, Rubus spp.
Blueberries, Vaccinium spp.
Dogbane, Apocynum cannibinum
Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

What types of swallowtails have you seen in your yard? Let me know!

Resources:

THE DIVERSITY AND EVOLUTION OF BATESIAN MIMICRY IN PAPILIO SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLIES. Kunte, K. (2009). Evolution, 63: 2707-2716.

Featured creatures, Pipevine Swallowtail, by Donald W. Hall http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/pipevine_swallowtail.htm         

A tale of four swallowtails, Ansel Oommen, Front Ecol Environ 2018; 16( 6): 335– 335

The Gardener’s Butterfly Book, Alan Branhagen

Butterfly mimicry through the eyes of bird predators, by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Host Plant: Aristolochia, by Lenora Larson, North America Butterfly Association

From a Caterpillar to a Butterfly; Don’t Eat ’em -Here’s Why, by Kathy Keatley Garvey       

How a “flipped” gene helped butterflies evolve mimicry, by Matt Wood

Signal categorization by foraging animals depends on ecological diversity, Kikuchi et al. eLife 2019; 8:e43965.

Intersexual Comparison of Mimetic Protection in the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio polyxenes: Experiments with Captive Blue Jay Predators. Codella, S., & Lederhouse, R. (1989). Evolution,43 (2), 410-420.

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Ohio Spiderwort: Saving the Morning in the Late Spring Garden

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) is in full bloom around my house right now.  Native throughout the eastern U.S., Ohio spiderwort is a beautiful, blue, graceful, easy plant to grow. I especially appreciate the timing of when this plant blooms: late spring, a time in the garden when not many other native flowers are blooming.   This late spring/early summer break in flowers used to really bug me, “What the heck’s going on?!  I’m trying to plant a full-time, blooming pollinator garden here!” I would shout to myself, walking around the garden.  That is, until I planted a bunch of Ohio spiderwort.  

Ohio spiderwort's flowers and foliage
Ohio spiderwort’s foliage is a pretty addition to the garden.

Each flower of Ohio spiderwort opens for just one day, usually just one morning.  On a hot day around here, they’ll be closed by noon.  So if you have a busy work schedule, and are only in the garden in the evenings, they might not be the best choice for your garden -unless maybe you can have your coffee outside in the morning.  Fact is, they bloom during one of the best times of year to have your coffee outside in the morning.  And they are edible, so you can garnish your breakfast, or your coffee, just for fun.  

Ohio spiderwort flowers in coffee!
Beautiful flowers in my coffee. I feel like this picture might give the impression that sometimes I sit and luxuriously enjoy something like this. In the interest of
honesty, I feel I should add that I have small children, and this type of spa drink is not a reality in my life. But I hope you can sit and enjoy something like this.

Bumblebees collecting pollen are reported to be Ohio spiderwort’s most important pollinators, but it’s also visited by quite small solitary bees (Halictine bees), and syrphid flies (including some common non-native varieties).  Interestingly, these flowers don’t produce any nectar!  And as far as I can see, in my garden, they are definitely not wildly popular with pollinators, but I suppose they are getting by as best they can.

Ohio spiderwort visited by a syrphid fly.

It seems there’s not a huge amount of scientific interest in the pollination ecology of Ohio spiderworts (or at least I couldn’t find it!), so there’s really not too much information on species of bumblebee visitors, pollination in flowers without nectaries, selfing vs. cross pollination, seed set, etc, etc. But for me, this flower raises many questions -first being, why bloom just one day?? If you’re going to the trouble to make a flower, what advantage is there to an ephemeral flower? If anyone knows, please let me know!

If you have also found  late spring/early summer  to be a bit low on flowers, there are a few plants that can help.  Over the last couple years, focusing on planting the following flowers has really helped the garden, and helped me walk through the garden more peacefully during this time of year.

Helpful Flowers

Wild blue indigo, Baptisia australis visited by  a dragonfly

Blue wild indigo
Baptisia australis

Bradbury's monarda , Monarda bradburiana

Brabury’s monarda
Monarda bradburiana

Shining bluestar, Amsonia spp. visited by a fuzzy bumblebee

Shining bluestar
Amsonia illustris

Golden alexanders, Zizia aurea visited by a wasp

Golden Alexanders
Zizia aurea

Annual fleabane, Erigeron annuus

If you have any favorite natives not listed here, that bloom in late spring, please let me know!

Resources:

Ohio spiderwort, Illinois Wildflowers

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, by Heather Holm

The Native Plant Podcast

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Columbine and the Pollinators

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) visiting scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma).  Photo by Joe Schneid
A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) visiting scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma). Photo by Joe Schneid, Creative Commons

The columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) has begun to bloom around my home -the hummingbirds and I have been waiting.  Columbine is an early flowering plant that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) visit for nectar as they migrate north each year.  Flying from Central America, across the Gulf of Mexico, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, usually arrive in the southern U.S. in mid-March, in the southern Midwest by the last couple weeks of April, and the upper Midwest and Northeast in the first couple weeks of May.  

It’s widely thought that the hummingbird’s movement north is timed with the blooming of columbine (along with about 20 other early blooming species).  And columbines do have many traits of “hummingbird flowers.”  They are red, with long spurs. The nectar is kept at the very tip of the spur, making sure that a little hummingbird will bang his head on the dangling pollen. And the nectar of red columbines have twice the sugar content of all other columbines native to North America, which also makes it a good match for hummingbirds. 

Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Phenology Forever

With plants and their pollinators, a very important part of their relationship is timing.  And so, timing has its own field of study: Phenology.  Phenology is the study of the timing of natural phenomena. It’s the nice kind of science where you sit on your front porch and watch things come and go.  When does the redbud first bloom?  When does it leaf out?  When do the insects emerge?  When does the columbine bloom?  When do the hummingbirds arrive?  These are all the seasonal biological events that Phenologicians (I just made that word up, don’t use it in public) pay attention to and record.  

Blueberry bush in flower
Blueberry in flower

Now according to my terrible phenological records, the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird arrived in my yard on May 3rd and the columbine began blooming around May 9th.  Someone was early, or someone was late.  I don’t know who.  Lucky for the hummingbird, on May 3rd the blueberry bushes were blooming and they thought those were ok.  

Hummingbird patterns have been changing since the 1970s due to global climate change and winter and spring warming -things are getting a little mixed up.  A recent study showed that compared to the last century, Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s are arriving in their eastern breeding grounds 11-18 days earlier than they did historically.  The concern here is that, as these effects increase with warming temperatures, hummingbirds may ultimately become out of sync with their food sources.  And from the plant’s point of view, columbine could become out of sync with one of its pollinators.  

The Other Pollinators

The most effective pollinators of columbine in the Midwest are thought to be Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and four bumblebee species: the Two-spotted Bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus), the Yellow Bumblebee (B. fervidus), the American Bumblebee (B. pennsylvanicus), and the Rusty-patched Bumblebee (B. affinis).  There are perhaps others, but these were the ones recorded the last time the issue was thoroughly looked into, in 1966.  Unfortunately, since 1966 millions of acres of habitat have been lost, agriculture has intensified in land use and chemical use, new diseases have arrived, and the climate has changed (all bad news!).  Due to these factors, the Yellow Bumblebee, the American Bumblebee, and the Rusty-patched Bumblebee are all in decline.  The Rusty patched bumblebee actually has the sad distinction of being the first bee to be listed as an endangered species in 2017.  It’s population has declined 87% in the last 20 years, and it’s thought to be present in only .1% of its historic range.  

Rusty-patched Bumblebee (Bombis affinis) on beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)
The Rusty-patched Bumblebee on Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). Photo by USFWS Midwest Region, Creative Commons

So it seems columbine’s situation with pollinators may be more tenuous than I realized when I started this post.  Hmm.  Columbine is very capable of pollinating itself, and can actually achieve full seed set with no pollinators.  But without pollinators, columbines are not able to cross-pollinate and bring in new genetic material.  And, as those of us who married our cousins know (I accidentally married my thirteenth cousin!), this leads to inbreeding, less healthy plants, and over time increases the potential for extinction.  I’m not saying that columbine is on the brink of extinction, but with three out of four of its bumblebee pollinators in decline, columbine genetics are likely feeling the effects.

So what to do? I don’t think resigning ourselves to increasingly inbred columbine is the answer.  Well then, what is? What can we do?  Well, I think the answer is… plant a pollinator garden.  Ha.  I know! That’s what I always think the answer is!  But it is.  If many of us gardeners increase food, nesting habitat, and chemical free spaces for bumblebees, and we convince our friends and families to do the same, bumblebee populations will increase.  And that will be a good thing for columbine and so many other wild plants.

Columbine and Robin's plantain 'Lynnhaven Carpet'
Columbine and Robin’s Plantain ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’

A Garden Note

Wild columbine is a great plant that’s really flexible in terms of moisture and sun requirements. It can go almost anywhere in your garden and do well. The foliage is delicate looking and can make a great weed supressing groundcover (since it’s an early leafing plant that beats the weeds), especially when planted in groups. In terms of visual appeal, it packs more of a punch in larger groups (7 plus plants), but can be delicate and airy planted out in smaller numbers. It’s a great addition to any garden.

And one final note for gardeners with a little extra space.  In the studies I read, which felt numerous (although forgetting studies and accidentally re-reading them probably contributed to that), they would talk of small versus large populations of columbine.  The contrast being that a small population would attract fewer pollinators and exhibit less cross pollination.  In what I read, a small population of columbine was considered something like 30 plants, a large population greater than 90.  Putting this in a gardening context, well, how many of us even have a small population of columbine?  I have 4 mature columbine plants in front and four on the side of the house, two in the backyard.  This quantity and distribution of columbine might be categorized as random and tiny.   In the 7 years that the tiny patch of columbine has been in front, I recall seeing one hummingbird visit about five years ago.  So I am going to try a new tact and create a middling population of columbine, and hopefully draw in more hummingbirds and bumblebees.  I’ve put in about 50 columbine (they are easy to start from seed) split in three groups in the front yard.  I’ve started to think columbine looks better in masses than in random, tiny spots, so in many ways, this will be a good change for the garden.

Do you get many hummingbirds at your columbine?  Let me know!

Resources:

Pollination Ecology of Vernal Angiosperms. Macior, L. (1978). Oikos,30(3), 452-460.

FORAGING BEHAVIOR OF BOMBUS (HYMENOPTERA: APIDAE) IN RELATION TO AQUILEGIA POLLINATION. Macior, L.W. (1966), American Journal of Botany, 53: 302-309.

Effect of population size on the mating system in a self-compatible, autogamous plant, Aquilegia canadensis (Ranunculaceae). Routley, M., Mavraganis, K. & Eckert, C. Heredity 82, 518–528 (1999).

Pollinator–Plant Synchrony Tested by Climate Change. Willmer, Pat. Current Biology 22(4) (2012).

Assessing Migration of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) at Broad Spatial and Temporal Scales. Courter, J., Johnson, r., Bridges, W., Hubbard, K. The Auk, 130(1) : 107-117 Published By: American Ornithological Society

Floral Anthocyanins of Aquilegia and Their Relationship to Distribution and Pollination Biology of the Species. Taylor, R. (1984). Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club,111(4), 462-468. doi:10.2307/2995896

Fact Sheet Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis), Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region

Ruby-throated Humminbird, US Fish and Wildlife Service, by Kim Winter, Coevolution Institute

Common Columbine Pests: Columbine Leafminer and Columbine Sawfly, Wisconsin Master Gardener Program

Columbine, Illinois Wildflowers

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Adirondacks Forever Wild

Aquilegia Express: Red Columbines, U.S. Forest Service

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Planting a Pollinator Garden: A Quick Start Guide

Putting in a pollinator garden is pretty simple, and when getting started there are just a few things to consider:

  • deciding where to put the garden
  • sun and moisture conditions
  • planting native flowers with a succession of bloom times
  • including super food flowers
  • a couple planting tips
  • and last but not least, killing your grass

When putting in a pollinator garden, the first step is usually:

Deciding where to put the garden

For pollinator gardens there are many good options for placement because honestly, most places look better with flowers. But my best advice on garden placement is to make sure you have lots of flowers close to where you spend the most time sitting outside. So this might mean right next to the back patio or deck, or right off the front porch. Really just anywhere very close by the places where you like to sit and relax. That way you are surrounded by beauty and it’s easy to watch butterflies and bumblebees and bugs coming and going.

Other nice garden spots: old, abandoned garden beds are a great option, around a nice little shed, around a terrible shed, in the middle of your yard! (more on this in a future post), Along a front walk or any path, under a fruit tree.  Typically insects prefer visiting a sunny or partially sunny garden, but many pollinator friendly plants love shade, as well, so whatever you got, just work with it.  

Sun and Moisture conditions: What is my garden plot like?

Is the plot full sun (6 or more hours of sun), part sun (3 to 6 hours of sun), or shady (less than 3 hours of sun)?  Does your soil stay wet and soggy?  Is it rocky, sandy and dry?  Or just kind of in between?  These are the main factors that will affect what kinds of plants or seeds you put in.  Native plant nurseries provide sun and moisture requirements for each plant, and usually their catalogs are divided up into categories like:

  • full sun – wet
  • full sun – medium
  • full sun – dry
  • shade – wet
  • shade – medium
  • shade – dry
  • and so on…

Many nurseries have searchable online catalogs that can be narrowed down by your site’s factors, which is super handy.  Some great Mid-west nursery websites are listed in the resources below. 

Choosing the “right plant for the right place,” as many gardeners will say, means considering the moisture and sun conditions -even if they are tough- and then finding the plants that like it that way. With native plants, the principle of the “right plant for the right place” eliminates many problems and almost all watering.

And that is also why I don’t recommend getting a soil test, because I don’t recommend doing any soil amendments.  Nutrient rich soil can lead to foliage heavy, too tall, floppy native plants. Your terrible soil might not grow a petunia, but I am certain the right native plant is out there.

Plan your pollinator garden so it provides flowers from early spring through late fall.  

One of the easiest ways to ensure 3 seasons of blooming flowers is with a spreadsheet.  Gah! That sounds complicated! Ok, ok. Forget the spreadsheet for now. We will come back to the beautiful spreadsheet in a future post.

Here are 15 easy native flowers for a partial sun to sun pollinator garden, with about medium soil (but can handle a bit of dryness, too). These are all tough, flexible plants and many are really amazing in terms of attracting pollinators: anise hyssop, blanket flower, sweet joe pye weed, meadow blazingstar, swamp milkweed, New England aster, mistflower -these are all hard to beat for attracting many, many pollinators. Together these plants make a great 3 season pollinator garden. (I will also include their spreadsheet to prove it!)

15 Easy Wildflowers for a 3 Season Pollinator Garden

Wild strawberry
Fragaria virginiana

Wild strawberries make a welcome, cheerful early spring flower. Planted throughout the garden plot they will spread and create a weed suppressing ground cover, which is Super Helpful.

Wild strawberry, bright  white blossoms are so cheerful in early spring.

Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis

One of the earliest blooming garden flowers -it may even attract a hummingbird.

Columbine, an early blooming

Anise hyssop
Agastache foeniculum

Pollinators love anise hyssop, and you probably will, too. Long blooming purple flowers, with leaves that smell like licorice. Anise hyssop will often bloom the first year it’s planted. It’s a short-lived perennial, but can reseed itself in the garden.

Anise hyssop, a long blooming favorite in the pollinator garden
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Butterflyweed
Asclepias tuberosa

The orange on butterflyweed is hard to believe, and hard to pass up! As a milkweed, it’s particularly important as a host for Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

bright orange butterflyweed, a milkweed much needed by Monarch butterflies

Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia hirta

I love this black-eyed susan because it blooms its first year and all summer long. It self sows like crazy, popping up in unexpected spots the next year. An exciting plant!

Black-eyed susan, readily self sows and makes for an exciting, unexpected garden at times

Rose (or swamp) milkweed Asclepias incarnata

The first year the swamp milkweed bloomed in my yard, I regretted that I’d planted so far from my deck -so many butterflies were seeking it out, on the other side of the yard! Monarchs love to lay eggs on these and you’ll likely find many caterpillars munching away in late summer.

Rose or Swamp milkweed, a plant beloved by many insects

Purple coneflower
Echinacea purpurea

You can’t go wrong with coneflowers. They’re just beautiful, especially in large groups.

Purple coneflower mixed with prairie sage

Blanket flower
Gaillardia aristata

Another short lived perennial, blanket flowers will just keep blooming and blooming through the summer and fall. Bumblebees love them.

Blanket flower, a long-blooming red flower for the pollinator garden

Sweet Joe Pye weed
Eutrochium purpureum

It’s hard to express how much I love this plant. Tall, blousy, full of life. Bees, butterflies, everyone loves Joe Pye weed.

Sweet Joe Pye weed, great pollinator plant
Courtesy of George Bruson, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Meadow blazingstar
Liatris ligulistylis

This plant is called a Monarch magnet, and that is no joke! I’ve seen as many as 5 monarchs at a time on one plant! What!

Meadow blazingstar, the Monarch magnet

Western sunflower
Helianthus occidentalis

Sunflowers can be aggressive in the garden, but in my experience that is not true for this guy. Sunflowers are very important for pollinator gardens, plant one today!

Western sunflower.  Sunflowers are an important part of pollinator gardens.
Courtesy of R.W. Smith, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Old field goldenrod
Solidago nemoralis

A beautiful gold in the fall. Goldenrods have a reputation for being aggressive, but Old field goldenrod hasn’t been that way for me.

Old field goldenrod provides important fall blooms

New England aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

These are just covered with pollinators in the fall, and the richness of the purple color will stop you in your tracks.

pollinators love New England aster

Mistflower
Eupatorium coelestinum

Last fall, every time I visited the garden at the library there was a monarch on the mistflower. A long bloom time. Might be aggressive in a truly moist soil.

mistflower for the pollinator garden
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Aromatic aster
Aster oblongifolius

This plant is unbelievably covered in flowers when it finally starts blooming, and blooms into November!

aromatic aster provides important late season blooms

Prairie dropseed
Sporobolis heterolepis

This one is extra! Prairie dropseed makes a wonderful groundcover (weed suppression) and adds a lot of personality and meadowy feel to the mix.

Prairie dropseed for the pollinator garden

And here’s the garden’s spreadsheet. Below is an adaptation of a great planning technique shown in Planting, A New Perspective by Piet Ouldolf and Noel Kingsbury. It’s a really useful book by two extraordinary gardeners. And I will write more about using this method for pollinator gardening in a future post.  

But here you can see that this garden will have a number of species in bloom throughout the season.  This variety is important because there are a variety of pollinators with different sized bodies (and tongues!) and they can’t all access the same nectar and pollen sources.

Pollinator garden successional bloom planting chart
Old field goldenrod, and important host plant for many insects
Old field goldenrod, an important host plant for many insects

Super Food Perennials to include in the garden

In recent years, it’s become more and more clear that not all plants are created equal.  Some perennials feed many more insects than others.  Renowned naturalist, entomologist, University of Delaware professor, and author, Doug Tallamy, has been raising awareness with his books, Bringing Nature Home:How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants and recently, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, that certain plants are host plants to many more moth and butterfly species than others.  This is particularly important because moth and butterfly caterpillars are essential food for breeding birds -the chicks need soft, high protein food.  With hungry baby birds in mind, the top 4 types of plants you definitely want to include to support the food chain are: Goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, and Joe Pye weed.

A couple planting tips

When planning where to put each plant in the pollinator garden, try to create groupings of each species -some people say “masses” of plants. So think in terms of groups: 3 butterflyweeds here, 5 butterflyweeds grouped there, seven over there…and so on. This works well for general garden design and it also makes it easier for the pollinators to move from bloom to bloom efficiently. This is simply trying to mimic masses that often occur in nature, where one species might take over a sweep of ground, and can be a highly concentrated food source for pollinators.

My next tip is… for the first year or two, mulch is your friend. If wood mulch is handy, that will work, or straw also makes a great mulch. Mulching around and between newly planted plants will greatly reduce the weeds growing in your garden, and reduce the time you need to spend weeding the garden. Weeds can be intense! And mulching is definitely worth it. (Just try to make sure your mulch is also weed free) (for example, if somehow you have access to free mulch, try to choose the freshest mulch that has not been sitting around a long time gathering weed seeds.)

Killing your grass

I will probably write an entire post on killing grass at some point, because it is such a worthy topic, however, here I’ll just describe my favorite method. But before I get to that, I’d like to emphasize how much you need to kill your grass (in the garden plot area). Truly killing your grass will save you so much time in terms of weeding, watching weeds grow, re-mulching, etc. So I encourage you to really kill your grass!

I like to “sheet mulch,” using layers of newspaper and straw. So a few months before I want to plant, or ideally the previous fall, I will set the border of my new garden bed, and then lay down three sheets of newspaper at a time, significantly overlapping, so generally there’s about 6 sheets of newspaper in any given spot. I weigh it down with straw on top as I go, and at the end, wet the straw and newspaper down, if it’s not going to rain.

This method also works really well with newspaper and wood mulch. If you use wood mulch, it’s very important that when digging holes for your new plants that no mulch slip into the hole. If the wood gets buried it will suck up all the nitrogen as it decomposes and your plant will not do well. That is why straw is an advantage, you still want to keep it out of the hole, but it’s not as big a deal as with wood chips.


As you get started down the pollinator garden path, there’s no doubt you will see other plants that grab a hold of your brain and won’t let go. Don’t worry, that is normal. Native plants do that to people. Lying awake at night, thinking about plants? Normal. My recommendation is to just go with it, definitely get more plants, expand your pollinator garden a little bit, put in a new bed over there, one by the shed, maybe one at city hall. Why stop?

Resources:

How to Build A Pollinator Garden, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Prairie Moon Nursery

Prairie Nursery

Native Flowers and Seeds from Ion Exchange

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, By Doug Tallamy

The Native Plant Podcast

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Edible Spring Wildflowers

Spring is here and the days are warming.  We’re outside more and more, enjoying the sun, working away in the garden: naturally, we need a snack.

 

Snack

These are the edible spring flowers, that we can use as a beautiful garnish or just a very pretty bite to eat for the kids.  On a walk the other day, my two year old started yelling, offended that we’d passed by a redbud tree without getting him any “yummy flowers.”  So we went back -no problem, free snack.

The following are flowers that by all accounts are edible, but please make sure you always properly identify your wildflower before eating it!  And if you have pollen allergies to certain types of flowers, please also avoid eating them.

Let me know if you give these a try!

Wild strawberry
Fragaria virginiana

Spring beauty, Claytonia virginica

Redbud
Cercis canadensis

Common Violet
Viola sororia

Spring beauty
Claytonia virginica

Spring beauty, Claytonia virginica

Trout lily
Erythronium albidum

Trout lily, Erythronium albidum
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty

Spiderwort
Trasdescantia ohioensis

Spiderwort, Tradescantia ohioensis
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty

American linden
Tilia americana

American linden, Tilia americana
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty

Spotted beebalm
Monarda punctata

Spotted beebalm, Monarda punctata
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty

Black locust
Robinia psuedoacacia

Black locust, Robinia psuedoacacia
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty

Resources:

Edible Wild Food

Eat the Weeds

Raw Edible Plants

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No Time for a Cold Treatment? No problem.

If you are thinking about ordering native plants for your garden (and if you are like me), the price tag for a plant may seem a bit high. Especially when you compare it to The Seed Packet. So much potential held within a $2.50 packet of seeds!  So the choice is: 50 to 100 or more plants for $2.50, or 1 plant for $4?  You see the situation.  Why would anyone choose the plant? But most people do. I am not sure why, but something about growing plants from seed stops people in their tracks.  Looking at it, I see two hurdles that may make even an otherwise avid gardener (I’m looking at you, Stan) turn away.

1 The seed often needs something called a “cold treatment”

2 Figuring out the lighting to grow the plants indoors before they go outside

There are a few ways to do a cold treatment for seeds, and a future post will discuss very thoroughly how to do a cold treatment, but just nuts and bolts here:  for a cold treatment you get a little bag, label it, put some damp sand or vermiculite in the bag, mix your seeds with the sand, and then refrigerate it for typically 1 to 3 months.  Then you get it out and plant your seeds.

The cold treatment mimics winter, seeds absorb moisture, chemicals in the seed coat break down, and being cold for a certain number of days breaks the dormancy of the seed so they are ready to germinate.  Different species have different requirements.  But enough about cold treatments and who needs what!  

Today we are talking about those beautiful, unfussy seeds that do not need a cold treatment!  Seeds for procrastinators, or perhaps just normal people who did not realize some seeds get started in January.  So, there are a number of seeds that you can still order now, Late April/early May, start them when they arrive, and there you go!  Plants!  

10 Good garden plants that don’t need a cold treatment:

Purple coneflower,
Echinacea purpurea

Purple coneflowers

Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa

Bee balm and annual fleabane

Northern bedstraw, Galium boreale

Northern bedstraw
Courtesy Eric Beckers, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Virginia mountain mint, Pycnanthemum virginianum

Virginia mountain mint
Courtesy Dr. John Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Great coneflower,
Rudbeckia maxima (often blooms the first year!)

Great coneflower

Sky blue aster,
Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis (make sure to seed out in early spring, likes to germinate in cool temperatures)

Sky blue aster
Courtesy Dr. John Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Aromatic aster,
Symphyotrichum oblongifolius

Aromatic aster
The only thing blooming in November

Upland white goldenrod, Oligoneuron album

Upland white goldenrod

Blue sage, Salvia azurea

Blue sage
Courtesy Carolyn Fannon, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Purple-headed sneezeweed, Helenium flexuosum

Purple-headed sneezeweed
Courtesy Dr. john Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale

Sneezeweed

When the seeds arrive, my sincere advice would be to start them in flats or old planters, with some potting mix.  I would not seed them directly into the garden. The reason is because once you start watering a clear spot in the garden, a lot of weed seeds will also start to grow.  It can be really difficult to tell a weed seedling from a flower seedling, and so then you let everything grow, and most of these flowers don’t flower the first year, so the whole year who can tell the weeds from the plants?!  Next year the same! Gah!  Especially if you haven’t grown them before.  And then, you’re In A Mess.  Believe it or not, this has happened to me, in my optimistic, just seed things out, rake them in days -before weeds had Beaten Me Down.  These days, I definitely recommend weed free potting soil in flats or old planters for starting them out.  It will let you see your true seedlings, you can learn to recognize them for next year, and then you can just plant them out in the garden, right where you want them.  

If you have any no cold treatment garden favorites that were left off the list (or ones you know that can kind of sneak by with no cold treatment), please let me know!

Resources:

Illinois Wildflowers

Prairie Moon Nursery, and their wonderful, searchable seed database

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Squash + Squash Bees Forever

Squash Bees:

Every summer morning, somewhere in North America, a little squash bee crawls into a squash flower and falls asleep.  Around mid-day, the blossom closes, making a safe little golden chamber for the little bee. If you ever need reassurance that life can be beautiful and good, remember the squash bee, Peponapsis pruinosa. 

The squash bee is a solitary bee that is a specialist pollinator: for their food and their offspring’s food they only use pollen and nectar from squash plants: pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash, butternut squash, zucchini, really most plants in the genus Cucurbita (with the exception of melons and cucumbers -for some reason, that’s where they draw the line).

Their specialization has resulted in a few fitting adaptations.  Since squash flowers release their pollen at 48F, the pollen often becomes available before dawn.  Because of this, squash bees evolved larger eyes to see in the dark and the ability to fly at cooler temperatures.  Squash bees actually look a lot like honey bees, and one of the main ways to identify them is simply that they are flying so early in the morning.  So if you’re out at 6am, and you see what looks to be a chubby honey bee flying around your squash plants, there’s a good chance you have found a squash bee.

Squash bees compared to Honey bees
Photo by Elsa Younsteadt, Creative Commons

Female squash bees also have long hairs on their rear legs that make it easier to grab onto large, spiky squash pollen grains for transport.  Males didn’t evolve these hairs because they don’t collect any pollen. Now why are the females the only ones to collect the pollen?! Because being a female solitary bee is no joke.

Squash flower with a squash bee
Female squash bee, Photo by Elsa Youngsteadt,
Creative Commons

All by herself, she collects pollen and nectar, digs her tunnels and nesting chambers, lays the eggs, and provisions them with a nectar and pollen loaf for the larva to eat. The males spend most of their time hanging out in flowers, waiting for females, sometimes mating. I’m not kidding! Now is this unequal? Clearly, yes. Is it unfair? Hmm… I don’t know. Seems like a complex philosophical question to me! I’ll spare you my thoughts here, but maybe add them below the Actual Information someday.

Squash bees are ground nesting solitary bees, meaning that the females mate with males, and then dig tunnels and chambers underground usually 6 to 18 inches below the surface.  They start creating brood cells, and in each cell they lay a fertilized egg.  For each egg they have gathered squash pollen and nectar, and made a little pollen loaf, for the larvae to eat when they hatch.  This is all the food the young will need as they mature over the next year into adult bees. 

Important Conservation Note for Squash Gardeners:

Squash bees typically dig their nest right under the squash plants that they love, and so the little growing squash bees are in your soil, under your squash plants.  Say What! So it is important to not till a current year’s squash patch until next year’s squash bees have emerged. In the Midwest or New England the bees should definitely have emerged by the following August.  So in terms of garden planning, it would be good to follow a squash bed one year with a no till vegetable the next year, like kale, rather than carrots or potatoes, if you see what I’m saying.

Squash:

Squash pollen on squash bees
Squash bees in a squash blossom . This photo and the featured image, Courtesy of Ilona Loser, Creative Commons

There are about 20 species of squash and gourd bees, almost entirely centered in Mexico.  The only squash bee to come further north was Peponapsis pruinosa.  This bee originally pollinated a wild squash Cucurbita foetidissima, also known as the buffalo gourd, stinking gourd, or my favorite, the Wild Pumpkin.  But the squash bee was also happy to follow another squash, Curcubita pepo, as it was cultivated and traveled with native American peoples, in two distinct domestication events.  10,000 years ago, pumpkins and zucchini were cultivated in Mexico and began to move northwest, and 5,000 years ago in Missouri (I’m from Missouri, too!), another squash domestication event developed acorn, crookneck, and scallop squashes that began to move east. Ultimately the cultivation and movement of squash has led to P. pruinosa’s range extending far beyond the geographical range of its original host plant, from Mexico to Canada, and from coast to coast.

If you are a vegetable gardener, you know squash takes a little space, but other than that, it is pretty simple to grow.  And if you’ve already got squash in the garden, I would recommend setting your alarm for early morning to try to catch these beautiful squash bees in action.  Wouldn’t that be something. But beyond the vegetable garden, what an amazing native plant! This year I will be planting some squash in my flower beds to see how it might perform as a ground cover. I’m thinking almost all the flowers in my border will rise above the squashy fronds.  

But here is the real, native plant deal:  from what I’ve seen, the stinking gourd, or wild pumpkin, is beautiful, drought tolerant, and perennial to zone 4!  What?! So I will be trying this interesting plant in among my flowers, and see how it does. I am looking forward to seeing how much it stinks.

Wild pumpkin, Curcubita foetidissima
Stinking gourd, Courtesy of Norman Flaigg, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Resources:

Squash and Gourd Bees (Peponapis, Xenoglossa) and the Origin of the Cultivated Cucurbita. Hurd, P., Linsley, E., & Whitaker, T. (1971). Evolution,25(1), 218-234.

Squash Bees, U.S. Forest Service

Squash Bees in the Home Garden, NC State Extension 

Crop Domestication Facilitated Rapid Geographical Expansion of a Specialist Pollinator, the Squash Bee Peponapis pruinosa.  Lopez-Uribe MM, Cane JH, Minckley RL, Danforth BN. 2016 Proc. R. Soc. B283:20160443.

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Bumblebees! : The Early Spring Garden

Bumblebees are big and charismatic, beautiful and noticeable, and I think this is why they were one of the only groups of North American pollinators that a few early naturalists decided to count. Being big and fuzzy gets you counted! Because of this historical record, bumblebees were one of the first pollinator groups that could show that wild pollinators have been and still are in decline in North America.  A 2019 study out of Michigan found that out of the 12 species studied, 6 had declined by more than 50% since the last century!  The study is likely an indication of bumblebee population trends throughout the region, so now is the time to create a sanctuary for these sweet, chunky, wonderful bees. This is the first of a series of posts on bumblebee gardening that will cover what bumblebees need in spring, summer, fall, for nesting, and overwintering.

What the Queen Needs

There are 46 species of bumblebees in the United States, and most have a very similar way of life.  From mid-March through June, queens emerge from little chambers underground, called hibernacula, and for the first couple weeks, the queens search for flowers in bloom and a nest site for her colony.  Once queens find their nesting spot, usually under a clump of grass, or an abandoned mouse or chipmunk burrow, or cavities in dead trees, or in rock piles, they build a few little wax pots and start filling their pots up with nectar, while also making pollen balls which will provide the food for the first eggs.  These eggs will be the first generation of worker bumblebees, essential workers to get the colony going. Founding the colony is likely the most precarious time for bumblebees because the queen is alone for about a month, foraging, incubating eggs, staying safe, feeding herself, waiting for her first brood of workers to come help.  

And what this queen really needs (what she really needs!) from a gardener, are some early blooming flowers full of high quality pollen and nectar.  Most bumblebee species won’t travel farther than ⅓ to ½ mile from their nests when foraging, so having good flowers close by is optimal -I can consult my own laziness to see that this is true.  And, perhaps more importantly, there have been several studies in recent years indicating that a decline and absence of flowers or “floral resources” is a large factor in the worldwide decline of bumblebee populations.  So, we got to plant some flowers.

Early Blooming Bumblebee Flowers

To help these beautiful, big, fuzzy bees, create space for a few (or loads and loads) of these early blooming, bumblebee approved, flowers in your yard. Many thanks to Dr. John Hilty of Illinois Wildflowers for the use of these wonderful photos and for maintaining his great online wildflower resource (each photo links to Illinois Wildflower’s botanical information).

You can find a printable list here:

And if you know of more early spring Bumblebee flowers, please let me know!

Bumblebee Trees: 

Wild Black Cherry
Prunus serotina

Wild Black Cherry, Prunus serotina

Eastern Redbud
Cercis canadensis

Redbud, Cercis canadensis

Prairie crabapple
Malus ioensis

Prairie crabapple, Malus ioensis

Serviceberry Amelanchier spp.

Downy serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea

Wild plum
Prunus americana

Wild plum, Prunus americana

Peach leaf willow
Salix amygdaloides

Peach leaf willow, Salix amygdaloides

Black willow
Salix nigra

Black willow, Salix nigra, catkins

Bumblebee Shrubs:

Pussy willow
Salix discolor

Pussy willow, Salix discolor

Chokecherry
Prunus virginiana

Choke cherry fruit

Blueberries
Vaccinium spp.

Blueberries, Vaccinium spp.

Blackhaw
Viburnum prunifolium

Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium

Bumblebee Perennials:

Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis

Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Wild strawberry
Fragaria virginiana

Wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana

Cream wild indigo
Baptisia bracteata

Cream wild indigo, Baptisia bracteata

Ohio spiderwort
Tradescantia ohioensis

Ohio spiderwort, Tradescantia ohioensis

Spotted beebalm
Monarda punctata

Spotted beebalm, Monarda punctata

Wild Geranium
Geranium maculatum

Wild geranium, Geranium maculatum

Toothwort
Cardamine concatenata

Toothwort, Cardamine concatenata

Bumblebee Woodlanders:

Dutchman’s breeches
Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman's breeches, Dicentra cucullaria

Spring beauty
Claytonia virginica

Spring beauty, Claytonia virginica

Trout lily
Erythronium spp.

Trout lily, Erythronium spp.

Bellwort
Uvularia grandiflora

Bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora

Bluebells
Mertensia virginica

Bluebells, Mertensia virginica

Jacob’s ladder
Polemonium reptans

Jacob's ladder, Polemonium reptans

Wild blue phlox
Phlox divaricata

Wild blue phlox, Phlox divaricata

Resources:

Conserving Bumble Bees, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Pollinator Plants, Midwest Region, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Status of Pollinators in North America. National Research Council 2007. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Patterns of widespread decline in North American Bumble Bees, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Gardening Plants for Early Pollinators, National Wildlife Federation

Woodland Phlox, Illinois Wildflowers

Strawberry Pollinators and Visitors: Focus on Bees, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development

Conservation and Management of North American Bumblebees, USDA Forest Service

Bumblebees (Bombus spp.), David Inouye, University of Maryland, U.S. Forest Service

Bees, an Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm

Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers. Goulson D, Nicholls E, Botías C, Rotheray EL (2015). Science347(6229):1255957

Declines in forage availability for bumblebees at a national scale. Carvell C, et al. (2006). Biol Conserv132(4):481–489

Macronutrient ratios in pollen shape bumble bee(Bombus impatiens) foraging strategies and floral preferences. Anthony D. Vaudoa,1, Harland M. Patcha, David A. Mortensenb, John F. Tookera, and Christina M. Grozingera

Bumblebees of Wisconsin, Life Cycle and Biology, University of Wisconsin