Pollinators Come to a Tiny Urban Yard

By Edie Parnum

A 130-square foot cement-covered backyard —who would expect such a yard could be a haven for wildlife?  The property is on a narrow street of rowhouses in Philadelphia.  The nearest park is several miles away. Nonetheless, this garden is teeming with  butterflies, bees, wasps, moths, and a host of other pollinating insects.

A view of Navin’s small backyard. Photo by N. Sasikumar. Click to enlarge.

Navin, an avid amateur naturalist, moved to this property last fall.  He saw the potential to attract pollinators with native plants in raised beds and containers.   In early spring, he invited me for a Backyards for Nature consultation.  Together we made a list of short and mid-sized perennials that bloom from early spring to late fall and are known to attract a variety of pollinators.

He purchased good quality plants from Good Host Plants, a native plant nursery in Philadelphia. He planted perennials in two raised beds that sit atop the cement.  Others he planted in large, deep containers. He installed two trellises for growing vines.

Pecks Skipper butterfly nectaring on Wild Bergamot. Photo by N. Sasikumar

It worked.  In the spring bees and other insects found the Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadense), Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). and Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata).  The summer blossoms of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Butterfly Weed (A.tuberosa), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), and Orange Coneflower

Female Monarch nectaring on Swamp Milkweed Photo by N Sasikumar. Cllick to enlarge.

(Rudbeckia fulgida) host many butterflies and other pollinators.  The show continues this fall with Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), New England Aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), and other asters.  Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquifolia) will bloom on the trellises.

On weekends Navin observes and photographs the wildlife in his

Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo by N Sasikumar. click to enlarge.

garden.  He discovered Monarchs laying eggs on his Swamp Milkweed.  An insatiable predator, a Carolina Mantis (our native mantid species) lurked nearby, so he decided to bring the Monarch eggs and caterpillars inside to raise them in safety.  So far, he’s raised and released 34 adult Monarchs.  An additional 47 are either chrysalises or caterpillars and will be released soon for their journey to Mexico.  He’s also rearing BlackSwallowtail eggs and caterpillars that grow on parsley.  According to Navin, nighttime is the best time for spotting the small eggs and caterpillars.

So far, he’s recognized ten additional butterfly species including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red Admiral, and Eastern Tailed Blue.  The biggest surprise was a Giant Swallowtail, a southern species rarely seen in

Giant Swallowtail. Photo by Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

the Philadelphia area. Other insects are finding his garden, too.  Navin observed a Snowberry Clearwing, a large day-flying moth, nectaring on blossoms like a hummingbird. A variety of bees, wasps, flies and moths feed on nectar and pollen.  With so many insects, predators such as the Carolina mantis as well as spiders,lacewings, and parasitic wasps have located his yard, too.  One day he spotted a lacewing eating aphids.

Tiger Bee Fly, a parasite of carpenter bees. Photo by N Sasikumar. Click to enlarge.

Navin offers advice to other wildlife gardeners with limited space.   A great many plants can be crowded into small garden plots, raised beds, and large, deep containers.  Prune the plants periodically to keep them short and use stakes before tall plants get floppy. Water frequently in hot weather.

Navin submits his wildlife sightings to iNaturalist, a nature record-keeping app.  He photographs the butterflies and moths (both adults and caterpillars), bees, wasps, flies, beetles—in fact, any creature using his plants.  He uploads these photos and the species names to iNaturalist. The dates and location are automatically included.  When the species is unknown, iNaturalist experts can usually provide the identification.  Scientists and other amateur naturalists can view and study Navin’s sightings and those of the other 137,000 iNaturalist users.

How do so many creatures find this yard?  Certainly, adult butterflies and moths can fly.  They’re wired to find nectar and pollen for their survival.  With their chemical sensors, they can also locate the specific plants they require to lay their eggs.  Other insects have powerful search mechanisms, too.

Navin will keep searching.  He’ll find more creatures.  After all, this garden is only 6 months old.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2017 Native Plant Awards

by Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species. One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree, Shrub, or Vine and the other is a Perennial. Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or       pollen. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
5. Easy to grow and make attractive additions to your landscape.
6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2017 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens

Wildlife Value: Red tubular flowers on this woody vine produce nectar that attracts and

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds on Trumpet Honeysuckle nectar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

nourishes our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Butterflies and bumblebees use the nectar and pollen. As with other native plants, the foliage is food for native caterpillars, including Spring Azure butterflies and moths such as Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), Harris’ Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata), and Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja). These caterpillars in turn are food for birds and their nestlings. Songbirds occasionally eat the red berries.

Trumpet Honeysuckle vine in full bloom. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions: Trumpet Honeysuckle is adaptable to a variety of situations, sun or part sun, dry to moist soil. This twining vine is best supported by a trellis, fence, or arbor. The plant is long-lived and usually not bothered by pests or disease. Fertilizer is not recommended.

Harris’ Three Spot moth caterpillars eat honeysuckle leaves. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

 

 

Appearance: This honeysuckle is a rapidly growing multi-stemmed vine but isn’t invasive. The attractive, clustered 2” tubular flowers are red with a yellow throat. They bloom, sometimes profusely, from May through late summer.

 

 

New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Wildlife Value: Many bees and butterflies use the pollen and nectar of New England

New England Aster produces a profusion of attractive flowers. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Aster flowers. Sweat bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, mining bees, and bumble bees are attracted to the blooms’ bold, contrasting colors. The flowers are an important nectar source for Monarch butterflies during their fall migration. The foliage hosts 109 species of caterpillars (per Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, 2007) including the Pearl Crescent butterfly. Moth species include Saddleback caterpillar, several geometers, and Brown-hooded Owlet.

Asters are host plants for Pearl Crescent butterflies. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge

Growing Conditions: This trouble-free perennial grows in moist to average soil with sun or part sun. The parent plant produces seedlings that can be easily transplanted. Mature plants can be divided and transplanted, too. Mildew can develop with high humidity and poor circulation.

Appearance: New England Aster is one of our prettiest native perennials. A profusion

Sweat Bee (Augochlorell sp.) collects pollen. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

of brightly colored blossoms, each 1 ½” across, appears in late summer and persists until fall. The flower rays are bright pink or purple, the central florets yellow-orange. The plant grows 3-6 feet high and may require staking. In a small garden, keep the plant from getting too tall by pinching back the top growth in early June and then again in early July. The flowers are attractive additions to flower arrangements. Cultivars are available in a variety of colors and heights.

Summer Magic in Barb’s Yard

By Barb Elliot

When I leave my house to explore my backyard, whether by day or after dark, I enter another world.  Transported from daily cares, I anticipate experiencing the wonders of nature. What’s happening at this season? What creatures will I encounter?  What mysteries will unfold?  I am rarely disappointed. Life is abundant in my yard because the numerous native plants I’ve planted meet the food and shelter needs of many animals.

This summer I photographed some of what I observed.  Here are highlights.  Enlarge any photo by clicking on it. 

Early Summer

Interesting pollinators gather nectar and/or pollen from my Highbush Blueberry flowers, including a Flower Longhorn Beetle  and an unknown flower fly – a good Yellow Jacket wasp mimic.  A native Green Sweat Bee on a Black-eyed Susan is covered with yellow pollen grains.

Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalia luteicornis) .  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalia luteicornis) . Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unknown flower fly.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown flower fly. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.) on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida).  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Green sweat bee on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In my pond, a Northern Green Frog  awaits its next meal. Near the pond edge an Orchard Orbweaver spider is ready to pounce on prey caught in its web.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) spider . © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) spider . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Cooper’s Hawk, unsuccessful at catching a songbird, watches for birds to return but eventually leaves without a meal.  A male Northern Cardinal, which is starting to molt, returns warily to the feeders.

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot flowers attract a day-flying Hummingbird Clearwing Moth as well as many bumble bees.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) . © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) sips nectar from Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unknown bumble bee on  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).   © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown bumble bee on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

One night, I find mating Red Milkweed Beetles on a milkweed plant and a Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillar on a Virginia Creeper vine.  On another night, an adult Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth comes to my lights.

Red Milkweed Beetles mating.  (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) mating. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginis Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron). caterpillar. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron) caterpillar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth (Darapsa myron).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth (Darapsa myron). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Tent Caterpillar Moth, which I find attractive, also flies in.  Yes — this is the adult moth that comes from the Tent Caterpillars that make webs in my Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trees.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma americana).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma americana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Midsummer

In July, I find a variety of beetles.  My favorite, the Dogbane Beetle, is on a Dogbane plant.  A tiny (less than 1/4 inch) colorful beetle, the Mottled Tortoise Beetle  appears during the day (wearing its little translucent skirt!).  A longhorn Ivory-marked Beetle, comes to night lighting.

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Ivory-marked Beetle (Eburia quadrigeminata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ivory-marked Beetle (Eburia quadrigeminata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The right side of the patio area sports both Cardinal Flower  and Great Blue Lobelia . Pickerel Rush grows in the pond on the left. The tall plants with yellow flowers in the background are Cup Plant. Cardinal Flower nectar is enjoyed by a Spicebush Swallowtail that lost part of its left hindwing.  Probably a hungry bird tried unsuccessfully to capture this butterfly.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) on right,  blue Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) flowers in pond on left.  Yellow flowers of Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in right background.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) on right, blue Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) flowers in pond on left. Yellow flowers of the tall Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in background. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) missing part of left hindwing on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Cup Plant attracts many pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and moths.  At night I find a Grape Leaffolder Moth sipping nectar.  One of many bumble bees that worked hard gathering nectar and pollen during the day sleeps on a Cup Plant flower.  At night, I often find bumble bees sound asleep on flowers in my garden.

Grape Leaffolder Moth (Desmia funeralis)  on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Grape Leaffolder Moth (Desmia funeralis) on Cup Plant at night. (Silphium perfoliatum). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee sleeping on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at night.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee sleeping on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at night. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

After raising one successful brood, the House Wrens have a second set of nestlings that will soon leave the nest box.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nestlings in nest box>  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nestlings in nest box. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Bumble Bee on Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata).   © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble Bee on Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several types of native bees are busy pollinating my flowers.  Of special interest, bumble bees are performing buzz pollination on my Flowering Raspberry flowers.  Bumble bees vibrate their wings at specific frequencies to get some species of flowers to release their pollen.  Note that bumble bees are used for buzz pollination of a number of crops, including tomatoes, blueberries, eggplants, and cranberries.  The non-native honeybee is not able to buzz pollinate.

To watch and hear bumble bees performing buzz pollination in my yard, click here for the video.

 

I find a small green Nessus Sphinx moth caterpillar on native Enchanted Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) and decide to raise it in a small enclosure with several inches of loose soil.  I feed it fresh leaves and within a week or so, it grows to over two inches long, molts into a brown caterpillar, and later burrows into the soil to pupate.  I have to wait until next spring to see it emerge as a beautiful day-flying hummingbird-like moth.

Nessus Sphinx Moth caterpillar - early instar.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) caterpillar – early instar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis)  caterpillar - last instar before pupating.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) caterpillar – last instar before pupation. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

One night a strange-looking treehopper, possibly a Buffalo Treehopper, appears near my porch light.  Even more strange and ominous-looking, a very large robber fly the size of a large wasp hunts from a perch above my pond. These flies prey on large insects such as bees and wasps and will hang from one foot while devouring a victim.

Treehopper (possibly Buffalo Treehopper (Ceresa alta) .  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Possible Buffalo Treehopper (Ceresa alta) . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Robber Fly (likely Diogmites sp.).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Robber Fly (likely Diogmites sp.) hunts over the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Late Summer

A Shadow Darner dragonfly dries and expands its wings after emerging from the pond where it spent its nymphal stage.  The nymph recently crawled out of the pond and shed its exoskeleton. Because I find numerous shed skins (exuvia) during the summer, I know that my pond produces a good number of dragonflies.

Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) dragonfly.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Newly emerged Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) dragonfly dries and expands its wings. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The shed skin (exuvia) from which a dragonfly emerged still hangs from a stem in the pond. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

The shed skin (exuvia) from which a dragonfly emerged still hangs from a stem in the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Native bees continue to actively collect pollen.  This one deposits the white pollen of Upland Ironweed into large pollen baskets on its hind legs.

Unknown native bee on Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown native bee on Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Skippers are frequent visitors at my Garden Phlox.  I am happy to find a Monarch, too, but regret that this is the only one I’ve seen in my yard all summer.  It’s a female, so hopefully she laid eggs on my milkweed.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Skipper drawing nectar from Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Skipper (probably Zabulon Skipper – Poanes zabulon) sipping nectar from Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Monarch Butterfly (female) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch butterfly (female) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two ants in the grass struggle to drag a grub to their nest.  The grub must weigh many times more than they do.

Ants dragging a grub to their nest.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ants dragging a grub to their nest. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

My Virgin’s Bower vine begins to bloom in late August and hosts a myriad of pollinators twenty-four hours a day.

Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) vine in bloom.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) vine in bloom.

At night, this vine is a moth magnet, attracting beauties like the multi-colored Ailanthus Webworm moth and Tobacco Budworm moth.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth  (Atteva punctella) at night on Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm (Atteva punctella) moth sips nectar at night from Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Tobacco Budworm (Heliothis virescens) moth at night on Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  Note very small caterpillar on flower in background.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Tobacco Budworm (Heliothis virescens) moth sips nectar at night from Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). Note very small u-shaped caterpillar on flower to the right of the moth’s antennae. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Predators such as harvestmen (“daddy longlegs”) and centipedes linger around the Virgin’s Bower vine to catch unsuspecting victims.  As I watch, a Spotted Orb Weaver spider quickly paralyzes the moth that flies into its web and then wraps it in silk.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider quickly paralyzes a moth that flew into its web.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider quickly paralyzes a moth that flies into its web. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider with moth wrapped in silk.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider with moth wrapped in silk. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By mid-September, I see some fall migrating birds in the yard, including a Northern Parula and Common Yellowthroat.  Both find insects on my native plants that will fuel their journeys to the tropics.

Northern Parula (Setophaga Americana)  in River Birch (Betula nigra) tree.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

a migrating Northern Parula (Setophaga Americana) in River Birch (Betula nigra) tree. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) preens by the pond.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

A migrating Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) hunts insects by the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Red-spotted Purple caterpillar has eaten the tip of a Black Cherry leaf in a pattern characteristic of this species.  I watch it grow for almost a week.  Then one night I make a gruesome discovery.  A spider has found my caterpillar and is in the process of sucking its life fluids.  However, I find another small Red-spotted Purple caterpillar a few feet away.  I’m hopeful this one will successfully overwinter and make it to adulthood.  If so, next summer it will grace my yard as another beautiful Red-spotted Purple butterfly.

An early instar Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) .  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

An early instar Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spider sucking the life fluids of "my" Red-spotted Purple caterpillar.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spider sucking the life fluids of “my” Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis)  butterfly in Barb's yard.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) butterfly on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) in Barb’s yard. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

I look forward to next summer and discovering nature’s mysteries anew.

References

  • Beadle, David & Leckie, Seabrooke.  Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. New York, NY:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace Publishing Company, 2012
  • Bug Guide.Net:  http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740
  • Evans, Arthur V. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Evans, Arthur V. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
  • Moth Photographer’s Group: http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/
  • Switzer, Callin, “Getting Buzzed at the Arnold Arboretum”, Arnoldia; April, 2014.

Native Groundcovers

By Edie Parnum

A friend enjoys weeding. A peaceful, blissful occupation, she claims. And, the weed-free results please her.  Another friend likes mowing his lawn for reasons I can’t possibly imagine.  Most of us dislike these onerous, time-consuming chores.  We want weed-suppressing, mow-free groundcovers.

Don’t plant Japanese Pachysandra, English Ivy, or Periwinkle. They are popular because they spread aggressively.  In truth, they are non-native invasives that choke out native plants.  They can escape from where you’ve planted them and degrade the wildlife-friendly gardens you’re establishing and even nearby healthy natural areas. If you already have these garden thugs, get rid of them.

Good native plant groundcovers are available. These plants are hardy and shade the ground sufficiently to prevent most weeds from germinating. Selections are available for a variety of conditions including sun or shade and moist or dry soils.  Here are some of my favorites.

Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is a dependable, deer-resistant

Allegheny Pachysandra's foliage remains attractive throughout the warm months and mild winters. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Allegheny Pachysandra’s foliage remains attractive throughout the warm months and mild winters. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

groundcover. The evergreen, mottled leaves are handsome. Each plant forms a clump that gradually expands. You can form new plants by dividing and transplanting older plants.  Or, you can pull on a stem to unearth a piece of root with its rhizome; this root cutting can be planted elsewhere. In the early spring this native pachysandra sports white bottlebrush-like flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.

A bed of Foamflowers has pretty blossoms and handsome foliage. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

A bed of Foamflowers has pretty blossoms and handsome foliage. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

Another favorite, Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), grows easily in part sun or shade. The variegated, semi-evergreen leaves hug the ground just as you want in a groundcover. The plant spreads by sending out runners (stolons). These can be transplanted to extend your bed or start a new one. A bed of Foamflowers produces a cloud of pretty white blossoms in spring.  Think of them as fairy wands, if you like.  And, deer don’t usually bother them.

 

Wild Ginger's foliage is handsome and effectively thwarts emerging weeds. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Ginger’s foliage is handsome and effectively thwarts emerging weeds. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an ideal groundcover for a shady spot. The handsome flat, shiny leaves cover the ground, so most weeds can’t penetrate.  This vigorous plant spreads at a moderate pace and is unattractive to deer. A member of the Pipevine family, Wild Ginger is a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.

 

Golden Ragwort has spectacular yellow flowers. The dense foliage is attractive during summer and fall. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Golden Ragwort has spectacular yellow flowers. The dense foliage is attractive during summer and fall. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) grows well in a sunny area but can handle part-shade, too. In spring a mass of these plants will create a drift of appealing yellow flowers that attract pollinators.  After the flowering season, you can cut back the unsightly dead flower heads.  The plants will continue to shade out weeds. Deer don’t usually bother eating it.

Early spring flowers of Golden Ragwort are important for pollinators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Early spring flowers of Golden Ragwort are important for pollinators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Cluster Seersucker Sedge plants for a handsome groundcover. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Cluster Seersucker Sedge plants for a handsome groundcover. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea) is named for the crinkled texture of the leaves. These attractive strap-like leaves are arranged in a ground-hugging rosette. Although it doesn’t creep, you can plant them close together to create a groundcover. This sedge is good for edging, too.

 

 

By listing Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) here, I’m stretching the definition of a groundcover. This plant doesn’t hug the ground;  it’s 3-5 feet tall.  However, a clump of this

Obedient Plant's lavender flowers are a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Obedient Plant’s lavender flowers are a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. Photo by Kevin Wagner. Click to enlarge.

plant will spread and cover as much area as you like.  In summer it has spikes of beautiful pink or lavender flowers with nectar that hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators relish.  Don’t worry about its aggressiveness; it’s easy to cut out the edges to keep it a manageable.  .

These and other groundcovers (see list below) can fill in anywhere you have patch of bare ground. If the space isn’t suitable for a tree or two, shrubs,or a perennial bed, plant native groundcovers. You can use them instead of turf grass, too.

Establishing a bed of groundcovers can be done gradually and relatively cheaply. Start with a few plants in a small area. After a year or so, divide these plants to form new colonies. To create an attractive combination of multiple species, consider height, color, texture, and bloom time.  The plants will soon touch each other as they do in nature.

.With native groundcovers you’ll have an easy-care garden that’s pretty and appealing to wildlife. As always, with more native plants you’ll observe more birds, butterflies, and other native insects. Also, groundcovers will give these creatures more places to seek shelter. You’ll be pleased to see the vitality of nature in your yard.

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Native Groundcovers

Name                                                               Soil, Light                                           Height

Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger)                    Moist/Average, Shade                           6”

Carex plantaginea (Seersucker Sedge)           Moist/Average, Sun/Part Shade           8” Chrysogonum virginianum(Green and Gold)   Moist/Average, Sun/Part Shade            8”

Eupatorium coelestinum (Hardy Ageratum)     Average, Sun/ Part Shade                   1-3’

Iris cristata (Crested Iris)                                Moist/Average, Sun/ Part Shade           6-8”

Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny            Moist/Average, Part Sun/ Shade          8-12”

Pachysandra)

Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)                   Moist/Average, Sun/ Part Shade           1-2’

Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox)                  Moist/Average, Part Shade/ Shade       6-8”

Physostegia virginiana (False Dragonhead)   Average/Moist, Sun/ Part Shade           2-3’

Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower)                        Moist, Part Shade/ Shade                     6-12”

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Retail Sources of Native Plants

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or collinsnursery.com.

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or davidbrothers.com

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or edgeofthewoodsnursery.com.

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin DE19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or gatewaygardens.com.

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610647-8870 or jenkinsarboretum.org. Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 643 West Baltimore Ave., Media, PA.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or redbudnativeplantnursery.com.

Russell Gardens Wholesale, 600 New Road, Southampton, PA 18966. Wholesale perennials, many native, sold to public. Pre-order for convenient pick-up. 215-322-4799 or russellwholesale.com.

Sugarbush Nursery, 4272 Morgantown Road, Mohnton, PA 19540. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-856-0998 or sugarbushnursery.com.

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or yellowspringsfarm.com.

 

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2016 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree or Shrub and the other is a Perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Be native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
  3. Provide food for wildlife.  Nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen are produced by the plant.  Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
  5. Be easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape.
  6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.  (See list at end of article.)

Our selections for the 2016 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Black Cherry, Prunus serotina                                                                         

Wildlife Value: This medium-sized deciduous tree delivers exceptional wildlife value.

When the young caterpoillars emerge, the eat the cherr leaves.  © Barb Eliot.  Click to enlarge.

When the young caterpoillars emerge, the eat the cherr leaves. © Barb Eliot. Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of Black Cherry leaves.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of Black Cherry leaves. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

According to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, it hosts 456 species of moths and butterfly caterpillars.  The foliage-eating caterpillars include Red-spotted Purple butterflies and moths such as Luna, Polyphemus, and Cecropia.  The tree is not defoliated because many migrating and breeding birds including warblers, vireos, and thrushes feed on these caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos will eat Eastern Tent Caterpillars.

Luna Moth is another of the 456 lepidoptera species caterpillars that eat Back Cherry.  Photo © Adrian Binns.  Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth is another of the 456 lepidoptera species caterpillars that eat Back Cherry. Photo © Adrian Binns. Click to enlarge.

In late summer Black Cherry produces a copious crop of berries that are enjoyed by 33 species of birds including American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, and various woodpeckers.  Native bees and flies pollinate the flowers.

Many birds eat these Black Cherry fruits in late summer. Click to enlarge.

Many birds eat these Black Cherry fruits in late summer. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions: Adaptable to a variety of situations, sun or part sun, dry to moist soil.  Seedlings can be transplanted.

Appearance: Medium to large fast-growing deciduous tree with dark, peeling bark.  White flowers bloom in May on drooping stalks called racemes.  The reddish-black fruits ripen in late summer.

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis 

Wildlife Value: If you want to entice hummingbirds to your yard, this is a must-have perennial.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are attracted to the Cardinal Flower’s brilliant red flowers and are its primary pollinators. The nectar is very sweet, twice as sweet as a soda.  A hummingbird’s bill is long enough to reach the nectar deep inside the tubular

The Ruby-throated Himmingbird is the primary pollinator for Cardinal Flower.  It's long bill and tongue can reach the nectar deep inside the blossom.   It's head feathers pick up pollen from the anther.  Photo © Barb Elliot.   Click to enlarge.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the primary pollinator for Cardinal Flower. It’s long bill and tongue can reach the nectar deep inside the blossom. It’s head feathers pick up pollen from the anther. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

flower.  The feathers on the head pick up the pollen and carry it from one plant to another. Cardinal Flowers bloom for six weeks in the late summer during the hummingbirds’ southbound migration. Bees rarely visit these flowers because their proboscis is too short to access the nectar.

The Spicebush Swallowtail's long proboscis can reach the nectar, but the pollen remains untouched.  SCJack.blogspot.com photo.  Click to enlarge.

The Spicebush Swallowtail’s long proboscis can reach the nectar, but the pollen remains untouched. SCJack.blogspot.com photo. Click to enlarge.

Large swallowtail butterflies can reach the nectar with their long proboscis but are unable to pick up and transfer the pollen.

Growing Conditions:  Cardinal Flower is a trouble-free perennial that enjoys moist soil.   It will grow in average soil in a shady location. Not a true perennial, the plant and roots die after the growing season. However, the next spring it produces off-sets that will flower or can be transplanted to new locations.  The parent plant also produces seedlings that can be transplanted.  In the late fall, lay the flower stalk on the ground where you want seedlings to sprout in the spring. Appearance:  The striking red flowers are arranged along 8” spikes called racemes.   The plant grows 2 ½ -3 feet high.  The flowers are attractive additions to flower arrangements.

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Complete List of Backyards for Nature’s Prime Plants for Nature

Trees            

Betula nigra, River Birch

Juniperus virginiana, Eastern Red Cedar

Prunus serotina, Black Cherry

Quercus alba, White Oak

Perennials            

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed

Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower

Monarda fistulosa, Wild Bergamot

Pycnanthemum muticum, Short-toothed Mountainmint

For information about each plant, see Previous Posts

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Sources of Native Plants

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or collinsnursery.com.

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or davidbrothers.com

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or edgeofthewoodsnursery.com.

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin DE19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or gatewaygardens.com.

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610647-8870 or jenkinsarboretum.org. Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 643 West Baltimore Ave., Media, PA.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or redbudnativeplantnursery.com.

Russell Gardens Wholesale, 600 New Road, Southampton, PA 18966. Wholesale perennials, many native, sold to public. Pre-order for convenient pick-up. 215-322-4799 or russellwholesale.com.

Sugarbush Nursery, 4272 Morgantown Road, Mohnton, PA 19540. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-856-0998 or sugarbushnursery.com.

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or yellowspringsfarm.com.

Native Plant Sales

Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-729-5281 or bartramsgarden.org. Spring and fall sales.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd. New Hope, PA 18938.  215-862-2924 or bhwp.org. Spring and fall plant sales.

Brandywine Conservancy, Routes 1 and 100, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. 610-388-2700 or brandywine.org/conservancy.  Mother’s Day weekend.  Seeds also available.

Delaware Nature Society, Cloverdale Farm Preserve, 543 Way Road, Greenville, DE 19807.  302-239-2334 or delawarenaturesociety.org.  First weekend in May.

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, 2955 Edge Hill Road, Huntington Valley, PA 19006. 215-657-0830 or pennypacktrust.org. Spring and fall plant sales.

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd., Philadelphia 19128. 215-482-7300 or schuylkillcenter.org.  Spring and fall plant sales.

Remembering Nature Discovery Day

By Edie Parnum

For eight years I have been gardening for nature on my ¾-acre suburban property. My yard with its abundance of native plants teems with birds, butterflies, bees, beetles, moths, and other creatures both big and small.  On August 29 my property abounded with people, too.  I had invited nature-loving friends to enjoy my native plants and discover the creatures they support.

Edie explaining the wonders of pollination.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Edie explaining the wonders of pollination. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Grass-leaved Goldenrod.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Grass-leaved Goldenrod. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Some people came for just an hour, others stayed all day.  Most participated in one of the three guided yard tours.  The insect and pollinator walks were popular, too.  Kids enjoyed their own nature and insect events.  A sizable group drove to Barb Elliot’s nearby property and saw her pond and thriving native plant habitat.  Some truly nature-crazed individuals stayed after dark for moth night.

Unquestionably, the native plants were a hit. All the species were labeled for easy identification. Many of my favorite plants (Short-toothed Mountainmint, Grass-leafed Goldenrod, Upland Ironweed, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, Garden Phlox, Trumpet Vine, Trumpet Honeysuckle, Large-leafed Aster, and Sneezeweed) were in bloom. Berries on woody plants (Nannyberry and Blackhaw Viburnums, Flowering and Silky Dogwoods, Winterberry Holly, Black Chokeberry) and a vine (Virginia Creeper) were ripe and ready for the fall migrants.   (Click here for my complete yard plant list.)

Insects attracted notice and won new converts.  Many admired the Monarch and Black Swallowtail caterpillars.  The pollinators were active on the flowers.  We saw native bees (European Honey bees, too), wasps, flies, beetles, day-flying moths, as well as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spreading pollen while feeding on the nectar.   Our entomologist, Dan Duran, PhD, identified a large blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia) nectaring on mountainmint.  This wasp, a parasite on the larvae of Japanese Beetles, is now a favorite of mine.

The kids admire a slug with Debbie Beer.  Photo @ Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

The kids admire a slug with Debbie Beer. Photo @ Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

The sharp-eyed kids on Debbie Beer’s nature walk saw a migrant American Redstart.  By turning over rocks and logs, they discovered slugs and other creepy-crawlies. They also found spiders (the wolf spider was popular), beetles, and a cicada shell—goodies the adults missed.

Vince Smith gave us a geology lesson.  My property is composed of Precambrian gneiss and schist, one of the oldest soils on the planet.  Because it’s well-drained, the Tulip Poplar, Black Gum, and various oaks I’ve planted will develop deep roots.   They should become massive trees and provide wildlife value for decades, perhaps centuries.

Hummiongbird Clearwing, a day-flying sphinx moth, on Garden Phlox. Photo © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing, a day-flying sphinx moth, on Garden Phlox. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Usually I merely write about my yard’s plants and animals and post photos on the Backyards for Nature blog.  However, neither words nor pictures are enough.  Seeing the natural beauty of my yard and discovering the creatures living there is more powerful.

Many people told me they were inspired to create their own backyard ecosystems.  Others vowed a renewed commitment to enhance their developing habitats.

They said Nature Discovery Day was fun. I could see it on their smiling faces.

************************************ Special Note ********************************************** I will be selling my house in the spring of 2016. If you or anyone you know is interested in a property that’s alive with nature, contact me at edie@backyardsfornature.org

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See additional Nature Discovery Day photos below.
The Double-banded Scoliid Wasp, Scloia bicincta, parasitizes beetle larvae.  Photo @ Link Davis.

The Double-banded Scoliid Wasp, Scolia bicincta, parasitizes beetle larvae. Photo @ Link Davis.  Click to enlarge.

x

Debbie Beer and the kids explore nature in the yard.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Debbie Beer and the kids explore nature in the yard. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Dan Duran shows a Monarch caterpillar.  © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Dan Duran shows a Monarch caterpillar. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Edie's shade garden. © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s shade garden. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee on Garden Phlox.  © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee on Garden Phlox. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Barb Elliot describes her pond to visitors.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Barb Elliot describes her pond to visitors. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Redbud seed pods.  © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Redbud seed pods. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Edie talks to guests attending Nature Discovery Day.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Edie talks to guests attending Nature Discovery Day. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.  Photo © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Vince Smith explains the geology of the property.   Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Vince Smith explains the geology of the property. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm, a day-flying moth.  © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm, a day-flying moth. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

He's found something interesting.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  click to enlarge.

He’s found something interesting. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Bee carrying the white pollen of Upland Ironweed.  Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Bee carrying the white pollen of Upland Ironweed. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Peck's Skipper.  Phitii © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Peck’s Skipper. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Early instar of Black Swallowtail caterpillar.  Photo © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Early instar of Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Watching birds in the yard.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarg.

Watching birds in the yard. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2015 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Each year we select two native plant species with exceptional ability to support wildlife.  These plants will contribute significantly to the web of life in your yard.  They host insects, offer nectar and pollen, and produce fruits, seeds, or nuts.  Birds, butterflies, and other insects and animals will feed and prosper.  The Prime Plants will provide shelter and nesting places, too.  Our selections, all native to southeastern Pennsylvania, are easy to grow and will make attractive additions to your landscape.  They are readily available at native plant nurseries or native plant sales. We offer awards in two categories: Trees and Shrubs and Perennials.

Our selections for the 2015 Prime Plants for Nature Awards are:

River Birch, Betula nigra                                                                                     

River Birch (Betula nigra) is an attractive medium-sized tree.   Wikimedia image - Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

River Birch (Betula nigra) is an attractive medium-sized tree. Wikimedia image – Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: This medium-sized deciduous tree has exceptional wildlife value.  According to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, it hosts 411 species of moths and butterflies whose caterpillars eat the foliage. The caterpillars include butterflies such as Mourning Cloak and moths including Luna, Io, Polyphemus, and Cecropia.

River Birch host caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

River Birch host caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.  Click to enlarge.

Birds in turn feed on these caterpillars, especially during spring migration and the summer breeding season.  In the fall and winter, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and other birds eat the birch seeds.  Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, and others search the loose bark for insects and

Luna Moth caterpillars eat the foliage of River Birch.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth caterpillars eat the foliage of River Birch. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

spiders.  The tree offers shelter and nesting places for birds as well.

Growing Conditions: River Birch is a long-lived tree that grows in a variety of conditions. It thrives in moist soil but will tolerate moderately dry soil, too.  Plant it in light shade to sun.

Birches host Polyphemus Moth caterpillars.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Birches host Polyphemus Moth caterpillars. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: This deciduous tree is an attractive and graceful medium-sized tree.  It grows quickly (1.5 to 3 feet per year) and reaches 75 feet at maturity.  The exfoliating bark offers visual interest in all seasons.

River Birch tree trunks have attractive exfoliating bark.  Click to enlarge.

River Birch tree trunks have attractive exfoliating bark. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa

Wildlife Value: This lovely perennial is a magnet for pollinators. The flowers produce

Wild Bergamot is an attractive summer-blooming perennial.   © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot is an attractive summer-blooming perennial. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

copious nectar and pollen, so butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, and even hummingbirds love it.  Because it blooms for many weeks with new flowers emerging continuously, it can host thousands of visits by pollinators each season.  By growing Wild

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Wild Bergamot.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Wild Bergamot. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Bergamot in your yard, you can introduce children to pollination and teach them not to be afraid of bees and wasps.

Wild Bergamot attracts a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot attracts a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Wild Bergamot is a trouble-free perennial that grows in sun or part shade in soil that ranges from moist to dry. It spreads underground by root-like rhizomes.  If the plant gets oversized, the rhizomes are easy to pull up.  Or, you can dig out clumpsand plant them elsewhere in your garden or give them to

Bumblebees use nectar and pollen of Wild Bergamot.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Bumblebees use nectar and pollen of Wild Bergamot. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

other gardeners.  If mildew is troublesome, give it extra room for air circulation. A member of the mint family, it is highly deer resistant.

Appearance:  The summer flowers range from lavender to pink.  The plant grows 3-4 feet high and spreads to 24-36 inches wide.

The closely related Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma) attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators, too.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

The closely related Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma) attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators, too. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

 

Want More Native Plants? Learn to Transplant

By Edie Parnum

You read it repeatedly on this blog—plant more native plants. Plant lots of them. Too expensive, you say.  That’s true when you purchase them at nurseries or native plant sales.  I know where you can get native plants for free—yes, really! They are already in your own backyard.

Local native plants are adapted to our soil and climate, so they reproduce abundantly.  Look carefully at the young plants in your garden.  You’ll find multiples of many of your favorite native plants. Resist pulling out these volunteers and throwing them away. They are not weeds.  Keep them growing by transplanting them to new locations.

A 5" Witch Hazel is flagged and ready to transplant.  © Edie Parnum

A 5″ Witch Hazel is flagged and ready to transplant. © Edie Parnum

Take a tour around your yard.  Locate the native plants that have popped up voluntarily, but haphazardly.  These young woody saplings and perennials are smaller versions of plants you already know and love.  Many, you recall, are particularly favored by birds, butterflies, and other creatures. Others are your personal favorites—they are so beautiful!    You already know their ultimate size, shape, and color and their needs for sun, shade, dry, or moist conditions.  These native plant treasures can be saved by moving them to new locations.

Now look for places where you can incorporate these volunteer trees, shrubs, perennials, ferns, vines, and groundcovers into your landscape.  Where can you grow another tree? How about several trees?  Shrubs can be added around the base of isolated trees. Can you install or expand a garden bed?  What about removing some non-native plants or invasives?  Keep in mind native plants prefer to touch each other, not be isolated.  Spots of bare ground should be filled in with native groundcovers. And, surely, your lawn can be reduced.   Aim to cover virtually all open areas with native plants.

Be brave.  Dare to transplant—even if you’ve never done it before.  Native plants are resilient and determined to grow.  Spring or fall, here’s how to transplant.

Directions for transplanting tree or shrub saplings

  1.  Locate a small sapling, preferably shorter than 15”, to transplant.  If the soil is dry around the plant, water it well.
  2. Before you dig out this woody plant, select the location where you want it to grow and dig a hole there.  This hole should be no deeper than the expected depth of the transplant’s roots and about twice as wide.
  3. To dig out the transplant, estimate the size of the root system (usually as wide as the sapling’s canopy).  Dig deeply around the plant and avoid severing the tap root.  When you lift the sapling out of the ground, it should have plenty of roots and soil attached.
  4. Carefully lay the sapling with its root system on a piece of newspaper or plastic and carry it to the new location.
  5.  Place the plant into the pre-dug hole.  Hold the plant upright with the top of the root system ½” above the height of the ground.  Fill in around the roots with the soil that was removed from the hole.  Do not add fertilizer, topsoil, or other amendments.  Press the soil down with your hands, but do not stomp with your feet.
  6. Spread compost and leaf litter on top.

    The sapling of this 10-foot White Pine was 6 inches tall when transplanted five years ago.

    The sapling of this 10-foot White Pine was 6 inches tall when transplanted five years ago.

  7. Water well.  Unless it rains, water the transplant every week for several months—longer if the season is dry.  In fall, water until the ground freezes.
  8. Some established shrubs such as viburnums send out horizontal roots where new plants can emerge.  These baby shrubs can be transplanted, too.  Follow the directions for free-standing saplings.  However, before digging the plant out of the ground, find and sever the lateral root growing out from the mother plant.
  9. Small woody transplants, once established, grow quickly.  After a few years they will be as big as much larger nursery-grown trees and shrubs.

Personally, I have successfully transplanted Red Maple, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Redbud, Eastern Red Cedar, Tulip Tree, Eastern White Pine, Black Cherry, Tulip Tree, and Sassafras.  I’ve also moved several native species of dogwoods, hollies, oaks, and viburnums.   Most other native woody plants will transplant well, too.  You can also relocate woody vines like Virginia Creeper, Trumpet Vine, and Virgin’s Bower.

Directions for transplanting perennials

  1. Perennials and other non-woody plants often produce volunteer seedlings.  These young plants resemble their parents and can be readily differentiated from your yard’s common weeds. Frequently I see Nodding Onion, Anise Hyssop, Amsonia, Wild Columbine, Wild Geranium, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, False Sunflower, Golden Ragwort, New York Ironweed, Golden Alexander—all valuable plants begging to be saved. I often find my cherished native asters, goldenrods, and phloxes as seedlings, too.
  2. You can dig out these and many other seedlings and transplant them elsewhere.  Follow the above directions for transplanting shrubs and trees.

    Lance-leafed Goldenrod and other goldenrods are easy to tansplant and attract many pollinators, including Ailanthus Webworm Moth.  © Edie Parnum

    Lance-leafed Goldenrod and other goldenrods are easy to transplant and attract many pollinators, including Ailanthus Webworm Moth. © Edie Parnum

  3. Some perennials spread by underground runners.  The lateral roots of Mountain Mint, Bee Balm, Monarda, Wild Bergamot, Obedient Plant, Ostrich Fern, and Mistflower produce growth to dig out for new plants.
  4. Divide older perennials.  Look for plants that are oversized and have lost vigor. These can and should be divided.  Push your spade deeply into the ground at several places around the perimeter of the large plant.  Lift it up out of the ground with most of the root system intact.  Thrust your shovel into the middle of the plant and separate it into two clumps. If the root system is dense, you can use two back-to-back garden forks to pry it apart. Further subdivide these clumps to yield four or more plants.
  5. As with woody plants, plant perennials and ferns ½ inch higher than the ground. Be sure to keep them watered until they are established.  If planting late in the fall, mulch the plants to prevent them from heaving out of the ground during light frosts.

With the right transplanting tool, the work is not hard nor especially time consuming. You

Tools for transplanting:  watering can, pruners, bulb trowel (extra leverage for digging seedlings) and transplant shovel (see text).  © Edie Parnum

Tools for transplanting: watering can, pruners, bulb trowel (extra leverage for digging seedlings) and transplant shovel (see text). © Edie Parnum

certainly can dig out a plant satisfactorily with an ordinary shovel.  However, I prefer using my transplant shovel.  With its narrow blade I can make precise cuts around my target plant but avoid injuring desirable plants nearby.  It has a wide ledge for stomping with my foot and good leverage.  Thus, I’m able to do most of my transplant operations standing up.  No need to kneel or squat uncomfortably.

You can’t create the landscape of your dreams all at once.  Each spring and fall, transplant as many young plants as you can.  Ever increasingly, your property will include all the layers found in nature: groundcovers, perennials and ferns, shrubs, understory trees, and canopy trees.  This dense, layered landscape will develop into a rich habitat alive with insect and animal biodiversity.

A layered landscape,including Virginia Creeper as a ground cover, asters, Fringe Tree (an understory tree), and a large Common Hackberry tree.

A layered landscape in fall, including Virginia Creeper and violets as ground covers, asters, amsonia hubrectii, Solomon’s Seal in its fall yellow color in the background, Fringe Tree (understory tree on right), and a large Common Hackberry tree (on left).

Revel in the fecundity of your garden.  Each of your native plants is a gift to nature.  Each with its leaves, flowers, seeds—in fact every part of the plant—contributes exuberantly to the web of life. Save them one by one to plant elsewhere in your yard.  Give them away, too.  Your garden will be a native plant nursery.

New Books on Gardening for Nature

Reviews by Edie Parnum

Want to become a better steward of nature on your land? These two books will inspire and guide you.  Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, taught us to love native plants for the leaf-eating insects they host.  Tallamy has now teamed up with landscape architect Rick Darke on a new book that helps us create aesthetically pleasing landscapes for our native creatures.  Heather Holm’s book teaches us to garden for insect pollinators and appreciate the ecosystem roles they play.  We can help the environment by what we plant in our yards.  These books tell us how.

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke and Doug TallamyLiving Landscape Book Cover

  1. This book is beautiful—so beautiful you can display it on your coffee table.   The photographs show landscapes, combinations of native plants, and the creatures who live there.  These images inspire us to create esthetically pleasing wildlife habitats that are alive with biodiversity.
  2. The pictures and text explain how to design for beauty using native plants.  Instead of planting them haphazardly, we learn to position and combine natives to create an alluring garden.
  3. The authors teach us to imitate natural habitats by planting in layers:  ground, herbaceous, shrub, understory, and canopy.
  4. Instead of photos of individual plants, the book illustrates native plants as part of the landscape and showcases the birds, butterflies, and other creatures living there.

    Edie's meadow landscape, September, 2014.  © Edie Parnum.

    Edie’s meadow landscape, September, 2014.         © Edie Parnum.

  5. A practical book, low maintenance gardening is emphasized.  It recommends pleasing combinations of plants that don’t out-compete each other or require excessive weeding. We learn to anticipate changes in our landscapes over time, especially when planting trees and shrubs.
  6. The plant lists, organized by geographical area, are superbly designed to help us make plant selections.  Symbols concisely indicate the ecological functions for each plant, e.g., nest sites, pollen, nectar, seasonal foods for birds, and food for caterpillars.  Other symbols represent landscape functions such as seasonal flowering, fall foliage, fragrance, or groundcover.
  7. The plant lists also specify the ecological benefits to humans.  Not normally emphasized, these paybacks include carbon sequestration, shading and cooling, watershed protection, moderation of extreme weather, and air filtration.

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Preserve and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants by Heather HolmPollinator Book Cover

  1. Like flowers?  You surely love pollinators, too!  You can’t have one without the other.  Plus, flowers and their pollinators create seeds, fruits, and nuts—actually a third of the food we eat.  Of course, animals of all kinds require these food products, too.
  2. Butterflies, the most charismatic of the insects attracted to flowers, already have fans.  Now, with this book, we also learn to value pollinating bees, wasps, moths, flies, and beetles—really!
  3. The bulk of the book describes the best pollinator-attracting plants and the interactions between their flowers and the pollinating insects.

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothedd Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothed Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant. © Edie Parnum

  4. Insect pollinators are fascinating.  We can easily observe and identify them by watching the book’s featured flowers and examining their insect visitors. The excellent photographs in the book help us identify these bees, flies, and other insects.  Then we can observe each insect’s strategy as it probes for nectar and/or collects pollen.  We may see insect interactions like predation, copulation, and parasitization, too.

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant. © Edie Parnum

  5.  Using this book we home gardeners can select pollinator-attracting plants for the various growing conditions on our properties.
  6. By planting Holm’s recommended pollinator plants and observing pollination in action, we will revel in the flourishing ecosystem we’ve created.

I highly recommend both of these books.  They will help you beautify your garden and increase its ecological value for all the creatures who inhabit it.

Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.