Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2021 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. Are 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. 
  4. Host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  5. Offer shelter and places to raise young. 
  6. Are easy to grow and make attractive additions to your landscape.
  7. Sold at local native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2021 Prime Plants for Nature awards this year are Ilex verticillata (Winterberry Holly) and Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)

Ilex verticillata, Winterberry Holly


Wildlife Value: This shrub produces copious quantities of red berries that are eaten by more than 48 species of birds including robins, bluebirds, waxwings, and

Winterberry Holly foliage and berries. © Edie Parnum.

mockingbirds. The berries are not usually consumed until mid to late winter when food is scarce, and birds may be struggling to survive.  The high fat fruits of viburnums, spicebush, dogwoods, and sassafras are eaten earlier in the season.  Winterberry Holly’s small flowers appear in June and attract native pollinators like bumble bees, mining bees, sweat bees, small carpenter bees, and plasterer bees. This shrub is a host plant for the caterpillars of 34 species of butterflies and moths, including the Henry’s Elfin butterfly and Harris’ Three-spot moth.

Unidentified flower fly on male Winterberry Holly flowers. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Winterberry holly is adaptable to a variety of growing conditions, sun or shade, but prefers moist soils. Like other hollies, it is dioecious, so male and female flowers are on separate plants.  Only the females produce berries, but a single male no more than 40’ away will offer enough pollen for three female plants.  Flowering times of male and female plants must overlap for females to bear fruit. 

Appearance: This holly is deciduous, so when the shrub drops its leaves, the dazzling red berries show well. The bold red contrasts especially well when snow is on the ground.  Many use the fruit-laden branches for holiday decorations. Without fruits, distinguishing male plants from females is difficult, but some nurseries will mark the plants. This shrub can grow as tall as 7-15‘, but dwarf cultivars are available.  Beware of cultivars that produce large fruits, which are typically not preferred by birds. Deer usually do not eat this plant.

Winterberry Holly berries. Photo courtesy of Pinterest.


Packera aurea (formerly Senecio aureus), Golden Ragwort (aka Golden Groundsel)

Wildlife Value: Golden ragwort is a source of nectar and pollen for a variety of pollinators in spring.  Twenty species of butterflies, including skippers, use the blooms of this perennial. 

Sweat bees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees, and various halictid bees are attracted, too. In addition, flies like syrphid, tachinid and fireflies pollinate the flowers.  The leaves of this plant host caterpillars of 17 species of butterfly and moths.

Unidentified native bee on Golden Ragwort. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:   Golden ragwort will grow abundantly in a wide variety of conditions, part sun or full shade, in relatively moist soil.  It spreads by rhizomes or self-seeds to form a colony that creates a nice groundcover.  However, when overabundant, it can easily be weeded. This perennial is not browsed by deer and is disease-free.

Golden ragwort foliage is suitable as a groundcover.  Shown here with an Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly. © Edie Parnum.

Appearance:  The yellow daisy-like flowers are small but profuse and showy In April and May. They grow on two-foot stems above basal leaves that are dark green, shiny, and heart shaped. Because golden ragworts grow close together and crowd out other plants, they form an effective groundcover that can stay attractive and green throughout the winter. 

A bed of Golden Ragwort blooming in April. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Appreciate and Help Nature: Two New Books

Reviews by Edie Parnum

Nature’s Best Hope:  A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy

In his latest book, entomologist Doug Tallamy once again inspires and informs us about gardening for nature.  From Tallamy’s previous research and books, we understand native plants’ pivotal role in empowering the web of life.  Insects, birds, mammals, and the rest of nature depend on native plants.   Human beings, too, rely on the functioning of nature. We require the healthy air, clean water, and carbon-storing plants and soil that are nature’s products. Drawing on the latest research, he tells us how we can create an ecologically productive landscape in our own yards, inspire our neighbors, and help assure the health of the planet.

Most people assume that nature can be preserved on public lands. Conservation happens, we assume, somewhere else beyond our control. In fact, most of our country’s land is privately owned. We homeowners must create the landscapes where nature can thrive.  Each of us can transform our own properties without the need to change government policy. Together we can create the “Hometown National Park”.

The suburbs offer the greatest opportunity to create this national park. Ninety-two percent of suburban land is lawn, a sterile landscape that doesn’t support birds or other wildlife   By reducing the area devoted to turf grass, we can make room for native trees, shrubs, vines, perennials and grasses. We’re urged to plant lots of natives, not just a scattering of natives among the non-native ornamental exotics.  Rather than isolated trees, plant groves of native trees and islands of native trees and shrubs.

The Hometown National Park can exist even in cities. In New York City the High Line is an abandoned elevated rail line that has been converted into a walkway surrounded by native plants.  It is a popular destination to observe nature including birds, butterflies, and native bees. In Chicago, a tiny, isolated 1/10-acre garden is chockablock with native plants that have attracted 103 species of birds, including a woodcock.

Edie’s garden. Photo by Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

To support nature on our properties, Tallamy urges us to garden for insects. Certain keystone native plants offer optimal value to wildlife because they support insects.  Previously, Tallamy has urged us to plant oaks, willows, cherries, and other native woody species that host a great number of caterpillars, essential food for birds. Now we know fallen leaves are also important, because 94% of caterpillars pupate in the leaf litter or soil. We can use these leaves as mulch and grow native groundcovers to shelter these leaves.

Growing keystone native perennials is important for insects, too.  For instance, goldenrods, normally considered weeds, are beautiful flowering plants that support 110 species of caterpillars. Thirty-five species of bees rely on the nectar and pollen of goldenrods.  In addition, fifteen species of bees rear their young on goldenrod pollen.

This newest book by Tallamy provides valuable insights about gardening for nature. Readers not previously exposed to Tallamy’s ideas can benefit from first reading Bringing Nature Home, his groundbreaking book about gardening for wildlife with native plants. It includes a valuable list of the keystone woody plants that host the most caterpillars, plus a regional guide to recommended plants. The Living Landscape, co-authored with Rick Darke, provides comprehensive lists of native plants by regions and their ecological functions.

Tallamy’s writing is optimistic and empowering. This illustrated book gives us a practical, science-based guide to climate-wise gardening.  By using native plants in our gardens, we can reverse declines in wildlife and support the earth-sustaining functions that store carbon and give us clean air and water. Our individual gardening practices plus those of our friends and neighbors can make a difference for the health of our planet.

What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating, Singing — What Birds Are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley

David Sibley is a renowned bird artist, so we would expect beautiful images of birds in his newest book. Indeed, his birds seem to fly off the pages in the life-like illustrations. These are not static birds posing for their pictures. They fly, swim, eat, sing, preen, court, feed young, and more. They are always doing something, so we see what it’s like to be a bird.

My favorite images show birds living their lives.  A male Northern Cardinal offers food to his mate.  A Common Yellowthroat feeds a Brown-headed Cowbird fledgling.  To survive a snowstorm, Mourning Doves fluff their feathers and hunker down. The drawings illustrate key information.  For instance, a Brown Pelican doesn’t use its pouch as a basket for carrying fish. Instead, Sibley, using both words and illustrations, clarifies its use as an underwater scoop to capture fish.

Using the latest ornithological research, Sibley also utilizes text to explain his illustrations. I wanted to know how a woodpecker extracts insects buried in the bark of a tree.  The images and text show us a long, barbed tongue that can bend to reach into the crevices.  When not in use, this exceptionally long tongue retracts to curve around the back of the bird’s brain. Then I became curious about the tongues of other birds.  From the woodpecker page I was directed to information about hummingbird tongues.  Thus, I become a curious traveler, following a trail of information through the book.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Image by Howard B. Eskin. Click to enlarge.

Sibley’s introduction aids the curiosity-driven navigation.  All the brief illustrated essays are arranged into topics such as bird sight, sleep, growing new feathers, the digestive system, and many more.  For instance, avoiding predators is a topic with 23 brief essays.

I plan to keep this book handy for regular use.  It’s too big to take into the field or read in bed.  Instead I’ll keep it next to the chair where I watch birds, referring to it when I have questions and then following the trail from one topic to another.  I’ll discover gems of information and be impressed by the beauty, complexity, and richness of bird life.




Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2020 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
  4. Usually host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals
  5. Offer shelter and places to raise young
  6. Are easy to grow and make attractive additions to your landscape
  7. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales. (See below for a list of local sources of native plants during the Coronavirus shutdown.)

Our selections for the 2020 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Cercis canadensis, Eastern Redbud

Wildlife Value: To support bees and other pollinators, we usually think of perennials.  However, some trees, particularly Eastern Redbud, produce a

Carpenter Bee collecting pollen from Eastern Redbud flowers. Photo from Tufts Pollinatore Initiative & Wikimedia Commons. click to enlarge.

massive number of spring blossoms for early season pollinators. The nectar-rich flowers attract numerous bees, butterflies, and sometimes hummingbirds at a critical time when other flower resources are limited.  Medium-sized native bees such as Mining, Cellophane, Carpenter, Mason, Bumble Bees and others can pollinate by pushing down the lower petals of the blossoms.


Redbud’s foliage is a host for the Henry’s Elfin butterfly, Io Moth, White Flannel Moth and a few other moth species.

Io Moth. Eastern Redbud is one of its host plants. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Redbud is easily grown in sun or part shade.   It tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions, moist to dry, and is normally free of insect pests or diseases.  Most yards have enough space for planting this small tree.

Appearance: When in bloom Eastern Redbud is spectacularly beautiful. In early spring before the leaves emerge, all the branches are covered with magenta flowers. A graceful, vase-shaped deciduous tree with spreading branches, it grows to 15-30 feet at maturity.

Eastern Redbud tree in full bloom. Wikimedia Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

Penstemon digitalis, White Beardtongue 

Wildlife Value: White Beardtongue is an important source of nectar and pollen for a

Nectar guides on the left blossom signal the direction to nectar and pollen. The Bumble Bee on the right has reached the nectar and pollen. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

variety of pollinators. Long-tongued native bees including bumble bees, digger, miner, mason, and small carpenter bees are important pollinators of beardtongue. Butterflies, sphinx moths, and hummingbirds are less important pollinators. The White Beardtongue’s flower petals have nectar guides (see photo).  These direct bees and butterflies to the nectar and pollen buried in the center of the flower.

Growing Conditions:   Beardtongue will grow well in sun or part sun in dry to medium soil. Seedlings are shallow-rooted and can be transplanted easily or given to gardening friends. This perennial isn’t usually appealing to deer.  When purchasing beardtongue or other perennials, be sure the plants are not treated with neonics (neonicotinoids), a systemic pesticide that is toxic to bees and any other insects using the plant’s resources.

Blossoms of White Beardtongue. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: The white or pale pink blossoms of White Beardtongue are shaped as a tube with two lips. Blooming occurs from April to June on 3-5-foot erect stems that rarely flop. The flowers are attractive, and some individuals use them in flower arrangements.


Local Sources of Native Plants During Coronavirus Shutdown

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038. 215-715-3439 or . Order at for curbside pick-up.

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  610-393-2570 or .Order online and pick-up by appointment.  For questions about plants, schedule a phone call.

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, DE 19707.  302-239-2727 or .  Open and considered a Delaware essential business.

Gino’s Nursery, 2237 Second Street Pike, Newtown, PA 18940. 267-750-9042 or . Call or email to order. Curbside pick-up or delivery within 12-mile radius.

Good Host Plants, 150 W. Butler Street, Philadelphia, PA 19140. 267-270-5036 or Email to order for curbside pickup in the West Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia or delivery within a 5- mile radius.

Northeast Native Perennials, 1716 E. Sawmill Road, Quakertown, PA18951. 215-901-5552 or . Call or email to order for curbside pick-up.

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 904 N. Providence Road, Media, PA. 19063. 610-892-2833 or . Call or email to order for curbside pick-up. .

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425. 610-827-2014 or .Order on-line or by phone for mail order or farm pick-up.  Free shipping for orders over $100.



A Caterpillar-Raising Extravaganza!

Cecropia Moth caterpillar in its last stage of development. July 2017. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By Barb Elliot, Ph.D.

In July 2017, I came home from Mothapalooza, a conference for moth enthusiasts, with a Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) caterpillar.  I was excited.  The beautiful adult Cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia) is the largest moth in North America with a wingspan from 5″ – 7″. The showy caterpillars are chunky and grow to 4”- 4.5”. Although I had raised butterfly and moth caterpillars previously to increase their chances of survival, I now had the opportunity to observe the life cycle of this iconic silk moth and learn about its role in our ecosystem.

My caterpillar was almost full grown, but still had a voracious appetite. I kept it in a butterfly cage, provided a constant supply of fresh River Birch leaves, and removed the caterpillar waste (frass) each day.  Cecropia caterpillars can eat other native tree and shrub leaves including elm, oak, maple, apple, cherry, ash, sassafras and willow, but prefer to stick to one kind once they begin eating. A Cecropia caterpillar gains more

Cecropia caterpillar making its silk cocoon enclosure. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

than a thousand times its weight between hatching from its egg to being fully grown and ready to pupate and spin its cocoon.

In late summer, my caterpillar clung to a twig in the cage and spun a cocoon around itself.  Inside the protective silk, it changed from a caterpillar to a dark brown pupa, the third stage in its development.

A completed Cecropia cocoon. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Many months later, on June 21, 2018, with metamorphosis complete, a spectacular female Cecropia moth emerged (eclosed) from the cocoon. With only a week to live and with no mouth parts to eat and drink, this adult female’s sole job was to mate and lay eggs.

Cecropia moth female newly eclosed from her cocoon. June 21, 2018 © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

I decided to keep the moth outside overnight to see if she could attract a mate.  At dusk, I put her in a wire cage with holes sufficiently large for mating to occur.  A male, with its large, feathery antennae, can detect the pheromones a female emits and hone in from over a mile away.

I got up at 5 AM the next morning to check on her.  A male was clinging to the cage and mating with her!  The two mated all day and de-coupled just before dark.  Right away she began laying eggs.  I released the male so he could mate with other females.

Mating Cecropia moths. Note the male’s (on right) larger, more feathery antennae. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

During the overnight hours, she laid about 130 eggs.  After she rested, I released her so she could lay more eggs and live in the wild for the rest of her short life.

Cecropia eggs – two days old. June 27, 2018.

I kept five eggs and donated the rest to several environmental organizations and a few caterpillar-savvy friends. Three of my eggs hatched on July 4th, ten days after being laid.

My Cecropia eggs after three hatched.  Note the two with exit holes chewed by the tiny caterpillars. July 4, 2018.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Each ¼” black, spiny caterpillar chewed a hole in its leathery brown egg and almost immediately began eating the River Birch leaves I provided.  Within two or three days, the caterpillars outgrew the skin of their initial first stage (instar) and molted into a second instar.  Each time a caterpillar molted, the new skin was “loose” so it could continue its rapid growth. All three ate, grew, and reached the fifth instar, their final caterpillar stage.

Newly hatched Cecropia moth caterpillar – first instar. . July 4, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

First & second instar Cecropias.  9 days old. July 13, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two Cecropia cats molting from 2nd to 3rd instar; one still in 2nd instar. 11 days old. July 15, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

More mature 3rd instar Cecropia. 22 days old. July 21, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two fifth instar Cecropias and one 4th instar. 31 days old. Aug 3 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

While my Cecropias were growing, I got an opportunity to raise another large silk moth.  On July 13, a friend noticed a large moth at the foot of a light pole – a Royal Walnut Moth or Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis).   Unfortunately, the moth was dead but had laid eggs before succumbing.  This hapless moth, like countless others, was drawn to nighttime outdoor lights, but was unable to escape the lights and died.

Dead Royal Walnut Moth by light pole with eggs. July 13, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Of about 25 eggs I kept five and donated the rest to the Academy of Natural Sciences.  Just one of mine hatched and I began feeding Black Walnut leaves, one of its host plants, to the tiny fierce-looking caterpillar.  This caterpillar, known as the Hickory Horned Devil (HHD), is the largest caterpillar species in North America.  This species also goes through five instars before pupating. Although harmless, each stage looks scary and unpalatable, intended to make a bird or other hungry predator steer clear of such a high-protein meal.

Newly hatched Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar. July 24, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Second instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Aug 1, 2018. Day 9. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Third instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Aug 6, 2018. Day 14. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fourth instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Day 20. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Early 5th instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Aug 16, 2018. Day 24. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Hickory Horned Devil 5th instar, now greener with some blue near the head. Aug 19, 2018. Day 26. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fifth instar, Hickory Horned Devil. Some blue starting in a few spots on top of body. Aug 22, 2018. Day 30.


Hickory Horned Devil in final 5th instar colors – ready to pupate. Wikipedia image by Chris Hibbard.

Hickory Horned Devil Pupa. Winter 2018-2019. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

To my astonishment, I was raising the moth species with the largest caterpillar along with three caterpillars of the largest moth species.  By the end of August, all three Cecropia caterpillars made their cocoons. My almost hotdog-sized HHD caterpillar turned into a dark brown pupa during the first week of September. This species doesn’t spin a cocoon like its Cecropia relative, but digs down into the soil to pupate and spend the winter.  To simulate an underground environment. I provided an enclosure filled with crumpled paper towels, and the caterpillar pupated there successfully.  When temperatures turned frigid, I moved the HHD pupa into my refrigerator for safe-keeping over the winter.  As I had with their mother, I kept the Cecropia cocoons outside and waited for spring.

All three Cecropia moths eclosed – a male on May 22nd, and females on June 22nd and 25th – and I released them after dark on those nights.

The second of my 3 Cecropias to eclose from its cocoon – a female on June 22, 2019. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, the HHD pupa died, so that huge, spectacular caterpillar didn’t become a beautiful Royal Walnut Moth as I had hoped.  In nature, less than 5% of caterpillars survive to become butterflies or moths.

A live Royal Walnut Moth. (Citheronia regalis). © Paul Scharf via

Because they are active only at night, it’s rare for us to see Cecropia, Royal Walnut, or other large moths.  However, they and their caterpillars are key food sources for birds and other animals and thus are important members of our local food webs.  You can help keep them flying by providing native trees and shrubs that caterpillars need for food.  If you have outdoor lights, use timers or motion detectors so they are not on from dusk to dawn.  Of course, don’t use pesticides, which kill not just moths and caterpillars, but other beneficial insects, many of which are in steep decline.  If you’d like to see these and other interesting moth species, attend a local moth night event, perhaps  during National Moth Week in July, or have a moth night of your own.  I wish for you a Cecropia Moth, Royal Walnut Moth, and other magnificent nighttime moth wonders!

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2019 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
  4. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals
  5. Offer shelter and places to raise young
  6. Easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape
  7. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales. (See list of local sources for native plants at the end).

Our selections for the 2019 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Amelanchier canadensis, Serviceberry (also known as Juneberry or Shadbush) A. arborea and A. laevis are closely related species.

Berries on Serviceberry ripen in early summer and are quickly eaten by birds. © Mark Gormel Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: In the early summer this small tree produces berries relished by American Robins, Gray Catbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and Northern Mockingbirds. Other birds and mammals eat the fruits as well. The popular fruits disappear quickly, often before they are completely ripe. The foliage of Serviceberry is food for 124 species of caterpillars including Striped Hairstreak and Red-spotted Purple butterflies and Blinded Sphinx and Small-eyed Sphinx moths. The nectar-rich flowers attract adult butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators.

Cedar Waxwing eating Serviceberry fruits. © Harris Brown. Click to enlarge.

Serviceberry is a host plant for Red-spotted Purple butterfly caterpillars. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Serviceberry is easily grown in sun or part shade.   It prefers moist soil, but will tolerate a variety of conditions. Although sometimes subject to rust or leaf spot, it is normally free of any severe problems. Rust (Apple Cedar rust) can be a problem for anyone who also has nearby Eastern Red Cedar.  It is moderately deer-resistant.

Serviceberry blooms profuely in April. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: A single-trunk or multi-stemmed tree, Serviceberry grows to 15-25 feet at maturity.  This member of the rose family is covered with showy white blossoms in early spring before the foliage emerges. The

Blossoms of Serviceberry are popular with native bees and other pollinators. © Barb Elliot. click to enlarge.

attractive fall foliage is yellow to orange-red.  Amelanchier canadensis, A. arborea, and A. laevis are closely related species that hybridize and are difficult to differentiate unless you are a


The Serviceberry should not be confused with Bradford Pear, also known as Callery Pear, an invasive tree with similar white flowers that blooms at the same time.  The Bradford Pear has upright branches and denser, dark foliage. It out-competes native species, hosts very few native insects, and produces fruit that is unpalatable to birds and other wildlife.  For more info about invasive Bradford/Callery Pear in Pennsylvania, click here.

Garden Phlox, Phlox paniculata 

Giant Swallowtail, a rare butterfly in southeastern PA, visited my Garden Phlox. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: Garden Phlox is a nectar-rich perennial that attracts native pollinators including butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds. The flower petals are fused into a tube (corolla). To access the nectar, a pollinator inserts its tongue (proboscis) into the bottom of the corolla.

Bumble bee nectaring at Garden Phlox. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Butterflies and large bees with a long proboscis and hummingbirds can reach the nectar.  Small bees such as Sweat Bees, Yellow-faced Bees, Leafcutter Bees, and small carpenter bees have a proboscis that is too short to reach the nectar.  However, all will pick up pollen as they rub against the anther (male part) at the top of the corolla. Flying from flower to flower, these pollinators carry the pollen to the stigma (female flower part) of each bloom. As a result, reproduction occurs.

Among the insect pollinators using Garden Phlox, Hummingbird

A moth with transparent wings, a Hummingbird Clearwing, nectars on Garden Phlox. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Clearwing Moth is a conspicuous day-flying sphinx moth that is sometimes mistaken for a hummingbird.  Also look for Peck’s Skipper, a small tan butterfly.

Growing Conditions:   Garden Phlox will grow well in sun or part sun in moist to average (tolerates clay) soil.

Appearance: The pink, lavender, or white flowers bloom profusely in late summer and early fall on 3-4-foot plants. Many cultivars (often referred to as navitars) are

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Garden Phlox. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

available, but some have reduced nectar production.  However, according to studies performed at Mt. Cuba Center, ‘Jeana’ produces nectar abundantly and attracts many pollinators.  Garden Phlox can develop mildew during hot, humid summer conditions.  Removing some of the flower stalks will improve air circulation and prevent mildew.  According to Mt Cuba, the ‘Jeana”, ‘Robert Poore’, and ‘David’ cultivars are mildew-resistant.

Other phlox species:  Woodland Phlox, Phlox divaricata, and Creeping Phlox, P. stolonifera, are spring-blooming phlox species that grow in part shade or shade. They attract a variety of pollinators including butterflies and hummingbirds. The flower structure is similar to Garden Phlox.


Local Sources of Native Plants

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd. New Hope, PA 18938.  215-862-2924 or Nursery open April -October.

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

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

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

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, DE 19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or

Gino’s Nursery, 2237 Second Street Pike, Newtown, PA 18940.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  267-750-9042 or

Good Host Plants, 150 W. Butler St., Philadelphia 19140.  Straight species native perennials and woody plants of local genetic provenance. 267-270-5036 or

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610-647-8870 or Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Northeast Natives Perennials, 1716 E. Sawmill road, Quakertown, PA 18951.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  215-901-5552 or

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 904 N. Providence Road., Media, PA. 19063.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or

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

Native Plant Sales

Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-729-5281 or

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

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

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, 2955 Edge Hill Road, Huntington Valley, PA 19006. 215-657-0830 or

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd., Philadelphia 19128. 215-482-7300 or

Welcome Nesting Birds!

By Barb Elliot, PhD

It’s spring, and once again I hear the songs of Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves, and House Finches as well as the drumming of Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  These and other local birds are attracting mates and warning rival males to stay out of newly claimed nesting territories.  At least nine bird species have nested in my yard over the years. As I look back, I remember the joy of seeing birds raise and successfully fledge their young, the heartbreak when things don’t work out so well, and the things I learned along the way.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker at his work, March, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In early February, 2018, I noticed a male Red-bellied Woodpecker tapping near the top of a dead Black Cherry tree trunk in my yard.  I had left this snag because dead wood is scarce in our tidy landscapes but sorely needed for nesting, feeding, and resting places of birds and other wildlife. Several other woodpecker species – Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flickers peck this tree and look under its peeling bark for grubs and other insects. Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers also scour the bark for insect morsels. I was happy to see the Red-belly using this tree to start excavating a nesting cavity.

Male Red-belly joined by his mate. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker worked day after day at this hole in all types of weather, and I was excited to see his progress.  At first he could just fit his head into the hole, but soon got half his body inside, then his tail. Finally he entered the cavity and looked out the hole.  He was joined by a female Red-belly, and they took turns at the work.  One would enter the hole, work inside, and call the mate. The mate then entered the cavity to gather small wood chips and sawdust in its bill and spit them out of the hole. Click here for a 2-minute video of this activity (better viewed on a large screen).

Male expelling sawdust and wood chips from the cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.before flying off.

By early May, after more than three months, excavation stopped. In mid-May I saw the female enter with food in her mouth – the baby birds had hatched.  I could hardly wait for nestling Red-bellied Woodpeckers to peer out from the hole!  But alas, it was not to be.  A few days later, the Red-bellies called repeatedly near the nest, but never entered it again.  I understood their agitation when a pair of European Starlings exited the hole.  These invasive cavity nesters had taken over the hole and removed the baby woodpeckers.  Sadly, the Red-bellies’ nesting season was over.

European Starling peering out after taking over the Red-bellies’ nest cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Other cavity nesters have been more successful in my yard. For species that don’t excavate their own cavities, I chose boxes with the dimensions recommended for Tufted

Tufted Titmouse eggs in one of my nesting boxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Titmice, Carolina Chickadee, and House Wren, but with entry holes small enough to exclude House Sparrows and European Starlings.  I monitor the nest boxes no more than once a week to minimize disturbing both nestlings and parents.

Tufted Titmouse nestlings. Notice one unhatched egg. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Over the years, I’ve planted a variety of locally native plants, especially trees and shrubs that support lots of leaf-eating insects, caterpillars in particular.  Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds in North America feed only insects, spiders, and other arthropods to their young. Even hummingbirds add tiny insects and spiders to their babies’ diet.  Packing more protein than beef, caterpillars are the preferred insect food for feeding nestlings.  Since 90% of caterpillars and other leaf-eating insects specialize on one type or family of plants, I

House Wren with small caterpillar eyed by hungry baby. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

planted a diversity of native plants to host a diversity of insects.  According to University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, to raise a clutch of baby birds healthy enough to leave the nest, a pair of Carolina Chickadees must feed them between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars!



Carolina Chickadee eggs in another of my nestboxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Thanks to the native plants in my yard (see list of the 20 most valuable woody and perennial native plants) and the insects they support, Chickadees have successfully raised two broods of five to seven young each over the past 12 years. Tufted Titmice raised one set of five nestlings and House Wrens successfully raised at least eight broods of 5-6 birds each from my nesting boxes.  The importance of native plants to birds’ nesting success is emphasized by a recent 3-year

Carolina Chickadees almost ready to fledge. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

study of 200 suburban yards in the Washington, DC area.  Scientists from the University of Delaware and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center tracked nesting Carolina Chickadees and found that residential yards dominated by nonnative plants did not provide enough insects for birds to raise their young.  Chickadees were successful in raising and fledging young only when at least 70 percent of the plants in a yard were native to the region.  Birds larger than chickadees, such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, obviously need even more insects and thus a higher percentage of native plants. We should all strive to have more native plants in our yards.

American Robin nest in my Trumpet Honeysuckle vine. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several cup-nesting bird species – American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, and Mourning Dove – have also nested in my yard.  Robins nested in a vine, an evergreen tree, on top of a curved downspout, and on top of a wreath hung under my porch overhang.

American Robin nesting in the crook of a downspout. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




These birds certainly need native plants to find sufficient insects to feed their young. However, they also require native trees, shrubs, and vines with dense branching and leaves to provide good structure for the nests and concealment from predators.

Mourning Dove nest in one of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

For example, several pairs of Song Sparrows and Mourning Doves have successfully nested in my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). These evergreens are dense, hide nests well, are difficult for predators like raccoons to climb, and host more than 40 species of caterpillars.

song Sparrow nestlings in another of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

If you are trying to encourage birds to nest in your yard, here are some tips and lessons I have learned:

1. If you add a nesting box, do a little research to select a box with dimensions for the birds you want, and mount it at the suggested height.

House Wren parent with bug and hungry baby.  I added this hardware cloth predator guard after losing  a full set of nestlings to a predator that reached into the box.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

2. Nesting boxes with a predator guard of wood or hardware cloth will make it harder for predators like raccoons and squirrels to reach into the box. A baffle can be added below a box mounted on a pole or wood support.

3. Check a nest no more than once a week. Avoid checking nests when the young are close to fledging.  They may be startled into leaving the nest early and be more subject to predation.



House Wrens found many feathers to add to this nest, but the blue plastic strips on the left might entangle babies. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

4.  It’s better not to put out nesting material, as birds can find natural materials.  If you insist on providing something, do not put out yarn or hair longer than 2” to avoid entanglement.  Dryer lint, human hair or hair from dogs treated with flea/tick medications should not be used.

5. Check your yard for any plastic that birds may use as nesting material. A healthy baby Robin perished in a local nest when a plastic strip used in the nest wrapped around its leg and prevented it from flying from the nest.

Northern Cardinal nest in Barb’s Virginia Creeper on a trellis. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

6. If a baby bird without feathers is on the ground, return it to the nest. However, a baby bird on the ground that has feathers likely has parents nearby. Many newly fledged young spend time on the ground and are fed by parents for several days after leaving the nest.

7.Leave cats indoors year round to prevent killing of babies and adult birds.


8. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Birds and other wildlife in a healthy habitat will keep insects in balance.

9. Avoid trimming shrubs and trees during nesting season.

10. At the end of the season, clean out nesting boxes. This allows birds to use the box for roosting and cuts down on blowflies and other insect parasites that may prey on future nestlings.

Above all, enjoy the birds that visit and nest in your yard!  If you have (and keep adding) native plants, you can be assured that there will be enough food for them to successfully raise their young.

Fall is for Gardening

By Edie Parnum

Planning to wait until spring to garden?  Fall is better.  The soil is still warm, and with autumn rains, the new plants will grow their roots and come to robust life next year. Fall-planted perennials produce more flowers than those planted in spring.  Woody plants get a head start and could produce flowers and berries their first year.

First, assess your garden.  You’ve watched your landscape since April, and its flaws are still visible.

  • Are any plants not thriving? Perhaps they’re in a too-sunny or too-shady spot and need to be transplanted
  • Do you have weedy areas offering opportunities for new native plants or ground covers? (See “Native Groundcovers”)
  • Have any nasty invasives moved in and need to be replaced with native plants?
  • Do you have more lawn than you need?

Consider your garden’s aesthetics.

  • Should any sickly-looking plants be removed?
  • Are some plants obtrusively tall and would show better in the back of the garden? Are short plants hidden by tall plants?
  • Would an arbor or trellis be an attractive feature and support a Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, vine for hummingbirds. (See 2017 Prime Plants for Nature)

Can your garden support more birds, butterflies, bees, and other wildlife?

  • Plant something for birds.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler’s primary diet is caterpillars. Most young birds eat only caterpillars. © Gerald Dewaghe Click to enlarge.

Do you have room for an oak?  White Oak, Quercus alba (See 2013 Prime Plants for Nature Awards), Chestnut Oak (Q. montata), Red Oak (Quercus rubra), and Black Oak (Q. veluntina) are possibilities in our area. Oaks host the greatest numbers of native insects, which are high-quality foods for birds (see Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home). Adding additional native trees and shrubs to your yard will increase your yard’s biomass, i.e. all living things including insects, and significantly enhance your yard’s ecosystem.

  • Plant for butterflies.

To host Monarch butterflies, you can never grow enough milkweed (See “Marvelous Migrating Monarchs Need Our Help”).

Monarch butterfly nectaring on Butterfly Milkweed. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

All of us can plant more Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), or Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa).  Other native plants feed butterfly caterpillars, too.  For example, a Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) (see 2018 Prime Plants for Nature) hosts Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies. Perennials such as Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and other asters offer copious amounts of nectar for butterflies.

  • Plant for pollinators.

Gray Hairstreak butterfly on Short-toothed Mountain Mint. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Yes, you want more native bees, wasps, and flies, of course (see “Pollinators Need Our Help!”).  Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is a must.  Also consider Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), Joe-pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Beard Tongue (Penstemon digitalis), Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), and the butterfly-attracting native perennials listed above.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on Trumpet Honeysuckle. © Ruth Pfeffer. Click to enlarge.

  • Plant for hummingbirds.

In addition to Trumpet Honeysuckle, Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Great Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Wild Bergamot (M. fistulosa) attract hummingbirds.

  • Try some new native plants.

Potter Wasp nectaring and pollinating Grass-leafed Goldenrod. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

How about goldenrods?  Several species are well-behaved and attractive.  They are great late summer/fall pollinator plants and don’t cause hay fever. My favorites include Blue-stemmed (Solidago caesia), Zig-zag (S. flexicaulis), and Grass-leafed Goldenrod (S. graminifolia).

  • Want more plants?

Transplant seedlings.  Divide perennials.  You’ll have extras, so be generous with your friends and neighbors. (See “Want More Native Plants? Learn to Transplant”)

  • Enrich your soil.

Instead of sending your fallen leaves to the municipal dump, leaves can be used as soil-enhancing mulch in flower beds and around trees and shrubs.  Consider leaving quantities of leaves and other garden debris in unobtrusive spots where insects and other creatures can overwinter.  Too much tidiness can kill. (See “Brown Gold: The Gift of Fall Leaves”)

Sound like too much?  Pick and choose.  But, remember, fall gardening is easier than in the spring.  It’s cooler.  With the autumn rains, less watering is required. You can plant up until six weeks before hard frost, as late as early November in southeastern Pennsylvania. And, there’ll be less to do in the spring.

Is there a down side to gardening in fall?  Well, you must wait until spring to see the results.  The new leaves will appear, the flowers will bloom, the insects will hatch.  And, your garden will nurture a multitude of living things.

——————————————————————————————————————–For a list of retail sources of native plants and native plant sale events, click here.

A special native plant sale sponsored by John James Audubon Center and Valley Forge Audubon Society will take place on October 20 and 21, 2018.  Details are below.

Native Vines for Beauty and Wildlife Value

 By Barb Elliot

Vines have a bad rap. Invasive non-native vines like Kudzu, Oriental Bittersweet, Japanese Honeysuckle, Porcelain Berry, and English Ivy grow up and over trees, often smothering whole forest edges.  By making them top-heavy, these vines can damage and pull down entire trees.  However, not all vines are bad actors.  Most locally native vines are attractive and well-behaved.  By providing food, shelter, and nesting places, they add high wildlife value to our habitat gardens.  I have three of these natives and I highly value the roles they play in my garden.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits Barb’s Trumpet Honeysuckle. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

With Trumpet (aka Coral) Honeysuckle in your yard, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will visit – guaranteed!  This native honeysuckle is not at all like its unruly cousin, Japanese Honeysuckle. Handsome and well-behaved, this vine sports blue-green foliage and coral-red trumpet-shaped flowers.  It’s easy to grow in average, well-drained soils with medium moisture. A twining 10-15’ vine that needs a support, it is striking on a fence or trellis with its profusion of flowers.   It grows in shade, but flowers best in full sun.  Trumpet Honeysuckle begins blooming in April or May and blooms intermittently through summer and into the fall.  In autumn, birds eat the red berries.

Trumpet Honeysuckle alongside Barb’s deck. May 18, 2018.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle provides food, shelter, and nesting locations.  One year, American Robins built a nest in one of my honeysuckle vines.  A vine growing close to my bird feeders provides shelter for birds escaping hawks and other predators. According to Doug Tallamy, this honeysuckle hosts up to 33 species of butterfly and/or moth caterpillars that eat its leaves.  Among them are two day-flying hummingbird look-alike moths. the Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing.

The beautiful trumpet-like flowers of Trumpet Honeysuckle, showing their yellow inner parts. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle is truly beloved by hummingbirds.  I love to sit on my deck and watch these flying jewels sip nectar from the long tubular flowers and even fight over the blossoms.  George Washington grew this vine at his Mount Vernon estate where it is still grown today.  In a 1785 diary entry, Washington described planting it around columns and along walls.  Perhaps he, too, enjoyed the hummingbirds that visited his Trumpet Honeysuckle.



Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

The handsome leaves of Virigina Creeper with their 5 leaflets each. Poison Ivy, circled on left, with its 3 leaflets per leaf. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper, not to be confused with Poison Ivy, is a beneficial vine that’s entirely harmless to humans.  To differentiate the two plants, look at the leaves. Poison Ivy always has 3 leaflets per leaf,  but Virginia Creeper has 5 leaflets. Some young Virginia Creeper vines may have a few leaves with just 3 leaflets, but most leaves will have 5 leaflets.  The green leaves are handsome and in full sun turn bright red or purple in October.


A Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillar Barb found on her vine. Note the pointed “horn”, or tail, on left hind end – typical of caterpillars in the sphinx moth family. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Offering high wildlife value, Virginia Creeper hosts 32 species of caterpillars, including the striking Pandora Sphinx and Abbott’s Sphinx moth caterpillars.  These are my most sought after caterpillars, but I have yet to find either of them.  However, as a consolation, I’ve discovered several Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillars, which I raised to become beautiful adult moths.


A Gray Catbird eating Virginia Creeper berries. Note the berries’ red stems. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/ Click to enlarge.

In spring, the wildlife-friendly Virginia Creeper’s inconspicuous flowers attract bees and other small pollinators.  Thirty species of birds, including chickadees, woodpeckers, robins, catbirds, warblers, and bluebirdsrelish the dark blue berries in autumn.  Reddish fall foliage and the bright red stems of the berries lure the birds.  Small animals use this vine for cover, especially when it grows along the ground.  A few years ago, Northern Cardinals built a nest in the Virginia Creeper growing on my arbor.

A deciduous woody vine, Virginia Creeper is easy to grow in full sun to full shade in well-drained soil with average moisture.  It will climb brick or stone walls, trellises, arbors, fences, or large trees. One of my favorite ground covers, it will happily cover a stump or wood pile. Although a vigorous grower, climbing 30’ feet or more, it will not smother trees.  If it becomes unruly, it can easily be pulled down or cut off at the base where it will re-sprout.

Virgin’s Bower, Clematis virginiana

An Ailanthus Moth visiting Barb’s Virgin’s Bower. These moths visit both during the day and night. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virgin’s Bower, a native clematis, is a superb plant for pollinators.   Its small white flowers have a pleasing, sweet fragrance and cover the foliage from mid-to late-August into September.  The flowers attract many pollinators, including butterflies, bumble and other native bees, plus interesting wasps and flies.  Intent on collecting nectar and pollen from the flowers, they are usually oblivious to my presence.

Virgin’s Bower blooming alongside Barb’s deck. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Predators like spiders and centipedes furtively wait to catchthe unsuspecting pollinators. I have spent hours, both day and night, watching the pollinators and dramas of nature play out on Virgin’s Bower.

Virgin’s Bower is very easy to grow in medium to wet well-drained soil in part shade to full sun.   Although I love this vine, it is not for the faint of heart. It is a vigorous grower, and if given support, will climb to 20’.  When growing along the ground. it can spread into a tangled

A nighttime visitor to Virgin’s Bower, Tobacco Budworm Heliothis virescen. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

mass.  The vines can take root where they touch the ground.  Seeds from its attractive seed heads are windblown, so new plants can pop up elsewhere in your yard.  But if you are diligent and keep this vine in check, you and many pollinators will be well-rewarded by your efforts.

Red=spotted Purple butterfly at Barb’s Virgin’s Bower. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Now is a good time to add these vines to your landscape.  If you have a small space, Trumpet Honeysuckle will work well.   For larger areas, try Virginia Creeper or Virgin’s Bower.  These vines will add texture and interest to your landscape. Pollinators, birds and other wildlife will thrive in your garden.

Go here for a list of local native plant retailers who are likely to sell these vines,

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2018 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 an attractive addition to your landscape.
  6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2018 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Northern Spicebush, Lindera benzoin                                                          

Spicebush berries are relished by migrating birds. Photo credit: Missouri Plants. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: In the fall this shrub produces high-lipid red berries that are valuable formigrating birds including Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, and other thrushes. The foliage of Spicebush is food for the

Spicebush is the host of this Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar.  In fact, this caterpillar species is entirely dependent on Spicebush and its close relative, Sassafras, for its sustenance. Spicebush is also a host plant for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Promethea Moth. The flowers are pollinated by small native bees, wasps, beetles, and flies.

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on Cardinal Flower. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  This fast-growing, disease-free shrub will thrive in a variety conditions from semi-sun to shade in average to moist soil.  Its natural habitat is the understory of moist woodlands or woodland edge. The leaves, twigs, and other plant parts are spicy when crushed, so deer don’t usually browse this shrub.

Spicebush showing fall foliage Photo: Sally Roth, FineGardening. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: The Spicebush is a multi-stemmed 6-12’ deciduous shrub. Its blossoms appear in early spring before the foliage emerges. Although the flowers are small, they create a nice show of yellow haze when little else is blooming. Because this shrub is dioecious, male and female flowers occur on separate plants, and the berries form from female flowers. The fall foliage is yellow.


Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea 

Painted Lady butterfly nectaring on Purple Coneflower. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: Purple Coneflower’s pollen and nectar are magnets for many bees and butterflies.  Bumble bees and short and long-tongued bees such as small carpenter, sweat, long-horned, digger, and mining bees plus long-horned beetles visit the flowers. Butterflies such as swallowtails, sulphurs, fritillaries, Red Admiral, American and Painted Ladies, Monarch, and skippers are attracted also.  Crab spiders may lurk in the flowerheads to capture both beneficial and pest insects.   A few moth caterpillars will eat the flowers and leaves including Blackberry Looper, Camouflaged Looper (adorns itself

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Coneflower. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

with flower parts to avoid predators), Common Pug, and Sunflower Moth.  In late summer and fall the coneflowers’ seeds are eaten by American Goldfinch and other finches.

Cultivars of Purple Coneflower are frequently sold. When purchasing plants, if possible, choose straight native species. Some cultivars selected by breeders change the shape or color of the flowers and possibly reduce the amount of pollen and nectar. For instance, Purple Coneflower ‘Pink Double Delight’ with its double flowers is less attractive to pollinators.

Growing Conditions:   This trouble-free perennial grows in moist to average soil with sun or part sun.  It can survive heat and moderate draught drought conditions.  Because it prefers lean, poor soil, fertilizer and other amendments are not recommended. The parent plant produces seedlings that can be easily transplanted.  The roots of 3-4-year-old plants can be divided and transplanted, too. Normally, neither deer nor pests are a problem.

Appearance: Purple Coneflower with its pinkish-purple flowerheads is one of our prettiest native perennials.  It grows 3-4 feet tall on sturdy stems that do not require staking.  This perennial blooms from July-September.  Cutting back the spent flowers can extend the blooming period.

A Note of Caution:  Many retailers sell plants treated with pesticides containing neonicotenoids.  These long-lasting pesticides are absorbed into the entire plant.  Insects eating the pollen, nectar, leaves, or any plant part are poisoned. According to the National Wildlife Federation, neonics are “found in hundreds of products, including sprays, granules, tree injections and soil drenches (pesticides applied to the base of plants).”  To avoid neonics, “carefully read labels. Steer clear of products that contain imidacloprid, acetamiprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin or thiamethoxam.”  If it’s not apparent that plants are neonic-free, before you buy, ask the seller to verify that neither they nor their grower treat plants with neonics in any way, including growing them from neonic-coated seeds.  See


Polyphemus Moths Live Near Me

By Edie Parnum

Female Polyphemus Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A Polyphemus moth alighted on my walkway.  It was August 2016, and I had just moved to a retirement community.   This cinnamon-colored giant silk moth had a wingspan of 4 1/2 inches.  Each hind wing had a large eyespot highlighted with yellow and blue.  It’s named for Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, who was blinded by Odysseus. Although I’m a “moth-er”, I had never seen this handsome moth before.

This summer I acquired two Polyphemus caterpillars at Mothapalooza, a mothing

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by MamaGeek. Click to enlarge.

conference.  They survived the 9-hour ride from southern Ohio.  Once home, I fed them White Oak leaves from my community’s wooded area.  They ate voraciously and pooped continuously.  (Scientists call the excrement frass.)  Once or twice a day I cleaned out the mesh cage and supplied them with fresh leaves.  After two weeks, they stopped eating and formed their cocoons.

Twelve days later, a beautiful Polyphemus adult emerged.  I knew she was a female because she had unfeathered antennae.  Some friends and I released her at dusk.

Antennae of male Polyphemus. © Barb Elliot. click to enlarge.

Off she flew beaming out her pheromones to attract a mate.  Two days later a male emerged from the second cocoon.  We released him, too.  Using his feathered antennae, he can “smell” a female’s pheromones from miles away.

These two moths (or others of their species) will meet up and mate.  They will not eat.  Their sole job is to mate. The fertilized female will lay her eggs on an oak, willow, maple, or birch.

Her eggs will hatch and become caterpillars.  Birds, mammals, and other insects will eat most of them.  Miraculously, a few will survive.  The cycle of life will continue—cocoon, adult moth, mating, egg laying, tiny caterpillars, big caterpillars, and cocoon again.  This will happen over and over, as long as we have wooded areas or yards with the essential native trees to support them.

A Woolly Bear caterpillar looks for a place to spend the winter. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fall can be a good time to look for Polyphemus and other caterpillars. Many caterpillars leave the host plants where they’ve been feeding and start walking.  These “wanderers” are looking for a suitable place to overwinter.  Many will spend the winter in leaves on the ground; others will spin a cocoon attached to a twig.

Barb found this Polyphemus Moth cocoon in her yard. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Polyphemus moth cocoon could spend the winter in your own yard. Never mind the cold.  Go out into your yard and examine the bare branches of your native trees and shrubs. In 2012 Barb Elliot found a Polyphemus moth cocoon on a Spicebush twig.  She told her story on our blog:, “A Magnificent Moth”.  Maybe you, like Barb, can find a Polyphemus or other cocoon. At all times of the year, we can look for signs of nature, both active and dormant, in our backyards.