Love and Stiltgrass

LOVE and STILTGRASS

“Indefatigable.” That’s the adjective that best describes the many exceptional individuals leading invasive plant removals in our local parks and other natural areas. Sure, I’ve previously pitched in on their efforts, helping to remove English ivy, garlic mustard, mile-a-minute weed and other harmful plants—but I’d never considered joining those unsung heroes’ impressive ranks. Restoration leaders work hard. They schedule regular invasive management days for weekends, coordinate and wrangle volunteers, and take on a lot of lonely solo work. Their task is a daunting and unending enterprise. And it’s completely unglamorous to boot.

But there I found myself this past summer in Reston’s Lake Fairfax Park, a newly certified Invasive Management Area (IMA) program lead, toiling in the Northern Hemisphere’s toastiest summer on record: bending, squatting, sweating, and endlessly repeating.

Marc, happy on two wheels.

(Photo courtesy D. Tyler Long)

How did I get here?

When I was first introduced to this wooded area of the park, it was late March. I was there with the Mid-Atlantic Off Road Enthusiasts (MORE) to start construction on a multi-use trail that would be a memorial for my husband, Marc: the “Marc Genberg Trail.”

Marc was an avid cyclist and active member of MORE and had volunteered in Lake Fairfax Park on the morning of the day he suddenly died. He was just 52. MORE was instrumental in securing approval for Marc’s memorial from the Fairfax County Park Authority and had spent a good deal of time advocating. They knew Marc well and knew that the trail would be an exceptional and enduring honor for an extraordinary man. Naturally, I didn’t want to miss a single day of its construction.

That first early spring Saturday, and the next four, were coordinated by MORE trail leads, Frank Raiti and Tony Watkins. They were the driving force and inspiration for the impressive number of volunteers who turned out: men and women of varying ages, teenagers and children, MORE cycling members and other trail users. These folks all possessed gung-ho attitudes and radiated with warm smiles—and most hadn’t had the fortune to meet Marc.

Friends of mine and Marc’s friends also stopped by to help. And on one of the days, Marc’s 85-year-old dad, Dick, eagerly drove down from Pennsylvania to work side by side with men less than half his age. The entire effort was amazing.

Frank Raiti (in gray) and Tony Watkins (in red) lead a trail work day in April.
Dick Genberg, Marc’s dad, building his son’s memorial.

The new section of singletrack trail wound its way through a designated wildlife sanctuary and connected at either end to other existing trails. It cut under a canopy of mature oaks and tulip trees and around evergreen American holly, Christmas fern and partridge-berry—and other plants that were, for the moment, leafless. Beautiful and peaceful, this setting resonated wildly because Marc and I had often explored similar territory together. We roamed many Virginia trails and untold miles over 17 years, and hiking was hands-down our favorite activity. On one of our early outings, Marc, ever the naturalist at heart, had taught me to identify my first locally native tree—the American beech—and he was vocal about planting oak trees long before it became Doug Tallamy’s call to action.

After five rain-free days filled with digging, raking, shoveling, gravel-slinging and plant-relocating, the meandering one-third mile woodland trail was completed. It was one of the best sections in the park, I was later told by Marc’s cycling friends, with a grueling uphill climb that Marc would’ve enjoyed powering through.

MORE held an intimate informal dedication on May 4th, led by their president, Ernie Rodriguez. Then, at a public ceremony on June 1st, on National Volunteer Day, the Fairfax County Park Authority officially dedicated the “Marc Genberg Trail.” Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, Park Authority Deputy Director Sara Baldwin and Park Authority Board Bill Bouie imparted kind words about Marc and his years of volunteerism.

A Marc Genberg Trail temporary marker.

Surprise, Surprise.

During those spring trail-making days, there wasn’t much green unfurling just yet. The deciduous plants that were most conspicuous were the invasive Japanese barberry shrubs that dotted the landscape. Wouldn’t this be a relatively easy area to maintain? I thought early on. I decided I would be IMA-certified so I could officially remove the invasive plants surrounding Marc’s trail. I would want to visit frequently anyway.

However, time moved forward, and plants quietly grew. By the time May rolled around, what was formerly a latent beige-colored understory was now a vibrant green. And I knew exactly what that sort of growth indicated. Yes, I was duped! It was the hateful Japanese stiltgrass, out in full force. And I had already committed to Fairfax County. The reliably truthful words “no good deed goes unpunished” popped into my head and made me grin. It was a phrase Marc was fond of saying.

I did my homework and read up on Japanese stiltgrass, and I also asked the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists for suggestions. The outlook was not particularly positive but could’ve been interpreted as hopeful, in a masochistic kind of way. Their collective advice: “Just keep on pulling.”

So, pull I did.

The effort to remove Microstegium vimineum has been called a Sisyphean task by a few knowing naturalist friends. Sisyphus, for the similarly uncultured, was a mythological Greek figure who was condemned to an eternity of frustrating labor: rolling a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again. A perfect analogy, I thought—once I looked it up.

Japanese stiltgrass infestation, before...
... and after removal.

Healing the Land, Easing a Heart

Once a week throughout the steamy summer, I attacked not only stiltgrass, but also Japanese honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, small barberry plants and patches of wavyleaf basketgrass. The stiltgrass, low in stature and crazily abundant, was naturally the worst of it. Hand-pulling it from in and around the various ferns, sedges, hog-peanut, poison ivy and other native plants was a tedious chore. So this is what it’s like to weed a forest? I wondered.

But those long stretches of labor tended to be tolerable, even as sweat continually streamed into my eyes and the humidity fogged my glasses. On occasion, I’d be greeted by Marc’s teammates from The Bike Lane, who were out on a joyful ride. Sometimes a curious passerby would stop to inquire about my efforts. And many times I’d be given the opportunity to educate the dog walker who moved through the area with their pet running off-leash.

What I came to appreciate was the quiet and solitude on weekdays, since Marc’s trail was seldom frequented then. It was a time of reflection, of thoughts that could be painful; a longing indescribable. Marc should be here.

Often, a pileated woodpecker’s hollow drumming would interrupt the silence—and a few times I heard the piercing call of a hawk. And there was this one memorable encounter: while I knelt under a very tall tulip tree, I heard a sudden “plop!” What fell from high, high above was large, chubby and brilliantly green: a tulip tree silkmoth caterpillar. Hey my plump friend. Perhaps you’re also moving towards your next stage of life?

Frequently, I came upon other interesting insects, as well as frogs, toads, turtles, and two different snake species. Arthropods that I’d never seen in the wild before, such as a northern walking stick and a marbled orb weaver, completely delighted and relieved the monotony.

Critter sightings! Clockwise: tulip-tree silkmoth caterpillar, white-tailed deer, wood frog, walkingstick.
Save the cranefly orchids!

Beautiful Tipularia discolor.

Getting down and personal with the forest floor also allowed me an opportunity to observe the evolving plant life. Fleeting flowers that I could easily have missed, such as those of cranefly orchid and downy rattlesnake plantain, were discovered in pockets of stiltgrass. Later, I watched the cheery yellow of a woodland sunflower come into bloom and the green fruit of partridge-berry slowly develop into a vibrant candy-red. At some point the fronds of cut-leaf grape fern also made a magical appearance.

Downy rattlesnake plantain 

(Goodyera pubescens).

Since I considered this first year an experiment, I typically worked on my own, but not always. A few generous friends with probably more compassion than altruism gave up part of their days to work in tandem with me. The monthly restoration days I posted on the Fairfax County volunteer site and on MORE’s event calendar brought in more help and made the effort very productive.

David shows off a handful of stiltgrass.

He and his parents helped make a difference on an IMA work day.

Time well spent

At the end of the stiltgrass removal window, which for me was late September, I was ready for a break. In total, DC recorded a whopping sixty-two 90+ degree days and had experienced a “flash” drought to boot. The extreme weather was definitely one of my stressors.

But so much has been accomplished this first year in the park. The trail edges leading to and along Marc’s memorial are in better shape and one large section of hillside on the north-west side of his trail is now essentially—a word I use loosely here—invasive-free.

Alas, I’m aware that the ripened stiltgrass seeds, stubbornly viable in the soil for up to seven years, will sprout throughout the upcoming growing seasons. But I’m hopeful that there will be less of an infestation as time passes. Time will also reveal whether I’m truly indefatigable too.

This article was originally published in the Jan-Mar 2020 newsletter of Potowmack News, Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society.

Invasive Management Resources:

Fairfax County, Virginia’s Invasive Management Area Program

Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas

There’s lots more information on the Invasive Plant Resources page.

The Irresistible Thistle: Why Our Gardens Are Incomplete Without This Invaluable Native

The Irresistible Thistle: Why Our Gardens Are Incomplete
Without This Invaluable Native

It’s been many years since the first pasture thistle I added to the sunny front garden developed a single lavender-pink flower. The thick stalk it bloomed on was short, about a foot tall, but the fuzzy flowerhead was amusingly enormous—and quite popular with our bumble bee friends. After this positive thistle experience, I’ve purchased and planted more Cirsium pumilum, and cheered on the subsequent “volunteers,” too.

Self-sowing plants, like pasture thistle, are part and parcel of growing native meadow species. And through the many years of scrutinizing plant behavior in my small garden, I’ve learned to appreciate the reseeding of certain species as I’ve also been inclined to curse others. In spite of its reputation as a spreader, the thistle in my garden volunteers far too little for my liking.

How I got hooked...

The reason there are native thistles in my garden habitat at all is that I’m a huge fan of Earth Sangha. I like visiting and volunteering for the nonprofit’s native plant nursery and learning about the plants they propagate. When conservation coordinator and flora encyclopedia Matt Bright is working at the nursery, he’ll gladly take a few minutes to tell me about this or that favorite plant of his. The thistles Matt propagates with his parents, Earth Sangha cofounders Lisa and Chris Bright, are among the exceptional natives he promotes.

“The combination of thorns and the tendency to spread doesn’t necessarily endear thistles to many gardeners, at least as far as first impressions go,” Matt told me. However, he adds, “The large pink-purple blooms and the sheer number of attractive pollinators that feed on thistle flowers tend to sway people over.”

I’m thankful that Matt began pushing thistles on me long before I was aware of their true ecological value.

Young field thistle plants (Cirsium discolor) in pots.
Field thistle (Cirsium discolor) growing in the Earth Sangha greenhouse.
Matt Bright at the Earth Sangha nursery in Springfield, VA.
Native pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum).
Newly propagated pasture thistle plants (Cirsium pumilum).

Thistles for Restoration and for Gardens

We’ve all probably heard campfire-worthy tales of monstrously tall and spreading thistles that are impossible to eradicate. But these descriptions should be restricted to the invasive non-native thistles, like bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense); they are the bane of agricultural growers and anyone with ecologically sensitive areas to maintain. Our native thistles can be much more refined and are exponentially more valuable to wildlife. They certainly are no less beautiful than any of the other innumerable native plants we already covet.

Of the 200-plus ecotype species Earth Sangha grows, two are biennial thistles common to Northern Virginia and much of the Mid-Atlantic: the above-mentioned pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) and field thistle (Cirsium discolor).

“Thistles are very ecologically productive,” Matt said of the plants’ role in Earth Sangha’s meadow restoration efforts. Butterfly and moth larvae, along with a host of other insect herbivores, feed on the pollen, nectar, leaves and seeds, and pollinators and other flower visitors are plentiful as well. Come fall and winter, thistle seeds are great forage for goldfinches and other seed-eating birds.

So, which Cirsium species is Matt most fond of? “I prefer the discolor,” he said of the plant that can shoot up more than seven feet in height. “It makes a bold statement in the garden; there’s no mistaking it’s a thistle.” The bright pink and occasionally white flowers are gorgeous, he added, and their ability to “bring a wide variety of charismatic pollinators right up to eye-level is pretty much unrivaled.” Matt has observed skippers, swallowtails, monarch butterflies and bees frequenting those thistles—oftentimes all at once. “If you wanted to get photos of native butterflies,” he suggested, “sitting near a field thistle is an easy way to do it.”

Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) supports all sorts of insects.
A soldier beetle consuming pasture thistle pollen.
Insects find native thistles irresistible.
Monarch and silver-spotted skipper sharing a field thistle feast.
Native thistles are the host plant to many caterpillar species.
Native thistles provide high quality nectar and pollen to pollinators.
Two bumble bees digging into pasture thistle.
Native thistles provide high quality pollen and nectar to our native bees.
Native bees of all sizes visit thistles.
Pollinators find native thistles irresistible.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly and friends enjoying a field thistle flower.

Counting Our Mid-Atlantic Thistle Species

Thistles are members of the aster and sunflower family (Asteraceae). Of the nine genera of thistles from the tribe Cardueae—Carduus, Carthamus, Carlina, Centaure, Cirsium, Cynara, Echinop, Onopordum and Silybum—the Cirsium genus comprises the true thistles, the most diverse and widespread of our native thistles.

Approximately 62 native Cirsium species are found in North America; 78% of which are primarily found in the West. I’ve calculated from various sources (The Xerces Society, Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Maryland Plant Atlas and The Pennsylvania Flora Project) that the Mid-Atlantic is home to approximately nine thistle species:

  • Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)
  • Soft thistle (Cirsium carolinianum)
  • Field thistle (Cirsium discolor)
  • Yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum)
  • Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum)
  • Nuttall’s thistle (Cirsium nuttallii)
  • Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum)
  • Coastal-plain thistle (Cirsium repandum)
  • Virginia thistle (Cirsium virginianum)

Many of these thistles are critically imperiled or possibly extirpated from their natural areas.

Native thistles like yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum) provide high quality nectar and pollen for native insects.
The striking yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum).

Characteristics & Identification

The flowers of thistles are typically shades of pink, lavender and purple, sometimes they’re white, and some species have yellow or red flowers. Thistles can be biennial, short-lived perennial or annual. The Xerces Society’s in-depth publication Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner’s Guide states, “Many thistle species are described as monocarpic, meaning they flower once in their lifetime and die. Many monocarpic species are biennial, flowering in the second year, but other species can flower in their first year or take two to eight years to flower.”

Both C. pumilum and C. discolor are biennials that spread by seed, not vegetatively like the invasive Canada thistle (C. arvense). The introduced Canada thistle, Matt pointed out, can choke out all sorts of native vegetation as well as native thistles. Unlike most of our thistles, he said, Canada thistle is a perennial that forms clonal root networks. Areas with high invasions can be reduced to dense monocultures that are difficult to control.

Here, Xerces offers an identification tip: “[A] characteristic that can differ between native and non-native thistles is the thick, white pubescence found on the leaf underside of many native thistles … which contrasts the hairless or gray haired leaf undersides of the widespread non-native thistles (Canada thistle and bull thistle).”

If you’re longing to hone your identification skills, you’ll generally find thistles blooming in mid- to late summer in open or sparsely wooded environments. I’ve encountered field and pasture thistles in and around Big Meadows in Shenandoah and in the Manassas National Battlefield Park; both sites are managed meadows in Virginia.

Growing and observing thistles in your own garden will help you to identify them out in the field.

Pasture Thistle in the Garden

Native thistles provide high quality nectar and pollen to pollinators.
Pasture thistle grows from one to three feet tall.

Pasture thistle (C. pumilum), unlike field thistle, doesn’t produce very many flowers. I often see one large flower; sometimes up to three. The more flowers that develop, the smaller they are, but that doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm of wild visitors.

When the Brights are collecting seed in the field they find low numbers of pasture thistle plants, possibly because the sites they visit are established meadows that haven’t experienced fire or other forms of disturbance in many years. Since thistles readily reseed in disturbed soils, a well-established garden may not be conducive to heavy self-sowing.

Pasture thistle prefers well-drained soil; I’ve had a few basal rosettes rot. And according to Matt, the basal rosettes tend to be prone to herbivory by insects, increasing the plants’ odds of being eaten before they get off the ground.

Pasture thistle should be handled with thick gloves; even on a vertically-challenged thistle, the spines can be ruthless.

Field Thistle in the Garden

Native thistles provide high quality nectar and pollen to pollinators.
Field thistle can grow to seven feet or taller.

Since I’ve been a bit of a coward and I haven’t experimented with the tall and more fruitful field thistle (C. discolor), I can’t say from experience how it performs in a garden setting. So, I queried the kind members of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) Potowmack Chapter and received responses from those who had introduced field thistle into their gardens. The four who replied all said they loved the plant for its floral display and wildlife value. I was delighted to learn that the front garden was where it is planted most.

The VNPS gardeners found that field thistle did reseed—but not too aggressively. They remove the infant volunteers that pop up along sidewalk edges, and one person pots and shares the extra basal rosettes. They leave the tall, spent stalks up through spring, and they cut bent or leggy ones or prop them upright to provide continuing habitat to insects. The stalks, they all agreed, had to be carefully handled with heavy gloves.

However, one of the VNPS members had completely removed the volunteers from her garden after her single plant had bloomed and reseeded, admitting she had concerns that the plants would take over her new native plant garden. She also said she struggled with the thorniness of the plant somewhat.

Her experience with field thistle may be a reflection of the age of her home habitat. Newer gardens are naturally more disturbed and prone to generous reseeding, and competition from surrounding plants may not be as vigorous as it would be in more established spaces. Soil conditions could also affect reseeding levels; unlike pasture thistle’s propensity for well-drained soil, field thistle doesn’t mind a moist environment.

Regardless of where you plant them, thistles will usually make themselves at home eventually. “Once a thistle flowers and goes to seed in your garden,” Matt advised, “you can be sure you’ll have thistles for a long time, so be certain you want them before you plant one.”

Thistles in Trouble

Like many of our native flora and fauna species, our once plentiful thistles are now in significant decline. Causes include habitat loss, indiscriminate herbicide spraying, fire suppression, regulation policies like noxious weed laws, and the release of alien bio-control insects (for control of invasive non-native thistle species). Many of North America’s native thistles are noted as species of concern. Five are on the Endangered Species List. Weather extremes will most likely exacerbate the drop in wild populations.

What better way to help native thistles than to plant them in our very own spaces?

A frosty pasture thistle volunteer.
Pasture thistle's intriguing flower bud.

Why Plant Native Thistles?

  • They rival the beauty of our other common flowering native plants.
  • The Cirsium genus is visited by insects more than any other plant genus (Thorp et al 1983).
  • Thistles have been found to be a higher-value nectar source than other forbs (Gut et al 1977).
  • Our Mid-Atlantic native thistles host at least 27 native Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars, three specialist bees, and untold numbers of other specialist insects.
  • Cirsium plants are food for many generalist insect herbivores, such as grasshoppers.
  • Late-season flowering of thistles coincides with the migration of butterflies, like the monarch.
  • Thistles produce high-protein seeds; some thistle species also contain a high amount of moisture.
  • The spent stalks were found to be the most popular plant nesting sites for cavity nesting bees (Michener 1953).
  • Soft, fluffy thistledown is used as nesting material by birds such as American goldfinches and blue-gray gnatcatchers.
  • Hummingbirds and moths are also consumers of nutritious thistle nectar.
Native thistles provide high quality nectar and pollen to pollinators.
Field thistle attracts butterflies such as this great spangled fritillary.

I’m excited about adding a field thistle or two to my garden soon. Weeding out some volunteers may be in my future but anyone growing native herbaceous plants—perennial, biennial or annual—will tell you that “editing” volunteers is part of the continuing maintenance.

There’s never been a better time to add an array of locally native plants to your garden. Give just one thistle plant a chance and see if it changes the way you view this misunderstood yet invaluable native.

More reading:

The Xerces Society: Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner’s Guide

The Natural Web: A Thistle Banquet

USDA Plant Fact Sheet: Field Thistle

Honeybees? It’s Our Native Bees That Need the Buzz

A native bee nectars on native pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum). Thistles are important plants for supporting specialist bees and other larger animals like gold finches.

HONEYBEES? IT'S OUR NATIVE BEES THAT NEED THE BUZZ

Many years ago, someone recommended that I plant clustered mountain-mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, the native perennial gardeners refer to as “THE pollinator magnet.” I did and I was soon reveling in an insane abundance of flower visitors. Each summer thereafter I anticipated the great influx of fascinating insects: everything from nifty-looking wasps to stunning buckeye butterflies.

Of course I also observed honey bees, the most beloved of the bees. I had been pleased back then to see them frantically mobbing my flowers; they’re essential pollinators, after all. But I’ve learned a lot since my wildlife-sustaining journey began and the honey bee joy is gone. In fact, I’m really dismayed to see so many of them in my nook of suburbia.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is a native plant that attracts generalist bees like the honey bee. Honey bees can outcompete native bees for resources.
Honey bees on clustered mountain-mint.

The honey bee hubbub

Honey bees are not a native species, a fact that many people aren’t aware of. Originally from Europe, “they were introduced to the United States in the 1600s likely for candle wax, and potentially for sugar and mead,” said Rich Hatfield, a senior conservation biologist for the Xerces Society, in a recent webinar.

And they’ve taken on an essential role in contemporary farming since they were brought here by the colonists. It’s been predicted that today’s giant agricultural systems would fail if honey bees couldn’t be rented for their pollination services. Carted across the country and released by commercial beekeepers, honey bees buzz about monoculture croplands and pollinate our favorite consumables like peaches and almonds.

Undoubtedly invaluable insects and dutiful pollinators of our introduced crops, honey bees and their plight have made headlines for years now. Although not entirely clear, the issues associated with their losses point toward a perfect storm of stressors: man-made diet, monoculture foraging, lack of wildflower diversity, chemical exposure (such as insecticides, fungicides and miticides), viruses, parasites, poor management practices and a changing climate.

But there appears to be misinformation surrounding the prevailing honey-bees-need-our-help chatter. Are honey bees in trouble? You bet they are. Are they threatened with extinction? Most researchers agree that no, they’re not.

Honey bees are in trouble but they will not become extinct like our native bees could.

Honey bees (Apis spp.) are managed agricultural animals, much like chickens and cattle.
Photo credit: Stephen Mitchell/Flickr/CC.

Almond crop in California. Almonds need honey bees for pollination.

Almond crops in Kern County, California. Honey bees are carted around the country
for their pollination services. Photo credit: David Seibold/Wikimedia/CC.

All the hubbub regarding honey bees is not a matter of pollinator conservation, but of economics. The mortality of a bee hive is higher than it used to be and that forces commercial beekeepers to purchase new queens or split their colonies. “Time is money so the issues right now for honey bees is not about a lack of honey bees—you can get as many honey bees as you want—it’s about cost,” said Sam Droege, a wildlife biologist with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey at one of his many talks I’ve attended. “It’s a more and more expensive system, [with] fewer and fewer commercial people.”

Before honey bees there were…

Other animals pollinated plants long before the settlers brought the honey bee to North America. Native bees, wasps, flies, moths, beetles, ants, butterflies, bats and hummingbirds are some of those great pollinators.

Tim McCoy, a research specialist in entomology at Virginia Tech, considers our native bees to be the real workers of the pollinator universe. “There are many crops that native bees do a lot better job of pollinating than honey bees do,” he said at a Virginia Master Naturalist lecture. Honeybees are not able to pollinate tomato and eggplant flowers, for example, and do a less than stellar job with peppers, melons, pumpkins, cherries, blueberries, watermelon and cranberries. Our native bees are all doing valuable pollination work but they receive very little attention, said McCoy. “All the attention goes to the charismatic honey bee.”

A bumble bee pollinates a tomato plant flower. Honey bees are not able to pollinate tomato plants.
Every summer I count on our bumble bees to pollinate my cherry tomato plants.

It’s estimated that the approximately 4000 species of native bees in the United States are providing more than half of the pollination services already offered by honeybees. That means if honey bees add $20 billion in yield to crops, our native bees are adding more than $10 billion. And all for free. Talk about the bee’s knees.

Our wild bees are arguably vital to agriculture—increasingly so with continuing honey bee woes—but their fundamental role is maintaining the ecological health of our natural areas.

Does suburbia need honey bees?

Let’s get back to why I’m so perturbed at the sight of all those honey bees. Consider that an average honey bee hive consists of 50,000 bees. My hobbyist beekeeper neighbor maintains two hives. That equates to 100,000 bees flying around my neighborhood visiting flowers, taking the nectar, hoarding the pollen. “That’s resources that these native bees can’t utilize, so they can actually outcompete native bees,” said McCoy. Sam Droege, who researches bee habitat, succinctly reinforced that fact: “If you think that you are putting in hives because your garden needs honeybees for pollination or you’re somehow doing the world a favor, you’re not.”

The majority of our native bees are solitary ground nesters: single moms that build nurseries in loose soil. They can produce only a handful of offspring each year. The mom will dig a cell, add the nutritional ingredients of pollen and nectar, lay an egg, then seal off the nest. For some bees, it may take until the following year for the newly emerged adults to begin the whole reproductive process over again. In comparison, it takes just 24 days for a honey bee to grow from an egg to a flying adult.

And it’s not just about my tiny garden being overrun by domesticated bees. Rich Hatfield and the Xerces team have been collecting evidence that shows honey bee foraging can alter native plant and bee communities. That’s extremely bad news for our natural systems and for every critter that these areas support.

Our native bees and other pollinators need gardens planted with locally native plants to support them.
Green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
attracts a pretty metallic green sweat bee.
Our native bees and other pollinators need gardens planted with locally native plants to support them.
A long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on New York ironweed
(Vernonia noveboracensis)
Our native bees and other pollinators need gardens planted with locally native plants to support them.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) supports
specialist bees.

Backyard beekeeping won’t save any bees

Wild bees in North America are, of course, facing other pressures besides the presence of the European honey bee. Introduced diseases, pesticide use, climate change and habitat loss from agricultural intensification and urbanization are all drivers of bee declines.

Which brings me to this pressing question: how many restaurants and brick-and-mortar retail shops do we really need?

Construction in the Tysons Corner area in Northern Virginia causes environmental concerns.
On-going construction in Tysons Corner.
American's Next Great City, Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, is burdened with traffic and never-ending construction.
Northern Virginia continues to expand.

Wherever you may live, it’s likely that land is being developed around you. I’m a few miles outside of Tysons Corner, a suburb of the Washington D.C. area, where less than a generation ago, farmland and woodland dominated. Today, all throughout the area, mirrored high rise buildings and ginormous land-consuming single family houses are sprouting up and sprawling out seemingly overnight, like mushrooms after a rain.

“So every square foot of pavement at one point was natural habitat, every one of our houses at one point was natural habitat, every lawn was natural habitat.” Sam Droege added, “You just know from land use changes that we’ve got issues here in terms of losses of biodiversity of all types.”

Rich Hatfield emphasized that the declines in our wild bees are parallel to, if not more severe than, what is being observed with the honey bees. “In some cases we are talking about extinction with our native bees.”

Give them what they need

At a lecture earlier this year, Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home” and the leading proponent of native plant gardening, relayed some sobering facts about our bees:

  • 50% of Midwestern bee species have disappeared from their historic range just in the last century.
  • More than 25% of the bumble bees indigenous to the United States and Canada are at risk of extinction.
  • There are four species of bumble bees that have declined 96% in the last 20 years – meaning they’re functionally extinct.
  • There are three species of bumble bees that are already extinct.

However, in his dire Anthropocene-inspired talk, Tallamy stressed that there were solutions. “Insects respond really, really quickly if you give them what they need.”

Native plant gardening can support all kinds of native bees. Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) attracts many insects and is the host plant for specialist bees.
Since planting wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa),
I've seen all kinds of amazing bees.

Droege, who takes phenomenal macro photographs of collected bee specimens at his bee lab in Maryland, said that in the wild areas that still have an abundance of flowering plant biodiversity, “there are lots of bees around.” And unlike larger animals that need a lot of space to live and forage, bees are so small that it’s easy to create habitat for them.

While backyard honey bee keeping won’t save any pollinators, backyard—and front-yard—gardening with locally native wildflowers, shrubs and trees could. It could also enhance habitat for the larger animals that live among us.

“Our bees are pollinating the native plants that feed a lot of our wildlife: everything from songbirds to grizzly bears,” Rich Hatfield explained. Wildlife diets consist of fruit, nuts, seeds, berries and roots—and most of the plants that produce those high-quality edibles are pollinated by native bees.

Plant diversity equals bee diversity

Of the 4000 bee species indigenous to the United States, approximately 500 are found in the Mid-Atlantic, with new species still being discovered. But alas, not much is known about the populations of these fascinating animals. “We’re really still at this beginning, discovery phase for all aspects of native bees,” Sam Droege admitted. The gaps in understanding, he explained, are primarily due to a lack of data and native bee taxonomists—and scarce research funding.

What is known about our bees is that most of them, like the honey bee, are foodie generalists that can go to different flower types. However, approximately 35% of our native bees are flower specialists, or more specifically, pollen specialists. 

These specialist bees feed their babies pollen from just one, maybe two (and rarely three) plant species, plant genus or family groupings of plants. It comes down to 250 million years of co-evolution with our native plants, explained Droege. Because specialist bees raise their young on specific pollen, if there is no special pollen, there can be no specialist bees.

One of Sam Droege’s examples of a specialist relationship is the Salix or willow family of plants. Willows can be found in wetland systems and bloom very early in the spring; they support a set of specialist bees that will nest directly below them. “The bees come out [when] the willows are blooming, they grab the willow pollen and nectar and then they go back underground and nest again,” explained Droege. This is a cyclical relationship that can endure for years.

Undoubtedly, the biodiversity of native plants in an area determines the native bee community. Without those willows, the eight known species of bees that depend on them would disappear.

Andrena nigrae is a pollen specialist on willow (Salix spp.).

Willow specialist, Andrena nigrae. Photo courtesy USGS.

Black willow (Salix nigra) is a wetland species that supports approximately eight specialist native bees.
Black willow (Salix nigra) growing in Huntley Meadows in Alexandria, Virginia.

Fascinating Wild Bee Facts

Did you know?

  • All life, including our own, wholly depends on wild pollinators because they pollinate nearly 90% of all native plants.
  • Most of our native bees—which also include sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, miner bees, mason bees, bumble bees and many others—require or prefer pollen from native plants to rear their young.
  • All 40-plus North American bumble bee species are not-so-picky generalists that can gather pollen from an assortment of flowers.
  • About 70% of our native bees nest in the ground. The other 30% are cavity nesters that create nests in dead wood, pithy or hollow stems, and even in stone and concrete cracks.
  • One way to distinguish females from males is that females, on a good flower day, will have pollen covering their legs, bellies or head.
  • Our wild bees are out flying and pollinating on cold or cloudy days, something honey bees aren’t inclined to do.
  • Native bees are not aggressive. Male bees don’t have stingers and most species of females can’t sting. Also, our bees don’t defend flowers and some of the solitary bees don’t even defend their nests; the exception are the social bumblebees that will sometimes sting while defending their nests or if handled.
  • When many insects exiting from a hole in the ground swarm, pursue and sting you, they are always yellowjackets—which are wasps, not bees.

Let’s Make More Bees

If you’ve been avoiding all news relating to the sixth mass extinction, the insect apocalypse, rapidly changing climate, ocean acidification, deforestation and plastic pollution, I can assure you the overall environmental outlook is bleak. Perhaps you feel overwhelmed or powerless to act? Fair enough. Unfortunately, the consequences of waiting around for someone else to solve humanity’s ecological problems will be devastating.

“Our only viable option is to live sustainably with the natural world that sustains us,” stated Doug Tallamy. “There is no other choice.” The parks and preserves are where biodiversity is huddling now, he continued, but those areas are too isolated and too small to keep our ecosystems running in the long term.

Our native thistles, like this pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum),
support specialist bees and many other flower visitors.

Because a massive 85.6% of land east of the Mississippi is privately owned, Tallamy advocates for conservation to be practiced on private property. Our properties.

“When we pick plants based on not just what they look like, but what they do, then landscaping equals ecosystem restoration.” Tallamy said choosing native plants is the future of gardening and proclaimed it “21st Century Landscaping!” Indeed, 20th century landscaping epitomized our love affair with vast lawns and introduced ornamental plants. “That hasn’t worked.”

Ornithologist Roy Dennis once said: “Land ownership is more than a privilege; it’s a responsibility.” Truer words were never spoken. With private land ownership comes the weighty obligation of supporting all life on earth. But it doesn’t have to be a chore.

EASY ACTION ITEMS

Even the smallest yard or balcony can support bees. It’s roughly estimated that the pollen from about five flowers can feed a baby bee. Just five flowers! Planting one native plant could be the beginning of a beautiful future.

Early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) is one of the earliest blooming goldenrods. It supports specialist native bees and many butterfly and moth caterpillars.
Early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) is one of the earliest
blooming goldenrods.

Plant asters and goldenrods.

In the Mid-Atlantic, Symphyotrichum and Solidago are two late-blooming genera that support the largest number of specialist bees: 67! What’s additionally amazing is that there are so many aster and goldenrod species to choose from. It’s no surprise that these wildflowers also host a high number of Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) caterpillar species.

Note: Goldenrods shouldn’t be confused with the wind-pollinated ragweed that contributes to hay fever.

Swithcgrass (Panucum virgatum) is a bunch grass that bumble bees can use for shelter and nesting.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a native bunch grass.

Remember the grasses.

Native bunch grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) can provide nesting sites and shelter for bumble bees. Grasses also add structure and interest to any garden.

Lawn is one of the ecological disasters of the 21st century.
Too much turfgrass. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Schab.

Reduce lawn.

Lawns are one of the ecological disasters of 20th century. Besides heavy chemical inputs, water usage and pollutant-spewing mowers, lawn does not support biodiversity. And there’s so much of it. In the United States, lawn is the crop with the most acreage—more than the amount covered by corn or soybean crops. Reversing acreages of lawn to natural spaces increases habitat for all creatures, great and small.

Callery or Bradford pear is a highly invasive tree that is still sold at garden centers and used for landscaping.
Invasive Callery pear taking over an empty lot.

Remove invasive plants.

Invasive plants, like Callery (“Bradford”) pear, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy and Japanese stiltgrass—just to name a few—were introduced from other countries and did not evolve with our local wildlife. They therefore do not support local food webs. Also, invasive plants out-complete our native plants for resources and can produce less nutritious nectar and pollen. Removing invasives from your property is as important as planting native plants. Not surprisingly, honey bees, which evolved elsewhere with some of the plants that are invasive here, have been shown to increase seed set in those invading plants.

Providing some bare soil in well drained, sunny areas can attract valuable nesting bees. Photo by Jeveraars.

A solitary momma bee nesting in the ground.
Photo by Jevaraars/CC.

Leave some dirt patches.

Most of our native bees are ground nesters that rely on some unplanted or un-mulched areas. Churn up well-drained soil to about three feet in an area that gets morning sun or is facing south—then wait to see who moves in.

Leaving logs and dead wood on your property can help support native bees and a lot of other animals.
One of the many logs I hauled into my garden for the critters.

Keep dead wood and snags (dead trees) on your property.

It’s estimated that a third of native bee species use abandoned beetle tunnels as nesting sites to lay their eggs. Many other critters, birds included, also benefit from decomposing wood. Leave fallen branches and logs under trees or outline your naturalized beds with them. Trees are constantly being cut down in older neighborhoods—you could cart limbs into your garden to provide outstanding habitat.

Cutting hollow or pithy stem late in the year can provide nesting sites for native bees and other valuable insects.
These are rough-stemmed goldenrod's (Solidago rugosa) pithy stems during year one.

Retain perennial stems in your garden.

Native bees and other insects will nest in large hollow and pithy stems. Simply cut the stems a variety of heights—from about a foot to three feet—late in the season. It’s a minimum three year process that works like this: Year 1) The pithy or hollow-stemmed plants, like the larger goldenrods, grow through summer; toward the end of the year (November–December*) the plants die back and it’s time to cut the stems. Year 2) The following summer, while the new foliage grows, bees find the previously cut stems and make their nests in them; December rolls around again and the most recent foliage is then cut; bees will be overwintering in the first stems you prepared for them. Year 3) Warm weather arrives and the baby bees emerge. Yay! The cycle continues as the cut stems are left in place year after year. Leaving a portion of stalks with seedheads intact until spring can benefit our birds.

*Note: I’ve seen varied timing recommendations, including late spring.

Pesticide companies spray for mosquitoes and also kill beneficial insects.
Unfortunately, this is not a sustainable option.

Eliminate pesticides.

Mosquito companies, for instance, use spray chemicals that will, if they kill mosquitoes, destroy all other insects that come into contact with the toxins. Mosquitoes also have been known to develop resistance to the very chemicals designed to kill them. Instead use simple—and ultimately more effective—methods for preventing mosquitoes, including enhancement of habitat for mosquito predators. Native plant gardens support beneficial arthropods such as dragonflies and spiders, and other mosquito consumers like bats and birds.

Winner Winner Pollen Dinner

When you’re thinking about what to plant in your area or region, favor the specialist bees first. You’ll be feeding not only the specialized 35% but also the generalist bees, other flower visitors and ultimately their predators, too.

Here are some of the specialist bee plant genera that are on Sam Droege and his team’s list of “Priority Plants.” I’ve paired them up with one of their specialist bee pollinators, photos courtesy the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, to spark a bit of curiosity while on your garden explorations. For a full list of bees and their flowers, visit Jarrod Fowler and Sam Droege’s Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States and Host Plants for Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States.

The pollen of woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) supports specialist bees.
HELIANTHUS: woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus)
Andrena helianthi of unknown sex. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) supports specialist bees.
VERNONIA: New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
Melissodes denticulata, male. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of pinkster flower or pink azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) supports specialist bees.
RHODODENDRON: pinkster flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides)
Andrena cornelli, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum) supports specialist bees.
VACCINIUM: deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum)
Melitta eickworti, female (with moldy pollen). Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) supports specialist bees.
MONARDA: wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Dufourea monardae, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of golden-alexanders (Zizia aurea) supports specialist bees.
ZIZIA: golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Andrena ziziae, male. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) supports specialist bees.
SYMPHYOTRICHUM: New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
Andrena asteroides, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of golden ragwort (Packera aurea) supports specialist bees.
PACKERA: golden ragwort (Packera aurea)
Andrena gardineri, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of the native field thistle (Cirsium discolor) supports specialist bees.
CIRSIUM: field thistle (Cirsium discolor)
Melissodes desponsa, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) supports specialist bees.
GERANIUM: wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Andrena distans, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) supports specialist bees.
SOLIDAGO: early goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
Colletes solidaginis, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) supports specialist bees.
HIBISCUS: swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Ptilothrix bombiformis, male. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) supports specialist bees.
CORNUS: silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)
Andrena fragilis, female. Photo courtesy USGS.

The pollen of green-headed or cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) supports specialist bees.
RUDBECKIA: green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
Andrena rudbeckiae, male. Photo courtesy USGS.

A few other priority plants:

The pollen of Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) supports specialist bees.
CLAYTONIA: spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)
The pollen of New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) supports specialist bees.
CEANOTHUS: New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
The pollen of common bluets (Houstonia caerulea) supports specialist bees.
HOUSTONIA: Common bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

I hope you’ve been inspired to show our native bees some love. Over time you’ll want to offer them not only a variety of flower structures and colors—but also a continuous succession of blooms.

May your garden’s bees be ever wild and wonderful!

Muerte Y Mariposas (Death & Butterflies): A Personal Journey

Monarch butterflies are in trouble. Planting native flowering plant in your garden will help support them.

MUERTE Y MARIPOSAS (DEATH & BUTTERFLIES): A PERSONAL JOURNEY

They flow down and toward me, hitching a ride on a warm current of air. A funnel of vibrant orange against an intense blue sky. At the sight of so many butterflies, the tears begin to flow.
Monarch butterflies in flight in Mexico.

My desire to see the overwintering monarchs began well before Marc suddenly died. But it wasn’t until a year after his death that I felt an urgent need to experience the monarch migration before these beloved insects disappeared from our landscapes forever.

Contemplating death and my own mortality—while armed with a newly acquired sense of fearlessness—I packed up some stuff and journeyed to Central Mexico.

Macheros, gateway to Cerro Pelón

The small village of Macheros lies within the State of Mexico and is the home of a little over 300 residents. It’s a welcoming place, with many beautiful and friendly faces, and it’s there that I made my four-day stay. I had decided on the quaint JM’s Butterfly B&B after reading their website’s page “How to Help Monarchs.” I instantly admired this small family owned eco-tourism operation that helps to protect the monarchs’ habitat by investing in the community. Tourist pesos remain in the village through the sourcing of locally grown foods and from employing residents: from lodging and restaurant staff to hiking guides and the local vaqueros and their horses.

It was time to see the butterflies. I perched uncomfortably on a small brown horse named Rocío at the upper edge of town, the high-altitude forest of Cerro Pelón sprawling before me. Led by her handler, Javier, Rocío carried me up up up and into a clearing with other turistas close behind. This was my first major sighting, the place where those butterflies, in the warmth of the late morning sunlight, left the trees and took wing to explore the area. They flapped. They soared. They puddled on grassy ground by the hundreds and nectared on native wildflowers.

The moment was powerful, yet peaceful.

Tourists on the way to Cerro Pelon, Mexico to see monarch butterflies.
Butterflies and fellow horseback-riding turistas in Cerro Pelón.
Our contented group eventually continued the ascent on the dusty trail to a higher point deep in the forest where access to the butterflies was limited. Here the monarchs clung to trees off in the distance and we could approach no closer. We watched quietly and respected the barriers and posted signs. I was relieved to see that the guides and guests adhered to the laws protecting the butterflies and that we were gently reminded to step carefully to avoid accidentally harming any monarchs. Gratefully, this compassion was found throughout each butterfly tour I joined.
Wildflowers line the horse trail from Macheros to see monarch butterflies in the State of Michoacán.
Wildflowers line the horse trail we took from Macheros to see monarchs in the State of Michoacán;
this was my second day of horseback riding.
Poaching of fir trees in Mexico adversely affects monarch butterflies.

Ellen and Joel of JM’s established a nonprofit that currently pays four residents from the town to patrol the Cerro Pelón forest.
Although poaching still exists, these four arborists have been successful in deterring much of the illegal logging of firs
and pines, the mariposa monarca’s essential roosting trees.

Moss-covered trees line the horse trail in the State of Michoacán.

Beautiful moss-covered trees in the forest.

Generation Super

Before we began our excursion to Cerro Pelón, Ellen Sharp, our upbeat host, explained to us why the butterflies we were about to witness are called the “super generation.” Unlike the other monarch generations that complete their life cycle in four weeks, these super gens use their energy not to reproduce but to make the long journey south, flying all the way from south-eastern Canada and the north-eastern parts of the United States, down into Mexico. They begin their migration in late summer and travel over 3000 arduous miles, nectaring, puddling and taking shelter along the way. The first butterflies begin arriving in the Reserve in mid-November.
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve sign.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve sign on the way to JM’s.

The dense forest in the State of Michoacán that supports the monarch butterfly migration.

The dense forest in the State of Michoacán.

Monarch butterflies puddling in Cerro Pelón.
Monarchs puddling.

When the days grow warm with the arrival of spring, these super gen butterflies will depart the safety of Mexico’s forests and begin their way north, staying east of the Rockies. It could take up to five generations before the next super generation is born; the monarchs we see feeding, mating and laying eggs here in the Mid-Atlantic in early summer are most likely another generation of monarchs traversing north. As the days become shorter and cooler and native milkweed foliage fades, another super generation is triggered and the butterflies head south again. It’s easy to see why what we plant on our own properties can fundamentally dictate the life or death of our monarchs.

The native flowers in the State of Mexico near Macheros: Salvia mexicana, Ageratina altissima and Salvia gesneriiflora.

Salvia mexicana, Ageratina altissima and Salvia gesneriiflora. iNaturalist is a great tool for identifying the flowers I came across while hiking.

The diverse amounts of flowering plants growing along the mountain trails supply fuel for the monarchs when they are active. What looked like Salvia stood brilliantly in candy-colored drifts along the open forest edges; they were blue, red, violet and a dark rosey-purpley color I’d last seen in a Chiclets palette. Many other wildflowers and even some woody shrubs were in bloom; their cheerful clusters gently nodded with the weight of hungry monarchs.

Monarch butterflies nectaring on various native flowers in Mexico.

Monarchs feasting.

Meanwhile, back in Macheros

Whenever I had an opportunity, I’d wander the streets surrounding JM’s. In the morning, the village kids, all dressed in their uniforms, streamed in small pods toward the only school. The women efficiently went about their domestic chores, and the men who were guides that day readied their horses for an outing with butterfly enthusiasts. I would receive a warm “buenos días” in return to my own cheerful greeting. Meandering about the village were free-range dogs, clucky chickens and even some wild turkeys. I saw one wild mammal during my roamings: a tree squirrel. I’m guessing the little guys were being hunted to extirpation just like the deer have been.

 
Teenagers of Macheros practive a dance.
Macheros teenagers rehearse a dance for school.
A charming residence in Macheros, Mexico.
A charming residence in Macheros.
Vaqueros and their horses in Macheros, Mexico.
Vaqueros and their horses hanging out.

Spotting that timid squirrel bought me back to the squirrels at home who were much less fearful and considerably more plentiful. Our squirrels had been a daily source of amusement for Marc and me, and for many years we enjoyed observing their wacky antics together. My former United States Marine would playfully name the lovable rodents by their physical traits, an endeavor which was altogether endearing. “Chubba,” “One Eye,” “Hipster,” “Ginger,” “Shirley.” Shirley …? Marc shrugged and said with a grin, “She just looks like a Shirl.” And then one day, because time keeps moving forward, I realized that all the squirrels that had known Marc were no longer around.

 
A pregnant squirrel in a residence in Virginia.
This is Chubba when she was pregnant.
She lived in our neighborhood for three years.
A sunset in Macheros, Mexico, as seen from JM's Butterfly B&B.
The evening view from JM’s Butterfly B&B.

At the end of an emotive day of visiting monarchs, I would chat with the other guests lounging about the B&B. Most of these interesting folks hailed from Canada and the United States. They were naturally curious people who enjoyed traveling and couldn’t get enough of the butterflies. A few had raised monarchs at home or in schools; some had planted loads of milkweed in their gardens. One well-meaning woman from Maryland proudly informed me she had just planted a butterfly bush, and well … I never could pass up a teaching moment. We possessed a collective appreciation of earth’s natural wonders—and I soon discovered that refreshing margaritas and home-made chips with guacamole were another common bond.

Were we all drawn to the butterflies for the same reason?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to meet four other widows at different points during my stay, all of them traveling with friends or family. We were close in age, and I guessed the other gals were in their late 50s to mid 60s. Widows need to talk about their loved ones—something I’d urgently felt since that tragic day when Marc died—so conversations about death came naturally. We easily discussed our losses, shared sorrowful tears, and confessed to how we were or were not progressing. Cancer, faulty hearts, suicide … our spouses’ deaths were as individual and as complicated as our grief.

The only material I could read in those early days of despair were the nonfiction books on coping my sister and friends had given me. Most of the authors noted that it’s typical for those traumatized by the death of a loved one to abandon thoughts of their personal well-being. This did apply to me and still stands. It’s not that I’m suicidal or reckless; I just don’t worry about what happens to me. I also find that the truly insignificant doo-doo that life has thrown and will continue to throw my way is not worthy of my energy. Huge inconveniences have become insignificant. What once made me squirm or fearful no longer does. To this point, Judy, a recent widow whose husband died a month after Marc did, said she is no longer afraid of flying. Donating blood hadn’t been an option for me—needles and I have never been compatible—but I now do so regularly. Dauntless, I knew that traveling solo to the heart of Mexico with a zero command of the Spanish language would not be a concern.

So. Many. Butterflies.

The next to the last day of my travels was Valentine’s Day, Marc’s birthday, and it was on this significant day that I found myself at the famous El Rosario sanctuary. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sprinkle the small amount of Marc’s cremated remains that I had brought with me in such an accessible, trail-paved and touristy site. But this forest was decidedly beautiful and the day sunny and warm, conditions that coaxed thousands of butterflies into flight. And when I learned that the monarchs were quite abundant this winter, and had roosted low in the forest where they were even more visible—the likes of which have not been seen in 15 years—I decided yes, it would be okay.

One of the monarch butterfly guides in El Rosario, Mexico.
Raquel, one of our El Rosario guides, would pick up and move every monarch that was vulnerable to being squashed.
Monarch butterflies completely cover tree branches in El Rosario, Mexico in 2019.
Hanging heavy. The butterflies in El Rosario were crazy abundant and accessible.

What is the meaning of life?

The death of a life-partner ultimately forces one to consider what’s most important. With death, priorities, material possessions and even friendships are reevaluated. What is the true meaning of life? I’ve Googled that question often—with no clear answer ever appearing.

I often think about the now-dated 70’s sci-fi movie “Soylent Green” and the looming death of the Edward G. Robinson character, Sol. In this cautionary tale, an aging Sol decides to end a difficult life by admitting himself into a euthanasia facility. While dying, he is soothed by IMAX-sized images of nature unfolding, because, in this particular future of 2022, there isn’t any nature left. Dramatic orange sunsets, rippling streams, verdant forests … those are the last images that Sol chooses to experience. Surely the filmmakers were also ecologists.

Indeed, nature is the key to reparation and spiritual attainment; it’s our life-force connection to all the universe. Nature is comforting. It is also healing.

Monarch butterfly wings beat in El Rosario, Mexico.
The blur of beating wings.
Monarch butterflies hang onto branches in El Rosario, Mexico.
El Rosario monarchs.
Monarch butterflies hang heavy on the trees of El Rosario, Mexico. 2019 was a good year for the butterfly population.
The dark areas on the trees are thousands upon thousands of butterflies.

“do the right thing”

Alas, we possess little to no power in controlling death. This is a truth I’m continuing to struggle with. “If only I had …” If only. Individually, we have zero control over so many things, large-scale environmental issues among them; however, finding the things I do have control over is how I live and cope.

The power to directly aid our wild creatures is completely mine to wield.

Marc was an extraordinary being and believed we should just “do the right thing.” And treading lightly on the environment was one of the things we had practiced together. Do we not have the responsibility to leave as small a footprint on earth as we can? To be grand stewards of our land? To ultimately help ourselves? It’s not difficult to do.

I continue to grieve for a man who, when his heart failed at 52 years of age, had his future stolen. It’s been a surreal journey not only for me but also for Marc’s family and friends; a darkness impossible to comprehend unless you’re in it. The support I’ve received from loved ones and the other widows I’ve befriended through the Washington Regional Transplant Community has been truly amazing. I am forever grateful.

Thank you also to those kind widows who experienced the monarch phenomenon, for opening themselves up to me; and to the impoverished yet insightful people of Macheros, for doing the right thing.

And then there are the butterflies; those enchanting preternatural insects with the mystifying migration. Were they just a momentary distraction from my new reality? No, I don’t think so. I can feel that they brought some much-needed relief to my perpetually aching heart.

Godspeed little monarchs.

A tourist and horse guides in Macheros, Mexico.
Alejandro helps pick up trash–Negra is his horse; here I am with Javier and Rocío after my first trip to Cerro Pelón;
a portrait of Pepe, my hiking guide (he’s actually a happy guy).

Plant Native Ground Covers & Make America Green Again

Native ground covers like this golden ragwort (Packera aurea) are wonderful alternatives to invasive English ivy or Japanese Pachysandra.

PLANT NATIVE GROUND COVERS & MAKE AMERICA GREEN AGAIN

When I think about making America green again, I dream of filling in all those stark areas of unnaturally dyed mulch. I fantasize about less lawn, too. But what my eco-tinted goggles really see is a decrease in the commonly planted ground covers like English ivy, Pachysandra and periwinkle. For although these ground-huggers are undeniably popular, we know that doesn’t mean they’re good choices for our gardens.

Excessively planted because of their uniformity, state of perpetual greenness, and alleged low maintenance, English ivy and its cronies have wreaked havoc across North America. They are not beneficial to wildlife—unless their propensity to harbor rats and help breed mosquitoes counts as critter friendly. 

native ground covers in garden
Common violets, Virginia creeper and white wood asters (in distance) all function as ground covers and so much more.
These introduced plants are also designated as invasive in the Mid-Atlantic and in other parts of our country. Yes, invasive! That means they have absolutely no respect for us and our great American land. They easily escape into natural areas and outcompete our essential native plants for resources and, as in the case of English ivy, can climb and smother trees. But there’s a bright side. You don’t have to settle on these narcissistic garden center plants because there are many better, more benevolent options: native alternatives that help instead of harm our planet.
golden ragwort (Packera aurea) grows in the wild

Why do we plant ground covers?

These are some common reasons why we choose ground covers:

  aesthetics
  erosion control
  lower maintenance
  weed suppression
  wildlife habitat

You’ll find that the following native plants can satisfy most, if not all, of your ground-covering gardening objectives. Read on to learn what would work best for you.

But first! A note about erosion control:
Are you searching for stabilization on a slope? Think big. Think trees! Trees, with their amazing root systems, are considered by ecologists as the best choice for erosion control. Additionally, tree canopies will slow down heavy rains and help reduce storm runoff. There are oodles of other benefits that trees provide. And locally native trees are the best choice, naturally.

12 NOTABLE NATIVE GROUND COVERS

COMMON WILD GINGER, CANADIAN WILD GINGER
(ASARUM CANADENSE)

native ground cover wild ginger (Asarum Canadense )​grows near a path
A healthy colony of common wild ginger flanks a path leading to a lower garden.

Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Natural Habitat: “Rich, mesic to dry-mesic upland forests and well-drained floodplain forests.”*
Comments: A deciduous plant with fun-shaped leaves and an attractive, dense habit, wild ginger is perfect for the moist shade garden. It spreads by rhizomes in ideal conditions. Wild ginger needs well-drained, rich soil; planting it in heavy clay may shorten its life. In spring the inconspicuous reddish flowers bloom underneath the foliage. Take a peek for a lovely surprise.
Host Plant Info: There is debate as to whether or not Asarum canadense is host to the pretty pipevine swallowtail butterfly. Doug Tallamy’s research indicates it is not.
More Information: Virginia Native Plant Society’s 2010 Wildflower of the Year; USDA Forest Service Wildflower Plant of the Week

GREEN-AND-GOLD (CHRYSOGONUM VIRGINIANUM)

Native ground cover green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) grows in a garden.
Green-and-gold works well in an open woodland setting.

Light Requirement: Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Mesic to dry upland forests and woodlands; usually in moderately to strongly base-rich soils.”*
Comments: Against bright green foliage, pretty yellow flowers bloom in the spring and sporadically until summer. The clumping forms do not remain static in my garden and I often read the recommendation to plant densely then divide and move them every few years. Green-and-gold spreads by rhizomes in optimum conditions which include well-drained soils. It isn’t a plant that our white-tailed deer normally find delicious.
Host Plant Info: None known.
More Information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia; Virginia Native Plant Society-Jefferson Chapter

EASTERN HAY-SCENTED FERN (DENNSTAEDTIA PUNCTILOBULA)

native plant ground cover eastern hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) grows in the wild
Eastern hay-scented fern makes good cover for shy wildlife.

Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Mesic to dry forests and woodlands, rock outcrops, pastures, clearings, and road banks.”*
Comments: Although I haven’t personally grown hay-scented fern, I know how beautiful it is from my visits to Shenandoah National Park. In Big Meadows, this deciduous fern is found in woodlands spreading far and wide in large colonies. It grows 1-3 feet, creeps by rhizomes and is considered aggressive by some growers. It’s perfect for wildlife cover.
Host Plant Info: Host to three Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species.
More Information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia; Connecticut Botanical Society

WHITE WOOD ASTER (EURYBIA DIVARICATA)

native ground cover white wood aster )Eurybia divaricata) grows in a garden setting.
In early September white wood asters brighten up shady areas.

Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Mesic to dry upland forests, woodlands, shaded outcrops, well-drained floodplain forests, seepage swamps, and fens.”*
Comments: White wood aster is the tallest growing of all the flowering plants listed here and it’s one of my favorites because of how resilient and handsome it is. This woodland resident grows up to three feet—however my Northern Virginia ecotypes top out at about two feet. With dark green leaves and dainty white flowers, this plant practically glows in the shade when it blooms in late summer. It tolerates dry shade very well. Asters are known to be aggressive self sowers in garden conditions; Eurybia divaricata is no exception and it also spreads by rhizomes. The dainty masses of flowers attract tiny insects.
Host Plant Info: None known.
More Information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia

WILD STRAWBERRY (FRAGARIA VIRGINIANA)

native plant ground cover wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) grows in a garden.
Wild strawberry covers bare ground quickly yet it is easy to lift.

Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Mesic to dry upland forests, woodlands, and well-drained alluvial forests; more characteristic of old fields, clearings, meadows, pastures, roadsides, and other open, disturbed habitats.”*
Comments: Wild strawberry is a wonderful, underused perennial plant that spreads quickly by runners in shade or sun. The tiny white flowers bloom in spring and the fruit develops a short time later. Although small, the fruit is deliciously edible and is enjoyed by many of our wild creatures. The foliage is browsed by white-tailed deer with little detriment to this vigorous plant. Fragaria virginiana is not the weed you typically find in your garden or lawn. This species is undeniably more special: it was hybridized with a South American variety to produce the cultivated grocery store fruit we know and enjoy.
Host Plant Info: Supports Mid-Atlantic native bee pollen specialist Andrena melanochroa; also host to at least 75 Lepidoptera caterpillars including the gray hairstreak butterfly and the grizzled skipper.
More Information: Lake Forest CollegeNorth Woods Wiki

GOLDEN RAGWORT, GOLDEN GROUNDSEL (PACKERA AUREA)

native plant ground cover golden ragwort (Packera aurea) grows in a garden with box turtle visiting.
Golden ragwort is a wise substitute for English ivy. The box turtle concurs.

Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Natural Habitat: “Floodplain forests, mesic to occasionally dry-mesic upland forests, seepage swamps, fens, seeps, stream banks, tidal swamps, and moist meadows; most frequent and numerous in moderately to strongly base-rich soils.”*
Comments: This is the native plant that is most commonly recommended as an alternative to English ivy in shady locations. The charming golden ragwort is evergreen and has long-blooming bright yellow flowers that sit high above the basal leaves in late March. I think it’s one of the showiest of the early bloomers. And it reseeds like the dickens. Golden ragwort self-sows so vigorously that you don’t have to install many plants initially. Plus the offspring are easy to lift and share. My plants are growing in fairly deep shade under a redbud tree and are doing just fine. I especially like that golden ragwort supports so many of our insects.
Host Plant Info: Supports Mid-Atlantic pollen specialist bee Andrena gardineri; host to 17 Lepidoptera species.
More Information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia

VIRGINIA CREEPER (PARTHENOCISSUS QUINQUEFOLIA)

native plant ground cover Virginia creeper grows in a garden with visiting chipmunk.
Eastern chipmunks take full advantage of Virginia creeper’s large leaves.

Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Wet, Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Ubiquitous in an extraordinary range of wet to very dry, forested to open habitats; tolerant of a range of soil types, tolerant of deep flooding, capable of rooting in deep outcrop crevices and boulder-field interstices that exclude other plants; scarce at the highest elevations.”*
Comments: Virginia creeper is not for everyone or for everyone’s garden. I list this adaptable deciduous vine as a great ground cover because it rapidly carpets an area, provides hiding places for small critters, has beautiful foliage (especially in autumn), supports our sphinx moth caterpillars, and if allowed to climb, produces fruit in sync with fall migrating birds. I have it growing in dappled shade on the side of our property where I keep it in check by cutting back the vines periodically. It will rapidly clamber up and over everything including trees, shrubs and idle husbands. It climbs by tendrils with adhesive tips so it doesn’t need support and as another attribute, Virginia creeper does not damage walls. Note that the fruit is highly toxic when eaten by people. Deer and rabbits browse the foliage—but there never seems to be a shortage of leaves.
Host Plant Info: Host to at least 32 different species of butterfly and moth caterpillars including our delightful hummingbird moths.
More Information: Maryland Native Plant Society’s Wildflower in FocusVirginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources & Environmental Conservation

DWARF CINQUEFOIL (POTENTILLA CANADENSIS)

native plant ground cover dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis) grows in a nursery.
Dwarf cinquefoil growing in the Earth Sangha nursery.

Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Dry-mesic to dry forests, woodlands, barrens, clearings, fields, and roadsides.”*
Comments: The perennial dwarf cinquefoil is a low-growing, uncommon garden plant that definitely should be planted more. Its dainty yellow flowers bloom from spring through early summer and attract our native bees and other insects. Happy in poor soil, dwarf cinquefoil spreads relatively quickly by runners. It will creep into lawn. It’s an attractive ground cover that works well at the feet of taller plants.
Host Plant Info: Supports Mid-Atlantic native bee pollen specialists Andrena ziziaeformis & Panurginus potentillae; hosts 14 native butterfly and moth caterpillars including the grizzled skipper.
More Information: Sky Meadows Nature Guide; NC State Extension

LYRELEAF SAGE (SALVIA LYRATA)

native plant ground cover lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata) grows in a garden.
Lyreleaf sage and native sedges in early May.

Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Lawns, fields, roadsides, clearings, mesic to dry forests and woodlands, well-drained floodplain forests, limestone and dolomite barrens.”*
Comments: Lyreleaf sage is adaptable to a lot of varying conditions. It tolerates periodic flooding as well as drought; note that it’ll want more shade in dry soils. The typically blueish or lavender tubular flowers attract our amazing hummingbirds and insects in spring. The large basal leaves are tinged with purple. Lyreleaf sage is also a prolific self-sower; I’ve observed it competing successfully with weeds in mowed hell strips. At the end of the growing season the aged stalks could be considered messy by the neatnik gardener.
Host Plant Info: Supports five butterfly and moth caterpillar species.
More Information: Virginia Wildflowers; Maryland Biodiversity Project

WILD STONECROP (SEDUM TERNATUM)

native plant ground cover wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) grows in a garden.
Wild stonecrop’s stems of white flowers dazzle in April.

Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural Habitat: “Well-drained floodplain forests, mesic upland forests, shaded ledges and outcrops; usually, but not always, in base-rich soils.”*
Comments: Wild stonecrop—the rock garden rock star. It’s a creeping succulent perennial with tiny semi-evergreen or evergreen leaves. The starry white flowers that appear in spring brighten the garden and add much interest. I’ve come across wild stonecrop growing on sloped woods with Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) and although it was not a dense growth, it was nonetheless enchanting. I like Sedum ternatum because in a garden setting it spreads at a good pace and is easy to lift and relocate to other areas. The stems also root easily.
Host Plant Info: Known as a host plant for four native caterpillars.
More Information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia

HEARTLEAF FOAMFLOWER (TIARELLA CORDIFOLIA)

Native plant ground cover heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) grows with other native plants in a garden setting.
Foamflower, green-and-gold, wild stonecrop, ferns and irises fill this pretty woodland garden. Photo by Sue Dingwell.

Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Natural Habitat: “Overall the species occurs in cove forests, mesic to dry-mesic slope forests, well-drained alluvial forests, and crevices of shaded rock outcrops. It favors, but is not restricted to, more base-rich soils.”*
Comments: Frothy spikes of white and pinkish flowers are one of the reasons to plant foamflower. Low growing, it spreads by stolons and forms colonies over time. Insects are attracted to the flowers. This is another ideal plant for a woodland setting or the shady garden.
Host Plant Info: None known.
More Information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia; Wildflowers of the United States

COMMON BLUE VIOLET (VIOLA SORORIA)

Native plant ground cover common blue violet (Viola sororia) grows in a garden.
The fabulous foliage of common blue violet.

Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Dry
Natural habitat: “In an extremely wide range of forested to open, natural to ruderal habitats. Its natural habitats include swamp hummocks, floodplain forests, and varied mesic to dry upland forests. It can also be abundantly weedy in lawns, fields, pastures, and many other disturbed habitats.”*
Comments: Our common violet is rarely mentioned as a grand groundcover by commercial growers—perhaps because it’s typically found growing in our gardens for free. Yes, it’s a little weedy and ordinary, but why not enjoy its wildlife value, lovely foliage, pretty springtime violet flowers and its willingness to reseed rampantly? Plus you can’t beat the price! Consider not growing it on the edge of a pristine lawn if you aren’t willing to hand pull the volunteers. All parts of Viola sororia are edible.
Host Plant Info: Supports Mid-Atlantic native bee pollen specialist Andrena violae; host to at least 27 butterfly and moth caterpillars.
For More Information: The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.; Xerces Society Plants for Pollinators: Violets

*Natural habitat information provided by the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora

More Options!

There are many other native beauties that can be used as ground covers to help improve this country of ours. New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), American alumroot (Heuchera americana), Dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), Starry solomon’s plume (Maianthemum stellatum) … the list is long. Browse the following ground cover articles for more ideas and information. Don’t forget to choose plant species native to your region—and purchase local ecotypes whenever possible.

Read more in the following articles and happy gardening!

The Humane Gardener: Dracula’s Garden: 3 Great Groundcovers

Virginia Native Plant Society: Native Alternatives to English Ivy

Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia: Tried & True Ground Covers

Prince William Wildflower Society: Wildflowers for Woodland Gardens

Native Ground Covers of Western Pennsylvania for Lawn Alternatives (note that the Creeping Thyme is native to Europe)

North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development: Riparian Buffer
Native Ground Covers, Vines, and Herbaceous Perennials for Riparian Buffers in Northern New Jersey Watersheds

Houzz: Native Alternatives to English Ivy, Japanese Pachysandra and Periwinkle

GreenStrides: Great Native Ground Covers

Updated April 25, 2020

Nectar Sources for Large-Winged Butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic

A black swallowtail butterfly nectars on native pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum), a plant that supports many flower visitors including specialist bees.

NECTAR SOURCES FOR LARGE-WINGED BUTTERFLIES
OF THE MID-ATLANTIC

Ooooo, a monarch! It takes an erratic path across the garden, bright orange wings gliding and flapping, drifting and fluttering. It floats down and lights on a stalk of common milkweed and after a momentary pause, the dark abdomen curls and a single egg is precisely laid underneath a small, tender leaf. She repeats the process twice more. The mother butterfly discovers another stand of young shoots on the opposite side of the garden and continues her delicate dance. An egg here. Flutter flutter. Another egg gently placed there.

Three years have quickly passed since I planted tiny milkweed plants and they now command ample portions of this wildlife habitat, creating a welcoming haven for monarchs—adults and larvae alike. It’s mid-summer, with clear skies and still air; the perfect conditions for butterfly spying.

Scrutinizing the plants that make up this front yard garden, I stand in the warming sun and consider whether there’ll be sufficient nectar for any new monarchs when nearly a month from now the miraculous four stage metamorphosis, from egg to larva to pupa to butterfly, is complete.

The smaller butterflies such as skippers and fritillaries frequent a wide variety of flowers but the large-winged beauties, I’ve noticed, are slightly more discerning. What flowers do they want? This question sent me on the most colorful of journeys …

A monarch butterfly caterpillar eats common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), its host plant.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and monarch caterpillars go hand-in-hand.

Are you gonna eat that?

Butterflies are the magical creatures gracefully flitting through princess tales and are undeniably the most beloved of all our insects. Although not the most efficient pollinators when compared to native bees and flies, butterflies nonetheless play an important ecological role.
A monarch butterfly nectars on orange butterflyweed flowers (Asclepias tubersosa). Milkweeds are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat.
A monarch collecting nectar on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with proboscis extended.

Most butterflies live on nectar from flowers and some also receive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, aphid honeydew and minerals found in wet sand or dirt. They have a proboscis, a long complex food canal that is straw-like and coiled when not in use. Proboscises come in different lengths and can dictate which flower a butterfly may drink from.

What else might make one flower more alluring to a particular butterfly than the next? Scent and color can be enticing components. Some researchers also identified butterfly morphology as a factor; they found that species with a “high wing load” generally preferred clustered or nectar-rich flowers. This would explain all the swallowtails on Joe Pye Weed!

You may be tempted to plant butterfly bush (Buddleja spp.and cultivars) because you notice your neighbor’s attracts butterflies late in the growing season. Please resist the urge to do so! Butterfly bush is an introduced plant from Asia that does not support local food webs. It’s also an invasive shrub that outcompetes native flora for resources and negatively impacts all our wildlife. Some prudent states have taken steps to ban the sale of butterfly bush.

FROM EGG TO ADULT:
Support a butterfly’s full life cycle

A spicebush butterfly caterpillar lounges on spicebush (Lindera benzoin), it's host plant.
A spicebush swallowtail caterpillar lounging on one of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

While wildflower nectar is a necessary habitat component for butterflies, other plant life such as native grasses, vines, shrubs and trees are equally crucial for food and shelter. A landscape with tons of plant diversity will help not only butterflies but also our other wild critters— great and small and every life in between.

Let’s grow butterflies! It’s easy to do: just add the plant that their larvae will eat. These specific plants that caterpillars need for food are called host plants. Monarchs, as we know, require milkweed or Asclepias species to reproduce. Host plants are not optional for caterpillars and some, like those of the zebra swallowtail, the pipevine swallowtail and the monarch, have only one genus of plant that they can eat. What Do Caterpillars Eat by the Washington Area Butterfly Club lists some common butterflies and their typical host plants.

Did you know that butterflies need water, too? You can provide essential moisture and minerals by filling a shallow dish with damp sand or mud. It’s a bit of maintenance but well worth it if you spy even a tiny skipper taking a drink, as I have. And don’t forget to leave the leaf litter! There are butterfly and moth species that overwinter as egg, larva or pupa in the blanket of fallen leaves and debris. Let’s not be tossing out the butterflies we’re trying to encourage.

FLOWER POWER!

Here the spotlight is thrown on a handful of sun-loving native herbaceous plants that large–winged butterflies such as the monarch and swallowtails have been observed to frequent. The bloom times are varied, beginning in early summer and ending in fall, when late-season nectar is crucial for migrating butterflies.

These lovely plants will naturally support smaller butterflies, native bees and insects, as well as other animals throughout the food web. If the plant is a known Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillar host, that information from Doug Tallamy’s research is included as well. Remember to choose native plant species that occur naturally in your area to keep wild areas functioning. Happy butterfly watching!

I do not include plant hardiness zone information because if you’re planting regionally native plants, as I hope you are, that information is unnecessary.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like this eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with an eastern tiger swallowtail and a few other friends, including a silver-spotted skipper. Note the huge leaves designed for hungry monarch caterpillars.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Height: 3 – 5 ft, up to 8 ft
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full
Moisture: Medium to Low
Soil: Medium to fine sandy, clay, well-drained loamy, rocky calcareous; pH moderate
Natural habitat: Fields, pastures, roadsides
Notes: The large leaves of this Asclepias species are sought by monarchs looking to lay their eggs. The USDA Forest Service writes: “Common milkweed is Nature’s mega food market for insects. Over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant.”
Some gardeners consider A. syriaca to be a thug because it spreads by rhizomes and can colonize areas including lawn. Any shoots that pop up where they’re not wanted, though, are easy to pull or cut.
Milkweeds are host to 12 species of native caterpillars including the monarch butterfly.
Other options: Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a moisture-loving species that does not spread by rhizomes.
More information: USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week: Asclepias syriaca

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like this zebra swallowtail.

Out in the wild: a zebra swallowtail on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Zebra swallowtails have only one host plant: paw paw (Asimina triloba).

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Height: 1 – 3 ft
Bloom time: May – August
Sun: Full
Moisture: Low
Soil: Rocky, poor, well-drained; pH moderate
Natural habitat: Dry open woodlands, fields, roadsides
Notes: Butterfly weed has grown successfully in well-drained clay in my Northern Virginia garden.
It’s best to give thought to where it’s planted because the large taproot doesn’t like to be transplanted once established.
Deer don’t typically browse Asclepias foliage but they may gobble up the tender seed pods, milkweed bugs and all.
Host to 12 native butterfly and moth species, including the monarch.
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 1992 Wildflower of the Year: Asclepias tuberosa

Joe pye weed (Eutrochium spp.) is a great attractor of large-winged butterflies like these eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.

Eutrochium spp. covered in swallowtails. Tiger swallowtails have many host plants including black cherry (Prunus spp.), willow (Salix spp.) and basswood (Tilia spp.) trees. Photo by miss-myers/flickr/cc.

Hollow Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum)
Height: 5 – 7 ft, can grow taller
Bloom time: May – August
Sun: Full, Part, Shade
Moisture: Medium
Soil: Rich
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial and seepage swamps, riverbanks, wet meadows, ditches
Notes: The frothy flowers are some of the best for attracting pollinators.
Song birds eat the ripened seeds.
Eutrochium spp. are host to 42 species of native caterpillars.
Other options: Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Spotted Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Three-nerved Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium)
More information: Maryland Native Plant Society Wildflowers in Focus: Joe Pye Weed

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like these eastern tiger swallowtails.
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and eastern tiger swallowtails in a wild meadow.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Height: 1 –  5 ft
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: Medium, Medium-Low
Soil: Adaptable, rocky, rich, sand, clay
Natural habitat: Mesic to dry upland forests, rocky woodlands, clearings, forest edges, meadows, fields, roadsides
Notes: Bumblebees, hummingbird moths and hummingbirds also frequent wild bergamot.
It colonizes by rhizomes but it’s easy to control.
Monarda spp. are host to seven species of native caterpillars.
Other options: the red-flowered Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 1993 Wildflower of the Year: Wild Bergamot

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is an important fall blooming plant. It feeds many flower visitors and pollinators and migrating monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). It also is a host plant for many moth and butterfly caterpillars and specialist bees.

A monarch on New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Photo by David Marvin/flickr/cc.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
Height: 1 – 6 ft and taller
Bloom time: August – October
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: Medium
Soil: Adaptable, rich, sand, loam, clay
Natural habitat: Moist, open woods, wet meadows, stream banks, alluvial fields
Notes: New England aster has a long bloom period and is enjoyed by many insects.
It can get leggy in a garden setting; some gardeners continually pinch it back before July to control its height, but note that the blooms may open later.
New England aster reseeds abundantly! Share with neighbors!
Asters are known to host 112 species of native caterpillars.
Other options: Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii)

Goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia spp.) attract many pollinators like these monarch butterflies. Goldenrods are the host plant for many moth and butterfly caterpillars and also support specialist bees.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) at left and grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) on right.
Photos by Putneypics/flickr/cc & Lisa Bright/Earth Sangha.

Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Height:  1 – 6 ft
Bloom time:  August – October
Sun: Full
Moisture: Medium, Low
Soil: Adaptable, loam, clay
Natural habitat: Dry, open forests, woodlands, clearings, roadbanks
Notes: Goldenrods are for pollinators; hummingbirds have also been observed sipping nectar.
Plant goldenrod with purple asters for a fabulous fall display.
Solidago spp. are host to 115 species of native caterpillars. Euthamia spp. host five.
Other options: There are many species of goldenrod adapted to varying habitats. Here are some sun-loving options: Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora), Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

Hoary mountain mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like these eastern tiger swallowtails.

Hoary mountain mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) growing in a natural area.
The swallowtails are delighted! Photo by Lisa Bright/Earth Sangha.

Hoary Mountain-Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)
Height: 2 – 6 ft
Bloom time: June – July
Sun: Sun, Part
Moisture: Medium, Dry
Soil: Loam, sand, rocky, well-drained; pH acid-based
Natural habitat: Forests, forest borders, rocky woodlands, clearings, roadsides
Notes: Deer resistant like most plants in the mint family, (Lamiaceae).
Pycnanthemums are host to three species of butterflies and moths.
Other options: There are many Pycnanthemum species; Clustered Mountain-Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is another fine choice for luring swarms of pollinators.

Blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) is a good late season nectar plant for flower visitor and pollinators like this monarch butterfly.
Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) blooms just when our insects need it.

Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Height: 1 – 2 ft
Bloom time: August – September
Sun: Sun, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Moist loam, sand, clay
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, stream banks, swamps, moist to wet meadows, clearings
Notes: Spreads quickly by rhizomes and self-sowing in optimum conditions; easily lifted to share with friends and neighbors.
Skippers and small pollinators enjoy mistflower as much as the larger butterflies.
Usually deer resistant.
Although not a known Lepidoptera host plant, mistflower is nonetheless an important habitat plant.

New Yord ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like this Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly.

Pretty New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and eastern tiger swallowtail.

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
Height: 3 – 8 ft
Bloom time: July – September
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich, adaptable; pH acid to neutral
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial swamps, riverbanks, wet meadows, low fields, tidal swamps
Notes: Seedheads attract birds such as goldfinches.
Vernonia spp. are host to 19 species of Lepidoptera.
Other options: Broad-leaf Ironweed (Vernonia glauca); this species requires less moisture than New York ironweed.
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 1995 Wildflower of the Year: New York Ironweed

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) is visited by large butterflies like this monarch butterfly.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Photo by Vicky DeLoach/flickr/cc.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)
Height: 3 – 10 ft
Bloom time: August – October
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial swamps, riverbanks, low meadows, fields
Notes: Wingstem is a prolific self-seeder.
The rough leaves help make this plant deer resistant.
Sixteen native caterpillar species are hosted on Verbesina.

Native thistles are important for pollinators and specialist bees.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) on the left and field thistle (Cirsium discolor), a taller-growing species, on the right. C. discolor photo by Lisa Bright/Earth Sangha.

Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum)
Height: 1 – 3 ft
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full
Moisture: Medium, Low
Soil: Poor, clay, well-drained
Natural habitat: Clearings, meadows, fields
Notes: Pasture thistle is an uncommon garden plant that’s fun to grow regardless of the pokey spines.
It’s a shorter species that may be better suited for garden habitats.
Bumble bees enjoy the pollen of the large 2-3 inch flower heads.
Many of the commonly seen thistles like bull thistle and Canada thistle are introduced and considered invasive.
Host to 27 Lepidoptera species.
Other options: There are many native thistles; Field Thistle (Circium discolor) is a tall species, shown on the right side of photo.

Dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like this monarch butterfly.
Dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) is a wonderful addition to the moist garden.
Photo courtesy Debbie Roos.

Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
Height: 3 – 6 ft
Bloom time: July – September
Sun: Full
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich, well-drained
Natural habitat: Moist to wet meadows, clearings, riverside prairies, seeps
Notes: Stunning when massed; the tall spikes add vertical structure to a garden.
Known to attract hummingbirds.
Host to four species of native caterpillars.
Other options: There are many! Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa)Grass-leaf Blazing Star (Liatris pilosa), Eastern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa), Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera) …

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like this monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and a worn but beautiful monarch.
Photo by JanetandPhil/flickr/cc.

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Height: 3 – 8 ft
Bloom time: July – September
Sun: Full
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich, adaptable
Natural Habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial clearings, low meadows
Notes: The large clasping leaves form ‘cups’ that collect water.
A prolific reproducer.
Birds enjoy the seeds, and the thick hollow stems make excellent nests for native bees.
Host to four species of Lepidoptera.

Shrub bonus!

The following two woody plants are nearly always recommended as excellent sources of butterfly nectar.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) attracts many flower visitors and pollinators like this spicebush swallowtail.

A spicebush butterfly on a buttonbush flower sphere (Cephalanthus occidentalis). The spicebush caterpillar requires the leaves of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Photo by John Flannery/flickr/cc.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Height: 6 – 12 ft and up
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Poor, sand, clay
Natural Habitat: Marshes, tidal shrublands, open swamps, floodplain pools, depression ponds, usually in seasonally or semi-permanently flooded habitats
Notes: Typically grown as a small tree; the long-lasting flowers attract a multitude of insects.
Nineteen species of Lepidoptera are hosted on Cephalanthus.
More information: Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia: Buttonbush

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) is a good landscaping shrub. It attracts many flower visitors and pollinators.

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) has fragrant wands of flowers that attract oodles of pollinators. Photo by Wendy Cutler/flickr/cc.

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
Height: 3 – 6 ft, up to 12 ft
Bloom time: July – August
Sun: Part, Shade
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Adaptable, sand, clay; pH acid
Natural Habitat: Mesic to rather dry, acidic upland forests, wet flatwoods, seepage swamps, and bogs
Notes: The leaves emerge late in spring; lovely yellow fall color.
Clethra hosts 9 species of native butterflies and moths.
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 2015 Wildflower of the Year: Sweet Pepperbush

How to Feed a Hummingbird Part I: Insects & Protein

You can support your local ruby-throated hummingbirds by planting the right native plants.

HOW TO FEED A HUMMINGBIRD PART I: INSECTS & PROTEIN

This is Part I of a two-part series.

There’s high excitement on this lovely afternoon as a male ruby-throated hummingbird guzzles at our feeder. It’s my first sighting of this wee bird this year. “Oh, have I been waiting for you!” Last spring’s first long distance traveler made his fueling pit stop in our garden around this time so I was prepared for today’s little fella.

Shimmering green with the identifying ruby throat patch flashing in the sun, he perches for a long while, taking in the homemade sugary solution. “Drink up, my friend.” If there’s a repeat of the previous years’ pattern, this particular hummer will continue his journey north to other breeding grounds and a short time later two or sometimes three other hummingbirds will frequent our garden and make this area in Northern Virginia their summer home. Zooming, flitting, hovering and thoroughly delighting, our resident hummingbirds have become very special guests in our wildlife habitat.

So, what’s the secret to supporting these extraordinary creatures during their stay here in the Mid-Atlantic? It’s not simply hanging up a sugar-filled feeder.

A ruby throated hummingbird perched.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Photo by Tibor Nagy/flickr/CC.

THE NATIVE PLANT PROMISE

Utilizing indigenous plants to support our birds and other wildlife is my ever-growing passion. Although not yet the norm in today’s society, the outdoor living space at our house is brimming with natives: pretty ground covers, flowering perennials and annuals, slender grasses, shrubs of all shapes and sizes, and mature native trees, as well as many newly planted saplings. We garden this way because we want to encourage as much biodiversity as we possibly can. You see, locally native plants co-evolved with specific insects and the majority of these insects are herbivore specialists that can only eat certain plants. These plants, called host plants, are essential to the insects’ egg-laying and larval stages.

Science has also shown us that plant-eating insects have the incredible role of transferring energy from plants to other animals that cannot eat plants. “In fact,” renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy writes, “a large percentage of the world’s fauna depends entirely on insects to access the energy stored in plants.” Native plants = insects = biodiversity.

The view of our backyard from the kitchen window in October. There are many young trees
and mature shrubs directly and indirectly providing food for critters.

HUMMINGBIRD DIET REVELATION

How does this plant-insect relationship effect birds in particular? According to Tallamy, 96 percent of our terrestrial birds need insects and spiders in their diets at one stage of their lives or another. To make more birds, insects, particularly caterpillars, are not optional.

Spiders, flies, mosquitoes, aphids, bees, beetles, caterpillars and gnats, which comprise a number of flying insects, are commonly part of the ruby-throated’s protein and fat diet. In fact, some authorities, like Dr. Tallamy, view hummingbirds as insectivorous birds that happen to also eat plant nectar. “Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders,” Tallamy explains. “If you don’t have those insects and spiders in your yard, it doesn’t matter how many hummingbird feeders you have, you are not going to be able to support hummingbirds.”

SPIDERS ARE AWESOME!

There’s no denying they can be big and hairy and have an inordinate number of legs, but spiders are an integral part of any healthy habitat. A gardener’s companion, spiders help consume insect pests and maintain the natural balance of the great buggy outdoors. They are equally predator and prey, providing invaluable nourishment for hummingbirds and other birds and wild animals.

Besides being a hummingbird meal, here’s another great reason to be hospitable to spiders in our gardens: hummingbirds construct their nests with the fine, sticky web material. Purdue University’s Attracting Hummingbirds to Your Yard offers these facts: “Nests are made with down from dandelion, thistle, and milkweed, and portions of ferns, mosses, and young leaves. These materials are attached to the limb with several yards of sticky spider webs and droplets of tree sap. The nest is camouflaged with lichens usually found in the nest tree or surrounding trees. Some of these nest materials can be provided in your flower beds and surrounding yard plantings.”

A tiny spider is food for hummingbirds.
A tiny spider for a tiny bird. Photo courtesy Matt Bright.
Gnats are food for hummingbirds.

Gnats! Photo by Glenn Kraeck/flickr/CC.

LEAVE THE LEAF LITTER

The hummingbirds that frequent our garden entertain us with their aerobatic feats of mid-air gnat noshing. The clouds of fungus gnats making up this aerial buffet are drawn to the moist areas of decaying leaves that layers our property. The leaf litter is their prime egg-laying material. Although gnats are bothersome to people, probably because gnats also desire moist facial orifices, it turns out they are not an annoyance but a bonanza.

Leaf litter is also food for some butterfly larvae and this means more beneficial caterpillars. Did you know our spiders are able to survive winters under the cover of moist leaf litter? It helps them from desiccating, or drying out, which is the main cause of their mortality. Logs, branches and twigs also naturally decompose and are vital for insect nutrition and shelter. There are lots of good reasons to rejoice in the plant debris in your garden.

SOME FLOWERS ATTRACT THE TINIEST OF INSECTS

Drifts of pastel and jewel-toned flowers easily add spectacular beauty and interest to any landscape. But our native plant blossoms are much more than just eye candy; these inflorescences also lure insects, and therefore predatory spiders, to their pollen and nectar. While there are many, many native plant choices for attracting beneficial insects, the pretty flowers mentioned below specifically attract the minute insects perfectly proportioned for the world’s smallest bird.
Broadleaf ironweed attracts insects that feed hummingbirds.
Broadleaf ironweed (Vernonia glauca). Photo courtesy Matt Bright.

Pretty Perennial & Annual Choices

When asked about hummingbirds and attracting gnats, Alan Ford, the Potowmack Chapter President of the Virginia Native Plant Society, instantly recommended these lovely perennial genera: the pretty purple ironweeds, (Vernonia spp.), and the yellow or white goldenrods,(Solidago and Euthamia spp.). Our native asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), and coneflowers (Rudbeckia hirta and R. fulgida) are also grand perennial choices for drawing in the bugs. Dr. Tallamy has observed hummingbirds picking small insects out of the large flowerheads of the fun-to-grow annual, sunflower (Helianthus annuus), and therefore recommends planting them as well.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) attracts small insects that hummingbirds consume.
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus).

Shrubs with Clusters of Tiny Flowers

No garden is complete without a diversity of native shrubs. Shrubs add beauty and seasonal interest and also offer cover for birds and other animals. Additionally, they can entice the insects enjoyed by hummingbirds. Here are three that do the job well: New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is an excellent low growing deciduous shrub with tiny white flowers. Adaptable to soil moisture and found naturally growing in part sun and dappled open woods, it’s a handsome but much underused plant.

Another attractor of small insects are the pretty globe-shaped white blossoms of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). If you have a sunny moist area for a large six to twelve foot shrub, buttonbush would be a good addition to your naturalized habitat. Summer sweet (Clethra alnifolia) is another low maintenance and adaptable shrub. It prefers moisture and can handle shady conditions. In early summer, summer sweet’s fragrant white flowers are all abuzz with pollinators of varying shapes and sizes.

Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) has high wildlife value.
Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a beautiful tree
with high wildlife value.

Trees Please

The value of trees cannot be overstated. But for all that we know about trees we don’t often think of them as nectar producers. The following native trees bear nectar-rich blossoms or are host plants for hundreds of insect species, or both: oak (Quercus spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.), willow (Salix spp.), birch (Betula spp.), maple (Acer spp.), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum) and basswood (Tilia americana).

LAYERING YOUR GARDEN

You can successfully design an outdoor area that’s inviting to both birds and humans by varying canopy heights and mimicking the vertical structure of a woodland habitat. From the ground up: begin with low growing native ground covers including perennials of different heights and bloom times. And don’t forget the leaf litter! Continue the ascent with a diversity of shrubs and vines, and then add understory and canopy trees of varying heights. These layers will allow you to create a habitat for insects and spiders that will appeal to all birds and especially our wonderful ruby-throated hummingbirds. “Enjoy your stay with us, little wonders!”

Advice for the native plant fledgling:

Native plants are the key components of any productive landscape. But where do you begin building native plant knowledge? Your regional native plant society chapter, of course! Through their on-line posts, field trips and lectures, these non-profit organizations provide solid information about the plants that grow naturally in your area.

Delaware Native Plant Society
Maryland Native Plant Society
The Native Plant Society of New Jersey
Pennsylvania Native Plant Society
Virginia Native Plant Society
West Virginia Native Plant Society

There are tons of native plant sales in the Mid-Atlantic at springtime and during the fall. Take advantage of the cool planting weather and of the low prices offered at native plant society events and through local environmental organizations.

For those who want an ecologically sensitive home landscape and strive to purchase native ecotype plantsfind a conservation group in your region that collects and propagates wild seeds. These eco-organizations are doing outstanding work restoring and conserving natural areas and are encouraging homeowners to add locally sourced plants to their own gardens. Here in Northern Virginia we are fortunate to have Earth Sangha supporting our region.

Many thanks to Sue Dingwell for her kind assistance with this article.

Updated April 17, 2019: “Ants” were removed as an insect that hummingbirds can eat as there are no supporting studies.

How to Feed a Hummingbird Part II: Flowers & Nectar

Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is a wonderful vine for hummingbirds but it may not be for all gardens.(Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar.

HOW TO FEED A HUMMINGBIRD PART II: FLOWERS & NECTAR

This is Part II in a two-part series.

Part I of How to Feed a Hummingbird: Insects & Protein revealed that 80 percent of a hummingbird’s diet is comprised of insects and spiders. Eighty percent! Knowing how crucial those often maligned arthropods are to our ruby-throated hummingbirds will hopefully inspire you to embrace the bugs and add a variety of native plants to your garden.

If you are at all curious about hummingbirds you’re probably assuming the missing 20 percent or so of their diet comes from nectar — and you’d be right. Let’s explore the flowering native plants our high-metabolic friends count on for a full-on sugar rush.

A ruby throated hummingbird sips nectar at cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is one of the best native plants for our ruby-throated hummingbirds.

THE BIG THREE WILDFLOWER NECTAR SOURCES

Just like bees and butterflies and other pollinators, ruby-throated hummingbirds rely on a constant source of nectar from early spring into fall. Nectar is found in flowers adapted for hummingbirds: long and tubular with a typically pendulous and perchless form. These floral traits are perfect for long beaked, hovering hummers but not convenient for insects that cannot easily reach the hidden nectar. Another evolutionary adaption is the color red. Red is not seen by bees however it quickly signals keen-eyed migrating hummingbirds that a sugary treat awaits.

What combination of plants provides an overlapping progression of blooms? Potowmack Chapter President of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Alan Ford, names the following BIG THREE flowering natives as attracting and supporting our ruby-throats throughout their days in the Mid-Atlantic:

The BIG THREE:

1. Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

2. Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

3. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

OUTSTANDING NATIVE NECTAR SOURCES

The following Mid-Atlantic plants, including the aforementioned BIG THREE nectar sources, are frequented by ruby-throated hummingbirds. The growing conditions and characteristics of these plants are provided to help you choose the best ones for your garden.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is one of the best plants for hummingbirds.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens): “Lonicera should be your first go-to plant,” recommends Alan Ford. Coral honeysuckle is his number one recommended garden plant for hummingbirds and it’s also the Virginia Native Plant Society’s 2014 Wildflower of the Year: “Coral honeysuckle is widely known for its ability to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. In fact, the combination of its bright red tubular flowers with abundant nectar and little floral odor typifies the usual pattern for hummingbird-pollinated species.”

This beautiful semi-evergreen twining woody vine is one of the BIG THREE plants to have in the garden based on its long continuum of blooms, high attractiveness to hummingbirds and non-aggressive demeanor. Coral honeysuckle is also easy to grow. This vine can reach up to 20 feet so it needs a sturdy support to climb; however its height can easily be controlled by pruning.

Pruning is best done in fall, but it can also be done immediately following the first large flush of flowers. Flowering is most prolific in full to part sun. Coral honeysuckle prefers rich, well-drained moist soils and needs good air circulation to prevent powdery mildew. The red berries that follow the flowering offer food to other bird species.

Host plant info: Lonicera also hosts at least 33 native Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species including the snowberry clearwing moth.

Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a good hummingbird plant. Hummingbirds cannot use cultivars of this species.
Photo courtesy Sue Dingwell.

Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis): Eastern red columbine is another of the BIG THREE flowering plants for attracting and feeding hummingbirds. This spring-blooming perennial provides early nectar for hummers returning from abroad to their eastern breeding grounds. Pretty red and yellow flowers, attractive rounded leaves and low height — typically about two feet — makes this a lovely garden plant. Easy to grow in part sun or light shade, eastern red columbine is adaptable to moist or dry soils and isn’t choosy about soil type. It self sows readily. Deer and rabbits are not particularly fond of Aquilegia canadensis.

The species is the columbine for hummingbirds. Fancy hybrids or cultivars with double flowers do not provide nectar for our hummers. Aquilegia canadensis is the real deal.

Host plant info: Aquilegia supports 12 native Lepidoptera species.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is one of the best plants for hummingbirds.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis): The outstanding cardinal flower is the third of the BIG THREE plants for hummers. This two to four foot tall perennial is an important nectar producer with a long bloom period. Its spikes begin flowering in summer and the crimson red easily continues for two glorious months. Cardinal flower is adaptable to sun or dappled shade but needs continuous moisture. It reseeds in optimum conditions.

Matt Bright, Conservation Coordinator of Earth Sangha, sheds light on why there’s often confusion over whether cardinal flower is a biennial or a perennial. “Our common native Lobelia species are a confusing bunch when it comes to longevity,” Bright explains. “Perennial Lobelias typically don’t flower their first year and instead form only a basal rosette. The following year, they will flower, set seed.

Depending on the health of the plant and site conditions, they may die back to a basal rosette or they may die entirely. Many are capable of vegetative reproduction and will create offsets or daughter plants around the original rosette. This is especially noticeable if you grow cardinal flower totally submerged where it can happily grow, but will not flower.”

You don’t have a naturally occurring moist area? Consider planting Lobelia cardinalis en masse near a water feature or birdbath. And remember to push back the leaf litter so the rosettes don’t rot over winter.

Host plant info: Lobelia is the host plant to four native Lepidoptera species and its nectar also supports bees and other insects.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) is a good plant for hummingbirds and also for insects like butterflies.

Photo by Nicholas Turland/flickr/CC.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma): Summer flowering beebalm, with its red pompom flowers, is lovely in a naturalized garden. It reaches between two to four feet tall, but like most native species, it can get taller. Scarlet beebalm grows best in full to part sun and it likes some moisture, preferring rich, acidic soil (pH<6.8). Beebalm, it is commonly noted, is susceptible to powdery mildew in hot, humid climes but it doesn’t seem to hurt the plant. Because it’s in the mint family, Lamiaceae, expect it to spread quickly by shallow-rooted rhizomes; it also spreads by reseeding. Beebalm is easy to control — simply divide and share. Its foliage, like all Lamiaceae, is not preferred by deer or other mammals.

Host plant info: Monarda is the host plant to seven Lepidoptera caterpillars.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) is a great vine for hummingbirds.

Photo by Suzanne Cadwell/flickr/CC.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata): The typically red and yellow-throated flowers of crossvine are an important spring nectar source for hummingbirds. A near-evergreen vine, crossvine foliage turns a purple hue in winter. It rapidly climbs brick, stone, fences and trees up to 30 – 50 feet by way of tendrils with clawed ends and is considered aggressive by some gardeners. Situate in full to part sun for best flowering. Crossvine prefers well-drained, rich, moist soil but is also found growing in dry forests and rocky woodlands.

Host plant info: According to HiltonPond.orgCrossvine is host to at least one caterpillar, that of the Rustic Sphinx Moth.

Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is a good nectar source for hummingbirds.
Trumpet creeper left: Photo courtesy Sue Dingwell.

Hummingbird right: Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar/flickr/CC.

Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans): “Not for the faint of heart,” cautions Sue Dingwell in her article More Love for Native Vines for Beautiful Native Plants. Trumpet creeper is an aggressive, vigorously growing woody vine, best planted in expansive wild areas where it can and will take over. This creeper climbs high via aerial rootlets, with older vines growing to 60 feet. It also freely spreads by deep-rooted suckers. Thoughtful planning is necessary prior to planting Campsis radicans in the average landscape. Sue writes, “I have seen only two places where homeowners successfully corralled it. One was on a tall, thick pole surrounded by a flagstone terrace. One was on a heavily supported T-shaped trellis in the middle of sandy lawn that could be mowed closely around the base. It’s possible, but it’s constant vigilance, and even then only with pre-approved barriers.”

 

We love this vine for its pretty two to three inch showy orange-red blooms. Trumpet creeper flowers best in full sun, is fairly drought tolerant and prefers circumneutral soil (pH 6.8 – 7.2).

HiltonPond.org considers Campsis radicans to be the best plant for hummingbirds due to its “copious amounts of nectar” and lengthy period of bloom. So if you have a stout heart and a place for trumpet creeper to sprawl and take over, then more power to you and your hummingbirds.

Host plant info: Campsis radicans is the host plant to at least one moth, the Plebeian Sphinx Moth.

MORE TUBULAR FLOWERS

Hummingbirds commonly visit flowers of colors other than red. Here are some that are definitely garden worthy and are known to be preferred by hummers.

Lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata) sports lavender blooms on short stalks and makes a grand groundcover. The purple-tinged leaves add interest.

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) flowers are also bluish-lavender and bloom in early spring. It’s frequently found growing in moist well-drained floodplain forests.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), cardinal flower’s cousin, has similar needs as cardinal flower and the same basic habit and bloom time.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is not your usual garden plant. With dainty nodding orange flowers and succulent, tender stems, this tall annual is found naturally growing in drifts in moist woods and near shaded streams. It will reseed madly in the right conditions.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is similar to beebalm (Monarda didyma) but with pinkish lavender flowers. It’s more drought-tolerant than beebalm and is not fussy about soil types. Wild bergamot also provides nectar to hummingbird moths and other cool insects.

Lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata) has tubular flowers that hummingbirds like.

Salvia lyrata. Photo by Melissa McMasters/flickr/CC.

ATTRACT & SUSTAIN RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS WITH NATIVE PLANTS!

They’re beautiful. They’re rugged. They’re downright indispensable. They’re native plants! Woody trees, shrubs and vines, herbaceous forbs, grasses and sedges are all essential to the well-being of our wildlife, and naturally, our ruby-throated hummers.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) planted en masse for hummingbirds and other creatures.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) in the garden. Photo by wplynn/flickr/CC.

Other Thoughts

Mass Those Flowers

Herbaceous species offer more wildlife value when planted in volume rather than planted singly. A large planting helps all types of pollinators to find your flowers easily and collect nectar more efficiently. Flowering herbaceous species are also more visually attractive when planted en mass.

Choose Plants that Grow Naturally in your Area

Plants indigenous to the region in which you live are best suited to survive and thrive in your garden. These locally occurring plants require zero chemical inputs and minimal resources when properly sited. Proper siting means matching the plant’s natural growing conditions with your proposed site’s conditions. Moisture, soil type, and light should all be considered for gardening success.

A ruby-throated hummingbird sit on a feeder.

Want to Put Up a Supplemental Feeder?

A hummingbird feeder can be very rewarding but also a whole lotta maintenance. Some experts advise against putting up a feeder at all since most of us aren’t doing it right. The whole process should be strictly followed to avoid harming the hummingbirds we’re trying to help.

In the hottest days of summer I clean the feeder once a day or alternate the days I hang it. It’s possible to save resources and money by filling the feeder reservoir with a minimal amount of homemade sugar water. Making a large batch and storing it in the refrigerator for no more than a week also saves time.

 

The Virtual Museum in Canada offers this sound advice: Ornithologists agree that the best recipe for nectar is made from one part sugar to four parts hot water boiled for several minutes beforehand. The sugar must not be boiled to avoid creating a by-product. Adding red colouring is to be avoided.

If you notice that the mixture gets cloudy or becomes less clear, it’s due to fermentation – definitely time to change the liquid and clean the feeder. Fermentation is a biochemical reaction that takes place when sugar is present. When wine is made, bacteria in the yeast transform the sugar in the grapes into alcohol. Avoid bacteria-laced water in your feeders. Feeder solutions must be made from boiled water and replaced weekly. The feeder must also be well washed with hot water before refilling it. Hummingbirds that drink fermented nectar can develop cirrhosis of the liver!

What kind of sugar to use and not use in your feeder? If you want the ultimate info, Sheri L. Williamson’s Field Guide to Hummingbirds has excellent information on the best homemade ingredients for supplementing your hummingbird’s diet.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: The Humane Gardener’s 10 Favorites Plants for Hummingbirds

Thanks much to Sue Dingwell and Alan Ford for their kind assistance with this article.

Updated May 7, 2019

Death by Urban Landscaping: How Popular Landscape Plants Are Destroying Local Forests

Too many properties are landscaped with invasive plants like butterfly bush and Japanese barberry.

DEATH BY URBAN LANDSCAPING: HOW POPULAR LANDSCAPE PLANTS ARE DESTROYING LOCAL FORESTS

by Beverley Rivera

As the weather warms, Northern Virginia appears to come alive almost overnight, trees leaf out and unique wildflowers blossom beneath the awakening canopy; but this greening of everything around us actually belies a chilling outlook: much of the striking new foliage is not supposed to be here. Plants that are not native to America are rapidly outcompeting local forest growth for resources: growing space, sunlight, water. In many areas, not only are the invasive plants winning the battle for these resources, they are annihilating the local competition.
Chinese wisteria overtakes woodlands and kills native plants.

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) can displace native vegetation
and kill trees and shrubs by girdling them.
Photo by Matt Jones/NatureServe/CC.

And it’s a problem without a solution because many of the plants that are steadily destroying Virginia’s forests are spreading from people’s gardens and from landscaping at shopping centers and businesses. There are breathtaking areas in Northern Virginia where invasive vines so thick that they require a saw to hack through are suffocating native trees that withstood Civil War battles. Homeowners and landscapers plant these vines in urban settings, the seeds get into the forest via birds, and the non-native plants quickly take over, entangling, suffocating, stunting and displacing everything natural. Invasives such as Chinese wisteria send out vast networks of thick vines that spread above and beneath the ground, quickly engulfing massive areas of natural forest.

Another frightening prospect is that in the normal cycle of things, young trees which are just now getting established would, hundreds of years from now, replace the massive canopy trees as they end their life cycles. If left untainted, the forest rejuvenates itself as it has for thousands of years. But with invasive plants taking over, the young growth that is destined to be our forest of the future is being entangled, smothered and displaced by invasive plants. Adding to the problem is overbrowsing by deer. Deer won’t eat many of the invasive plants, and the natural predators that once kept deer numbers in check are no longer roaming the east.

In fact, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive ID and Control booklet looks more like a guide to urban landscaping in Northern Virginia.
Equally destructive to our new forest growth are Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy. But these plants are ubiquitous in local landscaping, meaning that even if an army of volunteers managed to remove all the invasives from an area, the seeds from urban landscaping would quickly reinfest the forest. Invasive butterfly bush is another staple in Northern Virginian landscaping, as are Japanese barberry, Pachysandra, Miscanthus, Bradford pear, privet, Norway maple, burning bush; the lists of plants that become invasive once they leave the suburban landscape is ongoing. In fact, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive ID and Control booklet looks more like a guide to urban landscaping in Northern Virginia.
English ivy before and after: for sale at a local garden center and its escape into the wild.
This prevalence of invasive plants in our gardens invites the question: if invasive plants are destroying Virginia’s natural areas, why are many of these plants still widely available for sale? To some extent the blame for the degraded state of our natural areas must lie with the stores that are supplying invasive plants. But I also think that at some point, we as homeowners must take our share of the responsibility. We need to think about the consequences of our actions on the future of Virginia’s forests, or else our forests are just not going to be around for future generations.

There’s a native plant for every gardening situation

Invasive plants like butterfly bush and barberry in a residential landscape.
Introduced and invasive plants like butterfly bush and Japanese barberry
adorn many residential properties.
Virginia has such an abundance of plant diversity that there is no excuse for planting invasives. For every invasive plant there is an equally attractive native alternative. And the added benefit of planting local plants is that once established in the right conditions, they become very low maintenance; native plants have been here much longer than watering cans and fertilizers have. Gorgeous alternatives, for example, to the invasive butterfly bush are our fall-blooming goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) which are even more fabulous when planted together. They attract more pollinators than the much-loved non-native. For an attractive evergreen ground cover alternative to English ivy, there’s golden ragwort (Packera aurea). For every plant that you think you can’t live without, there is a selection of native alternatives; there’s even a native wisteria, American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens).

But don’t expect the large local garden centers, or the plant sales that crop up in shopping center parking lots to stock an abundance of native plants – because they don’t. They might stock a few cultivars, which are plants that have been bred to enhance particular traits such as vibrant color or hardiness, so they may be labelled “native” but they contain modifications. Another caveat about native plants is obtaining plants that belong in this region, they’re referred to as “local ecotypes.” Just because a plant is “native” to Northern America – which is vast in its geography and hence its plant diversity – doesn’t mean that it belongs in Virginia, or that it couldn’t potentially become invasive if introduced to this region. Our local ecotypes also have evolved to form special relationships with our indigenous animals. Some native bees, for example, pollinate only one species of plants, which required millions of years of evolution.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a great alternative to English ivy.
Sunny golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a wonderful alternative to English ivy.

Northern Virginia resources abound!

Fortunately, there are some excellent resources available for planting what is local. The Plant NoVA Natives website has recommendations of what to plant specific to Northern Virginia, and their online guide even covers recommendations for problem planting areas. The Virginia Native Plant Society also has a wealth of resources including a list of alternatives for English ivy. One excellent source for buying local ecotypes is Earth Sangha’s Wild Plant Nursery.

One last word of caution when buying plants at big box stores or mainstream garden supply shops is that there is much talk about whether the presence of certain pesticides known as neonicotinoids are contributing to the alarming decline of pollinators. Shop wisely and with an eye to the future.

Virginia has a wealth of gorgeous natural areas that are being devastated by the invasive plants that we are cultivating in our own backyard. Help to preserve the fascinating diversity of this region’s native plants by growing what belongs here.

Native Plants for Nesting Birds: Top 12 Picks

The right native shrubs can attract nesting birds like this yellow warbler.

NATIVE PLANTS FOR NESTING BIRDS: TOP 12 PICKS

Derek Stoner, Project Coordinator for the Delaware Nature Society, helped restore the 860-acre Middle Run Natural Area by “intensive habitat management”, including planting 12,000 trees and shrubs.  His lecture, “Native Plants for Nesting Birds: Connecting Flora and Fauna,” given to a group of enthusiasts at the Millersville Native Plant Conference in Pennsylvania, focused on his observations. 

Derek’s landscaping recommendations for
attracting birds:

  • Plant shrubs in clusters (“habitat circles”) that will create the dense cover that birds desire for nest protection.
  • Locate clusters of bird-favored plants close to existing patches of habitat to allow for easier travel by birds.
  • Plant taller shrub species in close proximity to low-growing bushes to create a layered effect that will host multiple bird species.
  • Encourage “suckering” or basal shoots, as these tightly packed stems create ideal nesting pockets for birds.
  • Dense clusters of stems are best for many birds to nest within, but some species need a more open branch structure to build their nests upon.
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Yellow Warbler. Credit: Depositphotos

The shrubs and trees described below are found naturally growing in the Mid-Atlantic region and are Stoner’s top picks for attracting nesting birds.  Plants were chosen for their appealing growth habit; their berry or fruit production, also noted, is an added bonus for birds.  Just for fun, additional information is included on the number of Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillar species each plant hosts (courtesy of Doug Tallamy’s research).

Derek’s top 12 plants for nesting birds:

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Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum).
Photo credit: Kent McFarland/flickr/CC.

1. Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum).  Arrowwood is an attractive, dense, easily grown multi-stemmed shrub.  Soil, moisture and light adaptable, it can quickly reach 6 to 8 feet.  Arrowwood spreads by suckering.  The blue-black berries it produces are high in fat making them valuable to fall migrants.  Numerous species of birds nest in this shrub including gray catbirds, towhees, mockingbirds, brown thrashers and cardinals.  Viburnum species are also larval host plants for over 100 native butterfly and moth caterpillars.

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Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). Photo credit: Kent McFarland/flickr/CC.

2. Chokeberries (Aronia spp.): Black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa) and red chokeberry (A. arbutifolia) are underused multi-season shrubs with excellent fall color.  They prefer moist, acidic soils (pH <6.5) but are adaptable to drier sites.  Black chokeberry is compact, generally 3 to 5 feet tall.  Red chokeberry has an upright, narrow form, growing from 6 to 10 feet high.  Both species can form large colonies and are best used in mass groupings or for a living hedge.  They can also be planted for soil stabilization.  Full sun is best for strong fruiting.  In winter, birds eat the berries after more desirable fruit have been exhausted.  Aronia species support five native Lepidoptera larvae.

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Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
Photo credit: Joseph Hood/flickr/CC

3. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).  This pretty shrub prefers moist soils and part sun.  It most often grows from 3 to 5 feet high and as wide with some shrubs peaking at about 12 feet.  American beautyberry has long graceful arching branches and densely clustered fruit in late summer into fall.  The small bright magenta berries are consumed by many types of birds.

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Common winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Photo credit:
Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council/flickr/CC.

4. Common winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  The attractive winterberry has an upright form, usually 6 to 10 feet in height.  A deciduous holly, it spreads by suckers to form large clumps.  Winterberry grows in moist and dry conditions, preferring acidic soils and full to part sun.  Like most plants of the holly family, it is dioecious (having separate male and female reproductive parts on separate plants).  The female plant’s bright red berries adorn naked stems in winter, making winterberry desirable for landscaping.  The berries also provide late-season fruits for birds.  Ilex are larval hosts to more than 30 species of Lepidoptera.

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Possumhaw (Ilex decidua). Photo credit: Jerome Collins/flickr/CC.

5. Possumhaw (Ilex decidua).  A small understory tree or shrub, possumhaw can grow to 30 feet tall.  It can usually be found in floodplain forests, swamps and other moist areas.  Its intertwining branches are covered with tiny red berries in winter and are enjoyed by a whole host of wildlife.  This Ilex is also dioecious, so male and female plants are needed to set fruit. 

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Inkberry (Ilex glabra). Photo credit: Elsa Spezia/flickr/CC.

6. Inkberry (Ilex glabra).  This acid-loving evergreen shrub is denser when young, growing more open as it matures.  Reaching anywhere from 4 to 12 feet in height, the species are generally dioecious (separate male and female plants) or monoecious (producing male and female reproductive structures on the same plant but on separate flowers).  Birds frequent inkberry for nesting, cover and for sleeping.  The flowers are attractive to pollinators and the black berries are a source of late-winter food for birds.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Photo credit: Dan Nydick/flickr/CC.

7. Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum).  This Vaccinium is a multi-stemmed understory shrub with upright, spreading branches and spectacular fall color.  It can reach 6 to 12 feet high and wide.  Highbush blueberry’s preference is for moist, very acidic (pH 4.5 to 5.5), well-drained soil high in organic matter.  Birds find this shrub appealing for nesting and for the delicious berries they produce in summer.  In addition to supporting numerous birds and mammals, Vacciniums are the host plants to nearly 300 Lepidoptera species, helping them to earn the title of ‘high wildlife value’ plants.

Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).
Photo credit: Kent McFarland/flickr/CC.

8. Elderberry (Sambucus spp.).  Common elderberry (S. Canadensis) is a large shrub with arching stems, usually found in riparian areas but is adaptable to drier soils.  It prefers full to part sun.  Common elderberry grows to 12 feet tall and wide and continues to sucker, providing good nesting habitat.  Clusters upon clusters of dark purple fruit are enjoyed by a wide variety of birds and mammals.  Red elderberry (S. racemosa), in comparison, produces red berries, needs more moisture and prefers shady sites.  It grows from 10 to 20 feet tall.  Both species grow well in circumneutral soil (pH 6.8 – 7.2) and are short-lived.  Elderberry is the host plant to over 40 Lepidoptera species.  Sawfly caterpillars also enjoy the tender leaves and are a source of protein for baby birds.

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Common or downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea).
Photo credit: Dan Mullen/flickr/CC.

9. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.).  Common or downy serviceberry (A. arborea) can grow to the height of 15 to 25 feet.  It prefers moist, well-drained acidic soil but is adaptable to pH.  Full sun to part shade is best.  Canadian or shadblow serviceberry (A. canadensis) grows from 6 to 20 feet tall, has a shrubby, suckering habit, and wants more sun, moisture and acidity than A. arborea.  Both the common and Canadian serviceberries, with their multi-branching habit, are excellent shrubs or small trees for nest sites and their berries ripen when nesting occurs, giving birds a convenient food source.  Amelanchier species support over 100 Lepidoptera larvae. 

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Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). Photo credit: Geneva Wirth/flickr/CC.

10. Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana).  Eastern redcedar is actually a juniper, not a cedar.  A pioneer species found growing in open areas in full sun, this classic evergreen tree is usually 30 to 40 feet tall but can reach 60 to 90 feet.  Drought hardy when established and adaptable to pH, redcedar prefers circumneutral soil (pH 6.8 – 7.2).  Trees can be either dioecious or monoecious.  Eastern redcedar provides excellent year-round cover, food, nesting sites and nest-building material for birds.  It’s also the larval host plant for over 40 Lepidoptera species.

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Black willow (Salix nigra). Photo credit: Suzanne Cadwell/flickr/CC.

11. Black willow (Salix nigra).  Black willow is a rapid growing tree, maturing to 10 to 60 feet tall.  It likes wet feet and naturally grows along streams.  This willow prefers full to part sun, is adaptable to soil pH and has a dense, fibrous root system perfect for controlling erosion.  The under-rated ‘witches broom’ branching habit invites numerous bird species to build their nests in them.  Birds also make use of willow catkins and the soft downy fibers of seeds in constructing these nests.  This tree is dioecious.  Salix species host well over 400 species of Lepidoptera, making it a valuable plant for all wildlife.  Black willow is short-lived, averaging about 65 years, but is an important environmental tree worthy of planting.

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Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Photo credit: TexasEagle/flickr/CC.

12. American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).  Sycamore is a large open-crowned tree with enormous leaves and striking bright, mottled branches.  It is found stream-side but can be grown in less moist sites.  It tops out at 75 to 100 feet and 60 to 70 feet in width.  Hummingbirds commonly build their nests near water in sycamores.  Yellow-throated vireos, Baltimore orioles, robins and other species of birds will all nest simultaneously in this lovely tree.  The American sycamore also hosts over 40 species of Lepidoptera.

There are many additional wildlife-friendly native shrubs and trees that nurture birds and other animals.  As always, choose plant species that grow naturally in your area and prefer your growing conditions to reduce chemical inputs and resources, and to help keep our wild places healthy.

Many thanks to:

Derek Stoner of the Delaware Nature Society, check out the birding trail he created: Middle Run Birding Trail Brochure

University of Connecticut Plant Database

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database

Doug Tallamy’s Website

Update: November 28, 2015: The original photo of Callicarpa americana (#3) was actually the non-native species.