American Hazelnut: “My Favorite Shrub”

American Hazelnut:

"My Favorite Shrub"

There are gobs of native plant species that I eagerly recommend to fellow wildlife gardeners. But there aren’t many that cause me to enthusiastically proclaim, “It’s my favorite!,” especially in the shrub category. So far, I’ve planted viburnums, chokeberries, dogwoods… and while all are terrific plants, they don’t quite rate that “favorite” designation.

The woody plant that I do find exceptional? Our American hazelnut (Corylus americana). It’s one of the more beloved native shrubs on my property because it feeds my gray squirrel friends and because it’s adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. And I mustn’t forget its four season interest!

A gray squirrel is sitting up and perched on an American hazelnut (Corylus americana) shrub and holding the green fruit in its paws. A discarded husk is in mid-air.
Enthusiastic consumption! Natural foods like hazelnuts are much healthier for squirrels than, say, peanuts.

The "Missing Middle"

Our gardens are in need of various plant heights and the tall, leafy native shrub is often a missing component. These larger shrubs provide food and cover and are therefore important for supporting all kinds of animals.

American hazelnut is commonly referenced as a large shrub or small tree, growing up to 12 feet tall and just as wide. It’s not for small spaces. The prominent hazelnut in my back habitat, situated in a sunny spot, has grown over the years (perhaps ten years) to about its maximum dimensions and is now a dense joyous thicket. The other hazelnut I planted, in the shade of a red maple, neither produces the same lush foliage nor does it produce fruit like the one in full sun does—even though I’ve seen it flower. But it’s fairly tall and broad—and it appears to be healthy.

On a residential property planted with native plants, a large American hazelnut shrub stands out with its pretty fall shades of yellows.
The hazelnut's mature size is missing in many gardens.

I'm a sucker for this plant!

One attribute that may or may not appeal to gardeners is this deciduous shrub’s propensity to send up auxiliary stems; with sun exposure, it suckers freely and expands its footprint. For my wildlife-sustaining purposes, this is a favorable trait!

A bright red male cardinal bird stands out while on the bare winter branches of American hazelnut.
Lots and lots of stems provide cover for birds, like this male northern cardinal.

The hazelnut’s many stems provide excellent flee-the-predator protection for birds, even in the winter when the leaves have dropped. And after the shrub has leafed out in early summer, it can provide good nesting habitat, although I’ve only had a few birds attempt a nest—the latest a pair of brown thrashers—but a heavy storm jostled the twiggy nest a bit and then the squirrels who were gathering the hazelnut fruit further disturbed it. Perhaps some other year?

A cute brown thrasher bird with a speckled chest looks out from behind the leaves of an American hazelnut shrub.
Brown thrashers are secretive birds that find cover in dense shrubs, like American hazelnut.

Deer Shrub, How Do I Love Thee?

There are white-tailed deer that regularly roam through my habitat and while they browse a variety of plants, they seem to be partial to hazelnut. Naturally, I welcome them to munch on the bounty of leaves and arching stems. They help to keep the perimeter of the plant trimmed!

In the winter, the branches of American hazelnut are adorned with male catkins. There are also a few autumn-colored leaves still holding onto the stems.
American hazelnut shines in all four seasons. Here it is in winter.

In the early winter, the bucks in rut flog the living daylights out of the multi-stems—perhaps to leave a scented love note to potential mates. A few broken stems have not deterred the growth of this hardy plant.

Most important to me, my large shrub produces an abundance of hazelnut fruits; ruffled green nuts that will never get a chance to ripen in my squirrel-laden landscape.

A cluster of ruffled light green American hazelnut fruit (or nuts) is about ready for the gray squirrels to consume.
These fruits will be discovered shortly and devoured by my beloved squirrels.

The Adirondack Almanack has this factoid about fruit production: “When used in landscaping, there seems to be some confusion over whether or not you need more than one hazelnut to get nuts. Since hazelnuts are monecious (have both male and female flowers on the same plant) and are pollinated by the wind, they are self-fertile. This means you don’t need more than one plant to get nuts. However, it appears that pollination might sometimes be weak, and they often seem to benefit from multiple shrubs in order to increase pollination and fruit set. So, if you have the space, it seems your best bet is to plant a few to be on the safe side.”

Perhaps your good neighbor has room for one, too?

Elongated cream-colored male catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana) stand out against a blue sky in late winter.
American hazelnut, a deciduous shrub, is monoecious (separate male and female flowers appear on the same plant).

Here you can see the elongated male catkins and the red female flower clusters in late winter.

Against a deep blue sky, a yellow male catkin and small red flower of American hazelnut stand out.
A close up of an inconspicuous red female flower cluster.

Who Else Eats Hazelnut?

For those of us who keep track of host plant/Lepidoptera counts, American hazelnut is definitely notable. The leaves can be consumed by 124 moth and butterfly species. Not too shabby! The foliage of the hazelnut also feeds other animals like leafhoppers and beetles. I can tell from all the teeny nibbles that the plant has a large insect fan base.

A camouflaged brown and green checkered-fringe prominent caterpillar (Schizura ipomoeae) looks like a part of the leaf it is eating. American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is one of its host plants.
American hazelnut is the host plant to the checkered-fringe prominent caterpillar.

(The camouflaged caterpillar's frass (poop) gave its location away.)

A group of sawfly larvae dangle in an "s" curve while eating a medium-sized leaf. They eat not only American hazelnut, but also a variety of other plants. Sawflies are a group of insects related to wasps. The larvae look like caterpillars.
A group of sawfly larvae dangle from a hazelnut leaf.

Sawflies are a group of insects related to wasps; the larvae eat a variety of plants.

Most of us could plant American hazelnut in our gardens given how agreeable it is to various conditions. Dry, shady, moist, sunny… once it’s established, it doesn’t need to be fussed over. gives this habitat information for the state of Virginia: “Mesic to dry upland forests, well-drained floodplain forests, rocky woodlands, and old fields.” That’s a lot of different growing conditions!

Let's Do a Quick Recap

Here’s why I’m a fan of American hazelnut:

→ Fairly fast growing

→ It’s happy in a variety of soil and light conditions

→ Can make a good, dense cover for wildlife

→ Mature size is essential and missing in many residential landscapes

→ Fruit is food for mammals and birds

→ Host to at least 124 moth and butterfly caterpillars; numerous other insects will eat the foliage

→ Attractive arching habit

→ Four season interest including pretty fall color

A white-throated sparrow perches on a thin branch of the American hazelnut shrub. It is snowing lightly.
The white-throated sparrows that make my Northern Virginia garden their home for the winter

use American hazelnut as cover.

As always, if you can purchase local ecotype material (plants grown from seed or cuttings that have been collected in your region’s natural areas) it’s the best of the best. If hazelnut is not native to your area, plant something else that will fill the missing middle. Let’s start thinking in terms of what Ma Nature does and replicate that in our gardens, and everything else good will follow.

American Hazelnut Resources:

Maryland Biodiversity Project:

North Carolina State Extension:

Easy Mosquito Larva Trap


By the end of the summer, my legs are dotted with scars from the mosquito bites that I’ve furiously scratched. Yeah, it’s not a good look. Plus mosquitoes can carry diseases. I know I should cover up more or apply a personal insect repellent; I just get lazy.

While I’m careful not to leave standing water anywhere on my property, I can’t strong-arm my lackadaisical next-door neighbors to do the same—or remedy the standing water in the creek that borders my backyard. Hence, mosquitoes.

An Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) is on human skin and is just about to feed.
Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) just about to feed.
My neighbor's hired service. The fogging chemicals also drift

into my airspace where many beneficial invertebrates live.

Do. Not. Spray. (Please?)

A few nearby residents looking for “mosquito control” hire pesticide companies to fog their yards. This spraying is known to be a futile, harmful and money-wasting endeavor. It’s also stressful for those of us nurturing wildlife gardens.

There are two critical points we all need to digest: 1) spraying is ineffective against controlling adult mosquitos and 2) spraying pyrethroid-based insecticides is harmful to all flying, hopping and crawling arthropods that come into contact with the product. Lightning bugs, moths, caterpillars, beetles, bees, butterflies, spiders… whether you find them repulsive or delightful, they are all at risk. Organically derived sprays can be just as lethal. If it kills mosquitoes, it does not discriminate.

The same is true for those bug-zappers. Two studies showed that only about 4 – 6% of the insects they electrocuted were mosquitoes while many other charred victims were beneficial. I only mention these devices because it’s been estimated that 1.75 million zappers are purchased annually in the United States. (Seriously, who’s buying these? I’d love to see the demographics.)

A large bumble bee, wet from morning dew, rests on some pink flower buds. Even bees that are not actively flying can be killed by pesticides.
Pesticide companies may tell customers that they only treat areas when bees are not active. Bumble bees, like this one still at rest in the early morning, are very much susceptible to mosquito sprays.
A large, brown inch worm caterpillar makes a "U" shape while clinging to a pointy tree leaf.
Caterpillars are an important food source for breeding birds. It’s easy for these non-target insects to be harmed by pesticide fogging and drift.
A firefly (or lightning bug) rests on the tip of a rounded green leaf. The firefly is colors of peach and black.
There's nothing more magical than fireflies twinkling in my backyard. But firefly populations are in decline for many reasons — pesticides are one of them.
A Carolina chickadee sits on a tree limb with a beak full of spiders that it will feed to its young.
Arachnophobes may rejoice in the annihilation of spiders but they probably haven’t watched

Carolina chickadee parents feed a bazillion spiders to their hungry young.

Let Nature Do the Heavy Lifting

Should we even wage war on mosquitoes? If you rarely get bitten, then probably not. But if you do possess more mosquitoes than you can tolerate, it’s smarter to combat them without chemicals. Indisputably, the most effective mosquito controls are their natural predators. Nature itself is a mighty equalizer.

We habitat gardeners regularly enjoy a delirious amount of animal species that other olde-timey yard caretakers do not. For us, mosquito predators abound! These predators can be vertebrates and invertebrates: fascinating creatures such as hummingbirds, toads, salamanders, dragon- and damselflies as well as other insects and spiders (ahhh, here they are again).

A tiny white ambush bug has captured a mosquito on bright orange flowers.
This teeny white ambush bug is doing his part to control invasive mosquitoes. Oorah!
A primarily green-hued Ruby-throated Hummingbird rests on the end of a tree branch that is devoid of leaves. The humminbird's body is arched back like he's looking up.
The majority of a ruby-throated hummingbird’s diet is protein-rich insects. Entice these enchanting birds into your garden by planting their favorite native flowers.
A small green spider sits on a large leaf with a black ant in its mandibles.
Spiders are excellent predators that also make nutritious meals for other critters. A two-fer.
A damselfly of greens and yellows holds onto a stalk of native grass. The areas around the delicate insect are a soft focus, helping it to stand out.
Damselflies (and dragonflies) consume small flying insects, including mosquitoes and gnats.

Keep Your Enemies Closer

Because I can’t stop mosquitos from breeding in every pocket of standing water in my immediate vicinity, what I aim to do is limit their numbers near my house. Anecdotally, my easy bucket-and-weed system appears to be effective and I’ve seen fewer mosquitoes since its implementation many years ago. It’s essentially a no-cost option that’s simple to construct. And it meets the objective of interrupting the mosquitoes’ lifecycle without harming other animals.

The trap, which I conveniently place near the backyard water spigot, lures in the egg-laying mosquitoes and prevents them from procreating in nearby unattended standing water. The American Mosquito Control Association writes, “Mosquito species preferring to breed around the house, like the Asian Tiger Mosquito, have limited flight ranges of about 300 feet.” That means I have a good chance of “trapping” some of these invasive pests.

Fun Facts?: In the United States, there are 176 species of mosquitoes. “Most of the mosquito vectors responsible for transmitting diseases are invasive species.” — Wilke et al.

A dirty, algae-lined bucket with water and decaying plant material makes a perfect mosquito trap.
My small larva trap bucket, all algae'd up at the end of the season, is still attracting breeding mosquitoes. (Can you spot the egg raft?)

Easy Instructions

I usually put the trap out when I see my first mosquito (which is typically May in Northern Virginia).

Here’s the recipe:

  • 1 small bucket or container (purportedly the Asian Tiger mosquito is attracted to the color black).
  • Add some roots, stalks and leaves of weedy herbaceous plants, including some dried foliage. (Straw is highly recommended but it’s not a material that’s usually handy.)
  • Add about 4 inches of tap or collected rain water.

Place bucket trap in a shady area and commence monitoring:

  • In a few days, any chlorine (if you use tap water) should evaporate and the water will begin to stagnate from the rotting organic material. Look closely for any egg rafts that appear on the surface. It may be many days before eggs are laid.
  • After eggs appear, tap the bucket every couple of days to see if any larvae have hatched. The “wigglers” will swim to the bottom of the container.
  • Wigglers signal that it’s time to change the water!
  • Empty and flush out the inside of the bucket and all the foliage if you plan to reuse the rotting stems (reuse; that’s what I do). I rinse everything thoroughly because I’ve had some wigglers stick to the plant material. You can also add or replace the weedy foliage and dried leaves.
  • Continue this routine throughout the summer.

If you’d rather be slightly more hands-off then you can peek into the trap weekly. Don’t forget, though! You don’t want to inadvertently make more bitey mosquitoes. However, daily monitoring is super fun! For me, anyway.

If you’re not going to be home for an extended period, just bring the emptied bucket inside.

Many mosquito egg rafts float in an easy to make trap bucket filled with stagnant water.
Many mosquito egg rafts laid in my trap in late May. Some wigglers have emerged.

What About Mosquito Dunks?

There’s no need to spend money on dunks (larvicides) for this trapping method because you have full control of monitoring and changing the water once the eggs hatch (or even earlier, when they’re laid). For those places that are hard to reach or that have standing water too difficult to remove, dunks are necessary. 

Because I roam about my garden daily, checking my trap becomes a habit. I’m out there cleaning out the critter water dishes and pulling out the weeds anyway. Besides, I find joy in experiencing the habitat I’ve created and seeing what’s a shakin’. It’s usually lots!

Maybe this brilliant bucket-and-weed method isn’t for you if you rarely wander outside? I invite you to investigate other types of homemade mosquito traps. There are also traps that are available commercially. You might even decide that dunks are the way to go… Anything but spraying, yes?

Just keep in mind that the objective is to break the mosquito’s lifecycle without affecting other living creatures.

Additional Resources:

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute: Try the ‘Bucket of Doom’ to Eliminate Mosquitoes Without Harmful Pesticides

Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control & Wetlands Management District: Mosquito Life Cycle

National Wildlife Federation: What You Need to Know Before Spraying for Mosquitoes

The Maryland Department of Agriculture:  The Asian Tiger Mosquito in Maryland

National Wildlife Federation: Meet the Squad of Mosquito-Eating Species

The Guardian: The insect apocalypse: ‘Our world will grind to a halt without them’

Three Billion Birds: 7 Simple Actions To Help Birds

Tree Size Matters: Why Planting Bigger is Not Better

Tree Size Matters: Why Planting Bigger is Not Better

Look at that little tree grow!

Planted when it was a mere twelve inches tall, the white oak in my front garden now towers well over twelve feet. That may seem puny for a canopy tree but it’s been only eight years since the Quercus alba sapling was gently placed in the ground. Considering how time has a sneaky way of moving forward, eight years is a blink—especially when anticipating the growth of a mighty oak.

The white oak sapling in its second year after planting.
At eight years after planting. 2021 Brood X cicada flagging is evident
but shouldn't hurt the tree.

Trees in and around my neighborhood are being taken down seemingly daily. The constant roar of chainsaws tell me so. Perhaps the hapless trees are at the end of their lives, had sustained weather damage, or the owners have a low tolerance to perceived risk—or unbelievably—are fed up with the fallen leaves?

Whatever their reason, I also wonder if at least some residents are replacing what’s lost? If they knew how easy and inexpensive it was to plant a sapling—and how healthy it would grow—could they be motivated to get out there and get digging? Well, I’m here to be that enthusiastic motivator!

Cheap AND Easy

Indeed, planting a young seedling demands very little effort. Perhaps some turfgrass begs to be smothered or a few plants need to be relocated, but the planting hole itself need not be deep.

Plus, the cost of purchasing young one- to two-year-old trees, when evaluating the bang for the buck, is unbelievably low. Seedlings are an affordable way to fill a garden with a cornucopia of canopy and understory trees—and these little ones have the best shot at robust and stable growth. Why not get a new tree off to its best possible start?

Over the years Marc and I planted a variety of oaks, a bitternut hickory, a few wild black cherry trees, flowering dogwoods, eastern redcedars… all for very little money. $12 a tree, tops. Some trees, like the redcedars, were volunteers brought in by pooping birds (thanks, friends!). All the inexpensive little trees are doing very, very well. However, I can’t say the same for the large garden center trees we purchased.

Spinning the Broken Record: Why We Need Canopy Trees

You probably don’t need to be reminded of all the earth-saving benefits that canopy trees provide. But I’m compelled to mention a few anyway!

Trees clean our air, keep our shaded homes cool, and help lower the temperature of the planet itself. Their clusters of leaves act as windbreaks and dampen noise as well.

A tree’s canopy and roots—and their fallen leaves—slow down heavy rains and prevent erosion. Roots and leaves also filter contaminants, purifying the water we drink and play in.

Amazingly, our time spent among trees has been scientifically proven to relieve our stress. And when trees exist in right-of-ways or surrounding homes, these areas were found to have lower crime rates than other communities without them.

But most importantly, trees sustain the life of so many wild critters that are near and dear to many of us. I couldn’t imagine living in a space where our trees and animals friends were absent. Could you?

Migrating birds like this female American redstart are enticed by native trees and shrubs.
Magnolia warblers make biannual pit stops in my back garden.
A migrating blue-gray gnatcatcher hanging out among native trees, big and small.

A side note: The brilliant wild bee nerds (I’m looking at you, Sam Droege) would want me to mention that we also need meadows to support all the teeny animals that these distinct habitats attract. So, if you can grow areas of trees and shrubs AND also make room for locally native flowering plants and grasses, you’ll surely maximize the stewardship of your property.

WTH, Nursery Industry?

I’ve come to the realization from all my early gardening days that the nursery trade offers consumers inferior tree stock. Yup, there it is, what you might consider the anecdotal truth about the industry. But many, much smarter people have come to this same conclusion. In fact, for decades, landscape professionals, arborists and academics have been vocal about the trade’s poor practices and much has been written by researchers about this very topic.

Large caliper trees—those with a 1-inch diameter or greater—have issues that often begin early on in production, are exacerbated throughout transit and persist on the purchaser’s property. These growing and handling practices give rise to trees that are often destined to fail. The popular demand for these mass-produced trees further fuels the industry and its mediocrity.

Studies show that nursery-grown trees, whether balled and burlapped (B&B) or containerized, inherently possess liabilities; predominantly hidden defects that end up being a time and money sink for us consumers.

Here's what's wrong:

1. Buried root flare.

In a field nursery, where larger trees are grown on open land, soil is often piled up high over the tree’s roots and against the tree’s trunk, resulting in a covered root flare (also known as a root collar). Secondary roots, which do not uptake nutrients and are not a strong support for the tree, sprout in this soil above the root flare. Meanwhile, the main roots of the tree can die. Removing the excess soil down to the root flare and severing the secondary roots are necessary actions prior to planting.

2. Pruning of live tissue.

Trees in the nursery trade are limbed up to facilitate easier management in the field and in transport once the plant is dug. As I’ve written previously when I killed a tree, young trees are healthier—and their trunks grow larger—with all their branches attached.

Without lower limbs (known as temporary branches), an exposed tree trunk is vulnerable to sun scald and frost cracks. It also makes it easier for deer to rut or rub their antlers and damage the tree’s protective bark. Wounds that can’t seal will invite disease and pests. Oftentimes, pruning lower limbs makes for a weak tree that needs to be staked.

Another poor practice is failing to cut at the all-important branch collar and leaving a branch stub. When a stub is left, the plant is not able to seal the wound. Again, an unsealed wound can end up with decay that spreads down into the tree’s trunk.

There are many other improper and outdated pruning methods inflicted routinely on woody plants. A young sapling that’s allowed to grow without harmful human interference is going to be given the best chance to develop into a resilient tree.

3. Brutal excavation of B&B trees.

Balled-and-burlapped (B&B) trees are typically grown and excavated in a field nursery. They are dug with heavy equipment (such as a tree spade) which mechanically severs the circumference of the trees’ roots, leaving most of the roots behind. Severed roots obviously pose a huge disadvantage to an extracted tree. B&B trees, depending on the species of tree, can also develop girdling roots that choke the tree to death. An excavated tree could take up to a decade to recover, if it survives the shock at all.

4. Poor root development & girdling.

If a large nursery-grown tree is in a container, the tree’s roots have most likely grown to circle the interior of the pot (this is called girdling). In some cases, there is a succession of girdling as the plant was transferred from a small pot to a larger one. It’s necessary to untangle and prune the ill-angled root growth. This task adds substantial time to the planting process and the tree’s recovery—and doesn’t guarantee success.

5. Container planting media is not optimal.

The industry uses a variety of lightweight, soilless material for good drainage as well as for easier and cheaper transporting. This growing media, if not removed prior to planting in native soil, can contribute to plant mortality because it’s not able to hold moisture, like say, the clay in your garden can.

At the root-soil interface, plant roots often struggle to grow from one type of substrate to another. This could occur with B&B trees as well. Root washing is often recommended and is yet another step to consider.

6. Poorly transported & handled stock.

Large nursery trees often incur injuries in transit. Root balls can be crushed when B&B trees are moved; tie-down straps, if not properly placed, can damage tree trunks; often the trunk sheath that affords protection is missing and so is the tarp used to protect the living cargo. Stacked in the bed of a truck, tree trunks and foliage are often open to damage.

7. Not much care goes into the final planting.

Consumers, landscapers, contractors and other workers wielding a shovel are not always knowledgeable about sound planting procedures. They regularly plant too deep, fail to expose the root collar, leave the B&B tree’s burlap and wire around the root ball, and place mulch too high and up against the trunk.

Trees planted with excess soil piled up over the root collar (see #1) are typically planted too deep in the landscape. A 2000 study by Smiley and Booth found that 93% of professionally planted trees are planted too deep. Other studies found that deep planting can predispose a tree to transplant failure and girdling root formation.

8. No locally sourced plant material.

Another point worth mentioning is that typical garden centers don’t sell locally sourced native tree species—the genetically appropriate plants found naturally growing in a particular region—often referred to as “local ecotype.” Additionally, selections that are offered are not native at all, they’re cultivars of straight species, or worse yet, they’re outright invasive (such as Norway maple and Bradford pear).

One great option is to seek out and purchase your trees from a restoration organization that grows saplings from regionally collected seed. Your local Native Plant Society chapter may also offer very young trees or can assist in finding them. Growing a tree yourself from a seed is also a smart alternative (more on that later).

Just as birds dropped the seeds of the beautiful Eastern redcedars (Juniperus virginiana) that now anchor the corner of my front garden, other wildlife and winds also frequently deposit other tree seeds. If you have a large enough space and the mature trees near you are in natural areas (primarily wild), you could choose to keep some of these sprouts. This is probably the simplest method of foresting your property!

This Eastern redbud was purchased years ago as a large caliper container tree. The roots are now a jumbled mess and will eventually girdle the tree.
No root flares here. Plants grown in containers have an inordinate amount of liabilities. Preparing these trees for planting will take a lot of effort.
Stub cut! This improper pruning can eventually kill a tree. There are many good YouTube tutorials on proper pruning—if pruning is indeed necessary.
It was very easy to find large caliper landscaping trees in residential and roadside plantings with bark damage.
Sun scald, frost cracks and deer rubbing are prevalent on exposed tree trunks.
Over 90% of professionally planted trees are planted too deep. Deep planting can be fatal to a tree.

Saplings: Getting More Than What You Paid For

My nearby garden center, not surprisingly, neither sells bare root or potted saplings to consumers nor do they tout the importance of planting them. I suspect the same goes for most landscaping companies, too. They are all in it for a large profit, after all.

But very young trees skirt the long list of problems associated with the landscaping industry’s larger caliper trees. Let’s look at the reasons why planting an inexpensive whip of a tree is a wise decision.

Here's what's right:

  • Saplings are affordable!
  • Low-effort planting; do it yourself because it’s quick and easy
  • A tiny planting hole means less disturbance to nearby established tree roots
  • Virtually no root issues such as girdling or severing
  • Able to develop a healthy root collar (with correct mulching)
  • Growth can be equal to, or faster than, a large caliper tree
  • Possible to find locally sourced (local ecotype) saplings; look to your regional restoration or non-profit organization
  • Easy to start a tree from a seed yourself
  • Environmentally greener: less weight and time in transport means lower greenhouse gases
  • Opportunity to selectively prune young limbs for a healthy structure
  • It’s simple and inexpensive to plant a future forest all at once or over time as the trees grow up together
These local ecotype oak saplings were propagated by Earth Sangha, a conservation organization in Northern Virginia.
This oak was planted as a bare root sapling.
It has a healthy root flare.

Make It an Oak

Dr. Douglas Tallamy has become a trusted voice for defenders of our natural world. He inspired us to leap feet first into the role of wildlife gardeners when, in 2007, his research on Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) host plants was widely introduced in Bringing Nature Home.

His most recent writing project, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees, presents fascinating month-by-month insights into our magnificent oaks. Tallamy encourages us to not only plant oak tree species (Quercus) but to also consider planting them when they’re very young: as an acorn or sapling.

Why oaks, you might ask? Because oak leaves are eaten by more very hungry caterpillar species than any other plant, and that puts this keystone species at the tip top of the ecologically awesome list. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” Tallamy writes. In the Mid-Atlantic, 557 caterpillar species are supported by oaks. Our native tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), by comparison, supports just 19 types of native caterpillars.

And although all of our native plants have an ecological role to play, you can see they are not all the powerhouses that our oaks are. As a matter of fact, only a few plant genera produce roughly 75% of the food needed to sustain populations of insects and ultimately other animals such as birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

Even if dozens of native plant genera are present, Tallamy argues, “a yard without keystone plants will fall far short of the insect abundance necessary to sustain viable food webs.”

Delish! A Northern red oak leaf with insect chews.
Oaks support 557 caterpillar species in the Mid-Atlantic.

An Oak's Growth

Is it true that oaks grow at a glacial pace? The short answer: Nah.

The general perception that oaks are slow growers, Tallamy explains, is because in the first few years, more is going on below ground than above. “In fact, after their first year, a seedling oak may have up to 10 times more root mass than the biomass of leaves and shoots above the ground.”

As oaks continue to mature, the root systems that they develop over their lifetimes help make them champions when it comes to environmental services such as soil stabilization, carbon sequestration, and watershed management.

Plant an Acorn and Watch It Grow

A long-time proponent of acorn propagation, Tallamy has encouraged homeowners to collect and grow these beautiful oak fruits due to their affordability (free) and their propensity to evolve into long-lived trees. He’s planted acorns himself. “You don’t have to have a green thumb to grow an oak and you will get a larger, healthier tree than if you buy an expensive one in the nursery.”

And there are many types of oaks, from both the red and white group, to choose from. In some of the Mid-Atlantic states, for instance, New Jersey reports 19, Maryland 21 and Virginia 28 native oak species. With so many possibilities, there’s a regional oak out there that will fit your site’s conditions.

If the news of oak wilt, sudden oak death, bacterial leaf scorch and the like have you ruling out oaks as your new family members, please don’t let it. Tallamy recommends planting a variety of oak types, regardless of disease and pest reports, to help develop resistance.

Leaves, Glorious Leaves!

Oak leaves serve so many purposes. This cutie patootie Eastern gray squirrel is collecting fallen oak leaves to add to her nest (called a drey). I'm glad she always has a readily available supply; oak leaves can take up to three years to decompose.

I’m always hesitant to use the term “leaf litter” because really, should our gardens’ fallen leaves be considered trash? I think not! Leaves, especially those of our dear oaks, provide innumerable ecological services.

Tallamy tells us that oak leaves are loaded with lignins and tannins that retard breakdown. They can take up to three years to decompose. Their gradual decay, combined with the yearly replenishment of autumn leaves, provides food, shelter and the humid conditions required by vital decomposers such as bacteria and fungi, and animals like moths and spiders.

Decaying leaves naturally impart nutrients to the soil that feed the trees themselves. I like to run around shouting, “Woodland trees need woodland conditions!” Fallen oak leaves also suppress invasive plants like Japanese stiltgrass, an annual grass that reseeds prolifically and radically alters native plant communities.

In urban and suburban areas, where finding solutions to stormwater runoff is a priority, layers of oak leaves can mitigate flooding. “The thick mat of leaf litter that characterizes forests with numerous oaks acts like a sponge when it rains and is most valuable when it rains hard,” Tallamy explains. This infiltration and subsequent slow release assists in the recharging of essential groundwater. Layers of leaves also filter man-made contaminates.

A woodland with a white oak (Quercus alba). Trees naturally shed their lower limbs when their trunks are shaded by other trees.
70 moth species consume decaying oak leaves. Many other critters depend on leaves for shelter and food.
Stop the madness! Autumn leaves are better off when left under the trees that shed them.

Let's Grow a Forest

Each year, surely you’ve noticed, we experience more frequent and extreme weather events. These periods of drought, excessive heat and wild atmospheric episodes can be detrimental to a tree, especially one residing in harsh, unnatural conditions, like a typical residential property.

So, instead of having just one tree out there, fending for itself, what we should be doing is planting multiple trees. And in a tight grouping at that.

Trees are pack animals. They do better when planted alongside other trees. Through complex root systems, the same tree species can share nutrients and resources with each other; they communicate through symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Trees help each other to survive.

Remember that the majority of a tree’s roots are in the upper foot of soil and can spread three to five times beyond their dripline. Lateral roots reach out, interlock and graft together with their neighbor’s, and create a substantial anchor for the trees. Planting a grouping of three, say, white oaks (or whatever locally native oak best matches your site’s conditions) will build a solid network of roots that can result in better stability and longevity for each tree.

Final Bits

Native trees (and shrubs, too) are low maintenance plants for garden enthusiasts and non-gardeners alike. They do not need chemical inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides. As trees and shrubs mature, lawn is shaded and dies; shade, along with layers of fallen leaves, is a natural way to reduce lawn over time.

Trees that are planted as seeds or seedlings are not impervious to visible root-growth problems so definitely monitor them through the years. Also evaluate their branching structure and prune judiciously, if at all. The internet provides a lot of information on pruning young trees for structure. As always, do some research and use trusted sources (and ultimately your best judgement). Also reach out to an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist—NOT a tree removal company—if needed.

Have deer? It will be necessary to protect your saplings if you have deer living in your neighborhood, like I do. I build wide and tall cages out of 14-gauge galvanized steel welded wire garden fencing and 3-4 rebar stakes and keep them in place until the trees grow higher than the deer can browse. Tree trunks should continue to be protected in subsequent years from rutting or rubbing.

Residential property owners are uniquely positioned to help our mother earth. We can use our powers for good by planting oaks and other native trees—easily and inexpensively. In no time at all those little trees will be providing endless rewards.

This backyard was filled with invasive plants and lawn when we moved in many years ago. There were also some oaks that we removed for various reasons.
Fortunately, our neighbors across the creek have two beautiful oak trees that are doing well. Meanwhile, the native trees
and shrubs we've planted are growing and filling in, inviting critters large and small to visit.

You can read more about Doug Tallamy’s The Nature of Oaks in this New York Times article.

Garden Design’s article Planting Oaks: Doug Tallamy shares how you can plant an oak tree.

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 obtain my IMA certification 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.

Anatomy of a Curbside Planting

Anatomy of a Curbside Planting

There I was… the sun shining, my windows down… just innocently cruisin’ along. Then it happened: The drive-by double take. Not surprisingly, only a native planting could grab my attention that way.

Yessiree, excitement reigns when I come across these non-traditional gardens: the gardens that keep on giving. And I’m equally thrilled to report that I’ve been seeing these native plantings sprouting up more and more.

Eye Catching Corner

This native plant collection stood boldly at a residential cross street curb. What really made it pop was its fun and eclectic assortment of straight species. (I spy zero cultivars!) There were plants of varying heights, leaf types and flower hues—all wrapped up in an outstanding design.

Luckily, I was passing through this Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood in June. I mention the month because I think early summer shows off native gardens best. Everything is upright and perky, a number of plants are blooming and foliage is exceptionally fresh and green. It’s a glorious time.

Naturally I wanted to know more about this landscape. The gardener of the house, Rob Iera, kindly responded to the note I left at his door and we soon chatted about his enthusiasm for native plants.

A Rare Breed of Gardener

Rob, I learned, is a second-generation native plant gardener; so rare a breed, he’s the first I’d ever met. “My aunt and uncle have been involved in the native plant community in York, Pennsylvania, for over 30 years,” he explained. “My mom picked up an interest for her gardens from my aunt, and I gravitated to natives, too!”

How awesome is that?

Lia and Rob in their spring garden; a lovely flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) in the background. Photo courtesy the Ieras.

Having grown up around Pennsylvania’s indigenous plants and then lived and gardened in Michigan for a bit, Rob has embraced the challenge of learning distinct regional species. (He totally thinks it’s fun.) Moving back to the Mid-Atlantic was a fairly easy transition, plant-wise.

In 2017, when Rob and his wife, Lia, moved into their new Northern Virginia home, their immediate goal was to, as Rob put it, “build up the landscaping with native plants.” Over time, the Ieras have expanded planting areas by reducing lawn, digging up unwanted weedy things and adding oodles of Virginia natives. They’ve converted their .2-acre property into a wildlife sanctuary—all the while keeping their neighbors’ aesthetics in mind.

The Plants

The vertical stems and towering flower spikes work well against the backdrop of shrubby plants. The shorter perennials are naturally placed up front, making a structurally appealing display. A note: this curbside planting was two years old at the time and had been mostly abandoned as the house underwent renovations. While largely low-maintenance, there are plants here that might’ve needed staking as the growing season progressed.

Rob chooses natives for the beauty they bring to his garden and for their wildlife value. Certainly, the corner planting alone could collectively support innumerable species of life: bumble bees and other native bees including oligolectic (pollen specialist) bees; plant-munching Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars as well as their nectar-sipping adults (I calculated roughly 120 species of caterpillars are hosted in this planting!); birds such as hummingbirds, goldfinches, and other seed-eating avian friends; small adorable mammals; and so many other vital insects and their predators, too.

An Eastern tiger swallowtail nectaring on
butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) attracts
ruby-throated hummingbirds.
A hungry bumble bee diving into foxglove
beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis).
Culver's-root (Veronicastrum virginicum) providing this female bumble bee with pollen.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seedheads in winter.
The enchanting flowers of blue wild indigo
(Baptisia australis).

While this selection of plants would not be found growing together in a natural plant community due to their individual needs, these plants are certainly adaptable. Full or part sun is one of the criteria for success and so is well-drained soil.

And this is worth consideration: the plants that would most likely self-sow prolifically would be the Thimbleweed, Blue Wild Indigo, Black-eyed Susan, Foxglove Beard-tongue and Eastern Blue-star. “Volunteers” create an opportunity to share the bounty with friends and family (sometimes along with a warning).

The corner ensemble includes:

Eastern Blue-star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) — This is a popular garden plant because of its habit and fall interest. The blueish star-like flowers haven’t emerged yet but when they do, they’ll attract butterflies and other flower visitors.

Cornell University Gardening: Willow Blue Star

Culver’s-root (Veronicastrum virginicum) — The flower spikes add architectural drama to this grouping. Bumble bees and other insects are drawn to the pollen and nectar from the many tiny white flowers.

US Forest Service Plant of the Week: Culver’s Root

Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) — Thimbleweed flowers attract small insect visitors. The handsome erect stalks and seedheads, seen here, stand out long after the white sepals have fallen. Later in the year, the “thimble” will mature to cottony fluff. Thimbleweed can self-sow prolifically.

North Carolina Extension Gardener: Anemone virginiana

Northern Rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium) — This Eryngium is found naturally growing west and south of Virginia; it’s rare in most Virginian counties. It could reach five feet in height. The pollen and nectar produced by the hemispherical flowers feeds butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles and flies. It’s the larval host for one moth species.

US Forest Service Plant of the Week: Rattlesnake Master

Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) — Wild indigo is a long-lived perennial with a lovely rounded shape and pretty bluish-purple flowers (that have most likely bloomed at this point in time). It’s primarily pollinated by bumble bees. Baptisia is the host plant to at least 15 butterfly and moth caterpillar species.

The Natural Web: Butterflies Eat Their Peas

Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) —This is a wonderful pollinator plant that’s also known to attract hummingbirds. Liatris hosts four caterpillar species and its seeds are consumed by birds. The striking flower spikes may need staking as they mature.

LBJ Wildflower Center: Liatris spicata

Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) — The white flowers have faded and matured to seedheads that add interest throughout the year. Penstemons support about eight butterfly and moth caterpillar species, bumble bees and other insects, including one specialist bee.

The Natural Web: White Beardtongue for Pollinators

Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) — Butterfly-weed is such a carefree, long-blooming and low-maintenance garden plant. Longevity can be dependent on well-drained soils and a root crown that remains free of sun-blocking competition in the spring. Butterfly-weed is the host plant to the monarch butterfly (although not a favorite for egg-laying) and 11 other Lepidoptera species. The orange flowers attract a whole slew of other fascinating insects.

The Natural Web: Milkweed—It’s Not Just for Monarchs

Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma) — Hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, butterflies, caterpillars, native bees (including three specialist bees), seed-eating birds such as American goldfinches… all make scarlet beebalm a powerful addition to any garden.

Maryland Native Plant Society Wildflower in Focus: Bee-Balm

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) — Considered an annual or short-lived perennial, black-eyed Susans are a staple of many gardens. They support at least 16 Lepidoptera caterpillar species, many flower visitors and also a long list of specialist bees. Birds relish the ripened seeds.

Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia: Rudbeckia hirta

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) — Native grasses are essential to any garden and little bluestem, seen here too early in the season for developed seedheads, remains a not-too-tall staple. Plant it in enriched soil and the stems could flop. Little bluestem is the host plant to at least six caterpillar species—and the seeds feed hungry winter birds and small mammals. End-of-season mounds provide nesting sites for bumble bees the following year.

North Carolina Extension Gardener: Schizachyrium scoparium

Maryland Wild Senna (Senna marilandica) — Growing up to four feet tall and possibly wider, this Senna requires some elbow room. The sprays of summer yellow flowers beckon hummingbirds and native bees, and the plant feeds up to eight butterfly and moth caterpillar species.

Cornell University Gardening: Wild Senna

Tall Thoroughwort (Eupatorium altissimum) — There are many Eupatorium species to choose from and this one is adapted to drier sites. Eupatoriums host the most Lepidoptera caterpillar species of all the plants in this collection—at least 40. The nectar and pollen additionally supports native bees, moths, butterflies and other flower visitors.

University of Arkansas Plant of the Week: Eupatorium altissimum

What will inspire your plant choices?

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and charismatic grasshopper: both a vital part of nature's food web.
A monarch butterfly caterpillar eating butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa), its host plant.
A wild indigo duskywing butterfly most likely laid her egg on this blue wild indigo.

The plants in this enchanting corner grouping are all perennials that can be commonly found at native plant sales, where Rob does most of his shopping. Many of his purchases are straight species and local ecotype plants. “While I have some cultivars on the property, I prefer the true natives. They seem to thrive better in the environmental conditions.”

Straight species, like those found in natural areas, have certainly evolved to be tough—and are smart choices for many reasons. Environmentalists caution that cultivars could be detrimental to the genetic viability of wild plant populations. As I see it, that’s reason enough to avoid them.

“People are complimentary…”

Not surprisingly, the Ieras’ wildlife oasis receives compliments from passersby. As Rob and Lia are out in the garden, they’ve welcomed neighborly interactions. “A few individuals have recognized the native plants,” Rob told me, “and it’s nice to take a break from working to share gardening stories.”

And no doubt, as the novel coronavirus continues to change our habits—pulling us outdoors and into our neighborhoods—native plant landscapes like Rob’s will inspire conversations and influence the front garden aesthetic.

I’m looking forward to my next drive-by double take.

Your Very Own Wildlife Habitat Can Bring Relief to These Troubling Times

Your Very Own Wildlife Habitat

Can Bring Relief to These Troubling Times

What a wild ride. The past eight months have been a roller coaster of unprecedented challenges—seemingly insurmountable ones at that. I think I can state with a fair amount of confidence that we’ve collectively experienced anxiety, frustration, and also heartbreak. Maybe a bit of anger too. These have been tough days.

Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called nature out there. Woodlands, meadows, wetlands … outdoor spaces that allow us to de-stress. There’s no doubt the pandemic has illuminated the value of such protected areas, at least for those of us lucky enough to live near them. 

Trees please. This kind of habitat can naturally lift downtrodden spirits.

"Homegrown National Park"

I’ve had the luxury of spending many hours in some of these nearby natural areas, often to help destroy invasive plants. But a large chunk of my outdoor time is spent in my own personal sanctuary. While the mass movement to visit parks and to simply get outside continues, I experience that decompressing ahhhhhh feeling just footsteps from my door. On this quarter-acre lot four miles from Northern Virginia’s bustling Tysons Corner Center, essential native plants feed uncommon bumble bees, delightful monarch caterpillars, hungry migrating birds, and much, much more.

LEFT: Even a small backyard, when planted with locally native plants, can become a functioning wildlife habitat. RIGHT: Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and narrow-leaf mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) grow along with other shorter perennials in the front garden.

This habitat did not come about by accident, however. And it wasn’t created overnight. My garden-with-native-plants-or-die journey began about seven years ago with a lecture given by renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. His groundbreaking research showed that native plants support all life, even our own. (Yay, science!)

This past February, right before the covid-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, Tallamy’s lecture circuit brought him once again in front of a massive audience in Manassas. His rousing message urged us to repurpose turfgrass with native plants to form our very own “Homegrown National Park.” Reducing just half of all lawns across the country this way would return more than 20 million acres of America to wildlife habitat. Twenty. Million. Acres.

A pandemic prognosticator, Tallamy listed these benefits of building a park at home:

1. You can enjoy nature on your own time at your own pace

2. Avoid crowds

3. It’s free

4. Avoid travel hassles

5. Experience the natural world alone

6. Hunt lizards!

And now there’s one more benefit:

7. Keep safe from droplets!

See what a Tallamy-inspired garden, enthusiastically documented over the past eight months of isolation, has attracted:

MARCH: LEFT: This dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), foraging through leaf litter, will eventually make its way north to colder regions. CENTER: Redbud (Cercis canadensis) blossoms are an early source of nectar. RIGHT: Essential to forest regeneration, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are also a constant source of entertainment.
APRIL: LEFT: The cutest Carolina wren fledglings (Thryothorus ludovicianus) hatched in the brush pile out back and were raised on an incredible number of spiders. CENTER: A puddling eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in an area that was once asphalt. RIGHT: White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), here all winter, will depart soon and return again in October.
MAY: LEFT: American lady butterflies (Vanessa virginiensis) lay eggs every spring on plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia). CENTER: Decaying wood feeds many horned passalus beetles (Odontotaenius disjunctus). RIGHT: This monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) showed up on May 4th to lay eggs on common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca).
JUNE: LEFT: Yes, I know it’s “just” a house wren (Troglodytes aedon), but I was glad to see her using the unoccupied bird house. CENTER: Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) brighten the garden and feed pollinators and other flower visitors—like this margined calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus). RIGHT: A brown thrasher fledgling's (Toxostoma rufum) surprise visit. These birds are a declining species that forage in leaf litter.
JULY: LEFT: A fuzzy bumble bee (Bombus sp.) nectaring on winged monkeyflower (Mimulus alatus). CENTER: This camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora aerata) dressed up in the bright petals of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). RIGHT: Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and are in turn pollinated by this wee bird.
AUGUST: LEFT: Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) feeds northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and many other birds and mammals. CENTER: Oaks such as this northern red oak (Quercus rubra) support the highest numbers of butterfly and moth (Lepidoptera spp.) caterpillars along with other insects. RIGHT: So many animals are attracted to field thistle (Cirsium discolor).
SEPTEMBER: LEFT: A male common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flits about as it forages in stands of native perennials. CENTER: Feed me! Juvenile American goldfinches mob dad for field thistle (Cirsium discolor) seeds that ripen under the cable line. RIGHT: A migrating magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) whom I hope to see again in the spring.
OCTOBER: LEFT: A sighting first: a pretty palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), another migratory bird. CENTER: An adorable ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) poses on a log I placed for such occasions. RIGHT: A front garden snag-turned-art-carving invites a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) to build a home.

Let's Build It!

If you’re curious about how best to create your own private park, here are some environmentally-sound suggestions:

♥ Buy locally native plants to support our indigenous critters and to keep our wild areas ecologically intact. I like to frequent Earth Sangha’s plant list to choose my local ecotype plants. The Earth Sangha family is always happy to help you to select the right plants for your site conditions and your needs. 

♥ If you have an appropriate location, plant native keystone plants such as white oak (Quercus alba) and wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). These trees are the two top supporters of Lepidoptera spp. (moth and butterfly) larvae.

♥ Remove invasive plants because they can escape from your yard into natural spaces. Getting rid of invasives on your property is equally as important as planting natives. 

♥ Reduce lawn. Turfgrass is considered to be ecologically devastating because of the problematic way humans maintain it (use of fertilizers and weed killers) and because of how little life it supports. Lawn can add to stormwater runoff.

♥ Forgo the pesticides. Grub controls, mosquito sprays, and rodent poisons harm more than just the targeted “pests.”

♥ Leave the “leaf litter” to maintain plant and soil health and to harbor a variety of animals. Slugs, moths, and spiders are just as important as our enchanting fireflies and butterflies—which rely on leaf litter to survive.

♥ Strive to keep discarded plant material on your property. It takes resources to haul it away and process it.

♥ Use some of that unwanted plant material to build a brush pile for birds and small mammals.

♥ Leave a dead tree (called a “snag”) standing when feasible. Any size snag can support wildlife but leaving at least a six-foot-tall dead or dying tree feeds innumerable insects and can provide homes for woodpeckers and other animals.

♥ Allow branches and logs to rot in your garden or lug neighbors’ chain-sawed tree parts onto your property or do both! These logs make a lovely natural edging and are as enticing to insects as snags are.

♥ Keep outdoor lights off to help moths, birds, and bats. Yellow LED light bulbs in a motion-activated fixture are also a good solution. Note that some studies show that residential exterior lights do little to prevent crime.

Although the landscape I nurture is still fluid and an ongoing labor of love (yes, my garden is much more work than lawn is), it has from the get-go provided valuable eco-services. I recommend taking on small sections at a time. Begin by planting lower-maintenance trees and shrubs. Then just add water. And love.

Carolina elephant’s-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus) attracts smaller insects.

There’s never been a better time or reason to create your own oasis. Even if you have only a patio or a balcony, a few native plants grown in containers can attract and support a variety of teeny animals such as our native bees and caterpillars. Let’s help the critters we are passionate about and also help ourselves.

The Movement is ON! HOMEGROWN NATIONAL PARK™ has officially launched.

For more of Tallamy’s philosophy, seeApril 2020 Smithsonian Magazine interview, “Meet the Ecologist Who Wants You to Unleash the Wild on Your Backyard.”

Originally written for the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists.

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 (but once there were twenty on a single plant!). 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

Honey Bees? 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.


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 and Africa, “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.


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 tall goldenrod's (Solidago altissima) pithy stems that I cut in late winter.

Retain perennial stems in your garden.

Some native bees and other arthropods will nest in dead hollow and pithy stems (such as goldenrods (Solidago spp.), Joe-pye-weeds (Eutrochium spp.), thistles (Cirsium spp.) and the beebalm/bergamots (Monarda spp.). Dead foliage standing through winter and up until spring can provide nesting sites and also offer ripened seedheads for birds and small mammals. It’s a full season process that works like this: SUMMER: Perennial plants grow. FALL/WINTER: Toward the end of the year the plants die back; leave stalks standing through spring. SPRING: Cut any still-standing stalks a variety of heights—from about a foot to two or three feet. Female bees begin to nest and lay eggs. SUMMER: While the new foliage grows up and around the cut stems, bee larvae develop. FALL/WINTER: Bees hibernate in the stalks. SPRING: Warm weather arrives and the now adult bees emerge. Yay! This cycle continues as cut stems are left in place year after year. See Xerces Society’s Save the Stems: How to Create Habitat for Stem-Nesting Bees.

Note: I’ve heard varied timing recommendations by local bee gurus, including cutting stems in late winter.

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: pinxterflower (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!

Additional Resources:


November 20, 2022: Updated with information from Xerces Society’s “Save the Stems: How to Create Habitat for Stem-Nesting Bees.”

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

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


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.


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:

  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 stormwater runoff. There are oodles of other benefits that trees provide. And locally native trees are the best choice, naturally.



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.

Aggressiveness: Low
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


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

Aggressiveness: Low
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


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

Aggressiveness: High
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


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

Aggressiveness: High
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 does just fine in dry shade. 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


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

Aggressiveness: Low to Medium
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. However, I don’t find it aggressive because it doesn’t outcompete other plants. 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 College


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.

Aggressiveness: High
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. Be warned that it will outcompete most other herbaceous plants. My ragworts are growing in fairly shady conditions under a redbud tree and appear happy. 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


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

Aggressiveness: High
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


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

Aggressiveness: High
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. I’ve also added it to my planters since it cascades out of the containers nicely.
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


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

Aggressiveness: High
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. Allowing the seeds to ripen will attract American goldfinches and other birds.
Host Plant Info: Supports five butterfly and moth caterpillar species.
More Information: Virginia Wildflowers; Maryland Biodiversity Project


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

Aggressiveness: Medium
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


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.

Aggressiveness: Low – Medium
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


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

Aggressiveness: High
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 land 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), Carolina elephant’s-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus), Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) … the list is long.

Many of these plants, as I’ve noted, can spread quickly through self-sowing or through stolons or rhizomes. This is what makes them excellent ground covers—but could also cause unwanted upkeep. Definitely do the research so you aren’t cursing me later.

Feel free to 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.

♥ 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)

♥ The Native Plant Society of New Jersey: Native Groundcovers

♥ North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development: Riparian Buffer
– NJRCD 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

Happy wildlife gardening!

Updated April 20, 2021