Re-Weaving the Web

Viola papilionacea

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Our ‘lawn’ hosts many wildflowers, including the always beautiful violet, Viola papilionacea.  I’m happy to see these lovely wildflowers bloom each spring.  They are so common, and so elegant.  And I’ve always assumed that their nectar is a welcome source of nourishment for bees and other pollinators in early spring.

But I was surprised to learn, when browsing recently on the National Wildlife Federation’s website, that the common, native violet is a larval host to 30 different species of moth and butterfly.   By simply allowing these pretty spring wildflowers, rather than stopping their growth with a ‘broadleaf weed’ herbicide, I’ve been helping to support moths and butterflies.

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Monarch butterfly on hybrid Lantana, an excellent source of nectar.

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Once we begin to understand our own lawns and gardens as part of an intricate web of life; the daily decisions we make, and the actions we do, or don’t take assume an entirely new and more meaningful context.

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Spiders often weave large webs in our autumn garden.

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I certified our garden as a wildlife habitat some years ago.  Ever since, I get regular mailings and emails from the National Wildlife Federation offering me things if I’ll only send a bit more money to them.  I respect their work and detest the constant fundraising.  But an email last week somehow caught my attention, and in a spare moment I began clicking through to find a personalized list of native plants that thrive in our zip code and also support wildlife.

Imagine that!  A personalized plant list just for me and my neighbors to assist us in preserving habitat!

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Our native redbud tree, Cercis canadensis, supports 25 species of butterfly and moth larvae.  Our dogwood tree supports 110 larval species.

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Also on my list: Fragaria, Solidago, Aster, Geranium, Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Achillea and good old Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium.  It’s the first plant on this list, Fragaria, that nudges that guilty sense that maybe I’m not as good as I want to be.

Common (weedy) ground strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, thrive in our garden.  They thrive and spread themselves over and around every bed I start and every other thing I plant.  Along with the ubiquitous Vinca minor vines, Fragaria are the plants I find myself pulling up and throwing away the most.  And to think that this common and enthusiastic plant; which feeds pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and reptiles; also supports 73 different species of larval moths and butterflies.  How did I ever miss that?

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Wild strawberries, Fragaria, mix with other wildflowers as ground cover at the base of this stand of Narcissus. Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens, Gloucester VA.

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You may have read Dr. Doug Tallamy’s revolutionary manual, Bringing Nature Home.   Dr. Tallamy makes a clear argument for why including native plants in our home landscape matters, and offers simple advise about how to do this in the most practical and easy to understand terms possible.

The National Wildlife Federation has based their Native Plant Finder on his work, and will give anyone an individualized list of native plants that form the basis of the ecosystem in their particular area, down to their zip code.

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The American Sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis, supports 43 species of larvae, including the beautiful Luna moth..

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The change in my sensibility came when I realized that I don’t really have to do anything special to grow a garden of native plants.  Rather, I need to allow it to happen, by understanding and respecting the natural processes already at work in our garden.

We modern American gardeners are often conditioned to feel like we need to go and buy something in order to be gardening.  Dr. Tallamy helps us to understand that going to our local garden center or nursery may not be the best way to heal our local ecosystem.

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How many of us already have an oak tree (or two or three) growing in our garden?  They are handsome shade trees, and I’ve always admired oaks.  Did you know that in addition to producing acorns, oak leaves support over 500 species of larval butterflies and moths?  A birch tree supports over 320 species.  That is a lot of mileage from a single tree, when it comes to supporting the insect world!

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Virginia Creeper, a native vine which crops up in many areas of our garden, provides nectar, berries, and it also supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

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Keep in mind that this is only a counting of butterflies and moths, and doesn’t even consider the hundreds of other insect species which live on our native trees.  Even a pine tree supports over 200 species, and the simple mistletoe already growing in several trees around our yard will support 3 species of moth larvae.

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 Zebra Swallowtail feeding on Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ at Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester .

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I keep returning to this conundrum about native vs. ‘exotic’ plants. I listen closely when experts, like the erudite speakers at our local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, speak on this matter.  I have also been doing a bit of reading about the balance between natives and non-native plants in our home gardens.

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Hibiscus syriacus is not our native Hibiscus… but our bees and butterflies love it anyway.  It has naturalized in our area.

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Some landscape designers suggest planting exotic plants near our house and native plants towards the edges of our property.  This assumes, I think, that the native plants may not be beautiful enough or refined enough to plant along our daily paths.  Somehow, I know there must be a better way….

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Purists try to demonstrate to us that ‘native’ means the plants that have grown in our particular location for centuries, maybe even millennia.  It is the particularly adapted sub-species that have grown in symbiotic relationships with the local fauna and geo-forms which matter most.  They are adapted to our soil, climate and may not be truly ‘native’ 30 miles down the road.

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Asclepias incarnata, July 2017

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The problem with this analysis comes from understanding that there was a lot of movement of people and spreading of plants in North America before the earliest recorded European inhabitants.  It doesn’t matter whether you take that back to the Vikings, Sir Henry Sinclair, The Templar fleets or Captain Chris; the truth is that many different groups of native Americans carried plants around from place to place and established agriculture long before there was a European around to observe and record their activities.

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Muscadines are a native North American grape.  Vitis species support 69 larval species, and were cultivated long before the European migration to our continent.

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Many of us mail order an Asclepias or two and know we have done a good thing for the Monarchs.  But Asclepias only supports twelve larval species, while the Rudbeckia systematically colonizing our entire front garden support 20!

But Rudbeckia don’t feed Monarch larvae.  And neither do many of the Asclepias I’ve planted in recent years.  Their leaves remain pristine.  It is not just what we plant, but many factors in the environment that determine whether or not a butterfly will choose a particular plant to lay their eggs.

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I am happiest when I realize that the plants I want to grow anyway also qualify as ‘native’ and benefit wildlife.

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Native Hibiscus moscheutos grows in our garden, and has naturalized in many wetlands in our area.  Sadly, non-native Japanese Beetles feasted on its leaves.  Hibiscus supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

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I am content when the ‘exotic’ plants I want growing in our garden also offer some benefit to wildlife, whether it is their nectar or their seeds.  And I still stubbornly assert my rights as The Gardener, when I commandeer real-estate for those non-natives that I passionately want to grow, like our beloved Caladiums. 

As long as I find hummingbirds buzzing around our canna lilies and ginger lilies each summer, and find the garden filled with song birds and butterflies, I feel like we are doing our small part to support wildlife.

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Many of us enjoy watching pollinators gather nectar and pollen from the flowers in our garden.  We enjoy a variety of birds attracted to seeds, berries, and insect life in our gardens, too.  But how many of us relish watching caterpillars nibble the leaves of our garden plants?

We see nibbled leaves as damaged leaves, without taking into consideration that before we have butterflies flitting from flower to flower, we must shelter and support their larvae.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Assuming that you have read Doug Tallamy’s work, let me invite you to take the next step by reading Larry Weaner’s thought provoking new book,    Garden Revolution:  How Our Landscapes Can Be A Source of Environmental Change.  Where Doug Tallamy writes about plant choice, Larry Weaner is all about ecological landscape design.  He teaches how to begin with a tract of land and restore an ecosystem.  Weaner teaches us how to work with the processes of nature to have plants present their best selves, with minimum inputs from us.

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Restoring our environment, preserving our ecosystem, are holistic, systemic endeavors worthy of our energy and attention.  As we develop a deeper understanding and sympathy for these matters, our aesthetic, and our understanding of our own role in the garden’s evolution, also evolve.

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The Devil’s Walkingstick, Aralia spinosa provides nectar when in bloom, and thousands of tasty berries in the autumn.  It also supports 7 larval species. A volunteer in our garden, it is one of the most spectacular trees we grow.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“The wild is where you find it,
not in some distant world
relegated to a nostalgic past or an idealized future;
its presence is not black or white,
bad or good, corrupted or innocent…
We are of that nature, not apart from it.
We survive because of it,
not instead of it.”
.
Renee Askins
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Hummingbird moth on a hybrid butterfly bush growing among native Rudbeckia. 

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Joe Pye: No Weed To Me….

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Named for Jopi, a Native healer who used this beautiful  plant, Eutrochium purpureum, to  heal early colonists with fevers and other health problems; this gorgeous perennial wildflower is found throughout Eastern North America.

 

Joe Pye Weed begins its season of bloom around the end of June or beginning of July here in coastal Virginia.

Joe Pye Weed begins its season of bloom around the end of June or beginning of July here in coastal Virginia.

 

Jopi Weed, or Joe Pye Weed, reminds us of the rich botanical legacy Native Americans generously shared with early European settlers in America.  Native Americans continue to use Eutrochium for urinary tract infections, fevers, and other health conditions.

But I purchased this plant from Knott’s Creek Nursery in May not for its medicinal uses, but for its beauty.

 

July 6, before the tiny blossoms began to open

July 6, before the tiny blossoms began to open

 

I was looking for Asclepias tuberosa, or native Milkweed,  at the time.  I wanted to purchase a native perennial which would attract more butterflies to the garden, and would serve as a host for butterfly larvae.

Since Knott’s Creek was out of Asclepias that day, I purchased the Eutrochium instead, knowing it is also a butterfly magnet.

Jopi Weed, like so many native plants we purchase for the garden, is easy to grow.

 

July 24, open and ready for the business of welcoming nectar loving insects

July 24, open and ready for the business of welcoming nectar loving insects

 

It prefers moist soil and full to partial sun.  This one is planted in compost, mulched with bark, and gets regular water from both rain and irrigation.

It hasn’t grown much taller in the few months we’ve had it, but it has begun to form a clump.

Planted in the right spot, with abundant moisture, these plants can grow to 6′ or more tall and form a clump several feet wide.

Close up of new growth filling in from the bottom of the plant

Close up of new growth filling in from the bottom of the plant; every branch has blooms forming at its tip.

Deciduous, it should be cut to the ground sometime between a killing frost and early spring.

Clumps can be divided as they grow.

Although we haven’t found butterflies on the flower head yet, it is alive with clouds of bees, flies, and wasps visiting this nectar rich part of the garden.

 

July 24, 2014 hummingbird 015

 

We recently heard Dr. Doug Tallamy of The University of Delaware speak on “Bringing Nature Home,” also the title of his 2009 book.

He described ways to support our populations of wild birds by designing landscapes which not only feed a large number of bird species, but also support their ability to raise the next generation.9780881929928s

Dr. Tallamy made the point that although berries and seeds are desirable; birds need a steady supply of insects in their diet more than they need the plant foods we offer.

And further, the more insects we can attract to our gardens,the more birds we can attract and sustain.

 

This Aloysia virgata, Sweet Almond Tree Verbena is native to South America.  It is also known for attracting butterflies and other nectar loving insects.

This Aloysia virgata, Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is native to South America. It is also known for attracting butterflies and other nectar loving insects.  It eventually grows to 8′ and blooms from July through until a hard frost kills it back to the ground.

 

 

Now, that sounds counter-intuitive to a gardener, doesn’t it? Who among us wants more bugs out there eating our plants?

But Dr. Tallamy spent a long time explaining that in a balanced garden, the insect damage is insignificant and nearly unnoticeable because those bugs get eaten up by our happy bird tenants.

Which brings us back to our Joe Pye Weed, in a round about sort of way…

 

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Do you see how many insects are gorging themselves on the nectar provided by  this one gigantic bloom?  When we plant nectar rich native plants, we support a huge variety of insects, and the insects feed our birds.

And we don’t have to be native purists to achieve a rich web of life  in our gardens.

We just have to be smart enough to  select natives which support a variety of species.

 

MIlkweed, growing in the wild in the edge of a marsh on Jamestown Island.

MIlkweed, growing  wild in the edge of a marsh on Jamestown Island.

 

 

Native trees, like Oaks and Birch each support hundreds of species of animal life.

If this interests you, please take a look at Dr. Tallamy’s book, which goes into useful detail about how this all works; and how to strategically include the best native species of plants in your wildlife garden.

And this lovely Joe Pye Weed is a step in that direction for us.

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While we watch for the butterflies to find it, we’ll also appreciate the beautiful nectar loving insects it brings to our Forest Garden.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Female Tiger Swallowtail on Lantana.  Lantana is the most visited plant in our garden by both butterflies and hummingbirds.

Female Tiger Swallowtail on Lantana. Lantana, native to parts of the Americas,  is the most visited plant in our garden by both butterflies and hummingbirds.

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