In the southeastern US piedmont region where I live, I am happy to report that more and more homeowners are adding native pollinator gardens to their landscapes. By providing sources of pollen, nectar, and leaves of plants that native bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, etc. rely on, we are all helping to replace at least some of the native ecosystems obliterated by urbanization that once fed these insects. As Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, Bringing Nature Home, if we lose our native pollinators and other insects, we also lose the native wildlife that eats these insects — birds, bats, frogs, etc.
One of the poster-insects for the plight of our native pollinators is the Monarch Butterfly. Reports seem to vary every year recently regarding the status of this beautiful species, but it seems clear that we should all continue to add to our landscapes the native food plants that this butterfly relies on: milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweeds are a test of patience for gardeners. New transplants don’t usually bloom prolifically the first year after planting. These plants spend that first year establishing healthy root systems. But by their third year in your garden, you will agree that milkweeds are worth the wait — for the beauty of their prolonged flowering, for their fat, brown pods from which seeds escape on silken parachutes, and for the diversity of pollinators that dine on their flowers, and the Monarch Butterfly caterpillars that devour the plants.
For gardeners wondering which species of milkweed to try in their gardens, I recommend three options. These are the easiest to grow, and also the most readily available in the trade.
- Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is native to moist areas and can handle some shade. However, it thrives in standard garden beds, as long as you water it during droughts, and perhaps a bit extra during its first year as it is establishing. In return, you will get three-foot-tall plants covered in clusters of pink flowers. There’s also a white-blooming variety of this species, but I think the pink forms are much lovelier. A well-established plant will bloom for at least a month, and will be visited dawn to dusk by happy pollinators. If you’re lucky, these visitors will include some Monarch butterflies.
- Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) is native to hot, sunny hillsides. It’s not unusual to see it growing on unmowed road banks in my region. The trick to this species that produces bright orange flowers is excellent drainage. If it sits for long in too-moist soil, it will forsake you. The plants I’ve added grow bigger every year, producing more and more flowering branches literally abuzz with happy pollinators.
- Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) thrives in moist, sunny places. It is not as showy as the first two species above, but it seems to be the favorite food plant of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, perhaps because it is the most commonly occurring milkweed species on patches of undeveloped land. I tucked mine toward the back of a flower bed, where they can grow tall while waiting for Monarchs to find them. I planted mine in my boulder bed, and they haven’t bloomed for me, possibly because they don’t get quite enough sun. But they grow well, producing tall, green plants, and last year Monarch caterpillars ate them literally to the ground. However, the plants returned in greater numbers this year, which is when I realized that this species spreads via running rhizomes. As Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manger at the North Carolina Botanical Garden told me, you plant this species once, and you will never need to plant it again, because of its ability to spread itself via rhizomes.
Milkweeds are slow to emerge in spring, far later than many other native perennials. But once they appear, they grow quickly, and soon the pollinator visits begin. Two pests will also eventually show up.
Bright orange Oleander aphids inevitably appear on every milkweed species I grow, but they seem to favor Common Milkweed. So-called because they also feed on oleanders, these aphids are orange to warn potential predators that they are poisonous, having ingested the toxins in milkweed that cause deer, rabbits, and other plant-eaters to pass them by. These aphid infestations can get pretty ugly. I control mine by donning garden gloves and simultaneously spraying the stems with a strong jet of water while rubbing off the aphids with my fingers. Aphids are poor climbers; once knocked down by the water, they have trouble getting back up the stems.
Milkweed bugs usually show up eventually on some of my milkweeds. These can be destructive to developing seed pods, because they suck out the nutrients in the pods, thereby stunting them. If they get out of hand on my plants, with my gloves on, I pick them off and drop them in a jar of soapy water, where they quickly die. Most years, I never see very many of these insects, which makes me wonder if some bird eats them despite their possible toxicity.
A Few Other Milkweed Species
Being a somewhat obsessive gardener, if I like a genus of native plants, I’ll often try to grow as many different species as I can. Thus, I grow a few additional species of milkweed. This is the second year for my Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata). Until it blooms, you wouldn’t even believe it’s a milkweed. That’s how un-milkweed-like its leaves look, at least to me. But its small white clusters of flowers are unmistakably milkweed blooms, and this year the plant has formed a lovely small shrubby plant that continues to produce flowers popular with an array of pollinators.
The flowers of Red Milkweed are similar to those of Swamp Milkweed, and they share a preference for the same growing conditions. I grow mine in a pot that sits in my summer water feature. It blooms in early spring, but doesn’t re-bloom.
Fewflower Milkweed is native to swampy parts of the coastal plain region up and down the eastern coast of the US. I planted this in one of my summer water feature pots last year, but it didn’t bloom. But this year, beginning about two weeks ago and still going strong, the plant began to produce clusters of peachy-orange flowers. The color is not as in-your-face as that of Butterfly Weed flowers, but as the common name implies, each flower cluster contains a relatively small number of flowers. They are as popular with pollinators as the other milkweed species, but probably not a practical choice for most piedmont gardeners.
I think native milkweeds should be on every gardener’s list of must-have perennials. For an investment of some patience on your part, you will be rewarded with prolonged, colorful blooms visited by swarms of bees and butterflies. And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you’ll get the chance to watch a Monarch caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, as I did last year.
Fall is a great time to plant milkweeds in your garden, and you can get the three species I suggested — plus perhaps a few more — at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale next month. I’ll be there on Member’s Night to get first crack at all the wonderful plants that will be offered. I hope I’ll see you there!
Does your yard include a bit of shade, perhaps at the edge of a stand of taller trees, with soil that remains relatively moist — even wet — for most of the year? Or maybe your yard includes a low spot, where rainwater pools during prolonged downpours — another spot ideally suited for this native woodland shrub, which can be found in every state east of the Mississippi River, naturally occurring near streams, swamps or moist forest slopes.
When the berries on the female plants are ripe, they turn a deep scarlet, which contrasts beautifully with the bush’s deep green leaves. In my yard, the berries rarely last more than a month; the local birds must find them especially tasty.
The shrub gets its name from the sweet-spicy fragrance of its leaves, which also serves to deter browsing by deer. Some people make a tea from the leaves and twigs, and the dried, powdered fruits can be used as a nutmeg substitute.
Our local Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies use the shrub as a primary food source for their caterpillars. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars will also dine on the leaves, as will the big, beautiful Promethea Silkmoth.
I realized immediately that this favorite native understory shrub would do well on our floodplain, so we planted several. The birds took it from there. Now we have spicebushes growing in places that I didn’t think would be good habitat. The birds “planted” them all over my cool, shady north-facing slope, even at the top of the hill, where the soil gets quite dry during most summers. But the shrubs have had no trouble adapting to those growing conditions.
Thus, I conclude that this shrub can handle a wider range of growing conditions than you might expect, based on where they naturally occur. I think the key is shade from hot afternoon sun. If you ensure that this shrub is always sheltered from the worst of our summer heat, you will be rewarded with glossy-leaved shrubs in summer adorned by bright red berries (until the birds find them), followed by warm golden yellow autumn color that lingers until the first hard freeze.
You will find a fine array of healthy spicebush plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. Because you can’t tell the sex of a seedling that hasn’t yet bloomed, I recommend that you buy at least three of these wonderful native shrubs, increasing the likelihood that you get at least one male and one female plant. After they are established in your landscape and the female shrubs begin producing bright red berries, your local birds will “plant” a few more for you.
My corner of southeastern US Piedmont has been blessed with steady — but not excessive — rainfall all summer this year. I cannot remember a growing season like this one. All the plants — weeds included — have responded with enthusiasm. And so have the animals, including most every native pollinator — and pollinator predator — that one expects to see in my region.
This growing season will be remembered by me as the summer of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. Never have more of these beauties adorned every blooming plant in my yard, animating the landscape with their slow, drifting flights from flower to flower, often bumping into me as I stood nearby, camera in hand, trying to capture their wondrous abundance. Many flowers have attracted these butterflies, but of all my plants, my healthy stand of native wildflower, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), deserves special recognition for its power to attract, not only Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, but also just about every other native pollinator in the neighborhood.
Truly, it has been a perpetual pollinator party on the Joe Pye Weed since it started blooming over a month ago. And it is still blooming! I cannot recommend this native wildflower enough for anyone planting — or adding to — a pollinator garden bed. It’s a can’t-miss pollinator magnet. For those of you interested in planting for native birds, Joe Pye Weed is an excellent choice. Insect-eating birds will delight in harvesting a few pollinators as they work Joe’s flowers. And when the pink flower heads ripen to tan-brown seed heads, seed-eating birds like our native Goldfinches will happily dine on the seeds.
This native wildflower naturally occurs along creeks and wetland areas, but it adapts with no difficulty to garden beds, as long as you water it a bit during dry spells. My clump has grown larger every year without much supplemental water at all. The species can top out at about 6 feet, which might be a bit tall for some landscapes, but it is easy to find shorter cultivars at local nurseries that stop at three or four feet, and I’ve found that if you cut the growing stalks of the tall form by about half in early summer, they will bloom at about four feet instead of six, making them less floppy after summer thunderstorms.
Joe Pye Weed is also not picky about the amount of sunlight it needs. It will bloom a bit more prolifically in full sun, but I’ve got stands of it in shady spots in my yard, and the flowers on those plants are almost as abundant — and also enjoyed by numerous pollinators.
I confess I have spent perhaps too much time this summer sitting in front of the Joe Pye Weed in my new pollinator bed (more about that soon). The constant dance of pollinators drifting in and out, the drama of predators snagging unwary insects, the kaleidoscopic colors — it’s all very hypnotic — and soothing.
We are fast approaching the optimal season for planting perennials, shrubs, and trees in our region. Fall is for planting, as we say in these parts, because the air is cool but not icy, so roots can establish thoroughly before plants go into winter sleep, enhancing their vigor and drought resistance when the spring growing season arrives. If you are planning to plant — or add to — a pollinator- and/or bird-friendly garden this fall, be sure that Joe Pye Weed is part of your plan, whether it be the straight species, or one of the many fine cultivars available.
There’s no better place to purchase all the native plants you need for your upcoming fall-planting projects than at the Fall Plant Sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. This year, Members’ Night is Friday, September 23, and the sale is open to the general public on Saturday morning, September 24. Not only do members get first dibs on the vast array of natives offered at this sale, they also get a 10% discount on their purchases. And for you procrastinators out there, you can join at the door on Members’ Night. I encourage all the native plant lovers within driving distance of Chapel Hill to put this don’t-miss plant-buying party on your calendars now. And be sure to pick up some Joe Pye Weed, so your pollinators can party on it next growing season.
Flowers and fruits abound as we celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice, which in my area, will arrive at 6:34 this evening. This year — the first time since 1948 around here — the solstice’s arrival will be enhanced by a full moon. The myriad fireflies that dance in my landscape after sunset may have trouble being seen as they compete for visibility with that bright orb in our night sky. But she will dim in a few days, and the fireflies will dance for another month or so.
Late spring was kind to us this year, and most plants are only just now beginning to notice that the frequent rains have diminished, that the temperatures are trending suddenly much higher, and our famous southeastern humidity has arrived to make humans sweat even during early morning tasks outside.
Yesterday shortly after sunrise, I was in the vegetable garden tying enthusiastic tomato shoots to their trellises, watering thirsty beans and squashes, and hunting drowsy insect pests before the sun energized them when I heard cicadas thrumming for the first time this year. One day ahead of the arrival of the solstice, I thought perhaps they were testing their instruments to ensure they could greet Summer with fully tuned accompaniment.
Busy insects abound. Dragonflies patrol the skies for tasty morsels, honeybees and myriad other bee species diligently visit flowers from dawn to dusk, mosquitoes buzz, flies swarm, ladybugs devour sluggish aphids — it’s a jungle out there.
I spend too much time these days taking photographs, as I vainly try to capture early summer’s energy and diversity. But it’s all so wonderful, I can’t help myself. Do you remember that feeling of release and energy that overwhelmed you every June when your elementary school let out for the summer? Our futures glowed with possibilities filled with sunshine, warm water, fireflies in bottles, and long, warm evenings playing with friends, or sitting with elders on wide porches listening to their stories of summers past.
Summer’s arrival is a moment of infinite possibilities for gardeners too. Sweat equity starts to pay off handsomely in fresh green beans, tender squash, refreshing cucumbers, and the ultimate reward — fresh tomato-basil sandwiches — truly the taste of summer at my house.
Savor Summer’s soft side today, my friends, for soon we begin the hard slog through heat and humidity, rampant bugs and insidious fungal diseases. But today — today we embrace the new season with hopes for bountiful harvests, the welcoming symphony of thunderstorm rains, and nights full of fireflies, cicada songs, and family gatherings.
Happy Summer Solstice to all!
We got another nine-tenths of an inch of rain just after midnight, complete with crashing thunder, vivid lightning, and torrential downpours. The frequent clouds and rain have slowed the progress of all the blooms in my yard this year, including the daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), which have usually begun their parade of blooms by the middle of May.
Finally, their annual show is underway, and thanks to a little attention in the form of weeding and mulching (thanks, Ray!), combined with copious rain, the blooms are abundant and brilliant. I love Pink Betty because she’s a little more simple than some of my daylilies, but she’s a beauty, and for reasons no doubt having to do with a childhood full of Saturday morning cartoons, I cannot think of her name without thinking of Betty Rubble.
When the sun began flirting with the clouds this morning, I stepped out into my soggy yard and took a few pictures, which is why all of the plants in this post are adorned with rain droplets. Daylilies, as most of you know, are so called because they open one flower per day. The open flower only lasts one day, but because a happy clump of daylilies produces many scapes (flower stems), the plants still provide a daily display of multiple blooms. May-May is another relatively demure bloomer. She offers clear yellow flowers with just a hint of ruffle around the edges.
You can’t tell it from its close view above, but Red Toy’s flowers are a bit smaller than some of the showier daylilies. It produces many scapes, and I like the way its smaller cherry-red flowers float among the greenery and blooms of the plants it grows beside.
Brocaded Gown is one of our fancier daylily varieties. She flaunts wide, deeply ruffled recurved creamy yellow petals. I think of her as one of the great ladies of my front garden.
Siloam Jim Cooper is another of my fancier daylilies. I believe the Siloam series always features what the daylily hybridizers call an eye — that darker ring toward the center of the bloom. I have a couple of varieties in the Siloam series. Jim here is a fire engine red bloomer. The flowers are not as large as those of Brocaded Gown, but like Red Toy, they are numerous, which makes for a great display, as you can see below.
Many other flowers are finally opening for business too. I’m hoping they will coax the butterflies to return. After an initial population explosion of mostly Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, the butterflies mostly vanished during the recent prolonged period of clouds and rain. In fact I only caught one species — I’m not sure of its identity — enjoying the blooms of the pickerel weed today.
I always grow a few zinnias among the vegetables. This year, I’m trying two varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The first bloom to open was Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame.’ I think it’s well-named.
My coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are finally starting to open. They are usually big pollinator magnets, so I’m delighted to see them. The first to open is the one nestled between two large boulders. I think perhaps their warmth gave these blooms an earlier start.
Also in the boulder garden, I was delighted to see that one of my butterfly weeds had finally opened some flowers. It, too, is a huge pollinator magnet. I’m hoping the sunny week we are promised (after the passage of today’s strong and potentially scary cold front) will encourage all the insects to re-emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding.
Here’s hoping today’s weather shift is not accompanied by dangerous weather phenomena, and that we can all enjoy our gardens during these last weeks before the summer solstice.
Just yesterday, I was talking to a woman who had been bitten by a copperhead the previous day. She was incredibly lucky. She was weeding a densely packed flowerbed — bare-handed — when she felt a sudden hard sting on two knuckles. She said it felt as if someone had rapped her knuckles sharply with a ruler. Each stinging knuckle had a bloody bite mark. That’s when she saw the two-foot-long copperhead disguised among the weeds she had been pulling.
Of course, her friends rushed her to the hospital, which was close by, and she was immediately whisked into an examination room, where the doctor on duty told her she’d be there at least five hours, because her hand and fingers could swell enormously at any time during that period. If swelling occurred, they warned her, that would mean the venom was beginning to digest her hand from the inside out, and they would need to administer a shot of very expensive anti-venom to stop the reaction.
But this woman was phenomenally lucky. Probably because the snake struck her knuckle bones, the fangs did not penetrate deeply. She received only a tiny bit of venom. Her hand grew stiff and cold for a few hours while the doctors watched her, but then warmed back up on its own; she was able to move her fingers, and eventually go home.
As we talked about copperheads, I mentioned that I was always happy when I encountered Eastern Kingsnakes on my property, because they eat copperheads. Eastern Kingsnakes are resistant to the venom of pit vipers like copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths, and happily eat them whenever they can. If you’ve got Eastern Kingsnakes, odds are good that you will have fewer copperheads.
Knock on wood, we haven’t encountered a copperhead on our property in several years. But I hadn’t seen an Eastern Kingsnake on our property in over ten years. Until today. It seems as if by talking about the species to this lucky-unlucky woman yesterday, a specimen felt obliged to appear today to assure me that its kind are still on the job.
I was working near the young woman (Thanks, Ray!) who helps me in my garden. We were cleaning up my front garden, which includes a dry drainage area that Wonder Spouse lined with river cobbles. The rocks attract all manner of creatures. Today among the rocks we found a tree frog, an American toad, a small garter snake, several large slugs, and a large, crabby mother garden spider guarding her pearlescent egg sac — probably all potential prey to a hungry Eastern Kingsnake.
Suddenly Ray exclaimed, “There’s a big snake!” It had emerged from beneath the front deck, crossed the river rocks, and was stretched out beneath the weeping cherry on the fresh mulch Ray had recently added. I immediately realized it was an Eastern Kingsnake. I think I may have surprised Ray when I sprinted for the garage, where I had stashed my camera after taking garden photos earlier in the morning. As I ran for the camera, I implored the snake to stay put. It obliged my request. The following shots are smaller than usual, because they are longer than usual to accommodate the length of the reptile (about three feet). But if you click on any photo, you can see a larger version.
The snake started moving toward the river rocks that were still full of weeds at that point, so my shots all suffer from a bit of motion blur. Still, I think the series that follows will give you a sense of this gorgeous reptile.
Finally, it insinuated itself among the rocks and weeds and gave me a final look before it moved beneath a large blooming yellow yarrow. We went about our business and did not see the snake again.
Please check out the links above to learn more about this species. The sites include some amazing photos, including shots of these snakes killing and devouring copperheads. From these sites, I also learned these snakes are quite secretive, which is probably why I haven’t spotted one on my property in a decade. I’m guessing they’ve always been around. They just like to keep a low profile as they go about their business of eating rodents, lizards, and all manner of snakes. That’s just fine with me.
But I will confess that I was extra alert this morning as I wandered about the yard taking photographs, with the copperhead-bitten woman’s tale echoing in my head. It was a great comfort — a blessing, even — for that big, beautiful Eastern Kingsnake to show itself to me today. I’ll still be careful, of course, as I wander our five acres of green chaos. But knowing the Eastern Kingsnakes are on patrol has most assuredly eased my mind.
A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21
If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.
The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:
- Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
- Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.
It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.
The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants
Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:
My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.
But wait, there’s more!
This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.
The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.
Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.
- If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.
- He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
- He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.
So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ll see you there!