A monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, feeds on the nectar of white snakeroot flowers, Ageratina altissima, during its southern migration in a Sharon, MA garden on September 26, 2019. This pair of natives co-evolved since the retreat of the last ice age, and they depend on one another, and the entire web of life, for their continued existence.
September 26th was like a dream to me. I looked out the kitchen window while doing the dishes, and there were several monarchs in my gardens, all at one time. I’d seen one or two here and there this season, but never a parade of several at a time, like that day. I dropped the dishes to a could of soap bubbles and dashed out with my camera.
Later, on arriving at a Sharon, MA client’s gardens, Monarchs flew up every time I turned a corner on the mowed paths that snake around many beds where clouds of white snakeroot are now in bloom. I counted at least two dozen monarchs at least twice, and twice saw four monarchs on one snakeroot. It was like living and working in a dream where the monarchs have recovered and are robust in numbers again. It wasn’t a dream, but it was a remarkable parade of flight and feed that I shall not forget. Of course there were other native butterflies, like spangled frittilaries, and native bees, like Bombus sp., and other native plants in bloom.
THE BEST PLANTS FOR POLLINATORS: We can all make a difference in our yards, our gardens, our landscapes, our containers, one plant at a time, by design. Please join me doing so! These are the native plants that support the entire life cycle of the most butterfly and moth species:
Trees and shrubs:
- Oak trees – Quercus sp. such as white, red, pin, black, bear
- Willow trees – Salix sp.
- Black cherry trees – Prunus serotina
- Goldenrods – Solidago sp. such as blue-stem (axillary), seaside, bog, white, showy, downy, zigzag
- Asters – Symphyotrichum, Oclemena, and Aster sp. like New England, tartarian, heart-leaved, large-leaved, purple-stem, bushy, small white
- Milkweeds – Asclepias sp. like common, butterfly weed, swamp, poke, butterfly, clasping, green
Have fun, and let me know if you need a hand!
If you care about your chickadees, what does this range of numbers mean: 350 to 570? My environmental and social justice pal Ellen Schoenfeld-Beeks let us know at her “Why We Need a Garden Revolution” talk at the Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA on May 3rd. The answer is, 350 to 570 is the number of caterpillars one pair of chickadees needs every day to nurture their chicks from hatching to fledging. That’s just one pair of one kind of bird! Ellen inspired us to think and be mindful about every plant and practice in our gardens, and whether and how each helps or harms the natural systems that support all living things.
Ellen, who manages the church’s extensive gardens, showed examples of native plants at the church’s gardens and at her own home through the seasons, and how they support or harm our native pollinators, wildlife and local ecosystem at large. She even talked about plants she introduced to her gardens on purpose, only to find out years later that they were actually exotic invasive look-alikes of native plants. For example, she thought she was planting yellow marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), but they turned out to be fig buttercups (Ranunculus ficaria, or, Ficaria verna), which are on the MA list of plants that are prohibited from sale.
After about three years they had spread like a spring carpet of yellow, in part because they aggressively reproduce by three different mechanisms. Once she realized her error, Ellen took responsibility and removed them by hand, an intensive but organic gardening practice. It took three seasons to bring their numbers to a reasonably manageable level.
Ellen also reminded us that one of the Unitarian Universalist Church’s guiding principles is respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She urged us to think carefully and learn about the impact of each of our plantings, as every plant in our landscapes matters, and your landscape supports, or doesn’t, those chickadees who need all those caterpillars every day to raise their young.
The design of her home garden, also in Sharon, features primarily native plants with mowed and gravel paths that sweep around her layered ornamental planting beds and stone walls, leaving the visitor wondering with curiosity what lies just past the next curve. Each of her beds have themed names, such as Mountain Laurel Hill, the Meadow and Old Rose Garden. Some of her favorite native plants are mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia – obviously – with an area named just for them; apothecary rose, Rosa gallica, which though not a native has been cultivated by people since the MIddle Ages; and various goldenrods, which support at least 115 species of butterflies and moths.
Help Massachusetts communities and wildlife thrive by joining me at the annual Grow Native Massachusetts Plant Sale. You’ll find over 2,000 plants covering 120 varieties, and I (and other experts) can help you make smart selections for the particular conditions of your planting area. Just look for me in a blue volunteer apron from 8-11. Shop early for best selection.
From 9-2:30 at the UMass Waltham Field Station at 240 Beaver Street, Waltham 02452, you may find:
- Perennials sorted by sun, shade and part-shade, and all types of soil conditions
- A large selection of evergreen and deciduous ferns
- Grasses and sedges, both cool and warm season
- Trees and shrubs at small sizes so you can take home in your car. Native trees and shrubs do the most to increase biodiversity and to enhance the wildlife value of your landscapes.
AND new for this year: sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata)—custom grown just for this sale, as these are top native herbaceous plants for supporting the entire life cycles of our butterfly and moth pollinator friends, and a whole lot of bees’, too.
All plants are native to the eastern United States—the majority indigenous to New England
Learn more: https://www.grownativemass.org/programs/plantsale
Download a list of the species available at the 2019 Native Plant Sale
How fun to watch a swallowtail butterfly dive into a daylily for a drink of sweet nectar. On the way in its wings became streaked with pollen, which the butterfly then took to and pollinated a neighboring daylily in seeking more nectar.
No daylily is native to North America as thus their value to native pollinators is limited to providing food rather than providing food, ideal egg-laying sites and food for their caterpillars that would support this butterfly species’ entire life cycle. Most native butterlies and moths have just one type of plant that is the host plant for their entire life cycle.
Native plants support not just native butterflies, but also all living things in native ecosystems, including humans, which is just one reason to have a diversity of native plants on your property or property that you manage or care for.
While daylilies have good horticultural value as colorful flowers, native plants have both horticultural and ecological value in the landscape. There are many fine native plant substitutes for non-native plants, and I encourage you to explore the possibilities before investing in non-native plants that could take the place of high-performing native plants.