April is Ohio Native Plant Month and later this month we celebrate both Earth Day and Arbor Day. It’s a wonderful way to kick off our Great Lakes spring season; I feel quite festive already! I’m daydreaming of bloodroot, hepatica, and spring beauties carpeting the woodlands, although we still have a couple more weeks before that particular dream can fully materialize in chilly northwest Ohio.
As I write this, I’m cringing as I watch gusty winds buffeting my newly-planted-but-firmly-staked Black Gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica). I hope she holds up! This beautiful tree recently joined the Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) that I planted last year. Both of these trees are native to Ohio and will support birds and insects that combine to make up an important part of the food web that also supports human life.
Well-known author and entomologist Doug Tallamy has taught us about the concept of keystone species, those that are so important that their absence can collapse ecosystems. While all native plants support some insects, keystone plants support vastly higher numbers of valuable pollinator insects, and adding them to your property can make a huge difference in the biodiversity (and therefore strength) of your local ecosystem.
In my part of the world, oaks (genus Quercus) are by far the most important keystone tree, supporting 557 species of caterpillars. Yep, that’s right, 557. This is why Tallamy devoted an entire book to oaks (The Nature of Oaks). Cherry trees in the Prunus genus, like the one I planted last year, are valuable keystone plants, also supporting hundreds of species (I haven’t found a definitive number for Prunus so far).
This is the caterpillar of the Io moth (Automeria io). This is one of the species that feeds on plants in the genus Prunus, so I’ll be eagerly searching my tree for this beautiful prickly caterpillar with chartreuse fireworks exploding out of its body.
My newly-planted Black Gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica), while not a keystone species, will still support more than a couple dozen species of caterpillars. It’s only twelve feet tall and doesn’t look like much at this point, but one day it will look like the image at the top of this post. And even though I probably won’t be alive to see it fully grown, somebody else will reap the benefits, both aesthetic and ecological.
One of the species that uses black gum trees as a larval host is the Hebrew moth (Polygrammate hebraeicum). This species isn’t yet reported from my corner of the state, but you never know, as many species are expanding their ranges northward. I photographed this one in southeastern Ohio.
And while I’m on the subject of moths, I have to mention a lovely new book I’ve just added to my library. It’s Gardening for Moths, by Jim McCormac and Chelsea Gottfried. It’s already one of my favorite reference books, well-organized and with a very nice index. (As a former freelance indexer, I always resent any book with a crappy index.) My first use of the book was to look up my two newest trees. I found that page 79 is devoted to a partial list of the many species of moths that might feed on my chokecherry tree. The back of the book contains a quick reference list of plants with the approximate number of lepidopteran species they each host. I was happy to see that many of the native plants in my garden are at the top of that list, hosting a large number of species. I’ve got a massive clump of Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grossesseratus) that’s always humming with insect activity; the book says it hosts more than 120 species. Black gum trees are shown to have more than 30 species using them. I’m thrilled to have this wonderful resource to inspire my future planting and insect exploration adventures!
I hope you find a way to celebrate and protect the natural systems of our planet this month. I’ve linked the websites of Earth Day and Arbor Day below so you can get inspired by their lists of suggested activities. And remember:
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.
Notes for further reading:
See more about Doug Tallamy, his books, and other work at homegrownnationalpark.org/tallamys-hub-1
Arbor Day is Friday April 28, 2023 – Check out their website for the history of Arbor Day and lots more – www.arborday.org
Earth Day is Saturday, April 22, 2023 – This year’s theme for Earth Day is “Invest in Our Planet.” Check out their website for details of how you can make a difference – www. earthday.org
Gardening for Moths! Thank you for the recommendation — I can’t wait to check it out. And thank you for your wonderful post! Cindy 🙂
I love Nyssa sylvatica. Their glossy dark red leaves in the fall are stellar.
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Thanks for writing this, Kim, and for spreading the joy and benefits of wildflowers! I’m daydreaming with you and already seeing lots of spring beauty foliage where I walk. Happy Spring!
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