For the past couple of years, I’ve been carrying around some wee folk in my camera bag. They love to pose with beautiful plants, so I thought I’d start sharing some of their photos here occasionally. I hope you find them as charming as I do!
There’s a patch of violets behind my shed, and it’s getting bigger and lusher each year. I know some people don’t like them for exactly that reason, but I love them and allow them to spread freely through the lawn. Tonight I transplanted some of them to another spot closer to the house so I can enjoy them more easily. The Violet Fairy approves. 🙂
Every year when I go to the woods searching for the latest native wildflowers, I’ve got one particular species in mind as my most-hoped-for find: Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).
These dainty little pantaloons are common in moist shady woods throughout the eastern US, and are sometimes also called bleeding hearts or little blue staggers.
The straight little stems holding waxy white and yellow flowers rise above the basal clump of fern-like compound leaves as if to say, “Here we are, look at us!” You might think they would stand out and be easy to spot, but that’s not the case. In fact, they’re so tiny that you have to be looking for them or you can easily walk right past them.
Here’s a wide shot for scale — the big tree stump was about three feet tall. The red circle indicates the Dutchman’s breeches:
Now that you have a sense of their size, you’ll understand why I imagine them to be fairy laundry hanging out to dry.
Last year I found an entire grove of them under a magnolia tree…I would have believed it if you’d told me there really were wee folk living in there. They probably scattered and ran for cover when they saw me inspecting their skivvies on the line.
I’m not sure why, but I often find large clusters of this plant at the bases of big trees. Here’s one I found last week:
This group had some teeny tiny new flowers in it:
Here’s another shot of new-ish flowers:
I always try to photograph pollinators on wildflowers, and I was doing that on this visit as well. I didn’t see any insects using these flowers, and I discovered that only long-tongued bees like bumblebees can reach the nectar deep inside these blossoms. Other insects have to settle for the pollen, apparently. And ants like to eat fleshy appendages on their seeds, so they carry the seeds to their nests, eat those parts, and discard the seeds, which can then germinate and make new plants. And that’s one way the seeds of this plant are dispersed to new locations. Cool little fact, huh?
I eventually found the owner of this laundry, napping under the clothesline. He sure looks like he’s enjoying life, doesn’t he? I hope you’re finding time to slow down and enjoy the simple things in your life too.
P.S. Happy 50th Earth Day! I marked the occasion by planting a native chokecherry tree in my yard today. 🙂
I’ve been going out once a week to check the progression of blooms among our native wildflowers here in northwest Ohio, and things are definitely starting to happen. The day I went to survey them last week was quite chilly, with temps in the low 40s. I was even pelted with beads of graupel for a few minutes after I stepped out of the car. (And as I write this today, I’m watching a steady snow falling outside my window…winter doesn’t want to let go of us just yet.)
As expected in these conditions, the Bloodroot was tightly closed against the cold.
I was pleased to find that the variety of blooms had increased since my prior week’s survey. There were still lots of Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Spring Beauty blooming, but Purple Cress was the superstar on this day. Its tall stems lifted it up above the carpet of leaves formed by all the other plants that are still thinking about whether or not they want to poke their heads up yet.
And here are the Spring Beauties:
I discovered a little bee that’s a specialist pollinator of these flowers — meet the Spring Beauty Mining Bee (Andrena erigeniae). The term oligolecty is used to describe this kind of specialist relationship between a bee and a particular flower or genus of flowers. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?
The Yellow Trout-Lilies were just beginning to rise from a carpet of spotted leaves. The other day my friend called them Dogtooth Violets, and I thought that seemed a strange name because they’re not violets. So I came home and read about this species in one of my favorite reference books (The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders). That’s how I discovered that the “dogtooth” part arose because of their similarity to a European version of this flower (Erythronium dens-canis), in which the corms apparently look like dog’s teeth. Still not violets though.
The seeds of this flower are dispersed by ants, ground beetles, and crickets. Once a plant is transported in this manner, it will eventually begin spreading by means of underground corms. Trout-lilies form big colonies through a type of cloning process, and only about 1% of the plants in a colony will bloom in any given year. A few years ago a friend took me to visit a little colony of them not far from my home, and now I realize that there must have been many thousands of them still underground, biding their time. This is a photo collage I made from my visit to that colony:
And here’s Harbinger of Spring, also known as Salt & Pepper (Erigenia bulbosa). These flowers are so tiny, I always feel victorious when I find them on the forest floor
These pretty white blooms are Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), a member of the buttercup family. I like its distinctive three-lobed leaves.
I had intended to show you one more species today, but I think this is long enough. And I could probably devote an entire post to that other species, so perhaps that’ll be coming up next.
Hang in there, everyone, spring is really coming and soon we’ll all be able to spend lots more time outdoors getting our recommended doses of Vitamin N (Nature). Be safe and be well. 🙂
By now everyone has heard of the tradition in birding called a “Big Year,” in which you see how many species of birds you can find in a calendar year. There have been books written and movies made about this practice, and the competition can be fierce in some circles. This afternoon a friend told me she’s going to do a big birding year in 2020, and I got an idea: I’m going to do a Big Bug Year!
I’ll include all arthropods, so that means spiders will be fair game as well as any type of insect (including my favorites — odonata!). This is purely a personal project; I’m not competing with anyone because that’s what sucked the joy out of birding for me. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. I’ll probably actively search out places to find new species, but I still want to enjoy each encounter, and hopefully take the time to learn more about each new critter I come across. This Big Bug Year will cover the calendar year 2020, so it has officially begun even though I haven’t found any insects so far. I started the year off sick and even if I hadn’t been bedridden, it’s still winter in Ohio, after all. I might get a jump start if I head down to Texas in March as I’m hoping to, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect to make much headway up here in Ohio until probably April.
I’m excited about this! As I started thinking about it, I checked my observations from iNaturalist and was stunned to discover that I’d photographed and identified 293 species of arthropods in 2019. (All but two of those were in Ohio.) And I’ve got around 100 photos that haven’t been positively identified yet, so that number might increase. And I haven’t checked, but I’m sure a large percentage of my observations in 2019 were moths I saw at Mothapalooza, and since there isn’t a Mothapalooza in 2020, I would expect my species count to be lower this year. But again, not competing, so the numbers are just interesting, that’s all.
I think that my interest in studying insects marks an important step forward in my evolution as a naturalist because insects are at a lower trophic level in the food web, and therefore more foundational to the ecosystem. Learning about insects has given me a deeper understanding of how all of life truly is interconnected. (And, by the way, a few years ago I’d never heard the term “trophic level,” so that’s progress too.) Put simply, trophic levels are a way of looking at the food web by describing who eats whom in the process of passing the sun’s energy through various life forms.
As you can see in this graphic, the first trophic level is composed of plants and algae. The next level contains insects and other herbivores, i.e., those who eat the plants in the first level. And so it goes up the pyramid. The higher levels consume those in the lower levels. When you see it illustrated like this, it becomes very clear that everyone needs to eat plants, whether directly or indirectly.
When I first started learning about native plants through my membership in Wild Ones, I found that one of the keys to their importance is that they are hosts to many more species of insects than non-native plants are. A “host plant” is one that a specific insect species can use to raise its young. Insects have complex chemical relationships with plants, and there are some plants that just cannot serve as food for certain insects or groups of insects.
The most widely-known example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch absolutely must lay its eggs on milkweed plants, because when the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they can only eat milkweed. That’s it. If there’s no milkweed, then the monarch butterfly will quickly go extinct. Some people suggest that the caterpillars would evolve to be able to eat something else, but research has shown that type of evolution to take a very long time. There’s simply not enough time for a species to evolve in that way before it dies out. And so it is with many insects, including the pollinators that are crucial to the human food supply. Therefore we need to increase the proportion of native plants throughout the world in order to increase the chances that we can save a diverse enough range of insect species that our own survival won’t eventually be threatened.
Starting to get the idea now? I’ve been amazed to discover some of this stuff, and rather incredulous that it wasn’t taught to me in school. This basic understanding of how ecosystems work should be presented to all of us in high school, if not sooner.
So, let’s get back on track. (Bear with me…I’m trying to wrap this up!) Why do we care how many species of insects can live off of any particular plant? Don’t we hate all insects and kill every one we find? Well, it’s true, many people do live that way, unfortunately. But I’m hoping to get people to see insects differently, and learn to tolerate them rather than killing them indiscriminately. (Before all the vegetable gardeners write me angry emails, I’m not suggesting you allow the insects to devour all of your crops. But maybe, just maybe, you can allow them to have some of them?)
I’ll end with one more mind-blowing fact that you may not have heard: Birds have to feed their babies with insect protein. Lots of it. You may feel good about helping birds when you hang seed feeders in your yard. But that only feeds birds after they’re fledged from the nest. Even as adults, birds still get the majority of their nutrition from insects rather than seeds, but baby birds need insects. And ONE brood of baby birds can eat 6,000-9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest. Here’s an article from the National Audubon Society that explains more about the research on that.
So if you’re a bird-lover, it makes sense that you will want to start growing native plants to support the entire life cycle of the birds that could potentially nest in your yard if they know there’s going to be a good enough supply of caterpillars there. It’s sure worth trying, isn’t it?
I hope you’ll check back in here occasionally to read about progress with my Big Bug Year. I’ll bet we all learn something from it.
Imagine a world in which fall is a time for enjoying the beauty of the season before the onset of winter, without the burden of hours of raking, leaf blowing, and garden cleanup. Just think about it: If you don’t have to face the drudgery (and futility) of trying to make the outdoors as “neat” as the indoors, what else could you be doing on a gorgeous fall Saturday? How about walking in the woods? Or going on a country drive to admire the fall foliage? Or picking apples with your family? Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Allow me to suggest that this utopian world is already here, if we can just change our way of looking at things. And I know some of you are already saying, “But the neighbors will disapprove!” And I get it, I really do. It’s tough to resist a lifetime of cultural conditioning. But please keep reading.
Back in the day, it was considered important to “clean up” your garden each fall, but now we know better. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do any garden cleanup, just that we reduce what we do. There’s a growing movement to begin looking at gardens as part of the ecosystem rather than just something pretty for humans to look at. Our species has a tendency to try to bend the natural world to our will, rather than considering ourselves part of it and trying to work with nature rather than against it. This encouraging new perspective impacts our choice of plants as well as how we care for the overall ecosystem in our yards.
Now we understand that if we remove all the fallen leaves from the ground, we’re killing innumerable caterpillars who overwinter in those leaves. By destroying caterpillars, we’re killing many of the butterflies and moths who would have graced the garden next summer. Some butterflies migrate south, that’s true. But so many of them overwinter in our yards, whether as adults or in pupal or larval forms tucked into crevices or leaves.
The way we tend our gardens in the fall has a huge impact on the amount and diversity of wildlife it can support there in the next spring and summer. Many of our native bees spend the winter tucked into hollow plant stems, like those of our native monarda (aka bee balm). That’s why it’s important to leave some of those stems standing over the winter. In my garden, for instance, I’ve cut my 5-foot tall monarda down to 3-foot stems, so any insect that wants to use those hollow stems will have easy access.
And let’s talk about birds….
Sure, seed feeders help get birds through the scarcity of winter. But did you know that seeds only comprise a small percentage of a bird’s diet? They get most of their nutrition from spiders and caterpillars or other insects, many of which spend the winter tucked into fallen leaves or hollow plant stems. Well, they do unless you cut all those stems down and blow all the leaves away.
Can you start to see how restraining your fall cleanup impulses can result in having more birds in your yard? I sure hope so, because that’s the whole reason I’m writing this.
What I’ve been doing the past couple of years since I learned about this is to gently rake most of my leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Not only does this preserve the insects who are tucked into them, but it helps my plants survive the winter and it enriches the soil as the leaves break down. Now I admit, some of the leaves get mulched up by my lawn mower as I do that final mowing of the year in late October, but other than that, I restrain myself from removing all the leaves that drop after that.
Many birds come to the yard in winter to flip leaves over to find food, or to harvest the seeds from the native plants I’ve left standing for them. Goldfinches are pros at this and I’ll often see a dozen or more of them bouncing around on brown stems in the garden.
And if you like to take photos, that’s one more great reason not to cut down your flower stems in the fall. You can get some lovely images of frost and snow on spent flower heads.
Try it this year and see if you can’t get used to it. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we want our priorities to be, isn’t it? And if anyone comments on your yard, why not take that golden opportunity to tell them why you chose not to rake those leaves? You never know who you might influence with your actions. (#EachOneTeachOne) Feel free to copy the image below and use it on social media with a link to this post. And thanks for reading!
I just came across a website that claims a native plant garden will starve pollinators of nectar because none of the natives bloom into fall. To that I say, “Poppycock!” We’re well into October now, and every day I watch incredible numbers of pollinators on the native goldenrods and asters blooming everywhere around me. I stand in my garden amidst a buzzing cloud of bumblebees feeding on the New England asters. I go to a park and see the goldenrods vibrating with butterflies and bees. I took a very short walk today and photographed a dozen species of butterflies, many of whom were feeding on asters. I present the beautiful proof here for your enjoyment. #PlantNativesForCryingOutLoud
After my walk in the woods today, I stopped to admire the flower garden at my local metropark. It’s a beautiful garden of both natives and non-natives, and I was checking to see if there were any interesting insects hanging out there. My passion for native plants has turned me into a total bug geek, and I can’t resist looking beyond the simple beauty of the flowers to find the other hidden lives within their parts.
Since I’d been on a fitness walk, I only had my cell phone with me and so I started trying to take photos with it. But it’s terrible at macro shots. And so when I saw something new, I ran to the car for my real camera so I could document my cool discovery.
This is an ambush bug, a member of the assassin bug family. I believe this one is a jagged ambush bug (genus Phymata). This is the first ambush bug I’ve ever photographed, so I was very excited to discover him hiding in plain sight on top of a Black-eyed Susan flowerhead. As the name implies, they hunt by sitting in wait for a hapless victim to wander within reach of their lethal grasp.
After photographing his dorsal side, I slowly moved around to get a lateral view. Often when I’m shooting tiny subjects like this, I can’t fully see the details until I zoom in on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. And as I did that, I had to restrain myself from giggling out loud when I saw this adorable face:
I know, it might be adorable to me, but I wouldn’t want to be a small beetle trundling around those petals, I’ll tell you that. I mean, just look at those forelegs — they give you an indication of the reach he’s capable of. And little did I know then, but I was about to see one of these guys in action. Well, sort of.
I moved along, photographing other insects, and then came upon another great piece to the story of the jagged ambush bug. I found this second one with a recently-acquired victim! All I can tell is that it’s some kind of bee. As I took my photos, the bee seemed to still be moving slightly, so that’s why I figured I’d just missed the grab.
If you look closely at that last picture, you can see the bug’s proboscis stabbed into the bee’s abdomen. After he grabs his prey with those powerful legs, he injects poison that liquefies its insides. The insides are then sucked out through a rostrum, a straw-like structure inside the proboscis. Is that not cool or what?!
Aren’t we lucky these things are so small? With its powerful pincer legs, an ambush bug can easily take an insect up to ten times its size. Imagine a dog-sized ambush bug lurking in the shrubbery as you take your evening stroll…yikes!
Okay, that was a little bit unnerving, wasn’t it? Here’s a nice calming photo of the trail in the woods…take a deep breath…and forget all about ambush bugs. For now, at least. 😉
I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water. I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!
And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them. I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.
But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.
It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.
I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.
Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.
By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations. But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.
These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.” As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.
As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors. Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.
Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice. I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.
Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.
So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust. Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.
I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it. Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.
I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.
I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:
REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES
This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.
So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.
I realize I haven’t done an update on my native garden for quite a while, so I’m working on that right now. In the meantime, enjoy a close look at one of my monarda fistulosa blooms. It’s gorgeous even after most of the petals have dropped to the ground.
Dragon- and damselflies don’t often perch on photogenic flower heads, so when I found this one yesterday I was pleased. Of course it’s not a flower, but close enough. This is a female emerald spreadwing damselfly (Lestes dryas), clutching the seed capsule on a stem of seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia). I’m calling it a two-fer because it’s an ode on a native plant, two awesome things for the price of one!
I discovered seedbox last fall while helping to collect seeds for my Wild Ones chapter, and instantly fell in love with its square seed capsules. They’re filled with tiny little seeds that rattle when shaken. Each seed capsule has a hole in the top, presumably so the seeds can fall out when the plant is blown by the wind or otherwise jostled. This plant has lovely yellow blooms in the summer, but they aren’t nearly as interesting as these little brown boxes, if you ask me. 🙂