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.
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
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.
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. 🙂
Thanks to all of you who have remained faithful readers of my blog this year. I’m grateful that so many people find value in what I share here, and I hope you’ll stick around to read about more nature adventures in 2019. Happy New Year!
In the spring of 2017 I moved to Toledo, Ohio. I bought a house with a lovely yard where I would finally be able to experiment with native plant gardening. I’m beginning a series of posts to document what I’m doing — the plans, the failures, the successes — and to provide information about why native plants are important. This is a learn-as-I-go project, so it might be messy (and maybe even embarrassing) but I figure that will still be entertaining for you. 🙂
This series will be intermingled with my usual posts about dragonflies and birds, but you can always find the posts in this series by choosing “Native Plants” from the Category drop-down on the right side of the blog.
Here are a few earlier posts that serve as background to the upcoming series:
Ohio Has the Blues – May 22, 2017 – in which I tell you a bit about the Oak Openings region of Ohio and the rare plants and animals found here.
Going Native in Toledo – September 6, 2017 — in which I define “native plants” and dream about my garden plans.
City Girl Goes Wild – December 12, 2017 — in which I join Wild Ones, an organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants. And I actually begin collecting the first plants for my garden project!
I’ll need to do a couple more posts to catch you up on what I’ve done so far this summer, and then I hope to keep up in real time. I hope you’ll want to read the series — to commiserate with me about my mistakes and celebrate the successes. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser pic for now.
My native flower garden is barely started, but I’m already taking full advantage of my Wild Ones membership to learn as much as I can while I continue my garden plans through the winter.
I’ve been blown away by the generosity of my fellow Wild Ones members: Not only do they freely share their knowledge about native plants, but they’re more than happy to give me seeds and plants from their gardens. I came home from my first meeting with starter plants of common boneset, cardinal flower, New England aster, blue lobelia, and swamp milkweed. All of these have been transplanted into my new garden, along with some bulbs of Turk’s cap lily given to me by my friend Judy.
My chapter regularly participates in conservation stewardship events around the Toledo area, either to remove invasives or to plant natives. I haven’t yet been able to help with any of those, but a few days ago I was able to volunteer at one of our seed cleaning events. Members collect dried flower heads from their gardens, and then we extract the seeds from them and offer them to the public at the annual Toledo GROWS Seed Swap in February.
The species I worked with first was Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), which just happens to be one of my favorites. The yard at my new home is mostly full of non-native plants, but there’s a huge, beautiful native ironweed plant in my front yard. I enjoyed watching all sorts of insects feeding on it all summer long, and I’m eager to plant more of it along the fence in my back yard.
Here’s what it looks like in bloom. Just imagine these incredible purple flowers towering over your head. The plant in my yard was easily 7 feet tall this year!
Our group of about ten people spent three hours processing seeds on this particular day. After I worked my way through a large bag of ironweed, I moved on to Riddell’s goldenrod (Oligoneuron riddellii).
As you can imagine, this kind of work creates quite a bit of dust in the air. After a couple hours my nose began to tickle, and I joked that I would probably be transporting enough seeds home in my nose that I could just sneeze in my garden and plant ironweed. I didn’t think too much more about it just then, but later that evening I must have sneezed a hundred times!
I also brought a small quantity of ironweed seeds home with me using the more traditional method of a paper bag. I can’t wait to see if I can actually grow these beautiful plants from seed. I’m told it’s as easy as sprinkling the seed on top of the snow right now, in December. Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? But I’m also told there’s a lot of trial and error involved in this stuff, so I’ll need to be patient and persistent. That will be the hardest part for me, I’m sure.
A couple months ago I went on a tour of the Native Seed Nursery of the Toledo Metroparks. This facility grows native plants to use in restoration projects in the various metroparks in the globally-rare habitats of the Oak Openings region. The tour was arranged for our Wild Ones members, and was led by Penny Niday, who is the nursery coordinator and who also happens to be on the board of our Wild Ones chapter. During our 2-hour behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, we learned about the incredible work done by the small staff and their many volunteers.
I worked a couple volunteer shifts in their greenhouse last summer, but I had no idea of the broad scope of what they do there. We saw lots of seeds in various stages of processing:
And we saw some of the farm equipment they use. I was impressed with Penny’s descriptions of how they had modified some of the equipment to do exactly what they needed it to do. And I also thought it was very cool that much of this work is done by a team of mostly women. While we were there I saw women driving tractors and combines as easily as if they were Honda Civics. And I have to admit to a bit of envy and a desire to see what it’s like to climb up in the cab of one of those monsters and rev the engine. 🙂
This particular piece of equipment is called a carousel planter. Notice the four seats across the back, each with its own little rotating tray with holes for plants.
Believe it or not, this entire rig gets pulled behind a big tractor, and each person has to continually replace the plants in their little rotating tray, as the plants drop down into the field beneath them. They have a whole team of people who follow along behind them to resupply them with plants periodically. I forget the exact number, but I think she said the whole operation requires about a dozen people doing various tasks as this thing moves through the field. I found this video of a similar (but smaller) machine so you can see it in action. Very impressive stuff!
This whiteboard shows some of their stats on the day we visited:
That’s a view of the main part of the barn, looking down from the loft area. I’ve now got a new appreciation for all the work involved in this operation, from planning which species are needed for specific locations to making sure they have them processed in the right quantities and at the appropriate times.
And this city girl sure got a thrill from being around all that farm equipment that day! Who knows, maybe one day they’ll let me take a turn at the wheel of one of those monster machines. But until then, I guess I’ll content myself with my own small-scale native plant operation in the city.
If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets, or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar.
~~ Lorrie Otto, the environmentalist who was the inspiration for the founding of Wild Ones
(In case you missed it above, here’s a nice article about the Native Seed Nursery, including photos of the awesome women who run it, and a video of some of their equipment in action.)