Special Garden Visitors

At the risk of getting ahead of myself before I catch you up to real time in the new native garden series, I want to share some observations from my garden today. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the primary reasons I’m creating a garden full of native plants is to provide food for our native insects at all stages of their lives, from larva to adult. As I get started with the garden, I’ve been eagerly documenting every insect I can find on my plants. These are just five of the species I found today as I did yard work.

This first one was near the garden but not feeding, at least while I was watching. This is a tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus), and I just found out that it’s a predator of carpenter bees, which probably explains why it’s in my yard — I have plenty of those. This very large fly lays its eggs at the entrance to a carpenter bee tunnel, and when the fly larvae hatch, they find and eat the bee larvae.

Tiger Bee Fly - blog
Tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus)

I always enjoy learning about the relationships between various insects and plants, so this is a fascinating discovery.

These next four species were all feeding on common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), one of my favorite native plants. Whenever I see this plant in other places, it’s covered with insects, so I had high hopes for seeing a good variety of bugs when I planted this.

In this picture the boneset is the tall one with white flowers at the back of the bed.

boneset in my garden

Not only is it pretty, it has a subtle sweet fragrance I adore. So here are four species I found on the boneset today.

First is the stinkbug hunter (Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus) — isn’t that a great name?

Stinkbug Hunter
Stinkbug hunter, a solitary wasp

I’ve read that this wasp preys on the non-native brown marmorated stinkbug, making it a most welcome insect in my yard!

Next up is another wasp, the grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana). Interestingly enough, this species sometimes uses abandoned carpenter bee nests for its own young. One more inter-species relationship discovered today.

Grass-carrying Wasp - Isodontia mexicana
Grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana)

Next up is yet another wasp, the beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus), a species I hadn’t noticed before today.

Beewolf - Philanthus gibbosus
Beewolf wasp (Philanthus gibbosus)

And finally, one of my favorite diurnal moths, the lovely little ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). They’re very common but I always get a thrill when I find them.

Ailanthus webworm moth - blog
Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

I had trouble getting a sharp photo today because it was breezy and this guy was moving pretty quickly as he crawled around the flowers to feed. But just look at the pretty patterns of orange, black, and yellow. Most of us are well aware of the beauty of butterflies, but fewer people notice that there are lots of gorgeous moths as well. That’s probably because most moths fly at night, but there are quite a lot of them that are daytime feeders (diurnal) too.

So there you have it — my nascent native garden is already proving its value to the ecosystem!

Going Native in Toledo

Swamp milkweed for blog
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – valuable host plant for Monarch butterflies

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time around people who are knowledgeable about various aspects of the natural world: ornithologists, entomologists, and botanists — both professional and amateur.  Like me, most of my friends are passionate about their interests in birds, insects, or plants.  Our idea of a good time is heading out into a nature preserve with binoculars and a camera to investigate and document what’s currently blooming or breeding.

We contribute to citizen-science projects, sometimes obsessively. We go birding and enter our bird counts into eBird. We find dragonflies or wildflowers and enter them in iNaturalist.  Sounds sort of geeky, doesn’t it?  Yeah, it is.

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed for blog
Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed

And I love how much richer my life has become since I’ve begun paying closer attention to the natural world. Being a nature geek is a badge I wear proudly.

Bringing Nature Home - cover imageI’ve begun to think of it as earning “merit badges” in natural history. I’ve got my birder badge, and I’m working on badges for wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies. I think my writing on this blog probably qualifies me for some type of badge too, maybe for helping to share what I’ve learned with other people.  (Hey, I like this idea of inventing new badges to award myself!)

I’m about to begin work on my next merit badge as an amateur naturalist: Native Plant Gardener. Ever since I read “Bringing Nature Home” (by Doug Tallamy) several years ago, I’ve yearned for a garden where I could begin experimenting with native plants. And now I finally have the perfect opportunity, so I’m going for it.

Boneset for blog
Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) – it has a  delicate, sweet fragrance

In North America, native plants are defined as plants that existed in a particular area prior to European settlement of this continent. These plants evolved to thrive in local growing conditions, and are therefore much easier to grow – they need less water, fewer pesticides, and less tending in general. So they save the gardener time and money, for starters. And, just as important, they are food sources for our native insects, so they are an integral part of the web of life.

I’m still studying this, but I’ve learned that the specific chemical composition of each plant makes it edible by specific species of insects. The ability of an insect to digest a particular plant is something that evolved over thousands of years, and if the insect’s food source disappears, the insect will soon follow because it often cannot eat the non-native plants that have taken the place of the native plants.

beetles - Pennsylvania Leatherwing on Boneset - eupatorium perfoliatum (2).jpg
Common Boneset hosting a Viceroy butterfly and quite a few Pennsylvania Leatherwing beetles.

In this first phase of my project, I’ve started making an inventory of all the trees, shrubs, and flowers that are already growing in my garden. I’m researching them all to find out which ones are natives and which are non-natives, and starting to compile a list of the native plants I’d like to grow here.

My goals are to provide host plants for important pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths. (Fun fact: Did you know that moths pollinate flowers at night in the same way that butterflies and bees do in the daytime? It’s true.) I’ll try to choose plants that are hosts for the insect larvae as well as providing nectar for the adult insects.

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Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis) – I have one surviving in my yard now, and will add more.

In the next few weeks I’ll be removing some undesirable plants, and over the coming winter I’ll be making plans for my first native plant bed. I’m trying hard to restrain my enthusiasm at first, because I don’t want to get in over my head and not be able to handle it all.  It’s tempting to go around the yard digging up everything non-native, but that would be the wrong way to go about this. And it would look awful too.

I’ve joined the local chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit association with the mission of promoting “environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” I’m excited to be attending my first meeting soon and I hope my membership in Wild Ones will accelerate my learning process. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more there still is to learn.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to daydream about the beautiful Ohio prairie flowers that will soon be growing in my yard, and all the interesting insects who will come to live here with them.

Monarch butterfly on goldenrod - for blog
Monarch on Goldenrod

Resources: I highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s book, shown above (click the book cover to go to Amazon). But if you want a clickable source of more information about why native plants are important, check out this article on the Audubon website (“Why Native Plants Matter”). It includes a video clip of Doug Tallamy, as well as a searchable database that will give you a list of plants that are native to your particular zip code.

Wildflower Wanderings

This spring I’ve spent more time than ever before searching for wildflowers around northwest Ohio. I’m a novice at identifying them, but I’m having a blast and am learning new things every day.

Large Flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) (1024x682)
Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) — it’s so delicate-looking! (Goll Woods)

One rainy day in April I took a road trip west to visit Goll Woods in Butler County. I’d read that it’s the place to go for spring wildflowers in this corner of the state, so I grabbed my rain jacket and headed into the woods. One thing I always tell people when they look at me like I’m nuts for walking in the rain: “Hey, if you want to have a place almost to yourself, then walk in the rain.” And it was true on this day too, as I only saw two other people there for the two hours I walked.

Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge to juggle two cameras, binoculars, and an umbrella, but I made it work. Luckily it wasn’t a heavy rain, so occasionally I could put the umbrella on the ground in order to take some flower photos. I could have left the binoculars in the car, though, because birds were few and far between on this day. I guess I have such a habit of always carrying the binoculars that I didn’t even consider leaving them behind.

White Trillium - Goll Woods (1024x768)
White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

There were hundreds and hundreds of White Trillium in bloom, and a few pinkish ones, which I believe are still White Trillium but they turn pink as the flowers age. I’m still investigating this.

White Trillium - Goll Woods v2 (1024x768)

Pinkish Trillium - Goll Woods (800x533)
White Trillium turning pink as it ages (I think)

After I got accustomed to all the trillium, I was able to begin to look at things that were not trillium. And that’s when I found one of my most-sought-after wildflowers of the day. This is Dutchman’s Breeches, which I’d never seen in person before.

Dutchman's Breeches wildflower at Goll Woods
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

They really do look like pairs of pants hung out to dry, don’t they? Apparently there was some controversy in Victorian times about calling them “breeches,” as it was considered rude to refer to clothing that covered the–ahem–lower portion of the body. (A little tidbit I learned from one of my favorite books, The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders.)

And then I found another surprise, a white variety of Bleeding Hearts:

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Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) – closely related to Bleeding Hearts

I later learned from my friend Kelly that these are commonly known as Squirrel Corn. I couldn’t understand where that name came from until she told me that if you dig just below the soil surface, you’ll find little bulblets that look like kernels of corn. I wish I’d known that while I was there so I could have seen them for myself. But here’s a link to Kelly’s blog where she shows you a photo of the “corn” kernels.

Ent from Lord of the Rings - Goll Woods (682x1024)Goll Woods has some of the oldest trees in Ohio, with some as much as 400 years old. And trees that live that long tend to get pretty darn big. Some of them are 4 feet in diameter. This one made me think of Ents from Lord of the Rings. (Ents are a race of tree-like creatures…read more here if you like.) My imagination instantly saw that tree as a sleeping Ent who might, at any moment, rise up and tower over me. Fun stuff.

A couple weeks ago I was on my way home from Cleveland and decided to take a slight detour south near Sandusky to visit Castalia Prairie. I wanted to see White Lady’s-slippers for the first time and I was not disappointed. I saw hundreds of them all over the place. I had my macro lens and tripod but wasn’t sure about what the rules were there for going off the trail. To be honest, there was barely a “trail” at all, just a path where I could tell someone else had walked and flattened the grass down.  I did my best to get some photos without stepping on anything endangered, and had a great time discovering new things. (And the next morning I made a less-welcome discovery, as a tick had hitched a ride on me…shudder. Reminder to do a tick check immediately, not the next morning. Duh.)

White Lady's-slipper orchid, Cypripedium candidum (1280x853)
White Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

I also found a bunch of these one-inch snail shells scattered around. I didn’t find any evidence of the former inhabitants of the shells though.
Snail shell from Castalia Prairie v2 (1024x749)

It’s funny, I just realized that I’m traveling around to see flowers in much the same way I would normally search for birds. Except the flowers are easier to find and to photograph because they can’t fly away. It’s a nice change of pace, both mentally and physically, and it’s great to be learning about an entirely different part of the ecosystem.

I’m excited to be heading down to Urbana this week to meet a friend and see the Showy Lady’s-slipper orchids at Cedar Bog. And I may also be going up to Ann Arbor to see the magnificent peony garden at Nichols Arboretum. If I could only have one type of flower in my garden for the rest of eternity, it would be peonies. I can almost smell them now….sigh. So stay tuned for more botanical beauties!