Holy Lupines, Batman! (aka Blue Week)

Today marks the end of the annual celebration known as Blue Week here in the Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio.  Blue Week is an event of the Green Ribbon Initiative, a consortium of local organizations working to protect the biological diversity of our area.  I serve on the boards of two nonprofits who are members of the Green Ribbon Initiative (Toledo Naturalists’ Association and Wild Ones Oak Openings Chapter). I wrote more about Blue Week two years ago in this post, if you’d like to read about the significance of the Oak Openings ecosystem.

When I started my native garden project, I was eager to have wild lupines growing in my yard. These native flowers (Lupinus perennis) are the iconic symbols of Blue Week, and the reason for the timing of the celebration each year. I was given six tiny lupine plants in the fall of 2017 after I’d volunteered at our Metroparks Toledo native seed nursery. I planted them in the sandy soil of my garden and watched all but one of them die over the first year. The surviving plant didn’t bloom last year, but just look at what it’s doing now!

Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (2)

I’m overjoyed to see this plant thriving in my yard, and am encouraged to try to add more of them. Luckily for me, a local nursery is selling them now, and I was able to get a few more. I put them in the ground several days ago, right beside the existing lupine. Unfortunately, a small rabbit has made a home in my garden and he ate all four of the new lupines a couple days ago. But there are still a few tiny leaves on those new plants, so I’ve fenced them off and will see if they can make it.

That naughty bunny also found my sky blue aster to be tasty, chewing several inches off the top of the young shoots about a week ago. I think the aster will be okay too, but that bunny is lucky he’s cute enough to make me tolerate his ravaging of my plants.

This afternoon I spent some time in my backyard trying to photograph this interesting plant to help you see how beautiful it is. So I’m going to stop with the writing and just show you the pictures. Enjoy!

Wild lupine in my yard on 5-19-19

Wild lupine in my yard
Note my 2nd year native garden along the fence in the back of this photo — looking great!
Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (1)
I find both the flowers and the foliage beautiful on this plant
Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (4)
The flower stalks bloom from the bottom to the top
Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (3)
Looking down from above one of the flower spikes — isn’t that gorgeous?!
Lupine with rain droplets w sig
The leaves are magical after a rain!

And finally, this is what it looks like when you find a larger number of lupines together. This was taken at one of our local metroparks.

Blue lupines (2) (1280x853)

Going Native in Toledo — Series Intro

Backyard preview through redbud blooms - blog teaser
Peeking into the backyard through the redbud blooms

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.

Garden teaser for blog July 2018

City Girl Goes Wild

You may recall that I recently wrote about my desire to plant native wildflowers in the  yard at my new home. I also mentioned that I had joined my local chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants.

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.

My first native plants for my garden (1024x768)
Starter plants from Wild Ones members

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.

Ironweed seed heads - Wild Ones event - for blog
Ironweed seeds being processed

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!

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed blog
Silver-spotted skipper feeding on ironweed
Ironweed seeds cleaned at Wild Ones event - for blog
My little work space at the seed cleaning event

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).

Riddell's goldenrod v2 - Wild Ones event - for blog
Riddell’s goldenrod seed pile in my processing tray

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:

Native Seed Nursery - Little Bluestem drying - for blog
Little Bluestem seeds drying on a giant tarp
Native Seed Nursery - seeds drying on floor - for blog
More seeds drying in the loft of the big barn

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.

Native Seed Nursery - carousel planter - for blog

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:

Blue Creek Seed Nursery whiteboard with stats (1280x794)

Native Seed Nursery - view from loft down into main floor - for blog

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.)

Ohio Has the Blues

Looking up at tall trees - (800x594)
Looking skyward in a grove of evergreen trees at Oak Openings Preserve

Living in the Oak Openings book cover (785x1024)The region of northwest Ohio where I live is called the Oak Openings. It’s one of the world’s rarest habitats, a band of sandy soil about five miles wide and 80 miles long, stretching across Ohio and southeastern Michigan.  When the last glacier receded from this area 15,000 years ago, it left in its wake a large lake that eventually became present-day Lake Erie. That ancient lake deposited large amounts of sand on top of the clay soil, and this unique combination is what has allowed the formation of a variety of ecosystems, ranging from open oak savannas to wet prairies to sand dunes. The Oak Openings region is home to dozens of rare species of plants and animals. And since I live here now, I want to learn all about it.

Girdham Road Sand Dunes sign with fairy (1024x683)
The sand dunes are one of my favorite places at Oak Openings Preserve

What better place to begin my exploration than Oak Openings Preserve, the largest of the Toledo Metroparks. We’re in the midst of  “Blue Week” here, an annual celebration of the special flora and fauna of the Oak Openings area, particularly those that are blue. The iconic plant associated with Blue Week is the Wild Lupine, which is found in large swaths throughout the metropark right now.

Blue lupines (2) (1280x853)
Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis)

I had seen lupines before, but never in such abundance. I love the gorgeous blue spikes rising above the bright green blanket of leaves. And the circular arrangement of the leaves is really pleasing to my geometry-loving brain.

Blue lupines v3 (1) (1280x853)

Blue lupines with bee (2) (1132x1280)

There’s a tiny endangered butterfly that can only breed in places that have Wild Lupines, and so I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them as well. They’re a subspecies of Blue butterfly called the “Karner Blue.” I’d read that they were the size of a nickel, so I had a feeling it would be hard to find them. I was standing out in a sandy path listening to birds when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw fluttering movement. I glanced down to see a tiny blue butterfly flitting among the grasses at the edge of the path.

I wasn’t able to get very good pictures of this guy, and I first thought it was a Karner Blue. But I think it’s actually an Eastern Tailed Blue instead. Another very pretty butterfly, but a disappointment on this particular day.

Karner blue butterfly - rare endangered (1)

Karner blue butterfly - rare endangered (2)
Nope, not a Karner Blue. This is an Eastern Tailed Blue.

I wish I’d been able to see a Karner Blue, and maybe I will one day.  If you want to read more about why this species is endangered, the US Fish & Wildlife website has some good information.  Before I realized this wasn’t a Karner Blue, I had a “connect the dots” moment out there in that windswept sandy prairie, seeing the endangered plant and (I thought at the time) the endangered butterfly that depends on it for survival.

Ferns - weird two shades of green (1280x960)
Not blue, but an interesting fern with two shades of green —  I need to investigate this one.

Boardwalk and bridge at Oak Openings (1280x960)

And, as luck would have it, just as I was finishing this article for the blog, I got to do this:

Lupines I transplanted for Toledo Metroparks

Yes, I got to help the metroparks by transplanting some Wild Lupines from cell packs to 4″ pots. I had volunteered for a day of potting tree seedlings, but when I arrived for my shift they had already finished the trees. I was very disappointed, thinking I’d made the 30-minute drive for nothing. So I asked if there was anything else I could do, and that’s how I ended up spending almost three hours with the lupines.

I found this to be such a satisfying job now that I know how important those plants are to the ecosystem. Each time I popped a tiny plant out of the cell pack, I envisioned it standing tall and blooming on the sand dunes at Oak Openings, providing nourishment for the Karner Blue butterflies that can’t survive without it.

And as if that wasn’t enough for a gratifying experience, they gave me six tiny lupines for my yard! I had mentioned to the greenhouse supervisor that I was considering trying to grow them in my garden, and as I was preparing to wrap up my shift, she made the sweet gesture of offering me a six-pack of baby plants. I was overwhelmed, and cannot wait to find the perfect (sandy) spot in my garden for them.

Speaking of my garden, perhaps in an upcoming post I’ll show you some of the plants that have been blooming here lately. My new yard has been full of surprises!

P.S. I found an interesting bird-related trivia tidbit about the phrase “to have the blues.” It goes back at least as far as 1827, when John Audubon used the phrase in a letter to his wife Lucy.