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I Went Shopping for Spice Bush for the Swallowtail Butterfly

Spicebush

Spice Bush, Lindera Benzoin

It’s spring and I went shopping  for Spice Bush. Yesterday, at the Hadley Garden Center I found a Spice Bush with bursting green buds. This Spice Bush, Lindera benzoin, is hardy, takes shade, and gets big, up to 12 feet tall and just as wide.  I will plant it next to the fence which a relatively dry spot, but spice bush can also tolerates some wet. One special reason for planting spice bush is that it attracts Spice Bush Swallowtail butterflies. Spice Bush Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on  host plants like the Spice Bush. This is so when the eggs hatch and the caterpillars are born their meals are waiting for them.  Any butterfly garden must include host plants that will feed the particular caterpillar as well as nectar plants.

A little botanical history. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) honored Johan Linder (1676-1724) by naming the Lindera genus in his honor. As you might imagine the genus Thunbergia which includes Thunbergia alata, the  black eyed susan vine. is name for CP Thunberg

Bill Benner and Butterfly Gardens

Bill Benner

Bill Benner

Bill Benner, veterinarian, birder, and butterfly gardener, is a man with many strings to his bow, but they all play tunes of the natural world and its fragility. He will be talking about the natural world, climate change and the impact it has on our own part of Massachusetts at GreenfieldCommunity College’s Senior Symposium on Tuesday, March 10 from 2-4 pm.

As a young man Benner attended CornellUniversity because of their ornithology lab. “I just wanted to study birds,” he said. As part of his research he was working with a captive flock of birds that required occasional help from a veterinarian. As he was drawing close to finishing his Master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with the idea of going on to earn a PhD he realized that he was not looking forward to a purely academic career. His consulting veterinarian suggested that he could take his love of birds and turn it into a veterinary career.

And so he has become a vet with a practice in South Hadley, a practice that includes birds and other ‘exotics,’ like rabbits, snakes and rodents. However, his interest in the broader aspects of the natural world has not been diminished, but rather has grown. As well as meeting animals in his practice, he goes out into the local wildernesses. When he moved to our area in the mid-1990s he became interested in butterflies and served for a time as president of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club. He is the current editor of the journal Massachusetts Butterflies, and an active member of the Hampshire Bird Club.

Great Spangled Fitillary

Great Spangled Fritillary on black eyed susan

Benner was clearly the man to give me advice about making a butterfly garden. I have the same problem identifying butterflies as I do with identifying birds – my eyes are just not fast enough to discern detail of beak, or patterns on wings. However, I want butterflies in my garden so I am delighted to watch them visiting the herbs right in front of the house and think that I (probably) have some fritillaries or pearl crescents.

Benner explained that a butterfly garden needs  more than nectar plants to attract butterflies. It is essential to supply host plants. Host plants are the plants where butterflies lay their eggs, and which will be eaten by the larvae, caterpillars, when they hatch. I have often sacrificed my dill plants in order to feed the caterpillars that will one day become black swallowtails. The much larger herb, fennel or sweet anise, will also attract swallowtails. The tiger swallowtail is partial to wild cherry, but lilacs, and ash and willow trees are also host plants.

Each kind of butterfly will require certain host plants, although there certainly is overlap. The same nectar plants will feed many more types of butterfly. Zinnias are an excellent nectar plant, but it is important to choose single or double varieties so the butterflies can see just where to land and dip in their proboscis or feeding tube.

Butterfly garden

Bill’s butterfly garden photo by Bill Benner

Other nectar plants that will feed a number of butterflies include lilacs, butterfly bush, milkweed, coneflowers, asters, Joe Pye Weed, phlox, goldenrod, and mint. In the days when huge clouds of monarchs used to visit us in late summer I didn’t know they were attracted by the huge stand of mint in  our field. The mint, important nectar plant, is still there but the monarchs no longer come. The world has changed.

Like many others I have given up pulling out milkweed in my cultivated gardens, and help the seeds fly down into my field, hoping to  supply hosts for the monarchs. Benner recommended I not do this anymore. He said the common milkweed is very invasive, and is not of great benefit. Instead he recommends butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberose, with its big orange flower heads, and swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnate with its lavender/purple flower heads. These are certainly additions to the garden, not weeds that we wish we didn’t have to ignore in order to support our local food web.

The Massachusetts Butterfly Club website has more information about gardening for butterflies including an article that Benner wrote for their newsletter. There he points out that there can be a danger in buying seedlings from the big box stores because they come from huge propagators who use systemic insecticides, neonicotinoids, that persist in the plant for weeks, or even the whole season. When the butterfly sips from these plants they will die. The big box store may never know about this and so can never guarantee that the plants are insecticide free.

And that brings us to the general advice not to use pesticides or herbicides in your garden if you want to attract wildlife. Let the edges go a little wild.  Don’t mow the lawn too often. Violets are a host plant for fritillaries. It is hard to imagine that the small violets in my lawn could be hiding fritillary eggs or caterpillars.

Bill Benner will speak on Climate Change in our Own Backyards at the Greenfield Community College Downtown Campus on Tuesday, March 10 from 2-4 pm.

Swallowtail

Swallowtail photo by Bill Benner

While Benner speaks about butterflies and summer days we can also visit the greenhouses at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College. It is  time for their Spring Flower Shows both of which will be held from March 7-22 between 10am – 4 pm. Old Man Winter is keeping a firm grip on the landscape this year, but Lyman Plant House at Smith and Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke are calling his bluff.

Between the Rows

Street Art: The Audubon Mural Project

Audubon Mural Project

Cover of Aububon Newletter – The Audubon Mural Project in NYC

The February Audubon Newsletter features an amazing art project – painting portraits of all 314 climate threatened or endangered birds on  the roll down security gates in  the Hamilton Heights area of NYC, where coincidently,  John James Audubon once lived. This is the brainstorm of gallery owner Avi Gitler, and artist Tom Sanford. Street art to spread the word about the plight of these birds. The New York Times thought this was a great idea too.

The Newsletter has other fascinating facts. Do you know why woodpeckers don’t get headaches? The big Pileated woodpecker “hammers its head into trees with a force of 15 mph – 20 times every second.”  “One millisecond before a strike at a tree, dense muscles in the neck contract and a compressible bone in the skull provides a cushion. . . . Also woodpeckers have very little cerebral spinal fluid in the brain, so the brain stay’s rigid and doesn’t slosh around”

Lots of other fascinating facts in the Newsletter and a plea to join your energies to saving the birds. And counting them, too. The Great Backyard Bird Count is scheduled for February 13-14. Organized by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and the National Audubon Society this was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real time. Check out the Audubon website and find out about birding, who does it, and why.  If you want to know how to understand birder-talk click here and find out  what an SOB really is, as well as pelagic and pish.

Birds and Blooms for Every Gardener

Birds and Blooms Magazine

Birds and Blooms Magazine

In spite of its name, Birds AND Blooms, I always thought of this magazine as concentrating on Birds. However, I’ve been looking at it from time to time and have come to  realize that it has lots of  good information for gardeners, too.

In fact, as we all become more aware of  the pressures on our environment, climate change, depredations of host environments for migrating birds,  and a  simple desire to attract those ‘flowers of the air” birds and butterflies to our garden, this magazine can be very useful. Features that focus on gardens, focus on those plants  that are going to attract those other beautiful “flowers.” Who can complain about that.

The current issue has a useful story about the wide variety of coral bells, heucheras, that are now available. I have written about these myself because of their many shades of foliage from green to gold, to burnished reds. I was intersted in color, but it is also true that hummingbirds enjoy coral bells. What a bonus. Another story reminds us that fall is a good time to plant perennials and makes it clear that while flowers and foliage may fade at this time of the year, roots are still going and growing strong. The soil is warm, and roots will continue to grow until it freezes. Besides, there are great bargains at garden centers and other businesses that sell potted perennials. As long as plants don’t look diseased they can be a great buy. Bring them home, give them a deep watering, and then plant them. Keep them watered because those roots are taking hold. You’ll have a great plant ready to bloom in the spring.

Right now you can get a free first issue by ordering at www.birdsandblooms.com/FreeExtra and get 8 issues for $12.98.  The holidays are coming and this is a great gift for gardeners – and birders.

Elderberries, Chokeberries and Good Health

Elderberry bush by a Heath roadside

Elderberry bush by a Heath roadside

Elderberries and chokeberries are not as beautiful or familiar as spring’s strawberry, but these small dark berries that ripen in late summer pack a nutritional wallop. I’ve know the elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) since childhood, but the chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is fairly new to me.

Whether you call the elderberry a tree or a bush, it is having a very good year. I seem to see elderberry bushes everywhere I go. I can easily identify the bushes with large flat clusters of creamy flowers that can be as much as eight inches across as I drive along Route 2, or down the wooded roads of Heath. An elderberry that usually grew by the road at the bottom of our hill seemed to disappear but this year it has returned in full bloom.

When we first moved here in 1979 our 83 year old neighbor, Mabel Vreeland gave us a Heath welcome by sending up a bushel basket filled with carrots and parsnips from her own garden, and a bottle of elderberry juice made from the elder by the side of the road. It was definitely not elderberry wine! Mabel was tee total, and she drank this bitter juice for its nutritional and healing benefits. Elderberries are more nutritious than blueberries which are much touted these days for their health giving benefits. In fact, in addition to the nutritional benefit of the berry, every part of the elder bush was used for medicinal purposes in ancient times when our pharmacopeia was more dependent on plants.

I have never been particularly interested in making elderberry juice or wine. Elderberry jelly, made with a substantial addition of sugar, is of more interest to me. Mostly I have just been happy to know that the birds love elderberries, and probably appreciate the nutrition as much as we do.

Elder has a history of being useful in many ways when we used to concoct our own tinctures and remedies. Crushed leaves rubbed on our skin or hat was thought to repel flies, and an infusion of fresh leaves rubbed on skin was considered a mosquito repellent.  With all the moles and voles I have had recently I am tempted to try making an infusion that I could pour down their holes to send them on their way.

Natural dyes for wool fleece and yarn are enjoying a new popularity. Elder bark and roots make a black dye, but the leaves combined with alum will make a green dye. Elderberries and alum will make a violet dye, while combining the berries with salt and alum will create a paler lavender shade. I suspect that it takes a real recipe to make beautiful dyes.

I went looking for local elderberry bushes last fall when I was making a ‘bee box’ that would attract native pollinators. I also used slim bamboo sticks from my daughter’s garden. Native bees will lay their brood in hollow stems, or in stems of plants like elderberry that have a soft pith that the bees can remove.

Harry Potter got his magic wand in a shop, as I recall, but anyone can make their own. Elder wood is the traditional wood for magic wands, and is known to grant wishes. As long as the wish is not a selfish wish.

I confess that I don’t make much practical, or magical, use of elder, but I like having it in the neighborhood because it is a native plant, has lovely flowers and feeds the birds.

Nature Hills Nursery and Raintree Nursery offer a selection of elderberries, Sambucus Canadensis, and Sambucus nigra which is used for more ornamental purposes. Both need another bush for cross pollination to bear fruit. They also sell aronia bushes.

Elderberries have been familiar to me for most of my life, but another new native berry, the aronia berry, sometimes called a chokeberry, is becoming popular for many of the same reasons. It is highly nutritious, and the Washington State University Extension explains that the current interest in aronia berries is because of the “very high levels of anthocyanins and flavonoids, five to ten times higher than cranberry juice, with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.” However, like elderberries, it is also bitter and best used in jams or mixed with other fruit juices, or it can be made into wine. Europe is way ahead of the US in finding palatable ways to use aronia berries.

I want to stress that chokeberry is a totally different plant from chokecherry!

Aronias resemble elderberries in other ways as well. The hardy bushes grow up to eight feet tall, produce white blossoms in spring and attract birds to the berries in fall. They also make a good landscape plant because of the spring flowers and brilliant red autumn color. Neither bush has insect or disease problems making them low maintenance. Aronias can tolerate a damp site, and are suitable for rain gardens.

Are elderberries or chokeberries a possibility for your edible, ornamental or native garden?

Between the Rows   July 19, 2014

In the Pink at the Lyman Plant House, Smith College

In the Pink at Lyman Plant House

Banish the winter blues and get In the Pink at the Annual Bulb show at the Smith College Lyman Plant House. This annual show, always fabulous, is running from now until Sunday, March 16.

It is no surprise to me that the powers that be would choose In the Pink as the theme for this year’s show. I love pink, as anyone who strolls down the Rose Walk can attest.  But there is something spring-like about all shades of pink from the most delicate aqueous shell pink to vibrant pinks, all of which find their most perfect expression in flowers.

Walking into the Lyman Plant House rooms that are perfumed with the fragrance of an early spring, it is hard to imagine all the planning and work required on the part of the greenhouse staff. I once asked Rob Nicholson, Manager of the greenhouse what it took to open the Bulb Show on the assigned date. His reply was succinct, “Patience and careful monitoring of temperature.”  That almost sounds easy.

Of course, there is work to do in the greenhouse all year to keep this wide array of plants from the tropical jungle to the arid desert in good health. I asked if they had to use a lot of pesticides and things to keep the plants in good shape.

“Of course, we’d prefer never to use pesticides, but when a collection of rare and exotic plants is kept in an enclosed greenhouse it sets up a situation where the plants inevitably are infested since they are not in a complex ecosystem where there are checks and balances. When we need to use pesticides we tend to use very mild ones that break down very quickly as we have to be able to allow visitors in the next morning. Pesticides are rated with an REI (re-entry interval) that dictates how soon humans are allowed back into the space so we are limited to those with REIs of 4-12 hours. Then I try to use ‘biologicals’ which are geared to disrupt insect metabolism such as molting cycles, rather than the old style neurotoxin types. We also use insecticidal soaps . . . which suffocated the insect pest. I find the pesticide laws are pretty inconsistent as any consumer can go to any box store and buy materials more dangerous than what we use, and misuse them,” Nicholson said.

I asked if they used neonicotinoids, nicotine based chemicals that have become controversial and are in so many pesticides. He said “The neonics we used were systemic. Granular material is applied to the soil, dissolves and gets absorbed into the plants. They have a long term effect. They were very low toxicity to humans, easy to apply, and worked well to keep our mums clean of mealy bugs.”

However, he added, “There is a lot of concern about this class of pesticides contributing to collapse of beehives. The European Union banned them last year. . . .the pesticide gets into pollen, bees collect the pollen and bring it back to the hive and taint it. As our Chrysanthemum Show in November can attract a large number of bees if the weather conditions are right (and greenhouse vents are open) we felt we could no longer use these on flowering plants that could draw in outside bees.”

Nicholson expressed his concern about the importance of protecting bees which are so vital to our food system. “. . .our country needs to take a hard look at this class of pesticides, do the proper research and then act accordingly.”

Nicholson feels strongly that we all need to be informed consumers, buy as little of any pesticide as possible, and follow instructions to the letter. All pesticides should be stored under lock and key. “As a toddler I drank pesticide stored in a Planter’s Peanuts can in my neighbor’s garage. It almost killed me,” he said. Then he reiterated the necessity to educate ourselves about “a very complex subject and industry,” especially since there are so many pesticides available that are not dangerous to the bees or to our children.

Recently there has been research that suggests acetamiprid and imidacloprid, the two most dangerous chemicals in the neonicotinoids, may cause damage to young children’s brain development. Because I have young children on my lawns from time to time I would never knowingly use products that contain neonicotinoids. That means I wouldn’t dare use common pesticides like Ortho Flower Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer or Knockout Ready to Use Grub Killer which are only two of the many products that contain acetamiprid or imidacloprid. Further information about which products contain these chemicals are on the Xerces Society website,

The purpose of the Xerces Society is to protect invertebrates like bees, butterflies and many other creatures including mussels and crabs. I take Rob Nicholson’s advice to do my research seriously. Education is key, for all of us, and the Xerces Society is one place to start. Of course, I believe that using pesticides on the lawn is totally unnecessary, and agree with Nicholson that there are many safer products to use on plants.

To feel In the Pink, (March 1-16) the Lyman Plant House is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $2. You still have a week to get there.  Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College is also hosting a spring bulb show for the next week, through March 16.  Hours 10am – 4 pm.

Between the Rows  March 1, 2014

 

Walking in Our Woods with the Mass Audubon Society

 

A sunny spot in the woods – overstory and understory, no midstory

I’ve always known we have many different types of bird habitat here at the End of the Road. We have fields that surround our house and the garden. We have a wetland and a pond. Mostly we have woods, about 35 or so acres, surrounding the house, fields, and wetlands.

I have walked in our woods. I have taken grandchildren up the lane, part of the old road to Rowe that was discontinued decades ago. The tree-lined lane runs between two fields and then into the woods. The grandchildren and I would clear what’s left of the road of sticks, and tree seedlings. We’d look at bugs under rotting felled trees and under stones. We talk and enjoy the shade, or complain about the mosquitoes and decide it was time to go home

Sometimes we’d cross the field and go into the western woods and down to the stream that marks the border of our land. I never spent much time thinking about the different character of the woods. They were just ‘the woods.’

My view of our woods changed last Monday when I went through the woods with Stu Watson from the Mass Audubon Society and three neighbors who are very knowledgeable about birds. Watson was there to walk through our fields and woods and tell us how we could make these different habitats more bird friendly. He showed me how to look at my woods with new eyes.

First we walked across the field and learned that in order to protect birds like woodcock and ruffed grouse who nest there, we should not give those fields their annual mowing until the very end of July or beginning of August. Other birds like whippoorwills and tree sparrows like this habitat.

My husband Henry pointed out that some of our white pines had started to encroach on the field. Watson explained that was a good thing. Transitions are important for birds. A field should not stop suddenly at the edge of a woodland. There should be some shrubby transition. There will come a time when that transition will turn into woods, so it needs to be monitored and managed. I never knew that Mass Audubon Society knew so much about trees, in addition to birds.

Watson also suggested that areas around old apple trees in the field be cleared to make the soft mast (fallen fruit) more available to the birds and other wildlife.

From the field we stepped into a stand of white pine. The ground was covered with pine needles and there was very little undergrowth. This is not ideal. Taking down a few trees would allow more sun to enter, and then allow pine regeneration. Birds would welcome the new growth.

Over-, mid-, and understory in the woods

The ideal is to have tall overstory trees, then have a midstory of trees and shrubs between 5-30 feet, and then an understory of ferns, and other low growing plants and groundcovers. This is exactly the structure we gardeners copy when we plant a mixed border of small trees, shrubs and  underplanted with flowers or groundcovers.

Wolf Tree

We moved through the pine woods which rather abruptly changed into a hardwood stand. In the transition area there was pine regeneration because there was more sun, and there were ferns and maple seedlings. I even learned a new maple variety, striped maple, which has large three lobed leaves. This was a much better area for birds because it provided more protective cover and more forage. It also provided several wolf trees, enormous old dead trees that provide a bug smorgasbord for bug eaters, and cavities for birds and other small wildlife to live in. I was happy to see tiny oak seedlings. I don’t know how acorns got into our woods, but oaks support over 500  wildlife species. I want oak trees.

Oak seedling

Walking was more difficult in this area, but Watson repeated several times. “Bad walking means good habitat.”

The third stand was mixed white pine and hardwoods like white ash, black cherry, red maple, and white birch. This section had been logged but there was a well developed midstory. There was very little understory growth, but there was lots of debris on the ground caused by storm damage. Again, thinning needs to be done to allow more sun and thus encourage regeneration.

Watson was very pleased with our various habitats, and the good health of our woods. He gave us his suggestions for improving the habitat. When we re-read our forest management plan prepared by our forester Scott Sylvester with new eyes, we realized that he had anticipated all of Watson’s suggestions ten years ago.

We expected Stu from the Mass Audubon Society to be knowledgeable about birds but then we found out that Scott Sylvester, who is passionate about birds, is one of the organizers of this collaboration between the Mass Audubon Society, the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Franklin Land Trust, a collaboration that mirrors those in Vermont and New Hampshire. The goal is to keep forest bird habitat intact. By the way, it will also make forest land productive for the owner, allowing for selective cutting.

Northern New England is a ‘breeding bird factory” Watson said. Seventy to 90 species of birds nest and breed in this area, and this habitat is crucial to “keeping common birds common.”

This is a pilot program. We were glad to learn about it when it was launched on Mother’s Day with a walk for interested people through the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest in Heath. The program will help woodland owners to look at their property in a way that is not only beneficial to them, but to beautiful birds as well.

For more information about this new Mass Audubon Society program email Stu Watson at swatson@massaudubon.org or Matt Kamm at mkamm@massaudubon.org.

Between the Rows   June 15, 2013

Don’t forget, you still have time to win a free copy of my book, The Roses at the End of the Road. Leave a comment here by midnight Sunday, June 23 and I’ll announce the winner on Monday. You can also  buy copies on sale, or a Kindle edition. All info is here.

 

Wildlife at the End of the Road – Wordless Wednesday

White peacock

Over the years many kinds of wildlife have passed by the End of the Road. This white peacock visited for a couple of years, but we think he finally met his fate.

Weasel – captured

Weasels can fit through the tiniest holes in the hen house, but we caught this one.

Frog

Lots of frogs and toads this year.

Porcupine

This porcupine was happy to bask in the winter sun outside the hen house.

Young moose

The most recent visitor was a  young moose. He didn’t stay long. Other creatures who haven’t stayed long were a bear, a fox and many deer. There is never a camera at hand, but once a fawn stayed for a few minutes when I did have my camera.

Don’t forget to click here and leave a comment if you would like a chance at winning a copy of my book The Roses at the End of the Road.

And click here for more Wordlessness this Wednesday.

Moosewood in the Woods, Moose in the Field

Moosewood AKA Striped Maple

Yesterday we took a (wet) walk in the woods and saw  this moosewood tree. It is more properly known as a striped maple, and more properly still as Acer pensylvanicum. It is a small understory tree, very tolerant of shade, and has very large leaves.

Young Moose

Late in the afternoon, there was a flash of brown passing my window. I ran outside to see what it was. A moose. A young moose, who only stopped briefly to pose and let me get this photo.  Though I saw them both in one day, they are otherwise unrelated.

To see what else is (almost) wordless this Wednesday click here.

Hungry Cowbird and Beauty

Cowbird June 6, 2013

Yesterday morning I watched what I later confirmed was a cowbird being fed by another  bird. I just happened to look out the front window and there was this little bird (fully fledged) standing still and looking around while another bird, a different type of bird, much the same size was running around picking up insects from the lawn and bringing them over to the cowbird. Through the window I couldn’t hear the cowbird squawking, or whining piteously, but I could see its little beak opening and shutting, until its meal was brought to it.  I could almost imagine it tapping its tiny claw, wondering what was taking so long.

Out came the bird guide book. I knew that  cowbirds were famous for laying their eggs in another bird’s nest, and that the foster parents cared for that interloper as well as they could, as it grew bigger faster than their own brood. I never dreamed that the cowbird could stand around in its fledged adolescence and still get its foster parents to keep feeding it. It was quite a fascinating sight.  This sort of behavior is called brood parasitism.

Ordinarily, I would not trust my own ability to identify a bird but my Peterson’s Guide does describe this feeding behavior between cowbirds and other birds as a common phenomenon.

Tree peony – name lost

On a more serenely beautiful note, my white tree peony, that has endured various bouts of storm damage over the past couple of years came into bloom.  Tree peonies are not really trees, but they do have a shrubby form that does not die back over winter as the herbaceous peonies do. Tree peonies need to be planted more deeply that herbaceous peonies, but they are just as hardy and long lived. They bloom earlier and the blossoms are more ephemeral, but all the more treasured because of this.