Unnatural Acts

Gardening is an unnatural act.

Yes, dear reader, you heard that right. Here we are, lovers of nature, birds, bees, green stuff, and what do we do? We go outside and dig it up, turn the tiny world of our gardens upside down, and start interfering every which way. Adding fertilizer, pulling weeds, plunking in plants where no god ever intended them, pulling weeds, scaring off bunnies and woodchucks (as though we could), pulling weeds, fencing things in and staking stems up and deadheading flowers, pulling weeds, and then before anything can go properly to seed as Nature intended, we go out and . . . pick it!

If my garden were totally natural, I’d have it knee-high, even chin-high in mostly those things I just called weeds. My yard would resemble the homesteads that proper suburbanites and homeowner associations tsk over if they lie down the block, or fulminate about if they abut the offending properties.

Urban garden allowed to go natural, with milkweed plants (large broad leaves growing at intervals along tall stem, topped with clusters of pinkish flowers) amid uncut grasses and other plants

Are we natural yet?

But here’s what I’ve had to wrap my head around the past year or so: if you want your garden to provided habitat for wildlife, you must let things grow. The “No Mow May” movement (leaving your mower in the shed till June), intended to leave ample eats for pollinators and their babies, represents only a leading edge of a wider movement.

Learning to let go

Maybe I could have ignored that trend had I not signed up for a class offered for Native Plant Trust’s native plants certificate program. The class, Slow Gardening, sounded like a perfect introduction to reducing my gardening tasks. Little did I dream that it would challenge me to eliminate most of the tasks entirely. No-dig is in. Planting right amid last year’s dead stuff has taken the gardening world by storm.

That’s a hard prospect for me to face. Sure, I have wholeheartedly bought into the Leave It Lie approach to fall cleanup. My yard already spends a good part of the year looking disgracefully unkempt compared to neighbors’ pristine properties.

Bookshelf full of used paperback books, with white label on front of shelf reading "Catholic guilt."

Guilt is my forte. I learned from the best.
Funny shelving category at San Francisco’s Kayo Books: CATHOLIC GUILT
by gruntzooki, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

But in early summer 2022, after I finished the spring cleanup of all that leave-it-lie detritus, got most of the more aggressive weeds pulled, planted a few native groundcovers and laid down a lot of (undyed, mind you!) bark mulch, what happened? Visitors exclaimed at how neat everything looked, and I felt guilty.

Yes, here I sit caught between two principles. On one hand, the ethics of encouraging nature. On the other, the aesthetics of caring how things look. At this point the ethics, assisted by a healthy dollop of inertia on my part, are winning. Nobody has complimented the neatness this year.

Armageddon in the garden

I have cleaned up a bit since late spring, but it seems the major task has been uprooting non-native perennials that have gotten too pushy for the garden’s good. Looking at you, bearded irises! Do you have any idea how much one weentsy little iris rhizome can multiply itself in the space of a few years? No, take that guess and multiply by at least three.

As I recall, I put at most six of those suckers into my front island bed back in, oh, maybe 2018. One each for six different hues of bloom: white, deep red, deep purple, a light purple, a two-toned lavender and white. And something called “blush” but that looks to me like a white that’s been wiping up spilled café au lots-of-lait.

Bearded irises in bloom, in a medley of colors (white, purple, peachy-beige, lavender) atop green spear-like leaves. Lawn, small tree, and a strip of roadway visible behind the irises.

The imperium of irises

They’d make, I thought, a zesty, tasteful display before the daisies and yarrow and coreopsis and cardinal flowers and baptisia and blazing star liatris burst forth. But by this spring, the irises, waxing plentiful and glorious, had taken over half of the cardinal flowers’ little lair. They’d disappeared one of the liatris entirely, and overhung the daisies and yarrow on one side and the baptisia on the other. And they’d just about eaten one of the balloon flower plants.

Armageddon 2.0

The balloon flowers were already on the To Expunge list, but most of those irises just had to go. They did not go quietly. They clung tightly to each other in vast and tightly entangled rhizomes. It took first a trenching tool, then a spade, then an attack with my sharp new hori hori knife, all accompanied by a fair share of grunting and cussing, before I got even the first clump out.

It took two days of early morning sneak attacks to remove most of those imperialist offenders. One clump remained until its lavender and white flowers finished blooming. Then it went too: the liatris desperately needed help by then. Twenty iris plants have gone to an avid gardener friend who has space for them. (I foiled her attempt to get me to take some of her hybrid lupines in exchange—because, read on.) Several others lay drying/dying on the edge of the driveway until I removed them to a more private open-air mausoleum.

Black and white photo of the top of an apparently very old tombstone, with a carved relief of a devilish winged angel holding a scythe; only the top line of incised text beneath is visible: Here lies buried the Body...

I don’t ask where the bodies are buried.
here lies buried the body
by Rosino is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Somehow I can’t bring myself to throw a plant away. Even an imperialist interloper of a plant. I’ve done it, but every time I feel bad about it for years afterward. I would not have made a good guillotine operator.

Sometimes I deputize. My lawn guy removed the two hibiscuses and two butterfly bushes and hauled them away. I didn’t ask where he put the bodies. Maybe they live a happy life in some garden Elysium up the road.

The cast of actors

Why am I purging these plants? Because I want to make room for more native plants.

This is no longer merely theoretical. I have, unfortunately, been visiting garden stores since mid-spring. A local one featured foamflowers in its weekly two-for-one sale some weeks back. I went for two and came home with six, because the more you buy the more money you save. This came after I went to the local all-native-plants nursery when it opened for the season at the end of April, looking for multiple plugs (tiny seedlings) of shade-loving groundcovers. I found none of those but others called my name, and I brought home:

  • Two creeping junipers;

    A woodland poppy in early spring, with a label posted behind it. A few bright yellow flowers show atop green, delicately lobed foliage; in the background is a peg with label for the plant "Stylophorum diphyllum/ wood poppy/ PAPAVERACEAE/ Midwest to Southeast US," with a carpet of light brown dead oak leaves.

    Wood poppy at Native Plant Trust’s Garden in the Woods
    24 April 2023

  • Two native sundial lupines (see above reference), because they feed the rare Karner Blue butterfly;
  • Two trailing arbutus, because it’s the Massachusetts state flower, and rare;
  • Two red columbines, because the ones I already had are so pretty;
  • Three wood poppies, to keep the foamflowers company in the shade;
  • Two blue wood asters, because I’m a glutton for punishment;
  • And four more foamflowers, because, well, in for a penny, in for a dime.

That is not the end of the list of plants sitting for weeks in my garage and on my deck, waiting for me to get them into the ground. Some still wait. I hear loud Ahem!s every time I step outside, and I imagine that those already on deck wailed in despair when I brought home a couple of blue star flowers, several more moss phlox, and two more foxglove beardtongue.

The challenge ahead

Photo tipped on diagonal, showing an outdoor line of people at a garden store, some with plants in their arms and others pulling wagons loaded up with plants.

It’s an illness, and I’m not the only sufferer.

It’s gotten as dangerous for me to go browsing in a plant nursery as it is fatal for me to meander through a bookstore. I can’t say whether plants or books are better. On the one hand, plants will grow, look pretty, and smell sweet. On the other hand, you never have to water or deadhead a book. Much less plant it.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Not that I am past praying for. I have managed to get two bee balm plants into new homes where the butterfly bushes had been evicted, and installed a baby Carolina lupine (not really lupine) to keep a teenage one company. And I very gingerly plunked a new little prickly-pear cactus in the middle of the sunny-dry bed alongside the garage.

Plants in a strip of garden bed next to a white clapboard wall with cement foundation. Some plants are already in the ground; others still in their pots awaiting planting. Tools are lined up along the left side of the bed, and an emptied carboard flat sits towards the front, just past a white drainspout.

Progress in the making

But there is so much more to do. The flesh is willing but the spirit is weak. First it was too doggone cold at 7 in the morning before the sun hit the front beds and glared me indoors. Now even when we aren’t getting a daily inch of rain, it’s too hot and muggy. Moreover, once the sun has vacated the beds out back late in the day, the mosquitoes and gnats come out in force.

Slowly, slowly, I will get it done.

A short explanation

A number of people have asked me recently what’s so great about native plants.

(Or why I’ve gotten so passionate about them, but that’s a different type of question that might take years of psychotherapy to untangle.)

I can understand their perplexity. The native plants don’t usually figure as superstars. Their bloom times run relatively short. They mostly sport understated, modest, ladylike blossoms. A far cry from the flamboyant heads of peonies and oriental poppies and, yes, bearded irises that liven up my spring garden. Think the difference between a crewcut and Big Hair.

Approx. 10 large, strikingly pink peony flowers atop lush deep green foliage; a small gray stone statue rises among them at the right.

Big Hair
Rebecca with Peonies” by kkmarais,
licensed under CC BY 2.0.

And I have to admit that many of the native plants do look uncomfortably like the weeds you find growing in the fields and the woods. Because guess what? They are those very weeds!

But let’s stick with the general question: what’s so great about these weeds? Here’s the simple version of answer.

A Monarch butterfly caterpillar, vividly striped in yellow, white, and black, on a milkweed leaf that is nearly completely consumed; the bare central rib of an already eaten leaf is in foreground, and a large partly eaten leaf is in the background, slightly out of focus.

Monarch Caterpillar”
by Bistrosavage, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Native plants are a part of the local ecosystem. They have evolved to work with each other and with native fauna—anything from tiny nematodes in the soil to the deer in the woods and the wascal wabbits under my deck—in a self-sustaining circle of life. Some of the fauna, especially smaller ones like butterflies and bees, have evolved as “specialists,” which, whether as adults or as larvae, can feed on only one or a few species of plants. Without those plants, the pollinators perish.

Case in point: I recently stopped myself just before yanking out the tall weeds bobbing up around a couple of evergreens. Why? I suddenly recognized them. Those “weeds” were milkweed: the only plant the monarch butterfly caterpillar can feed on!

The agony of backyard ecology

When you look at it this way, the point is not merely to root out all the ice plants or ox-eye daisies or burning bushes and replace them with rose verbena or Virginia mountain mint or viburnum. The point is to try, in our own little gardens, to do what we can to restore the local ecosystems that have been devastated by “development.”

Which brings us to the hard part for me. In trying to reconstruct an ecosystem, I’m laying out a lot of money and a good deal of sweat equity to raise plants destined to be eaten—and not by me.

Several different kinds of plants in temporary pots on three shelves of a wire shelf unit outdoors, waiting to be planted

2023 bug banquet #1

I’m talking about the bug banquet, the cornucopia for very hungry caterpillars that will chomp away at the Golden Alexander—caterpillars that will, having consumed enough Golden Alexander, turn into magnificent black swallowtail butterflies. Or the less glorious beetles that will fill a leafscape with tiny holes, or larvae that scrape away everything but a skeleton of green veins. Or the aphids, duly transported to their pastures of greenery—my flowering hyssop!—by industrious farmer ants who milk them once the aphids turn all that yummy plant sap into honeydew.

And I have to countenance all of this because something that eats something that eats something else will benefit in that great round of life and death and life again.

Approx. 10 plants in temporary pots, most of them foamflowers, atop a glass table outdoors, prior to planting

2023 bug banquet #2

Mind you, I make an exception for Thumper under the deck. He’s welcome to the clover in the lawn, or all the dandelions he can find. But if he comes after the asters or the coneflowers, he is going to get a very unpleasant mouthful of cayenne pepper, with which I have powdered the leaves. That’s the stopgap, while I work on my aim with a slingshot.

Against nature?

But back to the unnatural act of gardening, possibly the last unnatural act that Ron De Santis hasn’t gotten around to banning yet.

Even if I replace all the non-native plants with natives—which I’m too attached to the aforementioned peonies and poppies to do—gardening with native plants still counts as gardening, which just ain’t natural. If you don’t believe me, plant a bunch of milkweed and Joe Pye weed and sneezeweed (notice that common syllable in their names?) and walk away from it for a year. Come back and see what has happened.

You might spot some of those six-footer Joe Pye heads jutting above the rest, but good luck finding any of the actual plants amidst everything else that has taken up residence.

And if you walk away for five years, upon your return you may encounter a clutch of young white pines or feisty oak and maple saplings beginning to loom above the weedy mass.

Nope. We gardeners keep interfering, freezing nature in a particular state or at least trying to slow it down.

In my little bailiwick, while I try building this tiny ecosystem, I’m the gatekeeper deciding who gets admitted. I’m the bouncer going after the gatecrashers and ejecting them, when I get to it.

So far, I manage to live with that.

Meanwhile, your turn!

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Have you already heard about the native plants movement? If so, where/how did you hear about it? Are you growing (on purpose) any native plants in your garden?
  2. Do you have any questions about native plants that you’d like me to address in future posts?
  3. What are you behind on in your garden, right now?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts, so scroll down till you find it.

Thanks, as always, for reading, double thanks for responding, and triple thanks if you sign up for a subscription—or encourage a friend to do so.

 

Posted in animal life, garden tasks, plants, seasons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

What’s in a Name?

Well, what is in a name?

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet. But if you’re in New England and the rose’s species name is Rosa multiflora, you have stumbled upon an invasive and better get rid of it. There are roses by other names that you’ll want: Rosa virginiana, Rosa Carolina, and a few others.

I’ll have plenty to say at a later date about invasives, as I get deeper into learning about native plants and their significance. But for this post, I confess, I’ve chosen a slightly deceptive lead-in to telling you about something else. Namely, my pen name. And why I’m changing it.

Those of you dear readers who have been with this blog for a while know its author as Kateri F. Foley. But in recent months, I’ve grown increasingly uneasy about that name. No problem for the Foley; it comes to me via a grandmother’s maiden name. But the choice of Kateri, a name that enchanted me from childhood, has felt increasingly inappropriate.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Kateri Tekakwitha story, I’m providing a brief summary. Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was a Native American converted to Catholicism by French missionaries. (The missionaries had been imposed upon the Mohawks by treaty after military defeat by French colonizers.) “Kateri” roughly approximates the pronunciation of her baptismal name, Catherine, in her native language. After her conversion, hostility against Tekakwitha arose among her Haudenosaunee relatives and neighbors. Encouraged by a French Jesuit, she left her home village to settle in a Native American village connected to a French mission. She lived in the village for three years, before her death at age 23 or 24.

No, what really is in a name?

Statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha in small garden spot outside a church, with cast-iron gates and stone gateposts surrounding a cemetery seen in background. Statue has turquoise necklace, earrings, and bracelet, white blanket/shawl over shoulders, and brown and red tunics beneath, and is holding a steaf of feathers, a rosary, and what looks like a stem with seedbeds on it.

Kateri Tekakwitha Statue at Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi
by jay galvin
licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Her short but saintly life brought popular veneration among Indigenous Catholics after her death. However, the Church’s official processes move slowly. She received the designation of “venerable” only in 1943, became Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in 1980, and finally was canonized as Saint Kateri Tekakwitha in 2012.

At first, I thought the name Kateri made a good fit for me. I grew up on the shores of Lake Huron, near areas once claimed by the Haudenosaunee peoples (and also by Algonquins, the Native American people her mother was born to). And she is considered a patron saint of ecology and the environment.

However, I started feeling uneasy about whether adopting the name Kateri might smack of cultural appropriation. Then, as I looked more closely at the history, I started feeling concern that Kateri herself might have been appropriated by Western colonial culture, of which religion forms a part.

Consider the missionaries forced upon the Haudenosaunee, and Kateri’s separation from her community following her embrace of Catholicism. And I can’t help but cringe at the blatant racism in the reminiscence by the priest who administered the last rites to her: “This face, so marked [by smallpox] and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death and became in a moment so beautiful and so white that I observed it immediately.”[Emphasis added]  Although Saint Kateri enjoys veneration by many Indigenous people in North America, others deplore both her conversion and the “way Mohawk culture is represented through the lens of her conversion.”

Even if the issue isn’t exactly clearcut, do I really want to wade into such territory?

Therefore

So I decided to change my pen name. Hereafter, I will use the name Hecate Foley.

How did I pick that one? How do you even pronounce it?

Marble statue with two out of three female [presumably Hecate] figures showing, dressed in flowing tunics and skirts and balancing a carved decorative item atop their heads

Triple Goddess Statue (presumably Hecate)
by MumblerJamie
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Regarding the latter: Hecate comes from the classical Greek Ἑκάτη. My recollection of classical Greek pronunciation (no, I never learned the language, just the alphabet) says you’d pronounce that heh-KAH-tay. Merriam-Webster says HEK-uh-tee or HEH-kut. But how often will you want to say it out loud? You can call me Cate.

How did I pick it? Well, if I’m going to be appropriating anything appropriately, Graeco-Roman provenance makes a good source for someone of my cultural extraction. And a goddess makes a good role model. Hecate offers multiple possible roles, “being at once the goddess of witches, the household, crossroads and travel, agriculture, and more,” says Mythopedia. I’m fine with agriculture, crossroads, travel, and household, and as we all know, witches had to know a lot about plants, too. Moreover, for someone who has trouble making up her mind, the classic representation of Hecate as three figures facing in different directions strikes me as all too appropriate.

I buried the lede…

Closeup of four close-growing pink lady slipper orchids in full bloom, individual flowers suspended on stalks rising above green tulip-like foliage. Flowers have deep pink labella shaped somewhat like ladies' slippers, with thin brownish petals spreading out to the sides above the "slippers." The plants are growing out of a carpet of oak leaves and twigs, with lichen-covered branches or tree trunks in the background.

Funny, they don’t look dangerous…
Pink lady’s slipper orchids surprised in a wooded area of coastal Maine, May 2021

So why am I making this declaration now? Because, dear reader, my very first publication in a literary (online) magazine has just hit the ether. Hecate Foley is out in public! You can find my tiny flash-nonfiction piece about orchids, Surprise Bad Guys, in Cosmic Daffodil, right now. This is CD‘s two-part issue on Buds & Blooms.

So you get a reward for plowing through all that pen name angst. Not only me going on about flowers, but about 80 other people doing so as well. Enjoy!

Next time, I promise, you will get a full-fledged blog post about Plants. It’s the season, after all. I’m taking more of those amazing Native Plants certificate courses—New England Herbaceous Early Flowering Plants, for one. With New England Shrubs coming soon. Plus, our local native-plants nursery just opened last Friday and oh my, of course, I had to get two of these, and three of those, and four of those irresistible…. The next adventure will be actually getting the babies into the ground.

Annnnnnd, I’ve just committed to compiling a directory of native plant nurseries and native-plant garden designers in New England and beyond. So, there’s lots coming soon.

Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, your turn!

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Can you recommend a native plant nursery or garden designer in your area? (please state the general area)
  2. What’s the first thing you plan to plant this spring–or have you already planted it? Tell us about it!
  3. Post a comment on Surprise Bad Guys here, if you want to.

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts, so scroll down till you find it.

Thanks, as always, for reading, double thanks for responding, and triple thanks if you sign up for a subscription—or encourage a friend to do so.

 

Posted in plants, reflections, spring | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Whose Woods These Are I Surely Know (The Trees, Not So Much)

You know what I like most about winter? It’s the one time of year when I don’t have to feel guilty about neglecting the garden. It’s my duty to neglect it!

But I can never let well enough alone, so this winter I signed up for several more courses offered through the Native Plant Trust. Most recently completed: one course on soils, one on trees of New England. These gave me numerous opportunities for guilt: they had homework assignments.

Brace yourself: I’m going to share with you my experience with the homework assignment for one of those courses. I’ll spare you the soils. I loved that course, but I mustn’t try your tolerance of my geeky tendencies toooooo far. So let’s head for the trees.

The mission …

Here was our challenge: take a walk in a wooded/forested area. Identify as many tree species as possible. Locate different species in canopy and understory, noting changes in species mix at different elevations or in wetter/dryer habitats, and maybe even figuring out the chosen woodland’s history.

I never got to any but the first part. By the time you finish reading this, you’ll understand why.

Several deciduous tree trunks in winter, mostly light brown/gray, with no leaves. One trunk dominates in center foreground; several other thinner trunks are in near background. Some evergreens are visible in farther background; in top half of the photo the background is deep clear blue sky.

Bare as a blank slate…

I’m used to trying to identify trees by examining their leaves. Identifying a tree in February in New England posed a problem. With the exception of pines and hemlocks and cedars and spruces, the trees are naked. Starkers! I’ll admit one exception: the oaks tend to hang onto a lot of their dead leaves. That practice used to seem deplorable, until I was straining to spot at least one deciduous tree I could be sure of.

How do you identify a tree without its leaves on? You can’t trust the leaf litter on the ground if you’ve ventured into a mixed stand; the winter blasts have already done a promiscuous mashup there. In the woods, you can’t go by the tree’s shape—you know, maples looking like a fat bouquet and elms making like a vase. No, trees growing together in the arboreal equivalent of cheek by jowl have had to elbow and shoulder their branches in wherever they can find a patch of light, and hope for the best.

So what can the avid (desperate?) identifier do?

Two things. Possibly the best, or so my botanist friend M maintains, is twigs with buds. If I had a stand of 5-foot trees, I’d choose that for sure. However, when everything but the trunk is 20 feet up or higher, you can kiss the buds goodbye. What you’re left with is bark.

Plain.

Old.

Bark.

Barking up the trees

About a year ago I tuned in on a forestry school’s guest speaker talking about bark. He was earnest. Intense. Totally in love with tree bark. And about as absorbing as watching a tectonic plate move (between earthquakes) in real time.

Heaven forfend that I do that to you! So I won’t go into all the finer points about bark (cambium layers and all that jazz, for example).

Closeup of two adjacent trunks of paper birch tree, primarily white bark, but left trunk has some of the white bark peeling away in curls, with grayish-pink bark beneath; right-hand trunk has patches of dark scar with pale green lichen overgrowing the dark gray scars. In background on left can be seen yellowish cropped fields, a wooded area in the distance, and a patch of clear blue sky.

My favorite tree for identification

You may already know some of the obvious distinctions. Paper birch, for example: that dramatic stark white bark, curling itself away from the trunk in artistic scrolls. Come to think of it, that’s just about the only easy distinction, unless you resort to exotics like shagbark hickory, or the ghastly graveyard look of sycamores.

For the rest, you can find a lot of variation. In textures, from smooth to roughly ridged; in colors, ranging grayish white to greeny gray to reddish brown to nearly black; in patterns running from scales to shingles to slabs to parallel furrows to a crazy crisscross or a crazy quilt of Ns and Ys.

Every species is different. Except that sometimes they aren’t. Or sometimes, the bark on a young maple looks much like the bark of a mature or even ancient beech—and not at all like the bark of a mature or ancient maple.

Then there are the oaks, which hybridize all over plant kingdom come, so you can find “white oak” leaves fluttering from a trunk with “red oak” bark.

Should you accept it…

So how do you (I) figure out the ID? We were urged to use one or more of the dichotomous keys that various books and plant identification sites provide.

Here’s how a dichotomous key works. Imagine you’ve had to rush to the emergency room, and (assuming it’s not a Saturday night riot scene) the doctor tries to diagnose your problem before she can fix it. She whips out her Dichotomous Key Diagnostic Book, and starts to work.

  1. Is the patient visibly bleeding?

    A simple diagram showing diverging choices outlined in hand-sketched polygons: Shiny new project Do you have time? No -- Don't do it Yes -- No you don't

    A dichotomous key we should all use
    This came to me through an e-mail from an e-mail from Twitter, with no author indicated. If you are the author, I’d love to give you credit (and to get your permission to use it), so please alert me if it’s you!

  • If yes, go to 2
  • If no, go to 945
  1. Is there a lot of blood?
  • If yes, go to 3
  • If no, go to 500
  1. Is the blood
  • Spurting intermittently? Go to 4
  • Flowing steadily? Go to 250
  1. Is the spurting coming from
  • The neck? Go to 5
  • Anywhere else? Go to 80

You get the idea. Thank heaven they’re not using dichotomous keys in the ER. By the time the doctor has figured out that you’re bleeding out from your femoral artery, she may be at

499. Patient has bled to death.

Fortunately, none of the trees were visibly bleeding.

Ready for the tree hunt now?

Into the woods—not

For the tree identification exercise, I walked along the edge of a woods owned by a nearby farm. I had planned to walk into the woods to get a good look at interesting trees, but found my way impeded by undergrowth (lots of multiflora rose invaders), random barbed wire, and deep mud in the pathways and trails. There was enough, though, to occupy me just along (mostly) the edges.

Photo showing covers of two paperback books: Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech; and Winter Tree Finder, by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts

The basic books: one for bark, one for buds

I took Michael Wojtech’s Bark guide with me, as well as the Wattses’ Winter Tree Finder, but quickly realized that out among the trees was not the best setting for flipping back and forth through the dichotomous keys.

Instead, I took photos. That meant trying to get shots of the whole tree—not always possible if neighboring trees crowded too close, especially if they were evergreens and blocked the upward view entirely—as well as some closeups. Then I went home and started trying the identifications from the photos using the dichotomous keys.

It went downhill from there, except when I’d managed to nab a leaf and/or twig sample as well. In a couple of cases I also checked against more photos on some websites (see below about those). I still ended up unsure of the identifications of most of the trees I’d photographed. Of the 20+ trees (including some clumps of trees counted as one each), I managed fairly certain identifications of only two; all the rest have question marks attached.

How dry I’m not

I did use one exclusion to narrow down the choices. For example, a couple of trees’ bark seemed to look a lot like hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). But Wojtech (118-119) describes its habitat as “Dry, rich sites, most often on slopes and ridges….”

This area, though, sits in a kind of depression and the water stays there (and beaver activity in a contiguous swamp has helped keep it wet). On my tree walk, which took me to a part of the woods I hadn’t explored before, I found some major drainage ditches: one bordering the woods, and several leading into them, some alongside paths. Even so, and although the rains hadn’t been so very recent, the ground was still very wet and the trails were inches deep in mud.

From this I concluded that the trees I was most likely to find growing there would be the species that don’t mind wet feet. Exit hop hornbeam, although from the pix in the books it looks like a lovely tree. I may look for space to plant one in my yard. I can do dry! Just ask my gasping maple and birch.

From near certainty

So, what trees did I find? (Or more accurately for most of them, do I think I found?)

As the landscape shot at the top of this post makes clear, this area is a mixture of evergreens and deciduous trees. The evergreens seemed to me to consist primarily of Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). I confirmed the identity of a couple of those, thanks to their being small and having that convenient habit of producing needles in clumps of five, and growing close enough to the edge of the scrum that I could get a good look and/or a sample. These included Tree 05 and Tree 15:

Closeup of some young branches of white pine blowing towards the left, in a breeze. Twigs are reddish brown with small white dots marking them; needles are long and thin, with many sprigs of them on each twig.

Tree 05

A young white pine tree, approx. 5 ft. tall, amid tall dry grasses; just behind it are some branches with dead deciduous tree leaves, and a bit further back, some trunks of young deciduous trees.

Tree 15

Magnified view of white pine twig showing needles growing in clumps of five

White pine’s telltale clumps of five needles

To almost near certainty

A deciduous double-trunked tree in winter; some dead leaves retained on lower branches

Tree 12

The other identification I’m pretty sure of, Tree 12, is a white oak (Quercus alba). This tree had a double trunk, part of which might qualify as a blasted oak, since the base of the trunk looked much the worse for wear. The upper parts of the trunks looked to be in pretty good shape, but were so thick with lichen that I had to resort to studying a bare part of the blasted trunk to match the bark to a mature white oak.

I’m grateful in this instance that oak trees hang onto many of their dead leaves. The leaves on twigs and branches had rounded edges, like those of white oak.

This tree also had several old round oak bullet galls (created by cynipid wasps) that were easy to spot, and one that was close enough at hand to photograph. That confirmed at least the Quercus if not the alba.

Closeup photo of blasted trunk of white oak tree

Tree 12: the blasted trunk

Closeup photo of red-brown, spherical gall attached to oak twig, on which a couple of leaf scars are visible

Tree 12: former home of cynipid wasp (aka oak gall)

Another much younger oak, Tree 14, has me wondering whether I spotted one of those notorious hybridized specimens. The leaves looked to me very much like white oak, but the bark looked like young Northern red oak (Quercus rubra).

Tree 14: Young red oak bark

Tree 14: White oak leaf

To probabilities

But why should I have all the fun? How about you try to figure out what some of the others were? I’ll give a prize book to the person who provides the best (not necessarily the correct) answer/s.

Below, you can find photos for three of the trees I never felt sure of. The photos are fairly low resolution (that’s so this page won’t load like molasses in March), but if you click on them, it will take you to the higher-resolution originals. I provide you with a handful of species possibilities to narrow it down. You probably don’t have the books, but you can check against a couple of online sources:

  • iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/home ; you may have to register on the site to use it, but it’s free). This is like a crowd-sourced platform pulling in observations by people like us, along with scientists and various experts who help with authoritative identifications. It does not use dichotomous keys.
  • Go Botany (https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org). This site gives you a choice of several different kinds of keys, and if desperate, you can register for the PlantShare section to upload plant photos and Ask the Botanist for identifications. The individual species pages have photos and descriptions that can help with identification. Note that Go Botany specializes in plants of New England. If you’re in a different part of the country, this may not help you with your local plants.
  • For more photos and descriptions to check against, you could try the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder (https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderSearch.aspx) and the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu).

On your mark

One other important clue for you: Remember the ground is pretty soggy, though not actually swampy.

Ready? You can post your answers in Comments. Just be sure to explain why you picked a particular species—the reasoning counts the most towards winning the prize. If you want to do only one or two, feel free. And don’t be ashamed to resort to the Sherlock Holmes principle: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Tree 06: Smooth, unbroken bark with no vertical lines

This should be easy; there aren’t that many species with smooth bark. But the mottling and especially the ample growth of lichens on the trunk complicated the identification.

Tree 06: The upper story (click on photo to see higher resolution)

Tree 06: The trunk (click on photo to see higher resolution)

Do you think this tree is

  1. Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
  2. Red maple (young) (Acer rubrum)
  3. American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
  4. Something else (name it!)

Why would you pick the one you pick?

Tree 09: Furrowed bark in long vertical strips, deeper and more broken up towards base

This wasn’t an especially healthy-looking specimen and it had too much company, so I don’t know whether its shape means anything. The trunk could have been any of several different possibilities. It was so thick in moss—not lichen, actual moss—that it was hard to be sure exactly what the bark looked like. I found plenty of maple and oak leaves along with a few elmy-looking leaves in the immediate vicinity.

Tree 09: Upper reaches in the neighborhood (click on photo for higher resolution)

Tree 09: Closeup of bark (click on photo for higher resolution)

Do you think this tree is

  1. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
  2. American elm (Ulmus americana)
  3. White oak (Quercus alba)
  4. Something else (name it!)

And why would you pick the one you pick?

Tree 11: Smooth, unbroken bark above; rough bark with vertical cracks at base

“Tree” 11 was actually a tight clump of several young trees. Almost all the bark, all the way up, was a smooth light gray (making allowances for splotches caused by lichen). But towards the base of a couple of the trunks the bark was rough, with long vertical cracks that looked like they might develop into furrows. Several of these small trunks had tiny twigs with a distinct reddish cast.

Photo looks upward into the upper reaches of the trunks and canopy of a clump of six young trees (one with top snapped off) growing very close together. Their bark is smooth greenish-gray-brown mottled with lichen. Deep blue sky forms a background, along with the canopy branches and twigs of other trees behind this clump.

“Tree” 11: Sticking together (click on photo for higher resolution)

The lower trunks in a stand of five young trees (not all visible in photo), with grayish-green smooth bark above and rough, greenish-brown bark at the lower part of the trunks. A fallen branch is lodged vertically between two of the trunks; light brown dry undergrowth and several small tree trunks are in background, with a slice of blue sky visible behind them.

Tree 11: from smooth to wrinkles (click on photo for higher resolution)

Closeup of smooth green-gray-brown tree bark on trunk, with mottling of small patches of olive-green lichen and shadows of small branches or twigs on bark. One dark brown twig protrudes from bark at upper left; a thinner and shorter twig with several inches of red towards tip protrudes from lower right.

Tree 11: closeup with twigs (click on photo for higher resolution)

Do you think this tree is:

  1. Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  2. American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
  3. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
  4. Something else (name it!)

Your reasons?

The surprise find: Tree 18

None of my tree books helped in identifying Tree 18. For that, I had to resort to running the photo past iNaturalist, which almost instantly furnished several possible matches, the first of which I discounted. Amur corktree? Native to Manchuria? Who could believe that!

Photo of young tree with several small branches; bark is rough and light orange-brown. Trunk of a different species and more mature tree is to the right; other young trees' trunks and some evergreen (probably white pine) trees are in background, with backdrop of deep blue sky.

Tree 18: The anomaly

Closeup of the bark on the trunk, with thumb and forefinger on trunk to provide scale. Bark is greenish-brown with orangish-brown tinge on top surface; texture is very rough and bark looks like an assemblage of small chunks

Tree 18: The bark

But after I’d scratched my head and eliminated all other possibilities (ashes of various sorts among them), I uploaded the photos on iNaturalist for community identification. I also consulted my botanist friend M. Fortunately I had gotten a shot of the one twig I’d been able to reach.

Photo shows crotch of tree with orange-brown rough bark of trunk on left; on right, a substantial branch with differently patterned green-orange-brown bark, mostly smooth but with numerous prominent ridges beginning; one dark brown twig between them, protruding from the trunk.

Tree 18: Trunk, branch, twig

Dark brown twig placed against the mottled green-orange-brown bark. Small, tight brown buds are nearly encircled by leaf scars; small white dots appear intermittently along the bark of the twig.

Tree 18: The twig and the bark

One of the experts on iNaturalist confirmed the tree as an Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense), and M clinched the identification by locating a photo of the twig, which looked like a perfect twin of the one I’d clipped. Sherlock Holmes was right!

Turns out the Amur corktree, which came in originally as an ornamental tree for lawns, has naturalized to forests in New England and beyond. Several states have designated it as invasive or as a “noxious weed,” because it crowds out native hardwoods. The female trees produce clusters of tiny fruits that must appeal to birds, which is all it takes to spread the seeds far afield.

Which gets us to the point:

This identification exercise, aside from imbuing me with new respect for the people who traipse blithely through the woods calling everything by its (generally European-descended human-bestowed) name, also increased my awareness of the fragile balance that keeps our trees with us.

The Amur corktree made for a dramatic example of the plant invaders that threaten the vitality of the woods we tend to take for granted. But there are plenty of other examples: multiflora roses abounded in my chosen area, and if I’d looked more closely I’m sure I’d have found plenty of others. Japanese barberry, for example. If you’re a New Englander, you may already be aware of the pervasiveness of purple loosestrife along roadsides and in wetlands. If you’re anywhere along the East Coast of the US, you might have heard of the growing (no pun intended–but: a foot a day!) problem of kudzu. And if you’re a gardener, you may already worry a lot about garlic mustard or Japanese knotweed taking over your beds.

These, and more (way too many more!), species of plants, were planted originally by well-meaning gardeners, farmers, highway departments, erosion control programs, and others. But unlike our politer visitors like peonies and lilacs and corn, the invasive species escape from their original plantings and begin crowding out native species. They rob the soil of nutrients, suck up the water, and shade out the light that other plants need to survive and thrive.

That’s bad news not just for our native plants, but for the wildlife species that depend upon them. I could say a lot more on that topic, but that’s another whole post (or two or three).

Action plan?

Screenshot of results of a search on duckduckgo.com for "New England invasive plant species"

Looking it up is easy!

Our forests already face big threats from climate change and from the spread of (also often invasive) new bugs and blights. The least we could do is to think carefully before digging a spot for that gorgeous new plant we saw at the garden center, or accepting a free plant from a fellow gardener.

You can easily look up the plants to avoid by using a search engine. Just put in a search string with “[my region or state] invasive plant species” and you get good info from Audubon, National Park Service, and more.

And if you’re considering a specific plant, all you have to do is to search for “[name of plant] invasive?” You could also check to make sure that none of what you’re now growing is on the list of problematic species.

If we’re inclined to work within a larger arena, it wouldn’t hurt to check on what policies govern our town or city agencies’ decisions on what they plant in our public spaces. Or maybe even to get involved in the discussions leading to such decisions.

Okay, off my soapbox.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What is your best guess for any or all of the tree identifications (tree 06, tree 09, tree 11), and could you give your reasons? You could be the proud winner of a book on trees!
  2. What’s your favorite tree, and why? (species or individual, doesn’t matter)
  3. Are any invasive plants particular problems in your area?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts, so scroll down till you find it.

Thanks, as always, for reading, double thanks for responding, and triple thanks if you sign up for a subscription—or encourage a friend to do so.

Posted in pests and problems, plants, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Classify This!

In case you hadn’t noticed, gentle reader, I’ve been off your screen for a while. Not because I’ve been off with the masses, catching up on the life missed during Covid by lining up in airports or hanging out on beaches. And not even because I’ve been spending endless hours in the garden. At first in my silent spell, I was doing the latter, but not lately, not during the beastly heat waves we were playing host to here in what used to be the semi-frozen north.

Nope. I have been Otherwise Occupied. And for your sake, believe it or not!

Photo of winding road leading into mountains with jagged peaks

You just never know where reasoning will take you…
Cilaos” by Worlds In Focus is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

You see, I came to think, through routes of ratiocination too tortuous to be examined, that if I am to continue writing about Nature and all that jazz, I’d better know more about it. From a standpoint of Expertise and not just Experience.

So after some cursory exploration (routes also best left unexamined) I decided to pursue a Native Plants certificate through the Native Plant Trust. Two certificates, in fact: basic and advanced. Starting, you may be astonished to learn, with Basic.

The requirements didn’t look too tough: several core courses available online, some focused courses online or in person (Shrubs, for example), and a few electives out in the field (Ferns! Know Your Pests!). Easy peasy, I thought.

I could not have been more wrong.

See, as I saw the whole summer stretching out before me, I figured that doing all three of the core courses would be a cinch. I had from April 25 to September 12. Plant Form and Function? Roots and shoots, good to grow. Plant Ecology? Gotta get along with the neighbors. Plant Families? Mom, dad, the kids and the grandfolks. Piece of cake.

Ha. Ha. Ho.

In future posts, maybe I’ll tell you more about some of the many fascinating things I learned along the route. But this is just about one assignment.

Until nearly the bitter end, I was drowning in Plant Families. I should have guessed. We do all know what happens when we start delving into our own families. Skeletons in closets, wackos in plain view, dysfunctions up the wazoo. Why should plant families be any different?

Photo of a family at a heavily-loaded (Thanksgiving?) table, with character at far right making goggle-eyes at the camera

Happy Thanksgiving” by BenGeldreich is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

If you didn’t know about the concepts of species and genus, had never heard of Linnaeus, and had 400,000 samples (there are at least that many species of plants in the world!) to sort through and classify, how would you do it? What kinds of cabinets and drawers would you plop the plants into? That was one of those easy-peasy assignments that ended up gobbling hours and days of my time.

Here’s what I wrote:

Photo of gray rabbit in the middle of a clover patch, looking like she's inspecting to find a tasty shoot.

Rabbit” by James F Clay is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I propose the organizing principle of Utility. I take my inspiration from my local bunny rabbits, albeit applied differently. For the bunnies, the major classification demarcator would be Can I eat that? My net extends more broadly, with several demarcators added for the things we humans get up to.

But let’s start on the rabbit end. Edibility. The bunnies and I unfortunately agree on the edibility of most of the veggie plants I grow. They’re overboard on the edibility of the flowers, but they make up for that by shunning most of my herbs.

The edibility principle does pose some challenges, though, even if we confine it to edible-for-humans and don’t fuss over whether it’s an appetizer or main course:

Closeup photo of rutabaga root, top 3/4 buff-colored, bottom 1/4 purple, with gnarls and twisted roots showing towards the top

Rutabaga” by -meredith- is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. Do all or only some parts of the plant have to be edible? Brassicas (your garden-variety broccoli and cabbage) seem to skew towards all parts, although it had to take some elegant breeding moves to come up with a rutabaga. Walnut trees, only part, and you have to work to get at the edibles.
  2. A plant might be edible but poisonous. Here we have a different kind of challenge (strong influence here: Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants). There’s rhubarb, for example: the ribs are okay, if you cook them, but even the cooked leaves can make you sick or possibly kill you.
  3. So, one added dimension of classification would be raw=poison or toxic, cooked=okay or even yummy.

We pause for a head-scratch

This doesn’t get into the question that has always puzzled me: after Murgh, Ayam and Csirke have keeled over from eating a mystery plant, why would it occur to the rest of the clan to say, “Gee, let’s try cooking it and see whether that kills us.” In this category: cassava (hello, tapioca!), bamboo shoots, fiddleheads. Even, my god, kidney beans! And pangium nuts, which have to be both cooked and fermented to get rid of their hydrogen cyanide. The clan had to do some fancy trial and error on that one!

photo of caveman, dressed in animal skins and with finger tapping a stone tablet; caption says "Maybe NYT Cooking would have a better idea..."

Photo: canva.com; caption by me.

Then it gets really complicated

  1. Another dimension: part of the plant is poisonous; part is safe, at least if properly treated. Rhubarb here; also, cashew, the nut of which has tasty edible flesh inside a toxic casing growing from a tree many parts of which can give you a nasty rash or worse. Actually, some of those in the raw/cooked dimension may belong here too. Already the classification system gets a little fuzzed.
  2. A plant might not be much of a culinary treat but have important medicinal properties. People may ingest it anyway. Plants could even taste downright nauseating but still be good for you. Many of the herbs that figure in Chinese traditional medicine notoriously fit in this category.
    picture in pastels of a girl and a boy, both blond, standing in front of a house with forest behind them, and looking amazedly at an old woman in long dress and wearing a black conical hat as she peers at them over a railing at the front door.

    Margaret Tarrant’s ‘Hansel and Gretel‘” by sofi01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

    But we don’t have go all the way to China to find numerous medicinal uses of plants. My personal library includes Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, which indexes the uses of 3,000 indigenous North American plants. There I find the most unexpected uses for some of the flowering plants in my garden: among the several medicinal uses for my foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia, for example: an “Infusion of roots and leaves given to fatten little children.” For what, is not stated. I’m thinking: Hansel and Gretel?

  3. Many other plants might not be wise to ingest, but have medicinal properties when used as poultices or other external applications.

Beyond the bunny

That last point explains why I decided to label this classification method as “Utility” rather than “Edibility.” Unlike bunnies, we can come up with a wide range of possible uses for plants that we couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. Clothing (cotton, hemp, linen, even some tree barks, and the fig leaf that plays such a large part in the pop version of the Judaeo-Christian origin story). Material for making useful items (wood, or course, but also reeds, flexible twigs or branches, straw that can be braided for cord or tied together for bedding or other uses, palm leaves).

In fact, if we appreciate the diversity of human cultures throughout history, we might find that almost all plants could fit somewhere within a classification scheme according to utility. Even poison ivy makes good food for goats. For hunting, you could dip your arrow tips into any of a number of plant-derived toxins.

Painting of Socrates in apparent prison cell half-sitting on a pallet on a wooden platform, just before taking a cup being offered to him by a man carrying a tray. Socrates's right arm and hand are lifted up, as though he was declaiming, as his left hand touches the cup. His followers clustered in the room are in various positions of grief, some comforting each other, none of them looking directly at him.

Jean Francois Pierre Peyron (1744-1814), “The Death of Socrates, 1787. kms7066″ by SMK Statens Museum for Kunst (officiel) is marked with CC0 1.0.

And if you need to eliminate a pesky philosopher named Socrates, look no further than that kissing cousin of the homely carrot, hemlock (herb, not tree).

So why not use my system? Although we might enjoy identifying plants for the sheer fun of knowing their names, I suspect that the most crucial plant question throughout most of human history has been “What can I do with this plant?” The answers may change; the people who first used natural rubber to make balls to play with could never have imagined what Firestone would get up to with it.

But the question of utility makes a constant, and, I think, should be more emphasized today, as we lose species at an alarming rate. Each species lost represents a potentially vital gift to humanity thrown away. Too many of the planet’s drawers have already been emptied forever.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. If I’m going to be getting geeky about plants, especially native plants, is there some question that you’d like to see me research and write about?
  2. What, besides eating, is the most important use of plants for you?
  3. How did the summer go in your garden? Did you also have a heat wave and/or drought, and if so, how did you cope with it?
  4. Would you like some rabbits?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts, so scroll down till you find it.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!

Posted in animal life, cooking, plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

What bugs me

Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant.

No, I’m just going to talk about bugs. Real bugs. Or, to be more precise about the nomenklatura in the garden: insects.

Let me tell you about the reeducation I’ve been getting as I pivot towards more native plants in the garden.

Going native

There are good reasons for gardeners to turn towards native plants. First, the choice of native v. import may help avoid introducing invasive plants into the local landscape. Second, native plants evolved in the native environment, so chances are they’re better adapted to local climate, both temperatures and precipitation. Third, they evolved as part of a local/regional ecology, which means they mesh with other natives in creating a local ecosystem, right in our own backyards.

closeup of tiger swallowtail butterfly (black stripes on yellow for upper and inner 80% of wings; with black border all around, and panes of deep blue in varying sizes along bottom of wings just inside border). Butterfly seen against backdrop of (apparently) pink flowers and green foliage of butterfly weed.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly” by Audrey is licensed under CC

Ah, ecosystem! So much grander than plain old backyard. It sounds so harmonious, so balanced, so God’s-in-her-heaven-all’s-right-with-the-world. Especially when you think of all the lovely native trees and shrubs and flowers serving as hosts for gorgeous butterflies like tiger swallowtails,

Baltimore checkerspots,

coral hairstreaks,

painted ladies. And yes, of course, the monarch.

Doesn’t that sound heavenly? Imagine yourself planted ‘midst your serviceberry and summersweet and black chokecherry shrubs, your wild columbine and butterfly weed and lupine and black-eyed Susans and cranesbill and wild bergamot on a spring-thru-summer afternoon.

There you are, admiring the tiny works of nature’s art fluttering about, sipping here, feather-landing there, doing loop-the-loops around the sugar maple and the pin oak. (Naturally, your fantasy should substitute other regional native plants and pollinators if you’re not in New England.)

Idyllic, no?

Wellllll, let me tell you. If you’re setting up hosts in your garden, you’re not just laying out a buffet of floral sippy-cups. This is not exactly AirBnb—unless you’d offer a house where the guests, after draining the sippy cups, are free to set their kids loose to eat your curtains, your rugs, the furniture, the books, the paintings, and the paint off the walls.

Your lovely native-plant hosts, I regret to inform you, are there to be eaten.

It ain’t pretty

You begin to see where I’m going on the reeducation? Used to be, I’d look for plants advertised as virtually pest-free. Generally, that means plants so alien to the local environment that no self-respecting local-native bug would touch them.

Now, however, I’m supposed to put plants in because they attract pests. Because something buzzing or floating or crawling about will take a sniff and yell Dinner! and zero in to chow down. Or worse yet, yell Honey, I’m home! and zero in to lay a couple thousand eggs that will hatch into Very Hungry Caterpillars.

Several Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars (bright orange bodies with small black spots and black hairy tufts along body) on a host plant's stem, with half-eaten leaf showing at left and another mostly-eaten leaf in foreground.

Very Hungry Baltimore Checkerspot Caterpillars
Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars II” by dogtooth77 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Granted, there’s payoff here for the local biome, not just for the individual species of guest I’m hosting. The caterpillars attract birds, who gather not for the aesthetic enjoyment but for the eating. And birds will help keep other insect populations (and annelids, aka worms) under control. So it’s all one great circle of life, kumbaya, amen. Right?

Still, when the leaves on my newly planted winterberry bushes started disappearing at an alarming rate last summer, Kumbaya ain’t what I was humming. It’s one thing to put up with the kids eating the drapes, but when they started in on the furniture, all I could think of was that those bushes came at 70 bucks a pop. A pretty steep price for a bug buffet!

Game plans gang a-gley

For this year, I planned to head off the sticker shock by buying seeds. Then I could start from scratch and keep refilling the smorgasbord in hopes of some leftovers.

I’m great on planning. On execution, not so much.

I got all the pots and potting medium and even put together a nice little nursery frame out under the Canadian hemlocks. The seeds should have gone into the nursery around January. Now it’s nearly June and I still have all the pots and potting medium. The seeds are still in the fridge.

Maybe next January.

Hope springs infernal

Meanwhile, incredible though it may seem, there are empty spots in the sunny-garden beds. And plenty of space in the shade border, where mulch continues to fight a losing battle against weeds, and needs some help from ground cover. So the weekend before last, after perusing several different sources and compiling a carefully curated list, I betook myself to the local native plants nursery.

Naturally (no pun intended) they were out of most of what I was looking for. “Crazy-busy” might best describe the scene; the manager and sole ringer-up on duty said it’s been hard to keep up with the demand. Apparently others share my preoccupation with native plants.

If I were cynical, I’d say a native plant nursery is the perfect business. You’re selling people stuff that begs to be eaten.  (Thumper and Bambi are another issue. Having more cosmopolitan tastes, they’ll eat just about anything.)

Several different varieties of plants in black plastic pots on an outdoor glass-topped table

The 2022 bug banquet

Anyhow, I improvised enough to assemble a bug banquet, the members of which are still waiting for distribution to their homes-till-consumed. And I’m hoping that enough will survive, even after the painted lady and monarch caterpillars have eaten their fill, that the banquet will have staying power.

Stay tuned.

About the larger environment

What can I say? Huge swaths of the western US are burning (again), the gun lobby and its hired hands in Congress remain adamantly opposed to legislation on gun safety despite yet another horrific slaughter of schoolchildren, and the Supreme Court… well, I said I wasn’t going to rant.

I’ll just say that if you can figure out how to light a candle rather than cussing the darkness, go ahead and more power to you. If you want any recommendations: we gardeners know how important it is to get root systems well established—that goes for movements as well as plants! Two organizations doing essential work that begins at the grassroots are 350.org (action on climate change) and Movement Voter Project (assisting community-level organizing for progressive causes). I especially like the way MVP sends occasional bulletins describing in detail what it has been supporting, and why.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What native plants for your region do you particularly love? (If you’re not sure what’s native and what’s not, you can use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.)
  2. Have you been trying in recent years to put more native plants into your garden? If so, what impelled you to do so?
  3. Do you know of any good sources for native plants in your region? Share a recommendation, please!
  4. Are there any good grassroots-oriented organizations you would recommend that other readers check out?

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Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!

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