Category Archives: Butterfly gardens

Sneezeweed growing in the kitchen gardens at Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA

Sneezeweed: All Smiles, No Sneezes

If you enjoy growing new and unusual perennials, take a look at the yellow-flowering Fall Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) for cheerful late-season blooms. Actually not new at all (only at nurseries), sneezeweed is a native plant that grows wild in wet areas across most of New England, providing nectar and pollen to butterflies and late-season pollinators.

Fall sneezeweed grows right on the edge of the pond at Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA

Fall sneezeweed grows right on the edge of the pond at Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA

Although a wetland plant in the wild, sneezeweed doesn’t require wet soil, and really shines in decent garden soils that aren’t too terribly dry. Long-blooming, sneezeweed (also called Helen’s Flower) begins blooming in August and continues right until a killing frost here in central MA (Zone 5).

And despite its name, Sneezeweed does NOT cause hay fever! Its pollen is heavy and pollinated by bees rather than wind (which carries lighter-weight allergenic pollen dust).

The native yellow-flowering Helenium autumnale is still very hard to find at nurseries (at least in New England), available only at Project Native (please hit Reply if you know of others!), although hybrids bred in Europe are beginning to become widely available in nurseries. The hybrids are bright and showy, usually with flaming orange-yellow flowers.

A note on hybrids and cultivars: On my own Massachusetts habitat farm, I’m moving from growing cultivars of natives (nativars) to growing locally-native plants — this is helping to maintain native strains with adaptations to local climate and co-evolved wildlife. Most sneezeweed cultivars such as ‘Mardi Gras‘ and ‘Moerheim Beauty‘ originate from European breeding programs. Depending on their seed provenance, they may contain some native genetic materials, but because they’re selected from plants growing in faraway garden climates, they may not be best adapted to local conditions, and there is no guarantee that they have the characteristics that local wildlife rely upon. Read more about the complicated issues of choosing native plant hybrids for wildlife value.

Sneezeweed growing in the kitchen gardens at Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA

Sneezeweed growing in the kitchen gardens at Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA


Native New England Shrubs for Pollinators: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

Thriving in lean soil and attracting the good bugs, New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a low flowering native shrub for full-sun areas of the garden.

Click below to read my profile of New Jersey Tea on Houzz:

Taming Wildflowers

IMG_3534On St. Patrick’s Day today, our farm is still buried in snow with not a bit of green to be found! Except for one bowl of lettuce greens under lights in our sunroom, and some mini-greenhouses sown with perennial and shrub seeds “cold stratifying” outdoors  (left), the only gardening going on here is in the dreams of the gardeners.

IMG_2632So last week when this beautiful book arrived in the mail, crammed with gorgeous photos of wild flowers … well, let’s just say it made this winter-weary gardener’s soul very happy!

Taming Wildflowers: Bringing the Beauty and Splendor of Nature’s Blooms Into Your Own Backyard (written by my friend Miriam Goldberger who runs Wildflower Farm in Ontario), is a beautifully-illustrated guide to growing a garden filled with (mostly) native North American plants from seed.

This book is a treat for garden book lovers who value style and substance. IMG_2643Open it to any page and you’ll find stunning photos of distinctive beautiful native plants that will make you long for summer’s color and abundance — along with detailed instructions how to grow 60 American native plants that don’t just look pretty, but also support dwindling populations of butterflies, pollinators and birds. Wonderfully designed, bound and produced using recycled paper harvested from sustainably managed forests, it was also printed in Canada, not in China like most illustrated gardening books — including my own!

Taming Wildflowers is a great resource for gardeners learning to grow plants from seed, with valuable information about specific germination requirements of each plant. If you’ve ever tried growing swamp milkweed or orange butterfly milkweed (pictured below right) from seed, for example, you’ll know that it’s not easy to get seeds to germinate — milkweeds seem to sprout only after the seeds have experienced an extended cold period. This book guides you through the whole process.

IMG_2637 butterfly weed

The photos of each plant at the young seedling stage are also very useful to natural-style gardeners — learning to ID young seedlings makes it easy to recognize the good guys (plants you want to encourage or propagate) from the weeds when you work in your own gardens.

I am generally skeptical of garden books that span the entire North American continent with their plant recommendations. Here in New England we garden in a totally different climate than other parts of the country, and plants that are native to other areas might be totally inappropriate for our changeable climate, OR potentially become invasive and spread out of control. For the 60 native American plants that Taming Wildflowers profiles, each plant description lists the states where the plant is considered native, so readers can choose plants that work in their own region. For eco-savvy gardeners that want to attract beneficial insects and pest predators, each plant also lists the variety of short and long-tongued bee pollinators, predatory insects, and even birds attracted by the plant’s flowers or foliage.

profusion zinnia container

Dwarf Zinnia ‘Profusion’, easy to grow from seed.

One chapter encourages the growing of “Non-Native Must Haves” — exotic easy-from-seed annuals such as Zinnia, Mexican Sunflower and Larkspur that are not currently considered invasive but are worth growing in North American gardens for their beauty and function. Native plant purists won’t approve, but as a self-professed ‘color junkie’, I enjoy adding colorful annuals in and around my veggie and flower beds to add visual impact and attract lots of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Miriam’s book is filled with inspiration and ideas for nature-scaping your gardens using wild plants and will appeal to wildlife gardeners, herbalists, and organic farmers looking for cheap and easy plants to attract predatory insects to their crops. One chapter shows brides-to-be how to plan a DIY Wildflower Wedding, with photos and ideas for using wild flowers in stunning bouquets, boutonnieres, baskets and table arrangements. I so wish this book had existed when we planned our (mostly DIY) wedding many years ago!

IMG_2636No matter where you live in North America, Taming Wildflowers will inspire you to recreate a bit of natural beauty in your own space. Although it looks as though we probably won’t see bare ground here in central MA until April, in the meantime, Miriam’s gorgeous book will continue to feed my dreams of sunny summer days and meadows filled with butterflies, birds and dragonflies…




Book Details:

Taming Wildflowers: Bringing the Beauty and Splendor of Nature’s Blooms into your Own Backyard

Author: Miriam Goldberger

Published by St. Lynn’s Press, Pittsburgh PA

194 pages

Published 6th March 2014

Available for $18.95 (US) at bookstores, or directly from the author at Wildflower Farm.

Disclosure: I received this book from St. Lynn’s Press as a review copy. I received no payment for reviewing the book, and my opinions are entirely my own! I’m always happy to spread the word about inspiring books that help DIY gardeners fill their space with site-adapted plants to feed their bellies, souls, and wildlife too!


Raising Herbert – Part 3: Free to Fly (or be Eaten)

Good news from Turkey Hill Brook Farm! The monarch butterfly chrysalis shed its skin and finally metamorphosed into its adult butterfly form about a week after Herbert the caterpillar turned himself into a cocoon on August 8th:

I missed a few days of checking his progress on the milkweed plant, but on August 14th, you could clearly see the orange and black markings forming on the butterfly’s wings inside the chrysalis:


I never saw the adult butterfly emerge, but on the evening of the 16th, I checked the leaf and Herbert was gone, and all I could see of this amazing metamorphosis was his tattered skin, showing that he had emerged and flown away!monarch-chrysalis-final

I’ve seen some fresh-looking monarch butterflies flying around our butterfly gardens this week, so I’m hoping that Herbert is one of them and hasn’t already been eaten by a hungry bird or other predator. As for whether he is male or female, I’ll never know, but a recent garden visitor pointed out a tiny monarch butterfly caterpillar about 1/2″ long and perhaps 3mm wide dining on a leaf of the same milkweed plant where Herbert did his changeover. Could Herbert have used the same plant to lay her eggs? If so, she might need a name change…maybe Hebe?

Since then, I haven’t seen the second caterpillar again, so it could have been parasitized by a tiny predatorial wasp that uses the bodies of caterpillars as a host to lay their eggs, which then hatch and begin feeding on the caterpillar from the inside out. Kind of gruesome, I know, but nature isn’t always pretty, and the predator/prey relationship is what keeps nature in balance. Without parasitic wasps to keep monarch caterpillar populations in check, the cats would probably eat their own milkweed food plant right out of existence. And no milkweeds? No monarchs!

Raising Herbert – Part 2

My hubby tells me that there are thousands of readers waiting on the edge of their seats for the next update of Herbert the Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar …is he being sarcastic, I wonder? Anyway, the good news is that Herbert is alive and well and living in chrysalis form near our wildlife pond. I moved him out of the container onto a milkweed plant outdoors because we were going away for a few days and I didn’t think Herbert would travel well. Here are a couple of pics of his transformation.

Here he has fixed himself with a tiny silken thread to the bottom of a leaf and formed the shape of a “J“, beginning the process of shedding his caterpillar (larval) skin and turning into a chrysalis (this is called pupating):


Two days later, he had morphed into a chrysalis, which is a cocoon from which the adult monarch butterfly will eventually emerge after about 10-14 days (if all goes well).

_MG_5842Hard to believe that this strange alien-looking life form with glowing yellow and black dots will turn into a gorgeous butterfly!

Stay tuned for Herbert updates! In the meantime, I am seeing more fresh-looking (ie newly hatched) adult monarch butterflies flying around our butterfly gardens, so things may be looking up for this year’s southward migration from New England to Mexico!

Raising Herbert

Meet Herbert, a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that I noticed last night in a bucket of garden trimmings headed to the compost pile. He looked feeble from being separated from his milkweed foliage, which is the only thing he can eat. I’m pretty sure he was a victim of over-zealous weeding on the outskirts of our veggie gardens, where milkweed pops up here and there, so I decided to try to save him by putting him in a “bug viewer” with some fresh milkweed leaves as a food source. This morning, he’d revived, and was actively feeding on the foliage:

IMG_5797Usually I wouldn’t go to this much trouble to save a single caterpillar, but the Monarch butterfly species is under great threat. Devastating mudslides in the monarch’s Mexican winter habitat this past year wiped out large numbers of migrants, and it remains to be seen whether their populations can rebound from these losses. In my central Massachusetts garden, which is certified as a Monarch Waystation, I have only seen 2 adult monarch butterflies all summer, and just the one caterpillar (Herbert!) so far. Usually we see them flying here by the dozen. I am anxiously watching this year’s statistics from citizen scientists on how populations have fared this summer. Hopefully enough gardeners will have planted milkweed along their migration routes, because clearly these guys need all the help they can get if they have any hope of avoiding extinction.

I often hear from people who raised monarch butterfly caterpillars as children as part of their school curriculum, but this is my first attempt to hand-rear a monarch. What I do know, from observations in my own garden (where we grow 4 types of milkweed ), is that monarch caterpillars are usually found on fresh, new milkweed foliage, so I’ll be picking fresh leaves every day or two to ensure that Herbert has what he needs to morph into his next phase of life, the chrysalis from which a butterfly will hopefully emerge…

Since he is over an inch long already, and monarch caterpillars usually start to shed their skin and pupate at about 2″ in length,  I’ll try to update my blog as Herbert’s transformation into a butterfly continues…

Where are the Monarchs?


DCF 1.0Where oh where have the Monarch butterflies gone? I heard this question many times this past summer. Mostly, it seems the weather was to blame, at least in New England. Butterflies need sun and warmth in order to fly, and they need to fly to locate Milkweed plants to lay their eggs. Their wings are like little solar chargers, soaking up the sun to fuel their flight. This year’s cold and rainy weather in New England provided few opportunities for female Monarchs to fly to areas containing Milkweed plants (Asclepias species), which is the only plant that Monarch butterfly caterpillars can use as a food source.

The good news is that this could be just a regional blip. According to Journey North, a project that documents Monarch numbers during their fall and spring migration, in the past week, Monarchs have been seen crossing into northern Mexico in numbers that have not been seen in years. Hopefully this means that although Monarchs were scarce in New England this year, the weather simply kept them away.

But the weather isn’t the only problem affecting Monarch populations. Illegal logging in the forested regions of central Mexico, where Monarchs make their winter home, has reduced the winter habitat available to those butterflies who survive the long flight south. And according to research at the University of Georgia, since 1976 the female-to-male ratio of Monarch butterflies shows a major decline east of the Rockies. Because females can lay up to 400 eggs over the course of their lifetime, any reduction in their numbers is troubling for population stability.

Researchers are not sure why female populations are declining, but as gardeners we can all help Monarch populations by planting Milkweeds in our yards and gardens to provide food for Monarch caterpillars. If you think they’re weedy looking, think again. There are several types of Milkweed that will grow in New England, and whatever your conditions, there’s a beautiful variety suitable for your garden.

Well-drained, sunny spot? Just perfect for the neon-orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), shown below with our Farm Director “Speck”:


If your soil contains some moisture, Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a good choice. It’s tolerant of drier soils, too. Besides being the sole food source for Monarch caterpillars, Milkweed flowers contain huge amounts of sweet nectar that all butterflies (not just Monarchs) love. Below, a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly sips nectar from Swamp Milkweed flowers:

DCF 1.0

If you have a larger property with areas that you can let “go wild”, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has gorgeous ball-shaped pink flowers with an intoxicating honey scent. Common Milkweed grows naturally in waste places and old fields in New England, so who knows, if you have an area that you can leave unmowed, it may just pop up on its own…

Although not native to New England, Scarlet Milkweed or Bloodflower (A. curassavica)is a worthwhile annual to include in flower beds and patio pots. Its flowers bloom in a striking red, orange and yellow:

DCF 1.0

The first year we planted Scarlet Milkweed in a container on our patio, almost immediately a Monarch butterfly found it and laid her eggs. To our delight, two of them hatched, and one climbed onto a nearby trellis to start its transformation into a butterfly:


Below is the chrysalis that eventually morphed into a brand new adult Monarch butterfly:


How do they do it?

Scientists and naturalists have always been fascinated by the complex life cycle of the Monarch butterfly, but new research published in Science magazine is showing just how these tiny creatures are able to navigate their way 2000 miles to the same small region of Mexican forest each fall to spend the winter. It turns out that Monarchs have a type of GPS navigation system and circadian clock built right into their antennae, which allows them to use the sun to guide their travel as well as to correctly adjust their direction based on the time of day. Amazing!

Remember, no  Milkweed, no Monarchs. Let’s help these unique winged wonders survive for future generations to enjoy by growing Milkweeds anywhere we can!