Category Archives: Habitat ponds

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

 

The View from the Porch: Great Blue Heron

This time of year, we spend a lot of time on the back porch. Skies are clear, temperatures are comfy once again and the mosquitoes are gone! We sit with friends, laugh at the dogs, feed raisins to our chickens and watch birds crashing around the gardens as they forage on seed stems of old plants.

IMG_4311But when the dogs are indoors and all is quiet, that’s when we see the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flying towards our pond. He’s kind of hard to miss, looking like a giant pterodactyl flapping its enormous wings as it lands:

Standing 4′ tall  with a 6′ wingspan, the Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America, and we are always thrilled to see one visiting our small farm pond to hunt for frogs and fish. I can’t say the same for my horses though…when the heron flies directly over them as he lands or takes off, those nervous horses dive for the safety of their stalls!

The heron always uses the same landing strip (the road to our barn) where he first checks out the scene to make sure everything’s safe:

IMG_4304From there, he makes a quick flyover to the other side of the pond where he stands silently in the shallows, like a living sculpture, waiting to spear an unsuspecting frog or catfish for dinner.

IMG_4310-1Great Blue Herons will visit small backyard ponds and water features, which does not make them popular with pond owners who raise expensive Koi and Goldfish! A small, shallow water feature full of brightly colored exotic fish is like laying out an all-you-can-eat buffet for herons, raccoons and neighborhood cats. But, in a natural ecosystem backyard pond containing deep pools, aquatic plants and other places for fish and frogs to hide, the Heron is simply part of the food chain in action. In our pond, they mostly eat the abundant catfish, minnows and frogs, but they also eat mice, snakes and some insects, so they can be useful in keeping other undesireable populations under control.

We’ve noticed that our heron usually visits early in the morning, when the farm is quiet. Our 3 dogs have a zero tolerance for large forms of wildlife on the property, so they usually run the Heron out of town when they see him! But on a still evening, we might get lucky and see the Great Blue Heron at work in our pond…and witness nature in action. All that from the back porch!