Category Archives: New England gardening for butterflies

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

 

Small Habitat Gardens of Worcester MA West

It’s tough to drive safely around here when summer gardens are at their peak! I’m sure other gardeners can relate to what I call garden rubbernecking, when you really ought to be watching the road but wow! did you see those dahlias!! and WHAT is that gorgeous tree? oooh! beautiful hanging baskets! Recently I’ve been carrying a camera on my travels, snapping photos of front-yard gardens and the colorful containers and window boxes that are in their full glory right now in the Worcester area. Here’s a selection of some small urban gardens and container plantings that I consider habitat-friendly. In other words, they don’t just look pretty, but their flowers, seeds and foliage supply food, shelter, structure and other resources to a variety of birds, beneficial insects and even amphibians that will visit an urban habitat.

First stop on my tour is downtown Spencer, where Appleblossoms has beautified its corner of Main and Mechanic St. for the past several years with these stunning window boxes.The flowering penta, impatiens and bacopa bring hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators right into the urban landscape, and the lush and colorful display must cheer many an early morning commuter along route 9:

_MG_5990Next stop is a side street just uphill from downtown, where I noticed this sidewalk retaining wall planted entirely with colorful hummingbird and butterfly-friendly annuals, including spider flower (Cleome) and blue and pink salvia:

spencer-ch-stI’m sure this garden attracts hordes of hummers all through the day. It certainly brings color and beauty to a once-elegant but now sadly neglected area of Spencer.

On to West Brookfield, where the historic town common features several large flowering containers worth a mention. This one is made up of scarlet runner bean vine (its orangey-red flowers are a hummingbird magnet) and bacopa (with tiny white flowers that bees love), plus other foliage plants that provide shelter and a resting place for tiny forms of wildlife through the summer:

west brookfield containerI’m not sure who waters and maintains these containers, but their extra-large size enables them to withstand drought much better than your average patio pot or window box, which in hot weather usually needs watering once or even twice per day. When it comes to containers, the larger the better, unless you use self-watering containers or automatic irrigation.

A few miles to the east in Worcester, here’s a front-yard garden near Tatnuck Square where, instead of wasting an otherwise unused space on a bit of ailing lawn, the homeowners have filled the front with plants that flower right through the seasons, providing a small oasis of biodiversity smack in the middle of a busy city intersection:

tatnuck-streetside-gardenGranted, this might be a little too ‘naturalized’ for some urban tastes, and the curb is overgrown with weedy, invasive stuff that most people don’t want in their yards, but this garden certainly grabs the attention as you pass through, and might even encourage a ponder about the possibilities, and wasted opportunities, of the typical American front yard. There is probably more life per square foot in this garden than anywhere else in the city of Worcester!

Last but not least, I love this charming front-yard garden on a side street of Worcester’s West Side. You can see that this little garden is lovingly tended, and with its colorful variety of shrubs and perennials, I’m sure it has something blooming right through the season. The hydrangea, pink garden phlox, purple coneflower, coreopsis are all great nectar plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and the dense shrubbery protects songbird nests from bad weather and predators.The annuals sweet alyssum, blue salvia and orange marigold fill in the gaps for an eye-popping show of refreshing color during the dog days of summer. I’d love to live across from this gardener’s house!

worcester-west-sideSo…my message is that you really don’t need a lot of space to invite wildlife and nature into your lives. Whether you garden on a 1/4 acre or just a porch railing, you can bring the beauty and life-sustaining qualities of plants into the smallest of garden spaces. In the process, you’ll be making your little patch of the earth a little healthier, prettier, and friendlier to all those who pass…

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:

monarch-chrysalis-nearly-th

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):

IMG_5825

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!

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”:

IMG_3876

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:

IMG_1337

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

IMG_1340

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!