Join me for a nature tour around our property, Arcadia Springs.
This week has been miserably hot and extremely dry. As I walk around, the grass crunches underfoot. Well-established shrubs throughout the woods are drooping pathetically in the heat. One or two Jewelweed that have somehow found the strength to bloom are turning yellow from the bottom up. Even the wildlife seem cranky. Though I talk nicely, a grey squirrel remains eye-level with me and barks it’s head off for a solid five minutes. I think misery loves company, but eventually get the hint and go on my merry way. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life on a ninety degree day.
I head toward the cool shade of the Elderbrook Garden. The gurgling sounds of the creek somehow give the illusion of relief. I’m greeted with the heady fragrance of dozens of Elderberry shrubs in full bloom. It’s an intoxicating scent that hangs so heavy in the air you can practically taste it.
Old Friends and New Ones
One of my favorite native plants for the birds, Pokeweed, is beginning it’s show. The flower blossoms remind me of popcorn kernels bursting open, bouncing upward toward the top of the stalk. The largest of them are now over eight feet tall and tower above me with stems as big around as a tree sapling. I find myself getting excited about the abundance of berries that will soon be available for the Wood Thrush pair that inhabits this section of woods. As a bird species on decline, we want to give them all the help they can get. Though many people find Pokeweed’s aggressive tendencies to be a nuisance in a typical garden setting, I think it is an elegant specimen in it’s natural environment.
Once I step foot into the Land of the Limberlost that I’ve designated as our woodland garden, I can lose myself for hours. It seems like with every visit there are new plants or insects to see. For instance, on this day I come across a Cucumber Beetle for the first time. It looks like a yellow ladybug! Rounding a bend in the trail that I’ve walked numerous times already this year I am completely surprised to find American Germander (Teucrium canadense) growing in joyful abundance along the creek. It mingles happily among the nodding yellow flowers of Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). Being part of the mint family, it’s bound to end up all over the place. So, how did I not notice them before? No idea. Though now that I’m aware of their presence, I recognize the white and pink-tinged blooms all over the property. Both American Germander and Fringed Loosestrife might be considered garden thugs as they really like to spread out. However, I’d much rather have them swallowing the creek banks here instead of Japanese Stiltgrass or other harmful invasives!
One thing I notice after just a few minutes on the trail is the bustling hubbub of busy birds. Fledglings and their parents noisily keep tabs on one another. Juveniles with their muted feathers awkwardly navigate from tree to tree. The really young ones are easy to find as they make frequent calls that unmistakably say “feed me”. A spectator needs only to listen and follow the repetition of hungry cries to find them. Watching is entertaining and easy. Taking decent photos is frustrating and difficult at best. You can see my poor examples below if you want proof of that.
Within a twenty minute period I’m able to spot several young American Robins in nearby shrubs. A couple miniature Blue Jays skuffle with each other high in a tree. Unbeknownst to me, a juvenile Northern Flicker is hiding on the ground in the raspberry patch and crashes onto the trail in a panic when I approach. I’m pretty sure of the two of us I am far more startled. Hearing an unmistakable tapping, I catch the movements of a timid Downy Woodpecker. It frequently freezes in place and makes soft sounds until it’s parent arrives. Finally, a curious young Catbird is less afraid than the others, though the adults are letting the entire forest know that I am there. Loudly. They’ve been carrying on from the moment I first arrived. Apparently, the squirrels aren’t the only cranky creatures in the woods today. I take the hint and head toward home. The squawking Catbirds follow me to make sure I am really leaving. Trust me, I am.
A Closer Look:
Why is this area such a “happening” place this week? It may have something to do with the abundance of food there! In addition to thousands of pollinators and insects attracted to the Elderberry blossoms and other flowering plants, there is an abundance of caterpillars as well right now! Specifically, Canadian Owlet Moth caterpillars. Their host plant, Tall Meadow Rue grows thick along the stream banks here. I tried to count all the cats, but there were far too many. It’s a good year for the tiny beasts. Which makes it a great week for hungry birds! Warblers in particular find these types of caterpillars enticing. Being high in fats and protein, lepidopteran larvae are perfect for many bird species that are rearing their young. Like all of the ones that I just encountered!
Canadian Owlet Moth
- Start looking for these caterpillars on Tall Meadow Rue around the 4th of July!
- Leafless stalks and tiny round pieces of poop (frass) on leaves are indications they may be present.
- If enough larvae occupy their host plant, they may strip the leaves and blossoms until the plant looks bare. It will be ok! This is part of Meadow Rue’s purpose! As a perennial, it will grow back the following year.
- Early instars (stages of the caterpillar) are small, light green all over, and have a row of black dots down their sides. They have a sort of glowy, translucent appearance.
- Mid-development, larvae are larger and take on dark markings and a more opaque bluish-green color. They can often be seen feeding side-by-side with the younger caterpillars.
- In the late instar stage, they are solid black underneath. When the growing process is complete, they crawl down to the base of the plant. They may overwinter underground or in a cocoon buried in leaf litter until they can emerge as adults the following spring.
- Preserving overwintering insects is one important reason not to rake up or destroy all the leaf litter in your yard in the fall (or early spring). Don’t like having things look “messy”? Consider leaving even a small portion of your yard “natural”, perhaps in a place that may be less visible to the public eye.
Tall Meadow Rue
- Growing Zones: 3-8
- Height: 3.00 – 7.00 feet
- Spread: 2.00 – 3.00 feet
- Habit: Tall, Clump-Forming
- Bloom Period: June – August
- Bloom Color: White
- Bloom Structure: Small, Many Starry Thread-like Blossom Inflorescences, Male & Female Flowers on Separate Plants
- Water Requirements: Med. – Wet
- Sun Preference: Part – Full Shade
- Uses: Host Plant for Owlet Moth Larvae, Back of the Border, Rain Garden, Woodland Garden, Cottage or Wildflower Garden
- Tolerates: Juglone (Black Walnut), Rabbits, Deer
- Root Structure: Rhizomatous
- Propagation: Readily Self-Seeds
This plant has delicate foliage that has an airy look. Perfect for filling in behind shorter flowering plants, it also is attractive to butterflies and other insects.
Often found along streams or in swampy areas, try pairing it with other plants that don’t mind a bit of extra moisture in the soil. Bee Balm, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, American Germander, Fringed Loosestrife, Virgin’s Bower, or Great Blue Lobelia are suitable companions.
See complete plant profile here.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The farther an adult bird has to travel in search of food to feed it’s young, the more it exhausts it’s own limited energy supply. Yards with more native vegetation host more larvae species, which attract/support more native bird species! In order to grow healthy nestlings, there must be enough food (insects) nearby for parent birds to make 100+ feeding trips per day for 2-3 weeks. Caterpillars often make up the bulk of preferred food for baby birds.
- A healthy insect population helps make healthy bird populations. Lawn areas treated with weed & feed chemical applications may cause harm to the birds themselves or reduce local insect populations (fewer flowers/host plants = fewer insects = fewer food sources for birds). One simple way to do our part in supporting local birds? Plant natives!
- Though birds seem to frequent Japanese Honeysuckle, this invasive shrub can cause more harm than good. Nutrient-wise the berries drastically pale in comparison to berries offered by native plants. They’ve been described by various studies as being “fast food” for birds. When migratory birds should be stocking up on berries high in fats, consuming an overabundance of nutritionally empty berries can be a detriment to them in the long run.
If You Grow It, They Will Come
I know we’ve traversed a bit of a rabbit hole here, but I hope you’re still following along! Our walk now ends at my roadside Milkweed patch. Though the past few weeks have been scorchers, the Common Milkweed seems to be handling it well. I check these plants daily and there’s never a shortage of activity humming on the leaves or among the blossoms. Native milkweed is uniquely suited as a host plant for Monarchs (and that adorable Red Milkweed Beetle). It also supports many other pollinators and insects that in turn support all local wildlife in a complex food web! I know I sound like a broken record, but you know what they say: Repetition is the key to learning.
A Helping Hand:
Milkweed for Monarchs and Friends
“Milkweed is the host plant for Monarchs, meaning Monarchs will lay eggs only on milkweed plants and milkweed is the sole source of food for caterpillars. Of all the milkweed species used as host plants by Monarchs, Common Milkweed is most favored. But Monarchs aren’t the only insect to use Common Milkweed. One study found 147 animal and insect species spend all or part of their lives connected to it. Common Milkweed is typically found growing with other beneficial native plants such as asters and goldenrods. Together, these plants and insects create the vibrant milkweed community, a life support system not just for Monarchs, but also for many important beneficial insects that pollinate our foods and assist in pest control.”Donna Quinn – Loudoun Wildlife Conservacy Vol. 20, Issue 2, Summer 2015
You may have heard that Monarchs are in danger of extinction. Eastern Monarch populations overwintering in Mexico have declined more than 80% over the past 20 years. Habitat loss, droughts, and pesticides are some of the suspected reasons for this decline. Did you know that 90% of them will not survive from egg to adulthood? What can we do about it? We can grow their one and only host plant: milkweed.
Everyone loves a pretty flower and there’s some level of excitement that comes from watching butterflies nectar from them. However, without necessary host plants nearby, butterflies are less likely to frequent our landscapes. If you want more butterflies in general, find out what host plants they need in order to successfully reproduce! Many of them cannot lay eggs on any leaf they come across. Nature tends to be much more specific. For Monarchs, it is very specific.
- Milkweed comes in a variety of colors with blossoms ranging from white to dusty pink to red or orange! Be sure to research which milkweed is native to your area before planting it in your garden.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It can be beneficial to break up your milkweed into sections separated by native nectar-rich plants. One large patch can easily fall victim to predators, whereas smaller groupings spread further apart may help more Monarchs grow successfully from egg to adulthood.
- Use caution when purchasing milkweed from big box stores or nurseries. Especially if you cannot guarantee that they have not been treated with pesticides! I have heard of many people that had the sad experience of watching young caterpillars die on these plants due to invisible chemicals that end up causing their early demise.
- If possible, you can easily grow your own milkweed from seed! Joining a local native plant/seed swap is a great way to meet like-minded people that have a passion for native plants and wildlife. You can also purchase seed from reliable sources online. If collecting seed from the wild, be sure to read up on best practices and always obtain permission from landowner first.
- Join Facebook Groups! There are many that focus on native host plants, raising caterpillars, and even ones specifically about growing milkweed!
Check out our online Zazzle store featuring Monarch Butterflies!
A Final Thought
If you’ve never given a thought about what you plant or the way you garden, it’s never too late to start gardening with a purpose! Begin with what interests you! Is it bird watching, butterflies, or perhaps the 4,000 species of native bees we have here in North America (of which many are in peril)? All wildlife depend upon and benefit from native plants. Doing your part could be as simple as planting an oak tree for the birds or as involved as turning part of your yard into a wildflower meadow for pollinators. If you have no yard, adding native potted plants to your porch or apartment balcony is a wonderful way to help! Together, we can make a difference.