They pollinate 90% of the flowering plants on earth; and they eat plants, the crucial first step in changing plant energy into the fats and proteins that feed hosts of other animals. In so doing, insects sustain Earth’s ecosystems. They truly are, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “The little things that run the world.”
Yet globally, insect populations have declined by 47% since 1974, a loss that translates into a decline in the very ecosystems that sustain all life on earth, humans included!
Why native plants? In study after study, it has been shown that native plants host many times more insect species than do non-natives.
Which insect groups are most important? In Nature’s Best Hope, author Doug Tallamy suggests selecting native plants that support two important insect groups: large, nutritious insects (think caterpillars of butterflies and moths) and bees. Caterpillars are the mainstay of most bird diets; and native bees perform the lion’s share of pollination.
Where can I find resources for host plants native to my area?
Planting a diversity of native plants chosen for their ability to provide food for caterpillars and flowers for nectaring bees, ensures not only a prairie garden filled with a diversity of insects and birds, but also a garden that contributes to a healthier environment. And it is all happening right outside our door!
Tallamy, Douglas W. 2019. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.
One of the best parts about my job is working in the greenhouse. Yes, it is usually hot and humid in there, and yes my feet are always wet. But none of that seems to matter when I am surrounded by butterflies! With little wind and lots of native blooms, the greenhouse attracts butterflies of all shapes and sizes.
In the greenhouse and in the garden, Agastache (aka anise hyssop or hummingbird mint) is a fan favorite for butterflies, bees and wasps. Sometimes they are so full of pollinators I don’t want to water and disturb them! ‘Blue Boa’ is a great garden variety, and grows best in hot sun and well drained soil. Agastache foeniculum is better for less formal spaces, as it tends to spread readily by seed.
Will Sweat for Butterflies
While working in the greenhouse during the summer months, it isn’t hard to break a sweat. Butterflies will occasionally land on my skin and get a taste of the water-soluble minerals in my perspiration, giving me a great opportunity for up-close viewing and sometimes even a photo. Remember to avoid touching their wings when handling butterflies; this can damage the delicate scales and structures that allow them to fly.
It may not feel like fall yet, but it is coming. I am ready for some cooler north winds to blow and the leaves to begin changing on the trees. In the back of my mind, I am grudgingly starting to think about garden clean up.
Things are winding down in the garden, except for the asters. ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are a bright spot in the October prairie garden. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden. The grasses are spectacular this year too.
Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. The grasses that are so beautiful now will blend into the landscape. It will be time for the prairie to sleep. Before we settle in for the winter, there are a few things to take care of in the garden so that it’s ready for next spring.
I know we don’t want to think too much about the landscape, but if you don’t take a few notes now, you will forget by spring. I know that will happen to me, so I like to spend a few moments reflecting on what has worked and what didn’t in the gardens.
Do I need to add a few plants to fill or augment my current design? Should I move some plants to make them happier? I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. What areas am I going to focus on next year? Do some of my trees and shrubs need pruning? What plants have I seen that I believe would work well in the landscape? What do I need to do to create habitat for wildlife?
Fall is also a great time to appreciate what you have accomplished. Even a few steps toward a more sustainable landscape should be recognized. Your project may not be complete, but you can see progress. Give yourself a pat on the back. Your stewardship efforts are making a difference. Hopefully, you know this and have seen evidence of it in your garden.
We have been rethinking how, when and why we do cleanup of our perennial beds. It is generally better to leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses as they are through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem. Enjoy these autumnal combinations.
Wait! Don’t clean up your garden too early. Cleaning up beds often removes natural food and shelter that wildlife need to survive the winter months. Coneflowers, black-eyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. Many pollinators and other insects overwinter in stems and tufts of grass in the landscape. By prematurely removing all dead vegetation you are removing overwintering wildlife. We have found that it is better to cut these plants down in February and March, but leave the stems in the garden as mulch. Overwintering pollinators and insects hatch in the spring and these composted plants are a fantastic mulch that add nutrients back to the soil. In our experience, overzealous cleaning often does more harm than good.
I love the fall color of the trees in October. However, once the leaves have fallen, what should be done with them? I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds so they can insulate the plants. Keep in mind that too many leaves or larger leaves tend to cake up and seal off the soil. This will keep the soil too wet through the winter for many perennials.
When you are dealing with large quantities of leaves you may need to remove them or shred them so they break down quickly. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get too thick that they smother out your woodland plants, too. Remove leaves from your turf areas, but don’t haul them away. They make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.
This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take note of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.
Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.
One of the hottest trends in horticulture is planting for pollinators. In tending our gardens, we all want to do our part to make it easier for butterflies, bees, and other winged friends to find the plants they need for survival.
September is a great time to plant wildflowers. If you keep pollinators in mind as you plant, they will come. Try a few of these summer and late-season wildflowers in your landscape. They are pollinator-magnets.
Goldenrods get a bad rap. They don’t cause hay fever. However, they do attract all sorts of wildlife to their bright yellow flowers in late summer.
Aromatic Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’
This is one of my favorite asters. They each have nice lavender flowers in late-September into October. These plants are abuzz with activity as pollinators seek the last sips of nectar before migrating or hibernating for the winter.
This milkweed is vital to monarchs as they migrate back south to Mexico. The pink blooms appear at the right time to provide the energy they need to complete their journey.
New England Aster
This wildflower prefers a medium to moist soil. The dark purple to pink flowers attract tremendous diversity of pollinators to the flowers in fall. I like variety ‘Purple Dome’ with its shorter habit and dark purple flowers.
There are so many varieties of coneflowers. I love the new colors but have really come to appreciate the true native species Narrow-leaf coneflower, Pale purple coneflower, Yellow purple coneflower and Purple coneflower. The rounded cones make perfect landing pads for all sorts of insects searching for pollen.
This easy to grow wildflower is one of the best pollinator plants. The yellow flowers with the dark center attract a host of pollinators in including Great Spangled Fritillary.
Dotted gayfeather is blooming right now in the arboretum. The lavender spikes lay lower to the ground than other taller forms but these late season wildflowers are still attractive to bees and butterflies of all shapes and sizes.
Don’t forget the native grasses. Many pollinators overwinter in clumps of grasses such as little bluestem and switchgrass. Besides their beautiful fall color, these denizens of the prairie provide great texture and structure in the winter garden, too.
This time of year is great for caterpillar hunting. I have been finding lots of amazing, colorful critters munching away on the foliage here at Dyck Arboretum. I am always eager to get a picture of them, if I can, so that I can properly identify them later using guides and help from the internet. In doing so, I become engrossed in their beautiful and strange anatomies – spots, stripes, horns, hairs and amazingly grippy legs. There is much to know and discover!
I get close up photos of insects on my phone using a clip on macro lens. By doing so I can see the tiny details on this white-lined sphinx moth caterpillar (Hyles lineata), like the yellow tips on his legs and the white spots on his head.
Caterpillars vs Worms
When a child sees a caterpillar, they might be tempted to point and say “Oooh, worm!”. But we must remember that caterpillars are not worms, they are larvae. Larvae is the immature form of an insect. A true worm, such as an earthworm, isn’t an immature form of anything. There are several other easy to notice differences:
Worms do not move on legs – Caterpillars do
Worms are not insects, and do not metamorphose into insects – Caterpillars change into an adult butterfly or moth
Also, caterpillars often sport wacky colors and patterns while most of the world’s worms are much more inconspicuous. Earthworms and some marine worms, roundworms, and tapeworms are usually sporting brown or tan skin. However, many types of ocean dwelling flatworms are incredibly colorful, though you won’t likely confuse these guys for caterpillars.
An adult black swallowtail caterpillar feeding on Zizia in our greenhouse. These swallowtails can only feed on plants in the Parsley/Carrot family.
This black swallowtail caterpillar is in one of its early ‘instars’ or phases of development. It will shed its skin as it gets bigger, and coloration changes during this process as well. In the top left, you can see a black swallowtail caterpillar farther along in its development.
Hairy and Scary
Caterpillars are genius defense players. They are so packed full of protein and delicious to predators, they have had to evolve many ways to protect themselves. Some caterpillars, like the monarch butterfly, make themselves taste bad by eating milkweed leaves with toxins in them. Others try to look intimidating with aposematic coloration – body patterns and colors that warn predators to stay back! And some, like the spicebush swallowtail, even grow fake eye spots on their bodies to fool their hunters into thinking they are snakes. My personal favorites are the hairy ones. Caterpillars will sometimes grow hairs to make them hard or unpleasant to swallow. What bird wants a mouth full of hair anyways? Sometimes these hairs are designed to fall off and lodge in the skin/mucus membrane of whatever is disturbing it, causing an itchy rash in some people.
This is a cycnia moth caterpillar feeding on Asclepias sullivantii in our plant nursery. This little guy needs milkweed just as much as the monarchs, but doesn’t get the same press for some reason. I made sure not to touch him because of all those potentially itch-inducing hairs!
In part II of this topic, I will talk a little bit about the specific parts of their body, special caterpillar diets, silk making abilities, and how you can design your very own caterpillar-attracting butterfly garden. Until then, keep a lookout for these special critters and do a little discovering of your own!
This time of year, we get excited about heading outside for some spring garden clean up. The warmer weather signals that spring in just around the corner. All of last year’s plants, including grasses, perennials and the mountains of leaves blown into the garden, have to be cut down and hauled away, or do they? There is so much to do, but before you clear cut the garden, look closely at what you are removing from your landscape.
Through winter, your garden has provided habitat for many different beneficial insects and wildlife. By removing everything above ground, you are removing nesting sites and the homes of the pollinators you have attracted to your yard. All the old stalks, stems and leaves have protected and sheltered these insects through the coldest weather. So how can you save them and still get your garden ready for spring? Here are some suggestions that will save most of the beneficial insects hibernating in your garden.
Coneflowers and Little Bluestem offer great winter cover for pollinators and beneficial insects.
Carefully remove old growth
Most native bees are solitary creatures that overwinter in the ground or in hollow stems of perennial and grasses. Because they make their winter homes in some of the stems of your plants, cutting these plants to the ground will remove their nesting habitat.
An alternative would be to cut them down to 18 inches now, remove the upper portion and spread it loosely along the edges of your garden or property. Then you can go back when temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees and completely remove the rest down to the new growth at the base. By that time the bees and beneficial insects will have emerged from their winter slumber.
Another option would be to remove the stalks completely just like you have done in past years. I would then bundle the stems together loosely and hang them along the fence or tree line. From there, the insects can emerge and fly to your garden area.
I didn’t realize how many of these stems and stalks harbored the beneficial insects I want in my garden. It is important that we allow the life cycle of these insects to reach completion. I want to encourage you to be patient and careful when you cut down and remove the old growth from your garden. Either keep those plants up longer into the spring or keep them somewhere in your garden so the pollinators and beneficial insects can come out and stay in your neighborhood.
Strategically clean up leaves
We all have piles of leaves that have accumulated over the winter in our gardens. Just like the hollow stems of perennials, leaves protect beneficial insects, including ladybugs, damsel bugs, and butterflies like commas, morning cloaks and question marks through the winter. Other pollinators overwinter as eggs or pupae in leaves. Holding off leaf removal until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees will favor the hatching of a new brood of beneficial insects to begin their lives in your garden.
Solomon’s Seal surrounded by leaf litter that protects pollinators and insulates the plants for winter.
This simple and thoughtful approach to spring clean up will have a positive impact on the overall health of your garden. Instead of clearing your garden of beneficial insects, you will be connecting your garden with the complete life cycle of these pollinators. Your garden can have a positive impact on the plight of these endangered species. It will be a landscape that supports the pollinators and beneficial insects we enjoy and need so much.
My volunteers and I have been spending many hours this fall planting daffodils and tulips around the Arboretum grounds. All told, we will have nearly 800 new blooming bulbs coming up next spring, down a bit from the 1000 we planted last year.
One afternoon my colleague Brad Guhr posed an important question:
“Are bulbs useful to spring pollinators?”
We all love the aesthetics of fat yellow daffodils and spritely crocus, but I had never considered whether they served an ecological purpose. Supposing (incorrectly) that most bulbs I order are native to the Netherlands, what good would they be to our local pollinator population?
I have now been down the rabbit hole of research and will summarize here how bulbs affect pollinators, which bulbs attract them and proper bulb planting technique.
Tulip humilis (aucheriana) is a wild-type tulip that does well in gardens and meadows alike. By Bernd Haynold – selbst fotografiert – own picture, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4767022
Bulbs and Bugs
Long before people started admiring their blooms, most of our favorite bulb flowers were being visited by pollinators. Such is not the case for today: modern hybrids selected for the biggest bloom and brightest color sometimes become less useful to pollinators. Flowers that have been distorted too far from their original form may have less nectar or be entirely sterile, rendering them useless as a food source. Hybridization can also sacrifice the flower’s strong scent, leaving aroma-sensing pollinators (like nocturnal moths) lost without lunch. As humans try to improve flowers for our own eye, we inadvertently disrupt their role in nature. Insects and flowers have an important relationship directly related to the flower’s form. If it changes drastically, certain insects may no longer be able to reach the nectar. Because of this, avoid buying highly modified ‘double’ and ‘triple’ bloomers or extra-petaled flowers that will likely inhibit a pollinator’s ability to feed.
Narcissus poeticus, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=907
Though we may associate the bulb trade with Holland, the native range of daffodils is the Iberian Peninsula and tulips grow wild in Turkey and Central Asia. Crocus were originally native to southern Europe, the Middle East and western China. There are some bulbs native to North America, such as Claytonia virginica and Mertensia virginica as well as the trout lily, but they are too often upstaged by fancy exotics. This link offers great options for North American native bulbs that will benefit you and the ecosystem. If you aren’t ready to give up your tulips and daffodils, never fear! By choosing unhybridized species, the flower retains its pollen and nectar, supplying much needed early spring feeding for hungry pollinators. Crocus, species-variety Tulips and Muscari all are well-loved by hungry bees waking up from their long hibernation as well as wild type daffodils such as Narcissus poeticus or N. jonquilla.
A bee visiting a purple crocus flower. CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=660234
Claytonia is a lovely North American native. By Dcrjsr (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The first step to proper planting is identification – is what you are holding truly a bulb? Corms, tubers, rhizomes and true bulbs all fall under the category “geophyte” (a perennial that stores its food underground). Many rhizomes would not like to be buried as deep as a bulb but corms can be treated much the same. Sorting out the technicalities will ensure correct planting and big blooms!
When planting true bulbs, depth is essential. In general, plant bulbs 2 or 3 times as deep as its height. Example: a 2 inch tall daffodil bulb should be planted 6 inches deep. Digging too shallow is better than planting too deep since many bulbs have contractile roots. Over time, these specialized roots will pull it down to optimal depth. Planting root side down/pointed side up is always best, but if the bulbs are too odd-shaped to tell, plant them sideways to be safe. Thanks to geotropism, a plant’s ability to sense gravity and grow accordingly, they will eventually right themselves.
Bees love Fritillaria meleagris, a dainty and unique bulb native to Europe. By Пономарьова Алевтина (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
So, after much scouring of the internet it seems there is no straightforward answer to Brad’s question. Many highly hybridized bulbs do not benefit pollinators, but other heirloom or species varieties certainly do. To benefit early spring pollinators in your bulb garden, install a few North American species or try to find unhybridized varieties that retain their full species name and their ecological importance. Get out your sweaters and garden gloves, now is the time to get digging!
I love native grasses. Grasses make dramatic focal points when mixed into garden beds or planted individually. They pull the landscape design together and provide movement within the garden.
Over the past 10 years, there have been some tremendous advances in landscape quality native grasses. ‘Northwind’ switchgrass is a perfect example. It offers great form, a tidy columnar habit, texture and ease of care. It is a reliable grass with consistent qualities that can be counted on year after year in any sunny landscape. In my opinion, ornamental grasses should be included in all garden designs because they are easy to grow and provide three seasons of interest.
Indian grass Sorghastrum nutans
Obviously, grasses are gaining in popularity, but one of their most important roles they play in the garden is often overlooked. Grasses help balance the ecosystem by providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for many different pollinators along with birds and small mammals. Pollinators need protection from severe weather and from predators, as well as sites for nesting and roosting. By incorporating different layers of flowering plants and grasses in the landscape, pollinators can find the food and shelter they need for survival. Pollinators use corridors of plants to safely move through the landscape and be protected from predators.
Over 70 different butterflies and moths depend on native grasses as part of their life cycles.
Larval host for skipper butterflies. Overwintering host for bees and other pollinators.
Little bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium
Larval host for many species of butterflies and moths (Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, Cobweb).
Twilight Zone Little Bluestem Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.
Indiangrass- Sorghastrum nutans
Larval host for skipper butterflies.
Prairie Dropseed- Sporobolus heterolepis
Prairie Dropseed is of special value as nesting sites for bees. Native grasses are the larval food plants of the Leonard’s Skipper.
Native grasses are attractive, low-maintenance additions to the landscape. Once established, they help minimize erosion and increase organic matter in the soil. Native grasses are also vital in the life cycles of many bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Grasses provide the habitat for overwintering eggs, caterpillars and pupae of butterflies. The thatch at the base of the grass clumps is ideal for protection from predators and cold weather.
There is a direct correlation between the decline of native grasslands habitats and the decline of many species of butterflies, bees and moths. Habitat loss is not the only reason for the decrease in pollinators, but it is certainly a factor. By planting native species of wildflowers and grasses in agricultural, suburban and urban settings, we can help to reverse the population decline. Even though grasses don’t provide nectar, they are just as important in pollinator gardens as beautiful wildflowers. So as you plan your pollinator garden, don’t forget to include some native grasses.
With all the beautiful blooms around the Arboretum these days, the bugs are on a feeding frenzy! I have been having a blast snapping photos of all the active insects with my new camera gadget – a clip-on macro lens that attaches to a phone camera. My iphone can now get incredibly close and detailed shots of the tiniest insects. This handy tool is inexpensive and invaluable for bug-crazy individuals like me. I got mine courtesy of a Xerces Society pollinator workshop back in April.
Can you identify these Kansas insects? (without reading the captions first!)
Grey Hairstreak on Wild Quinine flowers (Strymon melinus on Parthenium integrifolium) with outstretched proboscis!
Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) dipping his head into the flower cup of Indian Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Notice the long segmented antennae and claws on the feet for climbing.
Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea) with pollen on his hairy legs.
Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on the underside of a fuzzy Common Milkweed leaf (Asclepias syriaca)
Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) resting on limestone near the greenhouse, probably on his way back to the pond.
The lens even allows me to take videos –
watch as a paper wasp forages on horsetail milkweed flowers and the pollen-covered bee in the picture above enjoys a snack on some purple prairie clover.
If you want to bee an insect expert, get one of of these lenses for yourself and snap away! They are useful as educational tools or for taking detailed pictures to help you and your extension agent identify particular garden friends or pests. When you visit our grounds to see these beauties for yourself, be sure to check the gift shop for a wide selection of children’s books and as well as adult field guides that focus on insects found in Kansas.
Find more goregous shots of Dyck Arboretum flora and fauna on our Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/255013257/dyck-arboretum-of-the-plains/
With growing season and FloraKansas on the horizon, we have been asking a few questions of ourselves over the past few months about native plants. Certainly, we have seen the benefits of using native plants in the Arboretum and at our homes, but what would it take to convince someone to install them in their yard who has never tried them or is unfamiliar with them? What would it take to begin to change their minds?
We keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good. Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but so is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.
Beautiful orange flowers of Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape. Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore. Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping. Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and their landscapes as a whole to provide additional benefits. Our gardens must now not just look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attracts birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.
The evidence that making such a change will really make a difference in our lives and in our gardens begins with the first native plant. I have seen it time and again – if you plant them, they will come to your garden. If you plant milkweeds, the monarchs will find them; if you plant penstemons, the bumble bees will find them; and if you plant asters, a flock of pollinators will cover them in the fall. It sounds so simple, but it is indeed true. These plants need the pollinators and the pollinators need these plants. The significance of planting your first wildflower can be both beautiful and good.
If you want to be part of the solution and do your part for nature by reducing water usage and eliminating chemicals, attracting countless forms of beneficial wildlife including butterflies, hummingbirds, and pollinators, cleaning storm water runoff, and having a beautiful landscape, start with a few native plants. Each of us CAN have a positive impact. We are stewards of these ecological, environmental, and sustainable gardens. An aesthetically pleasing landscape can also be functional and serve a variety of purposes.
Home landscapes can be transformed using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful. To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to attend our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and look over our 2017 plant list.