Sunday, June 29, 2014

Our Own Spireas

In my early gardening days I knew about a shrub or two called spirea. There was the old-fashioned cascading Vanhoutte one called bridal-something and a skinny white one that grew on the side of the road. And there was also the multi-colored ‘Anthony Waterer’ one that I bought for our yard. None of those are native. Since then I’ve learned that the spelling of the scientific name for spirea confuses your brain (it is Spiraea) and that we have several nice native species.
Spiraea tomentosa

The first one I met was a pink one that reminds me of cathedral spires. The common name for it is steeplebush (hopefully named after church steeples) and the scientific name is Spiraea tomentosa. The epithet tomentosa refers to the wooly hairs found on young twigs and the underside of the leaves. My good friend Sheri introduced me to this little shrub and I planted it in the moist area near the front porch where it has quietly bloomed in June ever since.

The second one I met was completely different. Virginia meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana) has white flowers arranged not in a panicle like steeplebush but in a flat corymb. Rare in the wild, perhaps due to habitat loss, and endemic to the Southern Appalachians, it apparently grows pretty well in cultivation. This plant was also given to me by a friend, James. If the deer would just leave it alone then one day I could have some to share! It also blooms in June.

Spiraea virginiana

The third native species that I acquired came by way of a purchase at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference last year. It was highly recommended (and blooming quite prettily in panicles of white) so it came home with me. Spiraea alba var. latifolia is commonly known as white meadowsweet and boasts a longer bloom time than Virginia meadowsweet (up to two months). Last year it bloomed for a long time, entertaining many a bee and beetle.

Spiraea alba var. latifolia
I always evaluate my plants according to more than just beauty. How do these shrubs help wildlife around me? I have been very surprised to note that the pink steeplebush doesn’t attract much attention. I pass it multiple times a day - in one week of close watching, the critters on it have been one tiny syrphid fly and a predatory bug. 

The two white species have been very popular with a variety of bugs. Since the flowers are very small, it seems natural that smaller bugs would enjoy them. I have observed small bumblebees (Bombus impatiens), tiny sweat bees, several species of longhorn beetles, and syrphid flies.

What attracts bugs also attracts birds. One morning I watched a pair of cardinals flit from plant to plant, plucking off insects as they went. Some poor beetle on the top of the S. latifolia bloom was a choice morsel for the female.

If you just have room for just one of these lovely native shrubs, I’d recommend S. latifolia (also known as S. alba var. latifolia). You may also come across S. alba. Be prepared to give some away. A few seedlings have popped up and I’ll be potting them up for friends and future plant sales this fall. Never a bad thing to have extras, I think.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Least Among Us

The general public seems to have a distaste for bugs, squashing them when possible, spraying yards and homes on a regular basis, and buying plants specifically touted as “pest-resistant” (note the choice of the word “pest” in that adjective). Bugs are an important part of the ecosystem, however, tirelessly performing an amazing number of services that keep our world hinged together. Even mosquitos become protein-rich food for hummingbirds.

Tiny flower flies gather pollen on Sabatia kennedyana

Some bugs get more respect: label that bug as a “pollinator” and suddenly people are interested. Today is the last day of National Pollinator Week. Pollinators have gotten a lot of attention the last few years as honey bees have suffered large population losses and the captivating monarch butterfly has dwindled in number. Human awareness of these losses has brought much needed focus to issues for these insects.

Yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus) get paid in pollen while they work

Three years ago I wrote about planting native plants for pollinators: Plant One for the Pollinators. It’s still a key concept. Insects need plants just like we need food - plants are their food. They evolved with plants native to the area around them, so if you want to help them, give them native plants.

Yet there is more that we can do for them ... that we should do for them. Just like our support for birds, insects need shelter and a place to raise their young. Here are the remaining two cornerstones of support for insects:

Stop killing them. For two years in a row, pesticide applicators have killed bees in Oregon by spraying pesticides on linden trees while they were blooming (effectively poisoning the bees). These incidents got attention because the dead and dying bees littered the ground. I fully expect that this behavior is executed thousands of times a week in other places and goes unnoticed, if not on bees then on other insects. 

Would you deny these beetles the right to frolic on your Spiraea?

Residential and commercial use of pesticide is at an all-time high. Do we really need to spray our homes on a regular basis? Do people recognize that caterpillars are baby butterflies? Or at the very least they are bird food? Yep, that's one of the ecosystem services they provide.

Stop destroying their habitat. Pollinators and other insects need places to raise their young: leaves, dead trees, semi-open ground, old plant stems … natural places. Paved over areas and tidily mulched beds with imported plants are not natural. Leave some space for them. Roadsides, power-line right of ways, even cemeteries could all become areas to preserve habitat (and still be somewhat tidy with the use of much smaller mow strips and off-season mowing).

Pollinator Week is over but our behavior to support them should not be. Extend your support to all bugs (the only National Insect Week I can find is in the UK). These tiny creatures cannot speak for themselves, but we are big enough to support the smallest among us

Share this Earth by understanding their needs and considering how human behavior affects their ability to live. And the next time you go to squash/swat/spray a bug, think twice.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Not Your Father's Garden

Childhood memories can be fuzzy but one memory is clear – my father was often in the yard working: pruning, patching grass and growing vegetables. I remember some of the ornamental plants that we had there. Spring brought bright pink Japanese azaleas and the yellow bells of Forsythia. Summer was Gardenia, Ligustrum, gladiola, nasturtium, and rose of Sharon. On the street, the city planted crape myrtles for everyone. Japanese honeysuckle twined in uninvited along the fence with the neighbor.

None of those plants are native to the US. Non-native plants were “king” then (and still are for many folks).  There were a few large native trees: a huge oak in the front, a sycamore on the side and two big pecans in the back. I don’t know if anyone planted those on purpose, but it was clear that back then people chose exotic plants for their “landscape.” 

I can’t live like that anymore. My sense of awareness is awake now and I see those choices as not supportive of the greater community. I need to choose plants that support our local insects and provide the kind of nourishment that critters here evolved with. Forsythia and Ligustrum are not those plants.

So my garden is different (although I did keep a Gardenia for the memories). If you grew up with those typical non-native ornamental plants, I hope that you also will consider what role your want your garden to play. It can be more than just a feast for our eyes. It can be a feast for the local ecosystem too.

Note: There is no intended disrespect to my father or any other father. This is simply a post about how we can choose to garden more in tune with our local ecosystem than we did in the past. Love you, Dad!