by Barbara Walvoord
(First published in Lathrop Lamp Post Sept. 29, 2016)
As most plants go brown in our gardens, patios, and by the meeting house or inn, residents (including Sharon and me) and staff are putting out pots of brilliant mums–yellow, bronze, purple–one last feast for the eyes.
In our meadows and forests, Mother Nature is also providing a feast for our eyes, as brilliant native asters bloom in purple and white. But unlike the alien mums, which nourish few insects, Mother Nature’s last summer blooms provide nectar and pollen for many insects, including the monarch butterfly and many types of bees. Asters also serve as host plants for the larvae of 105 species of native butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). This is important because butterfly and moth larvae are such picky eaters. Most of them have developed the body chemistry and mouth parts to eat only one or a few native plants with which they have co-evolved.This pink-edged sulphur butterfly (Colias interior) is gathering nectar from native asters in Sharon’s and my cottage garden at 45 Huckleberry Lane. The aster provides valuable food, but this butterfly’s host plant (where it lays its eggs, and where its larvae can feed) is the native blueberry, one of which is in our garden right nearby, and several more in the wooded area behind our house. Back in July, our nectar-sipping butterfly will have laid its eggs on a blueberry bush. She is able to lay eggs only if she has feasted first on nectar. By now, her eggs have hatched into caterpillars (larvae) that will winter over in that form, and then become butterflies next summer.
Our sulphur butterly’s other sources of nectar, besides asters, include native wild sarsaparilla, which has sprung up in the nearby woods behind our house, where Sharon and I have removed invasive multiflora rose and honeysuckle that were crowing out the native plants.
So summer’s last feast on our land is only one stage of a complicated picture, involving plants, insects, and other wildlife that interact in complex ways. We protect these complicated webs by protecting native plants, by nurturing plant communities, and by avoiding pesticides and herbicides that can hurt these delicate creatures.