Category Archives: Wildflowers

The Power of Berries

by Barbara Walvoord

(First published in the Lathrop Lamp Post Oct. 22, 2016)

Our Lathrop berries are powerful forces in nature. Through the fall and winter, the sweet fruit provides critical  nourishment for our birds, chipmunks, and bears.  But to the plant, a berry is a seed with an enticement–a sweet treat that gets some creature to eat the berry and pass it out the other end, in some distant place, with a nice little blob of fertilizer. Berries are a plant’s wings–they allow it to spread beyond its rooted place.

For that very reason, the berries of invasive plants are really bad news.  Berries eaten and then excreted spread invasive burning bush, barberry, and honeysuckle from our landscaped areas into our forests, where they crowd out native plants, but fail to provide the insects, cover, and nesting areas that our wildlife needs. Birds that eat these berries unwittingly spread their own destruction.

One of the worst berries is the alien invasive buckthorn berry, because it gives birds diarrhea, thus weakening them as winter approaches.  Nineteenth-century European settlers brought buckthorn with them, but they didn’t bring the enemies and competitors that limit buckthorn’s spread in its native land. Buckthorn’s heavy thickets crowd out our native plants and change the composition of the soil, making is less hospitable to natives.

Another bad berry is invasive bittersweet vine, whose orange berries are popping out now, as the vines smother our trees.

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As we have been removing these bad berries at Lathrop, we have saved and nurtured our good berries: pin cherry berries cascading from their branches (top of this page)  black cherry; arrowwood vibernum; red mulberry; high-bush blueberry, whose popular berries are almost all eaten by now; grey dogwood, with its unusual waxy white berries; winterberry, which some of us have planted in our gardens for a fall and winter show of brilliant red berries lining every branch; and, pictured below,  wintergreen berries nestling one by one on our forest floor.

wintergreen-april-2016

We are making our land a feast of powerful berries.

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New Arrivals at Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

August 11, 2016

Lathrop has more than 30 new arrivals–full-grown native meadow wildflowers, some of them 5 feet tall.  They came from a unique restored native meadow in Housatonic that had to be dismantled.  So native plant lovers came from all over last Saturday  to dig up and take home these valuable plants for a small amount of money.

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About 100 people showed up–mostly strong young folks with pickup trucks and big tubs and carts.  Adele and Jim Dowell, Sharon Grace, and I were clearly the oldest people there.  The plants bound for Lathrop were dug up with the size root ball that we Lathrop residents could dig, heaved into whatever pots we had scrounged up, bent into cars not made for nursery transportation,  and dropped into holes that were only as deep as we could dig.

But native plants are tough.  Our new Culver’s root, New York ironweed, obedient plants, oxeye sunflowers, big bluestem, and others are now settled into the Cranberry meadow or behind the Huckleberry houses.  Within minutes of the planting, butterflies arrived.

Adele Dowell admires the new native plants from Helia now finding a new home in the Cranberrhy Meadow

Why is this so important?  Here’s the key statistic: 96% of birds needs insects, not just seeds and nectar, to raise their young.  90% of insects eat only native plants (Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home).

Lathrop’s meadows contain many native plants, but species diversity is narrow.  These new plants will add diversity, support our birds and butterflies, astonish us with their beauty, and make us proud to have taken our shovels and pots and our little cars, and saved those plants and their seeds to enrich our Lathrop land.

Hurry!! Spring Wildflowers at Lathrop

By Barbara Walvoord

Spring woodland wildflowers face two problems:

  1. They can’t bloom before the soil is thawed
  2. They can’t bloom after the tree canopy cuts off their sunlight.

Between these two events, nature provides a window, because forest ground, under its leaf litter, freezes more shallowly and thaws more quickly than ground in open fields, and because forest trees Continue reading Hurry!! Spring Wildflowers at Lathrop

Decapitation at Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

In July 2014, this column carried the headline, “Oops, we Mowed our Meadow.” That’s because, following an old schedule, our east campus meadows were mowed in July. Mowing so early in the season decapitated the wildflowers before most of them had set seed for next year’s black-eyed susans and asters. Mowing destroyed the cover for our rabbits, mice, and voles, which in turn would be eaten by our bobcat and coyotes. Mowing took away the nectar and pollen that our birds and bees need for migration. It destroyed cocoons of overwintering insects.

Now, in collaboration with our facilities team and our landscaper, our meadows and fields are mowed in October, and 1/3 of their area is mowed each year, with 2/3 left standing. This is the practice that naturalists recommend–selective decapitation.

Why mow at all? Because in New England, every meadow want to become a woods. A look out your car window around here easily demonstrates what we read–that more and more of New England is Continue reading Decapitation at Lathrop

A View from the Bridge #2: Touch-Me-Not

by Barbara Walvoord

If you walk along Bassett Brook Road across the bridge, or if you walk down to the garden on either campus, you’ll see the delicate orange or yellow blossoms of native touch-me-not, also called jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). It like moist conditions, at least partial shade, and acid soil–perfect for Lathrop. Plants can grow up to five feet high, often in dense clumps. The stems are watery and translucent, easily crushed.

Why the name jewelweed? One source says that dew forms on the lips of the flowers, catching the sun like jewels. Another version is that the delicate flowers hang, each from a single thin stem, like jewels. It’s called touch-me-not because the slender green seed pods, which are forming now, will explosively burst open at a touch, spewing tiny seeds in all directions.

These seeds are its only way of reproducing, since jewelweed is an annual. The seeds need “double dormancy”–that is, they have to Continue reading A View from the Bridge #2: Touch-Me-Not

A Butterfly’s Guide to Plants

by Barbara Walvoord

So you’re a butterfly. You need nectar to eat. Plants do their best to produce nectar that you and lots of other insects can eat, because they want you to come for the nectar, get your body full of pollen (which carries the male seed), and carry the pollen to female parts of the same or other plants. Alien plants that have come here from Asia, Europe, or Africa also make nectar, and if the plant structure allows you to get your mouth in there, you can get their nectar. Great! A butterfly garden with alien plants works quite well for nectar. Butterfly bush? It’s an alien, classified as invasive, but who cares? It has nectar. Bring it on. Purple loosestrife? Sure, it’s taking over wetlands and driving out turtles and ducks, but who cares? It has nectar. Bring it on!

BUT WAIT. As a butterfly, you came from a larva–a caterpillar. The larva hatched from an egg laid on a plant by a female butterfly. As a responsible mama butterfly, you want to lay your eggs only on plants that your larvae can eat. As a larva, you don’t eat nectar–you eat leaves or stems. And not just any leaf–only the leaves of one, or perhaps just a few, plants.

Plants don’t like to be eaten, so they develop chemistry hostile to larvae. But YOUR larvae have developed ways to overcome the defenses of one, or a few, species of plants. If you’re a black swallowtail larva, only plants in the carrot family. If you’re a monarch larva, only milkweed.

That’s why a gardener who wants to support butterflies can choose nectar-producing plants, but also “host” plants that larvae can eat.

In our meadows at Lathrop now, you’ll see blooming some common natives on which butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) are very busy laying their eggs. Native aster supports 105 species of Lepidoptera, sunflower 73, and Joe Pye weed 40. At our meadow edges, native cranberry supports 286 species of Lepidoptera, serviceberry 119, and dogwood 115. In our forests, oak supports 518 species, and maple supports 287 (http://udel.edu/~dtallamy/host/). Controlling invasive plants helps keeps our land a rich nursery for butterflies. At Lathrop, we strive not only to PLANT butterfly gardens, but to BE a butterfly garden.

The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening

by Barbara Walvoord

It takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise one nest full of chickadees. Almost all caterpillars eat only native plants, not aliens.*

Plants don’t want to be eaten, so they evolve to make themselves poisonous, distasteful, or inaccessible to insect mouthparts. But, aha! each native insect has co-evolved to overcome the defenses of one or several native plants. Thus the monarch butterfly lays eggs only on milkweed–the only thing its caterpillars can eat. Facing a 90% decline in monarchs due in part of disappearance of milkweed, the National Wildlife Federation and others are mounting a national effort to increase milkweed plantings.

Butterflies, bees, and birds–that’s why we need native plants on Lathrop land, including our gardens. Natives can be as beautiful, orderly, and well-designed as aliens.**

Stores may advertise “native” plants, but beware: natives from the Midwest may not be as good for our insects as Continue reading The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening