Randi V.W. Eckel, PhD

October 14, 2017

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Butterflies and Moths

If you plant it, they will come!

If you want Butterflies and Birds, you need caterpillars...

Gardeners have become increasingly aware that if we want wildlife in our gardens, we must support all of it's life stages, year round. We must provide food (native plants!), shelter, and habitat for not only the beautiful butterflies, but their fabulous caterpillars as well; for the beautiful birds as well as their delicate chicks.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) egg on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Most butterflies and moths that we so admire have caterpillars that feed on plants, and most baby birds are fed on caterpillars, other insects, and even spiders. By planting native plants, we restore the balance of nature in our gardens and create a chain of events that leads to more wildlife. Non-native plants simply cannot do this - they are not host plants for our Swallowtails, Metalmarks, Darts, Hawkmoths, Owlets and all the rest. They will produce few if any caterpillars to live on as butterflies and moths, or become meals for hungry birds or chicks.

Brown Hooded Owlet Caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis) on Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.)

Native Plants are Critical

Monarchs Butterflies (Danaus plexippus), with their amazing migration, have long been the darlings of the native plant movement. There has been a great deal of education about the importance of Milkweed to Monarchs, as well as the need to create suitable habitat. It is not enough to simply put out pretty flowers for the adults to feed on, although nectar for adults is certainly a critical part of the equation. Monarchs, like many butterflies, will feed on a wide range of nectar bearing flowers. It is their young, their caterpillars, that MUST have Milkweeds to feed upon.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) last Monday in Cape NJ preparing to fly across the Delaware Bay

But Monarchs are only one of the many species of that rely upon a particular host plant. What about all of the others? We have hundreds of Butterflies in North America (the folks at the North American Butterfly Association, NABA, tell us there are about 725 species) and literally thousands of species of moths (as many as 12,000!). Many of these insects require specific host plants for their survival. White M Hairstreaks (Parrhasius m-album) are one of the many butterflies and moths that must have oaks for their caterpillars.

White M Hairstreak (Parrhasius m-album) nectaring on Late Flowering Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum)

Red Banded Hairstreaks caterpillars prefer Winged Sumac (aka Shining Sumac) (Rhus copallina) and Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina).

Red Banded Hairtreak (Calycopis cecrops) on Late Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Lovely Surprise!

One of the many species we have been working on is the Appalachian Gooseberry (Ribes rotundifolium). It grows wild along our woods edge and we just started propagating it 2 years ago. It is a terrific native fruit adapted to dry, rocky woodlands. We had a bit of a surprising setback, however, when a bunch of hungry Gray Comma caterpillars (Polygonia progne) showed up on our seedlings and enjoyed themselves!

Gray Comma Butterfly (Polygonia progne)

Although the Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) is quite common in our area (they rely on Elms [Ulmus sp.], Hops [Humulus sp.] and Nettles [Urtica, Boehmeria, and Laportea sp.] to rear their caterpillars) the Gray Comma is pretty rare in our neck of the woods, and we were exceedingly glad to see them.

See the 'comma' on this Gray Comma?

Their caterpillars only feed on Gooseberries (Ribes sp.), you see. No Gooseberries, no Gray Comma's. A nearby population of this butterfly had been recorded in 2013 (at Horseshoe Bend Preserve). We had spotted this adult last year here at Toadshade, so we had hoped that we might have our own breeding colony. We're just tickled pink that we actually do!

Gray Comma caterpillar!

So if you plant it, will they come?

By planting native plants, will you actually attract all sorts of butterflies, moths, birds and other wildlife to your garden to rear their young? The answer to this is yes, but depending upon what is nearby it may take some time. Certainly if you do NOT plant native host plants and provide critical habitat, they will NOT come. I spoke to a woman this summer who had planted a small patch of Milkweed and was dismayed that she had not seen any monarchs. I asked what was nearby - were there any nectar plants for the adults, any cover, any habitat?....and sadly she told me no. I told her to have patience and lo and behold, several weeks later she contacted us and was very excited that she had monarch caterpillars on her milkweeds!

Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) on Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Most insects, however, do not travel for miles and miles to locate a host plant. For the most part, the butterflies, beetles, hawkmoths, and native bees that you find visiting your garden have come from somewhere nearby and have discovered your little patch of native habitat. The more patches, swaths, and fields of native plants we have, the more we support wildlife. By creating a patchwork of habitats from our parks, gardens, woodlands, and hedgerows, the easier it is for wildlife to move, colonize new areas, and expand their range when the opportunity presents itself in the form of restored habitat - whether that habitat is a large park, or a small garden in your yard or at your office . All the more reason to have native plants on hand so that you, too, may support full life cycles - providing food (native plants), shelter, and habitat for the young (caterpillars), as well as the old (butterflies and moths), and making a lot of insect eating birds and nestlings happy and well fed along the way.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Looking for Trees, Shrubs and Vines??

Fall is a terrific time to plant perennials of all sorts - herbaceous perennials, ferns, shrubs, and even trees!

As I mentioned above, we are always working to provide more species of locally native plants. This fall we've put together a list of all the woodies that we currently have available. In addition to the plants we have listed on our web site, we have small numbers of other woody species on hand as well.

August 8, 2017

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Butterflies and Moths

Rare Plants: Do's and Don't's

This month, several Toadshade employees took some time off for vacation, and it brought to mind an issue that growers of native plants often face. Naturally, being the plant nerds we are, when we arrived at our destination, we all took to the woods armed with cameras and field guides. We saw plants we'd never seen before, rare orchids growing in a bog, and plants we've never gotten the chance to propagate. We slapped a lot of mosquitoes, saw some really neat wildlife, and we were very excited to identify so many new and interesting species of plants! But of course, we left them all undisturbed where we found them: we would never harm wild plant colonies.

We saw this plant on vacation! White Fringed Orchids (Platanthera blephariglottis) require specific (rather delicate) habitats, and bumblebees (Bombus sp.) and other pollinators depend on them!

What does it mean that all of Toadshade's plants are propagated on-site?

Toadshade maintains a strict policy regarding our seeds and plants. All of the plants we sell were grown here, from seed or plant specimens that were ethically acquired. We know where each of our plants' original genetic stock came from, and we know that seed collection was all done with respect to the health of the surrounding environment. Almost all of our seeds are collected on-site, or from our seed propagation fields in upstate New York. We never compromise our policy on ethical seed collection and plant production: Toadshade never, EVER digs plants to sell from the wild.

If you look carefully, you can see the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on one of these Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) growing in one of our seed propagation fields in upstate New York.

Why is this important?

Recently someone we know found a patch of Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurescans) growing in the wild. When they posted the picture of the plants to facebook, all of their naturalist friends wanted to get seeds from those plants; after all, Purple Milkweeds are rare and beautiful, and they're very difficult to find! However, as someone pointed out before any action was taken, removing any significant quantity of seed from a single patch of a rare plant harms that plant's ability to propagate itself in its own environment (and is illegal in many cases!). If this rare plant has found a sustainable foothold and is growing; clearly its seeds could also sprout here! When seeds are removed in numbers sufficient to gift to all of your native-plant-loving friends however, the plant will likely never spread its seeds beyond that little patch, and the sustainability of its foothold in its own habitat decreases sharply; in a few years, it could be gone because it wasn't able to propagate beyond the one patch. In the case of Purple Milkweed, this species struggles to set seed reliably, so if it's growing wild, that means it has established pollinators in the area as well as sufficient genetic diversity to create viable seeds. You likely won't ever know all the specifics of why a plant is succeeding in one particular spot. The best you can do is trust that the interrelations of the environmental factors in that spot are somehow working in the plant's favor, and try not to mess it up! The idea with rare plants is to grow more of them so that they can spread and re-establish themselves in their native environments-- not to harm already-established wild colonies. This is the same reason that digging plants from the wild is such a problem; if a plant is growing wild, let it grow!! In many places, native plants are threatened by an overabundance of deer, a multitude of invasive plant species crowding them out of their native habitats, and untold other degradations of their habitat including development. Native Plant enthusiasts and gardeners shouldn't be on the list of threats, and yet far, far too often you hear of gardeners who are doing more harm than good by unnecessarily 'rescuing' wild plants from their native habitat, only to plant them in their garden into a controlled little clump that is not permitted to spread! This is bad stewardship! Think "Finding Nemo"; don't kidnap stuff from the wild, you won't be doing it a favor.

The rare Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurescans) has astonishingly vivid flowers. Toadshade offers these for sale every spring, but there's always a waiting list for these plants, so it's good to reserve them early.

So what should I do instead?

If you find rare plants growing wild in a park near you, it's best to leave them alone! They're doing fine without you, so unless Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) or some other similarly aggressive invasive is bearing down upon them (in which case call your local invasive species strike team or a similar group), or a freeway is about to be built directly on top of the colony (in which case call your local native plant group), they should do just fine without human interference. That is, after all, what they evolved to do. And if you find that you want that species in your garden, great: order it from a reputable source so that you can enhance the local population instead of harming it!

Nuttall's Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) is a tiny and tidy little plant, and unusual enough that it often gets people asking questions. It's also one of many rare plants Toadshade offers!

Plants which are federally threatened or endangered are protected by federal law; for example although Toadshade offers beautiful Winged False Asters (Boltonia decurrens) for sale, we can't ship them out of New Jersey, although we do offer seeds (which we collect from our own seed stock).

How does this apply to my native plantings?

Obviously we encourage the planting of unusual native plants in your garden (there are so many good reasons to do so!)-- just make sure you buy them from a company with ethically sourced plants and seeds, that propagates plants rather than digging them from the wild. Remember, one of the very important reasons for planting native plants is to make them less rare in their own habitats. If they're not ethically propagated, or if they're dug from the wild, you could end up doing the opposite! And if you find a wild plant that's endangered, get in contact with an official local native plant group or your state Department of Environmental Protection so you can make sure that they know the plant is there and is properly protected! In the words of the Minnesota Wildflower Society, "Wildflowers should never be stolen from a wild place and brought home. If one does that they are a poor excuse for a gardener." Perhaps that's most easily avoided by following the advice of another more famous and gentle quote: "take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints." In other words, please garden responsibly! Wildflowers are for everyone to enjoy, and an important part of the ecosystem wherever they're found! Don't make the mistake of thinking a wildflower is going to waste because it's not in your garden!

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) seedlings in the Toadshade greenhouse.

May 26, 2017

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Starting Seeds
Butterflies and Moths

Its Spring at Toadshade Once Again

This spring as every spring, things are hopping here at Toadshade! We're busy filling orders, transplanting seedlings, preparing for events, responding to your emails, collecting seeds, keeping an eye out for wildlife visitors, and enjoying the green of spring! It's quite nice to have a rainy day or two to catch our breath a bit and update you on what's been happening....

Tall White Beardtongue (Pestemon digitalis), one of the many plants growing in Toadshade's meadow.

Meadow Success

Last fall as the weather cooled, we turned our attention to the meadow at Toadshade, planting and seeding several species to increase our biodiversity in places: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Lyre-leafed Sage (Salvia lyrata), Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis), Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), and a variety of other plants! Nearly all of these were already present in the meadow, but we overseeded what was already there and added plantings to increase the populations, and everything is sprouting with enthusiasm! We've been greatly enjoying watching the newcomers emerge as the spring has gone on, but not just in the meadow itself-- the wood's edge also saw some new plantings: we planted more Paw Paws (Asimina triloba) and Chokeberries (Aronia), among other natives... needless to say, we were busy last fall, but it's been paying off this spring!

We look forward to seeing Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) nectaring on our Common Milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) again this year in our meadow!

What else is new?

Toadshade has doubled our greenhouse space! We only use our greenhouse space to start and protect our youngest seedlings, which means our plants are in synchrony with the seasons and always fully hardened off to the weather when they're planted out! With our new greenhouse space we can seed and transplant our seedlings more efficiently, so if we're sold out of something... keep checking back! It's pretty likely we're working hard to grow more of that species so that we can put it back on sale. We're also working on expanding our pond (imagine the movie "Holes," but more fun) so that we can keep more aquatic species growing wild here at Toadshade. Our local frog species like Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), and Grey Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are very excited about this.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) both bloom beautifully in the spring, and have very showy berries in the fall.

Biodiversity Happenings at Toadshade

One of the advantages of having a large variety of native plant species is that you get a wide variety of interesting wildlife visitors as well. This spring we have Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon), Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), and American Robins (Turdus migratorius), all nesting in the area around where we grow our plants.

The Paw Paws (Asimina triloba) are in bloom right now! These flowers will turn into delicious Paw Paw fruit later in the year, which are also enjoyed by many species of wildlife.

Yes, it's a bit crowded.

The Catbirds and Wrens in particular like to follow us when we move plants around, in hopes of scoring insect snacks in our wake, and if past years are anything to go by, in a few weeks we should be seeing their fledgling babies clumsily crash-landing right where we're working, and scolding us half-heartedly when they do... spring is always an interesting time at Toadshade! We frequently also encounter a variety of species of amphibians and reptiles, which we are careful not to disturb. They have jobs to do as well! Native plants, as useful food sources for wildlife and hosts to specific insect species, drive this diverse food chain all year long, making for a richly biodiverse and interesting ecosystem: for example due to the fact that we grow a great number of violet (Viola) species here at Toadshade, hosts for Fritillary butterfly caterpillars, we often find our entire meadow aflutter with bright orange Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) come midsummer. We're excited to see what our new plantings will bring!!

A Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) peers out of a nesting box in the Toadshade meadow.

Looking Forward, and Spring Recommendations

We hope that all of you have an excellent Memorial Day weekend, and get to spend some time planting in your gardens-- the weather has been perfect for establishing plants recently, and we've been taking advantage of that in our own gardens! Late spring/early summer is one of the best times to plant perennials and woodies, because it gives your plants an entire season to put energy into their root systems to carry them through next winter. Woodies in particular can be impressive when planted this time of year-- when they get a chance to stretch their roots out into the ground all summer, it's amazing to see how they grow! We've been watching our White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Paw Paws (Asimina triloba), and Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) responding with particular enthusiasm to the warm weather, and we'll definitely be bringing them to markets in the future. We'll keep you updated on news and updates from Toadshade all throughout the summer, and we hope to hear from you soon!

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flowers are wild-looking, and they start blooming in June!

November 23, 2016

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Starting Seeds

Fall Beauty and Spring Plans

Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) going to seed

Well, the weather has finally changed, and here at Toadshade we've broken out our warm coats to finish settling our plants in for the winter. But gardening is hardly over for the season! We're still shipping out plants to our southern friends until the end of November, and although the trees have lost their leaves here, there's still beauty everywhere we look, and so much that can still be done to prepare our gardens for next spring!

Roundleaf Catbriar (Smilax rotundifolia) turns beautiful colors in the fall

Why do you plant wildflower seeds in the fall?

We've spoken about this before, but it's worth revisiting. Nearly all wildflower seeds require a period of damp cold (winter) conditions before they'll grow: this is the "cold stratification" we always talk about. It's an evolutionary adaptation to keep them from starting to sprout in, well, November! Most wildflowers need to sprout in the spring so they have an entire season to grow and build up energy reserves in order to survive the next winter (it's important for perennial plants to prepare for this!). Many of these seeds simply won't grow until they've been cold and damp for a certain period of time. The upshot of this is that fall is actually the perfect time to plant wildflower seeds directly outdoors! We generally advise people to plant shortly before a snowfall or rain to help the seeds settle in. Make sure you don't plant them too deep though (a VERY common mistake)! Remember this rule of thumb: In general, seeds should be planted no deeper than the thickness of the seed itself!

A Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) fiddlehead

What else should I be doing to prepare for spring?

If you spent your summer creating a garden of native plants, you've been encouraging native insect life like butterflies and moths, and a whole ecosystem of beneficial little creatures. Most of these overwinter in leaf duff, so don't get too carried away clearing leaves out of your garden!! The more leaves you allow to stay, the more your wildlife garden will thrive, and the more effective it'll be! This is the time of year when the creatures you've been supporting with your garden need the most help, and the leaf duff helps insulate the soil to keep your plants' roots snug and cozy during the cold of winter so that they can re-sprout right on time for spring!

A cluster of Summer Grape (Vitis aestevalis) caught in a stand of Broom Sedge (Andropogon virginicus)

Why would I want to be gardening right now? It's cold out!

Well, yes, it is cold out - and it's only going to get colder! If you find yourself dreading the months of cold weather, one of the best ways to combat that is by preparing for spring. There are always little things to do to remind yourself that spring will eventually come: planting seeds to look forward to seeing the flowers, making sure your gardens are ready to welcome new sprouts, researching what butterflies you might see next summer, or just going out and enjoying the strange beauty of late fall. After all, there are always beautiful things to be found in nature, no matter the season.

Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum) seedheads in late fall

Insects and creatures are still out and about

It is nearly the end of November and on warm days we continue to see some pollinators visting our late season asters. We visited Longwood gardens recently and found the same thing happening there.

Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia coenia) seen just a few days ago here on Aromatic Asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) at Toadshade!

October 22, 2016

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Butterflies and Moths

Happy 20th Birthday, Toadshade!!

Halberd-leaved Rose-Mallow (Hibiscus laevis)

Now that the weather has cooled off, and we've had a bit of an opportunity to catch our breath, we here at Toadshade are finally getting a chance to celebrate our 20th anniversary!! 20 years in business have given us the opportunity to propagate and study more than 1,600 species of plants over the years, and we've been taking the opportunity of our 20th year in business to look back at where we started - and to look forward, as well.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata))

Toadshade's founding

Toadshade was founded to increase availability of native plants, and to raise public awareness of the importance of using native plants in the areas best suited to them. The central idea has always been that plants grow best where they evolved to grow, and that they most benefit the environment there too! 20 years ago we started with just a few shipments to nearby states: today we have plants growing in Alaska and across Canada, from Idaho to Arizona, Texas to Maine, and in Zoos, Historic and Botanical Gardens, Governor's mansions, and even in the Shakespeare garden in Central Park. We're proud to have been able to help start populations of native plants in so many places!!

Nuttall's Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nutallii)

What do 20 Years in Business mean to us?

We're grateful to have had the opportunity to work with plants for as long as we have, and to have the luxury of studying so many species!! - working with 1,600 species of plants over the years is nothing to shake a stick at, and to butcher a quote from Lord of the Rings, 20 years is far too short a time to have lived among such excellent, admirable plants.

We've been lucky to meet lots of wonderful people along the way, as well - thousands and thousands of you who have ordered our native plants and seeds, emailed us, shared your stories and pictures, and attended our workshops and lectures. We thank each and every one of you, and hope that all of your wildflowers and native plants continue to thrive.

What Comes Next?

As my mother would say, there's no rest for the wicked! We're still busy shipping out plants (our plant shipping season runs through the end of November!) and we are busily collecting and processing seeds so we can keep supplying you with hand harvested and processed native plants seeds (we ship our seed packets year round!). In the meantime, we'll be busy studying and propagating more and more plants. With roughly 23,000 native plants in our area, we don't expect to run out of plants to work with any time soon!

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is unmistakable in the wild.

July 22, 2016

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Butterflies and Moths

Fantastic Host Plants and Where to Find Them... How do I Attract Colorful Visitors to my Garden?

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterflies, Moths, and Plants

As mentioned last month, plant choices in a garden drive food choices for wildlife: nearly everyone knows that Monarch butterflies require Milkweed plants for their caterpillars, but this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of plant/insect relationships!! Many species of butterflies and moths do not have the host plants one would expect: for example, Luna Moth (Actias luna) caterpillars feed on birch (Betula sp.) trees and Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) along with some other species of tree, and the adults don't eat at all. So how do you tempt some of the flashier butterflies and moths to your garden? There are a few basic things any gardener can do to attract these gorgeous winged visitors.

Research Your Area!

One of the most crucial steps a gardener can take for attracting butterflies is to look up what butterflies are native to your area, the host plants needed for their caterpillars, and the host plants they nectar on. This might seem like a lot of work, but a quick google search of "butterfly host plants (your state name here)" usually makes for a very effective strategy, because you don't have to put this information together from scratch.

Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) "puddling," a behavior that seems to be a way for butterflies to collect nutrients

Butterfly conservation and education groups have often already put together charts of butterflies you are likely to see in your garden, and the host plants they (and their caterpillars) require. For example, this is a list of butterflies and their host plants in New Jersey, and this is an article (including a very similar list) on butterfly gardening in Pennsylvania. It must be said, however, that not all lists are created quite equal: the New Jersey list was put out by the Native Plant Society of New Jersey, so it is sensitive to the impact of invasive species on the landscape. The Penn State extension article on the butterflies of Pennsylvania has a lot of good information, but falls down on the invasive plant front, which leads us to our next point.

Female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) nectaring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Regarding Butterfly Bushes and Cultivars

As tempting as it seems, and as popular as this plant is, Butterfly Bush (Buddleja or Buddleia, especially Buddleia davidii, also known as summer lilac) is an invasive species. That means that it is a non-native plant that spreads into the surrounding area and harms the environment by aggressively taking the place of native plants. According to, which keeps a curated list with information of invasive species in the United States, "Buddleja... readily invades disturbed sites and riparian areas. Although butterflies will use this plant as a nectar source their larvae cannot survive on it. By replacing native larval food source plants butterflybush can have a negative impact on wildlife." However well-intended a Butterfly Bush may be, these plants will invade the landscape, given the opportunity, replacing plants on which butterfly species can reproduce. It is not unheard-of for some butterflies to lay eggs on Butterfly Bushes in a case of mistaken identity, but as the larvae cannot survive there, the caterpillars will die and the butterfly population will suffer as a result. Planting a flowering shrub in your garden where butterflies may shelter during harsh weather is a good idea, but planting a Buddleja is not. In the same vein, avoid cultivars when you can! Cultivars are usually selected for their appearance; when the plant is changed, the value of the plant for butterflies may also be changed. For example "double" flowers sacrifice their reproductive parts in order to produce more petals... which means no pollen, no pollination, and no nectar for the butterflies (and no seed production for birds)! Butterflies and native plants evolved side-by-side, so butterflies are best able to use straight species of native plants in your garden.

So if I Plant Native Plants... Who can I Expect to See?

In an established butterfly garden, you could simply put out colorful sponges soaked in sugar water to attract butterflies, but without nearby host plants for the caterpillars, some species will just never show. One of the visitors you may see in your garden this summer is a butterfly that looks a lot like a Monarch... but isn't! Viceroy butterflies mimic Monarchs to discourage predators:while Monarchs are brightly-colored to warn birds that they taste bad (which is what happens when you're raised on a plant even the deer won't eat), Viceroys are brightly-colored simply to try to convince birds they're Monarchs. In reality, Viceroy caterpillars eat Willows, Poplars, and Cottonwoods rather than Milkweeds. The adults, however, prefer to nectar on composite flowers such as Asters, Goldenrods, and Joe-Pye Weed.

Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) waiting patiently (or perhaps not) for this Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) to flower!

Male Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) nectaring on Yarrow (Achillea millefolium

Tiger Swallowtails, flashy yellow or blue and black butterflies whose caterpillars feed on Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina), are also commonly found in the midsummer. These interesting butterflies are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the females of the species often look quite different from the males! While the males are bold shades of yellow, blue, and black, the females have two different color morphs. Some may have the same coloring as the males, but many are blue, black, and red, and look more like Red Spotted Purple butterflies (whose young also feed on cherry trees), or other species of swallowtail such as the Spicebush Swallowtail, (which feeds on Sassafras and Spicebush). Although several species of Swallowtail butterfly are native to the northeast, female Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are easily distinguished from Red-Spotted Purples due to the fact that Swallowtail butterflies have tails on their wings!

Many species of Fritillaries may also be frequent visitors to your garden, if Fritillary host plants are present: most fritillary caterpillars feed on violets, and male adults patrol areas they have staked out to look for females. Most summers, the Toadshade meadow is aflutter with Fritillary species, who seem to have a particular fondness for nectaring on Milkweed flowers!

Pearl Crescent Butterfly (Phyciodes tharos)

Is it worth it?

One of the most exciting things about a butterfly garden is the variety. There are so many species of butterflies and moths in North America, and each one has something different to offer! From the Buckeyes (Junonia coenia), with their gorgeous and distinctive spotted pattern, to the Hackberry Emperors (Asterocampa celtis), who use American Hackberries (Celtis occidentalis) as a host plant and are curious enough to ride around on your hand or head, Hummingbird Clearwing Moths (Hemaris thysbe), who can easily be mistaken for hummingbirds, or Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa), who overwinter as adults and begin flying earliest in the Spring, butterflies and moths offer endless variation and interest. Without a selection of host plants, the species of butterflies and moths visiting your gardens will be significantly more limited. In an area with a variety of host plants, however, a diverse range of colorful visitors often adorn the flowers of a garden and bring it alive!!

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) nectaring on Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

June 16, 2016

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Butterflies and Moths

Habitat Gardens

As you have no doubt noticed in your own gardens, summertime wildlife is everywhere right now! Fawns have been born, chipmunks are out causing trouble, many of the nesting birds have fledged, the hummingbirds are out in force (the males, anyway; the females are currently sitting on nests in our area), and if you have as many violets as we have here at Toadshade, you likely have a number of fritillaries playing butterfly games in your yard. So how do you support such a wide variety of species? After all, a turtle requires different things than a hummingbird... or does it?

Red-winged Blackbird nest (Agelaius phoeniceus) in tall grass

Habitat Layers: What does Wildlife Need?

Most wildlife species have at least a few needs in common: they all need a place to shelter, they all need food, and they all need access to water. A great deal of modern landscaping includes few to none of these things, which is directly related to why some gardens have significantly higher rates of animal biodiversity as compared to others. Butterflies need a place to go at night, birds need to be able to find shelter when a hawk flies over, and all wildlife species need to be able to access food and water sources. So while turtles and hummingbirds may not use the same parts of your habitat garden, creating a garden in which all of these things are available will attract not only these two species, but everything in between, as well. If you imagine a forest with a canopy, understory, and leaf litter, that's essentially what you're going for in your garden, only on a smaller-scale. The upper layer (much like a canopy) allows songbirds to hide from predators and browse on insects. The middle layer (analogous to an understory) has the same effect, and creates shelter for butterflies at night and moths during the day (although they will of course also shelter in trees). Groundcover and leaf litter provide shelter for beneficial creatures such as ladybeetles, who eat aphids and all kinds of other small insects, which is always incredibly helpful in a garden.

Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) do not tend to be shy butterflies.

Insects: The Secret to Everything

There's more to attracting wildlife than just the shape of your garden, however. Creating layers of sheltering habitat is essential, but only half of the task, because in order to properly support wildlife, it's necessary to support insects. Certain plants support certain insects: for example much like monarch butterflies rely on milkweeds, you will rarely have fritillary butterflies do more than briefly visit your garden if you don't plant violets, on which nearly all species of fritillary caterpillar rely. Your plant choices drive the food choices available in your garden, and planting non-native species essentially hamstrings attempts to support insects, because very few insect species are able to use non-native plants in their life cycles: native butterflies may enjoy the nectar, but then they'll move on unless there are host plants for their young, giving them a reason to stay. The best way to encourage insects is to plant a biologically diverse variety of native host plants, so that a wide variety of insect species can thrive. But why are insects so important?

In addition to looking pretty, as the butterflies certainly do, insects are a crucial food source for songbirds. You're far more likely to have a variety of birds come to visit you (and possibly nest!) if they have something to eat (and feed their young) in your yard. So in addition to supporting butterflies, a habitat garden also supports moths, caterpillars, bees, praying mantids, ground beetles, and a whole host of other insects on which animal species like birds rely. By creating a habitat garden, you are creating a tiny ecosystem in which all the species support each other, and keep each other in balance. For example, here at Toadshade, when we first established our meadow (a rather large-scale habitat garden, but the same general idea), we suddenly had lots of rabbits at our farm. But as time has gone on, their numbers have gone down to what they should be, because we have hawks and foxes that make use of the habitat as well. The life cycles of most things that use habitat gardens are much shorter, so your biodiversity will grow with your garden, and make your yard rapidly more useful and interesting for all kinds of wildlife, all of which will interact with each other.

What if I Want a Garden with Butterflies, but I Don't Want Bees?

Like any part of an ecosystem, bees will be kept in equilibrium by the rest of the species in your habitat garden, but they are attracted to the same flowers butterflies are. Bees are not aggressive when they're nectaring or collecting pollen: it's the best part of their day, they're happy, very forgiving of being bumped, and perhaps a bit sleepy. What's more, as pollinators, honeybees and native bees alike are critical to the functioning of any ecosystem, large or small.

A Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) nectaring on Heart-leaved aster (Symphiotrichum cordifolium)

A habitat garden, more than most gardens, will include species which will keep bees in balance, so if you like flowers and butterflies but aren't particularly wild about bees, a habitat garden is the way to go. In order to support pollinators of all types (including both bees and butterflies!) it helps to have flowers blooming over a long period of time, so check the bloom periods of the plants you put in your garden so that you'll be the first one with flowers in the spring, and the last one with flowers in the fall: pollinators of all sorts rely on this! It is also worth noting that we at Toadshade actually actively encourage bees, as all bee species are critical in their ecosystems, and we are happy to report that we've never had a problem with them.

A male box turtle (Terrapene carolina) on leaf litter

Leaf Litter: An Overlooked Gift

High on the list of less-useful things found in most gardens is mulch, and this is triply true for habitat gardens. Sure, it keeps the weeds down and traps moisture in the soil, but not as well as its natural alternative: leaf litter. Mulch only supports ants, termites, slugs, the occasional cricket, and possibly a spider or two. Leaf litter, on the other hand, provides a place for butterfly pupae to potentially overwinter. It gives a place for ladybeetles to live, so that their predatory larvae can eat aphids in the garden. It provides shelter for all the species in your garden and too many insect species to list, and is a natural fertilizer that will noticeably improve the quality of your soil. Yet for some reason every fall we pack it (along all the butterfly pupae we've been trying to encourage) into trash bags and put them on the curb. This year perhaps plan to do something different: if you don't have sufficient groundcover plants yet (which work better than either mulch or leaf litter), use naturally-occurring leaf litter to mulch your garden. The butterflies, your plants, and the whole ecosystem you're trying to encourage in your garden will thank you.

Red-Spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) on a Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia lacinata) leaf

The Creation of an Ecosystem

Ultimately how you design your garden is up to you, but remember that when you create a garden, you're not just creating it for yourself! A certain degree of responsibility and stewardship is involved in any garden, because all the birds and insects and animals in your area will be impacted by how you decide to care for your garden. The ever-popular butterfly bushes (which are decidedly non-native: they have origins in Asia) can act as a source of nectar, but they are also invasive, and thereby commonly escape into the environment and replace plants that could actually be useful to wildlife: so not only do they not improve habitat for wildlife, they actively harm it. Research is important! Host plants help insects and butterflies, and by extension birds and other animals, and it all starts with habitat gardens that allow animals like these to thrive. So when you do your research and choose your plants, keep in mind who you could be helping, and just wait till you see who shows up!

May 17, 2016

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A Few Words Concerning Milkweeds...

Spring Once More

Spring is finally convincingly upon us, although the cold weather we've been having would fool you! Here at Toadshade we've been shipping and packing and admiring the wildflowers, but we wanted to take some time to answer a few questions we've received regarding milkweeds! Many of you have been planting milkweeds to support monarch populations, but with so much public awareness about monarchs and milkweeds, sometimes it becomes difficult to sift through all the information... so we thought we would try to answer some of your questions!

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) nectaring on Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Seedlings sprouting in the Toadshade greenhouse

Why Aren't My Milkweeds Up Yet?

Our native Milkweeds, although they are perennial, are very cold-shy species: and with the weather we've been having, they're smart to be so! Butterfly milkweeds in particular wait some time before showing their faces above the soil, but all milkweeds take their time sprouting in the spring: with apologies to Gandalf, they come up exactly when they mean to. Be patient! Your milkweeds are likely just biding their time. In a typical spring, milkweeds don't come up until the soil has warmed up, and that may not happen until several weeks after the frost-free date: sometimes as late as early June in our area. This is normal!

What's the Best Milkweed Species to Plant for the Monarchs?

A monarch butterfly's favorite milkweed is a healthy one, which means a milkweed growing in conditions suited best for it. There are many species of milkweed native to the United States, and monarchs feed happily on all of them, so choose one native to your area, and suited to the conditions of your garden! The monarchs and the milkweeds alike will thank you for it. New Jersey alone has 12 species of milkweed native to the state: if you would like to see which milkweeds are native to your area, you can visit the Biota of North America Program's very intuitive range maps to take a look. Monarchs feed on all species of milkweed, so as long as you choose a milkweed that's native to your area, and plant it in conditions suited well to it, the monarchs and the milkweed will both be happy!

Rare Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) in full bloom

Monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) feeding on Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) leaves

What's the Story with Tropical Milkweeds?

Tropical milkweeds are great milkweeds if you live in the tropics, but they have some downsides for gardeners in temperate regions who are looking to help monarchs. The yearly decline of our native perennial milkweeds in the fall is one of the many clues monarch caterpillars rely on as a signal to produce a migratory form and start flying south.

By contrast tropical milkweeds, as annuals, won't decline until the first hard frost, which can trick monarchs into staying longer than they should, resulting in frozen butterflies. Monarchs will also breed continuously on the same tropical milkweed plant throughout a season, which can drastically increase disease rates in the insects. If you're looking to help out monarchs, it's best to use milkweeds native to the areas where the monarchs are using them (namely, your yard).

When's the Best Time to Plant Milkweeds, and Where Should I Put Them?

It's usually a good idea to plant milkweeds in spring or on the early side of summer so that their roots have all summer to get established before facing winter conditions, but the cool days of early fall are also an option. Milkweed seeds, however, are best sown in the fall or early spring so that their relatively short cold stratification period can be satisfied outdoors. In terms of planting location, there are a number of options, because different species of milkweeds have different preferred conditions: there are milkweed species which prefer sandy soil, others which grow in wet soil, and even some relatively rare milkweeds which prefer the dappled shade of woodland conditions. Simply look at the options native to your region and choose a milkweed suited to the conditions of your garden! One unifying detail between milkweeds, however, is that they all have large root systems, and do best when they are planted in the ground while they are still fairly young, so that their root systems can get established in your garden from the start. If you intend to put your milkweeds in a planter, plan for a very large planter, perhaps a whisky-barrel style, or at least comparable in size.

Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae) nectaring on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) flowers

Will Other "Critters" Show up on my Milkweeds?

Yes! And that's a good thing! Many species of insect and bird make use of milkweeds; for example Baltimore Orioles favor milkweed fiber from old stems as nesting material, and hummingbirds will happily feed on any milkweed aphids they find, or take them back to their nest to feed their young. as well!

A Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) nectaring on Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa

Pollinators such as native bees, honeybees, huge varieties of native butterfly species, and sphynx moths make the most of milkweed's beautiful flowers, which are an exceptionally good nectar source for pollinators of all kinds. Deer will generally leave your milkweed plants alone, because milkweeds can only be eaten by specialists such as the monarchs, but monarchs are not the only milkweed specialists in existence-- nor should they be! Do not mistake the monarch butterfly's relationship with milkweed plants for a monopoly over milkweed's use. By planting milkweed you benefit monarchs... and lots of other fascinating species

Feb. 5, 2016

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Happy Cross Quarter!

That's right, even if you have never heard of it, this week is Cross Quarter which means we are halfway between the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice) and the First Day of spring (March 20th aka the spring equinox). It's always nice to know spring is on its way, regardless of what the Groundhog has to say.

(Liquidambar styraciflua)

Redosier Dogwood
(Cornus sericea)

We have been admiring all of the lovely winter shapes that our native plants have provided for us: their seed pods, fruits, stems, even their bark! Our wildlife depend upon these food resources and shelter to make it through the winter. Winter fruits and seeds are critical for our winter birds, and many of our butterflies, moths, native bees and beneficial insects of all kinds overwinter in hollow stems, attached to dried stems, rolled in leafy nests, or tucked under downed leaves or pieces of bark. In the early spring, standing plant material is also a critical source of nest building materials for birds. I have noticed that Baltimore Orioles are particularly fond of stripping fibers off of old, standing Milkweed stems to use when weaving their nests.

Wild Yam
(Diocorea villosa)

American Bladdernut
(Staphylea americana)

We were fortunate to have encountered the egg cases of 2 different species of Praying Mantis when we were in the Pine Barrens back in December with the Philadelphia Botanical Club. These are fascinating structures! Many folks first discover what these are when an undetected egg case hatches on their Christmas tree and they suddenly have hundreds of tiny, hungry predators creeping amongst their Christmas ornaments!

Chinese Mantid egg case (left) and Carolina Mantid egg case (right)

Much to many people's surprise, we actually have 3 species of Preying Mantids in our area - only 1 of which is native to North America! The larger Mantises that most folks notice are actually Chinese Mantids (Tenodera sinensis) which will grow to 4-5" long when mature. These insects were originally introduced into the US near Philadelphia back in 1896. Their populations have been exploding around here in recent years and there is some speculation that this is due, at least in part, to their ability to feast upon the recently introduced Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys) which also comes from Asia (introduced and first detected near Allentown, PA in 1998). These large mantids are equal opportunity predators, and will eat a surprising array of creatures, including Monarch Butterflies and even Hummingbirds that stray within their grasp. We also have the European Mantid in our area (Mantis religiosa). European Mantids were originally introduced into the US back in the 1890's near Rochester, NY. These somewhat smaller mantids only grow to about 2 or 3" long.

Our native mantid, the Carolina Mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) is even smaller yet, and mature adults only reach about about 1.75-2.25" long. These diminutive native Mantids are often overlooked due to their small size or mistaken for immature (aka baby) versions of the much larger Chinese Mantids. Carolina Mantids are found throughout Central American and as far north as s. NY, though they are much more common in the southern portions or their range. We hope you'll enjoy the tail end of winter and keep an eye out for all of the 'gems' you can find outdoors in the winter, if you just take the time to look.

Nov. 19, 2015

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The Winter Holiday Season is almost upon us!

(Hamamelis virginiana)

As we approach Thanksgiving we are thankful for the past year as well as the unseasonably warm weather we've been enjoying recently. By the calendar and the lack of leaves on the trees we know that cold days will soon be here, but there are still a few hardy wildflowers persisting in our landscapes. In the past week alone I have seen Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), Thin-leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba), Closed Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrews), and Witch-Hazel (of course!) all in bloom.

On that note, since early November I have been answering questions from folks who are concerned that they have seen bees and butterflies that are still active - and my answer is "Of course they are!", and you can support them by planting late flowering wildflowers. Unlike Monarch Butterflies that migrate away, the vast majority of our insects, including our native Bees, Butterflies and Moths, are preparing for winter. Many insects will overwinter as eggs or pupae, often in leaf litter or some other protected spot, such as the hollow stems of plants. Some even overwinter as Adults!

Closed Bottle Gentian
(Gentiana andrewsii)

The Eastern Comma
(Polygonia comma)

For example, we have been enjoying watching some beautiful Eastern Comma Butterflies this past week. These delicate but hardy butterflies overwinter as adults so they will be active as long as warm temperatures allow. The caterpillars of this butterfly feed singly on host plants in the Elm and Nettle families, including the American Hackberry Tree (Celtis occidentalis). The adults, however, instead of 'nectaring' on flowers, actually feed on rotting fruit and tree sap.

Bumblebee Queens are also active through November busily visiting any flowers they can find before they retreat to underground nests to spend the winter. Both the Bumble Queens as well as the Eastern Comma Butterflies will become active again here as early as late February, when they will be such a welcome sight just as our late season snows are melting!

Common Eastern Bumblebee
(Bombus impatiens)

Oct. 15, 2015

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So Many Fall Asters!!

I was up in New York State this past weekend marveling at all of the different Asters that were in bloom in the fields and forests - and all of the insects that were enjoying them so thoroughly. Pollinators were everywhere! Our Blue Wood Aster is fairly dripping with bees (both native and honey) these days. With the large number of Asters we grow in our gardens, we have had Asters flowering since early August and expect to have them flowering at least until the end of October. By having many species of Aster, we (and the pollinators) are able to enjoy these beautiful flowers for months.

Blue Wood Aster
(Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

White Wood Aster
(Eurybia divaricata)

How many native Asters can you name? There are 40 different native Asters found in New Jersey, New York & Pennsylvania alone! They can be found in nearly every habitat - from the coast to the mountain tops, swamps to dry meadows, sun to full shade. If you are walking through dry woods you may encounter Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolius) covered with pale blue flowers, starry White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) with it's heart-shaped creeping foliage, or the pretty & aptly named Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla).

Out in the sun, you may see deep purple New England Aster (S. novae-angliae) growing 2 to 6' tall - a native aster which a lot of folks seem to recognize. Other 'sunny' asters that are less well recognized include Calico Aster (S.lateriflorus) with it's clouds of tiny bi-colored flowers, light purple New York Aster (S. novi-belgii), Smooth Blue Aster (S. laevis) with its blue flowers and blue/green leaves, & the light purple flowers of Purple-stemmed Aster (S. puniceum) growing in moist areas. You can even find Asters growing on rocky balds - such as the beautiful pale blue Stiff Aster (Ionactis linariifolius). Keep an eye on our Facebook page - we'll be posting some more Aster picture there in the next couple of weeks.

New England Aster
(Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Purple-stemmed Aster
(Symphyotrichum puniceum)

A word about the confusing scientific names of Asters... So why aren't all Asters in the genus Aster? The scientific names of Asters became a bit more confusing a few years ago when research revealed that we only have 1 true member of the genus Aster in North America - the Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus). All of the rest of the North American 'Asters' were moved to other (mostly more difficult to pronounce!) genera such as Symphyotrichum, Eurybia, Oclemena, Ampelaster, Doellingeria, and Ionactis. These name changes simply reflect our better understanding of how the different species are related to one another.

Sept. 1, 2015

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Fall, the season of Goldenrods and Asters and so much more, is just around the corner - which means it a great time to plant perennials!

Crooked Stem Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides)

Spring Once More

It's true - the days are getting a little shorter, the nights a little cooler, and transplants love that! Pretty much all perennials - trees, shrubs, ferns and herbaceous plants settle in fantastically when planted in the fall. Why? The cool fall and spring weather gives them plenty of time to settle their roots and get well established before taking on the sometimes harsh reality of summer weather. In addition , this winter you can enjoy the warm, smug feeling of knowing you already have plants in the ground and ready to start growing in the spring.

Seaside Goldenrod
(Solidago sempervirens)

Spring Once More

What about Wildflower Seeds? Fall/Winter/Early Spring in also the ideal time to plant native seeds! Many of them require a period of 'cold stratification' (cool & moist conditions) before they will grow. By far the easiest and best way to accomplish that is to plant them in the fall/early winter let Mother Nature do it herself.

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Sept. 1, 2015

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Time to attack the Japanese Stiltgrass!

Japanese Stiltgrass beginning to flower

Around here, the Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is just now starting to go into flower - which means this is a terrific time to attack it! This plant is an invasive, annual grass that is extremely aggressive. Its ability to send out lots of ground rooting aerial roots (which look like 'stilts' when you try to pull up the plants) give this plant a huge competitive advantage over other plants.

Anyone who has done battle with Japanese Stiltgrass knows a few sad facts:

  1. If you ignore it, this plant will set seed and spread, creating monocultures of Japanese Stiltgrass that out-compete and ultimately replace almost everything
  2. if you keep it mowed all season it will vex you by flowering and setting seed on very short plants
  3. it pulls up very easily, but if you keep pulling it early in the season new plants just keep sprouting from the seed bank in the soil

Japanese Stiltgrass aerial roots ('stilts')

An area overtaken by Japanese Stiltgrass

We have found that allowing the stiltgrass to grow and then mowing it down just as it goes into flower is very effective! The plants do not have the ability to regrow at this point and it is too late for new plants to sprout and flower. By mowing this plant at this critical time in its life cycle, you can prevent them from producing seed this year. Research has shown that the seeds only survive in the soil for about 3 years, so if you can keep after it and prevent it from setting seed for several years running you can get ahead of this problematic weed.

July 16, 2015

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Moths, Butterflies, and other fluttery things...

'Tis the season for Moths and Butterflies! Next week is National Moth Week, and our closest North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Count (centered at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve) is on July 18th! Keep an eye out in your garden for butterflies, moths, native bees, and other pollinators who play an important role in keeping native plant populations healthy... and vice versa! Native plants are critical hosts to native pollinators; for example, as everyone seems to know by now, Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars can only feed on species of Milkweed (Asclepias sp.), just as native pollinators play an important role in the reproductive cycles of many native plants.

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Black Swallowtails' native perennial host plants include Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea).

You may have seen some native species of butterflies and moths in your gardens already, such as territorial Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes), or the rather friendly Tawny and Hackberry Emperors (Asterocampa sp.), who use American Hackberries (Celtis occidentalis) as a host plant for their caterpillars.

Tawny Emperors (Asterocampa clyton) are renowned as fearless little butterflies, and will readily pose for pictures

The Dogbane Tiger Moth (Cycnia tenera), also known as Delicate Cycnia, lays its eggs almost exclusively on Indian Hemp.

The show doesn't stop when the sun goes down! Keep an eye out for beautiful native moths like the Primrose Moth (Schinia florida), which cross-pollinates Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) flowers as it moves from plant to plant laying eggs in a cycle of mutualism, or Sphinx and Hawk Moths, most species of which prefer to visit flowers at dawn and dusk. Don't forget to look for butterflies and moths outside of the garden as well! Many species of native moths and butterflies can delight and fascinate far from any flower. For example, adult Tawny Emperors usually feed on sap or rotting fruit rather than nectar (although to be honest our local emperors mostly seem to enjoy licking our hands and office windows!). Another enchanting species, the elegant Dogbane Tiger Moth (Cycnia tenera), relies on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) as a host plant, and can sometimes be seen near outdoor lights after dark, making soft clicking noises to repel hunting bats as they fly.

Attracting native butterflies and moths helps to create an enjoyable healthy, sustainable ecosystem full of biodiversity... and it all starts with native plants!

June 6, 2015

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Monarchs and Milkweeds

Monarch Butterflies are showing up in our gardens and fields again (thankfully!) and so I thought I would write just a bit about gardening for Monarchs. Monarchs, as it seems almost everyone knows by now, require Milkweed for their caterpillars.
As a matter of fact, Monarch caterpillars can only feed on Milkweeds - nothing else! The adult Butterflies, however, need nectar all summer long!
When planting for Monarchs, mix Milkweed with lots of flowering nectar plants (as well as grasses) that will bloom from early in the summer (when Monarchs first arrive) through the fall.

This will have several advantages! It will

Provide nectar for the Monarchs (and many butterflies and pollinators) when the Milkweed are not flowering! Each species of Milkweed only flowers for about a month. The adult Monarchs need nectar from the time they arrive until they leave.

Create a sustainable ecosystem. A monoculture of Milkweed is no more sustainable than any other monoculture

Support not only the struggling Monarch, but many species of Butterflies, Beetles, Moths, Birds, Snakes, Turtles, and Mammals...etc.

Create a thing of beauty for everyone to admire end enjoy

What kind of Milkweed should you plant? Plant Milkweeds native to your area and adapted to your soil and sun conditions. Monarchs can use ALL of them. There are about 75 species of Milkweed found in North America - so there are a lot to choose from. You can find out what species are native to your area at the Biota of North America Program. Around here, we have about 12 species that are native, although several of those are quite rare.

Purple Milkweed
(Asclepias purpurascens)

Fourleaf Milkweed
(AAsclepias quadrifolia)

May 15, 2015

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Busy, busy, busy...

Today is the 10th annual National Endangered Species Day!

Take a moment today and learn about the importance of protecting all of our wonderful native diversity but particularly endangered and threatened species and the habitats they rely upon. (a good place to check this out is the Fish and Wildlife Service's official National Endangered Species Day page). There are a lot of events scheduled this weekend across the country at parks, aquariums, zoos, schools, etc. To look up events near you, you can check the event locator at the Endangered Species Coalition.

Winged False Aster (Boltonia decurrens) [federally threatened]

Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus carolinianus) [endangered in PA]

To learn more about endangered species local to your area, you can look at the Fish and Wildlife Service's official list or visit the Center for Plant Conservation Center for Plant Conservation which is dedicated solely to preventing the extinction of U.S. native plants.

March 13, 2015

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The Ides of March are almost upon us!

We are finally thawing out here in the Northeast and it is good to see the ground again. Birds have switched over to their spring mating songs and gardeners and hikers are eager to see buds swelling on trees and flowers emerging from the ground. I haven't heard spring peepers yet, but I'm keeping my ears open as our vernal ponds thaw out... Our southern friends have already started seeing flowers - A friend of mine day posted a picture the other day of Plum Blossoms in her back yard! Ok, Ok, she's in Albuquerque, but still!

To Mulch or not to Mulch, that is the question... To Mulch or not to Mulch, that is the question... So spring is here and you are eager to get out and clean up your gardens. I had a lot of discussions this winter about mulch. The biggest discovery that I made was that a lot of folks who plant wildflower seeds feel the need to then cover them with several inches of mulch. I do not know why! If you have planted wildflower seeds, please do NOT do this. A heavy layer of mulch will prevent many seeds from growing - including the wildflower seeds!

Instead of creating great barren swaths of mulch with tiny islands of plants, let's think about this first. In nature, plants grow with companions. Unless you are in a desert, plants are not naturally spread out with large sterile areas between them. Diversity and complexity in a landscape creates not only visual interest, but balance and habitat. Birds and wildlife will find cover. Predatory insects such as Praying Mantises and Assassin Bugs will find safe haven and, along with the birds you are now encouraging, keep herbivorous insects in check (while they feast on them to raise their young!). Amphibians such as toads and salamanders will find your garden and make themselves at home.

A more biologically balanced way to 'mulch' your gardens is to plant low-growing ground cover plants to fill in between your other plants; some groups have taken to calling this "Green Mulch" and it creates a much more natural environment. We have many beautiful herbaceous perennial groundcovers, short native grasses, and graceful sedges that can create a lovely, and living, mulch for your garden. They will also conserve moisture by shading the ground, and discourage weed seeds from sprouting by taking their place. Your garden will look great and the Birds, Butterflies, Salamanders and Turtles will thank you!

January 16, 2015

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It may be January, but we're busy, busy, busy!

Folks often ask us what we do all winter... They are often surprised to find that we are usually just as busy here with winter chores as we are in the summer! What keeps us so busy? So many things...carefully hand cleaning, packaging, & shipping seed; planting & cold stratifying seeds; experimenting on seed propagation procedures for new species; writing & updating descriptions; creating new line drawings; lecturing & running workshops, & so much more! So, don't worry about us...we're not bored! As a matter of fact, we are just putting the finishing touches on our all new 2015 catalogue! If you would prefer to 'save a tree' & not receive a printed copy of our 2015, please let us know. As always, all that good information will be available on our web site...along with a complete list of all the native plants and seeds we have available for you this year.

Seed Starting Notes OK, so we've talked enough about cold stratification over the past year; we thought you might like a few other notes to help you out if you are starting seeds ...

- How to spread tiny seed? So you find that you have something like Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), or Monkey Flower (Mimulus,), and you wonder how you are ever going to spread that seed evenly! Here is an easy trick: mix your seed with a little clean sand. This dilutes the seed and so allows you to spread out the tiny seed & see where you have been!

- Screens can really help. If you are cold stratifying seed pots outdoors, cover them with a bit of screening. Squirrels, mice, voles and chipmunks love to dig about in loose soil and they can really make a mess of your propagation flats!

- How to spread tiny seed? So you find that you have something like Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), or Monkey Flower (Mimulus,), and you wonder how you are ever going to spread that seed evenly! Here is an easy trick: mix your seed with a little clean sand. This dilutes the seed and so allows you to spread out the tiny seed & see where you have been!

- Light is really important! If you are starting seeds indoors make sure to use artificial light, get it right down close to the seedlings, and give them nice long days (14hr+). We all remember those sad seedlings that we tried to grow (or our classes in school tried to grow) on the windowsill. Sometimes this works just fine (depending on the plant species) but more often it does not and you wind up with very thin, tall, pale seedlings stretching toward the light. Proper light quality and day length can make a huge difference!

- Fertilizer is good stuff, but be careful. Native plants will often do just fine in a garden setting with little or no fertilizer. Seedlings, however, are another matter. If you are starting your seeds in commercial potting mix, it likely has little or no nutrients so your seedlings will really appreciate a little fertilizer once a week or so after they have emerged. Do be careful, however, and make it half strength so you don't burn your seedlings. They are very tender when young and full strength fertilizer can really do some damage at this stage.

- Don't try to pot up those tiny seedlings to fast! It seems that a lot of folks are a bit too excited about their little plants and try to transplant them when they are still quite tiny. New seedlings are quite susceptible to mechanical damage, disease, and drying out for the first couple of weeks. Let them get at least one set of 'true leaves' before you try to transplant them.

- Protect those seedlings from frost! Just because the plant you are growing is perennial does not mean that the seedlings can survive freezing weather. Some seedlings, like Giant Hyssop (Agastache) and Violets (Viola) are quite tolerant of cold weather. Others, however, like Milkweed (Asclepias) are NOT! This actually serves the Milkweeds quite well. In the wild, the seedlings will not sprout until the soil is fairly warm and, consequently, the days are rather long. Milkweed roots do not develop properly under conditions of poor light and short days.

- Harden off your seedlings. Seedlings grown in greenhouses or under artificial light can be very tender and not ready to deal with direct sunlight, rain, or even wind. Introduce these things to them gradually over a week or more to harden them off before planting outdoors.

November 26, 2014

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Do your Butterflies, Bees, & Birds a favor.

Where did our warm sunny days go.. .? The gardening season is certainly winding down -- or is it? Do your Butterflies, Bees, & Birds a favor and get started on next year's gardens by sowing perennial Wildflower seeds this winter. Perennial Wildflowers will come back year after year for you and your wildlife to enjoy.

What can you expect from Perennial Wildflower seeds? What to expect from seeds seems like a simple question, but it really isn't. There are several things that are important to know about seeding Perennial Wildflowers.

First of all, there is a big difference between annuals (plants that germinate, grow, flower and die all in one season) and perennials (plants that come back year after year from hardy roots of some sort). Annuals are kind of like little 'party animals' - they don't need to plan for the future at all (except to produce seeds). Perennials, on the other hand, must spend the first year after they germinate putting as much energy into their roots as they can - they have to store up enough energy to make it through that first winter! Because of this, many perennials will not flower the first year after they are seeded. In a newly seeded perennial bed or meadow, you will see some flowers the first year, more flowers the second year, and then lots of flowers from the third year on!

Third, most native plant seeds do not need to be deeply planted! We get asked about how deep to plant wildflower seeds a lot and wind up talking to folks who have tried to grow wildflowers from seed in the past and have planted the seed way too deep. As a general rule, seeds should be planted no deeper than the diameter of the seed -- so for most wildflower seeds, surface sowing of the seed on scratched or raked soil will do just fine. The freezing/thawing action of winter will incorporate the seed into the top ¼" of soil through soil heaving. (Winter seeding is known as frost seeding). The important thing here is establishing good soil/seed contact. A trick that we find very useful for broadcasting seeds and/or seed mixes is to combine the seed with an equal amount (or more) of clean sand then sow your seed right before a good rain. The sand helps you spread the seeds, helps you see where you've been, and can help to hold some of the fluffier seed in place. Rain washes the seed down to the soil surface and into any little nooks and crannies that are available.

Second, as I have talked about before, most native plant seeds require a period of cold stratification before they will grow. What is this? It simply means that they have to in a cold and moist environment before they will grow. Without experiencing 'winter' this way, these seeds will stubbornly refuse to grow. Some seeds only need a couple of weeks of cold stratification, but some can require up 3 months! By far the easiest way to accomplish this is to sow your seeds outdoors in the fall, winter or early spring and let real winter take care of cold stratification for you.

October 13, 2014

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October is here and it's Fall Planting Month here in NJ

Even though the fall colors are upon us there is still plenty of time for planting perennials. Around here it's Aster and Goldenrod season. The butterflies and bees are busily flitting from flower to flower sipping nectar.

Monarchs started their fall migration weeks ago. As early as September 18th there was good news from Canada's Point Pelee National Park that migrating Monarch numbers were way up this year (particularly good news because they actually canceled their Monarch count last fall due to lack of Butterflies!). In other amazing news, there was a 'cloud' of Monarch Butterflies that showed up on radar over St. Louis It's all good to hear.

Pawpaws anyone?? What is a Pawpaw? Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are beautiful native trees that produce large edible pendulous ruits that taste a bit like banana custard (raccoons are very fond of them and will steal them if you're not careful!) These small trees range from Florida to Ontario, produce large dark red flowers in the spring, and have beautiful shiny leaves that turn lemon yellow in the fall. The most beautiful stand of them I ever saw was at BSA Camp Rodney on the Chesapeake. The trees are also host plants for Zebra Swallowtail (Papilio marcellus). Although there are several other species in the genus, this is the only Pawpaw that is hardy in the north.

September 5, 2014

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Where did summer go??? We've started harvesting Milkweed seeds so Fall must be right around the corner!

That means it is time to get your hands dirty and plant perennials! Fall is the BEST time to plant most perennials. The soil is nice and warm and temperatures are cooler - fall is a gentle time to plant! Perennials have all fall and next spring to settle in and get their roots well established in their new home before taking on the summer heat!

Planting Wildflower Seeds? Fall/Winter/Early Spring in also the ideal time to plant native seeds! Many of them require a period of 'cold stratification' (cool & moist conditions) before they will grow. By far the easiest and best way to accomplish that is to let Mother Nature do it herself!

March 13, 2014

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Seeds are sprouting!

What is Cold Stratification and how do I do it? In case you missed our notes on this in December, many native plants seeds are dormant and require some period of cold stratification to grow. In the simplest terms, the seeds need to experience ‘winter’. Sometimes this can be accomplished by putting the dry seed in the refrigerator, but more often they require a period of cold moist conditions. For most of the country, there is still plenty of time to cold stratify most seed outdoors but you can also use a refrigerator! Simply plant your seed in a pot of moist (not wet) soil, cover with a plastic bag, and put the whole thing in the back of your refrigerator for the prescribed number of weeks. Make sure to 1) mark on your calendar when to take them out and move them to a warm sunny spot and 2) label them well so you remember what’s in the pot and so that no one in your family mistakes them for scary leftovers!

So your seeds are growing – now what? Seeds need plenty of light and a little fertilizer. If your seeds are getting very tall and skinny – you need better light. Windowsills are often not sufficient. Fluorescent lights work very well – lower the lights to within inches of the seedlings so they get intense light. Fertilize your little seedlings with half strength plant fertilizer (full strength will often burn them at this stage).

Don’t move them from the seed pot too soon! A common mistake that folks make is they try to divide/transplant their little seedlings when they are too small. Very young seedlings are extremely vulnerable to mechanical damage, disease, and desiccation (drying out). Make sure that your plants have at least one pair of true leaves (not just the often rounded cotyledons or ‘seed leaves’ that first come out) before trying to divide or transplant them. For most plants it is best to let them get some size before you move them out to the garden.

Make sure to harden off your plants. What does that mean? Direct sunlight and even wind can be too much for young seedlings that have been grown under artificial light or even on a sunny windowsill. If you have grown your seedlings outdoors all along, or in a cold frame, they will be fine. However, if you have been growing them indoors you need to introduce them to the great outdoors gradually. Put them out for a couple hours of indirect sunlight or early morning/late afternoon sunlight for a week or so before planting them out to the great outdoors. Make sure they have enough moisture (but not too much!) during this period so they don’t dry out.

Protect them from freezing temperatures. Yes, the plants we sell are virtually all perennials, but that doesn’t mean the seedlings you started indoors can handle freezing temperatures when they are tiny! Dave’s Garden has got a lookup for your frost free dates. Don’t plant your seedlings outside until after that date. On the other hand, if you have started your seeds outdoors, you will find many seeds will come up well before the frost free date – that’s OK, they know what they’re doing. I would only protect them with a cover if you get a particularly nasty cold snap late in the spring.

January 15, 2014

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Happy New Year!

So, what can you do in the garden in January? This is a great time of year for Frost Seeding.

Last month we talked a bit about cold stratification and how native seeds like cold weather – it lets them know that winter has come and gets them ready to grow in the spring. Frost seeding 1) gets your seed planted in plenty of time for cold stratification and 2) takes advantage of the freeze thaw cycles that occur on the soil surface, actually working the seed into the ground by the heaving of the surface soil. Often recommended as a pasture improvement method, it can be successfully used with Wildflower and Native Grass Seeds in garden or meadow plantings as well. By simply scattering/broadcasting seed in the very early spring (while freezing events are still very common) you give snow and frost the opportunity to work the seed into the soil for you and cold stratify it at the same time!

December 10, 2013

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Snow, Snow, Snow….

December is here! Our plants are tucked away for the winter and we’ve already started planting seeds for next year.

Cold Stratification??? As many of you know, many native plants seeds need to ‘suffer’ through periods of cold, moist conditions (aka, cold stratification) before they will grow. How long do you need to cold stratify them? It depends on the kind of seed. Species may require as little as 2 weeks or as much as 6 months, but most seeds requiring cold stratification will germinate after 4 to 12 weeks of cold treatment. A lot of you have asked us to explain a little more about how you can cold stratify seeds. Here are several ways you can go about it:


Plant your seeds in moist soil in a pot covered in plastic and place it in your refrigerator - but make sure to label it carefully so no one mistakes it for scary leftovers! Put a note on your calendar to remind you when to take them out again and place them in a warm, sunny spot to grow.


Plant you seeds in a pot (again, covered to keep them from drying out) and place in a cold garage or barn. It is usually a good idea to also cover these with a screen of some sort – mice are quite adept at finding seed to eat in the winter! Again, note on your calendar when to move them to a warm, sunny spot.


Plant the seeds in a pot or flat outdoors or in a cold frame! Outdoors it’s usually good to cover the pot/flat with some leaves and a small piece of screening (to manage moisture and mice) but make sure you remove the leaves by very early spring!


Just plant them outdoors! As crazy as it sounds, you can plant seeds in the winter. Make sure you don’t plant them too deep (a VERY common mistake). We often recommend folks plant their seeds just before a rain or snow event so the moisture helps to settle the seeds into the ground. Remember this rule of thumb: In general, seeds should be planted no deeper than the thickness of the seed itself!

September 13, 2013

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Here’s a gardener’s secret for you. Fall is the BEST time to plant most perennials! The cool fall and spring weather gives them plenty of time to get well established before taking on the sometimes harsh reality of summer weather.

What about Wildflower Seeds, you say? Fall/Winter/Early Spring in also the ideal time to plant native seeds! Many of them require a period of ‘cold stratification’ (cool & moist conditions) before they will grow. By far the easiest and best way to accomplish that is to let Mother Nature do it herself.

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