Study Confirms Neonic’s Deadly Harm to Birds as EPA Ignores Facts

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently released an updated, piercing report that confirms the continual decline of wild birds — as well as beneficial insects and many other animals — due to the uncontrolled use of highly toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. It’s a lengthy read, so I thought I’d offer a fairly brief synopsis to those who appreciate and support biodiversity.

Back in 2013, the ABC produced its ground-breaking paper, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds” (Mineau and Palmer 2013), which warned of the catastrophic risks that these ambulant and persistent insecticides create for both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as well as the likely repercussions on wildlife who depend on those ecosystems.

Fast forward ten years, and “Neonicotinoid insecticides: Failing to come to grips with a predictable environmental disaster” (Mineau and Kern 2023) reveals that little has changed, except that the quantity used is hidden from us. The report examines the recent science that echos earlier alarm calls and describes the completely inadequate regulatory response by the EPA and other regulators. According to Hardy Kern, one of the study’s authors, “Some states and agencies have taken minimal actions, but we have a long way to go before these chemicals are no longer a threat to birds, native pollinators and aquatic systems.” A recent comprehensive study in Europe found pesticide and fertilizer use to be “more dramatic than forest alterations, urbanization, and climate change”.

Developed by Bayer and Shell and introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids (“neonics”) have been touted as safe and more benign than any previous pesticide groups. They quickly became popular in pesticide markets worldwide and today they are the most commonly used insecticides (where they haven’t been banned). The neonics group is a synthetic neurotoxin chemically similar to nicotine and includes acetamiprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, imidacloprid and others. They are widely used in agriculture (more than 140 types of crops, including rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers, cotton, nuts, soybeans, fruits and vegetables), in commercial nurseries, and in urban areas on golf courses, parks, gardens and lawns, in insect sprays, and flea and tick veterinary products. (Last month, in response to a Center for Biological Diversity legal petition asking that Seresto flea collars — which have been linked to more than 100,000 reports of harm or death — be pulled from the market, the EPA responded by only requiring that warning labels be placed on the collars.)

Neonics are applied as a soil injection (“soil drenching”) and tree injection, as a foliar spray, and as a seed coating (the most common application). As a plant grows, the systemic pesticide permeates all cells within roots, stems, leaves, pollen, nectar, sap, fruit, and honeydew. In addition to killing what are considered pest insects, neonics indiscriminately poison non-target beneficial species like bees, butterflies and other pollinators, including hummingbirds. An estimated 96 percent of land birds are insectivorous and must feed their young insects (which may be poisoned), and seed-eating birds commonly consume spilled seeds loaded with neonic residue. They can also encounter neonics by inhalation of vapors, skin contact, and in their drinking water. Dust generated from pneumatic seed planting machinery can also kill flying insects directly, and it can disperse off-site at seeding time (making additional plants acutely toxic), and contaminate soil. In the soil, neonics persist for months to years, with drift, irrigation or runoff carrying them long distances, eventually contaminating new soil, plant life and water supplies. Only two to five percent of most seeds coated with neonics make it into a target plant, leaving roughly 95 percent in the soil, where it can contaminate the nests of native ground-nesting bees (70 percent of native bees nest in the ground).

When consumed in lethal doses, neonics permanently bind to nerve cells, which typically causes uncontrollable twitching and shaking followed by paralysis and eventually death. But even small, nonlethal doses can cause severe debilitation to victims’ immune, reproductive, navigation, and nervous systems. Birds may become so incapacitated that they don’t eat, migrate, reproduce, and become paralyzed or experience seizures. Researchers have found destructive reproductive effects at concentrations much lower than the thresholds set by regulators: The ABC found that ingesting just one-tenth of a contaminated corn kernel (with any of the neonics) per day during egg-laying season can negatively affect bird reproduction. Appallingly, “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, can poison a bird.” The ABC authors expressed, “Based on recent studies, we have increasing concerns over reproductive and sub-lethal effects resulting from low exposures in farm fields … Given that exposure is often season-long, this raises the specter of significant effects on a large number of bird species.”

Due to widespread use, neonics have caused and continue to cause extensive ecosystem contamination, including watersheds, groundwater, and irrigation water. Neonics’ water solubility means that they travel easily in surface runoff, contaminating aquifers and other aquatic environments—residues have even been found in seabirds’ feathers and raptors, and there is proof that they kill fish and other aquatic animals. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that neonics polluted more than half of the streams in the U.S. In addition, bats are directly and indirectly harmed, and birth defects have been found in white-tailed deer. If you’re wondering about harm to humans, the NRDC’s “Potential Risks to Brain and Sperm” article details the health impacts, including the possibility of creating even more toxic compounds when neonics are mixed with things like chlorine at water treatment plants. The good news is that organically-grown foods are mostly neonic-free.

Unwillingness of regulators
Regulation of these chemicals is extremely inadequate. The ABC authors say, “The U.S. is far behind the European Union and a few Canadian provinces in responsible regulation and mitigation. The main uses of neonicotinoid insecticides go against fundamental principles of integrated pest management. Alternatives to these chemicals do exist … We believe they have failed in the execution of their mandate and in preventing the ongoing environmental tragedy that neonics represent.”

Possibly the worst debacle of regulators is that seeds coated with neonics are not regulated at all; they’re included in the “Treated Item Exemption” of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which, according to the ABC authors, means that most neonic applications are not counted in usage estimates. In 2017 a number of NGOs petitioned the EPA to remove seed treatments from the exemption. It took the EPA, which ignores the advice of its own scientists, five years to deny it. Earlier this summer the groups sued the EPA.

The U.S. government has also lessened the amount of data available about pesticide use and proliferation to scientists and the public. Earlier this year the U.S. Geological Survey cut the amount of data it collects in its National Pesticide Use Map, and beginning in 2024 its report will be released only every five years, instead of yearly. It’s also shrunken the number of pesticides it monitors from 400 to 72, partly because the USGS purchases data from a private company, which stopped including seed treatments in usage stats around 2015. The USGS says that “seed coatings are too difficult to reliably source information on and, therefore, are not included in national pesticide-use estimates.” They’re also left out of National Water Quality Assessment maps.

So, no one knows how much neonics are used on seeds. A USGS graph of clothianidin usage in the 2023 ABC report shows that over 3.5 million pounds were used in 2014 (mostly on corn), and in 2015 the usage was slightly more than 500,000 pounds. Of course this doesn’t mean that less clothianidin was used; only that seed treatments were dropped from estimated use.

A 2019 study found that U.S. agriculture is nearly 50 times more toxic to insects than it was 25 years earlier and neonics are responsible for a whopping 92 percent of that atrocity—this is especially heinous considering the “insect apocalypse” that experts predict. Despite their rampant use, neonics can actually make pest problems worse because not only do they kill beneficial wildlife; they also kill soil microbes that improve plants’ health, durability, and crop yields. And, there is even evidence that neonics reduce crop production. In the U.S., there is no law that requires manufacturers prove that their product works. Speaking with National Geographic, Kendra Klein, study co-author and senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth U.S., said, “We have four decades of research and evidence that agroecological farming methods can grow our food without decimating pollinators.”

Are neonics the new “Silent Spring”?
North America lost more than three billion birds (even species once considered common) between 1970 and 2018 — 29% of 1970 abundance — due in part to the ubiquitous use of neonics. Even the EPA confirmed that the use of imidicloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) harm roughly 75 percent of all endangered plants and animals. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there’s been horrendous harm to imperiled species by all three insecticides, such as “all 39 species of endangered amphibians, including the California red-legged frog, as well as rusty patched bumblebees, whooping cranes, chinook salmon, northern long-eared bats and orcas.” The American bumblebee, once the most commonly observed bumblebee species in the U.S., has declined by an estimated 89 percent in just the past 20 years. Clearly, neonicotinoids are one of the most dangerous, toxic classes of pesticides that pose atrocious longterm threats to biodiversity. We’re in the midst of a harrowing extinction crisis with beneficial insects, birds, aquatic life, and mammals dying off in appalling numbers and neonics are a major, reckless threat that the earth does not need. “Neonics may not bioaccumulate in organisms and biomagnify in food webs as did DDT and other organochlorine pesticides of old, but they appear to be as widely distributed in the broader terrestrial and aquatic environments,” according to the ABC report’s authors.

Neonics are mostly banned in the EU (even “emergency” uses have been overturned in court) and parts of Canada (Ontario and Quebec require a prescription to use neonics to coat seeds, which has drastically reduced their use). Although a few states in the U.S. have passed legislation that restricts the use of neonics (but doesn’t eliminate them), and other states are beginning to take action, only severe restrictions by the EPA will protect ecosystems, biodiversity and human health from these noxious, unnecessary chemicals before it’s too late.

In July of this year, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Pollinator-Friendly Plant Labeling Act, which would require the Department of Agriculture to create a certification program for plant producers to certify that their plants are not treated with pesticides or substance not approved for use in organically-grown products that are harmful to pollinators. Producers who choose to participate in the program would be able to use a “USDA pollinator-friendly” label on their plants and products. It’s a minor action, but is a step in the right direction.

In the home garden
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides states, “Neonicotinoids are found in hundreds of products sold over the counter under various trade names. Many of these are designed for individual home and garden use. One of the most toxic neonicotinoids to our native bees — imidacloprid — is commonly applied to gardens, flowerbeds, shrubs, and trees in urban and residential areas.” According to the Xerces Society, “even when used according to printed instructions, garden products containing neonicotinoids can be applied to plants in concentrations dozens of times greater than on farm crops [sometimes at concentrations of as much as 120 times]. This means that bees can be exposed to lethal doses of neonicotinoids in gardens. Even if bees are not killed outright, smaller (non-lethal) doses can impact their health.” Remember that labels do not indicate that they are harmful to pollinators, so it’s important to either not buy such products or be sure to read ingredient lists (Imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam are all neonics found in garden products). This Xerces Society brochure explains how to protect pollinators from neonics.

What you can do:

  • Buy organically-grown foods, seeds, bird-friendly coffee, and other products whenever possible (they’re not always much more expensive). If feasible, grow some organic produce at home. Find a list organic seed companies here.
  • Shop at plant nurseries that don’t use neonics (always ask if you’re unsure).
  • Don’t buy/use products that contain neonics (be sure to read labels).
  • Create pesticide-free, safe outdoor spaces using regional native plants that will encourage wildlife such as native bees, butterflies, birds, and other beneficials.
  • Ask your state and federal legislators to advance laws that eliminate (or at least severely restrict) pesticide use.
  • Email the EPA to voice your concerns about the lack of regulations on pesticide-coated seeds: pesticidequestions@epa.gov
  • Watch Beyond Pesticides’ short video for more info on toxic seeds and check out ABC’s fact sheet.

© 2023 Eileen M. Stark

More Than Flowers: How to Support Pollinators in All Their Life Stages

Many pollinators are in steep decline and in dire need of protection. A black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) feasts on hairy honeysuckle blossom (Lonicera hispidula).
Black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) forages on hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula).

On the heels of National Pollinator Week — when we honor the hard-working animals who give so much, let’s remember that they need much more than flowers to survive. These fascinating creatures — from bees and beetles to butterflies and moths — face seemingly insurmountable threats, including habitat loss, the climate crisis, and pesticide use. It’s tragic and overwhelming, but there is much that each of us can do as individuals, and together we can have a tremendous influence over potential habitat in everything from tiny urban lots to community gardens to large rural expanses.

Modern landscaping practices essentially strip habitat from our yards. But there are many easy DIY habitat features that can be incorporated — or simply left in place — and they are superior to artificial supports (such as bee hotels) because they break down fairly quickly (which minimizes parasite and disease problems that come with repeated use), and better imitate the natural density of nest sites that keep pollinators healthy. 

In my Pacific Northwest yard I offer a variety of native trees, shrubs and perennials throughout, as well as a mini-meadow where locally native perennials — such as western columbine, fleabane, checker mallow, blue-eyed grass and iris — grow and buzz with life. To be certain they will return next year, I also provide adequate shelter for overwintering and nesting. I leave leaf “litter”, hollow and pithy stems, and dead wood lying around, provide water and brush and rock piles, use no chemicals, and refrain from doing any “clean up” until late spring, to prevent disturbance of overwintering adults, eggs, larvae, or pupa that may be camouflaged within nature’s debris—for example, the strikingly beautiful western tiger swallowtail butterfly may overwinter as chrysalis (pupa), which looks like a little piece of dead wood during that time. 

At home, here are a dozen easy things we can do to support a variety of pollinators, from bees, moths, and butterflies to beetles and flies

~ Leave parts of your garden a little “wild.” Undisturbed shelter and nesting locations are absolutely essential, and gardens that are a bit messy and provide brush and log piles, mounds of rounded stones, as well as patches of bare, well-drained, undisturbed soil will help.

Put away that leaf blower and allow fallen leaves, twigs and bark to remain undisturbed on the ground so that butterflies and moths can make it through the winter either as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or adults, and so that bees such as queen bumble bees can slumber peacefully under a leafy blanket; leave a very light layer on any lawn you have, too. Besides pollinators, many other wild ones live or overwinter in leaves, including beetles, spiders, snails, and worms, all of which are beneficial and/or support the birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians who need them for food. An added benefit is that detritus from trees and shrubs insulate plants’ roots, suppress weeds and retain moisture just as well as wood chips or other mulches (that may contain invasive species) but allow for ground-nesting.

For the numerous species of native ground-nesting bees (70% of bees nest in the ground in burrows), supply a generous amount of undisturbed and bare soil. Avoid tillage and anything that prevents access to soil, like plastic mulch, landscape fabric, or thick layers of mulch, including wood chips and bark mulch. Natural fallen (whole) leaves, small pebbles, and light layers of compost are fine. If you must remove some leaves in the spring, wait until late spring to prevent disturbance to species who emerge fairly late.

Nest sites for the other bees that nest aboveground — in stems or tunnels within decaying wood — can be augmented by placing hollow or pithy stems, or downed wood (with or without dead-ended, narrow holes drilled into them) on or above the ground. Bumble bees typically nest in pre-existing cavities such as bird nest boxes, abandoned rodent burrows, unmortared rock wall crannies, hollow logs, beneath bunch grasses, etc. We once had a bumble nest in a small pile of lawn that had been removed and was decomposing upside-down.

In perennial beds, leave flower stalks, branches (and seed heads, to provide food) standing over the winter. In early spring, dead flower stalks may be cut back to create cavity nest sites just before the first bees emerge; naturally-occurring open stems should be left in place. Cut hollow or pithy stalks at a variety of heights, about one to two feet above the ground to supply vertical nesting opportunities for insects of various sizes. You can also bundle together additional cut stalks and place them, vertically or horizontally, in a sheltered spot to create additional nesting opportunities. Female bees will find them and create individual nests, each supplied with pollen/nectar balls upon which larvae will feed. As summer progresses, new growth hides the stems which contain the developing larvae/pupa. Adults hibernate during winter and emerge the following spring and the process starts all over.

Deer browsing may create nesting sites for some cavity nesters and shrubs may be pruned (just before the shrubs break dormancy) to mimic it. However, before cutting any branches, always be certain that no birds are using the shrub for nesting.

~ Provide clean water.
Pollinators and other insects need a shallow source of clean water where they can drink and find water to create their nests. Fill a plate or shallow dish with clean pea gravel and keep it moist and near flowering plants.


~ Moisten sand or loose soil to help adult butterflies. Butterflies and moths ingest liquids like flower nectar from which they obtain sugars, minerals, and other nutrients. But they also need to “sip” from muddy or sandy puddles, sap, decaying fruit, sweaty humans, even manure piles to hydrate themselves and obtain dissolved minerals, including salt. Such minerals are vital for many physiological functions, including reproduction: Males often transfer “nuptial gifts” of sodium and amino acids to the female during mating (along with other donations). Before you say, “He shouldn’t have,” consider how evolution toward generosity might generate rewards: More gifts mean more nutrition and better egg survival. To assist, add a dash of salt to containers or areas of moist sand or soil, to be sure they get what they need.

Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.
Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.


~ Steer clear of pesticides. Even those approved for organic gardening, such as rotenone, are harmful. Systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides such as imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam that affect insects’ central nervous systems), are absorbed by plants and produce toxic nectar and pollen. Studies show that residues may persist in woody plants for up to six years following application and may persist in soil for several years. Herbicides and fungicides can also be harmful. In a healthy, balanced system there should be no need to resort to poisons.

~ Allow some “pests.”
Some pollinators’ young feed on insects that we consider pests, so don’t be too quick to destroy them. Many syrphid flies, which are great pollinators, lay their eggs in or close to aphid colonies, so that their legless and blind larvae can feed on them. Highly efficient, one larva may eat hundreds of aphids. They also may feed on scale insects or thrips. When mature, larvae go to the soil to transform into pupae and eventually into adult flies. Their life cycle takes 2 to 4 weeks to complete. Other syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter, so yet another reason to not disturb soil too much and to leave plant debris where it falls to the soil.

Syrphid fly laying eggs on an aphid-infested kale plant.

~ Grow a variety of plants that are native to your area, and you won’t need to think too much about whether you will provide food for pollinators. Studies show that native plants are four times more alluring to pollinators than exotic flowers.

Small female mining bee (Andrea sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious).
Small female mining bee (Andrena sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus).

Got lawn? Whether you have a large or small lot, consider replacing or minimizing turf with native grasses wildflowers, and perennials (and mosses in shady areas). Add native shrubs and trees to provide cover and protection, especially for ground-nesting bees, as well as the fallen debris and brush/log/rock piles mentioned above.

~ Grow butterfly host plants.
To become adults, butterflies in earlier life stages — egg, larva, chrysalis — require host plants that provide habitat and food. Find out which butterflies frequent your area, and grow the plants that provide for all their stages. In the Northwest, check out this handy guide: Create a Butterfly Garden (OSU).

~ Provide nectar and pollen in a variety of flower colors, shapes, and sizes for pollinators with different needs. Flower nectar, produced in glandular organs called nectaries, is high in carbohydrates and serves to attract pollinators to distribute plants’ pollen (and in some cases, attracts protectors like parasitoids and ants—which also pollinate to a small extent—against herbivores that may be problematic). Pollen is a highly nutritious blend of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates. We’ve been taught that bees tend to prefer yellow, purple, and blue flowers — anything but red, which they can’t see — while hummingbirds can see and do use reds (although one study suggests that their preference may not be innate, but rather they choose them since bees don’t). While this is true, a 2016 research study shows that bumblebees (and probably other pollinators) choose a plant for the nutritional quality of its pollen, not only its color; they need pollen with a high protein to lipid ratio (which makes sense, since pollen is mainly used to feed their growing larvae). And, research from UC-Davis suggests that pollinators choose among flowers based on the microbes within those flowers, such as yeasts that are “commonly found in flower nectar and … [are] thought to hitch a ride on pollinators to travel from one flower to the next. Yeasts’ scent production may help attract pollinators, which then help the yeast disperse among flowers.” But flower shape and size also matter: Butterflies need clusters of short, tubular flowers with a wide landing pad, such as yarrow (Achellia millefolium occidentalis), various native bees need different types of flowers (generally shallow), while hummingbirds like relatively large, tubular, or urn-shaped flowers.

Syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).
A syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).


~ Keep it blooming.
From spring through fall, something should always be in bloom, preferably several species at a time. In the Pacific Northwest, early spring flowers, like those of osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis), willows (Salix spp.), and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), are particularly important to bees emerging from hibernation, while late-season nectar sources such as asters (Symphyotrichum spp. or Aster spp.) help bees that overwinter as adults get through the winter. Both early and late forage may aid in bees’ reproduction. Of course, mid-summer flowers are important, too! Many native species bloom for extended periods, such as charming foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), which may produce flowers from spring to late summer, white spiraea (Spiraea lucida), and showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus). Learn when plants bloom to be sure you’ve got it covered, and aim for some overlap in bloom times. Remember that trees and shrubs, as well as perennials and annuals, can provide nectar and pollen. Arrange smaller plants in irregular clumps or drifts so that plants are next to or within a few feet of another of its kind, to supply enough forage and to make it easy for pollinators to find them. Provide at least three different plant species per season of bloom whenever possible.

~ Forgo hybridized and “double” flowers. When choosing nonnative plants, keep in mind that hybridized varieties may lack sufficient pollen nutrition. Pollens vary in protein content, and bees and other pollen-consuming insects need a wide variety to fulfill their protein requirement. Research also suggests that some commonly used garden plants, especially those hybridized for features valued by gardeners, like disease-resistance or flower size or color, may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients in nectar, needed for carbohydrates. Frilly double-flowered varieties (those with extra petals that make a flower look inflated and flouncy) are usually inaccessible to pollinators simply because they can’t get through the mass of petals to the nectaries. It’s a bit sad to watch a bumblebee, desperately trying to get inside an overly dressed flower, fly away without food.

~ Turn roadsides native. Studies show that native pollinators are much more prevalent in native stretches of roadside habitat — often the only connection between patches of remnant habitat — than weedy, nonnative stretches. If you own rural land, plant natives near your roadside and mow it very infrequently (from the inside, out) to prolong bloom and prevent harm to creatures who may be taking cover within it.

Other things we can do for pollinators include participating in “citizen science” projects that seek input from gardeners, and advocating for an end to pesticide use in our parks and communities.

Trichodes ornatus
This beetle (Trichomes ornatus), on wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.), is a member of a very diverse group of pollinators that are especially important in areas where bees aren’t common.



© 2017 Eileen M. Stark  |  updated 2020

Adapted from content originally published in my book, Real Gardens Grow Natives: Design, Plant, & Enjoy a Healthy Northwest Garden.

 

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum)


Unlike the proverbial human wallflower, the Pacific Northwest’s native wallflower plant (Erysimum capitatum) isn’t shy or modest. Instead, it is bright, showy, sweetly fragrant, and attractive to pollinators like butterflies and bees. Although it didn’t make it into my book, it is definitely worthy of praise and recommendation.

The genus Erysimum, a member of the cabbage (Brassicacaeae) family, contains about 150 species found throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Growth habits may be annual, short-lived perennial, or woody perennial. Carl Linnaeus named the genus after the Greek word eryomai, which means “to help or save” in reference to the medicinal qualities of several species. European folk medicine practitioners used poultices of wallflower for bronchial congestion, while Native Americans made tea with the dried leaves or seeds of wallflower to relieve stomach cramps.

In the U.S., western wallflower (aka prairie rocket, Douglas wallflower and sand dune wallflower) occurs in many different habitats throughout the west, including parts of Washington, Oregon, California, and southern British Columbia (usually below 4,000 feet). In Washington, Erysimum capitatum var. capitatum is found both east and west of the Cascades and in the Olympic Range; in Oregon it is found on both sides of the Cascades as well as westward through the Columbia River Gorge and into the Willamette Valley, and in the Siskiyous. See range map here. Several other varieties or subspecies are endemic to California; at least one (E. c. var. angustatum) is listed as endangered due to development, mining, agriculture, and invasive plants.

How it grows
Although western wallflower is technically a perennial plant, it’s often considered a biennial due to its short lifespan (rarely does it live past its second year). Like other short-lived perennials, it has a strong tendency to self-sow and is quite easy to grow from seed in pots or outdoor beds (but seeds reportedly have a short shelf life even when properly stored, so try to use them within a year or two).

Although wallflowers’ growth form and appearance vary (depending on location, light, soil, and moisture), here’s a general description: Deep green leaves — numerous, usually hairy, long and narrow — grow in a basal rosette, as well as along erect stems. Clusters of four-petalled, fragrant flowers are bright yellow to deep orange and appear at stem tips in a raceme. Bloom time is late April to July (depending on conditions and location); the resulting fruit is a one to four inch, upright, slender, flat seed pod called a ‘silique‘. In bloom, plants may reach one to three feet tall, with a spread of one-half to two feet.


Wildlife value
Western wallflower plants are important food sources for wildlife, including the caterpillars of some lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species, such as Sara’s Orangetip butterfly (Anthrocharis sara). Nocturnal moths and other butterflies, such as Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), Pale Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon), and Persius Duskywing (Erynnis persius) are a few that may use the plant for nectar, as do some native bee and ant species. Mature seeds turn a deep orange and are eaten by — you guessed it — insects and birds who eat seeds.


Try it at home
Easy to grow and with a lengthy bloom period, western wallflower will brighten up any spot in full sun to light shade and looks particularly dazzling with a dark backdrop. Tolerant of drought since it typically occurs in dry, rocky, clay, or sandy locations, it needs well-drained soil to thrive, but will take artificial irrigation if drainage is adequate; additional moisture during dry months may even prolong its bloom time. Growing plants en masse, in clumps or drifts, will provide the most visual impact and support for wild ones, but they also look lovely interspersed with plants such as penstemon. Space plants about one to two feet apart.

As always, buy plants or seed propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.


© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Oregon grape (Mahonia species)

Mahonia aquifolium (landscape)

Oregon grape plants are colorful western shrubs with year round appeal and chances are there’s a species that will fit into your Pacific Northwest landscape. Named after Bernard McMahon, an Irish-born American nurseryman, the genus Mahonia is a member of the barberry family (Berberidaceae). But you may also see Oregon grape classified as Berberis, indicative of the extensive debate among botanists on how to classify this species. Although included in the large genus Berberis (an alteration of the Medieval Latin barberis, or barberry, from Arabic barbārīs), Oregon grape is still known as Mahonia in most commercial horticulture, so either is correct (at least as far as I’m concerned!). 

Wildlife value
Like all native plants grown where they evolved, Oregon grape plants are extremely beneficial and attractive to wildlife. Flowers provide for pollinators like bees, moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds, while the fruits, which may remain on the plant into winter, are favorites among birds such as towhees, robins, and waxwings, as well as mammals. Some butterfly and moth species rely on Oregon grape plants to host their larvae, including the brown elfin butterfly. Year round cover may support arthropods, birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.

Cedar waxwings feed on Cascade Oregon grape (M. nervosa). ©Eileen M Stark


Three species
You can’t go wrong with tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) for an evergreen, erosion-controlling, woody-stemmed, slightly prickly screen, barrier or woodland border, as part of an unpruned hedgerow, or as an accent plant (pictured top). Aquifolium means “water leaf,” likely named after the lustrous, wet-looking surface of the plant’s leathery leaves that Lewis and Clark first noticed near the Columbia River. Introduced to Britain in the 1820s as an expensive ornamental, its holly-like, pinnately compound leaves begin a bronzy coppery color, then mature to a deep green, with orange, red, or purple highlights in very sunny or cold conditions. Dense clusters of showy golden-yellow, lightly fragrant flowers appear in early to late spring. Ripening in late summer, the dusty-blue, round to oblong berries are slightly reminiscent of grapes, hence the name. Although they are tart and have large seeds, they are suitable for jams and jellies (with beaucoup sweetener) and have traditional medicinal properties, as do the roots. 

Tall Oregon grape’s range includes most of western Washington and Oregon, parts of Idaho and much of California, as well as northeastern Washington and southern B.C. It can handle nearly full sun to shade, but being a woodland species often found growing in somewhat open forests, it prefers some shade (although very deep shade will result in fewer flowers and fruit). Though it does best in slightly moist, acidic, well-drained soil, it’s an undemanding plant that can handle many soil types and drought when established. However, it is intolerant of poorly drained soils and high water tables. Since it will gradually spread into a thicket via tough rhizomes, place it away from pathways and allow it to eventually spread into a wildlife protective clump. If you don’t plan for its growth or it somehow gets out of hand, roots may be occasionally pruned and stems may be cut (as seldom as possible) nearly to the base for renewal. Arching stems typically reach four to eight feet in height, sometimes on the lower end in garden situations.

Try growing it with trees and shrubs such as Douglas-fir, western hemlock, ponderosa pine, vine maple, Indian plum, oceanspray, serviceberry, salal, and smaller companions like sword fern, western columbine, fleabane, delphinium, and others.    

Cascade (or long leaved) Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) is another handsome plant, but this one grows only up to about three feet tall,Mahonia nervosa often lacks shiny leaves, and very slowly spreads into a lovely, evergreen, soil-stabilizing ground cover over many years. Nervosa means “having distinct veins or nerves” and refers to the leaf venation. Showy, fragrant, erect, pale to bright yellow flowering stalks, which put on their show in early to mid spring, are trailed by the familiar deep blue berries in late summer to fall. 

This species naturally occurs in moist to dry forests, at low to mid elevations mainly west of the Cascades including Vancouver Island, often with oceanspray, osoberry, vine maple, sword fern, salal, and oxalis, but it’s also an associate of the drier Oregon white oak and madrone habitats. It prefers shade to part shade in moist, acidic soil, but can handle drought in cool areas when established. It’s a nice substitute for invasive English ivy.

Low (or creeping) Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is an evergreen ground cover that grows one to two feet tall and four to six feet wide. It has a large range in the west; in Washington and Oregon it is mainly found east of the Cascades growing in conifer forests, so it does well in dry, shady conditions but can take some sun. Its leaves (pictured below) may be glossy or dull, tend to be rounder and—though toothed—feel less prickly than tall Oregon grape. In nature, where its range sometimes overlaps with tall Oregon grape (and in garden situations where we often place plants that Mahonia repensdon’t belong together), it may hybridize with its cousin and produce plants that are a bit taller than the true species. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Propagation 
All Oregon grape species are best grown from seed (without drying them), with at least three months of cold stratification outdoors (wet, pre-chilled seed may also be planted in spring). Seed germination is reportedly erratic and unpredictable. If you have established plants you may find their progeny beneath them or elsewhere, as seeds are dispersed by birds and mammals; anything but very small transplants may not survive. Cuttings may also be tried in late fall. 

As always, buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes” helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and that genetic diversity—which helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions—is preserved. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

Do you have Oregon grape but aren’t sure which species you have? This page has a handy leaf comparison (see photo on lower right column).
 
 
© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

Arbutus menziesii bark

Although it looks exotic, Pacific madrone — a beautiful broadleaf evergreen tree with a captivating and distinctive presence that transforms with the seasons — is endemic to the Pacific coast. Its exquisite attributes — fragrant flower clusters, brilliant berries, glossy leaves, twisting branches, rounded crown, and rich cinnamon-red bark that peels from a satin-smooth trunk — please all of our senses. And for the wild ones attracted to this unique gem, its ecological gifts never disappoint.

Madrona (after madroño, the Spanish name for a Mediterranean “strawberry tree”) is the name admirers in Washington give this member of the Ericaceae (heath) family, while those in California and Oregon call it madrone or Pacific madrone. British Columbians simply use the Latin genus name, Arbutus. (The epitaph, menziesii, is named after the naturalist Archibald Menzies, a naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition that explored the Puget Sound region in 1792.)

How it grows
Pacific madrone is a large, long-lived tree that naturally occurs in a climate with mild, wet winters and dry summers, although rainfall varies substantially within its range, from the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, southward through Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades) to San Diego County. It is often found on rocky soils and other coarse soils that retain little moisture, including the dry foothills, wooded slopes and canyons of parts of California (at low to mid-elevations); within coastal redwood and mixed-evergreen forests of California and Oregon; on dry ridge tops and slopes at low to mid-elevations along the east side of the Coast Ranges and in the Siskiyou Mountains; on warm, dry, lowland sites west of the Cascades (within Douglas-fir/western hemlock forests or Oregon white oak or tan oak woodlands); and — furthest north — near sea level on rocky bluffs and low elevation slopes. Within mixed hardwood forests — that may or may not have an overstory of conifers — its tolerance to shade varies with age. While madrone seedlings do best in partial shade and young trees can handle quite a bit of shade, tolerance decreases as trees age and for those at the northern end of this species’ range. Older trees need good light to survive and often can be found  growing at an angle, twistily and desperately reaching for the sunlight that helps ensure a long life.

Wildlife value
Wild ones are drawn like a magnet to madrone trees year round. In springtime, lovely creamy white, waxy, urn-shaped blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, and other pollinators.

Arbutus menziesii in flower

 

Clusters of bright red berries — that ripen in autumn and may persist into early winter — feed many bird and mammal species, including American robins, varied thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, cedar waxwings, northern flickers, quail, raccoons,  squirrels, mule deer, and bears.

Arbutus menziesii (fruit)
Habitat is provided for a variety of insects, including echo blue and brown elfin butterfly caterpillars who nibble on leaves and in turn provide dinner for insectivorous birds. Shiny, leathery leaves generally remain on branches for two years, after which they turn from vivid green to burnt orange and settle to the ground where they provide a natural mulch that protects soil microorganisms and little ground-dwelling creatures. Lofty roosting and nesting habitat is also supplied, and live trees with rotting wood offer cavities for insects as well as birds that nest in trees, such as woodpeckers and chickadees. Dead and dying trees provide even more dead wood for cavity nesters and the silent decomposers that function as nature’s recyclers.

Conservation
Unlike other trees, madrone’s fine roots have adapted to search deeply into rock fractures for stored water or “rock moisture,” making it an important plant for stabilizing slopes and cliffs and preventing landslides. In addition, it’s a valuable component of many vegetation types; for example, in mixed conifer forests like Washington’s Coast Range ecoregion (Douglas-fir/western hemlock/madrone), it provides a mid-canopy story, essential for the structural diversity of the forest.

It ought to be preserved for its own sake, for the wildlife that use it, for the ecosystems of which it’s an indelible part, and, needless to say, for those of us who revere its spectacular beauty.

Tragically, the species is currently in decline throughout most of its range, for several reasons. First, sprawling development in its native habitat has stolen many mature specimens. Though tough and drought tolerant (or more precisely, drought dependent), its roots are extremely sensitive to drainage changes, compaction, grade alteration, and other soil disturbance. Because madrone belongs and successfully grows in regional arid soil conditions that many trees cannot, landowners and developers ought to protect and save this tree at all costs.

Under natural conditions, madrone depends on intermittent fires that limit the conifer overstory (typically Douglas-fir trees). Older madrone trees can survive fire and will sprout quickly and profusely afterwards due to carbohydrate reserves within existing roots. In addition, their fruit produces many seeds, which sprout on exposed soil readily after fire. But when humans suppress and prevent natural fires, the prolonged absence of fire and consequential shade—especially on moister sites—may cause madrone trees to die.

Death or damage may be also caused by several pathogens, including a foliar fungus (Nattrassia mangiferae), commonly called “madrone canker,” that reproduces via spores and causes dieback, blackening of branches, and cankers that may spread to the trunk. A root rot, Heterobasidium annosum, can also cause serious damage. Unlike fire, “disease decreases starch accumulation in the root burl, so that declining trees are less able to resprout after the aboveground portion of the tree is killed by disease.” But prevention is possible: Susceptibility to disease is exacerbated by unnatural environmental stresses such as regular summer irrigation and the use of fungicides and fertilizers. Essentially, spores are carried by water, fungicides kill beneficial mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic associations between the roots of most plants and fungi, which protect roots from pathogens), and studies suggest that increased soil nitrogen disrupts the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and tree roots, which in turn reduce the supply of micronutrients and water to trees, thereby increasing susceptibility to disease. Madrone trees host a large number of types of mycorrhizal fungi and have been called “a major hub of mycorrhizal fungal diversity and connectivity in mixed evergreen forests” that play a large role in forest regeneration by promoting resilience to disturbance below ground.

Madrone is also affected to a small extent by sudden oak death, a disease caused by a water-borne, fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, which arrived in the U.S. via live plant imports of exotic ornamentals to nurseries; it is increasingly spread by human actions, including climate chaos.

Try it at home
Despite all these threats, a madrone in the wild can live hundreds of years and may grow very large — over 100 feet tall — although in cultivation they rarely exceed 50 feet after many decades. Young trees often grow fast (up to several feet per year), while older trees typically grow at a much slower pace. In the southern, drier and warmer part of its range it grows more slowly and stays smaller.

Supplemental water after establishment is highly detrimental: Madrone cannot tolerate slow drainage, standing water, or regular irrigation during summer, which makes it susceptible to disease (as do fertilizer applications). While it has a bad reputation for being difficult to establish and isn’t for the fussy gardener, knowing what this tree needs and cannot tolerate will help ensure success. In my experience, there are seven essentials to successfully growing this tree:

1. Figure out if it historically occurred in your area. Though it’s not absolutely essential that this species likely grew in your immediate area 200+ years ago — especially since much change has occurred since then — because this tree can’t just be stuck in the ground anywhere, look to nearby natural areas to see if it might have naturally occurring relatives nearby in similar soil. In its northern range, it’s usually found growing on soils derived from glacial sands or till and gravels, while in the southern and middle parts it reportedly grows on soils derived from a variety of materials.

2. Be sure your site has the right conditions: Fast-draining, non-compacted, slightly acidic soil (pH a little less than 7), and a bright location with at least a half day of sun in northerly locations. However, seedlings need partial shade to establish, so if you have mostly sun, shield them from hot afternoon rays until well established. Site plants on a slope or area that’s elevated above the surrounding area to facilitate drainage. In my yard I tried twice to grow one-foot-tall saplings in the lowest part of my yard with sad results, despite digging in extra small rocks and gravel to increase drainage. My third attempt, which I grew myself from seed, I planted atop a short, south-facing slope, again with extra rocks and gravel. I believe that the increased drainage was what was needed; however, the seedling was also very small — only three inches tall! — so that also may have helped. Note: If you live in a very warm, dry area (such as parts of California) be sure to plant this tree on a north-facing slope, rather than in hot, direct sunlight.

3. Start with very small saplings, no more than a foot tall, as older trees do not transplant well. Once they “take,” however, young trees grow quite fast (in my yard, over a foot a year). 

4. Buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

5. Plant saplings in the fall, just as winter rains begin, since they establish best when they can establish roots first, then put on aboveground biomass. You can plant them in the spring, but you’ll end up worrying about how much or how often to water; during the moist days of autumn you can just let nature decide. Do not add large amounts of organic matter into the soil that could inhibit the moisture-seeking roots from penetrating to mineral soil, and do not add fertilizers that can disrupt the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and roots. Never apply fungicides or other pesticides.

6. Give them space. To allow them to get to their full and most beautiful form, plant them at least 20 feet apart and at least 25 feet away from tall trees, especially conifers that produce deep shade. Also try to minimize soil compaction, which can be detrimental.

7. Irrigate sparingly, and preferably only during the first summer or two. During my little tree’s first spring and summer it was unusually warm and dry, and I noticed some wilting of leaves on especially warm days. I carefully (and nervously!) watered it with tepid tap water (or rain water I had collected) in the mornings around its base and outwards a few feet, keeping the leaves and stem completely dry. I did this only a couple of times a week when heat was predicted, and by the end of the summer it was in fine shape and had grown well over a foot in height. During the second summer I left it on its own, and when no wilting of leaves occurred it became clear that the little tree was self-sufficient. After another foot of growth was added, I was able to fully exhale. Sometimes a little wilting of leaves isn’t serious: when cooler nighttime temperatures return the tree may bounce back, but you’ll have to be the judge at your particular site.

Baby madrone

Baby Madrone, just 4 months after planting as a 3-inch-tall sapling. [Update, 2023: At around 8 years of age, Ms. Madrone is now nearly 12 feet tall.]

 

 
Grab a partner
It’s best to match madrones with other species that are compatible below ground—those that have similar needs and mycorrhizal associations and that would naturally occur together in nature (if you already have some non-natives that you want to keep, be sure not to grow any that need summer irrigation nearby). Which native “associated species” you choose depends on what part of the region you live in.

Madrone most commonly rubs shoulders with mixed-hardwood tree species that often have some conifer overstory (without completely shading them).  A member of the Douglas-fir/tanoak forest, madrone makes up the secondary canopy, while Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) typically create an overstory. Less commonly, madrone mingles with coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) along the northern California and southern Oregon coast, and with western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana var. garryana), and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) throughout much of its range. Washington’s San Juan Islands’ open woodlands support madrone with Douglas-fir and fescue (Festuca spp.), as well as other species such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). In British Columbia, Pacific madrone grows alongside lodgepole pine. Other tree species associated with madrone include sugar pine, white fir, California black oak, giant chinquapin, bigleaf maple, bitter cherry and California laurel, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Small trees/large shrubs commonly associated include vine maple, black hawthorn, red-twig dogwood, willow, hazelnut, and red elderberry. Smaller shrub associates include manzanitas, Oregon grape, ceanothus, salal, oceanspray, poison-oak, gooseberry, wood rose, snowberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry.

A. menziesii with oaks

Madrone mingles with Oregon white oak, aka Garry oak (Quercus garryana), in parts of its range.

 

Propagation
Pacific madrone are fairly easy to grow from seed. Collect fruit soon after it ripens, generally early to mid-fall. Because one berry can have up to 20 seeds, you won’t need more than one if you just want to grow a few trees.

Separate the seeds from the pulp of a ripe, red berry (if it has dried, soak it overnight to help release the seeds from the pulp). Place seeds in a small bowl of water for 15-20 minutes; discard those that float and allow those that sink to dry in a cool place out of sunlight. Dry seeds may be viable for a couple of years if stored properly in a cold, dry place. Place seeds on top of a fine seedling mix in autumn, either in a pot outdoors or in the soil where you want a tree to grow, and cover just slightly. I like to grow them in pots so I have a little more control, but I’ve had success both ways. If you choose to use pots, keep them moist but not wet, and keep them away from slugs and snails.

Madrone seeds reportedly are able to maintain dormancy for long periods (“scores of years”) in the soil, but when conditions are just right — cold but above-freezing temperatures and adequate moisture — dormancy is broken in late winter/early spring after cold stratification has weakened the seed coat. At that point pots should be moved into a somewhat warm (if possible), bright location, but with little direct sunlight—seedlings establish best in partial shade and will grow fairly slowly. Keep them moist, but not saturated. After they have developed their second or third set of true leaves they may be moved to bigger pots with fast-draining soil (I like to use a mix of sterilized potting soil and small gravel), handling them by their expendable first set of leaves, not their delicate stems. Water them when the top inch of soil is dry; I find it’s hard to overwater with fast draining soil, but do give them time to dry out slightly. Plant them out when they’re 3 to 10 inches tall, preferably in autumn, in the conditions described above. Don’t attempt to relocate them.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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The Best Way to Feed Hummingbirds in Warm Weather

Anna on columbine

Scorchingly hot weather is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s understandable to want to feed hummingbirds, but here’s the thing: Hummingbirds have no sense of smell and cannot tell if the sugar water in a feeder has gone bad. Deadly toxins can contaminate a sugar solution rather quickly in very warm weather—as fast as 24 hours—especially if the feeder receives some sunlight. Hummingbirds may become ill (and consequently more subject to predation) and even die from feeding at unattended feeders. And I don’t even want to think about a mother hummingbird’s nestlings who might starve to death after she’s been sickened by fermented sugar water that’s rich in mold and bacteria. So if you cannot keep your feeder fresh and clean, please don’t feed them via artificial feeders. 

Anna on Penstemon ovatusReal flowers are best
To avoid all these potential dangers, I strongly recommend growing plants (preferably native to your area so that other species benefit as well) that provide natural nectar which contains micronutrients, unlike refined sugar. Besides the nutrition and safety of real nectar, you won’t have to deal with unwelcome insects at feeders. Hummingbirds may also consume a sugary liquid from trees and often forage where woodpeckers called sapsuckers create sapwells from which hummers feed. I’ve also seen them at ripe fruit on my fig tree.

Also keep in mind that these amazing little birds do not live on nectar alone: their diet and that of their young includes a surprisingly large amount of tiny insects (and spiders) for protein, and the best way to provide it is, again, with native plants, which supply drastically more insects than non-native plants. And, needless to say, fresh water is essential for all birds and your yard should be free of any pesticides.

Feeder recommendations
If you do feel a need to feed hummers via artificial feeders, here’s a handy chart for how often to clean and refill your feeder, courtesy the Wild Bird Shop:

Daily high temp in shade / Frequency of cleaning/refilling
61-70º                                4 – 5 days
71-80º                                3 days
81-85º                                2 days
86º+                                   daily
 

♦ Refill with just the amount of sugar solution that will be consumed in the time period according to the temperature range.
♦ Keep feeders in the shade.
♦ Choose feeders that don’t have tubes or removable parts, which are very difficult to keep clean. I like the HummZinger feeders, which are VERY easy to clean. Rinse well after cleaning with hot soapy water (no bleach).
♦ Stay away from the colored, pre-mixed commercially available solutions—natural nectar is colorless, and adding red dye and preservatives is adding unnecessary, unnatural, and possibly harmful chemicals to the birds’ food. If your feeder doesn’t have red on it, simply hang a red ribbon next to the feeder.
♦ Only use white cane sugar in a ratio of 4 parts water (preferably filtered, w/o chlorine) to one part sugar. No honey, molasses, or syrups.

HummZinger

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

 
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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Cascara (Frangula purshiana)

Rhamnus purshiana drupe
Of the 35+ Frangula species worldwide,
the Northwest’s representative is a lovely medium-sized tree or tall shrub. The first thing you may notice about Cascara (Frangula purshiana, syn. Rhamnus purshiana) is its texture: Thin, silvery gray bark that’s nearly smooth but with a patchy look, and oval glossy green leaves with veins so prominent that they make the surface wavy and crinkled-looking. But Cascara’s charm doesn’t stop there: Springtime brings loose clusters of small, pale greenish-yellow flowers that later become small red fruit (a drupe, each containing 2 or 3 seeds) that ripen to the deepest purplish-blue. In autumn, its leaves turn yellow to orange and may hang on in areas with mild winters.

Frangula purshiana is a member of the Rhamnaceae family; the species name relates to frangulanin, a peptide alkaloid. The epithet, purshiana, commemorates Frederick Traugott Pursh, a remarkably well-traveled (often on foot) 18th century German-American botanist who made major contributions to North American botany.
Rhamnus purshiana

How it grows
Cascara naturally occurs along the Pacific coast from British Columbia south into northern California, as well as parts of Idaho and Montana. It’s found in moist to dry shady forests and mixed woodlands, often along streams or in moist ravines at low to middle elevations, as well as floodplains. It grows up to about 30 feet tall and roughly half as wide.

Cascara and red alder look a bit alike; you can tell them apart mainly by their fruits and leaves. Cascara produces a red to deep purple drupe, while alder’s fruit is an inch-long woody fruit that resembles a cone, known as a strobile. The leaves of Cascara are shinier and smoother than those of alder, which are tightly rolled under on the edges.

Conservation
The dried bark of Cascara has been used for hundreds of years as a laxative—first by indigenous peoples and then commercially (sold as Cascara sagrada)—and the high demand for it has led to unethical harvesting from wild trees, which deprive the plants of their protective and essential bark. It is probable that this practice has heavily reduced cascara populations.

Wildlife value
Pollinators—such as hummingbirds and native bees—come to Cascara’s late spring flowers. Birds—including band-tailed pigeons, robins, tanagers and grosbeaks—as well as mammals such as raccoons and coyotes, are attracted to the pea-sized fruit. Birds like bushtits, kinglets, warblers and chickadees forage on insects found on leaves, twigs and bark. Cascara is a host plant for the caterpillars of gray hairstreak and swallowtail butterflies and more than a dozen moth species, which feed on its leaves. Mule deer and other mammals may use it as browse.

 

Try it at home
Cascara is a great choice for small yards or places where large trees wouldn’t thrive, and I don’t know why it’s not planted more often. Besides its beauty and wildlife appeal, it’s a fast grower that can take a fair amount of sun to full shade, but it does best in partial shade. Though it is drought tolerant when established (especially in shade), it will look and do its best with somewhat moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. In general, trees planted in hot, sunny areas will need more water. Like us, Cascara shows sensitivity to toxic gases and tiny sooty particles that are belched out of fossil fuel powered vehicles, so it may be best to keep it away from busy streets and highways. It is reportedly fire resistant.

When planting multiple trees, place them about 15 feet apart (about 10 feet apart for shrubs used as a hedgerow). Cascara shrubs are a good substitute for invasive English laurel or Portugal laurel shrubs where they can be left unpruned.

Grab a partner
Cascara grows in the understory of trees such as big leaf maple, Douglas-fir, and western hemlock, where it might live alongside vine maple, red alder, willows, and red-twig dogwood.

It’s worth noting that some Rhamnus species, such as R. cathartica (“common buckthorn,” native to parts of Europe, northwestern Africa and western Asia), are invasive outside their natural range. R. cathartica was introduced as a garden plant and is now naturalized in parts of North America, probably because it leafs out earlier than native species, often contributing to their downfall.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Broad-leaved penstemon (Penstemon ovatus)

Anna on Penstemon ovatus
Growing penstemons usually requires a valiant effort to mimic wild conditions
by creating rock gardens complete with crevices that these beautiful plants’ roots can inch their way into. Most species will suffer without well-aerated, quick draining soil, and can’t live with frequent summer irrigation. Unless you reside where the soil is naturally rocky or gravelly, providing fast drainage in the Pacific Northwest can be a bit challenging. But wait! Penstemon ovatus likes and needs moisture and will usually let you manage with whatever soil you have, providing it drains well and contains a fair amount of organic matter.

Nicknamed ‘broad-leaved’ or ‘egg-leaf’ penstemon, it’s a great asset to a Pacific Northwest garden. Long-lived, upright, and nicely proportioned, it grows from a woody base with glossy, deep green, spade-shaped leaves. When in flower—typically May and June—the plants rise up two to three feet above ground. Speaking of flowers, they are gorgeous: Small (15 – 20 mm) but many, and arranged in whorls on fairly tall inflorescences, they are a brilliant blue that melds into violet and pink.

How it grows
Hardy to Zone 4, this perennial is native to parts  of the Northwest (west of the Cascade Mountains) at low to middle elevations, in damp, partly sunny to mostly shady places near forest edges, often in riparian areas. Its natural range is somewhat scattered and includes the western Columbia Gorge and parts of the Willamette Valley, as well as northern areas of the Olympic peninsula and southern British Columbia. 

Wildlife value
Penstemons, in general, are fantastic pollinator plants that are irresistible to hummingbirds, native bees, syrphid flies, beetles, ants, moths, and others, depending on the species. In my yard I’ve seen P. ovatus attracting syrphid flies, P. ovatus + tiny native beeants, bumble bees, and impossibly small native sweat bees (pictured, right), many of which nest in the ground (so please take care when applying mulch or digging in soil to avoid harming them!). In addition, small songbirds may eat the seeds that mature in summer, and foliage creates cover for tiny soil-dwelling creatures.

Try it at home
Broad-leaved penstemon likes rich soil, regular (but not excessive) watering, and virtually any light situation except very deep shade or full sun, although more sun tends to make the plants flower more. Since it is a fairly robust and versatile plant, placement shouldn’t be too difficult: In my Portland yard I find it does best in some morning sun, a couple of feet in from pathways due to its spread while in bloom. Placing multiple plants in groups or swaths, with each plant 12 to 24 inches apart, will make it easy for pollinators to find them and minimize the amount of bare soil that sprouts weedy plants.P.ovatus

As mentioned earlier, unless your soil is already high in organic matter and drains well, add some low-nitrogen compost before planting (well-decomposed leaf compost is good). I like to get plants in the ground in mid to late fall when forthcoming winter rains will help get their roots established before the demands of spring; if you plant in springtime be sure to keep them adequately hydrated, especially during that first summer. After plants are established (usually a couple of years), they should do fine with just occasional—but deep—watering. If you happen to plant them close to other plants that like frequent irrigation they will likely do fine, but don’t keep them consistently wet. Siting them at the edges of rain gardens should work, but not in the low, saturated parts. They will self sow, but aren’t very assertive.

Another Northwest penstemon for moist conditions and part shade is the beautiful Cascade penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus).

Grab a partner
If possible, grow broad-leaved penstemon with associated species that also naturally occurred in your area, to help provide an eco-functional space for wildlife. Since it naturally occurs within several native plants communities, shrubs and perennials in those communities are far too numerous to list here. For starters, in sunny sites consider serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), large leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), Douglas aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum), Oregon iris (Iris tenax), camas (Camassia spp.), and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.). In shadier places try Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), fairy bells or fairy lanterns (Prosartes spp.), false solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosa), Oregon oxalis (Oxalis oregana), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum). As always, choose plants that are native to your area by buying plants that come from locally sourced material at reputable nurseries.

 

 


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii)

 

Dodecatheon hendersonii
Nicknamed “shooting star,” Dodecatheon species are delicate spring bloomers
that could find a home in nearly every garden. If yours lacks this sweet little perennial wildflower that’s a member of the Primrose family (Primulaceae), by all means get outside now to witness its unusual springtime blossoms, because the plant goes dormant fairly quickly after flowering. And then add it to your shopping list.

How it grows
Dodecatheon hendersonii naturally occurs in much of California, in Oregon and parts of Washington west of the Cascades, and southern Vancouver Island at low to mid-elevations within open woodlands, forest edges, and grasslands, typically in partial shade. In springtime, the plant emerges from dormancy as a modest little clump of soft green, oval or spoon-shaped leaves. A few weeks later, a slim leafless flower stalk grows above the rosette of foliage and, after what seems like a blink of an eye, spectacular little downturned flowers emerge with magenta to pink to white petals swept backwards, looking almost as though they’d been caught in a terrific windstorm, their stamens, stigma, and style protruding forward, collectively, like miniature colorful darts. Following pollination, the flowers turn toward the stars. The ovary essentially becomes a capsule where the seeds develop and, as they mature, any remaining anthers, stigma and petals fall off. Seeds are dispersed by wind or creatures who bump into the dry scape.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dodecatheon-hendersonii-1-scaled.jpg

Wildlife value
Flowers, of course, aren’t just for our eyes. Dodecatheon species evolved to attract certain species of solitary bees, as well as native bumble bees who have the ability to vibrate flowers using indirect flight muscles (aka “buzz pollination”). While they’re collecting pollen for their young (Dodecatheon species offer no nectar), the bumble bees release pollen that’s securely attached to a flower’s anthers and transfer it to stamens with their legs and mandibles. They also do this for other flowers with tubular anthers (including tomato blossoms, so consider growing native pollinator plants to attract native bees to your veggie beds!).

Try it at home
While Dodecatheon hendersonii can handle the wet soils of the Pacific Northwest’s winter and spring, it needs to dry out a bit during the summer and fall, so if you grow this species, don’t irrigate often. Since it will take many years to form a colony, space plants in natural-looking drifts, about 12 inches apart and where they won’t be shaded out by any overzealous spring ephemerals you may have, such as tulips (or even native plants such as western bleeding heart, which is an avid but gorgeous traveler).

Depending on your location and your site’s conditions, you might find other Dodecatheon species to be a better fit. Of the nearly 20 species within the genus, the Pacific Northwest hosts several other species: Dodecatheon pulchellum looks similar to D. hendersonii but has longer leaves and naturally occurs in moist areas such as near streams, seeps, and in wet meadows at low to high elevations; D. dentatum subsp. dentatum (white shooting star) is also endemic to the PNW and the only species with consistently white petals; D. poeticum is found mostly in the arid Columbia Basin and eastern Columbia Gorge, where it prefers to grow in sandy soil that is rich in organic matter, as found in the Gorge; D. alpine grows only in moist meadows and near streams at high elevations. Less common is D. jeffreyi, which naturally occurs in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana; it is Critically Imperiled in Wyoming. And D. austrofrigidum can be found, tragically, only in small, scattered populations in Gray’s Harbor and Pacific counties of Washington, where it is listed as Critically Imperiled, and in Clatsop and Tillamook counties of Oregon, where it is listed as Imperiled: In lower elevation riparian sites, “threats [to populations] exist due to logging and grazing upstream, which contributes to flooding and erosion that negatively impacts populations.

To make more of these wonders, collect seed in summer and plant in fall or early spring, or very, very carefully separate bulblets in your garden (that are attached to roots) after flowering and no later than autumn. Or you can simply just let them increase their numbers naturally. More detailed propagation info here.

Grab a partner
Friends and associates of D. hendersonii include Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), camas (Camassia quamash), white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum), and many others.

Dodecatheon hendersonii

 
 
 
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Reimagining the Ecological Value of Cities for Dwindling Pollinators

Bombus vosnesenskii

A recent literature review on the ecology of urban areas published in Conservation Biology offers irrefutable evidence that cities can and ought to be havens for wildlife, specifically pollinators. In “The City as a Refuge for Insect Pollinators,” the authors, a group of multidisciplinary scientists from around the world, recommend that urban areas—particularly fast growing ones—be managed to support biodiversity.

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, industrial farming, wildlife diseases, and widespread use of toxic pesticides have wiped out and continue to wipe out many insect pollinator species. Along with other invertebrates, we really don’t know how many are disappearing from the earth forever, although new studies show horrifying losses. Since urban sprawl is a major reason for the shocking loss of biodiversity, it’s surprising that historically, the consensus—even among conservationists—has been that cities can’t or don’t need to support wildlife. But many years of research on wild bees in urban areas proves that cities can or still do supply habitat for both pollinator abundance and diversity, and “in several cases, more diverse and abundant populations of native bees live in cities than in nearby rural landscapes.”

While we certainly need to also restore and protect rural and suburban lands, there’s a growing realization that “pollinators put high-priority and high-impact urban conservation within reach,” writes the team. “The relatively small spatial and temporal scales of insect pollinators in terms of functional ecology (habitat range, lifecycle, nesting behavior compared with larger mammals for example) offer opportunities for small actions to yield large benefits for pollinator health.” Small actions: they’re talking about you and me, as well as city planners. As the authors note, many residents understand the urgency and necessity, and are willing to help. Turning our yards into “real” Cedar waxwing in red-flowering currantgardens, complete with native plantings and other elements that support entire life cycles of local biodiversity, ought to be paramount. Priceless benefits to us (crop pollination and a chance to admire nature’s beauty), to countless other species that rely on plants or insects for food, and to plants (pollination), come with the package.

Urban conservation often aims to connect people to nature. This is, of course, a good thing, since nature education is extremely important—it’s been said many times that the more we learn about wildlife and natural processes, the more we will want to protect it. But if more effort was spent on wildlife itself and providing what it needs (large, undisturbed, interconnected areas of native flora), no doubt many species would be much better off. I always feel a need to apologize to startled birds and little mammals I encounter on walks in natural areas around the city. There’s a reason wildlife refuges often close off sections to pedestrians: many species are hypersensitive to human presence; they see us as predators and the stress harms them. It would be immensely beneficial if parts of urban areas were also simply left to the wild ones.

I can’t agree more with the authors. If we want to recover and protect pollinators and other wildlife globally, we need to tend to their needs locally. It will take policy makers, planners, and environmental managers, but also each of us, whether we work individually or engage with community organizers.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)

           Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata    

Tiarella trifoliata, commonly called “foamflower,” is a lovely woodland perennial within the Western hemlock/Douglas-fir plant community of the Pacific Northwest. Besides having beautiful soft green leaves that are often divided into three leaflets, its sprays of delicate flowers — of the palest pink — bloom on leafy stems for an amazingly long time: From May to as late as September. Really!

How it grows
This charming plant can be found in damp, shady forests, and near streams. It has rhizomes but doesn’t spread like typical ground cover plants; in fact, you’re more likely to find it self sowing than spreading speedily underground. There are three varieties: Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata, the one you’re most likely to find for sale, is found mainly west of the Cascades as well as in southern Alaska and British Columbia, at low to middle elevations. Tiarella trifoliata var. unifoliata occurs on both sides of the Cascades, west to Montana, and in B.C. and northern California, typically at higher elevations; it has more deeply lobed leaves. Tiarella trifoliata var. laciniata, has a very small range—only a few counties in Washington and Oregon and parts of B.C.; its leaves are maplelike and shallowly lobed. The other North American foamflower is T. cordifolia, native to the eastern U.S.

Tiarella close-up

Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata’s dainty bell-shaped flowers, very close up.

Wildlife value
Foamflower’s clusters of tiny blossoms provide pollen and nectar for native bees and syrphid (aka hover) flies. Seeds are eaten by ground-feeding birds such as sparrows. Foliage provides cover for very small creatures and protects the soil.

Try it at home
Maturing to barely a foot tall and wide, it’s best grown en masse in the shade (or partial shade) of conifers where the soil is well-drained but naturally rich (or has been amended with organic matter, like compost), as well as along shaded pathways or near ponds and streams. Plant this gem in the fall for best results. If it’s not grown in a moist area, keep it happy with supplemental water during dry periods and it will self sow, but only in the most polite way.

Grab a partner
Grow foam flower with associated species such as Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western redcedar, vine maple, serviceberry, oceanspray, thimbleberry, sword fern, salal, Cascade Oregon grape, inside-out flower, oxalis, and many others.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Graceful cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis)

Potentilla gracilis with sweat-bees
Nicknamed slender cinquefoil or western cinquefoil, Potentilla gracilis is a perennial herbaceous plant. It naturally occurs over much of western and northern North America at low to high elevations, mostly in moist to dry prairie and savanna ecosystems, but also in open forests, on rocky slopes and subalpine meadows. Growing from a woody crown, it has sharply divided, oval, deep green leaves with hairy, silver undersides and somewhat erect inflorescences with bright to pale yellow five-petaled flowers that bloom from early to late summer. In the Pacific Northwest, it naturally occurs in nearly every county in Oregon and Washington, as well as parts of southern British Columbia.

Closely related species include Potentilla glandulosa (sticky cinquefoil), with cream to pale yellow flowers, and Potentilla pulcherrima, the latter of which grows in montane regions. P. pulcherrima (common name: beautiful cinquefoil) comes from the Latin pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful” (aren’t they all?). Both occur mainly in the western U.S. and Canada. There are many other species of Potentilla, but P. gracilis and P. glandulosa are the most common west of the Cascades and are the most likely to be found for sale at nurseries.

Wildlife value
Native bees, butterflies, syrphid flies, and other beneficial insects are attracted to the flowers. Graceful cinquefoil is also a host plant for the caterpillars of butterflies such as the two-banded checkered skipper. It is not attractive to deer.

Try it at home
Graceful cinquefoil does best in moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter, in full to part sun. Since it’s not a tall plant (usually no more than about two feet tall) and only grows to about two feet wide, site it where it won’t be heavily shaded by other plants. You can also grow native cinquefoil in a container, but be sure it gets enough moisture. Associated species include Cascara and Oregon ash trees, and perennials such as checker mallow, Oregon iris, native lupines, and other moisture loving plants. Summer water is essential until it’s established, but even afterwards it will do best with supplemental water during the hot, dry part of summer.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard)

I finally managed to take out a very large hosta plant in my front yard. I really hate to remove healthy noninvasive plants, however non-native they may be (especially when they’re pretty), but we all know that “pretty is as pretty does,” right? Originating in northeast Asia, hostas really have no function here other than looking nice with those ultra-inflated leaves. I don’t think I’d ever seen a native pollinator on its blossoms, let alone a nonnative honeybee. Plus, it was overpowering a fern that belongs in this neck of the woods.

In its place now is a goat’s beard plant (Aruncus dioicus) that had volunteered in the back yard, courtesy its frisky goat’s beard parents. Also known as “bride’s feathers,” it is not only eye-catching while in bloom, but has local ecological function that hostas can only dream about. It also fits well into the shade-loving native spread near the north side of my house, sharing space with a surprisingly robust western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum), evergreen huckleberry shrubs (Vaccinium ovatum), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), and native ground cover that includes wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), all of which can be found growing with goat’s beard in nature.

Aruncus dioicus foliageWith compound, pointy, toothed leaves that have a lovely texture, this plant is particularly fetching in springtime when its leaves are new. The main show begins in early to mid-summer, when tall, feathery plumes composed of tiny, creamy-white flowers rise above the foliage. Male plants are more spectacular in flower than female, but regardless of gender, it offers a stunning presence in shaded to partly-shaded borders, under tall trees, or as a deciduous screen or short hedge.

Wildlife value
Goat’s beard attracts quite a few insect species, including native bees, syrphid flies, teeny tiny beetles, and — if you’re lucky — mourning cloak butterflies (your odds will increase if you already grow their host plants, which include native willow, birch, hawthorn, and wild rose). Small birds may eat the seeds, so leave the spent flowers to overwinter.

Try it at home
Found in most of western Washington, Oregon, and northern California, goat’s beard naturally occurs along streams, in wet ravines, and in moist meadows and forests, but also sometimes in disturbed areas such as roadsides. As such, it likes moist, rich soil (so add compost and allow nature’s mulch—fallen leaves—to remain on soil), but can handle some drought when fully established. Although it does best with at least a half day of shade, it can be grown in nearly full sun in cool, northerly locations. When goat’s beard is happy, it will stabilize soil and eventually form a large clump, 3 to 5 feet tall and as wide, so space plants 3 to 5 feet apart. Both male and female plants need to be planted nearby if seedlings are desired. Grow them with associates (those that naturally grow together and depend on each other), including Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, vine maple, deer fern, maidenhair fern, western bleeding heart, inside-out flower, wild ginger, and western trillium. Enjoy!

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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An Underappreciated Insect: The Syrphid Fly

Toxomerus occidentalis, female slurping nectar on Erigeron specious (showy fleabane)

Toxomerus occidentals (female), soaking up nectar on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious)


Beneficial in many ways, syrphid flies — also called flower flies — 
are true flies in the order Diptera, family Syrphidae. Some can be recognized by their ability to dart around as well as hover in the air in one place, wings nearly invisible, as they search for flowers on which to feed—somewhat like a tiny helicopter, but with much more grace (this flair led to their other common name, hover fly). They come in various shapes and sizes (typically 1/4 to 3/4 inch in length); the tiny ones require a hand lens or macro lens to get a good look. And when you do, you’ll be amazed at the beautiful patterns and bright colors that often serve to mimic dangerous looking bees or wasps and fool predators like birds into leaving them alone (but don’t worry, they couldn’t sting you if they wanted to!).

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.


Multi-functional

Not needing to carry and store pollen for their young (like most bees do) doesn’t prevent them from being extremely important pollinators. Researchers have found that although syrphid flies pollinate less effectively per flower visit, they visit flowers more often, resulting in essentially the same pollination services as bees. And, it’s thought that they may be more tolerant of the landscape changes that we humans insist on, than bees are.

But syrphid flies are not only important as pollinators in gardens, organic farms, and wild areas. During their immature stage, most species that are found in gardens and nearly half of the 6,000 syrphid fly species worldwide are voracious consumers of aphids, scale insects, and other soft-bodied pests. In coastal Central California, researchers compared romaine lettuce sprayed with an insecticide and lettuce without insecticide. They found that syrphid larvae were primarily responsible for suppressing aphids in organic romaine lettuce, and called the sprayed lettuce “unmarketable.” Other types of syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter. To add to their achievements, larvae are reportedly more effective in cool weather (as in early spring) than most other such predators.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae of this species feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.


Life Cycle

Females lay their tiny, elongated eggs singly on leaves—typically near aphid colonies, so food is within reach—and they hatch in a few days. The tapered, grub-like larvae are blind and legless, but the mouths of these aphid-eaters are equipped with triple-pointed darts that enable them to pierce and suck their prey dry. At maturation, the larvae are promoted to the soil to become pupa and, eventually, adult flies. Their life cycle takes several weeks; reportedly three generations per year are typical in the Northwest. Most syrphid flies overwinter as larvae in leaf litter—yet another reason to not remove fallen leaves from soil!

Close encounters
The best way to spot these helpful, colorful little insects in your garden is to move slowly and quietly, and observe carefully. Sometimes all I have to do is pause next to a group of flat-topped flowers (white or yellow ones seem to be their favorites), and within a few minutes one or two will show up to eat (and to dazzle me—in morning sunlight these exceptional little pollinators shimmer!). I’ve photographed nine different species in my small yard, and I’ve just started. Hopefully I’ll encounter many more of these fascinating little flyers in the years to come.

To avoid confusion with bees and wasps, just remember that syrphid flies have huge compound eyes (which help to determine their gender—female eyes are spaced slightly apart while males’ come together at the top of their head); their bodies are sometimes flatter than bees and wasps; their antennae are usually very short; they don’t carry pollen around like most bees do; they have one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps that have two pairs). The second pair of wings of flies has been reduced to two little knobs called halteres, which can be seen in the photo below. Halteres function like tiny gyroscopes that allow them to stay balanced by detecting and correcting changes in rotation while flying, and enable their zippy acrobatic flights.

Although the mouth parts of syrphids vary between species, allowing different species to access nectar in differently shaped flowers, their typical mouth is basically a retractable extension with a spongelike tip that can soak up either nectar or pollen. The species that have this can only feed on open flowers that have easily accessible nectar. Some species have a modified mouth that allows them to feed at elongated, tubular flowers.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

 

Conservation
Syrphid flies have been studied very little in the U.S., but European research has shown that species diversity has fallen in areas of intensive human activity. According to the Xerces Society, in Britain, seven of the 22 flies for which Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared are syrphid flies. Given the substantial loss of pollinators induced by habitat loss, pesticides, nonnative species and climate chaos, and the profusion of others in danger of extinction, there is a definite need to conserve all types of wild pollinator communities.

Providing for these flies is similar to most other pollinators: A variety of flowers from spring till fall for adults, and appropriate habitat for egg laying, larval development, and overwintering. Attract and nurture syrphid flies with a diversity of native plants that provide a lot of nectar and pollen (females need pollen to produce eggs). In the Pacific Northwest, try yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), stonecrop (Sedum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), and aster (Symphiotrichum spp.). The flowers of chamomile, dill, parsley, and other garden herbs with flat-topped flowers are also very attractive to them, as is the pollen of grasses and sedges that’s often available early in the season. Be sure to allow leaf litter and downed wood to remain on soil to help them get through the winter and to provide food for the decomposer types.

Aphid remedy
If you have an aphid problem on some plants, remember that predatory insects that keep pests at acceptable levels need prey like aphids. Always inspect aphid colonies for syrphid fly larvae before even thinking about control, even “organic” remedies. Use only plain water to spray off aphids (that can’t climb back on), but only if necessary. Never, ever use insecticides, to which syrphid flies and other creatures are very sensitive. Usually, just turning your back is the best thing: One summer a large patch of native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) in my backyard was absolutely infested with aphids. I decided to let nature take her course—cheering on the ladybird beetles and birds who flourished with the situation. As the leaves died back (as they do naturally when the heat of summer arrives) I forgot about the aphids. The following year there were scarcely any on the bleeding heart, but I found another species of aphid on nodding onion (Allium cernuum); again I did nothing and nature took care of it. The following year the wild onion and bleeding heart were fine, but the aspen trees were stricken. Yet again, ladybugs, lacewings, and several species of songbirds took advantage of the generous buffet. The following year there were no outbreaks in my yard, at least none that I noticed.

 

Syrphus opinator (female) on Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Syrphus opinator (female) on white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida)

 

Eristatis male on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Eristalis sp. on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis)

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Beyond Bees: The Underappreciated Pollinators

Common ringlet (Coenonympha tulle)
The majority of flowering plants evolved to take advantage of insects, and depend on them (and less commonly, other animals or wind) to fertilize their flowers, facilitate gene flow, and prevent inbreeding. Bees might be the most obvious pollinators, and on a warm summer day it seems flowers and bees were made for each other. Native bees, including the 90% of species native to the U.S. that are solitary rather than social — that is, females create nests and raise their young without the help of any other bees — are considered to be the most important pollinators (move over, European honeybees!) and are invaluable members of natural systems. But other capable pollinators—like butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, wasps, ants, herbivorous fruit bats, and even rodents—share the pollen distribution workload, and offer ecological benefits as well. Less well known are the thrips, beetles, mosquitoes (yes, you read that right), and flies that are actually quite accomplished pollinators. Distributing pollen may be a sideline for them, but they often excel because they don’t take pollen back to their nests, as most bees do.

Thrips go way back—to the Permian period, over 250 million years ago—but get a bad rap because of a few species that threaten crops. Studies show that they are strong pollinators of some plants, particularly early in the season when most other pollinators aren’t around.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichodes ornatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), transferring pollen from anther to stigma.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichomes oranatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) and helps transfer pollen from anther to stigma.

Beetles are particularly important in semi-arid parts of the world and have a highly developed sense of smell. They are expert and essential pollinators, according to the Forest Service, and also were around millions of years before bees appeared. Like many species of birds, bees, and butterflies, beetles are in danger of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 70 beetle species as endangered. The main threats include habitat destruction, chemical pollutants (e.g., pesticides), displacement by introduced species, and hybridization with other species due to human interference.

Although many flies (order Diptera) are recorded as flower visitors, relatively little is known about pollination by flies, compared to other more obvious pollinators. Many flies are strong pollinators, including syrphid flies (which deserve their very own special post) as well as some tachinid flies, which are the most diverse family of the order Diptera (true flies). As adults, they are flower visitors, feeding on nectar and/or pollen; in their larval stages many species help to control insects that we consider pests.

Suillia spp. attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward.

Pollination by insects is usually mutually beneficial. Here, a fly (Suillia variegata) attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward and the flower gets fertilized.

While I’m not advocating the nurture of mosquitoes in your garden (the females do suck blood and can carry disease, after all!), it’s noteworthy that mosquitoes, like all insects, do have a role in natural systems. Their primary source of food is flower nectar (with males eating nothing but nectar) and they buzzily and incidentally carry pollen from flower to flower. Plants like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) use mosquitoes as pollinators, as do orchids of northern latitudes, grasses, and many other types of plants. And they are a source of food for birds, fish, amphibians, spiders, bats, dragonfly larvae, and other animals.

How you can help a variety of pollinators

Within our increasingly fragmented landscapes, gardens that provide pollen and nectar-rich plants—as well as nesting and overwintering sites—can create critical habitat and connections for pollinators and other creatures. No space is too small, and when in close proximity to other larger gardens, natural areas, or greenways that sustain native plant populations appropriate to the region, their value deepens.

◊ Choose natives that occur naturally in your area, or at the very least heirloom ornamentals (rather than newer hybrids that may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients that native species do). Some garden herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill attract some pollinators when allowed to flower.

◊ Avoid nonnative invasive species like “butterfly bush” (Buddleia davidii) that sound good, but aren’t.

◊ Provide structure and layering in the form of native trees and shrubs that provide food, cover and nesting sites for various pollinators.

Syrphid _ Eumerus sp.

Syrphid fly (Eumerus sp.) on Sedum spathulifolium, a west coast native.

◊ Plan for continuous flowering, spring through fall. Early spring nectar is particularly important for early-emerging queen bumble bees and other solitary bees, as well as flies and beetles.

◊ Choose a variety of plants that differ in the size, shape, and color of blossoms to attract a variety of pollinators. Arrange perennials in drifts or swaths of at least three of a kind, rather than singly here and there. And don’t forget that trees and shrubs produce flowers!

◊ Stay away from pesticides and other chemicals. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers are particularly harmful to sensitive pollinators. Don’t purchase plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids; if you’re unsure, ask.

◊ Don’t be too neat. Leaf litter, dead wood (tree snags or piles of branches), and other natural detritus provide essential habitat, nesting materials, and overwintering sites for adult pollinators or their eggs, larvae, or pupae. And allow some bare soil for pollinators that nest in the ground.

◊ Grow lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) host plants that provide food and habitat for their young. Find out which species frequent your area and grow the native plants that they need to breed.

◊ Provide shallow water and some moist soil. A shallow pie plate or flowerpot saucer, filled with clean gravel or small rocks allow insects to drink without drowning. Also, butterflies and moths need muddy or sandy puddles to obtain water and nutrients. Add a dash of salt to be sure male Lepidoptera get enough sodium prior to mating.

Please see this post for more detailed info on supporting pollinators in all their life stages.

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Fragrance in a Northwest Garden: Western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Philadelphus lewisii

Had Carl Sandburg penned a poem about the way a captivating scent wafts through the air — prior to his famous “Fog” — he might have written that it approaches us “on little cat feet.” Like fog, scent is silent and invisible and adds a fresh, sensual dimension to a garden (or a walk in the woods for that matter). One of the most fragrant flowering shrubs is mock orange, and the Pacific Northwest’s native offering, Philadelphus lewisii (Western mock orange or Lewis’ mock orange), doesn’t disappoint. Plan ahead and place this medium-sized deciduous shrub where its fragrance can be noticed.

Philadelphus lewisii is named after scientist and explorer Meriwether Lewis, who collected it in 1806 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Native Americans had numerous uses for it, including making tools, snowshoes, furniture, and even soap.

How it grows
Although there is quite a bit of individual variation within this species, the structure and growth pattern of this particular shrub goes something like this: Maturing at 5 to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, this fairly fast grower may send out arching basal shoots as it ages, and eventually become a thicket. In late spring, flowering shoots appear, followed by vegetative growth. Rich green, egg-shaped leaves (roughly three inches long) grow in pairs along its stems. At the tips of branches, multiple clusters of white, four-petalled blossoms adorned with soft yellow stamens emerge in late spring or early summer and sparkle against a green, leafy backdrop. Flowers measure one to two inches in diameter, and offer a lovely, fruity fragrance.

Wildlife value
Mock orange’s fragrance doesn’t just appeal to us, though—it attracts nocturnal moths and butterflies like the western tiger swallowtail. As they feed on its nectar and incidentally brush against theSyrphid fly on Philadelphus lewisii flower’s anthers, thousands of male pollen particles are released, pollinating its flowers. Other pollinators attracted to scent include bees, but also syrphid flies (aka flower flies), which are particularly fond of white and yellow flowers. In late summer into winter, mock orange’s wildlife appeal continues as the plant’s tiny seeds are consumed by many species of birds, including goldfinches, as well as squirrels. It also provides twiggy cover year round.

Try it at home
Mock orange is easy to grow. It tolerates both drought (after it’s established, of course) and moisture, and will do well in full to part sun or in a fair amount of shade (but not deep, dark shade). It’s also a good shrub for stabilizing soil on slopes due to a fibrous root system. While it’s not fussy about soil, if your soil’s in bad shape consider incorporating and/or mulching with some decomposed organic matter (like compost) to get it off to a good start.

It’s best to let native plants attain their natural size and habit, but if yours was placed too close to a path or some such, pruning may be necessary. Mock orange should only be pruned soon after flowering since next year’s blossoms develop on the previous year’s growth.

Philadelphus lewisii

 

Grab a partner
Though not common, western mock orange is widespread. It occurs naturally from southern B.C. to northern California and the Sierras, and east to Alberta and western Montana, at low to mid-elevations. Growing along creeks and seeps and forest edges, on hillsides, and within chaparral and pine and fir communities, it associates with species such as Douglas-fir, oceanspray, ninebark, osoberry, baldhip rose, tall Oregon grape, and others. If space allows, try it as a member of a multi-species (unclipped) hedgerow (should pruning be necessary, do it soon after flowering, so that the following year’s blossoms aren’t affected). To stimulate flowering on older shrubs, cut back flowered growth to strong young shoots, cutting out up to 20 percent of aging stems near their base.

Other fragrant PNW plants include wallflower (Erysimum capitatum), Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), clustered rose (Rosa pisocarpa), bald hip rose (Rosa gymnocarpa), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), some ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.), bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii). Enjoy!

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Autumn Leaves Benefit Your Garden in Countless Ways

 

leaves

 

Leaves offer great benefits to wildlife and your garden’s soil. Don’t throw them away!

In another post I extol the virtues of letting leaves do their thing. By that I mean allowing them to do what nature intended: Protect and enrich the soil, offer food for ground-feeding birds, provide a nursery for butterfly larvae/pupae and cover for overwintering queen bumblebees and other beneficial insects and microbes, afford animals like frogs and salamanders places to hunt and Varied thrush foraginghide, and myriad other ingenious things. Leaf litter breaks down with the help of mycorrhizal fungi that move carbon into soil, extract nutrients for plants and protect them from disease, lessen soil erosion, and play a very important role in storing the gigantic pool of carbon within soil.

I’m not sure how leaves got such a bad reputation—I constantly see and hear people blowing them and raking them not only from hardscape and lawn (which is understandable), but also from bare soil. I’m not sure what the aversion is, unless it’s another kind of “biophobia,” in this case a fear of organic materials. Another no-no is putting leaves in the trash, which ends up in landfills. The US EPA says that nationwide, 13 percent, or 33 million tons of municipal solid waste is from leaves and grass and tree/shrub trimmings. Here in Portland, as well as some other cities, there is curbside pickup for green waste for those who don’t compost, and the city picks up leaves from the streets of leafy neighborhoods every autumn to make leaf compost that residents can purchase for a modest fee. But using them in your yard is even better!

How to do it: For areas like driveways, walks, sewer grates and drainage pathways, rake them up (but please don’t use noisy, polluting leaf blowers), and use them as follows:

Mulch your beds.Take raked leaves from hardscape and lawn and place them in your planted beds, a couple of inches thick to protect the soil and provide insulation from the cold (if you live in a very cold climate, add more). Keep them off of tree and shrub trunks and perennial crowns to prevent rot. Try to do your raking on a non-windy day and consider moistening them after you apply them if it’s a dry day. Don’t shred leaves before applying—it won’t help the wildlife described above.

If you must have lawn, leave small amounts of leaves on it and mulch them in situ. Use your mower to shred leaves on grass to improve lawn health by naturally fertilizing the soil. Freshly fallen leaves are high in minerals, and don’t kill soil organisms like synthetic fertilizers do.

Make leaf compost. Collect leaves to compost separately to make leaf compost (also known as leaf mold), a great soil conditioner. If you have a lot of space, simply round them up into piles and let nature break them down with fungus and microscopic creatures. Shredding large leaves will speed up the process. If space is lacking or you want more control, create round chicken wire enclosures and fill them with leaves. You can also dig large depressions and fill them with Homemade compostleaves. Keep piles moist (but not completely saturated) and add more leaves as they sink down. During excessively rainy periods, consider covering the pile. In a year or more (depending on the type of leaves used), after the leaves have broken down, you will have some very dark, crumbly humus to add to your veggie beds and other places that need high quality soil.

Add leaves to your mixed compost bins, heaps, or cages. In your mixed compost bin, add collected leaves—which are mostly carbon—to help balance the “greens” (compost should be roughly half “greens” and half “browns”). Consider storing extra leaves and adding them to your compost bin throughout future months.

Save some for spring. If you have a large amount of leaves, put some aside—or just take some from your leaf compost heap—to use as mulch next year. Mulch applied in spring, after the soil warms, helps maintain soil moisture and protects the soil from oxidation. Be sure to leave some soil bare though, because the majority of native bees nest in the ground and cannot get through thick layers of mulch.

One word of caution: Leaf compost generally makes the soil slightly more acidic. This won’t be a problem for most Pacific Northwest native species, which evolved in slightly acidic soil. But when using leaf compost in vegetable beds, test your soil’s pH—it may need a bit of lime to keep the soil neutral or slightly alkaline, which many cultivated vegetable plants need.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Late Summer to Fall

Late season pollinator plants

Scientists know that bees are dying for a variety of reasons—pesticides, habitat destruction, drought, climate change, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and so on, which makes us the obvious perpetrator. We can help give back to them (and other pollinators) by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that step in when a native plant isn’t available or feasible), with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. To provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies, hummingbirds, and beetles—offer a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat Here” sign). Fragrance is also important for attracting insects to flowers and guiding them to food within the flower, and aiding an insect’s ability to efficiently learn particular food sources.

Below are some native perennials and one shrub that offer food for pollinators from mid or late summer to fall in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. There are more candidates, but I chose these species because they naturally occur in fairly large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, and are not too hard to find at nurseries (although you will likely have to call around for availability). I’ve listed them alphabetically with some very basic care guidelines. It’s best to plant them in the fall, just before or as the rain returns.

As always, plan ahead and choose species that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas, and add flora that would likely have grown in your area historically, if possible. You can also check a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil and water conservation district. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use any pesticides. Keep them adequately hydrated—by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots—until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis (Yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers (pictured below) bloom through late summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium). Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Likes moist soil with good drainage, but can tolerate drought once established. Pure white flowers are often used in dried flower arrangements. Besides providing nectar, it is a host plant for painted lady and skipper butterflies.

Baccharis pilularis (Coyotebush): Evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub. 5-8 feet tall x 6-8 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Tolerates poor soils (but needs good drainage) and is drought tolerant. Flowers aren’t showy and are borne on separate male and female plants (male flowers creamy white; female pale green). Excellent wildlife habitat plant but is deer resistant.

048_Campanula rotundiflora sRGBCampanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist to dry, well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell-shaped, bluish violet flowers typically bloom through late summer. (pictured left)

Gaillardia aristata (blanketflower): Perennial (short-lived). 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to light shade. Tolerates a variety of well-drained soils; drought tolerant when established. Spreads by seed. Colorful yellow and reddish orange flowers bloom well into fall, especially when dead-headed. Deer resistant.

Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Solidago canadensisTolerates wide range of soils; prefers moisture but tolerates drought when established. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Bright gold, fragrant inflorescences typically bloom well into fall. (pictured right)

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Does best in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes and seed. Lavender-blue daisylike flowers bloom from mid summer until mid fall. (pictured below)

 

 

Douglas aster

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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10 Great Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Summer

Bombus vosnesenskii

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s zoom in on the bees and other hard-working pollinators whose lives are dictated by weather, season, and the availability of food, nesting habitat, and overwintering sites.

Nature has provided pollinators with unique ways of gathering nutritious pollen and nectar for their young, and they’re enthralling to watch. But bees and other pollinators are in terrible trouble worldwide due to our presence and actions. We can give back to them by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that are especially attractive to bees, like lavender and sunflower) with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. But don’t forget to provide for them during all their life stages — not just their adult stage — by leaving the leaves, dead wood, and spent flower stalks to make sure they can get through the winter and have habitat to raise their young. And, no pesticides whatsoever!

If you’ve already included some native plants in your yard, you’re well on your way to providing for a wide variety of wildlife. Offering a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat” sign) will help provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees and syrphid flies to hummingbirdsbeetles and thrips. Below are some Pacific Northwest native herbaceous perennials and shrubs that offer food for pollinators from early to mid or late summer in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.

The list is just a sampling (read about others in my book or within my blog’s PNW native plant profiles), and the species were chosen because they naturally occur in large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, aren’t too hard to find at native plant nurseries (although you may need to call around for availability), and attract their fair share of native pollinators. I’ve listed them alphabetically with some basic care guidelines. Fall planting is best, as winter rains begin. (If you’re reading this in springtime, don’t worry—you can plant now, but you’ll definitely need to keep an eye on their water needs during the first couple of summers, at the very least.)

As always, plan ahead and choose plants that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas and add flora that likely would have grown in your area historically. You can also search for a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil & water conservation district. Growing them with associated species that evolved alongside them in nature will help them thrive. No fertilizer is necessary (although a one-time addition of compost such as leaf compost to the soil will add some nutrients and improve soil structure), but do keep them adequately hydrated until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

◊ Achillea millefollium var. occidentals (Western yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry (will spread faster with more moisture). Spreads by rhizomes and seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers bloom nearly all summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium).

Asclepias speciosa or A. fascicularis or A. cordifolia (milkweed) : Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil, but can handle some drought when established. Rounded clusters of soft pink, fragrant flowers. Check out the Xerces Society’s info on milkweed of Oregon and of Washington. (A. fascicularis is pictured, right)Asclepias fascicularis

Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Well-drained, moist to dryish soil. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell shaped, violet-blue blossoms.

Ceanothus velutinus (snowbrush): Fast growing evergreen shrub. 6-12 feet tall x 6-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Rich or poor soil; very drought tolerant. Dense pyramidal clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers. Occurs mainly at mid to high elevations; check natural occurrence, to county level, here.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane): Perennial. 2 feet tall x 2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Well-drained, moist to dry soil. Lovely and abundant daisy-like, bluish lavender blossoms go nearly all summer. (pictured below)

Erigeron speciosus

Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray, aka cream bush): Fast growing, very attractive deciduous shrub. 8-16 feet tall x 8-12 feet wide (larger on protected sites, smaller on windy, harsh sites). Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Drought tolerant when established. Lavish, feathery plumes of creamy-white flowers in early to mid-summer. Nice for hedgerows. Controls erosion.

 

Lupinus polyphyllus (large-leaved lupine): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-4 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Moist soil preferred but will tolerate short dry periods. Tall spikes of bluish-purple, pea-like flowers. (pictured, right) Lupinus polyphyllus

Sedum spathulifolium or S. oreganum (stonecrop): Perennial. 1-4 inches tall; spreads slowly. Sun to part sun (afternoon shade is welcome). Well-draining, gritty, lean soil. Bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Nice for rock gardens. Not a ground cover for foot traffic. (S. spathulifolium pictured below)

Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry): Deciduous shrub. 4-6 feet tall x 4-6 feet wide. Sun to mostly shade. Moist or dry soils; tolerates heavy soils. Drought tolerant when established. Tiny, paired, pink, bell-shaped flowers. Eventually forms a thicket. Controls erosion.

Tiaralla trifoliata (foam flower): Perennial. 8-14 inches tall x 1-14 inches wide. Shade to part shade. Spreads very slowly by rhizomes or seed. Needs moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Panicles of white to pale pink flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. More details here.

Sedum spathulifolium with syrphid fly

 

Copyright 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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The Beauty of Fawn Lilies (Erythronium spp.)

Erythronium oregonum

The genus Erythronium, commonly known as trout lily, fawn lily, glacier lily, or dog-tooth violet (depending on the species and your location) offers such elegance that I can say with conviction that it is my favorite spring wildflower. Single plants charm and invite close scrutiny, but when found in drifts their collective luminescence completely captivates me. Let their magic entice you, too.

About 20 species of Erythronium are found worldwide and most occur in the western U.S. The botanical name comes from the Greek Eruthros, which means red, and refers to the pink or reddish flowers of some species. The photos in this post, which I took in my garden, show the pagoda-like flowers of Erythronium oregonum (Oregon fawn lily or giant white fawn lily), which naturally occurs in moist to dry woodlands and grasslands at fairly low elevations in southwestern British Columbia and Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades), as well as parts of northern California. No doubt the Georgia Basin, Puget Trough, and Willamette Valley were once thoroughly adorned with them.

What appear to be recurved petals are technically tepals (a term used when petals and sepals cannot be differentiated)—white to pale yellow, with a gold heart in this species. Paired leaves that hug the earth are oblong and mottled, and gorgeous on their own. The only downside of this native plant is its ephemeral nature: Like most perennial bulbs, it goes dormant in summer. But when the flowers fade away in my low elevation garden, I know I can always venture to a higher elevation and find it, or a closely related species, quietly in bloom a month or two later.    E. oregonum

How it grows
Pollinated by native bumble bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, this endearing plant thrives in partial shade (but not deep shade) with well-drained, slightly acidic soil that’s rich in organic matter—imagine the dappled shade of an open forest or wooded grassland where fallen leaves and other organic matter are allowed to accumulate. That said, I have several growing where they get very little direct sunlight and they appear quite happy, blooming each year (although not prolifically). They’re also found naturally in rocky areas, so look lovely planted in partly shaded rock gardens where their bulbs can stay cool during summer.

Try it at home
Though not a true lily, Erythronium species are easy to grow and trouble-free, as long as you are aware of their needs. If your yard is lacking rich topsoil, add well composted leaf mold before planting and don’t remove light layers of fallen leaves from the top layer of soil. Bulbs should not be allowed to dry out completely, but they may rot with consistently moist conditions, so be sure they’re placed where the soil drains well. Keep soil just slightly moist during the dry summer months of the Pacific Northwest.

They look best grown en masse, as found in nature. Plant them at the same depth (or slightly deeper) that they came in their pots, or about three to four inches deep. The bulbs are extremely delicate, so don’t try to move them after they are planted unless you can dig up a big chunk of surrounding soil without disturbing the roots, bulb, and stem in any way.

As far as propagation goes, bulb division in your garden is possible but not recommended—if they are planted in appropriate conditions they will sow themselves. Or, you can help them along by collecting seeds from their capsules after the seed has ripened and the flower scape splits; I once shook out 50 seeds from one dried flower capsule! You can sow the seeds immediately outdoors if they are dry enough, or keep them in a cool, dry place and wait until late summer to sow them (but don’t wait much longer, as they reportedly do not keep well): Fill a deep container or pot with a well-draining soil mixture. Press the seeds onto the soil and cover with coarse grit, then leave them outdoors to expose the seeds to cold/wet of winter. In springtime they will germinate and a single cotyledon will emerge. The second year, a single leaf will grow. Carefully separate the tiny plants during the end of the second or third summer (no earlier), repot, place in a bright, cool location where the plants can be kept moist during winter and spring and just slightly moist during summer. Patience is needed, though—it can take as long as five years until first bloom. Some species will multiply vegetatively if the flowers are carefully removed soon after flowering, which prevents energy going into seed production and instead into making more bulbs underground. If you have optimal conditions, you may find that they will self sow around your garden.  (2022 UPDATE: Six years after this post was written I can say with confidence that these lovely plants have indeed sowed themselves around my mostly native back yard.)

Grab a partner
E. oregonum can be found growing with other natives such as Garry oak, (Quercus garryana), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), camas (Camassia spp.), and various native grasses. Placing them under deciduous trees that allow early spring sunshine to nourish them but provide protection later on is optimal, but be sure not to plant them where some leafy, overly zealous understory plants will cover their leaves during spring (such as western bleeding heart)—I learned that the hard way. Substitute fawn lilies for bulbs like invasive Spanish bluebells that seem to be in almost every yard in my neighborhood.

Some related species: Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily) occurs naturally in moist coastal forests near shaded streams and in bogs; it is a “species of concern” in Oregon. A higher elevation species is E. montanum (avalanche lily, white avalanche lily) that is native to coastal B.C. and alpine and subalpine Olympic and Cascade ranges. Erythronium grandiflorum, or glacier lily, with gorgeous yellow flowers, is also found in alpine and subalpine meadows and does best at those elevations. E. hendersonii (Henderson’s fawn lily) occurs at low to mid elevations in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon, while E. elegans (Coast Range fawn lily) is a threatened species that grows only at high elevations of Oregon’s Coast Range.

Enjoy! But please … never collect Erythronium seeds or plants from the wild.

E. oreganum

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anna’s Hummingbird Babies: From Eggs to Empty Nest

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 19

As I wrote last month, we were extremely fortunate to have a little Anna’s hummingbird build her tiny nest — smaller than an espresso cup — in a rhododendron shrub, just steps from a window. In February, binoculars and camera in hand, we watched and photographed as she finished the intricately woven and structurally sound nest, anchored to a branch with strong and stretchy spider silk, lovingly lined with fur, and carefully camouflaged with lichen. On February 20 it appeared that her beautiful nest was complete and incubation of two navy bean-sized eggs had begun. Mama hummingbirds typically sit on their eggs for 14 to 19 days.

About 18 days later, I saw her perched on the edge of her nest, apparently regurgitating a slurry of nectar from nearby native currant flowers and partially digested insects or spiders (high in protein) into her babies. I couldn’t actually see them at that point since the nest was about eight feet off the ground and they were so small. At this early stage she would feed both nestlings (hummingbirds almost always have two), fly off, and come back with more food within 60 seconds or so. After she and the nestlings had been fed adequately, she’d return and stay on the nest awhile since they were nearly naked and in dire need of warmth.

Later that week we saw her offspring for the first time, with their dinosauric heads and just the start of future feathers. Even at this age, still completely helpless and blind, their instincts are strong: They are able to keep their nest clean by wriggling their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirting their poop outside of it.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 7

Anna's hummingbird and one of her babies, around Day 7

 

Later, about ten days after hatching and when the nestlings’ barbs began to look like feathers, Mom no longer stayed on the nest — during the day, anyway — most likely because her babies now had the ability to regulate their own body temperature. I imagine she was also not too keen on having her underside poked by pointy bills!

Ann's hummingbird and her babies, around Day 12

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 13

 

We continued to watch her feed them, first pumping food up into her throat, then aiming her long bill into their gaping orange mouths and straight down their throats. She resembled a sewing machine needle as she repetitively pushed food into them, never spilling a drop. Ouch!

Anna's hummingbird feeding her babies, around Day 18

 

References state that Anna’s hummingbirds fledge within 18 to 28 days after hatching. On the morning of what I believe was Day 23, I watched one of them sit on the edge of the nest and flap his/her wings with such gusto that I thought the time had come. A rainstorm came and went, but they remained in the nest, sitting with their bills pointed directly upwards, nearly vertical; occasionally they’d shake off raindrops but maintained their pose. Brave and undaunted, they also endured fairly heavy wind and a short, but pounding, hail storm.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 22

 

On what was probably Day 24, I saw one of them, for the first time, venture out of the nest and onto the branch right next to the nest. Even though the nest was designed to stretch as the nestlings grew, it was getting tight. Surely they are leaving now, I thought!

Anna's hummingbirds babies, around Day 23

 

They left the nest on Day 25. When they took off I was, disappointingly, in the shower at the time. Just before they left I noticed them preening their breast feathers meticulously, no doubt to make themselves more aerodynamic and ready themselves for life on the wing.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 23

 

Mom feeds them for a week or so post fledging, so they are on their own by now. I still look for them in the garden and high in the trees, but it’s hard to say who’s who—fledglings’ bills and tails are shorter than adults’ and they have no red on their throats, but they may almost resemble female adults by now. Reportedly, the siblings may stay together until autumn, and then they separate for good. Have a good life, sweet babies!

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 20

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

UPDATE: March 29, 2017
It’s been two years since I wrote the above post. This year a female Anna has again built a nest in the same shrub, although the nest is harder to see as it’s a little higher up and has more leaves partially blocking our view. I’ve watched the nest as best I can, and judging by what looked like pumping (feeding) movements, I believe at least one of her babies hatched on March 6. Photographing them has been very difficult due to the nest position, as well as the plague of unusually cold, wet weather. In the early part of March I watched her as she searched for insects everywhere in the yard and she spent more time away from her nestlings than the mom two years ago did. This made me wonder if she might be having trouble finding protein (in the form of little insects and spiders), which are essential for the babies’ development, as well as her health. Sugar water or flower nectar alone is completely inadequate.

After about 10 days had passed, I could just barely make out a beak in the nest reaching skyward toward Mama, ready with food. I never saw more than one mouth at a time, which I thought to be a little odd, and wondered if both eggs had hatched. At Day 12 my husband, Rick, managed to get some photos of Anna feeding them, and there is evidence of two mouths, although one is in poor focus and looks like it may not be fully open, even though Mama looked ready to deliver. I was relieved to know that there were two hatchlings, but I continued to see her feeding only one at a time; this worried me because two years ago both of her young were highly visible during each feeding (as the photos above show).

A week later, on March 25, Rick was again photographing the nest and grew concerned when he repeatedly saw her feeding only one baby. With his cell phone taped to a stick, he held it horizontally above the nest while Mom was away and managed to get a short video of the nest. I’m very sad to report that there was only one baby present; the other must have died from lack of protein due to the shortage of insects during the non-stop cold weather. I do not know if the mother, sensing that one was weak and knowing she couldn’t feed them both adequately, chose to stop feeding the weak one so that one would survive, or if the baby was too weak to gape and receive food and eventually died. It’s also slightly possible that the baby was stunted from the beginning (possibly due to too small a yolk). It’s impossible to say for sure, but regardless, it was heartbreaking for this animal lover to realize that someone starved to death right outside her house. I do accept that nature can be harsh—especially during the winter—and I’m glad that the baby didn’t die due to direct human disturbance, but this is just another reason to grow native plants that supply drastically more insects than non-native species.

As I write this, the brave little baby that’s endured the cold still sits alone in the tiny nest that should be filled with a brother or sister. Mom no longer stays on the nest, but she still feeds him/her about every 20-30 minutes. Waiting is the hardest part … waiting for the day that s/he feels strong enough to take to the air and discover the world. I hope I get to see that flight, and I hope it’s on a warm, sunny day.

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of us. Using a ladder, we inspected the abandoned nest since our nosing around wouldn’t distress anyone. Sure enough, there—at the bottom of the little nursery—was the baby who had died, a dried up little body barely an inch long. Since then I’ve noticed a smallish single hummer in my yard on occasion, and once, while I was walking around the back yard with my little cat in my arms, we stopped to watch this particular bird feeding at blueberry blossoms. S/he grew very interested and circled around us, just 18 inches away from our faces! 

Anna’s hummingbirds typically have 2 or 3 broods per year, and there is another Anna’s hummingbird nest now in a neighbor’s small tree close to a stairway that leads to our back yard. I can’t be sure, but I think it is the mama who nested in our yard, doing her best to raise another couple of healthy chicks.   —ES

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ANOTHER UPDATE: February 18, 2018
New nest! Maybe I ought to just write a fresh post—this seems to be turning into a hummingbird diary!

It’s one year later and the new nest is in my neighbor’s magnolia tree just above their fence on the property line. Rick noticed it on February 10 and thought she might still be constructing it, but on closer inspection it appeared to be finished. The next day, when Mom was off feeding, he put his phone on a stick to take a short video above the nest, and there they were: Two gleaming white eggs that resemble tiny mint candies. Perhaps the mild winter weather we’d been experiencing (with daytime temperatures around 60ºF!) encouraged this early endeavor, but Anna’s often nest very early in California, their historic home.

There had been a nest in the same tree the previous summer, but it was very difficult to view as the tree was fully leafed out. This new nest is in the open due to leaflessness and proximity (near the end of a branch, just above our driveway and recycling bins), so we’ve got a good view. But the sight is bittersweet right now (Feb. 18): Though magnolia flower buds are developing, they provide absolutely no protection for Mom and her nest. Cold, wintery weather is back and I imagine she’s fairly miserable. But I have to remind myself that she’s a tough, stoic little bird, she has the ability to go into torpor at night to conserve heat, and her eggs have not yet hatched. I’m hoping they will stay inside their little life support systems until later this week, when the temperatures will be a bit higher and insects will likely be easier for Mom to find.

February 19: She made it through a cold, snowy night and she’s still on the eggs. The red-flowering currant shrubs haven’t started blooming, so my sugar water feeders are well-stocked and are put outside soon after sunrise (to prevent freezing). Since we don’t know when the eggs were laid, they could hatch anytime between now and the end of the month.

Anna snow

One snowy morning …

 

February 20: Watching from my driveway, I now see her feeding someone, so at least one has hatched. But we’re in the middle of a winter storm that’s brought snow, and temps that will dip into the 20s tonight. I worry because insects and itsy-bitsy spiders are not plentiful when it’s so cold and the most common cause of nestling mortality is lack of protein (as we painfully learned last year). Hopefully Mom will persevere and be able to get both of them fat and sassy. Will keep you posted!

February 23: The nestlings are now at Day 3, and as far as I can tell, they’re doing well. Mom is definitely away from the nest longer than the first time I watched a hummer nest (as much as 7 minutes), but she comes back every couple of minutes during her forages to make sure no predators are near the nest. Standing on a ladder, I can now partially see the babies’ heads as they are fed.
Day 3

 

 
 

March 1: Sadly, my fear has been realized: One of the babies has died. For the past couple of days I’d only been able to see her feed one nestling; yesterday we took a video with a phone taped to a stick and it’s clear that there is now just one alive. Sigh. Anna’s hummingbirds’ historical range is from Baja to San Francisco but they’ve expanded their range north reportedly due to artificial feeders and the planting of nonnatives that bloom when natives have finished. Unfortunately the expansion sometimes has deadly consequences.

The remaining baby looks okay. It’s still quite cold but will warm up a bit soon. The red-flowering currant blossoms should be opening any day now and insects should be easier to find.

March 7: It’s warmed up a bit and the baby is definitely growing. Today his/her eyes are open! Though it’s not very warm, Mom is staying off the nest during the day, but she’s on at night since it’s so cold and the little one hasn’t a sibling to snuggle with.  Day 14 or 15

 

March 8: Today is very windy and rainy but Mom is on the nest most of the time. This weekend will be much better for Baby: warmer, dry, and sunny—just what’s needed.

March 16: Major growth is happening, but I think this baby will be on the nest for another week or more. This is Day 23, a day when many hummers are able to fledge, but since this baby had such a rough start in life, s/he will likely need much more time in the nest. The nights have been quite cold but feathers are filling in.
Day 24

March 23: Baby’s feathers are really filling in and s/he looks softer, rounder. Yesterday, after preening (or perhaps biting at parasites) Baby stretched his/her wings and was almost able to lift off the nest! At nightfall, Baby had to endure a hail storm and I think it rained through most of the night … if only s/he wasn’t stuck in that nest and could find some evergreen shelter during this nasty weather, as older birds do! I keep hoping for some warm spring weather. Even though Baby is now 30 days old, the bill and feathers need to grow more and I estimate that it will be 3 to 4 days before fledging.
Day 30
Day 30

March 25: My heart is heavy with grief today. The stoic little baby who lost his sibling and tolerated so much harsh weather is dead. I believe he died on Friday night during some nasty cold rain and hail. Saturday I saw him hunkered down in the nest to keep warm, or so I thought … while taking photos today I found him in the same position and not moving. What a terrible little life he had, unable to leave the nest during what must have been a nightmare to him. It’s also possible that something happened to Mom, but I suspect the former, since nest mortality is high. We’ll never know. I buried his tiny little body with a sprig of red-flowering currant flowers, something he would have loved. R.I.P sweet little one.

[Addendum: It is two months later, and for the first time I’ve witnessed the feeding of a baby who had apparently left the nest that day. Tiny little “peeps” were heard coming from our fig tree, but I couldn’t locate the baby until Mom swooped in to feed. After Baby was fed she left, but returned about 20 minutes later when the call for food resumed. This went on for the rest of the day, with Baby in the same tree. The same peeps were heard for many days afterwards, but in different trees. Apparently this baby’s sibling also must have died (hummers typically lay two eggs), but s/he looks strong and healthy.]


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

 
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Reflecting on What Makes a Garden “Real”

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American gardens are generally a mix of styles borrowed from other countries and cultures, many of which developed over centuries. Just a few that we’ve adapted: The romantic English cottage garden, the traditional Japanese garden, and the formal French parterre. This borrowing isn’t unlike our diets—I eat mostly ethnic or ethnically influenced foods for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around flavor, nutrition, and ingredients that are plant-based. Ethnic cuisine can be wonderful, especially when locally grown ingredients bring it all home.

But landscaping with borrowed styles and plants typically results in gardens that are decidedly unauthentic and typically do little to support life. What’s lacking is a relationship to local history, geology, ecology, and a sense of place (more on the latter in the book). When we use mainly local ingredients (that is, native plants and other elements), though, even exotic or ‘period’ designs can be ecologically functional and feel like home.

Creating gardens that are enmeshed in their native surroundings, use indigenous materials, and reflect the natural world, then, are real. They are beautiful, but not just for the sake of mere decoration, and unlike period gardens, they are designed to play a crucial role within the landscape. Their loveliness is functional, so that every species in the intricately webbed ecosystem has a good chance of being able to do what it’s supposed to do. Insects, for example, must be everywhere—to eat the foliage of plants that they share an evolutionary history with and subsequently provide for those higher on the food chain, to pollinate flowers, and to do countless other jobs.

The functional beauty that’s found in nature’s intimate connections can be in your yard, too. Even “average” backyards are host to amazing numbers of species, but when we add native plants, biodiversity skyrockets: Studies show that native species support 29 times the wildlife that exotic species do. Of course, some nonnative species do support some wildlife (in limited ways), so I don’t recommend removing all noninvasive exotics that currently support wild species or provide food for you, or furnish an emotional connection.

Whether you’re ready to create new beds, replace dead or dying plants, or make over your entire yard, choose plants that belong in your area. Instead of a maple from Asia, consider the lovely PNW native maples—vine maple (Acer circinatum), Douglas maple (Acer glabrum var. douglasii), and big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Thinking about new shrubs? Look for natives that look similar to ones you admire but come from a faraway place; for example, choose Western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) over P. coronarius or P. virginalis (my book has many other suggestions for native plants that resemble common, exotic garden plants). When adding ground cover, choose an assortment of native ground hugging plants that would be found together in nature. Essentially, choose plants that have evolved together and grow together in natural communities—known as “associated species.” If the conditions (light, soil, moisture) suit them, they are your best bet because they offer wildlife what they need, nurture each other, and increase the chance that they will thrive in your yard.

Finally, when purchasing native plants, buy those propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

And although many cultivars—with a range of flower color, leaf attributes, size, etc.—have been developed, it’s best to choose true species or varieties found in nature. 

A garden’s propensity for diversity draws in both gardeners and visitors, generates appreciation and awe for natural processes, and furthers our collective ecological knowledge. In a hazelnut shell, “real” gardens stay true to the character, time, and culture of a place.

© 2014  Eileen M. Stark