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Too Much or Not Enough?

We plant Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) every chance we get. Any sunny, dry place is perfect.

We planted it in the entry garden at the Greenburgh Nature Center.

Staircase garden

We planted it in the Pollinator Garden.

Gerrie Shapiro Memorial Pollinator Garden

We planted it in the Meadow.

Native Plant Meadow at the Nature Center

We bring it into our butterfly exhibit in containers as a nectar supply.

Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies on Agastache

Whenever we are asked for advice on planting community pollinator gardens, we recommend Anise Hyssop.

Community pollinator garden in Dobbs Ferry, NY
Photo: August Brosnahan
Pollinator garden on the Hudson River

And we always recommend Anise Hyssop for drought-tolerant residential gardens.

Agastache behind Dense Blazing Star and Coneflowers

We just can’t get enough of this excellent plant! Here are the reasons why:

  • It is gorgeous!
  • It blooms from July through September
  • Butterflies and bees love it
  • It is extremely drought-tolerant and does well in poor soil
  • Deer, rabbits, and woodchucks avoid it
  • It is sturdy, upright, and mixes well with other plants
  • It is host to several species of moths and butterflies
  • The leaves are aromatic, edible, and can be used to make herbal tea

Each flower stem of Agastache holds dozens of tiny lavender flowers loaded with nectar. Even when the flowers finally fade, the stalks are attractive and bring around the very last of summer’s bees and butterflies.

 Individual flowers line the stem of Agastache in July
Agastache in mid-September

Anise Hyssop is native to the Great Plains and dry prairies of the American Midwest. Hardy to Zone 4, the only thing it really can’t take is wet soil. It prefers full sun, but can tolerate some shade as long as the soil is very well drained. Plants can disappear over the winter if the ground stays wet for long periods. We replace any that don’t make it with gallon-sized container plants in the spring and they very quickly catch up to the survivors.

Agastache foeniculum grows 3 to 4 feet tall, forms clumps, and doesn’t seem to expand by rhizomes, but it will seed itself around to make new plants in good conditions. There are several cultivars of hybridized plants now widely available in the market. ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Black Adder’ both result from a cross between Agastache foeniculum and Agastache rugosa, an Asian plant. Though we prefer the straight species, the hybrids certainly attract bees and butterflies, and have proven themselves durable, at least in Zones 5-7. The hybrids are sterile and will not seed themselves in the garden.

We do have one problem with this plant: deciding how to pronounce the scientific name! Horticulture expert, Bill Cullina, says “ag-OST-ach-ee,” sounding rather like a sneeze. On-line sources, with audio, give the “American” pronunciation as “aga-STASH.” Looking a bit further, however, we find general agreement that the word “Agastache” comes from the Greek words “agan” meaning much or many, and “stachys” meaning ear of grain. Though that description for Agastache foeniculum is a bit puzzling since the flower doesn’t really look like grain to us, the Greek origin of the word does suggest that the appropriate pronunciation is “aga-STACK-ee,” so we go with that. As for “foeniculum,” we pronounce it “fen-ICK-you-lum,” a word that either comes from the Latin “foenum” for hay, or the related Italian word “finocchio” for fennel. The leaves smell much more like fennel than hay!

Unfortunately, the common name, “Anise Hyssop,” doesn’t clear things up. “Anise” makes sense if you smell or taste the leaves, but “Hyssop” is a completely unrelated plant family. In any case, if you’re asking for this wonderful plant, saying either “aga-STACK-ee” or “Anise Hyssop” will work.

So, is this too much of a good thing?

We don’t think so!

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

About Drought

What makes a plant, or a whole landscape, “drought tolerant”? Why do some plants need water regularly while others are fine without it for weeks or longer? Drought tolerance depends primarily on two factors:

The first is where a plant evolved. Adaptation to particular environments happened over millennia, and most plants will thrive only in conditions very similar to those where they evolved. That is why, when considering a plant for our gardens, we always want to know whether it is native to our region. Plants that evolved in tropical rainforests will never be drought tolerant. On the other hand, plants that evolved in America’s open meadows are well-adapted to life under baking sun with occasional torrential thunderstorms. Those plants can withstand weeks of heat and drought still looking great, and then stand up to the floods that so often follow.

American meadow plants can tolerate weeks of drought and heat without irrigation

The second big factor in drought tolerance is root depth. Plants that evolved in wet climates usually have shallow roots. Plants that evolved in hard-packed prairie have strong, deep roots that force their way down through poor soil to reach and hold any available water. They can withstand long periods of drought. They also can absorb flood water because their roots break up the soil, allowing water to penetrate rather than run off.

Comparative root depth of plants – note lawn grass on the far left.
Graphic used with the permission of artist

As the chart above indicates, many plants that evolved in America’s prairies like Goldenrod, Coneflower, Prairie Dropseed, Switch Grass, and Wild Indigo have very deep roots, reaching down 4 to 8 feet! As a result, they make great garden plants because they are both beautiful and very drought tolerant.

In contrast, lawn grass is not at all drought tolerant. Despite its name, Kentucky Bluegrass is not from Kentucky. It is native to mild climates in Europe and Asia. Lawn grown from typical seed mixes has very shallow roots, about 2 inches deep. Shallow roots do not retain water, so lawn needs frequent irrigation, and in heavy rain, excess water runs off rather than being absorbed and held in the soil.

An unirrigated lawn after 8 weeks of heat and drought
Heavy rainfall rushes off of lawn, dislodging pavers and overwhelming storm drains

But Americans love lawns. Perhaps perfect lawns and tightly-manicured shrubs became a status symbol in America because of our historic connection with England, where 19th Century aristocrats demonstrated their wealth by employing countless servants to hand-cut lawn and trim elaborate hedges.

Landscape fashion among English aristocracy in the 1800’s — Cliveden House, England
Landscape fashion in suburban New York, 2022

Maybe it’s time for a change of fashion? Here is a photo of that same 19th Century landscape this summer:

Cliveden House, England, August 2022 
Photo: Lawrence Siskind

Most of Europe is suffering from heat and drought this summer, and watering restrictions are now in place. Because lawn requires so much water and retains so little, lawn irrigation is usually the first target of water regulation. In the US, lawn watering (not agriculture!) uses an average of 8 billion gallons of water daily – that’s 32 gallons for every man, woman, and child in our country, every day! (Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope) Clearly, our love for lawns is not sustainable. 

Restrictions on residential landscape watering have been a reality in California and many of our Southwestern states for years now. So, it makes sense that landscape fashion there has rejected big expanses of lawn, and turned instead to drought tolerant native plants.

Front yard in Berkeley, California
Native plant landscape in Tucson, Arizona
Lawn used only as an edger in a Mexican garden

Prolonged periods of drought and low reservoirs are becoming common in the Northeast as well. Watering restrictions were imposed this summer in much of the Hudson River valley. So, it’s time to think about changing landscape fashion here, too. We can reduce our demand for water by replacing at least some of our lawn area with native trees and drought-tolerant shrubs.

Trees, shrubs, and flowering plants replaced lawn here

By planting drought-tolerant native perennials, we can replace even small areas of lawn with color and flowers for pollinators.

A pollinator garden reduces lawn area and is a beautiful addition to this backyard
A raised flower bed full of life is so much more interesting – and drought tolerant – than lawn
 The drought-tolerant staircase garden at the Nature Center would be a stunning entry garden for any residence

Modern American landscapes need to be resilient as well as beautiful. As we rethink landscape fashion, we recognize that there is as much beauty in a vibrant drought-resistant garden as there is in a bare expanse of thirsty lawn. 

For information on drought-tolerant perennials, download the plant list we used for the Nature Center’s pollinator garden here.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

Who Was Joe Pye?

Joe Pye Weed is a classic American perennial, and a garden favorite for generations. It is tall, beautiful, long-blooming, and easy to grow. It is a butterfly magnet. Whenever we are asked about the best plants for pollinators, Joe Pye Weed is at the top of the list.

Monarch butterfly on Joe Pye Weed
Painted Lady butterfly on Joe Pye Weed

Native to wet meadows in the Eastern half of the US, Joe Pye Weed nurtures butterflies, bees, and is the host plant for more than three dozen species of moth and butterfly caterpillars. It is a great alternative to non-native “Butterfly bush” (Buddleia spp.), not only because it attracts as many or more butterflies, but because it also allows them to reproduce. Caterpillars native to the US cannot eat the leaves of “Butterfly bush,” so Joe Pye Weed is the right choice if you want more butterflies.

There are five species of Joe Pye Weed, which is the common name of all five plants in the genus Eutrochium (formerly part of the genus Eupatorium), and all are North American natives. The main difference among them for gardeners is height. Hollow Joe Pye (Eupatorium fistulosum) is the tallest at around 10 feet. Spotted Joe Pye (Eupatorium maculatum) is usually about 6 feet tall, and Coastal Joe Pye (Eupatorium dubium) is the shortest at about 4 feet, with a cultivar marketed as ‘Baby Joe’ growing only 3 feet tall. They all bloom from late summer through fall, and they all have big flower clusters in shades of pink to lavender. Hardy in Zones 3 to 9 and deer resistant, Joe Pye looks great at the back of a formal flower bed or along a rustic fence.

Joe Pye in an informal garden

The flowers of Joe Pye Weed go through a fascinating progression. The initial buds are almost silver. From there, they develop into clusters, 4 to 8 inches across, composed of tubular pink blossoms. Each tube then emits a single forked pistil, the female reproductive part. The male pollen-bearing stamens remain hidden inside the tubular structure. The huge array of pistils over the top of the flower mass ultimately creates a fuzzy appearance.

Flower buds in early August
The pistils emerge, indicating available nectar
Large clusters of tubular flowers top each stem
As more flowers open, the cluster begins to look fuzzy

Joe Pye Weed does best in wet sunny areas, so it is perfect for a rain garden, or a low spot too soggy for lawn. Though it is not particularly drought tolerant, Joe Pye manages well in our Meadow at the Nature Center without irrigation.

Joe Pye in a rain garden with White Turtlehead and Swamp Milkweed
Joe Pye Weed in the Meadow at the Nature Center

So, who was Joe Pye and why was this wonderful plant named for him? There was a story, repeated in various forms over the past 100 years or so, that Joe Pye was “an Indian medicine man” who saved an entire colony of English settlers in the 1600’s from typhus fever using a tea made from the plant. As with many such stories, the details often changed in the telling, and the only cited source was “legend has it.” Recently, however, curiosity prompted the first scholarly research on the question, and in 2017, Richard B. Pearce and James S. Pringle published their findings in The Great Lakes Botanist journal. They concluded that the plant was likely named for Joseph Shauquethqueat, a highly-respected Mohican sachem or paramount chief, also known to white neighbors as Joe Pye, who lived in the Mohican community in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. Although there is no evidence that he was an herbalist or ever used or recommended the plant medicinally, many members of the First Nations did know of the medicinal properties of the plant. Pearce and Pringle speculate that since Joseph Shauquethqueat was also a selectman in Stockbridge, well-known and respected by his white neighbors, “it would not have taken many observations of his collecting the plants now called Joe-Pye-weed for medicinal use, or suggestions from him that they use those plants for the treatment of fevers…before someone, when referring to those plants, associated them with the man they knew as Joe Pye.”

Joseph Shauquethqueat was a remarkable man. Remembering him with a plant as remarkable as Joe Pye Weed is a worthy honor, indeed.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

For the Birds

Pokeweed. You’ve probably seen this plant on roadsides, vacant lots, along hiking trails, and maybe even pulled it out of your own yard. It’s definitely a weed, and either a curse or a curiosity depending on your point of view. Considered a dangerous and poisonous plant by some, and a nutritious and delicious plant by others, we think of it as a valuable food source for over 30 species of native birds.

Phytolacca americana is commonly known as Pokeweed, Polk weed, Pokeberry, Poke root, Virginia poke, Poke sallit, Poke salad, Redweed, Redberry, Pigeonberry, Pocan bush, Red ink plant, and at least a dozen other names. As is often the case, the number of common names for a plant indicates the variety and duration of human experience with it. Pokeweed has a long and complicated relationship with humans.

Pokeweed is native to most of the US and is found now in all but a few states. It can reach 6 to 10 feet tall, spreads both by seed and rhizomes, and has a very deep tap root. It is a perennial that can live in a wide variety of conditions, which makes it a rather successful weed.

Pokeweed stands tall among other roadside weeds

Indigenous peoples used Pokeweed for medicinal purposes and as a dye, especially for painting their horses. The name “poke” may come from the Algonquian word “pocan,” meaning red dye. American colonists fermented the deep magenta juice of the berries to make ink. There are preserved letters from Civil War soldiers written in Pokeberry ink, which was much more available to them than imported ink.

Pokeweed berries yield a staining red juice

There is common agreement that all parts of the plant, if eaten raw, are toxic to humans and livestock, but agreement ends there. Some writers claim that Pokeweed is so poisonous it should not even be touched without gloves. Yet in most of the Southern US, Pokeweed has been hand-harvested as a staple of the local diet for generations. Some authorities say the root is the most poisonous part of the plant, and the berries are the least so. Other authorities say the berries are the most toxic part of the plant and eating even a few may be lethal. Many articles claim that Pokeweed poisoning can cause death, but after surveying historical records, a recent report found only 2 deaths from Pokeweed over a couple hundred years, and noted that one of those deaths was more likely caused by the medical treatment of the time, blood-letting.

Tiny pokeweed flowers open throughout the growing season
Pokeweed flowers attract pollinators, including hummingbirds

The role of Pokeweed as part of Southern US culture is memorialized in the song “Polk Salad Annie” written in 1968 by Tony Joe White and made popular by Elvis Presley.

“Everyday before supper time, she’d go down by the truck patch

And pick her a mess of Polk salad, and carry it home in a tow sack 

Polk salad Annie….”

Tony Joe White

Recognizing that Pokeweed is indeed toxic if eaten raw, recipes for polk salad, or poke sallit, require boiling the tender young leaves at least twice, and with two or three changes of water. The boiled greens are then sauteed in bacon fat and eaten like spinach or collard greens. Poke sallit festivals are still part of local traditions in the South every spring. But other than those circumstances, we do not recommend eating any part of Pokeweed, and children should be warned away from the berries.

We do suggest letting the plant live if you find it in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden. Pokeweed provides a real service to our native songbirds. Migrating birds store energy from eating ripening Pokeberries as they begin their journeys, and winter birds will eat the dried berries for as long as they last. Cardinals, mockingbirds, blue jays, robins, catbirds, bluebirds, mourning doves, and over 20 other species of native birds love Pokeberries. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals do, too.

Pollinated flowers develop interesting berries
As the berries ripen, the stems change color!

Pokeweed is interesting to watch, and it will definitely attract songbirds. So, if there is a spot near you where Pokeweed appears, we hope you can allow it to live its weedy, but useful, life.

For the birds.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

Worth a Mint

What makes a garden plant special? Beautiful flowers? Reliability? Long season of bloom? Easy care? Attractive to butterflies? Maybe even useful for humans? Mountain Mint checks all the boxes! This perennial garden plant is so valuable it’s a wonder we don’t see it everywhere.

The only problem with Mountain Mint is its name! The scientific name, Pycnanthemum, is a mouthful, and the common name “Mountain Mint” is just wrong. The plant does not come from the mountains, and it’s not a true mint. It’s actually a plant native to America’s meadows, from New England to the Midwest and from Florida to Texas. And unlike spearmint and peppermint, it is not in the mint genus, Mentha. (Though it does have a decidedly minty flavor, and can be a pretty good alternative.)

We have three species of Mountain Mint at the Nature Center: Pycnanthemum virginiana (“Virginia Mountain Mint”), Pycnanthemum tenufolium (“Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint”) and Pycnanthemum muticum (“Broad-leaved Mountain Mint”). All three grow in our Meadow in full sun, average soil, and without special care or irrigation.

Virginia Mountain Mint
Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint
Broad-leaved Mountain Mint

Our favorite is Broad-leaved Mountain Mint. The plant grows about 3 feet tall with shiny, dark green, and very minty leaves. In early summer, it produces a pair of fuzzy gray-green “bracts,” leaf-like structures that frame a cluster of flower buds at the very top of the plant. The flowers themselves are tiny little polka-dotted tubes that open sequentially over two to three months. The very long sequence of blooms keeps pollinators coming back all summer for fresh nectar.

Tiny flowers keep opening for months

Mountain Mint is incredibly valuable for pollinator gardens. It is loaded with nectar attractive to bees, butterflies, and a wide variety of other pollinating insects. It is very entertaining to count how many different species visit the flowers.

Honey bees love Mountain Mint
Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly
Clubbed Midas Fly is a native pollinator
Native bumblebees do, too!
Golden Digger Wasp sharing flowers with bees
Grey Hairstreak butterfly on Mountain Mint

Apart from its value to pollinators, Mountain Mint is a wonderful garden perennial. It is tough! Deer, rabbits, and woodchucks avoid it. Like most meadow plants, it is drought-tolerant and does best in full sun, though the Broad-leaved species may want more moisture than Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint. Both are hardy in Zones 3 through 9 and both do well in our Meadow without irrigation. The long season of bloom means Mountain Mint looks good well into the fall, and the seed heads add interest if left standing all winter.

September in the Meadow

Mountain Mint has been used by humans for a wide variety of purposes. Indigenous people in the Eastern US made a tea from the leaves to treat headache, stomach problems, and respiratory congestion. Dried leaves of Broad-leaved Mountain Mint are said to make an effective insect repellant when rubbed on skin or clothing. Carrying fresh sprigs in a pocket or under a hat-band helps keep gnats and mosquitos away from gardeners’ faces. The leaves of Broad-leaved Mountain Mint contain pulegone, a substance said to cause liver damage if ingested in significant quantity. But reliable sources assure us that the leaves may be used safely in teas and infusions, and we have some satisfactory experience with that…

A handful of chopped leaves from Broad-leaved Mountain Mint boiled for a few minutes with equal parts sugar and water, then allowed to steep until cool, makes a lovely scented infusion for use flavoring lemonade, iced tea, or even a specialty cocktail! Strain the liquid to remove the leaves and add the syrup to your preferred beverage. Mix a bit of the syrup with gin, lime juice, and elderflower liqueur, and you have a Mountain Mint Martini!

Cheers!
THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.