Oh, My Darling Columbine!

One of the early joys of spring is the cheerful sight of Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming in forests and gardens. In April and May, delicate two-tone flowers in red and yellow dance in the breeze, suspended from slender stems above fine-textured foliage. Elongated petals end in tubes or spurs that hold rich supplies of nectar. As the flower opens, yellow stamens descend, loaded with pollen. The over-all effect is simply enchanting.

Aquilegia canadensis flowers hold nectar at the top of tubular petals
To reach the nectar, pollinators must go through a cluster of pollen-bearing stamens

The leaves are divided into 3 leaflets, and each of those is also divided into 3 parts with rounded edges, giving the plant a soft, fern-like appearance. The leaves are full at the base of the plant, but more widely separated high on the flower stems, emphasizing the blossoms.

The foliage of Columbine is easily recognized

The genus name Aquilegia comes from Latin for “eagle” because the spurs at the top of the flower reminded someone of an eagle’s talons. The common name “Columbine” comes from the Latin word for “dove,” apparently because the same part of the flower reminded someone else of doves sitting together in a dovecote. If you don’t see either resemblance, you are not alone.

Eagle talons? Doves in a circle?

It has been said that the number of common names a plant collects is a good indicator of its popularity with humans. If so, Columbine clearly is a crowd favorite! It has been called “Granny’s bonnet,” “Granny’s nightcap,” “Jack-in-trousers,” “Dancing fairies,” “Red bells,” “Rock lily,” “Turk’s cap,” and “Meetinghouse,” among others. (“Meetinghouse” was a real puzzler until someone explained that the “doves” are arranged in a circle as if they are in a meeting!) 

Pick your favorite nickname, but definitely add this plant to your garden, because the popularity of Eastern Red Columbine is entirely justified! Native to the entire Eastern US from Canada to Florida and west almost to the Rocky Mountains, Columbine has been a garden favorite for generations. It is easy to grow and never fails to bring a smile.

The flowers and leaves may appear fragile, but the plant is surprisingly tough. Its native habitat is lightly-shaded woodlands with fairly rich, slightly acidic, and well-drained soil. But Columbine also can be found in the wild on rocky outcroppings in sand and gravel soil. Individual plants are not long-lived, and may be out-competed by more aggressive plants, but Eastern Columbine seeds itself around in delightfully surprising ways, maintaining a reliable population in a suitable area. Seeing Columbine pop up around the garden is always a pleasure.

Columbine may appear in unexpected places
“Volunteers” joined a patch of Baptisia

Eastern Columbine may be over 3 feet tall when in flower, but is typically shorter. The flowers last for weeks, and with afternoon shade, the lovely foliage remains fresh all summer. Hot weather may cause the leaves to fade before fall, but the plant is quite drought tolerant and will likely reappear — often in multiple places! — the following spring. It is winter hardy in Zones 3 to 9, and deer and rabbits leave it alone.

 Aquilegia canadensis is 2 to 3 feet tall and lovely in sun-dappled shade

As you might guess, with its red flowers and long tubular nectar wells, Eastern Columbine is a favorite of hummingbirds. Butterflies also visit the flowers, and some short-tongued bees may cheat, biting through the tops of the flowers to reach the nectar. It is the only known host plant for the Columbine Duskywing caterpillar.

Hummingbirds cannot resist Eastern Columbine

There are several cultivars of Aquilegia canadensis available, and all three are shorter than the species, reaching only 8 to 15 inches tall. A.canadensis ‘Corbett’ is an all-yellow form that is lovely, but seems to be less robust than the species. A.canadensis ‘Little Lanterns,’ which bears red and yellow flowers like the species, and ‘Pink Lanterns,’ with paler flowers, both do well in garden settings.

A. canadensis ‘Corbett’
 A. canadensis ‘Little Lanterns’

There are many other species of Columbines in the world, some native to the Western US and many native to Eurasia, but the only one native to the Eastern US is Aquilegia canadensis. It’s a darling Columbine, and we are really lucky to have it!

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.
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Spring Shopping List

Are you thinking about what to plant in your garden this year? Nurseries are already displaying their new stock, and native plant sales are popping up everywhere. It’s time to make your shopping list for spring planting. And we can help!

Over the past year, “Around the Grounds” has recommended some great native perennials that will bring life to your garden. Here are some of our favorite flowering plants — with links to blog posts containing photos and tons of information about each of them:

For Sunny Gardens

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) – late bloomer, hot colors

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) – fall bloomer, essential for pollinators

Milkweed (Asclepius spp.) – long bloom time, critical for Monarchs

Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea or aptera) – blooms early and long

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) – long-lived, shrub-like spring bloomer

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum spp.) – fragrant long bloomer

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.) – tall butterfly magnet

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) – long-blooming butterfly favorite

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) – late blooming bumblebee favorite

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) – red spikes for hummingbirds

Coral Bells (Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’) – deer-resistant hosta substitute

Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) – shrub-like, blooms early

For Shady Gardens

Native Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) – long bloomer, hardy

Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) – large, showy white flowers

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) – shrub-like with pink flowers

Wild ginger (Asarum canadensis) – low ground cover, hidden flowers

Golden groundsel (Packera aurea) – shade/sun flowering groundcover

Creeping Sedge (Carex laxiculmus) – clumping grass that stays blue all winter

Violets (Viola sororia) – early flowering groundcover

All of these plants evolved in our region, are well-adapted to our soil and weather, and support native insect and bird populations. Many are deer-resistant and drought-tolerant. You can learn more about their favorite garden conditions in the linked blog posts.

We’ve also recommended ferns, grasses, shrubs, and trees, so browse older posts by clicking on the “Around the Grounds Collection” button below.

Happy spring shopping! And if you live in the Greenburg, NY area, mark your calendar for our spring plant sale on May 13 where many of these plants will be available.

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.
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Violets Are Blue…

She bathed with roses red, and violets blue,
And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forest grew.

Sir Edmund Spenser, 1590

Celebrated in song and verse for centuries, violets have been revered for their delicate beauty, their culinary and medicinal value, their sweet scent, and their happy association with spring. Depending on the culture and time, violets have been symbols of many virtues, including modesty, purity, faithfulness, everlasting love, and remembrance. With over 400 species distributed around the Northern Hemisphere, violets have been known, appreciated, and used by humans all over the world and throughout history.

Only in recent times have violets fallen into disrepute — as an enemy of the perfect lawn. Weed-killers have been employed widely to get rid of this “delicate and fair” little bloom. But at what cost? Let’s reconsider.

The Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia

The Common Blue Violet, native to forests and meadows of the Eastern US, is Viola sororia. The word sororia means “sisterly,” apparently because our native Violet bears a close family resemblance to the hundreds of other species of Viola distributed around the globe – a vast sorority!

The Viola genus also includes the large variety of annuals known in horticulture as “pansies,” but African violets are in an entirely different genus and unrelated. Numerous other species of Viola are native to the US in varying flower and leaf colors, and are suited to a variety of habitats. Horticulturists have developed cultivars of Viola sororia in pure white, speckled, and even grayish forms that are available for sale. But even in the wild, natural color variations are common among Viola sororia, so you may see blue and mostly-white flowers growing together.

Blue-and-white flowers occur naturally

Both the flowers and leaves of the Common Blue Violet are edible – and tasty! The leaves may be eaten raw in salads or cooked like spinach, and they are loaded with vitamins A and C. The flowers have a delicate flavor and are frequently used to garnish salads, or candied as a charming decoration for sweets. It’s easy to find directions on-line for making your own candied violets, and all you need is an egg white and sugar. Just be sure to harvest your violets from a spot that has NOT been treated with herbicide or pesticide!

Candied Violets are pretty and delicious

Violets have been used medicinally in many cultures. They are said to have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and to be useful in a tea for treating coughs and colds. Poultices made from Violets also have been used to treat skin conditions like insect bites, dry skin, and eczema.

Like most native plants, the Common Blue Violet’s greatest value is to nature. Violets are the host plant for some of our most spectacular native butterflies – Fritillaries. Just like monarchs, whose caterpillars only feed on milkweed, all 20 species of Fritillaries must lay their eggs where their caterpillars can find Violet leaves. The caterpillars usually stay close to the ground, hiding under the leaves and feeding on them at night. The adult butterflies will visit many different nectar flowers and are always a thrill to see.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly
Photo: Marcie O’Connor, prairiehaven.com
Variegated Fritillary butterfly
Fritillary caterpillar feeding on Violet
Photo: Marcie O’Connor, prairiehaven.com

Violets are also an essential source of nectar to many early-emerging native bees. At least one species of American bee specializes in Violet pollen, meaning that is the only thing the bee can eat and feed its young. Andrena violae is a small bee common in the Eastern US that emerges from its winter hibernation in April and May and immediately begins hunting for Violets, which bloom at just the right time. The bee pollinates Violets so they can produce seed, keeping future populations of Violets available to feed Fritillaries — a great example of the inter-connection between native plants and multiple insects.

The native habitat of Viola sororia is moist woods and along streams, but it can adapt to sunny conditions with enough water, which explains why Violets do so well in fertilized and irrigated lawns. In the garden, in rich soil and partial shade, Violets make a lovely and durable groundcover. The heart-shaped leaves look tidy all summer long, and individual plants can live up to 10 years.

Violets make a pretty garden groundcover

Violets spread easily by seed, which is why they are so often considered “weedy.” In addition to producing seed from pollinated flowers, Violets utilize cleistogamy, a process of self-fertilization that guarantees survival even if unpredictable weather conditions in early spring do not allow for sufficient pollinator visits. Cleistogamous flowers appear in late summer, never opening for insect pollination, yet still producing fertile seeds. The seeds mature in capsules that literally explode, throwing seeds up to several yards away from the parent plant. Seed dispersal is further helped by ants that collect the seeds for their rich coating of protein and fat. The ants discard the seeds after consuming the coating, effectively planting them at even greater distances from the parent.

The medieval ideal of lawn in the Unicorn Tapestry

For most of our history, people considered a “flowery mead” to be the idyllic lawn, a beautiful and romantic place for children and lovers to frolic in the merry month of May. So, consider leaving the “modest and delicate” blossoms of violets blooming this spring. The bees and butterflies will thank you!

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.
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A Perennial Star

It won’t be long now…the show is about to start! 

Each spring, excitement builds as Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) breaks ground and gets ready for its performance, which happens in three acts! Amsonia is a 3-season performer. From May through November, this native plant is a star.

Eastern Bluestar emerging in May

The overture starts in mid-spring when shiny green leaves emerge wrapped around deep blue flower buds. The buds ride along as the leafy stalks rise to a height of 30 to 40 inches. Soon, the real show begins as the pale blue stars that give the plant its common name open, attracting a huge variety of pollinators.

The flowers rise with the growing stalks
 Pale blue stars cover the plant by late May

The second act lasts all summer long – four full months! Amsonia is a clump-forming perennial that functions almost like a shrub. In time, the plant expands slowly from the base, but does not spread easily either by rhizomes or seed. The glossy foliage looks fresh all summer, reaching about 3 feet tall and almost as wide, and mixes well in a garden border, or even in a meadow planting. The stems may be cut back a bit after flowering to keep the plant’s compact form, or allowed to arch out in a looser shape.

Amsonia tabernaemontana at the New York Botanical Garden paired with Zizia aurea for a dazzling native combo
 Amsonia in the foreground with meadow plants in mid-summer

In Act Three, Amsonia turns bright yellow, and the fall color lasts for weeks! It looks great combined with evergreens and fall berries, or mixed with contrasting foliage colors. The plant goes dormant and dies back to the ground in winter after 7 months of extraordinary performance.

In November, Amsonia’s brilliant yellow contrasts with the purple foliage of Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) at the Nature Center

Native to moist woodland edges, and along streams and ponds from New York to Florida and west to Texas and Illinois, Eastern Bluestar is happy in Zones 3 through 9. Though its natural habitats are moist areas with well-drained soil, it is quite drought tolerant once it is established, and is reported to tolerate clay as well. It prefers full sun in the northern part of its range, but appreciates some afternoon shade in warmer regions. 

Young plants may take a few seasons to get established, but Amsonia is a long-lived perennial. After a few years, the base of the plant becomes quite woody and difficult to divide, but left alone, it comes back year after year for a decade or more. And Amsonia is pest resistant – it has white latex sap that deer and other critters avoid. Gardeners with latex allergies may also wish to avoid it by wearing gloves. 

It’s surprising that Eastern Bluestar isn’t better known among today’s gardeners since even its name dates back to Colonial times. Amsonia was named for a physician and amateur botanist, John Amson, who lived in Williamsburg, Virginia and once had a very famous patient. In 1758, George Washington was worried that he had contracted “consumption” (tuberculosis) during the French and Indian War. Fearing the worst, he visited Dr. Amson for advice. The good doctor reassured General Washington that he had nothing more than a common cold and was not going to die. To honor the esteemed Dr. Amson, the botanist John Clayton named the perennial flower “Amsonia” shortly thereafter.

If you go shopping for Amsonia tabernaemontana, you are likely to run into a few other Amsonias, and there can be some confusion here. A variety called Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia is native to the southeastern U.S. and has slightly narrower leaves than the northern species. It is often sold in nurseries in the Northeast, and is difficult to distinguish unless they are viewed side-by-side. There is no particular reason to avoid salicifolia unless you are in the Northeast and trying to plant strictly local native species.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ with taller Eastern Bluestar in the background

A more perplexing issue is presented by Amsonia ‘Blue Ice,’ which is being widely sold and is becoming increasingly popular. A few years ago, a commercial grower with a greenhouse full of Amsonia tabernaemontana noticed some plants in the crowd with slightly larger and darker blue flowers and foliage more compact than the species. Horticulturists first classed ‘Blue Ice’ as a “selection,” a naturally-occurring variation with desirable characteristics that is then cultivated for sale by stem cuttings. Further study, however, has suggested that ‘Blue Ice’ is of “uncertain parentage,” which sounds a bit scandalous and could mean that ‘Blue Ice’ is a hybrid or an accidental introduction or something else altogether. At present, although the genetic mystery rules out the plant for purists, it really is a lovely garden perennial. ‘Blue Ice’ stays under 2 feet tall, which is great in smaller gardens.

Amsonia hubrichtii

There is another popular species of Amsonia called Amsonia hubrichtii or Threadleaf Bluestar, which is native only to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Although it is a fine garden plant, and is regularly sold outside its native range, you will maximize ecological benefits in your own area by planting the species that is native there. 

For most of the Eastern US, and much of the Southcentral US, Amsonia tabernaemontana, our own Eastern Bluestar, is the true perennial star. Let the show begin!

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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.
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Bird Food Grows on Trees!

Spring is here, and love is in the air for our backyard birds! After a long winter of subsisting on seeds and berries, birds need a new menu in spring. Soon they will be mating, nesting, laying and hatching eggs, and hunting from sunrise to sunset to feed their newborn chicks. That takes a lot of energy, and it requires a special diet.

Baby birds can’t eat seeds or berries. They need the protein and other nutrition found only in insects. And, though baby birds will eat a variety of insects, their favorite food is caterpillars, the larvae of moths and butterflies. Caterpillars are soft, easily digested, and loaded with nutrients. Bird parents need thousands of caterpillars to raise even a single clutch of babies. Where are all those caterpillars to be found?

 A pair of chickadees needs 7,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise 3 baby chicks
Photo: Doug Tallamy

Caterpillars, quite literally, grow on trees – but only on native trees! For example, not one species of caterpillar has been observed growing to maturity (to become a moth or butterfly) on Norway Maple, a non-native tree. A bird searching for caterpillars on a Norway Maple will find nothing to feed her babies. In contrast, many native trees are hosts for hundreds of different species of caterpillars, so they produce lots of bird food.

Among native trees, some species are much more productive hosts than others. Recent studies have ranked native tree species for their ability to host caterpillars. So, which are the best trees to have around if you want to feed the birds?

Oak

The undisputed MVP of caterpillar-producing trees is the native Oak (Quercus spp.). You cannot go wrong planting a White Oak (Quercus alba), Red Oak (Quercus rubra), Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea), Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa), or any other Oak tree native to our region. Oaks are host plants for over 550 species of caterpillars! Think of Oaks as the grocery store for bird families.

Though this White Oak likely holds thousands of caterpillars, it is not at all disfigured by their munching!

Willow

Second only to Oaks as caterpillar factories are the small trees in the Willow family. Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) is a great garden plant and hosts over 450 species of caterpillars. (The familiar weeping willow tree, however, is not native to North America and is not a host plant.) Our recent blog post found here is full of information about Pussy Willow.

Pussy Willow is a small multi-trunked tree great for smaller gardens
Pussy Willow in bloom supports native bees

Black Cherry

Our native Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) and the closely related shrub, American Plum (Prunus americana), are essentially tied with Willows as caterpillar producers, with over 450 known species using their leaves as hosts. Both also produce fruit that adult birds enjoy in the summer. Black Cherry is not often planted, but if you have one in your yard, take good care of it, and the birds will thank you. American Plum has beautiful flowers, can form a dense thicket, and is a great shrub for a privacy screen if you have some space.

Wild Black Cherry is incredibly valuable to birds
Bees, butterflies, and birds all flock to American Plum

Birch

Native birches are next in line as caterpillar producers, hosting just over 400 species of moths and butterflies. River Birch (Betula nigra) is a favorite as a landscape plant, and its crazy bark holds a variety of insects that attract woodpeckers all winter. Chickadees, warblers, wrens, and many other songbirds hunt and find caterpillars in the leaves of birch trees.

River birches make lovely landscape plants
Photo: Mia Edwards
The bark of River Birch adds winter interest

Apple

Malus, the apple tree family, hosts over 300 species of caterpillars and includes the lovely crabapples that bloom so profusely in late spring. Crabapple is another caterpillar host that is of equal value to native bees because of the pollen and nectar provided by its flowers.

Crabapple in bloom

Maple

Our native Red Maples (Acer rubrum) and Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) host 285 species of caterpillars and are gorgeous shade trees. But be sure to choose one of these natives rather than a Japanese Maple or the invasive Norway Maple, which do not host native insect species at all.

Native red maples are stunning in the Fall

White Pine

It may surprise you to know that even our native White Pine (Pinus strobus) is an impressive larval host to moths and butterflies. Over 200 species of caterpillars develop on the needles of native pines, and many of them over-winter on the tree. If you watch carefully, you may spot birds combing the branches of pines and making trips back to their nests with juicy caterpillars for their babies.

Pine trees are also caterpillar hosts

It is often said that trees are essential to life. They pull carbon dioxide from the air and store it for years. They produce oxygen, manage storm water, improve soil, provide shade, and shelter so many animals. It is easy to forget, however, that their leaves also feed the little wiggly creatures that make life possible for all of our beloved birds. Our choices – which trees to plant, which to take down, and which to care for – have a huge impact on the world around us. Choose wisely!

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.
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