The Redbuds Are Coming!
The Redbuds Are Coming!

Long before Paul Revere made his historic ride, Redbuds were alerting everyone to the arrival of spring.

The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small understory tree that shares the dappled edges of woodlands with two other American classics – Amelanchier and Flowering Dogwood, both featured here in earlier posts. Amelanchier (Serviceberry) is the first to bloom, followed by Redbud, and then Flowering Dogwood. If you are looking for a small flowering tree, skip the invasive Callery (Bradford) pear, take a pass on the Asian cherries, and go for one of these historic native beauties.

Redbud announcing spring at the Nature Center

Redbuds are unusual in that the flowers emerge along the branches, stems, and even the trunk of the tree. The flowers range from soft pink to deep fuchsia, and sometimes even in white. The tree is in the legume family and the flowers do look like pea blossoms. Long-tongued bees, like carpenter bees, reach deep into the flowers to sip nectar and emerge covered in pollen. The seeds are encased in something like pea pods and may remain on the tree all winter.

Redbud flowers emerge directly from the wood
Flowers may sprout even from the tree trunk

The leaves of Redbuds are large, somewhat shiny, heart-shaped, and are the host for Henry’s elfin butterflies. Perfect for smaller properties, the trees rarely exceed 25 feet in height. They have a rounded shape and look pretty even in winter. Fall color typically is not spectacular, but one recent introduction, ‘Forest Pansy,’ has beautiful purple leaves that turn deep red in the fall. And there is an interesting weeping form called ‘Lavender Twist’ that resulted from a natural mutation that has since been propagated by horticulturists.

‘Lavender Twist” Redbud
Redbud in full summer leaf at the Nature Center

The flowers of the Redbud are edible – either fresh, boiled, or fried. Native Americans ate the flowers, and also used the dried bark of Redbud as a spice. The seeds are edible, too, when roasted.

Spring salad garnished with Redbud and Violet flowers

Our local Redbuds, Cercis canadensis, evolved in the forests of the Eastern US, from southeastern New York to parts of Florida, and are hardy in zones 4 to 9. They are understory plants that grow in shade, but they flower best with more sun. They are happy in average garden soil and are well-suited to suburban yards. There are related species of Redbuds native to the dry heat of Texas, Nevada, and California that will survive in zones 8 and 9.

Redbuds really do have a connection to colonial US history. George Washington wrote in his diary about his particular interest in Redbuds. His initial preference for European plants was fading, and he became increasingly interested in indigenous American plants. He collected Redbud seeds from local forests and planted trees he grew from seed on his own property, no doubt increasing the popularity of our native tree.

A mother robin nested in a Redbud at the Nature Center

So, hear hear! The Redbuds are coming!

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.

Can Your Ground Cover Do This?

Spring is happening, and one of our favorite native ground covers is ready to impress.

Packera aurea (formerly classified botanically as Senecio aureus) is also known by the common names Golden Groundsel, Golden Ragwort, and Butterweed. It’s hard to think of a ground cover that can match Packera for flower power. In April, it sends up flower stalks that stand 12 to 24 inches above the heart-shaped leaves. By early May, it bursts into bloom with bright yellow daisy-like flowers that last up to two months. It is simply stunning!

Packera just starting to bloom in April
The full razzle-dazzle at the Nature Center in May

When the bloom finally finishes, you can cut back the flower stalks or leave them standing. Allowing the seeds to ripen and fall will keep the plant colony fresh. The bright green leaves of Packera form a weed-suppressing mat that looks good all summer and well into the fall. Packera is vigorous, spreading by shallow runners, and will fill in quickly where it is happy, but it is also easy to control. Transplanted divisions do well if you want to share extras with friends.

Packera in late June with flower stalks remaining

Packera is an effective and attractive ground cover even when it’s not in bloom. The foliage will fill in under shrubs and around tall perennials, but it can overwhelm shorter plants unless you trim it back. Packera is semi-evergreen, and will continue covering the ground throughout the winter, even under snowfall.

Looking good in late September
Packera is still mostly green in December

Hardy in zones 3 through 9, Packera’s native range extends from the upper Midwest throughout the Eastern US. It naturally occurs at the edges of moist woodlands and in wet meadows. It is happy in light shade or part sun, but it can take full sun as long as there is adequate soil moisture. It prefers rich acidic soil.

Packera is very valuable to native bees, especially to small cuckoo and halictid bees who benefit from its early supply of pollen and nectar. The plant is not at all attractive to deer. This time of year, you can find Packera for sale at good nurseries, native plant sales, and on line.

So, are you among the many in our region who use non-native ground covers like pachysandra, ivy, or vinca? If so, we just have to ask…

Can your ground cover do this?

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.

A Most Gracious Host

Photo: Travis Brady

This week in Around the Grounds, we learn about the hostess with the mostest.

Amelanchier invites everyone into the garden, sets an elegant table, and makes sure no one leaves hungry. It is the consummate host plant.

Amelanchier (pronounced “amuh-lank-kee-yer”) is a small tree or multi-trunked shrub that will feed bees, butterflies, birds, woodland animals, and humans, all while looking beautiful. You may know it by one of its many common names: serviceberry, shadbush, shadblow, juneberry, wild plum, sugarplum, or saskatoon. While there is debate about the origin of some of these names, everyone agrees that it was called “shadbush” by settlers in New England because its early bloom time coincided with the spawning season of shad fish in northeastern rivers.

Amelanchier blooms in April, covering itself with delicate white flowers, and providing essential nectar and pollen for the first emerging bees. The elegant white blossoms are a welcome sight contrasting beautifully with evergreens. While the flowers remain, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and moths all come to visit.

The most common form of Amelanchier is a multi-trunked shrub or small tree
The single-trunked tree form can reach up to 30 feet, but remains open and airy

Leaves appear as the flowers fade, but Amelanchier never creates heavy shade. The leaves are narrow and open, so there is plenty of light for underplanting. A true host plant, Amelanchier feeds an estimated 124 species of caterpillar, including the Viceroy, the Striped Hairstreak, and the Red Spotted Purple. That hospitality makes Amelanchier a very appropriate addition to our Pollinator Garden.

Adult Red Spotted Purple Butterfly
Amelanchier right now in the Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center
Photo: Travis Brady

Our gracious host really sets a fine table in June when the berries appear. That’s when the common names “Juneberry” and “Sugarplum” make sense. Amelanchier berries are not only edible, they are delicious! About the size of blueberries, but delicately sweet like raspberries, Amelanchier berries can be eaten right off the branch or turned into a very fine pie – but only if you can get enough of them before the birds do. It seems that robins, blue jays, cardinals, and mockingbirds all are willing to eat the berries a day or two before we think they are ripe. And we have seen chipmunks and squirrels risking life and limb to climb way out on swaying branches to get their fair share. Most years, we humans only get a handful or two of berries.

Amelanchier berries ready for everybody
Get ‘em while they last!

Botanically, Amelanchier is complicated. The genus includes over 20 species with native ranges from Canada and Alaska across the entire northern US, with some species even in Arizona and Florida. The best garden varieties in the northern US are Amelanchier arborea and Amelanchier laevis, both found in the taller tree form, and Amelanchier canadensis, which is more typically the multi-trunked shrub form. All three are hardy in zones 4 – 9 and prefer conditions typical of woodland edges, light shade and moist, fairly rich soil. These and other Amelanchier species freely interbreed both in the wild and in nursery conditions, so natural hybrids are common and very difficult to tell apart. If you’re shopping, you can choose a single trunk or multi-trunked specimen, and take whatever the label says with a grain of salt. But you really can’t go wrong.

After all, a gracious host like Amelanchier never turns a guest away from the garden….

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.

Marvelous Milkweed – Not Just for Monarchs!

This week on Around the Grounds, we learn about the wonders of Milkweed and why it should be a staple in every home garden.

Last week in Around the Grounds we joined the happy buzz about pollinator gardens springing up everywhere. We know that bees need native flowers for nectar and pollen. Butterflies also need nectar, and they need the host plants their caterpillars eat. So, a good pollinator garden supplies all three resources – nectar, pollen, and host plants. Planting a big variety of native plants is the best way to do that.

However, there are a few special plants that do all three jobs. Top among them is Milkweed (Asclepias spp.). Milkweed, of course, is the only host plant for Monarch butterflies.

A Monarch caterpillar

If you go looking for monarch caterpillars on Milkweed, you may discover an entire, complex ecosystem. A research study in Ohio documented 457 different insect species on just one stand of Milkweed! That’s a lot of biodiversity supported by this amazing plant.

In addition to monarchs, Milkweed is the host plant for 11 other species of Lepidoptera (the insect family for moths and butterflies). One of them is the Milkweed tussock moth. Many a gardener has been shocked to discover a mass of little wriggling black caterpillars rapidly devouring their prized Milkweed plants. But before you panic, consider the careful balance nature has designed.

The Milkweed tussock moth arrives later in the season, after most of the Monarch caterpillars already have eaten their fill and turned into butterflies, so there is plenty of Milkweed for everybody. As these little black caterpillars mature, they wander away from the pack and grow from creepy to… sort of cute? But don’t touch them without gloves. Those funny hairs can sting like nettles.

Milkweed tussock moths are important night-pollinators, and their main predator is bats. Astonishingly, they have developed a defensive sonar-type beep that warns bats away from them.

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar
Photo: M.J. Raupp

Another common sight on Milkweed is a large population of Milkweed aphids. You could hose them off, or squish them with your fingers. Or, you could just watch as ladybugs show up to feed on them. Ladybugs are very effective insect-eaters. One ladybug can eat up to 50 aphids a day. Lacewings, tiny parasitic wasps, and several other beneficial insects also are likely to join the aphid hunt, so the aphid situation seems to take care of itself in our garden.

Ladybugs feeding on Aphids

We’ve found walking sticks, praying mantids, ants, bees, flies, wasps, spiders, and specialized Milkweed bugs and beetles, all living their best lives on Milkweed.

You never know what you’ll find on the underside of Milkweed leaves
A spider sets up shop to see what wanders in
Milkweed bugs eat the seeds in late summer and fall 
Photo: Travis Brady

Oh! Did we mention butterflies? Milkweed is loaded with nectar and draws ALL the butterflies – not just Monarchs. 

Spicebush swallowtails in mating dance on Milkweed

While the best Milkweed for supporting all of this life is probably Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), that species is rather big, coarse, and an aggressive spreader for smaller gardens. Sadly, it’s the loss of Common Milkweed from roadsides, farmyards, and wild places all the way from Mexico to Canada that has caused the tragic decline of monarch populations.

But gardeners are making a difference, and with beautiful Milkweed species for smaller gardens, it’s really easy to do. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows 3 – 4 feet tall and blooms for months. Its lavender-pink flowers blend in with lots of other sun-loving perennials. It is perfect for pollinator gardens, meadows, and mixed borders. And it also comes in white!

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a butterfly magnet
Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet”

Every garden can find a place for Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). This lovely Milkweed is a perfect front-the-border plant. It grows about 2 feet tall and is fairly compact. It stays where you plant it and is reliably hardy. The straight species is a sunny orange, and there is a bright yellow cultivar called ‘Hello Yellow.’ Butterfly Weed does best in full sun and well-drained soil. It rarely needs supplemental water, and never needs fertilizer.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) at the Nature Center 

Whether or not you are planning a pollinator garden, if you love nature, be sure to add marvelous Milkweed to your spring planting list.

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.

What’s the Buzz?

This week on around the grounds, we learn about the ecological advantages of pollinator pathways. Additionally, get some useful home gardening tips that help our pollinator pals! 

Have you heard all the “buzz” about pollinator gardens? It seems that community groups everywhere are planning, planting, or maintaining pollinator gardens. Schools, parks, churches, and homeowners are adding pollinator-friendly native plants to landscapes all around us. Are you involved?

Pollinator Pathway garden sign

The original “Pollinator Pathway” idea was to create linked gardens through urban and suburban areas so that pollinators could travel, finding what they need to survive along the way.

The concept has grown wildly and Pollinator Pathway organizations are popping up everywhere, including locally in Irvington, Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Bedford, Elmsford, and many others.

Physically connecting pollinator gardens into an actual pathway is less important than having lots of them everywhere. From big meadows to front lawn patches to container gardens on balconies, every blooming native plant helps pollinators.

August Brosnahan and friends started a pollinator garden along the Old Croton Aqueduct
Friends of Dobbs Ferry Waterfront Park planted native plants for pollinators
Photo: Don Vitagliano

Driving this movement is recent documentation of a stunning decline in insect populations, especially pollinators. Since many of our food crops depend on insect pollination, this is a huge wake-up call for all of us. Insecticides, agricultural techniques, and loss of habitat all contribute to crashing insect populations. And since most birds depend upon insects to feed their young, bird populations also are declining rapidly.

The New York Times reports on the “Insect Apocalypse”

Unlike many other global problems, we can actually do something about this crisis — right in our own yards. Pollinator gardens are a powerful force for good. And the bonus? They are gorgeous! Every time we convert a patch of lawn, or bare dirt, or a weed-infested spot to a pollinator garden, we not only provide survival essentials for birds, bees, and butterflies, we brighten our neighborhoods with color and life.

The pollinator garden at Dobbs Ferry Waterfront Park
Photo: Nancy Delmerico
This pollinator garden replaced a lawn in Hastings
Photo: Myriam Beck

So, what makes a garden a pollinator garden? Short answer: native flowering plants. The two main classes of pollinators we are trying to save are butterflies and bees, especially native bees. Bees need flower nectar and pollen. Butterflies need nectar and host plants for their caterpillars to eat. Pollinator gardens should provide all 3 essentials: nectar, pollen, and host plants.

Native bumblebees need pollen from native plants
Photo: Travis Brady

The reason we keep emphasizing native plants is because most of these insects are specialists — they depend upon one or two specific species of plants for survival. For example, there are over 20 species of native bees that can only eat the pollen of Goldenrod! And just as Monarch caterpillars can only eat the leaves of Milkweed, other butterflies’ caterpillars are also completely dependent upon specific plant species – their “host”plants.

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar on its host plant, Zizia
Adult Black Swallowtail on Zizia at the Nature Center

Pollinator gardens do best in sunny spots. Butterflies and bees prefer sunshine and are more active in sunny areas. Any place that lawn grass grows is a good spot for a pollinator garden.

The best plants for pollinator gardens are native meadow or prairie plants. Adapted to harsh environments, they don’t need rich soil and never need fertilizer. Most of these plants are drought-tolerant, so they don’t need irrigation once they are established, and many are deer-resistant. And we recommend perennials rather than annuals, so the plants come back every year. It is easier, and definitely cheaper in the long run, to plant a perennial pollinator garden than it is to buy, plant, water, and fertilize annual bedding plants every year.

Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center

Spring is almost here! If you are thinking about planting or expanding a pollinator garden, there are loads of great resources to get you started. The Pollinator Pathway website linked above has how-to’s and plant lists. Watch for local native plant sales. The Native Plant Center will hold its annual plant sale this year at Westchester Community College on April 30. And the Garden Club of Irvington will have native plants for sale at the Greenburgh Nature Center on May 7, plus lots of knowledgeable help on hand.

And watch this space! Over the next several months, this blog will highlight many of our favorite pollinator plants. Come see them in action at the Greenburgh Nature Center all season long!

Come visit our Pollinator Garden!
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.