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!

The All-American Shamrock

This week on our Around the Grounds blog, we discuss the origin of the shamrock to celebrate Saint Patricks day.

Legend tells us that St. Patrick used a shamrock, with its three leaves on a single stem, to teach ancient Celtic peoples about the Christian trinity. There is no agreement among historians, theologians, or botanists, however, as to which specific plant is the legendary Irish shamrock.

Some believe St. Patrick’s shamrock was one of several species of clover (Trifolium spp.) native to Europe and Britain. Others claim that the true Irish shamrock is in the family Oxalis, perhaps due to a report from a 16th Century Englishman who wrote that the Irish ate “shamrocks,” and plants in the Oxalis family were known to be edible. Adding to the confusion, the Irish word “seamróg” means “little clover.”  

Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, several Oxalis species are sold as shamrocks both here and in Europe, which just annoys those who insist the traditional shamrock is a clover. In 1988, someone conducted a public opinion poll in Ireland asking which plant is the true shamrock, and the results split among several plants, including two varieties of clover and at least one Oxalis, with no real majority view.

In any case, St. Patrick’s Day seems an appropriate time to nominate an American native plant as the New World shamrock. Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is sometimes called “sourgrass,” “pickle plant,” or adding to the general confusion, “lemon clover.” As a candidate for St. Patrick’s Day shamrock, Yellow Wood Sorrel certainly looks the part. 

Yellow Wood Sorrel in bloom
Photo: Ansel Oomen, Bugwood.org

Yellow Wood Sorrel is useful, maybe even pretty if you look closely, and it is found absolutely everywhere. Yes, it is a weed! You’ve probably pulled it out of your lawn, your garden, your containers, your driveway or sidewalk — maybe without knowing or caring what it is.

Like many other weeds, Yellow Wood Sorrel grows in a wide variety of habitats – sun or shade, dry or wet, and rich or poor soil. Each of its 3 leaves has a fold down the middle. At dusk, the leaves close up and stay that way until warmed again by the sun.

The little yellow flowers have 5 petals and bloom from spring through late fall. The plant produces lots of seeds in capsules that stand upright above the foliage. When the seeds are ripe, the capsule explodes, throwing seeds up to 3 feet away! 

Oxalis stricta leaves fold up at night like little pleated skirts
Photo: Courtesy of Pixabay.com 

Yellow Wood Sorrel is edible, though in very large quantities it may be mildly toxic. You really should try clipping some tender leaves, or the little yellow flowers, and sprinkling them like micro-greens on top of salads, fish, or chicken. The taste is like lemon, sour and a bit bitter, but refreshing. Tender stems and leaves may be steeped in hot water (a handful of leaves per pint of water) to make a lemonade-type drink high in Vitamin C.

Bees, butterflies, and ants make use of the flowers of Yellow Wood Sorrel, and its long season of bloom means the flowers are available throughout the nectaring season. Perhaps we should be grateful that this weed provides some wildlife benefit by stubbornly popping up in even the most manicured suburban landscapes.

Yellow Wood Sorrel is a small weedy plant that grows everywhere
Photo: T. Webster, USDA, Bugwood.org

So, the next time you find yourself pulling Yellow Wood Sorrel from all the places it doesn’t belong, think of it as shamrock and then save a few leaves for your lunch. Sláinte!