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.

Don’t Blame the Goldenrod

Glorious goldenrod, the bright star of the autumn landscape, is often falsely accused of causing fall allergies. The more likely culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time. Goldenrod pollen is sticky and heavy, not windborne, so it isn’t likely to make you sneeze. Ragweed, on the other hand, is a menace!

Goldenrod varieties begin blooming in early fall and continue until frost

Goldenrod is so important for pollinators that it is often called a “keystone” plant – its absence would cause numerous other species to disappear. Not only is it a rich source of late-season nectar, but there are over 20 species of native bees that can only eat the pollen of goldenrod.  Without goldenrod, whole species of bees would become extinct!

A bumblebee buffet

And goldenrod is a wonderful garden plant, just coming into bloom in late September as most flowering plants start to fade. You can find goldenrod ‘Fireworks’ (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’) at most local nurseries. It is a well-behaved, clump-forming perennial that truly earns its name: bursts of tiny yellow flowers shoot out in every direction, attracting pollinators of all types. 

Fireworks!

Another great garden plant is ‘Golden Fleece’ (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’). Unlike most goldenrods that can reach a height 3 feet or more, ‘Golden Fleece’ is compact, staying under 18 inches and spreading slowly to 2 feet wide, making it a great front-of-the border choice. We use it as an edger along the path in our new Pollinator Garden. 

‘Golden fleece’ is a great edge plant

Both varieties, like most other goldenrods, are deer resistant, drought tolerant, and prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Look for ‘Fireworks’ at the Nature Center right at the entrance to the Meadow. You’ll see ‘Golden Fleece’ lining both sides of the path through the Pollinator Garden. Many other varieties of goldenrod pop up naturally in the Meadow and in the woods where you will find them bringing that amazing sunshine color into our fall landscape.

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ at the Meadow entrance
Blue-stemmed Goldenrod at woods edge
Goldenrod glowing in the Meadow

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.

What’s in a Name?

One of our favorite fall flowers is Helenium autumnale, commonly called “sneezeweed.”  Helenium is covered with flowers from early September until frost, and it blooms in all of the fall colors – yellow, orange, red, and burgundy – sometimes all at once on the same plant! The flowers attract bees and butterflies, and the plant is a reliable, well-behaved perennial that enjoys full sun and average soil moisture. 

Heleniumn autumnale ‘Mariachi Salsa’

The only part of its name that makes sense is “autumnale,” because it does indeed bloom in autumn. Apparently, the name “Helenium” refers to Helen of Troy, and some romantics say that the blooms arose originally from Helen’s tears. Since the plant is native to North America, and Helen of Troy didn’t even know this continent existed, that legend makes no sense.  Maybe the flowers are as beautiful as the mythical Helen? The bees seem to think so.

Multiple colors on the same plant

And then there is the strange and misleading common name – “sneezeweed.” Helenium is pollinated by insects, not wind, so it is not a source of fall allergies. However, the seeds of Helenium were used by certain Native American tribes as a sort of snuff intended to cause violent sneezing when inhaled. It was thought that clearing the sinuses with strong sneezes was therapeutic. Unless you try that, Helenium should not cause any sneezing.

We planted Helenium ‘Mariachi Salsa’ along the foundation of the Manor House, as well as in the Pollinator Garden.  It only grows to about 2 ½ feet tall, and it forms a tidy mound that looks good at the front-to-middle of the garden. Try it for great fall flower color and to feed late-season pollinators. Although the straight species has mostly yellow flowers, nurseries are showing numerous cultivars in a variety of showy fall colors.

Helenium at the Manor House foundation
Helenium in the pollinator garden

Call it Helenium, or even call it “Helen” if you like, but please don’t call it “sneezeweed.” That’s just mean.

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.