Late Bloomers

In the last weeks of summer, it is a treat to welcome new flowers to the garden that not only bring fresh color, but also nourish our native pollinators before winter arrives. Two species of the perennial plant, Chelone (pronounced “key-LONE-ee”), start blooming in late August and continue well into fall. Both make great additions to gardens in the Eastern US, and both are known by the rather strange common name, “Turtlehead.”

Chelone glabra starts to bloom just before Labor Day

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) has a wide native range, extending from Minnesota to Newfoundland and south to Alabama and Georgia (Zones 3 to 9). It is found in marshes, at the edge of wet woodlands, and along the shores of streams and ponds. That native habitat makes White Turtlehead an obvious choice for sunny rain gardens and soggy areas, but it will happily endure hot weather with occasional irrigation. White Turtlehead stands 3 to 4 feet tall and mixes well with Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower.

White Turtlehead in a rain garden

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) has a much more limited native range. It evolved in the Appalachian region from Georgia to Virginia, but has become naturalized in New York and parts of New England. Our observations suggest that insects in these northern areas have welcomed Pink Turtlehead, making good use of its nectar, pollen, and leaves. Pink Turtlehead is more tolerant of shade than White Turtlehead, and can be found in moist forest areas in dappled sun.

Chelone lyonii in a protected forest in New York

Pink Turtlehead also grows 3 to 4 feet tall and has an open, somewhat rangy form. There is a widely-available cultivar of Chelone lyonii called ‘Hot Lips’ that is more compact, only 1 to 2 feet tall, with dark green leaves. ‘Hot Lips’ looks great massed under trees or as a front-of-the-border plant in a light-shade garden.

Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ in late August

Both types of Turtlehead bloom for two months or more, with flowers opening sequentially from the bottom to the top of each stalk.

‘Hot Lips’ in a shade garden in mid-September
‘Hot Lips’ in October

Both the scientific name and the common name relate to the appearance of the flowers as they open. “Chelone” comes from the Greek word for “turtle.” The name makes sense if you see the flower from the side angle – it does look a bit turtle-ish.

 White Turtlehead
Turtle head! (Actually, this is the Nature Center’s Sulcatas tortoise. And as for those turtle “hot lips”? Just recall beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)
Photo: Travis Brady

Chelones are beautiful late bloomers, but the best reason to have these plants in your garden? Entertainment! All day long, wiggling bumblebees work their way into the flowers to find nectar. Bumblebees and carpenter bees are just heavy enough and strong enough to force the flowers open, collect the pollen, and fly off to the next flower. Watch them at work in this video clip:


The nectar pay-off is deep inside the flower, so the bumblebee picks up pollen on the way in and on the way out. The pollen will be transferred to the next flower when the bee brushes against the protruding curved stigma.

What the bee sees…

Turtlehead is a frequent addition to children’s gardens because watching the bumblebees climb into these beautiful blossoms never gets old.


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.


Summer Buzzin’

Have you ever heard a plant hum?

On a sunny summer day, you can actually hear Shrubby St. John’s Wort humming. It’s not the plant itself, of course, but the sound of extremely happy bumblebees buzzing as they collect pollen from countless bright yellow pom-pom flowers.

“St. John’s wort” is the common name for a family of almost 500 plant species worldwide. The name refers to its time of bloom – around St. John’s Day on the Christian calendar, or June 24. “Wort” is the old English word for “plant,” especially plants known for their medicinal value. Perhaps you’ve heard St. John’s wort recommended as an herbal remedy for mild depression? That particular St. John’s wort is Hypericum perforatum, a weedy perennial native to Europe and now considered invasive in parts of North America.

 Shrubby St. John’s Wort in front of the Manor House

The “humming” plant we love is Hypericum prolificum, or Shrubby St. John’s Wort. It is a beautiful shrub, native to the US from New York west to Minnesota and south to Louisiana and Georgia. It does indeed start blooming at the end of June, and continues to dazzle for weeks into the summer. The scientific name “prolificum” refers to the enormous number of flowers the shrub produces. The shrub itself forms a rounded mound 3 to 4 feet tall and wide with small blue-green leaves.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort loaded with flowers

If you go shopping for Shrubby St. John’s Wort, you will likely see Hypericum frondosum, a very similar shrub with a cultivar called “Sunburst” that has slightly larger flowers. Its original native range is further south, in Tennessee and Kentucky, but it does perfectly well in southern New York gardens and throughout Zones 5 to 8. Another species, Hypericum kalmianum, is native to the Great Lakes region and hardy to Zone 4. While botanists can tell these three shrubs apart, most gardeners consider them virtually interchangeable. And all of them have year-round value as landscape plants.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort is essentially carefree, and makes an attractive foundation plant or hedge in full sun. It doesn’t need pruning, but you can shape it to suit your site. The leaves produce a substance that is mildly toxic to deer, so deer avoid it. In autumn, the shrub holds onto its leaves until late in the season, and it has great fall color. And in winter, interesting seed capsules remain on branches that have attractive grey-brown bark.

 Fall color is a mix of red, yellow, and orange

There is no nectar in the flowers of St. John’s Wort, so it’s not a stopping place for butterflies. However, caterpillars of several moth and butterfly species, including the lovely gray hairstreak butterfly, do use the leaves as a host plant. Pollen is the big attraction. The flowers have a huge number of stamens, all loaded with pollen, so bees of every size and description come to the party.

How many bumbles can you find on just 3 flowers? (Hint: there are 5!)

We never get tired of watching the action, and we can observe up close because the bees won’t spare a second even to notice nearby humans. They are fixated on pollen collection, as you can see in this slow-motion video:

Pollen collection

And what about that summer buzzin’? Turn your sound up and, technology permitting, you may hear the sound of a plant humming!

Summer buzzin’

Happy Pollinator Month!

June is here — the bees are buzzing, the butterflies are fluttering, and everybody is excited about summer flowers. It’s National Pollinator Month!

At the Nature Center, we are also celebrating the first anniversary of our newest Pollinator Garden. It is astonishing to see how lush, diverse, and colorful our garden has grown in just one year!

Want to know how we did it?

The “Before” photo

Right next to our big open lawn, in a very visible spot near the beehives, there was a messy patch of weeds. The soil was poor and dry, and there was very little shade. So…the perfect spot for a pollinator garden! The first task, done by Guy Pardee of Suburban Natives LLC, was to clear the area, getting rid of all the weedy invasive plants. Then, the ground was covered with leaves and left for the winter.

After the first clearing

The following spring, we cleared it again and prepared to plant.

Ready for planting, May 2021

A good friend to the Nature Center, Bill Boyce of Biosphere Landscape Architects, came up with a great idea for the garden. We would make a literal “pollinator pathway” wandering through the blooming flowers, with signs along the way identifying pollinators. Bill did a “back-of-the-envelope” concept sketch for us on site.

The idea in formation

We roughed out the lines in the dirt, and then defined the path with mulch.

The idea emerges
Pathway lined with mulch

Then it was time to plant. We chose tough native plants — species that evolved in our region growing in open dry meadows, able to survive without fertilizer, pesticide, or supplemental water. And though we planned to water and weed the garden for a season or two until the plants were established, we wanted a garden that eventually would need little maintenance. We also needed plants that would not be attractive to deer, rabbits, or woodchucks. We made a plant list, scoured the nurseries, and bought about 450 plants in containers (with funds contributed by multiple donors).

If you would like to know which plants we selected, click on the link below.

We started in the middle, planting the “spine” of the garden with tall, deep-rooted Switch Grasses that would support the tallest flowers in the center of the garden.

The center “spine” of the Pollinator Garden

We then worked outward, planting clusters of flowering species arranged in descending height. Shorter native grasses and ground covers were added along the edges to fill in and provide texture. We planted densely, aiming to have the plants grow together to occupy all soil areas within 2 seasons, thereby reducing available space for weeds.

Plants are spaced 12 – 18 inches apart

We decided not to mulch after planting, for a few reasons. Some of the invasive plants removed from the area were deep-rooted and would re-appear soon, with or without mulch. Weeds would be easier to see and remove promptly if we did not mulch. We also hoped our new plants would quickly grow together, expanding to occupy the entire ground space, and reseed themselves freely in the garden. Mulch would inhibit those natural growth processes. Finally, mulch would prevent the pollinators we are trying to attract from nesting in the ground, as many of them want to do. We want to support pollinators through their entire life-cycles.

We finished planting the Pollinator Garden on June 2, 2021. By August 2, it was in full bloom and alive with pollinators.

Two months after planting, August 2021

As we had hoped, this spring the garden came back full and lush. Weeding is ongoing, but not as difficult as we had anticipated.

The Pollinator Garden this week, June 2022
Photo: Nick Macaluso

So, please come celebrate Pollinator Month with a walk on our new pathway, and let the pollinators give you a tour!


Click the picture below to get more ideas on how to plan and plant your very own pollinator garden.

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!