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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

If you feed them, they will come

I don't know if other people pay attention to such things, but plants go to a lot of trouble to attract pollinators and seed dispersers. Yes, the situation is a win-win for both the critter and the plant, but I cannot think of plants as inanimate, even if they are generally quiet.(Mine may sometimes whisper, "Water! Water!")

Some plants put out the herbaceous equivalent of neon signs. Look at this pair of jewelweed blossoms.

Those dots are markers, leading pollinating insects and hummingbirds into the center of the blossom, where the nectar and pollen are found. "Eat here" is the likely message. Successfully pollinated jewelweeds celebrate by turning each blossom into a seedpod that can explode its contents across a wide area for something so small (hence the other common name, "touch-me-not").

Other plants produce flowers in abundance. What we call the flowers of daisies (and their relatives, the asters, coreopsis, zinnias, sunflowers, and whatever I'm leaving out) are in fact not flowers; they're modified leaves. The little yellow things in the center of this "Wild Romance" blossom are the individual flowers.

That's a lot of baby asters waiting to happen.

An unsprayed planting attracts lots of pollinators. This patch of obedient plant frequently hosts so many bees that their buzzing can be heard several feet away.

A not-particularly-outdoorsy relative noted with some surprise that the bees express absolutely no interest in nearby humans--and why would they, with all those tubes of nectar and pollen attracting their attention?

The feathery tubes of liatris have been one of this year's more popular eateries, with the same stem often hosting multiple pollinators. There seems to be plenty for everyone.

And it's not only flowers that feed animal visitors. Once all that pollinating has resulted in seed formation, seed-eating creatures come in for the harvest. I've never been able to photograph a goldfinch in action, but this semi-denuded echinacea seedhead is the remnant of a goldfinch snack.

I sometimes wonder why we bother with bird feeders.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wild things

This afternoon my spouse mentioned a video he'd seen on Facebook, of a man in Arizona who had the bright idea of putting a heating pad under his hummingbird feeder during a hard freeze and who eventually had hummingbirds perching on his hand and getting warm by letting him turn a blow-dryer on them. Our hummingbirds are not that tame.

True confession: as much as I enjoy watching hummingbirds, we do not have a hummingbird feeder. Instead, our hummingbirds make do with wild food, and we grow lots of the (more or less) wild food they like. One favorite this year was red monarda,

and even though it has finished for the year, the hummingbirds are finding plenty to keep them fed. This evening, a single glance revealed five outside the dining room window: two fighting over the liatris (which had more than enough stems to feed two quarter-ounce birds), two chasing each other off the red honeysuckle, and one tiny singlet who managed to duck under the dueling duos and sip daintily from the agastache. Nearly any day during gladiolus season finds hummers working their way up and down the blossoms. Today brought the first jewelweed bloom, and if last year is any indication, the jewelweed patch will be hummingbird heaven.

Some days, the hummingbirds buzz the humans as a warning to stay away from their favorite plants, although most days they ignore us. This evening, I was able to sit in my favorite outdoor chair and observe hummers resting on the rhododendrons and the eastern wahoo. (Even the most hyperactive of birds have to perch sometimes.)

Hand-feeding hummers would make an interesting retirement project, but I think I prefer them wild.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


This has been a lousy year for lepidoptera on Chipmunk Ridge--more cabbage whites than anything else, and that is probably the one butterfly we don't want, given the propensity of its caterpillars for devouring our baby broccoli leaves. (Yes, I kill the little green munchers.) But at last, butterflies are showing up, though not in their usual numbers.

Yesterday we saw the first (and so far only) monarch of 2014, although something ate the leaves of the side-yard milkweed last month. Today brought black and tiger swallowtails, and the liatris are attracting their fair share of skippers. We are hoping that more of everyone's favorite pollinators show up before the season is over.

At least our clethra are doing their thing. (And if you don't know what clethra is, here is last year's blog post praising my favorite summer-blooming shrub.) Today the "Ruby Spice" outside the dining room had bees and wasps quarreling over who got which luscious stem of blooms. (There were plenty for everyone. I even got to cut some to bring in the house.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ladies and Lepidoptera

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be in Montgomery County with my stepson's family as part of the extended celebration of a 95-year-old aunt's birthday. A remarkably cool July afternoon allowed us to spend some time at Cox Arboretum Metropark, where one of the highlights is an extensive butterfly garden with a butterfly house as a centerpiece. While some of our group relaxed near the pond, the three teenage granddaughters took me on a tour of the lepidoptera showcase.

It turns out the the butterfly garden attracts more than just butterflies, as these box elder bugs were not at all shy about engaging in the exchange of genetic material right along a public path.

The (possibly) most adventurous of the three granddaughters discovered this cute little spider lurking on the echinacea.

There were not a lot of adult butterflies out at the time of our visit, but they had obviously been in the area. A pipevine arbor was inhabited by a number of these fierce-looking (and toxic) pipevine swallowtail caterpillars. According to the volunteer staffing the butterfly house, sometimes the pipevine hosts so many cats that it is possible to hear them chewing. (Are these little guys the reason why black and orange are the Halloween colors?)

 Possibly my favorite butterfly house juveniles, though, were the enormous caterpillars of the cecropia moth. I have never seen one of the adults, not being prone to wandering around outdoors at night, but the cecropia is our largest native moth, with a wingspan roughly the size of a dollar bill. The cats were a good four inches long and as big around as my index finger.

Given the enthusiasm with which these adolescent invertebrates were demolishing maple leaves, I kept my fingers well away from their chewing parts, so you get no size comparison from me.

But aren't they cute? The human teenagers thought so.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A new favorite place

Where did July go? I last posted on the 4th, and here it is almost three weeks later. I'm not even sure what exactly kept me so busy--but there were house projects, and yard projects, and an absolutely magical week at Oberlin College for the Unitarian Universalist Ohio Meadville District Summer Institute: lots of learning, laughing, good music, and good people.

Oberlin the town and Oberlin the college are both pretty amazing places. The town was founded by a couple of idealistic Presbyterians who took their not getting eaten by a bear as a sign that they had found the right place for their new intentional community, and the college was multiracial at its founding in 1830-something and was the first college to admit women a decade or so later. The place manages to be quaint and historic and progressive and funky all at the same time, with some utterly gorgeous architecture (for those of us who like Collegiate Gothic)

and fascinating plantings. The ultramodern Oberlin Conservatory is hedged with carefully pruned staghorn sumac, a feature that would never have occurred to me.

This traditional-looking colonnade, part of an Italianate building

actually is home to a surprise: each column, and each face of each column, is different. Some of the carvings are totally medieval in feel

while others probably represent someone important in the history of the college. I particularly like this guy.

Oberlin is also home to a 90-acre arboretum that includes two lakes surrounded by raised gravel paths. My walking partner and I got there at what must have been the right time of day.

As if the sheer physical beauty of the place weren't enough to cap off a perfect afternoon, a cedar waxwing decided to hang out in a tree next to the trail for several minutes.

This first visit will not be my last.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A little piece of paradise

We all need a place where perfect relaxation is possible. My  place is in the chair on the right in this photo, tucked behind ridiculously red "Jacob Cline" monarda and "White Swan" echinacea.
 To my right, not visible in the picture above, is a streetside hedge of mixed physocarpus (and assorted other things), giving privacy without isolation in the unlikely event that I should ever need to summon help from the neighbors. (I read too many mysteries in the summer.)

Sometimes, hummingbirds decide to visit,

but even when they don't, one of my favorite things to do in the
yard these days is nothing.

With all the daisies and grasses in bloom right now, there is never
 a dull moment.

For instance, sitting with a cup of coffee this morning, I got to enjoy a pair of goldfinches nibbling the rudbeckia. The presence of darting golden birds is worth the sacrifice of a few petals. Before dinner, a pair of mourning doves was courting on the ground under the birdfeeder, while adolescent finches (still at the adorable fuzzy-eyebrows stage) sat on various perches and poles demanding food from their parents (despite the presence of food all around them).

This has not been a good butterfly year so far, but we do have our share of whites and sulfurs, not to mention LOTS of fireflies.

 But the honest truth is, my favorite summer non-activity 
is watching the feather grass wave in the breeze.
Who needs to visit the Low Country salt marshes when there's paradise in Parkersburg?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One of the best things about Parkersburg

I love public amenities. Admittedly, public gardens and other green spaces are not (and probably cannot be) as individual as the private spaces featured on last week's garden tour, but--they are public. Open to everyone and, in many cases, free.

Such is the case with the Blomberg Arboretum adjacent to the main Parkersburg library. This is a small public greenspace, one that can be walked in just a few minutes if one is not ogling the plants and animals, but the variety and liveliness packed into this small area make it deserving of attention, particularly because most of the plantings are West Virginia native species. In spring the arboretum overwhelms with flowering trees and in late summer with prairie flowers and grasses in full bloom, but something interesting is happening all the time.

Right now, the water lilies in the entrance pond are putting on quite a show

while a past-peak oakleaf hydrangea still commands attention.

Some of the beds have a formal layout, demonstrating that native plant gardens need not be messy,

although some plants, like this silphium, do want to get a tad out of control.

Nearly everything in the arboretum is labeled, making this a teaching space. There is even a (more or less) formal space for lectures, shaded by several large native wisteria (not to be confused with the Asian wisteria currently devouring the South).

This wisteria attracts bees and other beneficial insects, though I wasn't able to get a decent picture of any of the little pollinators happily working this plant this morning.

All of this beauty and information are freely available to anyone who wanders over from the library parking lot, and it is nestled in what for us is a busy area. The upper-floor balconies of a senior citizens' apartment building overlook some of the arboretum's trees, the space backs onto back yards, and the gap in the fence leads to an unused alley that allows quick pedestrian access to the businesses on Emerson Avenue. The city arboretum demonstrates the relative ease of making room for nature in even small spaces in our human communities.

It has also made me change my opinion that most monarda is boring. The developing blossom of monarda fistulosa is a new favorite thing.