Cabbage on the Cliff: Endangered Species Include Many Plants

What comes to mind with the phrase “endangered species”? Elephants. Rhinos. Wolves. Pandas. Right? How about cabbage on a stick? Mead’s milkweed? Kuenzler hedgehog cactus? All of the above are endangered species, but while plants are less well known and less iconic, they are no less important and their reduced numbers affect biodiversity just as much as their zoological counterparts.

Botanist Kyle Wallick of the U.S. Botanical Gardens stated that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 40% of plant species are endangered as compared to 20-30% of vertebrates and an unknown number of invertebrates. This includes 941 species or about 5% which are federally listed. Wallick said that human land use has had the greatest impact on plant populations. However, he also noted that environmental and ecological events, such as geological movements, climate change, fire suppression in some cases, and catastrophic weather events like hurricanes and earthquakes can also affect plants. Habitat fragmentation and invasive species can also reduce plant populations.

In addition, a lack of pollinators can also affect plant diversity. Wallick gave the example of the Hawaiian plant cabbage on a stick (Brighamia insignia) and said it is not known what happened to the pollinator for this plant. It is native to two Hawaiian islands, Kauai and Niihau and largely grows on sea cliffs. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the pollinator for this plant was a type of hawk moth which has since gone extinct. As a result, the plant largely exists in cultivation and is currently being pollinated by people.

Poaching can also impact threatened and endangered plants. Wallick said historically orchids, cacti, and other succulents are the most frequently poached plants, which puts pressure on wild populations. He did say he encourages growing endangered plants in gardens, so long as they have been legally purchased. He mentioned the Ben Franklin tree (Franklina alatamaha) which he said was “likely extinct” in the wild, but has been preserved in cultivation.

Wallick stressed the importance of education and knowing what plants in the area are threatened or endangered. He also suggested volunteering for invasive plant removal as invasives are a significant threat to native species.

While all endangered species, whether animal or plant are a threat to biodiversity, plants generally get less media attention and individual species of endangered plants are less well known. Nevertheless, many of them are still important to pollinators and are a vital part of the ecosystem. However, with education, preserving habitat, and limiting the spread of invasives, biodiversity can be restored to many parts of the globe.

Coming Next: My annual wildlife gardening article! This year I will feature a few endangered plants that can make great garden plants as well.


The Dinner Plate Offers a New Way to Control Asian Carp

What if a fish cake or dumpling could not only be a delicious dinner, but also a way to control an invasive species? In recent years this has been attempted with Asian carp or copi as they are now being called, which pose a significant threat to many lakes and rivers around the country.

Asian carp actually refers to four different species of carp native to Russia and China. They are the grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idello), the bighead carp ( Hypophthalmichthys nobilis), the black carp ( Mylopharyngodon piceus),and the silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix). Brian Shoenung, Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Manager and Aquaculture Manager in the Fisheries Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said that Asian carp push out native fish from preferred habitats. He stated that due to their large size they have the potential to deplete the zooplankton population which reduces food for all larval fish as well as some adult fish and native mussels. He said that species most impacted include the paddlefish, buffalo, and gizzard shad. He also noted that they create a hazard for recreational boating by jumping out of the water. Schoenung said that many native predators will consume the small carp, but they grow very quickly and become too large for most native predators. According to the Audubon Guide to Fish, grass carp and silver carp can grow up to 39 inches and grass carp can weigh up to 100 pounds.

Unlike many of the more recent arrivals, which have been accidentally introduced, bighead and silver carp were brought to the U.S. in the late 60’s and early 70’s as biological control. Schoenung said both intentional and unintentional stockings of grass carp have taken place and black carp were likely in contaminated shipments of grass carp, but once they were discovered they were used for snail control in aquaculture ponds. He noted this was following the publication of Silent Spring when there was growing concern over the use of chemicals for this purpose.

Schoenung said Asian carp have been used for food for quite awhile, but that incentives in the Illinois River started in 2019. He said that it was early to determine the effects of harvesting, but that almost 10 million pounds have been removed from the Illinois River since 2019 and scientists were starting to see “positive signs of that impact.”

As was mentioned at the beginning, the four species of Asian carp have been rebranded as copi. stated that “copi” is a shortened version of “copious,” referring to the fish’s abundance and said the renaming was a combined effort of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Asian Carp Steering Committee, and Southern Illinois University. Schoenung said the name change was to give them a unique identity and differentiate them from more than 20 other species of carp. Invasive species are a frequent topic in environmental news, and while eating them isn’t a solution for all, Schoenung said there are others for which this might be a means of control and he mentioned lionfish, nutria, and feral swine. He also said they were a nutritious protein source and it would be “irresponsible” not to use them this way. stated that the fish are high in Omega 3 and since they are fast growing, they don’t accumulate contaminants as much as other fish higher in the food chain. The website also said that in addition to helping to restore native species, such as walleye, perch, and lake trout harvesting copi addresses food security issues as well. Gina Behnfeldt, Project Manager for said that the price of copi was “competitive” with other fish and she encouraged people to ask for copi if local supermarkets did not carry it. The website, which includes several recipes, said that they work with a range of seasoning and can be pan fried, broiled, baked, roasted, grilled or ground for cakes, dumpling, and tacos.

Invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity worldwide and Asian carp are no exception. In addition, food security issues have become especially pronounced in recent years and foods high in protein have been particularly difficult for many people. However, encouraging a market for copi achieves the goal of both limiting food insecurity and restoring healthy diverse aquatic ecosystems for many generations to come.

Purple Copi Fish Cakes


Prep: 25 mins

Cook time: 6 mins.

Serves 4

8 oz. minced raw copi

6 oz. purple cooked rice

2 tbsp. blue corn masa

1 tbsp. chopped cilantro

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

salt and pepper to taste

canola oil

micro greens

1 oz. chili sauce

1 mango

1-2 tbsp. orange juice

In a large bowl combine copi, rice herbs, and spices. Add masa and mix well. Refrigerate 16 mins. For the mango coulis, peel and seed the mango. Place it in a blender with orange juice and puree at high speed. Pass through fine sieve to remove small bits. Refrigerate. Shape 8 patties and coat with breadcrumbs. Pan fry in canola oil on medium heat for 2-3 minutes and place on towel to drain excess oil. Spoon mango coulis on a plate with copi cakes in the middle. Top with micro greens and fresh pepper. Serve warm. Enjoy! For more recipes, see

Birds, Butterflies, Bees, and People: Gardens Bloom For All

The robin flitted among the blueberries, while nearby a monarch alighted on the echinacea growing nearby. A woman walked through the garden picking raspberries and observing the habitat she had created. With increasing development, many birds, bees, and butterflies face challenges in finding food and nesting areas. Likewise, with increasing food prices, many people are facing similar challenges. However, there are a large number of native plants that can be food for both wildlife and people and that will be this year’s focus for the annual wildlife gardening article.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

This flower grows 26-36 inches tall and is a nectar source for many butterflies. It is native to Illinois, eastern Oklahoma, northeastern Texas central Louisiana, southern Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Its leaves can be used for a tea for congestion and sore throat.

Bee balm (Monarda didyma)

This flower grows 36-48 inches tall and is a favorite of bees. It is native throughout New England, New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and, as its name implies, is popular with several species of bees. Its leaves can also be made into a tea that a Native American remedy for congestion and sore throat. (Though food is this year’s focus, I did stretch it to include beverages).

Raspberry (Rubus odoratus)

It is a shrublike plant, which grows approximately five feet tall, and has rose purple flowers from June to September. It is native from Ontario to Nova Scotia south to Geogia, west to Alabama and north to Wisconsin.

Low blueberry (Vaccinium augustifolium)

The low blueberry grows two to five inches tall, needs sun, and can tolerate infertile, acidic, and rocky soil. It flowers from May to June and fruits from June to August. The berries are an important food for many types of birds and can be eaten raw or made into jellies and jams. It is native to Labrador, Newfoundland, and Manitoba, south to New Jersey and west to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Minnesota. There is also the highbush blueberry (Vaccinum corymbosum), which grows up to 10 feet and would not be suited to a community garden, but will be fine in a larger space.

Common strawberry (Fragaria virginium)

It grows three to six inches tall and has white flowers from April to June and fruits in June. It is native throughout North America. Strawberries do spread, but I have successfully grown them in my community plot for the last few years. Since they are an early flowering species, they can also be a help to pollinators when there are only a few other plants in flower. The berries of the previous three suggestions are equally popular among both birds and people and birds can frequently beat their human neighbors to the harvest. If this is the case, it is possible to put netting over some for the gardener’s enjoyment and leave others for the feathered neighbors.

Fox grape (Vitis labrusca)

This is a high climbing vine with dull red or purplish black grapes. It would need a trellis or pole and also generally needs pruning in late winter.

Butternut squash (Curcurbita moschata)

This is a vine producing large yellow flowers and fruit in summer. It was one of the “three sisters” of Eastern Native Americans and the flowers are an important food source for the squash bee. The fruit can be baked and made into soups. (I have an excellent recipe for butternut soup). It is a large vine and does take some space, but it can be done in a community plot.

Running serviceberry (Amelanchier stonifera)

This is a small shrub which grows approximately five feet tall and has white flowers and purplish black fruit in early summer. It is native to Quebec, Maine, south to North Carolina and West to Iowa and Michigan. There is also the western serviceberry (Amelachier ainifolia), which is native to western Minnesota and northern California.

Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

This is a tree with whitish flowers and bright green fruit turning pale orange in autumn. The fruit can be used for puddings, cakes and drinks. Native Americans also made persimmon bread and stored the dried fruit. It is native to Connecticut, south to Florida and west to Kansas and Texas.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana)

This is a small tree or shrub which grows approximately ten feet tall and flowers in early spring. The nuts attract ground birds including grouse and the northern bobwhite. It is native to Maine and Saskatchewan south to Georgia and Louisiana.

Wild sweet crabapple (Malus coronara)

This is a tree which grows to 30 feet and has white flowers and yellowish green fruit. It is native to New York south to northern Geogia, northern Alabama and west to Illinois, Missouri, and Michigan.

A large number of bees, butterflies, and birds are facing threatened or endangered status due to reduced habitat. However, providing sources of fruit, berries, nectar, and cover in backyards, on balconies, and community gardens can provide much needed food and nesting sites for many of our colorful, buzzing, and feathered neighbors. In addition, as many human households are also facing food challenges, growing native herbs and fruit can be a benefit to the dinner table as well as creating connections with our backyard denizens.

Powered by a Plant: Pennycress Offers Potential For Renewable Diesel

What if the next time you boarded a plane, your flight was powered by a flower? This is the second of two articles on field pennycress (Thlapsi arvense). The last one focused primarily on the development of pennycress as both a cover and oilseed crop which could be grown in winter and early spring when fields are otherwise fallow. This one will look at the process of using it for renewable diesel as well as its potential as a clean energy.

Steve Csonka, the director of Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, said that the aviation industry has been working on developing sustainable fuels and oil seeds are one type of solution. He wished to differentiate between biodiesel and renewable diesel stating that both are produced from biomass, including oil seeds, but renewable diesel goes through a different process.

Csonka and Winthrop Phippen, professor of plant breeding and genetics and Western Illinois University, both said that field pennycress is a viable alternative to petroleum. As was stated in the previous article, field pennycress, which is one of several pennycress varieties, is a small white flower. It grows in late winter to early spring and produces approximately 14 seeds which are 25-35% oil. The organization IPREFERCAP (Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience Project) which also does research on pennycress stated that it can produce as much oil as soybeans. In spite of this, Csonka said a couple billion gallons of oil from pennycress was not the only solution and the aviation industry was looking at other options. As was also previously stated, field pennycress is in the mustard (Brassicae) family, and Csonka said other species in this family could also be used. Phippen mentioned Ethiopian mustard, which can be grown in the Southeast, as well as Camelina satvia also had potential as oilseed crops. While renewable fuel for jets is important, other vehicles are more common forms of transportation and Csonka said that renewable diesel can also be used to for cars, buses, and trains.

Csonka explained that different types of fuels are determined by different lengths of hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are organic compounds containing, as their name suggests, only hydrogen and carbon and often occurring in petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Diesel is made up of 12 hydrocarbons and above and gasoline is 8 and below. Currently renewable diesel is blended with petroleum up to 50% and Csonka said it would probably be a year to a year and a half before a process with no blending was approved, but he said the industry was “moving in that direction.”

At one point, that little plant may not have seemed like much. Though it will not be the only solution, it has the potential to be one of them. While it is necessary to be mindful of our energy usage, innovation and testing new ideas can go a long way to meeting many of the challenges we face. One day, it may be possible to ride a plane or drive car powered by a flower.

Growing Solutions: Field Pennycress Offers Potential

What if there could be a new source for renewable diesel that could both reduce dependence on fossil fuels and also be a cover crop? Field pennycress (Thlapsi arvense) is a common plant in the Midwest, which is now being studied both for its potential as a source of renewable diesel jet fuel and a cover crop. This will be the first of two articles on field pennycress. This one will focus on the characteristics of pennycress and the second one will look at how it is used for renewable diesel.

Field pennycress is both a winter and spring annual. It can be grown over the winter months and harvested in late May or early June and then followed with corn or soybeans. The seeds are approximately 36% oil, thus its potential as renewable diesel source. It is in the mustard family, native to the Mediterranean region, and produces a flat heart shaped seed pod, which contains approximately 14 small oil seeds. Winthrop Phippen, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Western Illinois University, said that the winter variety of pennycress was better due to both its higher seed yield and its earlier flowering, which then allows the same land to be used for another crop. He did, however, say there were other uses for the spring variety. He also said it was a viable alternative to petroleum and it was “estimated” that 2 billion gallons of fuel could be produced from pennycress. Phippen noted that the U. S. demand for aviation fuel was about 10 billion gallons a year, but there were other plants that could also be used for renewable diesel and he mentioned the Camelina sativa and the Brassica carinata or Ethiopian mustard.

As was previously mentioned, field pennycress is native to the Mediterranean region and was introduced into the U.S. There are often concerns with introduced species, due to a lack to predators to keep their numbers in check. However, Phippen said that field pennycress is not aggressive, easy to control, and doesn’t grow in the summer months. He also said it was in the process of being domesticated through gene editing. In this process, genes can be turned on and off, such as the ones that control color or contain poisonous chemicals. Phippen gave the example of rape seed, which is wild canola. Rape seed contains the poisonous chemical sinigrin, but this has been bred out of domestic stock. In the case of field pennycress, gene editing is being used to change the color so it can be fed to livestock. Phippen wanted to clarify the difference between genetic editing and genetic modification (GMO). Genetic editing only involves altering the genes that are already there, whereas GMO is mixing the genes of two or more species. Field pennycress is one of several pennycress species. There are native varieties of pennycress, which can also be a source for oil, but Phippen said native varieties can’t be fed to animals and have fewer uses.

Fossil fuels, which have been main economic driver, are not renewable and have created air pollution, serious health problems, and rising temperatures. While it is important to be mindful of our fuel usage, it is equally true that we travel, heat our homes, and turn lights on. The importance of innovation and imagination in finding sustainable solutions will be a necessity going forward. The next article will focus on how pennycress can be used as a fuel as well as its potential to be a significant renewable energy.

The Spotted Lanternfly Expands Its Range

There’s an odd grayish mud patch on the car. That may not be a mud patch at all, but an egg mass from the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula), which is a pest native to Asia, but discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014. I did an article on the spotted lanternfly previously. However, they have since expanded their range and new information has also surfaced, so it seemed worth revisiting. (For the previous article, click on January 2019 in the archives sidebar).

They are native to China and South Asia and it is believed they were introduced into the U.S. in a stone shipment around 2012. They feed on sap from over 70 different species, including apple, plum, cherry, peach, nectarine, apricot, almond, grape, maple, oak, pine, walnut, poplar, willow, and sycamore. Removing the sap reduces photosynthesis, which weakens the tree. The adults also excrete honeydew which allows for the growth of a sooty mold, which can further reduce photosynthesis and attracts ants, flies, and wasps. They are confirmed in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland New Jersey, New York, Virginia, W. Virginia, and Ohio. Signs of infestation include weeping wounds and trails of sap.

Ginger Nickerson, the Forest Pest Education Coordinator for the University of Vermont Extension, said there was more damage from stress than direct killing, though she said the spotted lanternfly has been known to kill the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which is also an invasive, walnut seedlings, and grape vines. She said the main concern was with agricultural plants and noted it was difficult to export products that were in a quarantined area. Emelie Swackhamer, the Horticulture Extension Educator for Penn State Extension, concurred and said that researchers have not seen the spotted lanternfly kill any trees, other than those previously mentioned, but she did say that heavy feeding reduces photosynthetic capabilities as well as carbohydrate storage. Swackhamer also said the long term effects were still being studied. It was previously thought the spotted lanternfly could not survive colder temperatures and this could limit their ability to spread. However, Swackhamer said one study showed the eggs could survive one month of 7 degrees Fahrenheit and it was “not likely” winter temperatures would kill the spotted lanternfly where they were already established. She said scientists “expected” there would be a northern limit as to where they could survive, but it was not clear what that was yet. The previous article also referenced a parasitic wasp that was being studied as potential biocontrol. Swackhamer said the USDA and associates were continuing these studies, but there were no results available yet.

A large number of invasive pests (emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight) target primarily one or two species and, in fact, their host plants are often contained in their common names. As was previously mentioned, the spotted lanternfly preys on over 70 different types of trees and plants. Swackhamer said it was unusual in that it does have so many hosts, but she did note that it does have its preferences. She said its wider range could make it more of nuisance in residential areas, but she also referenced the emerald ash borer, which has far fewer hosts but has killed millions of ash trees and she stated that in eastern PA there are countless dead ash trees that pose a hazard, due to the the possibility of them falling on power lines and buildings. Nickerson, however, said it was not “particularly unusual” and there were other invasive insects that had a wide host range.

The spotted lanternfly is a strong hitchhiker and will lay eggs on any smooth surface. As was mentioned in the introduction new egg masses (September-June) have grayish mud like covering, while old egg masses contain rows of 30-50 brownish seed like deposits in 4-7 columns. Adults (July-December) are approximately one inch long with a gray forewing that is speckled black at the base. The hindwing is bright red with a white stripe and a black tip. Young nymphs (April-July) are black with white spots. Nickerson and Swackhamer both said the insects should be killed if found and items should be inspected for adults or egg masses, especially if people are travelling to or from an area with a known infestation. In addition, any sightings, particularly in an area with previously unknown infestation, should be reported and Nickerson recommended or the Agency of Agriculture. In addition to automobiles, firewood is another way the spotted lanternfly and many other invasive insects travel. Nickerson said people should buy firewood that has been heat treated as well as purchasing wood as close to where it will be burned as possible. She gave the example of someone travelling 50 miles to a campsite and said wood should be bought near the campsite, rather than near where people live.

In this age of the global economy, plants and animals can travel easily. When a new species enters an area, it has few or no natural predators to keep it in check and it can spread easily. Once a species has been introduced, it is almost impossible to eradicate. The end result is that it can pose a serious threat to native species as well as costing millions of dollars in damage. Thus, it is becoming increasing necessary that people always know what they are carrying with them. However, with extra vigilance, it may be possible to keep the spotted lanternfly and other invasive pests to a more confined area.

Above Average: The NOAA Releases New Climate Normals

“The forecast for today is sunny and clear with a high of 85 degrees, which is above average for this time of year.” This is information that people generally like to hear each day-the weather. But when forecasters say “above average” or” below average” what do they really mean? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began tracking climate data in 1901 and both every 30 years and every 10 years they release new climate “normals,” or temperature and precipitation averages based on this data. This can serve as an indicator for the future. The most recent of of these time blocks ended last year. Why 30 years? There is a general rule is statistics that 30 numbers are needed for a reliable estimate, which is why this time frame was chosen to define what is “normal” in climate, which includes annual, seasonal, monthly, and hourly averages of temperature, precipitation, and other variables. Michael Palecki, the Normals Project Manager for the NOAA, stated that the World Meteorological Organization, which is part of the UN and helps its members adapt to a changing climate, requires member nations to release normals every 30 years. However, in 2015 they also began requiring normals every 10 years ending in 0, though Palecki stated that the US started updating normals every 10 years in the the 1950’s. 2020 was both the end of the 30 year and 10 year period which made it particularly significant.

The general trends the NOAA released for each quarter of the year are as follows:

January: Temperatures rose 0.5-1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over most of the country. The north-central region cooled by more than 1.0 degrees F and precipitation increased by 10-25%. Texas and Florida were also much wetter from 1991-2020.

April: Temperatures were lower in the north-central U. S. West and East of the Mississippi River were considerably warmer and the Southeaster quarter of the country was wetter. The Southwest was drier, though there was higher precipitation in the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes.

July: The Northwest was drier, though most of the West was near the same temperatures. There was a cooling trend in the north-central U. S. and a warming trend in the Northeast, entire West and Rocky Mountains. Texas was up to 2 degrees F. warmer.

October: The western 2/3 of the northern U.S. was wetter and cooler. The rest of the country was consistently warmer and the Southwest and South-Central was also drier. The East was warmer with alternating zones of wetter and drier.

The above information are the general trends the NOAA released in their report, but of course there are variations from season to season and in different parts of the country, which is largely due to differences in air currents, snow pack, and surface temperatures. Palecki explained that changes in the U.S. vary with season and location due to “differences in how atmospheric circulation responds to green house gas induced climate change. In recent decades, reduction between polar and equatorial regions causing the jet stream circulations above the mid latitudes to move further north and south as it becomes more sluggish. More northerly movements over the western U.S. and more southward plunges in the eastern U.S. have occurred especially in the winter and spring. This impacts temperatures and precipitation patterns. It is further complicated by changing patterns of soil moisture, snow cover, and other atmospheric feedbacks.”

Palecki also stated that climate change has “accelerated” in recent decades beyond the rate of change in earlier decades. Globally 2013-2020 was in the top ten all time for temperatures. The World Meteorological Organization stated in their “State of the Global Climate” that 2020 was one of the 3 warmest years on record and the 6 warmest years have all been since 2015. The WMO was contacted for an interview, but did not respond.

The climate is a complicated aspect of our planet and it is affected by many different factors. When certain parts of the country are negative 20 degrees the phrase “global warming” may not seem to be all that accurate. But climate is not based on relatively short time frames, but overall trends. An understanding of what these trends are and how climate is affected is crucial to our understanding of how we impact the planet as well as how we plan for the future.

A Flower Grows in the City: Smaller Spaces Can Still Create Habitat

The butterfly flew along the city streets looking for nectar.   But here it was just streets and buildings, with only some grass growing through the cracks in the sidewalk.   But then, as she came around a corner there was a balcony outside an apartment building with several pots of lilies, violets, and phlox. The butterfly alighted on one and drank her fill and as she did so, a child looked out the window at the etheral visitor.   The temperatures are warming up, the flowers are blooming, and it’s time for the annual wildlife gardening article.  As an apartment resident myself, I know small spaces are a limiting factor. Nevertheless, there are a number of plants which can be grown in the aforementioned smaller spaces and are a benefit to local wildlife. The first part of this article will focus on plants which stay especially small and so can be grown in a container and the second part will feature plants which get a little bigger, but are fine in a community garden plot.   

Plants for an apartment balcony:  

Yellow trout lily ( Erythoronium americnum)

This plant grows 3 to 6 inches tall, has yellow flowers in spring,   prefers moist, shady conditions, and is native to Novia Scotia to Ontario to Minnesota to Florida.   

  Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) 

This plant grows 12 to 14 inches tall, has violet, lavender, or blue flowers in spring, prefers moist soil, and partial sun to shade.    It is native to northwestern Vermont north to Quebec, west to Minnesota, and south to Georgia and Texas.    

Moss Pink  (Phlox subulata)  

This plant grows 2 to 6 inches tall, has pink flowers in early spring, and prefers well drained soil in a sunny location.   It is native to southern New York, west ot southern Michigan, south to North Carolina and Tennessee.   

Stream violet or pioneer violet (Viola Glabella)

This plant grows 4 to 8 inches tall, has yellow flowers from March to July, and prefers moist soil with shade to part shade.  It is native to the west coast east to Idaho and Montana.  It is a larval host for the silver bordered fritillary butterfly.  

Plants for a community garden: 

Wild columbine or Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

This plant grows 10-24 inches tall, has pale orange-red flowers in mid spring, and prefers well drained soil with partial sun to shade.   It is also particulary popular with the ruby throated hummingbird.  

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

This plant grows 12 to 36 inches tall, has red to orange to yellow flowers in summer, and prefers well drained soil in a sunny location. It is native to Ontario and Quebec, south to Florida, and west to South Dakota and Minnesota and is also in the the Southwest.   It is in the milkweed family and popular with many species of butterfly.   I am growing it in my community garden plot this year.   

Blue lupine (Lupinus Perennis)

This plant grows 14 to 30 inches tall, has red, violet, or white flowers from April to July, and thrives in acidic, infertile soil, though it can also do well in loamy soil.  It is native to Ontario and Newfoundland south to Florida, and west to Texas, Kentucky, Illinois, and Minnesota.  It is the exclusive food source for the endangerd Karner blue butterfly.  In addition, it is also what is known as a nitrogen fixer which means it can put atmospheric nitrogen into a form which all plants can use and thus increases soil fertility.           

Bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma)

This plant grows 36 to 48 inches tall, has red flowers in summer and prefers moist soil with partial sun to partial shade.    As its name implies, it is very popular with bees and is native to Maine, south to northern Georgia, and west to Ohio, and Michigan.   Its leaves can also be made into a tea which was a Native American remedy for sore throats.   Admittedly, this is one of the larger plants I have included this year.   However, I have successfully grown it in my community plot for the last few years and it is one of my favorites.   

Narrowleaf milkweed or Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)  

This plant grows 12 to 36 inches, has pale pink, purple, or white flowers from the summer to the fall, can tolerate either dry or moist soil, and prefers full sun.   It is native to the west coast, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah.   As a member of the milkweed family, it is a larval host for Monarch butterflies.  

While it is true that smaller spaces are a limiting factor for gardening, they can still provide green places, food sources for many pollinators, and a connection with the natural world. In our increasingly urban and technological world, it is more important than ever to have color amidst the pavement and see the butterfly on the flower. For a more comprehensive list of native plants, good resources are Native Plants of the Northeast: A guide to gardening and conservation by Donald J. Leopold and http://www.nwf. org/nativeplantfinder. Leopold’s book was the primary resource for this article and the National Wildlife Federation’s site will ask for a zip code and then provide a list of all plants native to that area. Happy Spring!

Birds in the Backyard Create Connections

The snow is deep and the night temperature dropped a long way below freezing. But as the sun rises over the horizon, the chickadees, cardinals, and sparrows emerge from the pile of evergreen branches and alight on the feeder. Nearby, a family watches their feathered neighbors from the window. While wildlife of the northern climes have developed many adaptations to deal with more extreme winter conditions, their human neighbors can lend a helping hand. This includes both bird feeders and brush piles to provide shelter.

While birds vary by region, wintering birds often include jays, chickadees, doves, nuthatches, sparrows, juncos, and woodpeckers. Zac Cota, the teacher-naturalist and volunteer coordinator for North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT said birdfeeders are a help to many species in winter. He said the best types of food varied by species, but in general black oil sunflower seeds and suet were good foods to put out. In addition, he mentioned that thistle is preferred by many finches, though it can spoil easily. In an online presentation of April 2020, Cota said it is a good idea to check the ratio of ingredients in seed mixes and recommended avoiding millet, cracked corn, and sorghum because they did not have much nutritional value. The National Audubon Society includes a recipe for suet on their website, though they say it should not be put out if temperatures are above 50 degrees. (See recipe at the bottom of the page). Cota concurred and said that suet that contained animal fat could spoil in warmer temperatures and therefore, not be healthy for birds but he said people should check information on recipes.

In addition to providing food, shelter from the cold and wind is also important. Both the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society suggest evergreens or brush piles. The National Audubon Society suggests putting logs on the bottom and layering branches on top.

As stated at the beginning, mammals and birds in northern areas have evolved many adaptations for winter conditions and Cota acknowledged some “ethical considerations” in bird feeding. However he also stated that people have had a negative impact on many bird populations. The State of the Birds Report 2019 published by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which is a coalition of 29 federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations and bird focused partnerships, stated that forest birds have declined by 22% since 1970. While it may seem that putting out feeders and brush piles is only for wildlife, the benefits are twofold. Cota said providing feeders is also an opportunity for community science, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is run by Cornell University and goes from February 12 -15. He said people can go to to learn how to participate and submit information. He also said that such activities create greater empathy and everyone benefits when people have a chance to “slow down, breathe deeply and connect with nature.”

Audubon Suet Recipe:

1 1/2 cups shortening

3/4 cup nut butter

3 1/2 cups wild birdseed

1 cup quick oats

1/2 cup cornmeal

Mix dry ingredients and set aside. Combine shortening and nut butter in a separate bowl and melt. Pour melted mixture over dry ingredients and stir until combined. Freeze for 1-2 hours and put suet in feeder. Enjoy the wildlife in the winter!

Sea Stars and Wildebeest: “The Serengeti Rules” Explores Connections

What if there were no sea stars? What if there were no wildebeest? How does one species affect all others? These were questions asked by biologists in the early twentieth century and later took on ecological significance as well. These questions and the stories of the scientists who asked them are the subject of The Serengeti Rules by Sean B. Carroll and also adapted into a documentary.

The book is an exploration of how biological and ecological processes keep both bodies and ecosystems in balance and what happens when that balance is disturbed. The early part of the book focuses on biology and how scientists from the early to mid twentieth century investigated how physiological processes were regulated. This includes microbiologist Jacques Monod who discovered that certain enzymes limit bacteria’s ability to digest certain sugars, thereby regulating their populations. Later, several biologists applied many of the same concepts to ecology and performed experiments as to how food webs and certain species dubbed “keystones” by biologist Robert Paine could affect the entire ecosystem. Paine removed sea stars from tidal pools, which allowed the mussels they preyed on to outcompete all other species and seriously reduced biodiversity.

The book is written for the general population and scientific concepts and terms are explained well. In addition, diagrams and photographs are also included. The scientists featured lived at different times, in different countries, and pursued different research. But they shared a profound curiosity and a great love of the natural world. These scientists and their stories include microbiologist Jacques Monod, who served in the French Resistance during World War II, cancer researcher Janet Davison Rowley, who cut out pictures of chromosomes on the kitchen table, and biologist Tony Sinclair who sneaked out of his Tanzanian boarding school to collect beetles.

The book illustrates how a knowledge of “the Serengeti rules” is necessary to understanding the connections between species and the environments in which they live. With this knowledge, it is possible to understand our own role in the world in which we live, restore damaged ecosystems, and have vibrant planet for many generations to come.