Category Archives: Butterflies and Moths

A Few of My Favourite Native Plants

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

I’ve been gardening for more than 25 years and, like many of you, thrill at the opportunity to discover new plants for my gardens. Over the past few years these have been mostly native plants, as I learn about all the benefits that they bring – here’s just a few examples of why native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees do so much more than just add beauty to the landscape:

  • They support birds, pollinators and wildlife – native gardens attract birds and butterflies and provide habitat and food for native pollinators
  • They increase biodiversity – native plants increase garden health and resilience, and help contribute to a broader effect to nurture and sustain living landscapes
  • They’re tough and low maintenance – because they’re adapted to grow in their native range, locally native plants tend to thrive with little to no care and conserve one of our most precious resources – water
  • They help you save money AND create a healthier environment for people – native plants don’t require expensive fertilizers and chemicals, or toxic pesticides and herbicides
  • They help with climate change – no lawn mower costs or exhaust! and long lived native trees help store carbon dioxide
  • They make gardening easier – if you select the right native plants for your garden, you don’t have to modify or amend your soil

I’m just going to share three favourite native plants in my garden, with hopes that you may consider them for yours.

Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum Virginicum)

Culver’s Root offers a strong upright, architectural accent to any perennial garden that attracts attention from both people and pollinators!! It can reach heights of 5 feet if it’s happy (although mine hasn’t achieved that yet) and the spikes of white flowers open from the bottom up in mid-summer. It has finely toothed leaves that are lanceolate and occur in a whorl of 3 to 8 leaflets. The inflorescence has several wand-like flowering spikes that resemble an elegant candelabra.

Culver’s Root grows in zones 3-8, in full sun to part shade but it does like moist, well-drained soil. The seeds are so tiny that they should be directly sown on the soil surface in fall or in the spring – I’ve tried winter sowing some this year so we’ll see how that goes.

The plant really has no other synonyms; apparently the name was derived from a Dr. Coulvert, a late 17th to early 18th century pioneer physician who found laxative properties in the plant. More information here.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Who doesn’t love bright red flowers in the garden? For those who say native plants can’t be showy I give you this amazing example to disprove that theory. Named for its scarlet red flowers, its tubular flowers are a magnet and important nectar source for hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies.

Like Culver’s Root the flowering spikes open from the bottom to top and bloom for several weeks. They grow best in moist, rich soils in full sun to partial shade.

I’ve only had my plants for two seasons but I understand that the parent plants will not persist after a few years, so it’s important to either let it go to seed (so it reseeds naturally) or collect seed – this is another plant where I am trying out winter sowing (native plants are a great choice for this propagation method). While many sites will tell you it needs a really moist site mine have done fine, although I do keep the plants well watered in drier times. More information here.

Green Headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Also commonly called Cut Leaved (or Cut Leaf) Coneflower, this is the straight species, not to be confused with the double cultivar many of us have in our rural gardens (often called the Outhouse Plant – or Rudbeckia laciniata “Golden Glow”).

Not a small plant (it grows 4 to 5 feet tall in my garden), it clumps and spread by rhizomes so only one to consider if you have the space! Its bright yellow, daisy-like drooping flowers with green centre disks (which can be about 3 inches across) bloom later in the summer season. It prefers moist soil, but grows well in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. In nature it is often found in woods, meadows, streambanks, and roadside ditches.

The Cherokee natives call this plant Sochan and the spring basal leaves are a traditional Cherokee food. Butterflies are attracted to nectar from the blooms and songbirds, especially American Goldfinches, eat the seed in the fall. It is moderately deer resistant. More information here.

So I hope you’ll take the opportunity to seek out native plants to add to your garden, finding ones that are native to your region and appropriate to your conditions. Happy Gardening!!

Why Do We Garden?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Audrey Hepburn

If you’re like me, you love to garden. Time in my garden provides me with joy on so many levels — emotional, physical, social, creative — and connects me with the outdoors and the environment. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down, one of the silver linings is that we’ve seen a renewed interest in gardening and its benefits, whether you’re working in a large garden or a few containers on your balcony. So I thought I would explore some of the top reasons I think we garden.

Physical and Emotional Health

Gardening is physical. As a low to medium impact exercise that requires both strength and stretching, you’ll see increased muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness over time, as well as improved sleep and diet (if you grow your own produce). On the emotional side, gardening reduces stress, anxiety, and depression and improves self esteem.

It’s good for the mind — gardening calms me down and helps me be more patient with myself and those I interact with on a daily basis. It gives me time to contemplate as I go about my tasks, up to my elbows in soil. Even weeding is cathartic, pulling out those little terrors by the root!

Just visiting gardens helps to calm the mind, bringing a sense of contentment and tranquility from looking at beautiful landscapes, flowers, or just colour and texture.

Building Relationships

While gardening can be a solo activity (some of my favourite moments are just by myself in my green oasis), it’s also a fabulous way to connect with people, whether they be family or strangers!

Teaching people how to nurture a living thing and to be responsible for a little bit of the environment is a lesson and gift we can share with others. Gardening knowledge is shared through generations — I love hearing about plants handed down from grandparents, or children working with their parents to grow seeds for the first time. It’s a great way to pass on critical life lessons — about patience as plants and vegetables grow, responsibility as they look after their care, and loss when flowers die at the end of a season.

Beyond family, gardening helps us connect with the broader community. Whether you plant too many tomatoes or zucchinis and end up giving them away to neighbours, or participate in a community garden plot, gardening can be a very social activity and a chance to learn from, and share your bounty, with others.

Learning Life Values

Gardening teaches you important life values like patience, determination, caring, and hard work. It also makes you very humble as you realize that there is always something new to learn. You need to observe the seasons and the weather, and this puts you in contact with the natural world. I love that I can get dirty and do this very physical activity, working with seeds and plants and seeing growth in all I do.

Growing Your Own Food

Gardening provides benefits for your wallet, your nutrition, and reduces your environmental footprint. By growing your own food (either from seeds or small plants), your food is automatically more sustainable simply because you are doing it onsite or in a community garden. If you control the ‘inputs’ and do it well, you can save a lot of money.

But ultimately there is nothing more rewarding than planting and maintaining your own vegetable garden and harvesting (and sharing) your results. And we all know how much better homegrown produce tastes versus conventional produce at the grocery store. If you have too much produce, then you can just share the love with others!

Connecting With Nature

I think this is one of the best reasons why people have a garden — the sunshine on your face, hands in the dirt, and feeling connected to nature. The garden is so much more than just plants and flowers — it’s the birds, the bugs, the bees, the spiders, the snakes and all the small mammals. I feel like I am establishing a little ecosystem in my own garden and that I am trying to give back for all the benefits that I receive.

Working in the garden also gives you that sense of wonder, accomplishment, and reward. To grow plants is to give life. It keeps you busy but reminds you to be one with the earth. To see the results of something growing from seed to six feet tall is just incredible.

Exploring Creativity

I find gardening to be an incredibly creative activity. Finding the right plant for the right spot, mixing colours, and making sure there is interest for every season — these are real challenges. I’ve spent much of the past few years learning about new plants to consider in my garden, especially natives.

Helping The Environment

Finally, gardening is so important for our planet. Even though we create our gardens (so they are human made) they do represent natural environments, with trees and shrubs and plants that are all taking in carbon and releasing oxygen. The plant roots stabilize the soil and filter water, and the plants themselves support our pollinators.

We live in a symbiotic relationship with our gardens. We give back by planting and maintaining them, but we receive so much more from them than we give.

Why do you garden?

Lending Insects a Helping Hand in our Gardens

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training

When some of us think of insects, it is common for them to be thought of in a negative light. Some of our earliest childhood memories include being stung, bitten, or just plain scared by the sight of them. I can remember running screaming from an outhouse at a provincial park when I was about five years old. What was so scary? It was the sight of a Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) hanging in its web in the stall. Fortunately, the experience didn’t make me fear or dislike spiders and as a gardener I know how beneficial they are to have around. While some insects certainly do deserve our scorn— invasive species such as the LDD moth (Lymantria dispar dispar); Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis); Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica), etc.—by and large, the majority of insects are harmless and beneficial. Not long ago, I saw a couple—perhaps grandparents, out for a walk with their grandson. One of them was urging the young boy to stomp on an ant on the pavement, calling out “Get it! Get it!” It was disheartening to see. It is experiences like this that call for a shift in our thinking about insects.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

I recently got a sneak preview of a book by British entomologist Dave Goulson called Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse (Harper Collins). It is to be published this Fall (September 2021). The copy I reviewed was an e-book proof and so page numbers referred to here may change in the final published copy. Goulson’s work is primarily focused on bumblebees and as the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the UK, he is dedicated to reversing the decline of them. He is also known for his work that was instrumental in influencing the European Union’s decision to ban neonicotinoids in 2013. Goulson wrote this book in an effort to bring more public attention to the recent and rapid decline of global insect populations—which are critical for our planet’s survival. He also explores the chief causes of insect declines such as habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, climate change, and non-native insect diseases (p. 71) and provides suggestions for readers that can help support insects—especially gardeners.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)

Here are a few highlights from the book:

Goulson refers to a phenomenon called “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” where humans tend to only see their current world as “normal” and are unable to detect changes over time. Humans also tend to have something called “personal amnesia” in which they downplay the extent of change (p. 64-65). With these points in mind, it is no wonder that most people would not know that insect populations have recently declined by as much as 75% (p. 50) and that there have been parallel declines in populations of insectivorous birds (p. 58). One bird that I remember as a child that I haven’t seen since is the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna). This species is one of those that depends on insects in its diet.

One concern that the author has is the level of human awareness of the existence of the natural world. It is important to learn the names of plants and animals—otherwise they cease to exist. If they don’t exist, their importance can’t be recognized. Astonishingly, in 2007, some of the words eliminated from the Oxford Junior Dictionary included words such as acorn, fern, moss, clover, kingfisher, otter, among others (p. 225).

87% of all plant species require pollination in order to flower, produce fruit/seeds, and ensure perpetuation of the species. This includes 75% of all agricultural crops (p. 26). Most of this is performed by insects and a large part is performed by those other than bees—flies, ants, beetles, wasps, moths and butterflies. A world without insects means that we would need to subsist mainly on cereal crops as these can be wind-pollinated. I can’t imagine going without fruits such as strawberries, apples, cherries, raspberries, and even my morning coffee (p. 26).

Insects are not only important pollinators, but they assist in the development of healthy soils. Not only do they help to aerate soil, they are valuable decomposers of organic matter—participating in a process along with bacteria that help make nutrients more available to plants (p. 29, 31).  As biological control agents, predatory insects such as Lady Bugs (Coccinellidae spp.), Lacewings (Chrysopidae spp.), Ground Beetles (Carabidae spp.), Wasps (Vespidae spp.), etc., can help us reduce the need for pesticides.

Blue Mud Dauber (Chalybion californicum) on Swamp Milkweed (Syriaca incarnata)

What can we do to help?

Despite the current state, Goulson is optimistic that insect declines can be stabilized or reversed because they are generally good at reproducing—we just need to support them better (p. 216). Here are some ideas:

  1. Learn how to identify the difference between harmful and beneficial insects. The majority (95%) are the latter.
  2. Reduce or avoid the use of pesticides and give beneficial predatory insects a chance to take care of the problem first (p. 277). Even so-called organic treatments such as diatomaceous earth, BTK, horticultural oils, etc. need thoughtful consideration before use as they can harm harmful as well as beneficial insects.
  3. Learn how to differentiate between irreversible and cosmetic damage in your plants. Accept that plants are meant to be food sources for insects and some imperfections and damage is ok. Give up growing ornamental plants that are persistently defoliated by certain insects (e.g. Asiatic Lilies).
  4. Incorporate a wide range of native plants that flower throughout the season in your garden to attract beneficial insects. One of the best late flowering perennials is New England Aster (Symphyotrychum novae-angliae). It provides a valued food source for migrating Monarch butterflies. Some of the best food sources for insects are early flowering trees such as Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), Maple (Acer spp.), and Crabapple (Malus spp.).
  5. When using mulch in flower beds, leave some soil exposed so that ground nesting bees can have easy access. Some solitary wasps such as Mud Daubers (Sphecidae spp.) also need easy access to bare soil in order to glean material to build their nests.
  6. Reduce lawn and use the space for more plants. Reduce mowing of the lawn that exists. Allow a corner of your garden to “grow wild” and “get messy.”  (p. 277).
  7. Choose native plants over “nativars.” A nativar is a cultivated variation of a native plant. Some are supportive of pollinators but many are sterile or lack pollen and therefore are unable to provide food. The ones that are most likely to be the least supportive will have features such as double blooms, different leaf colours, etc. Reduce planting of ornamental annuals like Petunias, Begonias, Pansies, etc. because of their tendency to have no pollen or nectar (p. 233). That being said, some of these plants can still be enjoyed.
  8. Choose a range of plants that support the broadest number of insect species. While Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are in the limelight as being supportive of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus), compared to some other plants, they only support 12 Butterfly and Moth species (Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home). Goldenrods (Solidago spp) support 115 different species. Some, like Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) can be aggressive in small gardens but there are more restrained types such as Blue-Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia), and Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis).
  9. Avoid aggressive fall and spring clean-up of leaves and hollow, dead stems. Doug Tallamy describes the practice of waiting 7-10 consecutive days of 10 degree C. temperatures for insects to emerge as myth as many insects emerge at different periods throughout the season. For example, Io (Automeris io) and Luna Moth (Actius luna) emerge around mid May (Tallamy, Leaf Litter: Love it and Leave it).
  10. Recognize that commercially produced “Bee Hotels” can become populated by non-native bees such as European Orchard Bee (Osmia cornuta), Horned-Face Bee (Osmia cornifrons), and Blue Mason Bee (Osmia coerulescens) as well as native bees (p. 135). If used, periodically clean them so as to reduce mites and fungi that can be harmful to the bees.
  11. Reconsider taking up beekeeping as a hobby. The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) threatens native bees because they take the lion’s share of available plant pollen (p. 139). It is also not a good strategy to rely on one species for pollination in case something happens to that species (p. 33).
  12. Raise awareness and share your knowledge with family and friends. You can convince others that insects need our help if they realize they themselves will be personally impacted by their decline (p. 216).

Selected Resources

Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014).

Tallamy, Doug. Bringing Nature Home: How you can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press, 2009).

Tallamy, Doug. Leaf Litter: Love it and Leave it. April 2021. Online: https://tinyurl.com/4jphhnbc

Walliser, Jessica. Attracting Beneficial Bugs to your Garden: a Natural Approach to Pest Control (Timber Press, 2013).

Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Visit https://xerces.org/publications to view and download a wide range of factsheets and other guidance documents concerning beneficial insects, native plant lists, pesticides, habitat construction, and more.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on Swamp Milkweed (Syriaca incarnata)

Hosting butterflies

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

Life has been busy in my garden lately, and I don’t necessarily mean me! My husband Ray and I have been enjoying the array of pollinators that are busy in the garden. What has us particularly excited is seeing species of butterflies that we have not noticed in the garden before. For example, Ray identified a Large Wood Nymph butterfly (Cercyonis pegala) that I noticed feeding on heliotrope. Although it spent a lot of time feeding on the heliotrope this is not a host plant for this particular butterfly. According to The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies host plants for the Large Wood Nymph are native grasses such as Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Large Wood Nymph butterfly

So, what exactly is a host plant and why is it important? Host plants are plants that an organism, (larva) lives on and lives off of. A well-known example is the Monarch butterfly. It will feed on a number of nectar plants including milkweed but Monarch larvae only feed on milkweed (Asclepias) species. Milkweeds are the Monarch’s only host plant. Important pollinators like butterflies and moths need host plants on which to lay their eggs and enable the subsequent larvae to have a food source. The photo below shows Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the foreground is a host plant while the Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) behind it is a nectar plant.

Little Bluestem grass and Mexican Sunflower provide host and nectar sources (respectively).

According to the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) butterflies need plants that are good sources of nectar, sun, shelter from the wind, and host plants on which to lay their eggs.  Yes, larvae eat the leaves on the host plant but typically do not cause serious damage.  Along with providing a list of plants for nectar sources this site gives a list of host plants for larvae for specific butterflies.  Many of the host plants are trees including birches, willows, dogwoods, oaks, hops, cherries and hackberries to name just a few.  Other host plants include native wildflowers and grasses.

The OFNC site provides more details on providing the most desirable conditions for butterflies and makes the point that to restore butterfly populations we need to recreate suitable habitats for them. This is another list of valuable host plants.

If you are interested in attracting more butterflies consider adding some of these valuable host plants to your garden. Many of these plants can be sourced at Peterborough’s Ecology Park where you can also get expert advice on suitable plants for your garden conditions.