Monkshood & Snakeroot for a Fall Finale

What a luscious October afternoon! I looked out my back window and was drawn, as I always am this time in autumn, to the furthest corner of the garden, where a little fall scene unfolds that I treasure more because it’s a secret. Want to see it?  Let’s take a little stroll past the messy pots on the deck with their various sedums and swishing sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) out into the garden past the table and chairs that haven’t been used since… when? August?

Janet Davis-garden-autumn

Keep going to where the lovely chartreuse Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) is currently doing its Hollywood star thing in brilliant apricot…..

Tiger Eye Sumac-Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'-fall color

But what’s this scene, just behind it?

Tiger Eye Sumac-snakeroot-monkshood-Janet Davis

Yes, two stalwarts of the autumn garden – and I mean autumn, fall, October!  Autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’) and autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex), aka fall bugbane. Each year, they flower at the same time, and enjoy identical conditions in my garden, i.e. the most moisture-retentive soil (lowest corner of the garden by a few inches), with reasonable midday sunshine but dappled shade a good portion of the day. The fragrance of the snakeroot is fabulous, something a little soft and incense-like, or reminiscent of talcum powder (in the nicest way).  Colour-wise, I love blue and white, from the earliest anemones-with-scilla in April to this shimmering, assertive finale.

Janet Davis-Actaea simplex & Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

And did I mention pollinators? As in bumble bees of different species, honey bees……

Pollinators-autumn garden-fall snakeroot & monkshood-

(WHO has the beehives near my house? I’d love to know)…..

Honey bees-Apis mellifera-Actaea simplex-fall snaekroot

……hover flies…..

Hover-fly on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

….and paper wasps, below, as well as ants and cucumber beetles.

Paper wasp on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

Monkshood is deadly poisonous, but its pollen seems to be an attraction for bumble bees and honey bees once the asters have finished up.

Bombus-Fall Monkshood-Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

Finally, do note that the snakeroot is not any of those fancy-schmancy dark-leaved cultivars like ‘Brunette’, but the straight species with plain-Jane-green-foliage,. And that it used to be called Cimicifuga, but the gene sequencers have now moved it into Actaea.  It is a lovely plant and should be used much, much more.

The Siberian Squill and the Cellophane Bee

My front garden in Toronto is filled at the moment with hundreds of native cellophane bees, Colletes inaequalis. Sometimes called Eastern plasterer bees or polyester bees (and grouped generally with mining bees), they get their common name for the viscous, waterproof, transparent substance (sometimes compared to plastic wrap) that the females secrete to line and seal the brood cells they burrow in the ground. Their species name means “unequal”, and refers to the unequal segments of the right and left antennae.  They’re one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring and can often be seen on April-flowering native red maples (Acer rubrum), like the one below in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery…..

Colletes inaequalis on Acer rubrum-Toronto

…. and non-native pussy willows (Salix caprea), also in the cemetery.

Colletes inaequalis on Salix caprea-Toronto

My front garden is also filled with the little blue flowers of the non-native, spring-flowering bulb Siberian squill, Scilla siberica.

Front Meadow-April 20-scilla

They’ve been slowly spreading there for at least 20 years, probably much longer, since we’ve been in our house for 33 years and it was soon after I saw the “blue lawns” in our neighbourhood that I decided to plant a few of the little bulbs. Needless to say, the scilla likes our slightly alkaline clay. Quite a lot! Though considered invasive, they are not listed as a serous threat, like Japanese knotweed and dog-strangling vine, since they occupy fairly specific niches and disappear after the foliage ripens. In my garden, they emerge with the crocuses…..

Scilla siberica and crocuses

….. and stay in bloom for the fragrant hyacinths…

Scilla siberica and hyacinth

….. and windflowers (Anemone blanda)….

Scilla siberica & Anemone blanda

And Corydalis solida ‘George Baker’

Scilla siberica and Corydalis solida 'George Baker'

There are thousands enough that my little granddaughter is free to pick handfuls of them.

Scilla siberica bouquet

Later, my front garden will be filled with daffodils, tulips and the bottlebrush flowers of Fothergilla gardenii.….

Front Meadow-May19

….and later still, sun-loving North American (not necessarily Ontario) prairie natives like echinacea, rudbeckia, liatris, vernonia and aster, chosen for their appeal to native pollinators.

Front Meadow-Summer

I also grow many non-native plants like meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa),  catmint (Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and Knautia macedonica and sedums, also chosen for their appeal to native pollinators….

Front Pollinator Garden-Summer

…. like the little native metallic sweat bee (Agapostemon virescens), here on knautia….

Agapostemon virescens on Knautia macedonica-Toronto

….and ‘Mainacht’ meadow sage…

Agapostemon virescens on Salvia nemorosa 'Mainacht'-'May Night'

….and native bumble bees of all kinds, here on knautia….

Bombus on Knautia macedonica-Toronto

….and catmint….

Bombus on Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'-Toronto

….. and later in the season on echinacea…

Bombus griseocollis on Echinacea purpurea-Toronto

In late summer and autumn, there’s a mix of non-native sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and native obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' & Physostegia virginiana

Monarch butterflies congregating in Toronto before the long flight over Lake Ontario as they migrate to Mexico adore the sedums (as do bumble bees and honey bees)…..

Monarch-on-Sedum-'Autumn-Jo

….. and native carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica) do some clever nectar-robbing to get at the nectar in the corollas of the obedient plant.

Xylocopa virginica on Physostegia virginiana-nectara robbery

The final chapter in my front garden consists of native goldenrod and rich purple New England aster, below, both valuable to native pollinators.

Bombus impatiens on Symphyotrichum novae-angliae-Toronto

***************

But back to my garden in April. The little blue Siberian squill is why the native bees are there. Cellophane bees are a vernal species. As noted in this excellent bee brochure from the City of Toronto , “As soon as the weather becomes warm enough in late March or April, Common Eastern Plasterer Bees start emerging from their overwintering burrows in the ground. Males cluster around virgin females that are digging upwards to reach the soil surface and the mayhem that ensues can sometimes result in some bees being killed in the crush. Once they have mated, the female excavates a burrow in the ground, showing a preference for nesting in patches of bare, or sparsely vegetated, soil.”

Colletes inaequalis is a polylectic species, or a polylege, meaning it gathers pollen from a variety of native and non-native plants from early spring to mid-summer, when their life cycle ends. According to observers, the plants it has been observed using include Aesculus (buckeye, horsechestnut), Amelanchier (serviceberry), Anemone, Anemonella, Arctostaphylus, Aronia (chokeberry), Cercis (redbud), Claytonia, Crataegus (hawthorn),  Dentaria, Dirca,  Erythronium, Hepatica,  Prunus (cherry), Ptelea, Pyrus (pear), Rhamnus (buckthorn), Rhus (sumac), Ribes (gooseberry, currant), Rubus (blackberry, raspberry), Salix (willow), Spiraea, Staphylea, Stellaria, Taraxacum (dandelion), Vaccinium (blueberry, huckleberry, myrtleberry, cranberry), Viburnum  and Zizia.  And in my garden, the unequal cellophane bee is the principal visitor to my thousands of non-native Siberian squill.

Colletes inaequalis on Scilla siberica-Toronto

My abundant blue squill also attracts other native spring bees, including the lovely Andrena dunningi, below.

Andrena dunningi on Scilla siberica-Toronto

I also have a large fragrant viburnum (V. farreri) in my back garden. Native to northern China, it bursts into bloom with the first warmth of spring.

Viburnum farreri-Fragrant viburnum

As soon as the scented flowers open, my viburnum is literally buzzing with native bees and butterflies, including  mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopis) that have overwintered nearby…..

Mourning cloak butterfly-Nymphalis antiopa-on Viburnum farreri

…and the odd overwintering red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta).

Red admiral butterfly-Vanessa atalanta-on Viburnum farreri

The existential problem (not for me, but for some rigid native plant proponents) is that the alien floral nectar and pollen is making life possible for these native bees. In fact, since nobody else on my street has much in bloom at the moment and there are precious few red maples or native spring wildflowers in bloom, I am 99% sure that these bees nest in my own garden in order to attack this non-native nectar feast in early spring, as they emerge from their overwintering places.

I live in a city – in fact, the fourth largest city in North America – in which sun-loving plant species are largely all native elsewhere. As the Toronto bee brochure cited above notes:  “Much of the native landscape in our region was originally forested, with the Carolinian and Mixed Forest Zones being the ecological land classifications for the area. Forests are generally not good habitats for bees, although bumble bee queens and a few early spring bees can be found foraging on the early spring flowers that are in bloom before bud burst.”  My ‘native’ forest (including the maples, birches and willows on which my spring bees might have foraged) was mostly cleared, beginning more than 200 years ago, leaving a grid of streets and roads and buildings and an urban forest very much of the “planned” variety (boulevards and parks), save for our wonderful and extensive natural ravines. Though there would have been patches of meadow and bits of relict, sunny black oak savannah near High Park, most Toronto-specific native wildflowers would have been shade-lovers.

City of Toronto-urban canopy

As the city’s bee brochure makes clear: “In comparison to native forests, an urban environment with patches of parkland, ravine, and large numbers of urban gardens, provides an abundance of floral and nest-site resources for bees. An evergreen forest may have no bees at all, a deciduous forest very few. But within our city there may be over 300 bee species and the average backyard garden will likely contain over 50 species, with some nesting and foraging there, and others visiting for pollen and nectar while nesting on a neighbour’s property.

Pollination ecology is a complicated subject. Douglas Tallamy, in his excellent Bringing Nature Home: How You can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, writes that: “There are subtle chemical differences in nectar among plant species, but by and large, nectar from alien plants is the same as nectar from native plants.”  That seems fairly clear and, extrapolating to the physical needs of Homo sapiens, carbohydrates are carbohydrates; it makes little difference whether they come from local maple syrup or granulated sugar or fructose, we will be hypoglycemic if we don’t ingest sufficient amounts. (Interestingly, “deep ecologists” separate humans from the rest of the evolved animal world – and assign us the shame of interacting in any way that benefits us above other creatures. But that’s a big and thorny subject for another day.)  Tallamy goes on to say: “That said, there is growing evidence that our native bees, the andrenids, halictids, colletids, anthophorids, and megachilids, prefer native flowers to alien flowers.”   He then cites the thesis findings of U of Delaware student Nicole Cerqueira, who compared visits of native bees to native and alien plants and found evidence that they showed a statistical preference for native plants in 31 instances.  I’m not sure my garden is comparable, given what I’ve said about Toronto and its “native” plants, but I would be interested in seeing if quantity, i.e. massed plantings of bee-friendly alien plants, might play a spoiler role in what native bees like andrenids and colletids prefer……

In the meantime, do garden organically and do plant lots of plants for pollinators from spring to fall.

My Cups Runneth Over (With Bees)….

(Hmmm. I just re-read my title and almost changed it, but decided not to. Snicker away – I’m going with “cups”.)

My second yellow-gold blog for July (the first was on companion plants for blackeyed susans) honours another composite prairie perennial that has pride of place in my meadows at Lake Muskoka.  Cup plant or Indian cup (Silphium perfoliatum) gets both its common name and Latin specific epithet from the way the leaves encircle the stem, thus making the stem appear to pierce the foliage – i.e. a ‘perfoliate’ habit.

Silphium perfofliatum-cottage

This clasping leaf arrangement creates a kind of ‘cup’ in which water can collect after rains, supposedly providing drinking water for birds and insects. Alas, insects are often found floating in the water, with some experts suggesting that it may actually act as a deterrent against insect pests that might climb up the stem.

Perfoliate leaves-Silphium perfoliatum

While it is a fabulous native, indigenous to moist woods and prairies in much of mid and east North America, including my province Ontario, its tendency to colonize makes it problematic. In fact, though it is classified as “threatened and endangered”in Michigan, it is “potentially invasive” and banned for sale in Connecticut. I received my fleshy roots from the compost bins of Toronto’s beautiful Spadina House gardens, and the gardeners gave me fair warning that it was invasive, and hard to dig up to control its spread. So I don’t; I merely enjoy it and give thanks for it when the bumble bees are nectaring on the big yellow flowers.

Bombus impatiens on Silphium perfoliatum

Here are bumble bees in action, along with a surprise visitor for whom those itty-bitty leaf pools are no deterrent, when tasty cup plant seedheads are the rewards for ascending that thick stem.

Honey bees love cup plant as well. There are no apiaries near my cottage on Lake Muskoka, but I photographed this one in the meadows at Miriam Goldberger’s Wildflower Farm an hour so south.

Honey Bee on Silphium perfoliatum

Butterflies like the monarch enjoy cup plant, too.

Monarch on Silphium perfoliatum (1)

I grow cup plants near my stairs so I can photograph the pollinators at eye level.

Silphium perfoliatum

But they’re in my meadows as well. Though they prefer adqequate moisture in the soil, they are surprisingly drought-tolerant (as they’ve had to be this hot, dry summer), but will develop yellow leaves and stunted flowers in time. Here’s a colony below my bedroom window amidst sweet blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) still to come into flower.

Silphium perfoliatum in meadow

They make good companions to gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), which bloom at the same time.

Silphium perfoliatum & Ratibida pinnata

They are easily the tallest perennials I grow. Last summer (a season of good rains), I lay down the loftiest stems so I could do a measurement. Yes, 9 feet.

Silphium - 9 feet

I leave you with a little narrated tour…..

….and a cottage bouquet showing cup plant flowers in the bottom tier, surrounded by summer flowers like ratibida, perovskia, liatris and goldenrod.  Yellow/gold for July 2016, over and out.

Bouquet-Cup Plant & friends