Wildflower Farm Walkabout Time!

I love this time of year because the season of wildflower beauty is upon us! Every walkabout is an adventure of discovery overflowing with poignant reunions with dear wildflower friends.

Wine Cups (Calliroe involucrata)

Magenta coloured Wine Cups bloom all summer long.

Magenta coloured Wine Cups bloom all summer long.

I thrill to see Wine Cups in bloom! What’s not to love? Vivid magenta flowers cascade throughout the summer over walls, mounds or the ground. Wine Cups love a super sunny spot in gravely soil where its deep tap roots can wander. My Wine Cups add flare and colour to my scree garden. And it’s easy to grow from seed!

Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa)

Yahoo! The Wild Indigo's in bloom!

Yahoo! The Wild Indigo’s in bloom!

Wild Indigo is a mellow yellow cut flower supreme!!!

Wild Indigo is a mellow yellow cut flower supreme!!!

Swaths of vivid yellow spikes in late spring with cunning blue green baptisia foliage are a most welcome sight! I adore them almost as much as the bumblebees do!!! Yellow Wild Indigo produces handsome chocolate brown seed pods that add visual interest later in the summer. Easy to grow from seed.

Harebell (Campanula involucrata)

Harebells look fragile but they're tough wildflowers  that bloom in dry sun or shade and last for many days in floral arrangements.

Harebells look fragile but they’re tough wildflowers that bloom in dry sun or shade and last for many days in floral arrangements.

If you think Harebell’s fragile stems and delicate bell blossoms indicate wildflower wimpiness – you are sadly mistaken. Wildflower Farm’s scree and container gardens feature showy Harebell blossoms for many weeks. And, Harebells make long-lasting cut flowers!!! Easy to grow from seed.

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It’s Columbine Time

One of my favourite late spring bloomers is the columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  It’s not a particularly large or showy flower by any means but it has its own unique features.

columbine_parts_lgThe flower itself faces down, leaving the pollen-covered anthers and stamens dangling towards the ground.

These are surrounded by blades which are encircled by sepals.

Oh, and it has spurs.  Those nubby, alien-like cones pointing up behind the flower…that’s what those are called (in case you were wondering).

I found this really great diagram from the USDA that explains it all very nicely.


IMG_0963 (960x1280)This structure facilitates pollination:  the bees looking for a meal have to bypass and actually push the pollen-covered anthers out of the way to get to the nectar (which is stored in the spurs).  If they’re looking for pollen, they’re still going to be rustling it up and covering themselves in it.  With multiple flowers on the same plant, a pollinating insect doesn’t have to go far to pick up a good amount of pollen.

My absolute favourite part about the columbine, though, is who it attracts to my garden.  And I don’t mean my neighbours.

Not only is it a host plant for the columbine duskywing butterfly (Erynnis lucilius), the unique flower structure provides ample food for the tiny sweat bees that crawl into the spurs to gather nectar.  Long-tongued bumblebees are also able to get up into the spurs with their tongues and are another important pollinator.


From left to right: columbine duskywing, sweat bee, rusty-patch bumblebee

And Then There’s…

The hummingbird.  I’m a sucker for the tiny birds and the columbines are a favourite in my garden right now.  When they’re not at the hummingbird feeder (not filled with red-dyed ‘nectar’ by the way), they’re flying low to get into the columbine’s spurs and sip the nectar.  I wish I could say I had a photo but my camera hardware is nowhere close to where it needs to be to capture such a thing.

dsc0427-edit (1054x1280)

Thanks to the Internet, you can see what I see in the evenings after I get home from work. It’s amazing to see the stability and dexterity that is a feeding hummingbird.

Where to Grow

Fortunately for you (and the wildlife), the native columbine will grow almost anywhere.  Put it in your rock garden, butterfly garden, in the shade of your largest maple or that super sunny spot at the edge of the property.  It really isn’t picky at all.

As your garden matures this season, look for empty spaces where you could plant a few columbine seeds…or maybe more than a few.  Columbines need cold-moist stratification so plan accordingly for your growing season. Wildflower Farm is here to help you through the steps: check out the process on our website.

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Zizia aurea: more than just a pretty face

There’s a whole lot of activity happening at Wildflower Farm.  With the blooming of the flowers comes the buzzing of the bees and the flutter of the butterflies.

“But, Marette,” you’re saying, “you talked about butterflies last week.” To which I can only respond, “Yes, I certainly did.” And there’s a reason for that.  As much as I love to read and write about monarchs, they are not the only butterfly out there struggling to survive.

And in all honesty, butterflies are attractive, well-liked insects. Yes, they are the charismatic megafauna of the insect world and I am not ashamed to use them to improve the natural world for other critters who may be suffering.

This week: Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). One of my favourite Latin plant names to pronounce.

The Plant

IMG_9276 (1280x960)

The late spring bloomer is a member of the carrot family: the umbel flower shape gives that away pretty quickly.  The bright yellow flower will last a few weeks in the garden and will do well as a cut flower, too.

Zizia provides garden blooms in that awkward time when early bloomers are finishing and summer bloomers have yet to arrive. This is an added bonus for the hungry insects foraging around your lot.

Plant in full sun to part shade in an area that gets some moisture.  Not a fan of sandy soil, but will work fabulously in loam and clay.

Hardy to Zone 3.


The Benefits

Zizia aurea provides food for a number of butterfly species (not to mention a whole host of other insects), the largest of which is the swallowtail (black and Ozark).


Left: black swallowtail; Right: Ozark swallowtail

Although a generalist where food and egg-laying is concerned, Zizia aurea is one of the few native plants to host these species.  Many introduced plants have become favourites (dill and parsley to name a few) but if you’re looking for native hosts, golden Alexanders is your one-stop shop.

You’ll see the very recognizable ‘adult’ caterpillars (or the more conspicuous ‘baby’ caterpillars) munching away at the leaves in late spring-early summer, depending on where you live.


Young swallowtail caterpillars mimic bird droppings for protection. The adults are a colourful combination of yellow, green, and black.

While you’re out there looking for black or Ozark swallowtails, keep an eye out for the spring azure, duskywing, frosted elfin, orange sulfur, clouded sulfur and painted lady – all species that frequent the plant to feed and lay eggs.


Top, left to right: spring azure, duskywing, frosted elfin
Bottom, left to right: clouded sulfur, painted lady, orange sulfur
I’ve provided open wing images of the sulfurs since they look very similar. Orange sulfurs have the distinctive orange colour on the interior side of their wings.

Remember to look for other insects as well while you’re out there. Non-stinging wasps, mining bees, soldier beetles, syrphid flies…the list goes on and on as does the benefits you bring to your garden by planting the native Zizia aurea.

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We Are Enablers

Gardeners are enablers.  When we put plants into the ground to beautify our spaces, we enable the wildlife around us to build homes, feed themselves and their young, stopover for a rest on a long journey, or simply feel comfortable passing through.

Wildflowers are like the invitation to an ecosystem party. Many, if not most, guests are pretty neutral when it comes to food.  They aren’t picky and will go for the “generic” pollen and nectar.  Some, however, rely on specific plants to survive.  They are the gluten-, lactose-, and peanut-free guests at the party.  Unfortunately, these guests can’t bring their own meals: you must provide them.

We talked about monarchs a few weeks back but did you know there are other butterflies that rely on specific host plants for survival?

Take the Karner blue for example.  This small, inch long butterfly is easy to recognize with its brilliant blue wings edged with a lighter fringe of pale blue or white.  With its wings spread open, you can see the orange and black detailing that lines the bottom of each hindwing (on the females). Closed wings will reveal a much lighter blue or grey wing colour with spots of black and orange at the edges of both sets of wings.

Now, there is a little bit of controversy where Karner blues are concerned but most experts agree that this particular butterfly relies solely on the wild lupine as a host plant. I should specify that it is the larvae (caterpillars) that rely on the wild lupine.  Like the monarch caterpillar needs milkweed, the Karner blue needs lupine.

And like the monarch, numbers are dwindling. Argiculture, housing developments, and chemicals interrupt multiple stages of the life cycle making it impossible for these butterflies to survive.

Who’s Helping?

Efforts to increase Karner blue populations are underway.  The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission is just one group who has dedicated time and resources into the survival of this tiny butterfly.  Preserving and recovering over 600 acres of suitable habitat will hopefully encourage populations to grow by the thousands.

As you can see from the map below, they are restoring areas where, historically, populations were found.


Now it’s Your Turn

Easy peasy steps to do your part.  If you live in any of the areas where the Karner blue was historically present, plan to do your part.

Wild Lupine
1. Plant wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)
2. Join a recovery effort in your area.
3. Learn to recognize the butterfly AND the caterpillar.
4. Enjoy the relationships you see.
The Karner blue caterpillar has a pretty decent relationship with ants: the ants come around for the sugary substance secreted by the caterpillar; in return, the caterpillar is protected by the ant. Win-win!

By planting lupines and encouraging wildlife in your yard, you are enabling these relationships that would otherwise fall to the wayside.  Use the knowledge you have to rebuild a population that is dwindling.

Don’t live in an area where you’d ever find the Karner blue? Share the information with someone who does.  Get the word out there.  Be an enabler.

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The Plaid Leading the Blind

Ah spring time!!! Earth reborn, warm breezes and the return of lawn-care anxiety.

Ah!!!! Who doesn't love lawns? A beautiful lawn is like Motherhood and apple pie!!!

Ah!!!! Who doesn’t love lawns? A beautiful lawn is like Motherhood and apple pie!!!

Every spring the lawn industry blasts homeowners with advertising designed to guilt you into purchasing this year’s “new and improved” lawn care products.

Let’s take a moment to reveal what’s behind the smoke and mirrors of current lawn industry advertising campaigns.

Myth #1 – If you do not fertilize your lawn you are a neglectful homeowner!

The plaid leading the blind.
The plaid leading the blind.

BUSTED! Most lawn grass species came from Europe when immigrant farmers brought pasture grasses to graze hungry livestock. These fast growing grasses have shallow roots so they cannot easily source water and nutrients. Wait a minute!!!

1)      Why grow a lawn that needs to be mowed so frequently?

2)      And then, why on earth would you fertilize that lawn to make it grow EVEN FASTER?


Fertilize, Water, Mow.... Fertilize, Water, Mow... Fertilize, Water, Mow... Faster! Faster! Faster!
Fertilize, Water, Mow…. Fertilize, Water, Mow… Fertilize, Water, Mow… Faster! Faster! Faster!


Myth #2 – Cheap lawn seed saves you money.

BUSTED! There are added expenses to the consumer for cheap seed. Cheap seed is more likely an inexpensive grass that has less resistance to disease, needs more fertilizer, more water and requires more reseeding. Cheap grass seed is often untested, not cleaned thoroughly and can contain weeds such as Poa annua.

Wait a minute!!  Remember, don’t just ask the price – ask about the quality of the seed.

 Myth #3 – Coated grass seed contains a fertilizer and absorbs water like a sponge

Coated lawn seed

Coated lawn seed


Many heavily advertised coated grasses use a formula that is approximately 50% seed, 49% calcium carbonate and 1% polymer. The rather expensive polymer is similar to cornstarch and attracts water to the seed when soil moisture is low. But when soil moisture is normal or wet, the polymer has no effect. Referred to by lawn industry insiders as “dirt,” the calcium carbonate coating adds considerable weight to a bag of lawn seed, in fact this “dirt” is 50% of the total weight! Coated seed is a shell game as far as pricing and weight are concerned.  The combined cost of the seed/coating formula is less per pound than the cost of just pure seed.  Grass seed companies are selling you half the seed for the same amount of money you were spending before.  In other words, when you buy a 5 lb. bag of coated seed, you pay around the same price you always have but get half the amount of pure seed and you get half the coverage you would if you bought pure seed.

Truth Seekers, please enjoy this bold self-promotional finish.

     Eco-Lawn’s formula of pure, unadulterated certified seed has remained consistent for 20 years. Eco-Lawn’s 7 fine fescue blend produces deep roots that source water and nutrients efficiently – drastically reducing water and fertilizer requirements. Quick to germinate but slow to grow, you’ll be mowing your Eco-Lawn once a month or less.  And that’s no lie.

To learn more about Eco-Lawn visit http://www.eco-lawn.com

For a traditional lawn look mow Eco-Lawn at 3" height just once a month.

For a traditional lawn look mow Eco-Lawn at 3″ height just once a month.

Or perhaps you preferred the more relaxed unmowed look. Mow just spring and fall or not at all

Or perhaps you preferred the more relaxed unmowed look. Mow just spring and fall or not at all




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Just Mothing Around


The Promethea silkmoth.

Last June I found this large moth crashing into the window from inside the house.  I have no idea to this day how it got in without anyone seeing it. The size of it alone would have alerted even the most non-observant person; when you factor in its erratic flying abilities…well, you get what I’m saying.

After capturing it carefully so as not to damage its wings, I let it outside.  It flew straight towards the light where I was able to capture this awesome picture (which I used to ID it later).  Turns out it’s a Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia promethea). The moth actually stayed there for two days before disappearing overnight.

And a few weeks ago I shared the laurel sphinx moth (Sphinx kalmiae).  Another large moth (although not nearly as large as the silkmoth). Still stunning.

The point is, moths are amazing creatures that we often associate with destructive tendencies.  There’s a reason for that, but that’s not a topic for this blog…maybe another day. Moths are important ecosystem contributors and it’s easy to see why just by looking at their physical attributes: they’re fuzzy.

Moths…as Pollinators
That’s right, fuzzy insects are better pollinators.  In fact, you could argue that many moths are better pollinators than most butterflies for a number of reasons.  Butterflies feed with a long proboscis and are relatively hairless (antennae are often long, slender and hairless; legs are the same).  They feed far enough away from the pollen that they rarely pick up any to transport to the next food source.

Moths, however, are fuzzy critters. Many have plumose antennae that look feathery. Their abdomens are often covered in a fur and have fur-lined legs.  Like butterflies, they get their nourishment using a proboscis but while their faces may not touch the flower’s pollen stores, their bodies and antennae will pick up and transport grains.

Of course, these are generalizations that apply to many, if not most, butterflies and moths; it certainly doesn’t apply to all and there are a good number of butterfly species that are excellent pollinators and many moths that wouldn’t be great at it.

Attracting Moth Pollinators


Moth heads, bodies, and plumose antennae are fuzzy, allowing them to pick up much more pollen than a butterfly.

Contrary to popular belief, not all moths are nocturnal. Many are active during the day (including the hummingbird moth and the ailanthus webworm). In order to attract them as pollinators, you’ll need flowers that produce a lot of nectar.  And while butterflies are going for the bright colours of many flowers, moths are happy seeking out the white and dull coloured flowers. They also like a strong fragrance and tube-shaped flowers. Here’s a short list of some favourites:

Common evening primrose




Culver’s root


Joe-pye weed

New Jersey tea


All of these plants (with the exception of primrose) will also attract other pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies. They also act as great overwintering host plants for moth cocoons and eggs.

Consider them when thinking about pollinator gardens and keep in mind that moths may not always be the most attractive creatures, but they are powerhouses where pollination is concerned.

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