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

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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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First off, I apologize for the title.  I’ve been thinking of a way to work this word into some part of my life for the past week. Unfortunately, you were the recipients but there is method to this madness. Read on.

We hear about species becoming threatened, endangered, or, even worse, extinct.  Much of the time, the focus is on the charismatic megafauna, like the panda, tiger, and rhino (a hot topic in the news these days). The fact is, plants go extinct, too. We just don’t hear about it quite as often.

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I’m not saying we shouldn’t work to protect these beautiful creatures; I’m saying we need to see the smaller, less noticed species that need just as much attention.

As a species (whether plant or animal) becomes extinct, our overall global diversity is reduced.  And there are consequences. The diversity of our plant life (diver-seed-y) is just as important as the charismatic megafauna plastered all over social media.

Check out a couple of the North American species that are in trouble to varying degrees but, with the help of wildflower lovers throughout the continent, we can keep them going.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
This spring bloomer is on the endangered species list in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find it in any of its other native locations either as it’s quite rare.

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Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)
One of Miriam’s favourites for the garden and as a cut flower (particularly great for wedding bouquets), wild quinine is endangered in Maryland and Minnesota; extirpated in Pennsylvania; and threatened in Wisconsin.

Ozark Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)
Native to the Ozark region of the US (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma) and Texas, this flower is threatened in Arkansas where it only exists in a few of the northernmost counties.


Bush’s Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe bushii)
You won’t find this plant naturally outside a handful of US states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas). That doesn’t mean it won’t do well in other places, though.  An excellent addition to any North American rock garden or space with dry soil.

Tennessee Coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis)
Native to Tennessee (and Tennessee only), it is also endangered there.  This coneflower is unique with its horizontal flower petals (where the rest have sagging petals). Although it’s native to Tennessee, it grows well in Ontario on the farm and will overwinter just like any other coneflower we grow here.


Detailed growing information can be found by clicking on each species link.  Or searching directly from the website. There you will find bloom time (to maximize your garden’s flower potential throughout the season), special characteristics (cut flower worthy, insect and bird species it attracts, and deer resistance), and where in your garden it will do the best.

If you have the space, give these rare and endangered species a chance to repopulate throughout the country.  If you don’t have space of your own, share the message with someone who does – you can even offer to help them with the gardening! Win-win all around!

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A Bug-Deprived Blogger


Top left: bergamot; top right: black-eyed Susan; bottom left: evening primrose; bottom right: white yarrow.
All of these are North American native wildflowers that don’t need winter to germinate.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about the sow and grow wildflowers that we offer at Wildflower Farm. Unlike last year though, the snow is still melting and the bulbs I put in the ground in the fall are starting to sprout. The squirrels are still eating my bird seed…

If you know anything about native North American wildflowers, you will know that the majority of them require “cold-moist stratification” or, in layman’s terms, winter sowing. Without this (or the fake version of this), you’ll have a hard time getting them to sprout.

Fortunately, there is still time to start your flowers in the fridge. And for the rest of us who aren’t as motivated or don’t have fridge space, there are seeds for you as well.  Last year I gave you a list of the seeds we offer that don’t need this special treatment.  They are, just like many of the annual non-natives, easy to grow. But, with the added bonus of being perennials.  That’s right, these beauties will come back every year.

This year, because I have been a little bug deprived, I thought I’d focus on the great benefits certain “speed dial” wildflowers can bring where the insect community is concerned.

Evening Primrose and Moths

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A laurel sphinx moth. The evening primrose provides nourishment during the evening hours.


As its name suggests, the evening primrose opens at night.  Conveniently, many moth species become active when the sun goes down (it’s like nature has something figured out).  Two moth species come to mind when I think of evening primrose: hawk moths (also known as sphinx moths and hummingbird moths) and the cleverly named primrose moth.

Before last summer, I had never seen a hawk moth.  A laurel sphinx moth showed up after our motion sensor light was stuck on all night. I was floored by its beauty.  The colours, its sheer size, and its interesting shape.  If you’ve never seen one in action, you MUST see this video (or any other hawk moth video for that matter).  There’s a reason they’re also called hummingbird moths.

The primrose moths are stunners as well.  Can’t say I’ve ever seen one (yet) but I will be keeping an eye out this summer.



Black-eyed Susan and Syrphid Flies

While not an exclusive interaction by any means (none of these are), the syrphid fly does like to spend its summer days chowing down on the pollen and nectar provided by the black-eyed Susan. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to take a decent photo of a syrphid fly yet – they are skiddish and unbelievably quick.

Syrphid flies have to be one of my favourite pollinators.  While they are incredibly cute little insects, they are interesting pollinators as well – so very detailed while picking up pollen.

As beneficial insects go, the syrphid fly should get more recognition. Not only is it a great pollinator as an adult, its larvae are excellent aphid predators. Now, I will warn you, if you’re not into insects, this video might not be for you.  The videography is truly incredible though.


Bergamot and Beetles

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Definitely not on a bergamot plant, but this banded long-horned beetle is a frequent visitor to the bergamot plants around Wildflower Farm.

Bergamot is a workhorse in the garden. Beyond the myriad of bee pollinators it attracts, you can expect to see a whole host of butterfly and moth species as well. But that’s not why we’re here today.  Bees, butterflies and moths are great, but sometimes I think we neglect to see past the usual pollinators and recognize other insects that are playing such integral parts in the ecosystem.

Beetles, for example, never really get the credit they deserve. Bergamot, being the incredible sow-and-grow flower that it is, also attracts a few beetles:  the soldier beetle, which I’m sure many of you have seen poking around the garden, and the banded long-horned beetle.  Not to be confused with the Asian long-horned beetle which has become a bit of a pain in North America, the banded long-horned beetle (Typocerus velutinus) is a native.


Last year, I was fortunate enough to see a few enjoying the Queen-Anne’s lace that grows in the scrubby area by my house. Bergamot, however, is a favourite for this beetle. And this beetle plays an important part in the woodland ecosystem: its larvae feed on decaying wood, enabling the much needed decomposition process.

Final Words
Every one of these sow-and-grow wildflowers is a perennial.  Every one will add a different look to the garden.  And every one will bring in variety of insects that may or may not be pollinators but definitely provide some service to the ecosystem.

Consider adding a few to your garden.  You still have time.

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