Enter the Echinacea

In a casual stroll about the Wildflower Farm, I started to notice just how many coneflower species are growing amongst the myriad of mid-summer bloomers.  At my home, I have a few growing but they’re late this year and definitely not as far along as the ones at the farm.  I was, however, able to capture a photo of this amazing little jumping spider sitting atop the unopened purple coneflower.

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I love the spiral created beneath this little spider.  Echinacea actually comes from the Greek work echinos which translates to ‘sea urchin’ in reference to the spiky seed head.

 

Back to the farm…

There are five species of true coneflower growing here at the farm.  By true coneflower, I mean those from the Echinacea family.  You should know that all of the coneflowers are excellent for attracting pollinators.  Plus, they provide a high quality food source for the adult monarch butterflies.  Yes, the caterpillars require milkweed to survive but the adults have to eat, too.  They need the energy to mate, lay another batch of eggs for the summer, and, eventually, to make the long journey to Mexico.  Beyond having your garden look great all season long, know that by providing native blooms from spring to fall, you’re supporting several generations of monarchs and many other native species.

And now for the amazing coneflowers here at Wildflower Farm…

Purple Coneflower

The classic coneflower.  Pictured here with a goldenrod crab spider at the edge of one of Wildflower Farm’s meadows, the Purple Coneflower is a beautiful addition to any garden.  Growing well in sand to clay, it can tolerate dry to medium soils and will bring about the birds and the bees.  And the monarchs, swallowtails, soldier beetles…and spiders.

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Pale Purple Coneflower

Definitely the saddest looking of the bunch, the Pale Purple Coneflower just screams Eeyore to me.  The long, narrow petals range in colour from the deep pink you see below to a very light, almost white, pink.

The Pale Purple Coneflower works surprisingly well in arrangements with other tall-stemmed flowers like the Yellow Coneflower, Prairie Blazingstar, and Culver’s Root.  And as an added bonus, it loves the clay.

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Narrow-leaf Coneflower

Looking similar to the Purple Coneflower, the Narrow-leaf Coneflower is stockier with short petals. They will grow 1-3 feet in sandy to loamy soils.  No clay for these guys.

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Ozark Coneflower

The only non-purple/pink coneflower on the list, the Ozark Coneflower originates from Arkansas and Missouri, specifically in the mountainous Ozark regions.

The cone of the Ozark Coneflower is fairly robust and contrasts well with the brilliantly bright yellow petals.  A hardy plant that survives Ontario’s winters, it will grow 3-4 feet tall in everything from sand to clay.

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Tennessee Coneflower

A rare plant thought to have gone extinct in the 1960s, the Tennessee Coneflower is unique in that its petals remain upright as it ages.  As you have seen with the other coneflower species, petals that begin pointing upwards at a young age eventually droop downwards over time.

Excellent in sandy soils and also tolerant of clay soils, it is a hardy plant for compact spaces, growing 1-2 feet in height.

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All of the coneflowers need cold, moist stratification or winter to germinate.  Plant them outdoors in the fall or start them indoors in the fridge.  For an extra show after summer has ended, consider leaving the stems standing for the winter.  Birds will eat the seeds and the dark stems and seed heads provide beautiful contrast against winter’s snowy surprises.

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A Trio of Insect Discoveries

A while back I wrote a blog about Aldo Leopold and his love for the Silphium family, in particular the Compass Plant.  With its square stem and unbelievable height of 12 feet, the Compass Plant tends to stop onlookers in their tracks.  Within the same family is the Cup Plant, slightly shorter (but still reaching 10 feet at maturity) with the same square stem.

Being a native prairie plant and sun lover, I was surprised to find the Cup Plant in my messy, unkempt backyard that receives much more shade than sun.  It was purely by coincidence that I spotted the first patch.  It had just rained and I was out enjoying the  fresh post-rain air when I saw a plant holding water.  Stepping in to take a closer look, I saw that the opposite leaves were actually fused together around a square stem.

I was skeptical at first but soon found a few more patches and after doing a quick Google search, came to the conclusion that the leaves and stem were the right shape – it was indeed a Cup Plant: Silphium perfoliatum.  A very young plant, standing only two feet from the ground.

And while this is all interesting and exciting, more than anything, the Cup Plants have given me a reason to visit the backyard more often (I’m waiting to see if they’ll bloom).  This has lead to some pretty fantastic insect finds.

 

A Millipede…

The first was a Narceus americanus, North America’s largest millipede.  With the ability to grow up to 10cm, it’s nothing compared to those found in South America and other tropical regions but for North America’s non-tropical climate, 10cm is pretty impressive.  And I love the way their legs create that rhythmic wave as they walk.  See what I’m talking about in the video below.

They are excellent composters too, devouring rotting leaves, woody debris, and other organic material.  What comes out is a nutrient-rich dream for plants: the nutrients and minerals are accessed much more readily once the material has been processed through the digestive system of the millipede.

 

A Moth…

Then I found this stunning moth in the genus Haploa.  Possibly Haploa lecontei but I can’t be certain as this genus and that particular species is so variable.  This moth, however, was sitting in the cedar bush at about 5:30 in the morning (I can’t believe I was up that early).

The moth itself isn’t anything special in terms of its ecosystem contributions but I’m sure it will be a tasty snack for a passing bat or hungry bird.

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When at rest, the Haploa moths are triangular in shape. Beneath the spotted exterior, colour can range from solid white, yellow, and orange to similar colours with brown or black spots.

 

A Leafhopper…

My third find is actually the reason I chose to write this blog.  The candy-striped leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea).  Probably not a favourite of many gardeners, the leafhopper’s bright blue and red appearance makes it stand out.  Variations of the candy-striped leafhopper are green and red with a similar pattern.

Like other leafhoppers, the candy-striped leafhopper has been identified as a vector for the bacteria that causes leaf scorch in several tree species and is known to cause leaf curl, discolouration, and premature leaf drop.  In huge numbers, the candy-stripe leafhopper can be a bit of a nuisance but one sitting atop this Cup Plant is ok by me.

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The candy-striped leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea), like its name suggests, hops between plants, jumping up to 40 times its own body length.  It is the feeding from infected trees then moving to the uninfected that causes the spread of disease.

Take a closer look into your garden as the days start to get warmer.  Think about what you’re seeing. What is its role in the food web? How it is contributing to the ecosystem?

 

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Soft Beauty of a Wildflower Bouquet

An invitation to mid-summer euphoria…

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My Mother had our local florist wrapped around her little finger. Each and every Friday afternoon the florist rang the doorbell of our Victorian home in Nutley, New Jersey, and carefully placed a newly crafted floral arrangement on the entrance table in our enclosed front porch. My Mother was VERY particular about the colour and style of these arrangements. In fact, she was quite particular about just about everything. Only earthy colours and textures were welcome in her lavishly decorated home filled with gracious antiques and fine art. Each week stunning arrangements of vibrant copper, mossy green, bright yellows, rich browns, red berries and funky twigs would arrive. I’d stare into these lush bouquets for hours. Many years later when my parents downsized to a light-filled condominium overlooking a forested hillside in Verona, New Jersey, my mother’s design palette softened into elegant linen fabrics and warm neutrals; likewise, the floral arrangements she art-directed emphasized understated creams and warm apricot pastels. Now a grown woman, I’d stare into the soft beauty of these bouquets and feel my heart open and my cares melt away. I have a feeling my Mother would have quite liked this softly-coloured wildflower bouquet I fashioned yesterday.

I began by filling my vase with blue and green glass stones.

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And now, allow me to introduce the 14 wildflowers and 1 native grass included in yesterday’s bouquet.

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Ozark Coneflower

Monarda - Also known as Bergamot or Bee-Balm

Monarda – Also known as Bergamot or Bee-Balm

Wild Quinune

Wild Quinine

Culver's Root

Culver’s Root

Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake Master

Ozark Coneflower, Monarda, Wild Quinine, Culver's Root and Rattle Snake Master

Ozark Coneflower, Monarda, Wild Quinine, Culver’s Root and Rattlesnake Master

Queen of Prairie - not yet in full bloom

Queen of Prairie – not yet in full bloom

Pale Purple Coneflower

Pale Purple Coneflower

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Yellow Coneflower with Culver’s Root

Syrphid fly sits atop a Purple Prairie Clover Bloom

Syrphid fly sits atop a Purple Prairie Clover Bloom

Blanketflower

Blanketflower

Purple Prairie Clover, Blanket Flower, Ozark Coneflower, Lead Plant, Wine Cups, Cup Plant Buds (in green bottom left)

Purple Prairie Clover, Blanket Flower, Ozark Coneflower, Lead Plant, Wine Cups, Cup Plant Buds (in green bottom left), Wild Quinine, Pale Purple Coneflower

Dotted Mint

Dotted Mint

Cohosh

Cohosh

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Rattlesnake Master, Bottlebrush grass, Wild Quinine, Cup Plant

 

Here they are: the final pieces, collected and ready to be put together.  Wildflower beauty, bounty, and splendor.

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Wildflower Kidnapping

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I go for numerous walks with my dog on the trails not far from my house.  I’m fortunate to be able to do this and while I go partly for my health (and that of my dog), from spring to fall, I go to look at what’s growing.  Early spring yields hepatica, trout lilies, and trilliums by the thousands.  As spring moves into summer, the ferns have shifted from alien-like growths to miniature prehistoric forests, the trees have leafed out and the full shade understory is home to wild raspberries, blackberries, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger, columbines, and starflowers showing off their various blooms.

 

I observe these plants every year.  One particular fern community grew to an unbelievable five feet this spring, likely thanks to the rain we had early on.  I would love for my gardens to have five-foot ostrich ferns and borders of *native* lily-of-the-valley but, alas, my conditions would not be conducive to their healthy growth.  They are growing in the understory of this middle-age sugar maple forest community because it provides proper soil temperature, pH, nutrients, light, and shelter.

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The unmistakable seeds of the Solomon’s Seal.  While False Solomon’s Seal is much more abundant, I have observed an increasing number of “true” Solomon’s Seal.  There’s an important balance between the two species in this forest that must be allowed to progress at a natural pace.

Digging in the Wild
It’s important to realize that when you see a plant growing in the wild, it’s there for a reason.  Of the thousands of seeds that are transported each year from their mother to their new potential home, only a small percentage will actually germinate.  Of those that germinate, an even smaller percentage will make it to maturity.

This tiny milkweed won't flower this year and it may not even flower next year. Producing flowers is expensive for a plant. Native perennials need time to build stores in their roots and will flower only when it won't stress the plant.

This tiny milkweed won’t flower this year and it may not even flower next year.  Producing flowers is expensive for a plant.  Native perennials need time to build stores in their roots and will flower only when it won’t stress the plant.  Moving a plant causes stress by damaging tiny root hairs, tap roots, and exposing it to an entirely different environment.

When you take plants from their homes with the good intentions of providing them with similar or “better” conditions, know that it is nearly impossible to give a wild plant what it needs to survive.  Keep in mind too that you are removing it from an ecosystem that is functioning with it there.  Digging plants leaves holes in the ground – an open invitation for weeds which can disrupt an otherwise healthy system.  There is a delicate balance created among the wild plants we see around us.  It’s working well and doesn’t need us throwing it off course.

A Highly Specialized Interaction
Take orchids, for example.  The flowers in this group have developed highly specialized interactions within their ecosystem.  They require specific soil conditions and are extremely sensitive to changes.  These conditions are impossible to duplicate, no matter how much effort you put in.  Removing orchids from their ecosystem disrupts the system and in all likelihood, you will kill the plant in the process.

When Digging is OK
There are certain times when digging in the wild is OK.  We like to call this “rescue digging”.  If the property is to be demolished or dug up for construction purposes, digging prior to demo is OK.  Always dig wider than the roots will be and realize that if it’s a well-aged plant, the root system will likely travel pretty far down.  Don’t get lazy for this part as breaking the tap root can severely hurt its chances for survival.  A successful transplant is one where the plant doesn’t even know it’s been moved. Dig wide and deep, well beyond the roots.

If You Must Have Them…
Consider growing wildflowers and wild plants from seed or source them from a reputable grower who does not harvest from the wild.  They have a much better chance at survival and will enjoy living in your garden from day one.

Your other option is to take note of where these plants are and plant to return when they are going to seed.  Take a few, not all, and over time, you can harvest the seeds from your own garden.

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One of the sensitive fern colonies I keep an eye on.

Walking along forested paths, roadsides, or ditches should always be a window-shopping experience: you look, but you don’t touch.  That old expression, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” is one that should be ringing through your mind when you see plants growing in the wild.  They’re happier where they are and will never be as happy or healthy in your garden no matter how hard you try.  Best to keep their location in mind and revisit them year after year.

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A Mantis Story

A few months back while Miriam and Paul were on a casual stroll through the meadow as it was just greening up, Miriam found something interesting.  Knowing I would be more than intrigued, she brought it back and showed me the next day.  Putting my detective skills to work, I determined it was a praying mantis egg casing.  Not being an expert, I couldn’t tell which species was waiting inside.

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Unhatched (left) and hatched (right) mantis egg case. The only noteable differences are the colour and a slight ruffling of the centre crease of the egg case.

 

Sidenote: there are two species of non-native (and some would consider invasive) praying mantis in Canada: the European mantis and the Chinese mantis.  Both are larger and more aggressive than the only native mantis that exists here, capturing prey that our native mantids wouldn’t consider.  That one native mantis that exists in Canada (Litaneutria minor) – doesn’t come much more east the BC.  The closest thing to a native Ontario mantis would be the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) but it doesn’t generally come further north than New York.

The native North American mantids (and non-native ones for that matter) are predators, strict carnivores, eating only food that is alive before being snatched up by the spiny scythes.  Out in the gardens at Wildflower Farm, they will eat most anything that moves, they’re not really picky.  One interesting fact: the newly hatched female Chinese mantis will sometimes ingest pollen if live prey is not available, thereby reducing the risk of early death.

Now back to our find.  The oblong cocoon was attached to a piece of dried Little Bluestem; I put the whole thing, grass and all, into a sealed bag on the windowsill.  And we waited.  I checked every day for signs of life or change of any kind.

On Thursday, June 26, they began to hatch.  Being away from work that day, I got a frantic phone call and a text saying the mantises had hatched and were crawling all over each other.  That night I built myself a little terrarium.  If the egg case couldn’t give me clues to its species, growing a few to adulthood probably could.  Outfitting it with soilless substrate, living plants, and dried sticks has given them places to climb and hide.

It has been quite the learning experience.  One that I will keep you updated with as the weeks progress and these (very) tiny mantids grow up.

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And by tiny, I mean TINY – at about 5mm long.

 

The Challenges

Building a home for 30 or so baby praying mantises wasn’t the difficult part.  When we put that cocoon into the bag, I didn’t really think too much about it; I honestly didn’t think anything was going to happen.  Once they emerged and I saw how small they were, my first thought was, “What am I going to feed them?”  After doing a little reading, I came upon a few options: let them eat each other (a natural cannibalistic approach to wean out the weak ones), feed them flightless fruit flies and springtails, or find equally small alternatives.

I chose a combination of option one and three and there are currently 17 or so baby mantids living in the terrarium with numerous aphids of different sizes that I found during my weeding efforts.

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The varying sizes of the aphid give the baby mantids options. If the large ones are TOO large, they can opt to eat the smaller ones.

 

Phase One of mantis identification is complete. And now we must wait until they grow up. Will keep you posted!

 

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Oh Happy Day !!

Eyes long desperate for colour now feast daily upon generous swaths of Coreopsis lanceolata!!!

Eyes long desperate for colour now feast daily upon generous swaths of Coreopsis lanceolata!!!

We’ve arrived ! At long last it’s that heady time of year when I head out most mornings, bucket in hand. After colourful blooms are gathered, I repair to the shade of my willow tree workshop, crank the tunes and blissfully birth bouquets.

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This time of year is tremendously exciting! For example, just this week, swaths of two stunning Echinacea species began to bloom!

Ozark Coneflowers (Echinacea paradoxa) ~~ easy to grow from seed and love full sun and medium to dry sandy loam. http://www.wildflowerfarm.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=18&product_id=91

I love the exaggeratedly large seed head and bright yellow petals of the Ozark Coneflower!

I love the exaggeratedly large seed head and bright yellow petals of the Ozark Coneflower!

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)  ~~ true wildflower work horses in the garden and meadow. Happy in full sun or part shade they’ll grow beautifully for you in sandy soil, loam and even compacted clay!! http://www.wildflowerfarm.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=18&product_id=90

These upright Pale Purple Coneflower petals will turn downward in characteristic coneflower style in just a few days!

These upright Pale Purple Coneflower petals will turn downward in characteristic coneflower style in just a few days!

This week, I was overjoyed to read a status update from esteemed Canadian feminist and avid gardener, Michele Landsberg I could SO relate to!! Listen to her description of the   effusive joy she feels spending time in her garden;

“Do you share my love of flowers…colours, light, shape, perfume? I know my garden this year is wildly undisciplined, crammed full, not design-y…but it expresses my love of nature’s abundance and makes me feel so damn lucky to be alive!”

Here, then in celebration of nature’s abundance are two wildflower bouquets I fashioned this week;

Bouquet Number One:

Mother Nature favours Yellow, Blue & White in early summer

Mother Nature favours Yellow, Blue & White in early summer

This early summer bouquet includes feathery white Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus) , Baptisias in blue, white and yellow, yellow Coreopsis lanceolata, soft purple Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), purple Spiderwort blossoms (Tradescantia ohiensis)  and Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) foliage.

Bouquet Number Two:

A riot of colour!

A riot of colour!

The first Ozark and Pale Purple Coneflowers are joined by the first of the Blanketflowers (Gallardia aristata), green seed heads of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), White Yarrow (Achillia millifolium), Blue False Indigo, softly purple Harebells and dark purple Spiderwort.

Tip: Deadhead Blanketflowers and Coreopsis and they'll gift you with blossoms all summer long!

Tip: Deadhead Blanketflowers and Coreopsis and they’ll gift you with blossoms all summer long!

Learn more wildflower bouquet techniques and gardening tips: http://www.tamingwildflowers.com

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