Beautiful Native Plants

Blog HOME ***Our team of bloggers writes about all aspects of ecosystem gardening, from native plants to pollinators and wildlife.***

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Toothwort - Is That for Dinner?

You may have noticed a certain kind of frenzy that descends on folks in the early spring, a frenzy for wildflowers. And plant people are not the only ones affected, either. People who otherwise never set foot outside of cemented Metro areas make plans to get out of town. The call of bluebells, merrybells, trilliums, and trout lilies is a clarion call that draws whole families to embark on a flower treasure-hunt out in the distant woods and valleys where nature still has the freedom to show her own exuberance for the season.

Ephemerals they are called. These are flowers that emerge and sparkle brightly but briefly, and are gone practically in the blink of an eye. Even their leaves melt away, leaving no trace of their existence by the time the heat of summer arrives. One such ephemeral, native to every state east of the Rocky Mountains, is Cardamine concatenata, aka cut-leaf toothwort. 

Cut-leaf toothwort, Cardamine concatenata
Sounds like something you’d see coming down a dark alley with a grimace and sword, doesn’t it? You would never know from the name that it’s a dainty little thing with bell-shaped blooms, and delicate, deeply serrated leaves.

It turn out that the word 'wort' comes from the old English ‘wyrt,’ meaning herb or plant. When wort appears at the end of a plant’s name, it means that the plant was probably once used as some kind of healing remedy.

In times past, folks relied on what a plant looked like to determine what part of the body it might heal. This practice is known as the Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of cut-leaf toothwort, the fleshy underground tuber from which the plant grows is covered with lumpy projections that resemble teeth. Thus, it was thought to be a cure for toothache. Whether it was effective or not, we do not know, but there is no medical evidence to support its efficacy.

The tubers were also used for food; slightly peppery in taste, they can be consumed raw or steamed; said to be good in salads. That is, if you grow them in your own garden, because it is illegal to harvest from public places. It must have taken a heck of an effort to get enough for eating, they are tiny plants, only about 6 inches high.

One thing there is no doubt about is that the toothwort is very useful to a high number of insects who emerge early and are looking for food. Toothwort flowers stay semi-folded until sunlight stimulates them to open more fully, and even hold themselves more erect, which advertises their availability during a warmer time, when insects are most likely to be actively seeking nectar. Long and short-tongued bees visit toothwort, and the short-tongues also collect its pollen.  Toothwort is a larval host for several of the Pieris butterflies. Once upon a time it was a minor food source for the now-extinct Passenger pigeon.

Toothwort bears a number of other amusing common names, including crinkleroot; crow’s foot; crow toes; cut-leaf; lady’s smocks; milkmaids; pepper root; pepperwort; purple-leaved crinkleroot; toothache root; and wild radish. Another native plant that you might pass by without noticing, yet beautiful to behold, an important player in its habitat, and worthy of our observation and our conservation. 

 "What's in a name?" asked Juliet. Quite a bit it would seem!

Cut-leaf toothwort, an ephemeral native wildflower, found in 
deciduous mesic woodlands, floodplain woodlands, 
wooded bluffs, and upland savannas. One of the natives 
particularly averse to Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard, which
will cause severe population decline. Food for early pollinators,

Sue Dingwell

Friday, March 6, 2020

Native Plant People, It's Up to Us Now

A recent Landscaping with Native Plants conference in Colorado offered a sold-out audience a wide range of topics, but one resounding theme was echoed by every single speaker - it’s up to us now. The need for conservation is critical, the time is now, and we must, all of us, take on the responsibility for thoughtful planting that will slow the loss of species and shore up the functionality of our own local ecosystems. 

Keynote speaker, Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director of the Xerces Society delivered a powerful talk, ‘Insect Apocalypse? What Is Really Happening; Why it Matters, and How We All Can Help.’ He began by describing the loss of insects worldwide, and emphasized that even if the word ‘apocalypse’ might not yet be applicable, the trends of decline in insect abundance and diversity are distinctly and quantifiably alarming. 

 Native bees like this one are important to maintaining the fabric of the planet.
Insects are undergoing severe declines in abundance and diversity
on every continent except Antartica.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

More Love for Native Vines

Vines are popular with gardeners for many reasons; and we have outstanding choices for using NATIVE vines in our landscapes. There is really no need to choose an exotic vine, many of which have invaded our natural areas and caused great harm to them and the animals that would like to live in them. 
Lonicera sempervirens, commonly known as coral
honeysuckle. An easy native vine to grow.
Photo ©BeautifulNativePlants

The same thing gardeners love about vines is also what drives them crazy. Vines climb, creep, crawl, drape and cover; it’s the good news and the bad news. But I’m advocating more love for native vines because they are not only useful in the garden, but ultimately such good providers for wildlife. What’s needed is an understanding of the growth habits of the vines you want to incorporate.

By nature vines are among the more opportunistic of plants. Their roots take hold in the woodland floor and they use tendrils of different kinds to clamber upwards and spread their leaves in the sunshine. This means that a gardener can multiply the flower quotient by utilizing vertical space, or space that might otherwise be devoid of growth. Vines can cover walls, mailboxes, fences, terraces, trellises, arbors, rock piles, and tree stumps. Vines also make excellent groundcovers. Some vines are more opportunistic than others; due diligence is the key to success.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Insects are a Weighty Matter

Aphids on a pear tree
One of many out-of-sight colonies,
amounting to several pounds of insects per tree
© Beatriz Moisset
If all the insects in an acre of land chose to sit on you, they would crush you. Is that possible? How many insects are there in an acre and how much do they weigh?

To get a better perspective on the importance of insects, I set myself the task of finding out how many insects there are in any ordinary garden or field. An entomologist/gardener, Frank E. Lutz did just that more than 70 years ago.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Nature's Best Hope by Doug Tallamy: Book Review

Doug Tallamy's new book:
a wellspring of inspiration

 In his new book, Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Doug Tallamy has delivered a deep and powerful wellspring of inspiration for the many people craving an opportunity to be part of transformative change for our challenged world. Even more compelling than his first book, Bringing Nature Home, a seminal work in itself, Nature’s Best Hope is a clarion call for the informed appreciation of native plants and the immediate course correction of using them in our own planting spaces to form the connected corridors that will help forestall the loss of species and the loss of ecosystem services that are we currently experiencing. 

Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, is a richly layered work, providing a contextual look at the evolution of our thinking about conservation, as well as detailed guidelines for getting started with native plants in your own nearby spaces, and, perhaps most importantly, the reasoning that will convince you, your neighbors, and your neighborhoods that now is the time to do so. Far from a dry treatise or an impassioned rant, the writing here reflects Tallamy’s character: cautiously optimistic, and gently but perceptively humorous. This book is an enjoyable read both for his fans, and for those who are new to his ideas about the roles native plants play in our landscapes. One of his stated goals was to write a book that would meet the needs of three groups of people: those who like plants, those who like animals, and those who like neither. He has done so.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Feed the Birds!

While there are many discussions on the pros and cons of using bird feeders, you can never go wrong by feeding them with the native plants they depend on in the wild. As we wrestle with the reality of increasing species loss, we can take action in our own yards and community spaces by promoting and using plants native to our region. Yes, changes are occurring, and the ranges of both flora and fauna are moving ever northward. But less is not more - let’s keep as many of the local eco-type plants as we can for as long as we can. And enjoy the benefits of the company of the animals that are still counting on them. 

Taken from a distance, but you can see the juniper cone right in the robin's mouth

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Toward the Plastic-free Garden

Leaf recycling the natural way, an eternal cycle
© Beatriz Moisset
Plastics are a curse and a blessing. They are changing our world for better and for worse. That is why Susan Freinkel titled her book on this subject Plastic: "A Toxic Love Story." I recommend her ForaTV lecture.

The most serious trouble with plastics is that they are not truly recyclable. It is true that we place them by the curbside and they are taken by trucks to recycling facilities. If all goes as it should, that plastic is turned into something else and given a new life. But that doesn’t complete the circle back to the original components. Perhaps it should be called something else, down-cycling, half-cycling?
Recycled or not, this is where plastics end up
© Kevin Krejci. Flickr

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Oh, Yucca! A Plant for All Reasons

Oh, Yucca! Do you picture this plant as a pokey, static, and rather dull component of a landscape?Au contraire! We posit the yucca as a plant of majesty, elegance, and fascinating complexity. Not to mention an easy evergreen keeper in the garden. 
Native yuccas have architectural interest after flowering

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Rethinking Pretty in Suburbia

Every year I ruminate on what more I can do to support (and not just attract) wildlife in my home landscape. When an F1 tornado took down a dead elm tree and a few birch leaders last summer, we left the trunks of both as snags. When I clip shrub and tree branches I put them in a growing pile in the back corner of our lot instead of chipping them up. And I’m always experimenting with different management techniques in our prairie-inspired headquarters deep in the heart of suburbia.
In 2014 I converted our thinning / neglected back lawn of about 2,500ft into meadow. Over the years I’ve tried different methods of spring removal of plant top growth -- fire is illegal in city limits here in the Plains -- as well as employing fall forb plug planting and variously-timed seeding. I’ve not found the magic sauce to increase forb density without burning, but plugs out back and in the front beds has been modestly effective.

Speaking of out front, that’s where I spend more time tweaking. Honestly, it’s amazing the pressures a small 400-500ft space must face. The two garden beds are divided by a wide lawn path that’s slowly succumbing to little bluestem self sowing. The west bed is watered daily by my neighbor’s lawn sprinkler over spray, and the really drought tolerant plants have vanished so each year I make additions. The east bed fares better and forbs are actually starting to dominate the grasses to the point where early each summer I do a little thinning. Did I mention the garden capture a lot of neighborhood trash? Kid’s crayon drawings, work evaluations, socks, little plastic trees, plastic coffee cups, credit card bills, glue dot sheets, bags of sequins, packages of eyeglass wipes, play money…. The garden filters trash and rainfall. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Stinging Nettle. Food for Butterflies and Food for Us

Stinging nettle foliage © Beatriz Moisset.

Last May I went for a walk at my favorite nature center, and I noticed the nettles growing fast and furiously along the trail. Urtica dioica is a native plant that grows through most of North America as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center tell us. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden warns us about its powerful sting in Weed of the Month: Stinging Nettle.

This plant is a healthy vegetable, and its tender leaves invite gourmets who know what is good. I have never tasted it, but I thought it was time to do so. I tried collecting a few leaves, but soon found out the sting was surprisingly powerful. I have picked up leaves in other occasions with little consequence, and I have seen others collect leaves with no concern. I may to wear gloves in my next foray.