Bumblebees are extremely important pollinators for agriculture both in the field and in greenhouses. Unlike honey bees, they are able to forage under cold, rainy, and cloudy conditions, so it is possible to see them in all kinds of weather. Even on an early chilly morning, you can see a bumblebee sleeping inside a flower blossom, waiting for some warmth to arrive.
The crops that bumblebees can pollinate include tomatoes,peppers, raspberries, blueberries, chives, cucumbers,apples, strawberries, alfalfa, blackberries, soybeans,sunflowers, beans, cherries, apricots, plums, almonds,nectarines, peaches, rosehips, eggplants, and cranberries.
Bumblebees are also extremely important pollinators of many flowering plants and are generalists, which means they pollinate by visiting hundreds of flowering plants.
There is evidence that in North America some of our bumblebee species are declining and a few are threatened with extinction. Species that seem most vulnerable are those with smaller climate tolerances, those at the edge of their climatic niches, and later emerging species. Many species in North America and around the world, are declining at a rapid rate.
Most bumblebees nest in underground nest, or old logs or crevices. You can help the bumblebees come to your property and nest by providing a ready to move in nest, just as you would to mason bees.
Since most bumbles nest in the ground or a dry, dark cavity, you can provide a simple ground nest with a clay pot, a saucer, some straw, piece of chicken wire, and a short piece of garden hose for an entrance. The low-flying zig zag flight of a nest-site searching queen can be seen in the spring and is very distinctive.
A mature nest of a bumblebee can contain up to 400 residents, as compared to 50,000 to 80,000 honeybees, so the nest is quite small. It should be located in the shade in a dry location. The straw used preferably should be obtained from a mouse’s nest, as a queen will be attracted to the smell. For complete instructions and diagrams, go to Hartley Botanic.
Bringing bugs into the garden is the new norm, not spraying with insecticides every insect that alights on a leaf. A sea change in how gardeners operate is in motion and most gardeners are embracing it with gusto. Seeing the Monarch numbers plummet recently has brought home the importance of home gardeners taking charge and embracing this change for the better.
Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.
I will be profiling a series of plants in the next year that are really important to pollinators- be it honeybee, native bee, hummingbird, beetles, butterflies, or flies. Top of the list is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.
According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.
Mountain Mintis both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.
An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.
Mountain Mintpositively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.
How To Grow
Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.
Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mintwill also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.
Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.
Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.
One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.
Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch, people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.
Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods
Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Other Varieties of Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.
Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.
Monarch on Joe Pye Weed
Monarch Waystation Sign available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The pods of Hairy Balls are a conversation piece
Tropical Milkweed is brightly colored
Milky sap exudes down the stem
Milkweed pods are positioned vertically
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
Colony of Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond
Tropical Milkweed has pretty yellow and orange flowers
Prior to pupating, the cats go on “walk-about”, trying to find the perfect spot to make their chrysalis. In the wild, they can travel up to 15 to 20 feet away in their search. Found in some odd places, the chrysalis might be on fences, flower pots, window ledges, benches, bird houses, siding- just about any structure in your yard or house.
After crawling around the caterpillar finds the perfect spot to form their silken button that attaches to hang in their prepupal “J”, prior to their last molting. The silk comes from the spinneret on the bottom of the head. After shedding its skin for the last time, the caterpillar stabs a stem into the silk pad to hang. This stem extends from its rear end, called the Cremaster. The beautiful gold dots that adorn the chrysalis are not known to have a function.
For the last skin shed, the caterpillar makes it chrysalis and goes through the “pupa dance”, a process that only takes 3 minutes or less.
Relocating a Chrysalis
Sometimes the cats make a chrysalis in a place that isn’t safe, like on the Milkweed branch that they are eating. In a matter of days when the chrysalis completes the cycle, the Milkweed branch is dead and not sturdy enough to hold the chrysalis. Happening several times in my tomato tower, I relocated the chrysalis using some dental floss. Tying the dental floss around the black Cremaster, I relocated the chrysalis to hang at the top of the enclosure.
For more information about relocating chrysalises, go to Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. Just remember that you must hang the chrysalis so that it will form normally.
To witness Eclosure, the moments surrounding a butterfly’s emergence from its chrysalis, is magical, no matter how many times you observe it. The only way to do that is to have the chrysalis in captivity, where you can monitor its progress and not miss the miracle of metamorphosis. It is extremely hard to catch this happening in the wild as once it occurs, it only takes about 3 minutes from start to finish.
Eclosure normally occurs in mid-morning. You will notice the chrysalis darken after about nine days (typical of females) or ten days (typical of males), right before the butterfly emerges. Immediately prior to this, the chrysalis darkens to almost black. Bright orange wings begin to show through the chrysalis covering.
For a great image of the Monarch chrysalis as it ages and changes color, go to Spica’s World.
The excitement builds as you watch and wait for the butterfly to emerge. Typically in early-to mid-morning, the chrysalis’s transparent skin cracks around the head at the bottom. The butterfly pushes it open and drops its abdomen down, still clinging with its legs to the empty shell.
When the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis, it has stubby little wings and a plump body. Fluid from the body pumps into the wings, expanding them to full size in a few minutes. After the wings have fully expanded, the butterfly discharges waste products that have built up during its dormant period. A couple of hours later the wings are dry enough for the butterfly to take its first flight, usually a short one to the nearest tree. As a fully grown adult, it is now ready to mate and to spawn a new generation. You can tell the sex at this time very easily.
Releasing the butterflies is always bittersweet as this generation that comes of age in September is most likely going to make it to California or Mexico for over-wintering. They have a long journey ahead of them. For more information about their journey, go to The Monarch Diaries, Part 1.
Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.
As the cats grow larger, shedding their skins, I transfer them to a slightly bigger container with fresh leaves. Clear salad mix receptacles that you buy at the grocery store make great containers at this stage.
Milkweed-Eat & Grow
When the cats reach about 3/4″ inch long, I put them in with the “big boys” in the tomato cage tower that is full of several types of freshly cut Milkweed branches stuck into water bottles. To keep my Milkweed from immediately wilting, I use a flower arrangers trick-flaming the cut ends so that the milky sap stops flowing. I use a small propane torch, like one that you would use for creme brulee. A match doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t hot enough to sear the ends to stop the sap which will make the branch wilt.
All it takes to keep your cats happy and healthy is a good supply of milkweed, because that is all that they eat-nothing else! Eat and grow is the primary goal for the caterpillar. The Monarch butterflies nectar on many types of flowers, but the caterpillars eat only Milkweed. There are lots of kinds of Milkweed, but it must be Asclepias, which is the Latin name for Milkweed. Go to Milkweed Guide to see great pictures and descriptions if in doubt. Growing Milkweed around the country to fuel the Monarchs is really vital to the Monarch survival and people are starting to grow it everywhere. Check out Got Milk…….Weed to read some amazing facts about this essential ingredient to raising Monarchs.
Milkweed is a source of food for many insects, most notably aphids and Milkweed bugs, which I wash off carefully before bringing inside. I don’t want anything else to be eating my collected Milkweed-just my caterpillars!
Monarchs complete almost all of their growth during the larval stage which lasts from 9 to 14 days, during which time they undergo five larval instars or skin shedding. Before molting, the cat will become very still. If you catch this right after it happens, you can see the skin and then they eat it!
I try not to handle them at all, especially during this vulnerable stage as the larva spins a silk thread to keep attached to the leaf. From hatching to pupation, monarchs increase their body mass about 2000 times!
By the time they are ready to pupate the caterpillars become these pudgy clown-like eating machines. So, move them to a large enough enclosure so that they can move to a flat surface, stick, or other hard surface to attach their chrysalis which is their last skin molting or instar. I place sticks in my cage to give the cats added surface area for the chrysalis.
Making a Caterpillar Tower
As soon as I saw this ingenious enclosure at my workshop by The Monarch Teacher Network, made out of a tomato cage, black tulle, and clothes pins, I was hooked. Taking only a few minutes to slap together and tall enough for Milkweed plants, this was a great solution to keeping the cats contained while being able to observe them. Directions are below.
Directions for Monarch Tower
Buy a tomato cage with 4 rings. I used one that measured 14″ in diameter and 27″ from the first to the last ring in length. Cut half the length off of each protruding tine and bend the legs at the base inwards.
Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.
Laying the cage on the side, clothes pin the tulle to the bottom ring of the cage pulling it taut. Using needle and thread, overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring of the cage. Almost there!
Using 3 clothes pins, fasten the overlap area of the tulle on the side and place your cage on top of a pizza box base. If you aren’t a pizza lover, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the base.
Set up your cage on the base and it is ready to fill with your milkweed plant or cuttings. Tall enough for plants and lots of caterpillars, they will travel to the top when they are ready to pupate. This setup is easy to see through and clean, essential when you have lots of plump cats eating away.
I had a few cats die after turning black caused by a bacterial disease. This is upsetting but part of life. I removed these as soon as I spotted them to stop any spread of infection to others. Be sure to clean and rinse your milkweed before using and clean your cage thoroughly every day to increase your caterpillar survival rates. If you notice a caterpillar looking sick, remove it from the others immediately. Once your caterpillar gets sick, there is really nothing that can be done. You can euthanize by placing in a ziploc into the freezer. For more information on caterpillar diseases, go to 7 Common Monarch Diseases.
Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly
Monarchs always amazed me with their unique migration, over 3000 miles in some cases, which seems an impossible task for such a delicate creature. The only butterfly that makes a two-way trip, Monarchs are unique in the animal kingdom. Unable to survive cold winter temperatures, the Monarch has evolved to make this incredible trek to over-winter in warmer climes, such as Mexico and southern California. Using a combination of thermals and air currents, Monarchs sense when it is time to travel and know where to go even though the migrating generation has never been to the distant over-wintering sites.
Monarchs travel along one of three major routes and investigators think that a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others guide them. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to two months to complete their journey. Traveling only by day, Monarchs roost at night high up in trees to rest before warming up in the sun to continue their journey. A distance of 265 miles in one day is the longest recorded distance of a Monarch! A great website to track the migratory happenings of Monarchs and other animals is Journey North. Citizen Scientists record their observations all over North America to show the movements of animals north in the spring and south in the fall in real-time.
Many teachers include Monarch rearing in their science curriculum in Elementary school but I missed the opportunity in school and wanted to do it myself at home to observe the incredible transformation that these creatures go through. How can such fragile creatures make a 3,000 mile journey to an unknown location and remain there for months, mate and then return to the north to start new progeny?
Monarch rearing has been on my “must try” list for several years and a two-day Monarch workshop put on by MonarchTeacherNetwork got me motivated and ready to go. Milkweed growing, enclosure instructions, Monarch activities and games, healthy practices of raising, and release ceremonies were all covered in simple, easy to follow directions with added field trips to meadows full of Milkweed and a butterfly house. After the intense two-day workshop, I felt fully prepared to set up my own Monarch raising operation at home.
After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!
The hardest part of raising Monarchs is finding their tiny single creamy-white eggs which are smaller than pin heads. Carrying a portable hand lens on an overcast day makes it a little easier to spot the eggs in the field. If you observe Monarchs swooping in and landing on a Milkweed, there is a good chance that she just laid an egg.
Monarchs tend to lay their eggs singly on the underside of freshly grown leaves of Milkweed, hidden from predators and directly on their food supply for best survival rates.
The butterfly glues the egg on the leaf surface so that it adheres even through a rain storm, but predators find the eggs a tasty treat. The first egg for me was hard to find, but subsequent ones much easier once I knew what to look for. The likelihood of a Monarch surviving the egg and larval (caterpillar) stages is less than 10% in the wild. For great tips on finding eggs, go to How to Hunt, Gather, and Protect Monarch Eggs . This site gives great information on where, when and how to look.
After locating an egg, I note what type of Milkweed they were attached to and remove the leaf or branch and add it to my “nursery enclosure”, a small plastic container with holes poked in the top. Taking only 3 to 5 days to hatch, watch your eggs carefully as the caterpillar can emerge, eat their egg shell and will move on to fresher leaves pretty quickly. When the top of the eggs turns dark, hatching is imminent.
Adding some extra Milkweed leaves will keep the tiny caterpillars busy when they hatch. You could also place tulle or pantyhose over the top to keep any wandering minuscule caterpillars inside. Lining the container with a moistened paper towel makes cleanup of the “frass” or black gooey caterpillar poop easy and adds some moisture to their environment. Once inside the house, air conditioning tends to dry the air out for the caterpillars and a light mist from a spray bottle of water helps. I clean out the plastic container every day as the frass can bring in pathogens that can harm the caterpillars.
After the eggs hatch in about 4 days, the tiny caterpillars are no larger than 1/16 of an inch long. They are delicate and easy to overlook as you handle the Milkweed leaves, so move carefully when you are changing out old for fresh leaves.
Next: Part 2-Larval Stage and How to Make a Tomato Cage Enclosure
On a recent trip to the UK, I visited St Tiggywinkles Animal Rescue near London to see the how the European Hedgehog is faring. Found across Western Europe into Scandinavia, reports from the last several years indicates that this native species is declining in much of the UK because of a variety of stressors.
Don’t confuse the native European species Erinaceus europaeus with the domesticated Hedgehog commonly found in pet stores here in the U.S. , a separate species. The European Hedgehog actually lives in tunnels and holes under hedgerows found throughout the UK. And they hibernate through the winter in a sheltered location.
The English Hedgerow Trust says, “Hedgerows are a fundamental part of the heritage of the British countryside, defining the nature of the landscape and providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows are effectively a vibrant ecosystem, a huge nature reserve in our small and (over) intensively farmed country.”
Hedgerows are not commonly found in the U.S. like they are in Europe. Strips of bustling wildlife habitat for butterflies, birds, and bats, and many small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and voles, they provide much needed shelter. Zigzagging across the English countryside composed of a variety of trees, vines, and shrubs, hedgerows can be a beehive of activity. A super habitat for wildlife, hedgerows help nature thrive in narrow strips through large fields, I would love to see more of these in the U.S. instead of fences. Providing sheltered routes along which wildlife can move freely across the countryside between fragmented woodlands, hedges also provide windbreaks and prevent soil erosion.
Insectivores, Hedgehogs are very useful in keeping the grub and insect population down in UK gardens. Slugs are one of their favorite food, one reason I would love to have a family living on my property! Attracting Hedgehogs is easy; encouraging wild areas and planting out native plant species. A source of fresh water like a pond, log/brush piles and small houses will also help Hedgehogs to stick around and raise a family. Down in population by 30% in just ten years, the UK has established many rescue centers around the region to help with education and assisting distressed Hedgehogs. And there are lots of Hedgehogs in trouble!
So Many Hazards
Covered in a coat of sharp pointy spines, the hedgehog will roll up into a ball when threatened by a predator. Dogs and badgers are the main aggressors of hedgehogs. Smelly and grumpy, they are still appealing because of their snuffly little nose and beady eyes. Weighing up to 2 pounds, I was surprised how large they were, up to 10 inches long. They are as big as a small dog!
Many more hedgehogs are killed and maimed by cars which is the main reason that they are brought to the rescue center. Also, hedgehogs hide in compost or brush piles, so people are warned to check their compost before turning it with a pitchfork as it is easy to impale a hedgehog with the tines. Likewise with bonfires, people are warned to check the brush pile before lighting it so that they don’t end up with a roast hedgehog! Open drains are another pitfall and if a hedgehog is caught, the advice is take two pairs of pliers and grasp the spines with these and lift it out gently to safety. String, barbed wire, and wire used in gardens can also become tangled up with the spines and enmesh them so they eventually starve. Garden poisons are commonly found to be ingested by hedgehogs which will kill them quickly. Wood preservatives that are frequently used on fencing can kill a hedgehog as they like to lick the fencing.
An all too common result of car encounters usually blinds and maims Hedgehogs so that cannot be released back into the wild as they wouldn’t survive. Hedgehogs in captivity often display pacing mechanisms to deal with the stress of captivity.
Roaming far and wide, over 20 acres a night, in search of mates, nesting sites, and food, Hedgehogs need access to cut through fences and garden boundaries that are artificially set by humans. People are cutting holes in fences and adding tunnels underneath to help the population. Access to water sources is important but pools without ramps to climb out of can become deathtraps. Invertebrates that Hedgehogs feast on likewise are plummeting, so food sources are drying up. But people are setting out pet food at night for the creatures. An estimated 30 million Hedgehogs were roaming the countryside in the 1950’s; less than 1 million are roaming today. One glimmer of hope is that the decline in numbers is leveling off, perhaps due to conservation/education efforts. Go to Hedgehog Street to see what efforts are being used to wage war on Hedgehog declines.
Hedgehog rescue centers are located throughout the UK just like St Tiggywinkles which I visited. Caring for over 10,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals per year just at St Tiggywinkles, these wildlife care centers are at the forefront of conservation and education efforts to stem the decline of Hedgehog numbers.
Tiggywinkles even has a parking lot in front for emergency lifegivers to get in quickly with their injured animals. Caring for not just Hedgehogs, but any wild animal in distress, they release any animals that are healthy back to the wild. Others who cannot make it stay at the center for life and are cared for.
Pollinators are flying and searching for nectar and pollen to take back to their colony and the pickings are slim until the rest of the spring flowers open. Help them out with container plantings to supplement their foraging efforts.
Everything here I picked up at my local Lowes and/or Home Depot. Pick a large wide mouthed container (18″ at least) and plant snapdragons, lavender, foxglove (digitalis), violas, and dianthus. I noticed once I potted this all up, that lots of bees, flies, and other insects started to visit immediately.
This container will remain on my patio all spring and once the foxglove, snapdragons,and violas are kaput, I will add some summer blooming plants to continue the show with the lavender and the dianthus.
Another container which attracts many pollinators is the one above with primrose, scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’, heather, alyssum, woodland phlox, lilies, and yellow dogwood sticks for fun. The lilies will be the last to flower and will take this container into the summer. At that time, I will rejuvenate the container, keeping the plants that still look good and changing out the bloomed out ones. Makeover time!
Violas are the star in this pollinator container. The silver ball is a great way to add “pizzazz” and amp up the impact. Again snapdragons are an important element for early spring chilly weather. The alliums will be blooming in another month to continue the color show. The cobalt blue container adds a splash of color to the composition.
Frost date for my area of the mid-Atlantic is May 12 so I am careful to plant only cold hardy plants – no pentas, marigolds, lantana, coleus, etc.! I hold these until later in my greenhouse to fill in for my spent spring flowers.
Blooming flowers brings to mind sweet-smelling blooms, not repulsive odors, but there are quite a few flowers that fall into the later category. Carrion flowers, also known as corpse flowers or stinking flowers, emit odors that smell like rotting flesh. The blossoms attract mostly scavenging flies and beetle as pollinators. So even the pollinators are odd and different. The flowers may even trap the insects temporarily to ensure the transfer of pollen. Attracting beetles, flies, and other pollinators is the purpose of the decaying flesh odor and without fail, the flowers are interesting and beautiful in their own unique way.
The Titan Arum, Amorphophalus titanum, has a massive bell-shaped flower almost 9 feet in height, on record as the tallest flower in the world. During bloom, the tip of the spadix which is the long structure emerging from the center, is around 98 degrees F, which helps the perfume disperse, which in turns attracts carcass-eating insects. According to Wikipedia, “Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid(sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol(sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like human feces)”. Quite a mix!
After flowering, a single shoot emerges in the place of the blossom, which is the size of a small tree, standing up to 30 feet tall and 15 feet across. The plant grows from a corm (like a bulb) which weighs up to 150 pounds and is native to the equatorial rain forests of Sumatra. Imagine encountering this plant in the wild!
Growing for 7 to 10 years, before blooming for just 3 days, the flower will open quickly when it is ready, about 3 inches per half hour. Sought after by botanical gardens around the world because of the numbers of visitors flocking to see it, the flower is incredible in person. I had the opportunity to see it first hand at the Floral Showcase in Niagara Falls last summer and was blown away by the sheer size of the bud.
Stapelias are also known as carrion flowers and are small, spineless, cactus-like succulent plants. Usually grown as potted plants, the flowers are hairy and generate the odor of rotten flesh. The color of the flowers also mimics rotting meat, which again attracts flies and beetles-no surprise there! The flowers in some species are quite large, notably Stapelia gigantea which can reach 12 inches in diameter.
I have grown these for years as houseplants and the flies flock to the flowers when open and they really do stink with a foul odor.
If you are looking for a striking vining plant, try a Dutchman’s Pipe or Pelican Flower (Aristolochia macrophylla) or Pipe Vine. The plant is a woody vine that produces flowers shaped like curved pipes and large heart-shaped leaves hardy to zones 8 to 10. Again, the flowers attract pollinating flies with their foul odor and provide habitat for beneficial insects. Usually growing 10 to 15 feet long, you need a trellis or other support. The large heart-shaped leaves alternate along a woody stem. Tinged a plum color with speckles, the flowers appear in late spring and early summer.
The flower uses an ingenious way for pollinators, usually flies, to enter and prevents the flies from exiting until the pollen actually has been released within the base of the flower. See this great video by Janet Draper, Smithsonian horticulturist explaining the mechanism.
Once used as an aid to childbirth because of its resemblance to a human fetus the appearance has led to another of the vine’s names, birthwort.Aristolochia is a potent carcinogen and kidney toxin, so the plant is very toxic. But because of this property, the pipe vine is a host plant for many butterfly species, including the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, thus making themselves unpalatable to most predators.
Butterfly Bush, Buddleia davidii, has been widely bashed from garden writers, ecologists, and conservationists. Attacked from all sides by master gardeners and other garden professionals, I am sticking to my guns on the benefits and pleasures of planting it. “An invasive thug that only provides sugar-water”: That is the complaint that conservationists use to discourage you from planting this shrub.
As a preferred late summer nectar source and butterfly magnet, I enthusiastically promote it in my butterfly presentations for its many virtues. An important tool to draw butterflies, I also plant many natives next to it that can act as host plants.
One of the few flowering shrubs that deer will not touch, I use it all the time in my landscape designs as an easy to grow, beautiful, fragrant, disease free, flowering shrub. The only care required is a general whacking back of the whole shrub in the early spring to encourage bushiness and flower production. Over 100 varieties provide a wide palette of forms, sizes, and colors, to choose from. The dwarf varieties are especially valuable for small gardens and containers, like ‘Blue Chip’ and ‘Pink Chip’, growing only 4 feet tall. And these are sterile varieties that will not set seed.
Why do butterflies love this plant? Providing loads of sugar water , the nectar filled nectaries, are shallow which is important to accommodate the short-tongued butterfly. Butterflies can reach the copious nectar easily which has a high percentage of sucrose, an energy fuel. Attractive to moths, bees, and other insects, this plant is valuable to all kinds of wildlife, not just butterflies.
Native to Japan and China, butterflies don’t care where their source of nectar hails from. In my post Butterfly Watching, I noted that butterflies have taste receptors on their feet to locate food and if their foot’s receptor and the molecule match, the butterfly eats. So, the plant’s origin is irrelevant and is an attractive food source. As humans, we eat many non-native plants, why can’t a butterfly do the same?
Invasive thug or non-native adaptive? There are several ways of looking at this plant. I know that it invades into mostly disturbed areas where lots of aliens/invasives have already taken over and is known as an invasive in over 25 states. But still, it is providing an important late summer source, when it is sorely needed. The other short-coming that ecologists claim is that butterfly bush only provides nectar, not acting as a host plant for the caterpillar to reproduce, but that is also true of other native plants.
Butterfly Bush seeds do not ripen until dry weather during the following spring. Worried by the potential for invasiveness? Then you can dead head it before the seeds ripen in the spring or cut the whole bush back which will eliminate the spread of seeds into adjacent habitat. Colonizing disturbed ground sites such as railway lines, quarries, roadsides and waste ground, butterfly bush can form dense stands of shrubs that butterflies flock to. What’s not to like!? Here is the position of the UK’s Butterfly Conservation on their website:
“Buddleia provides an important nectar source for adult butterflies, moths and other insects in townscapes and the countryside. This has become increasingly relevant because wildflowers have become so depleted following habitat loss and the general lack of nectar sources in the countryside. It also brings enjoyment to many people, both because of its heavy-scented and beautiful blooms but also because of the butterflies and other insects it attracts. It therefore plays a role, alongside other non-native garden plants, in helping to maintain or restore the link between people and native UK wildlife such as butterflies. In gardens, Buddleia is often pruned annually thus removing seed-heads and reducing the potential for seeding.
Buddleia is not important as a caterpillar food-plant and cannot replace naturally occurring wildflowers, which are crucial to provide a variety of nectar through the year as well as being food-plants for caterpillars. Buddleia can cause serious problems on some important conservation sites, especially brownfield sites. It needs to be controlled in these and other semi-natural sites to allow natural vegetation to develop. The cost of control can sometimes be considerable.
In reaching a position on Buddleia it is important to weigh up the undoubted benefits it brings in garden situations against the possible risks to wildlife habitats. It is also important to recognise that Buddleia is already naturalised and well established across much of the UK.
In view of its value as a nectar source, BC will continue to recommend its planting in gardens alongside other butterfly-friendly non-native plants, but will avoid giving it undue prominence and will give advice on its management and control.
A sea change is going on with some conservationists, that we are dealing with a changed world and there is no way to go back to an idealized world of stable co-habitating species. From the beginning of time, species have moved around, finding new territories, and creating new ecological niches. Invasive species, like it or not, are part of nature. Serving an ecological purpose, whether it aligns with our idea of what it should look like, isn’t relevant to nature.
And according to the Royal Horticultural Society:
• Research reveals a mixture of native and non-native ornamental plants may provide the best resources for pollinating insects in gardens
• Native plants are not always the first choice for pollinators visiting gardens
• Non-native plants can prolong the flowering season providing an additional food source.
So, armed with this knowledge, you make the decision.