Thursday, October 3, 2019

Back to the Future - Retiring to Help Pollinators

In the last few years, my posts to this blog have been sparse because I've been very, very busy delivering many academic commitments. But as of 3 days ago, I retired from full-time scientific work to focus more on conservation - hurray!

Pete Ewins - in his garden. photo-CK
This fall I'm rejoining the board of the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto, who supported several large pollinator projects I'll be blogging about in the coming months. I'm also collaborating with In the Zone Gardens, a joint project of WWF Canada and Carolinian Canada. ITZG is helping people plant pollinator and wildlife gardens. Today I'll be joining Pete Ewins of WWF Canada at my favorite organic farmers' market, Dufferin Grove, where I've done previous pollinator events.

At Dufferin Grove I'll be contributing several pollinator perennials and shrubs to Pete's free giveaway table. I'm highlighting some of them below.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed - photo CK
One plant I may have trouble giving away is Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. It's a great plant, but my seedlings are small plugs, which most people ignore. But experienced gardeners know that a plug plant put in the ground this fall will be a big, blooming fountain of flowers next summer. So I hope to give many of my 50 seedlings away today. I grew them from wild-collected seeds from three locations in Ontario and Qu├ębec, courtesy of the North American Native Plant Society Seed Exchange. This way gardeners will get wild plant vigor and a range of flower colors from pale pink to red.
Arrowwood Viburnum - F.A. Martin, CC By SA 4.0

I'll also have three good sized bushes - two Viburnums and one Ninebark.

Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum, is a big bush in the wild but smaller varieties have been selected for gardens, which is what I'm giving away. Like our other native viburnums, it has attractive
clusters of white flowers in spring for the pollinators, followed by blue berries in late summer and fall for the birds. Its leaves turn lovely shades of red in autumn. The leaves also feed a variety of caterpillars, including those of the Holly Blue butterfly and the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth.

Holly Blue butterfly - Charles J Sharp, CC BY SA 3.0

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), is a shrub much used by landscapers for its good foliage and growth form. As I pointed out in my article "Soil Spectrum", in Ground, the journal of Landscape Ontario, Ninebark is one of the native plants which gets it roots extremely deep in the soil, so after the first year it never needs watering and in fact brings up nutrients from subsoil layers to the topsoil. With abundant white flowers in spring and various native moth caterpillars living on the leaves (to feed the baby birds!), its a perfect backdrop to a pollinator garden.
Ninebark, by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Night Blooming Cactuses - Queens of the subtropical pollinator garden

Night blooming cactus

Not everyone lives in the colder north. Pollinator gardens are possible and needed in tropical and subtropical climes, due to the continued loss of habitat there. One of the most fascinating groups of plants and their pollinators is the night blooming cactuses of subtropical and tropical America.

This is a surprisingly large group, with many species (Wikipedia).  The one I grow is probably Epiphyllum oxypetalum which is a native of southern Mexico to South America. This is one of many cacti pollinated by bats and some sphinx moths. The amazing videographer Louie Schwarzberg shows this in his The Beauty of Pollination clip. Look for the mama bat carrying her child! And, near the end of the portion on bats, there's a bat coming by some months later and eating the delicious fruit of the cactus.

That's right, many of these cacti have large, good tasting fruit. One of the best known (find it in most Chinese or Vietnamese groceries) is the dragonfruit.

My night blooming cactus tempts me for many days before the event with the gradual growth of the bud, starting from a tiny pip on the edge of a leaf to a 3-6 inch bizarre object which finally begins to show white on the petals. Then I know that it will open the coming sunset. I try to invite friends and neighbors over for that evening to sip a glass and watch the process.

About half an hour after sunset the petals will begin to open, in a process that may take an hour or more. When the outer petals are forming alien-looking spikes at right angles to the main flower, it's fully open and then the fragrance begins to build.

At this point guests are often on hands and knees, looking into the amazing corolla and sniffing it:

You can see a nice time-lapse video of a potted plant blooming at YouTube

If you want to grow Epiphyllum oxypetalum as a house plant it's not hard. Give it a freely draining soil and bring it indoors well before frost. During winter, give it hardly any water and no fertilizer. Around March-April, long thin stems will begin to grow upwards, possibly reaching 10 feet in a really vigorous plant. You can pinch these to keep them in bounds. Short air roots grow from these stems, which the cactus uses in nature to anchor itself to the bark of tree trunks or to rocky slopes.

Once it is reliably mild outside, you should move your cactus outdoors. But, for the first week or two, make sure to keep it totally shaded - otherwise the leaves will burn. I cover my plant with a muslin-like cloth at first. In Toronto's latitude, after this hardening off the cactus can take full sun.

As soon as it is ready for sun, you can start giving your plant plenty of water with a low-nitrogen fertilizer, diluted to half strength. Once it gets hot, the skinny stems will begin to widen into flat green "leaves".  After leaves have matured for a month or two, you'll find small swellings on their edges that grow into flower buds.

the Wellesley College cactus night

Selby Gardens Cactus Evening
Around the world, those lucky enough to have night blooming cactus ready to pop have thrown parties that may go dawn to dusk.

In the New York Times, JoAnna Klein describes the cactus and some of the parties celebrating its bloom. She quotes from a 1937 newspaper clipping describing a cactus party at Blithewold Estate:

 “Bristol’s Cereus Puts on Show” shouts the headline. An eye-popping photograph shows the trailing leaders of  a huge plant with about 29 flowers in bloom. The caption explains they are only a portion of the 200 or so that opened on a night-blooming Cereus in a greenhouse on the estate of a certain William L. McKee. This from the Providence Sunday Journal, August 8, 1937.
The article notes an “enthralled audience” gathered to enjoy the spectacle. It is reported that at about 8 p.m. the “gorgeous white blossoms began to expand from their green pods.” This corresponds to the time when our Blanca begins to move, give or take 20 to 30 minutes. A certain W.H. Owen, superintendent of the property had been caring for the plant over the previous 12 years and had become thoroughly acquainted with its habits. “He said he expected it to blossom several nights ago but it didn’t probably because it was bearing more blooms than ever before.”
By 8:30 p.m., it is reported, “fully 150 blooms, six inches in diameter and containing a circle of creamy yellow stamens within were exposed to view.”
“The flower bears some resemblance to a huge white tulip and exudes a powerful, sweet fragrance, completely permeating the atmosphere of the hothouse.”  This particular specimen, Mr. Owen explained, had been developed from a cutting brought from Peru 30 years previous.   The plant had spread the entire breadth of the building, some 14 feet.
Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty was a celebrated Mississippi writer, who had a beautiful garden. In her book The Golden Apples she wrote that when her night-blooming cereus plant (“a naked, luminous, complicated flower,”) began hinting at exposing its fragile white buds each year, Welty would throw parties that would last from dusk until dawn in its honor.

If you are interested by this, you could try growing one or two (or 5 or 10, space permitting) of the gorgeous hybrid "Cereus" cacti, many of which can be grown in hanging pots. They have a range of flowers from crimsons to pale golds. I'll finish this off with a photo by "Lance", from his Hawaiian blog:

Sunday, August 19, 2018

"white" Agastache - a tremendous pollinator plant

Monarch on Agastache
The Agastaches of North America are native mint family members related to the Eurasian hyssops. That's why the common names usually are things like "Anise Hyssop" - a blue flowering perennial whose leaves add a liquorice scent to teas. But today's flower is misleadingly called Purple Giant Hyssop. The flowers are almost always such a pale blue that they look white. The Latin name is Agastache scrophularifolia, and it's native to much of eastern North America, zones 3-8.

This is a tremendous perennial for pollinators, in more ways than one. Flowers bloom over a long period in the second half of summer and into fall and attract a wide range of pollinators. The seeds are little nutlets which are intensely attractive to goldfinches, so in late summer I often see birds, bees and butterflies feeding at the same time. Tremendous in height, too - at 6 feet, this is a back of the border plant that needs full to half days sun, and soil that is not too dry. It's easy to grow from seed, blooming in the second year and onwards. 

The leaves don't have much flavor to me but can be used in teas. I love the candelabra shape of the branching stems. Unlike the true mints, Agastaches spread by seeds, not runners, so they won't take over your garden.

There are beautifully colored Agastaches in the U.S. southwest and Mexico, which are being selected to produced fine garden flowers. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any of these golden, orange, coral, red, or deep purple varieties that are hardy in the northeast. If you've found some that survive our winters, please let us know! 

Purple Giant Hyssop has become endangered in many U.S. states, due to loss of habitat and competition from non native species. Consider putting some in your pollinator garden!


Friday, May 18, 2018

Perennial Planting at Kathy's Grove

Planting starts at 10am tomorrow, Saturday May 19, at Kathy's Grove. Yes, it will be cloudy and may be drizzling. Just sing along:
I'm plantin' in the rain
Just plantin' in the rain
What a glorious feeling
I'm happy again

Canada Columbine
Here are just two of the native North American perennials we'll be planting.

Monday, May 7, 2018

the Serviceberries are blooming in Kathy's Grove!

"Apple" Serviceberry - Amelanchier x grandiflora
We planted on a beautiful May 5. Most of the trees we dug in were still dormant but the three Serviceberries were already in bud. Sunday it rained, which was great for the new tress and shrubs, but today, Monday, has been cool and brilliantly sunny. I went down to Stanley Park and sure enough the Serviceberries had popped into bloom.

Parks staff watering in a shrub
One of the great things about arriving at the park was to find Harry Roach and his crew from City of Toronto Parks watering the trees and shrubs. Kathy's Grove is far from any taps, so they had rigged up  giant plastic barrel in a truck and were watering in the plants. Many thanks, Harry and crew!

Harry in the garden, next to a Sweet Gum and Summersweet

Harry was great on Saturday. He and the park supervisor, the great Brian Green, had brought a sod stripper. This machine looked like a shrunken locomotive hooked up to an oversized lawnmower engine. Brian got it going and Harry guided it over the large crescent-shaped patch on the hillside where the perennial pollinator garden will be planted.

The sod stripper is an amazing device! It passes a cutter blade about 2cm (an inch) under the grass, leaving you with a strip of sod which is easy to lift up and move afterwards.

Supervisor Brian Green and the partly stripped garden

Brian and his team will be bringing in coarse sand as a mulch/surface for the perennial bed. In my experience, sand makes an excellent mulch, and in a sunny, sloped spot like we have it reduces weed seed sprouting.

Another possible benefit we'll have to wait to see is that ground-nesting native bees love a sandy, sunny slope. I've seen hundreds of their nest tunnels in the sandy hillside of High Park above Grenadier Pond. I'm sure they will eventually find their way to this idyllic nesting spot - sand surface, soft soil underneath, and lots of flowers through the seasons.

three Hort volunteers
digging up a dead tree

planted Saturday, blooming Monday

This picture from Saturday shows some of our energetic volunteer crew digging out a tree that had been planted last year, but died. After amending the soil, in went a serviceberry, and here it is:

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Kathy's Grove: a Pollinator Garden from the ground to the treetops

Through the kindness of friends of the late Kathy Andrachuk, of the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto (of which she was a past President), of Landscape Ontario's Toronto Chapter, and especially of the Parks Department of the City of Toronto (shout out to Brian Green!), we will be remembering Kathy with a Pollinator Grove.

What that means is that we are taking an area at the northwest end of Stanley Park, not far from where Kathy lived, and replanting it. Right now, the park has lots of Ash and Austrian Pine trees that are sick, and will be lost over the next few years. 

We will be planting 11 native flowering trees, many of which also provide food for pollinator caterpillars. Under them, we'll be planting 11 native flowering shrubs, some of which are also caterpillar food or provide berries for birds. Finally, under these we'll be planting a lot of native flowering perennials with soil amendments to favour nesting by native bees.

We are gathering on several occasions to do this. 
  • On Saturday May 5, the Parks people will be helping us get the trees planted, and we'll plant the shrubs. 
  • On Saturday May 19, we volunteers will be planting the perennials.
  • on a day TBD in August, we'll have a dedication and celebration event at the garden
  • on a day TBD in September, 1st and 2nd grade students from nearby Niagara Elementary school will come to plant a few things, look at some pollinators, and learn about the garden.
Almost all of the work is being done by volunteers. We are happy to see you at the park! We'd especially like to welcome some of you to the garden:
  • First Nations people. We're planting only native plants, and we will be putting a Smudging Herbs and other medicinal plants section in the garden, but we need your wisdom and help to guide us.
  • People who live, work, or play in the park. We hope you'll help us with ideas that make it more fun for you, and especially your children and grandchildren. The trees we're planting are for the next 100-200 years! We want neighbours to love them and take care of them.
Contact me at with any questions. Hope to see you at the park!

Tulip tree, food plant for Tiger Swallowtail butterflies

Spicebush flowers

Spicebush swallowtail - by Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Flowers and Pollinators near the Monarch Sanctuaries

Last post I talked about some of the help Alternare is giving to enable local people to reforest their lands. The monarch butterfly overwinters in these forests, way way up in the mountains.

Today I'll show you a little bit of the afternoon of a pollinator in January in those mountains.

But first, where are we talking about?

The state of Michoacan in Mexico is shown in the map. A line drawn due west of Mexico City hits the border of Michoacan in rugged mountains. It's here that the butterfly nestles in branchs of the "Oyamel" fir tree at 3,000 meters above sea level elevations, in the "Reserva de la Biosfera Santuario Mariposa" - the Biosphere Reserve of the Butterfly Sanctuary.

The places where I saw monarchs are to the west of the state line (red in the map), where afternoon sunlight is stronger than morning.

Frost is common at these heights but mostly on the ground in places with a view of the sky.

The monarchs are up in the trees, not at the top where they would be exposed, and not at the bottom where the cold air sinks, but in the middle.

By morning, the butterflies are chilled - far too sluggish to fly, but not harmed either.

Much of the Oyamel forest is about as closed-in as a typical Canadian spurce-fir forest, with sparse undergrowth.

But in places where strong winds have blown down a patch of trees, the January wildflowers are very abundant.

The splashes of blue and red are some of the many native Mexican sages - Salvia species.

It was in these clearings that we saw some pollinators even in the cool mornings.

This bumblebee flew even in early mornings. She's been busy collecting pollen (see the gold speckles on her head?) which means even in cold January she's raising young. I think she's Bombus ephippiatus, a reasonably common bee in the highlands but one that's being over-collected for use in greenhouse tomato pollination.

We saw a few honeybees, but they were more abundant lower down where it wasn't soo cool.

I caught a glimpse of a fritillary butterfly on flowers beside the road but it disappeared before I could take a picture.

This groundsel, Senecio callosus, was in bloom everywhere and in the afternoon the monarchs loved it. I haven't found a common name for it.

Here's another clearing with many, many sages blooming.