Tags Posts tagged with "milkweed"


Elderberry produces flat-topped berry clusters relished by birds.
Make your home a haven for wild things

By John L. Turner

One of the basic axioms in ecology is that no living thing exists in isolation, that each species in an ecosystem is varyingly affected by others species and, in turn, has an effect upon them. John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, understood this more than a century ago when he observed: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” As it relates to  humans, this idea was made famous by John Donne’s famous quote: “No man is an island entire of itself,” that each of us is affected by those around us upon whom we also have an effect. 

In ecosystems these effects are numerous and varied, and can be both easy and hard to quantify. Competition for light, water, and nutrients between species is well known but as Suzanne Simard’s recent revelatory book Finding the Mother Tree  documents, a surprising amount of cooperation exists between trees in a forest, involving both individuals of the same species and between tree species.

Among animals there’s cooperation too. Parents nourish offspring (with older offspring of scrub jays helping parents feed newborn offspring), and dolphins, whales and pelicans hunting together. But there’s also competition among animals — witness the interaction between ospreys and the resurging bald eagle population on Long Island. In all ecosystems there are predators sustained by an even larger base of prey, there’s host — parasite relationships, and, importantly decomposers and recyclers who prevent dead organic matter from accumulating by recycling nutrients and energy back into the system.

These relationships can conveniently (and simplistically) fit into one of three categories — positive, neutral, or negative for the species involved, or often and more typically, positive for one and negative for the other (think: Osprey catching and eating a fish). But the relationship can be positive for both as is the case with a pollinating bee and a wildflower — the bee secures nectar, pollen or both for itself and its young and the plant produces new progeny, in the form of seeds, through the pollination process.  

Non-native species, like the overwhelming number of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in most homeowners’ yards, turn this axiom on its head and that creates a big problem.  Many non-native plants routinely planted by homeowners in some ways live in isolation — they produce little to no nectar or pollen so they do nothing to sustain pollinating insects and their leaves are fed upon by few if any insects. They do not have an effect upon other species and aren’t “hitched” to other species as Muir would undoubtedly have noted. 

It doesn’t have to be this way and many homeowners, with more joining each day, are “going native,” planting plants in their yards that are indigenous to Long Island, that  upon planting, become part of the local food web.  These owners are embracing the above axiom by installing plants that positively affect the insect, bird, and mammal populations around them.     

 It’s easy to join this burgeoning movement as native plants are much more available as organizations, individuals, and nurseries outlets respond to consumer interest.  One not-for-profit environmental organization, the Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI), has, as its mission, the propagation and sale of native plants. They have dozens of species available at their facility located in the St. Joseph’s Convent in Brentwood and is worth your support.    

There are four main foods produced by plants that sustain wildlife — nectar, pollen, leaves and fruits (berries, nuts, and acorns) — that you need to think about when planting native species. Various insects depend upon the first three, while birds and mammals typically focus on fruits (and nectar in the case of hummingbirds).  


Highbush Blueberry

There are, of course,  some plants which provide more than one type of food that sustains wildlife.  

A great example is the woody shrub Highbush Blueberry, a common species growing in freshwater wetlands throughout Long Island. Its bell-shape flowers produce nectar consumed by many species of bees and butterflies; its pollen is eaten by some bees and other insects; the tasty berries are eaten by a variety of birds and small mammals (and, of course, a large mammal with two legs with whom you may be familiar if you like blueberry muffins or pies); and the leaves sustain caterpillars of many moths and butterflies including a wonderful group of small butterflies which includes the hairstreaks and elfins).  So Highbush Blueberry is a “go-to” plant in moving your yard from paucity to productivity. 

Another woody shrub to consider is elderberry which produces flat-topped berry clusters relished by birds. I enjoy watching the mockingbirds and catbirds each summer visit the ripened berry clusters of several elderberry bushes I’ve planted in the backyard.  

Others shrubs to think about (and there are still others) include Spicebush, which is used by the beautiful Spicebush swallowtail butterfly as a food source while a caterpillar;  and shadbush and chokeberry, both of which produce berries eaten by quite a few bird and small mammal species. If your property has moister soils think about planting Sweet Pepperbush, also known as Summersweet due to the strong and distinctive odors the plant gives off in summer. Many insects are attracted to these odiferous blossoms.  Lastly, two other native “woodies” you might to consider for wetter soils are Steeplebush, also known as Spirea and Swamp Rose.   


Speaking of woody plants, a number of tree species provide benefits to wildlife. Oaks, willows, hickories, cherries, beech, birch, dogwood, and sassafras are all especially valuable. Oak leaves, for example, are known to support hundreds of different kinds of caterpillars which are eaten by dozens of bird species. And bright red sassafras berries are consumed by a host of birds including cedar waxwings, catbirds, and several thrush species.   

Wildflowers and grasses


You can also affect positive change with non-woody plants such as wildflowers and grasses. Two excellent groups of plants that pollinators love are goldenrods and asters. Goldenrods (what a wonderful and evocative common name!) produce copious amounts of nectar that many bees, beetles, and butterflies consume as well as the plants’ pollen. (By the way — it’s not goldenrod pollen that causes hay fever — their pollen grains are too big — but rather ragweed, blooming at the same time, which has much smaller pollen grains since they are wind pollinated.) 

Standing on the edge of a thick stand of goldenrod in bloom in late summer is to visit the busiest insect airport imaginable — dozens of bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and butterflies probing the countless flowers for nectar and pollen. Many moth and butterflies, as caterpillars, feed on goldenrod leaves. Several dozen goldenrod species are native to Long Island so there’s a lot of variety to choose from.  Why not plant some “sunshine concentrate” in your flower beds?

Asters, too, are important wildflowers for wildlife providing nectar. Like goldenrods, they are beautiful, adding bright splashes of color to your yard such as the stunning purple rays of New England Aster. Several aster species are available for sale. 


Many other native species can become part of your local ecosystem. Milkweeds are another group, perhaps most well-known because Common Milkweed is the common host plant for the Monarch Butterfly, a species that’s the focus of a great deal of conservation concern due to their declining numbers (although in 2021 there appears to be a slight uptick in their numbers). 

Besides Common Milkweed you should think about planting Swamp Milkweed if you have wetter, richer soils and Butterflyweed, a bright orange member of the milkweed family. Many species of insects are attracted to the nectar produced by these species and Monarch caterpillars can successfully grow eating Butterfly Weed leaves as the five caterpillars that came from a small flower garden by my back door can attest. 

Other native wildflowers that sustain wildlife include, but are not limited to, Joe-pye weed, Boneset, Thoroughwort, Northern Blazing Stars, Bush Clovers, Mountain Mint, and Beggars Ticks.  

To attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds you need to plant red flowers — three good ones are Cardinal Flower (a stunner)!, Wild Bergamot (also known as Oswego Tea) and  Trumpet Vine.  

There’s value in planting a number of the same plants together, forming clumps rather than single plants. Some beetles don’t fly as well as other insects so its worth clumping together some natives to assist them. And odors and chemicals given off by groups of the same species are much stronger than scents given by individual plants so more is better!  


If want to do more to make your yard wildlife friendly here’s a few other ideas:  

A great project with the kids is to make a bee hotel.


Build bee hotels. Many bees, wasps, and other pollinating insects can benefit from “bee hotels” placed around your property. A great project is to engage your children in researching, constructing and installing small bee hotels suitable to your property. These hotels will help some of the several hundred native bee species like mason bees which, unlike the European honeybee, nest solitarily. There’s many different designs you can find on-line such as drilling holes of various diameters into a several foot long segment of a “4 by 4”. Tying together a bunch of hollow bamboo stalks into a wood frame that hangs is an alternative design. 

Can your Spray Can! It is tempting to turn to the easy fix of chemicals to control garden pests. The problem is these chemicals work too well; remember pesticides, herbicides, and other “cides” are all poisons, some of which have broad and deadly impacts to a large number of species. Research other, more benign options for controlling unwanted species — by doing so you allow the wanted species to flourish.  Turn away from poisons. 

Leave the Leaves and Save the Stubble! Layers of fallen leaves and standing stem stubble in your garden beds and throughout your yard sustain many species, especially insects that overwinter under leaves and in hollow stems. 

Frog Logs to the Rescue! If you have an in-ground pool you may want to buy frog logs or ramps to allow animals like chipmunks a chance to escape. The “logs” are semi-circle floats in which a fabric ramp connects the float with the anchor portion filled with sand.   

If you put away the poisons, invest in some frog logs if needed, retain leaves in flower beds and in the corners of your yard and, most importantly, plant native species to nourish pollinators and many other species of wildlife, your yard will become part of the living fabric of the larger world surrounding you. It’s axiomatic! 

A resident of Setauket, author John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours and pens a monthly column for TBR News Media titled Nature Matters.

*This article originally appeared in TBR News Media’s Summer Times supplement on June 24.

Dandelion seeds

By John L. Turner

Here’s a question for you to ponder: How, if you’re a stationary plant, can you be successful in having your seeds dispersed so that your progeny (new plants) can grow and prosper, thereby passing your genes on to the next generation?

If you look around your neighborhood answers abound and one of them found its way into my mouth recently in the form of a handful of black cherries. Black cherry is a common tree native to Long Island, scattered about in richer woodlands. Each summer, from late July through mid-August, these cherries produce copious amounts of fruit which are tasty — mind you, not as tasty or meaty as cultivated supermarket cherries — but still pretty good. I ate the pulp of each and one by one spit out the hard pits (and I’m proud to say a few went more than 10 feet!).  

The seeds of native milkweeds are dispersed primarily by wind. Pexels photo

Cherries illustrate one of the primary means by which plants disperse their seeds: through ingestion by mobile animals. These animals, birds and mammals mostly, digest the pulp of the fruit but poop out the unaffected pit or seed, often many miles from the parent (with the poop providing a little bit of fertilizer to give the seed a head start). Many other plants, basically any fruit producing species such as tupelos, mulberries, raspberries and blueberries, depend upon animals for dispersal through ingestion.

For nuts and seeds its a bit more complicated. In this case, say with acorns or hickory nuts, but unlike fruits, if the nut is eaten then no new tree will grow. But even a squirrel or blue jay with a good memory is bound to forget the cached location of a few acorns it has stored, or perhaps was killed by a predator. In this case the movement of the nut by the animal is beneficial — just so long as it is not consumed.

Wind is a less visible but no less important dispersal agent. Many plants have evolved elaborate structures that aid in carrying seeds aloft to land well away from the parent plant. The native milkweeds are one example. Each seed is attached to silken hairs that form a structure similar to a parachute. Once the pod dries and splits open the seeds can be easily carried aloft by a strong breeze. 

Another, perhaps even more well-known example involves dandelions, the circular seed head of which every child has blown on to scatter the silken seeds hither and yon. Each seed has a structure known as a pappus made up with one hundred or so hairlike bristles that carry the seed aloft, allowing it in steady winds to travel miles. Physicists have recently learned that air blowing upward through the pappus creates an area of low pressure above the seed which facilitates upward movement, allowing it to potentially travel great distances. 

An alternate design that eases dispersal by the wind is found in maple seeds; they have winged membranes. This creates resistance to the air enabling the seeds to twirl away, some distance from the shade of the parent tree.

Dandelion seed

The most remarkable dispersal strategy involves propulsion and we have an excellent example on Long Island — jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not. Jewelweed is a common wildflower here, growing in moist to wet environments such as along streams and pond edges; locally it grows on the western side of the pond at Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket and is abundant in the southwestern corner of the pond. The orange flowers are quite distinguishable and noticeable. Hanging on slender stalks, they have a unique, bell-shaped outline with a curled spur in the back (giving rise to another colloquial name — ladies earrings). It is a favorite among pollinating insects and ruby-throated hummingbirds. 

But what is really remarkable about the plant are its exploding seed pods which are elongated and five sided. As they mature the pods develop tension and if one ignores the admonition to “touch-it-not” and touches a pod it abruptly ruptures along the five sutures, with the seeds propelled outward several feet; the result is an exploded-looking seed pod with the sides curled outward.

The other name — jewelweed — comes from one of two explanations. Rain and dew bead up on the leaf surface and in the sunlight the water drops sparkle like jewels. The other has to do with the jewel-like shimmer of the leaf’s underside when submerged in water. The shimmer is caused by minute pockets of air caught in the hairs on the undersurface and gives rise to yet another name — silverleaf.

With regard to aquatic plants it is not surprising they often depend upon water for dispersal of seeds. Coconuts are perhaps the best example and they display a common and unsurprising trait of water dispersed seeds — they float. Closer to home we have several species of woody plants and wildflowers whose seeds float on the water, including birch and willow trees, and pondside flowers like irises.

Another novel strategy plants employ to spread seeds involves those which get entangled in the fur of mammals and feathers of birds. A few local examples include tick trefoil, cocklebur, beggar’s ticks, and common burdock. 

Tick-trefoil, of which there are a few species, produce pods, not surprising since they are members of the Pea family. The pods are covered with many tiny hair-like hooks enabling the pod to easily dislodge and attach to an animal’s fur — or your pants leg! I’ve occasionally come back from a hike with several dozen pods clinging resolutely to pant legs, socks, and shoes. 

The seeds of beggar’s ticks act similarly although in their case the seed has two “horns,” each equipped with tiny barbs that serve as fasteners. In the case of cockleburr and burdock, the plants produce oval burrs, their surfaces chock-filled with hooks. An animal brushes against the plant and the easily dislodged burrs go for a ride.

It was such a ride on an animal, George de Mestral’s dog Milka to be precise, that led to the invention of a product that is ubiquitous today — Velcro. Back in 1941, after a walk with his Irish pointer, de Mestral took a closer look under a microscope at the burdock burrs stuck to his pet’s fur. He was intrigued by the many hooklike structures and began to experiment. Fourteen years later he patented Velcro, so named from two French words: “velour” meaning velvet-like (one surface of Velcro) and “crochet” meaning hook (the other surface); together they mean “hooked velvet.”

You can see common burdock, the inspiration for Velcro, along nature trails throughout Long Island and perhaps burdock burrs will find their way onto your shoes and clothing equipped with that modern invention — Velcro — they served to inspire.

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.