Oaks Have a Lot of Gall!

In late fall and early winter, oak (Quercus species) trees often stand out from their forest companions, refusing to let go of their richly colored russet and brown leaves long after other deciduous trees are completely bare.  Oaks are members of the Beech (Fagaceae) family, and winter leaf retention, or marcescence, is a family trait.  American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees tenaciously hold their leaves until early spring when new leaves are preparing to emerge.

Oak trees, retaining their leaves, stand out in a woodland in late fall.

No one knows exactly why some deciduous trees exhibit this characteristic, but there are several theories.  It may be that the dry leaves are a deterrent to winter browsing by deer, moose and other mammals.  Holding on to leaves until spring may be the trees’ way of time-releasing nutrients for recycling into the soil.  Or the leaves may capture and funnel more snow melt to the tree’s root system.

There are about 600 species of oaks (Quercus) worldwide, with 87 in North America, as well as numerous hybrids.  Oaks are usually categorized in two groups, the white oak group and the red oak group.  They can be distinguished by their leaves.  Trees in the white oak group have leaves with rounded lobes,

White Oak (Quercus alba)

while trees in the red oak group have leaves with pointed lobes or with very narrow ‘pins’ at the tips of their lobes.

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Oaks are among the most valuable species for supporting both wildlife and people, in many different ways.

The wind-pollinated flowers of oaks produce acorns, an important food for wildlife.

Acorn of Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Many birds depend on this bounty of food, including Jays, Tufted Titmice, Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Ruffed Grouse, Lesser Prairie Chickens, Bobwhite and other quails, and Wild Turkeys.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are among the many birds that eat acorns.

White-breasted Nuthatches are most often seen foraging for food, mostly insects, in the crevices of tree bark, but they also like fruit, and are named for their habit of tucking seeds and nuts like acorns into a crevice and hacking away at them to consume the tasty treat inside.  They may also cache some acorns for later consumption.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Even Wood Ducks consume acorns.  They primarily live in forested wetlands where oak trees and acorns may be present. Wood Ducks are just one of the many animals that nest in tree cavities such as those found in oaks.

Wood Duck in fall

Acorns are an important food source for many mammals, from mice, chipmunks, raccoons and squirrels, to bear and deer.

Raccoons are among the many mammals that eat acorns, and may find shelter in oak or other tree cavities.

Eastern Gray Squirrels have a special relationship with oaks.  Not only do they consume acorns and shelter in oak cavities, but in return they help to disperse oak seeds (acorns).  Like the White-breasted Nuthatches, Gray Squirrels cache acorns for later consumption.  Squirrels typically have a very good memory for where they stashed each acorn, often recovering as much as 95% of their hoard.  But the other overlooked 5% may germinate and prosper in their new location.  Oaks also tend to have ‘mast years’ when they produce more acorns than can be easily eaten even over the long winter.  In such years, many acorns may live to become trees.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Acorns are at their most nutritious before they germinate.  Acorns of trees in the white oak group germinate in their first year.  Squirrels can detect this, and are likely to eat acorns from the white oak group as soon as they are available rather than cache them.  Trees in the red oak group produce acorns that take two years to germinate.  Squirrels are likely to cache acorns from trees in the red oak group, since they remain a viable food source for a longer period of time.

When acorns are plentiful, Gray Squirrels, Blue Jays, White-footed Mice and other acorn consumers tend to eat only about half of each acorn, the half at the opposite end from which the tree seedling will emerge (the end without the ‘cap’).  This part of the acorn has a higher lipid content, the food these animals are seeking, and a lower tannin content, a bitter tasting compound that is off-putting to potential consumers.  The discarded uneaten half acorn will often germinate and produce a seedling.

Studies have shown that in the mid-Atlantic United States, oaks are food plants for the caterpillars of more butterfly and moth species than any other genus of trees, supporting more than 500 species.

Juvenal’s Duskywing nectaring from Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). Several Duskywing butterfly species use oaks as caterpillar food.

Red-banded Hairstreaks use the fallen leaves of oaks and sumacs as caterpillar food. The spend the winter in the fallen leaves.

Saddleback moth caterpillars eat oak leaves

Several giant silk moths like this Polyphemous Moth and Luna Moths depend on oaks for caterpillar food.

Insects, and especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds and other animals.  It takes thousands of caterpillars to feed a young bird family.  As a result, many of those caterpillars will become a meal before they get a chance to become a butterfly or moth.

Carolina Chickadees need thousands of caterpillars to raise a single brood.

Carolina Wrens need food in the form of the many caterpillars and other insects found on oak trees.

There are other insects whose presence in oak tissue stimulates the oak to produce a gall, an abnormal plant growth with more nutrients than are found in normal tissue.  The insect develops inside the gall, feeding on the nutrient rich tissue inside.  Some oak galls are caused by midges, but many are caused by members of a sub-family of wasps called gall (Cynipid) wasps.  The galls take some of the plant’s resources, but they typically don’t cause any harm to the plant.  Often these galls house additional insects, free-loaders (inquilines) that didn’t stimulate the tree to produce the gall but who live and feed in the gall, sharing it with the original tenant.

The galls on these Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) leaves are caused by a midge, Polystepha pilulae.

This gall on Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) is called a Lobed or Pine Cone Oak Gall. It is caused by a wasp.

This summer my attention was drawn to a Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)  branch by ants rapidly climbing around on several ‘bumps’ that could only be galls.  At this point the galls were somewhat nondescript little growths that turned out to be Oak Bullet Galls.

Ants patrolling galls on Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

But what attracted the ants to the galls?  Ants are omnivorous. Other insects are important food for them, but they also eat plant material and sweet tasty treats, like nectar.  Since they didn’t have access to the insects inside the galls, I speculated that there was something on the exterior of the gall that enticed them.  When I looked at my photos, they did appear to be eating something, but what?

Ants with Oak Bullet Galls galls on Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

When I checked on the galls about a week later, their appearance had changed dramatically; they now looked like red Hershey’s Kisses.  The ants were still on duty, and this time when I checked my photos, I could see droplets of nectar oozing out from the sides of the galls.  Mystery solved!  The wasp inside the gall had stimulated the tree to not only produce its home and food, but the home came equipped with a security system – nectaries to lure and pay for protection from predators.

Ant drinking nectar from Oak Bullet Gall on Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). The glistening nectar droplets are especially visible just below the tip of the ant’s right front leg.

My next visit was about two weeks after the Hershey’s Kisses phase of the gall development.  Their appearance had changed again; now each gall had a tan, almost perfectly round exterior.  This time the ants were joined on patrol by several wasp species, each capable of discouraging predators of the gall wasp.

Paper Wasp drinking nectar from Oak Bullet Gall on Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor).

Cuckoo Wasp drinking nectar from Oak Bullet Gall on Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor).

This seems like an expensive security service for the tree to provide if it only benefits the gall wasp.  It is likely that many of these insect guards also protect the tree itself from other herbivores.  For example, Paper Wasps, like ants, are caterpillar predators.

Oaks also have relationships with many fungi, including species that are edible or provide medicine for humans, insects and other animals.

Hen of the Wood is just one of the many fungi that have a relationship with oak trees.

There is a plant called Squawroot or Cancer-root (Conopholis americana) that depends on oaks for its survival.  Squawroot doesn’t produce its own food through photosynthesis. Instead it taps into the roots of oak trees for its food.

Squawroot or Cancer-root (Conopholis americana)

How are oak trees beneficial for people?   If prepared correctly, some acorns are edible.  The wood is used for building, furniture and cabinet making.  The bark of some species is used for tanning.  Oak trees, especially the inner bark, have numerous medicinal uses.  Most importantly, through photosynthesis, oak trees and other plants produce the oxygen we need in order to breathe.  They help mitigate climate change by removing carbon dioxide and other pollutants from our air and water, providing cooling shade, producing moisture through transpiration, and helping to manage stormwater.

Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Not only do oaks have a lot of gall, but they provide immeasurable value to life on earth.

Oak trees stand out in a woodland in late fall

Related Posts

Will Work for Food – Extra-floral Nectaries

American Beech

Resources

Beresford-Kroeger, Diana.  Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.  2003

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Eastman, John.  Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket.  1997.

Eastman, John.  Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh.  1999.

Eastman, John.  The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Eastman, John.  The Book of Swamp and Bog.  1995.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah.  Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates.  2010.

Martin, Alexander C.;  Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L.  American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

Nelson, Gil; Earle, Christopher J.; Spellenberg, Richard.  Trees of Eastern North America.  2014.

Sibley, David Allen.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.

Steele, Michael A.; Koprowski, John L.  North American Tree Squirrels.  2001.

Tallamy, Douglas W.  Bringing Nature Home.  2007

Wagner, David L.;  Caterpillars of Eastern North America, 2005.

Buckeye Yard and Garden Online: Bullet Galls and Their Guards by Joe Boggs, October 2018

Capital Naturalist by Alonso Abugattas

Illinois Wildflowers

Minnesotaseasons.com

Missouri Botanical Garden

Naturalis Historia

Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, Winter Leaves That Hang On

 

 

Virginia Creeper is for the Birds!

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is at its showiest in autumn.  The leaves of this native vine turn bright scarlet, a perfect offset for its ripening fruit. It’s especially striking where it has found a platform to climb.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Virginia Creeper is typically found in woodlands, wood’s edges and fields. It grows as a ground cover,

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) in center forefront. It is a welcome addition to the groundcover in my shade garden, and seems to work and play well with other plants.

but can also climb trees

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

and fences or arbors.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on a fence

It climbs in a gentle way, using its tendrils.  the tips of the tendrils form a suction cup-like pad at their tips that can cling to bark, fences and arbors.

Where Virginia Creeper gets enough sun it will flower, typically in mid-summer.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) in bloom

The flowers offer nectar and pollen that are attractive to many bee species.  If the bees are successful in assisting Virginia Creeper with pollination, berries develop and ripen in late summer and fall.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) fruit

At the same time that Virginia Creeper’s leaves are changing color, its fruit stems (petioles) also turn scarlet, a striking contrast to the fruit that ripens to a deep blue.  This colorful display is an advertisement that attracts birds to feast on the luscious fruit.  Virginia Creeper has evolved to attract animals to eat its fruit and subsequently disperse its seeds.   The seeds go through the animal’s digestive tract, and are eventually deposited complete with natural fertilizer in another location.

Birds including Woodpeckers, Titmice, Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Thrushes, Robins, Catbirds and more flock to this autumn food source.  On a recent fall day, I watched Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and several sparrows taking advantage of Virginia Creeper’s bounty.

Eastern Bluebirds foraging for fruit from Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

A Cedar Waxwing and an Eastern Bluebird eating Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) fruit

Because of its habitat, habit of climbing, and color, Virginia Creeper is sometimes mistaken for Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but they are easy to tell apart.  Poison Ivy has compound leaves with three leaflets, while Virginia Creeper’s compound leaves have five leaflets, reflected in its scientific name, ‘quinquefolia’, which means five-leaved.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has compound leaves, usually with five leaflets

Mature Poison Ivy vines have very hairy stems, while Virginia Creeper’s bark is not hairy.  Virginia Creeper has exfoliating bark typical of other members of its family, the Grape (Vitaceae) family.  The bark may be used by birds for nesting material.

Virginia Creeper has other characteristics in common with its family members.  For example, its fruit clusters may resemble a bunch of grapes.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) fruit clusters may resemble those of other Grape family members.

Virginia Creeper is also a food plant for the caterpillars of several moth species that specialize on grape family members.  Among them are the regal-looking Eight-spotted Forester,

Eight-Spotted Forrester on Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

and the Grape-leaf Skeletonizer.

Grapeleaf Skeletonizer on New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus). This moth drinks nectar from many plants, but its caterpillars can only eat the leaves of Grape family members.

The caterpillars may successfully complete metamorphosis, or they may become food for resident birds or other wildlife.  Insects, especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds.

Tufted Titmice are just one of the many species of birds that may benefit by eating the caterpillars found on Virginia Creeper.

Virginia Creeper is also known by the common name Woodbine.  It is native in the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada.

At different times of the year Virginia Creeper provides fruit, caterpillars, and nesting material.  Its dense leafy cover can also be a good place to take shelter.  What more could a bird ask for?

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) with Eastern Bluebird

Resources

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Audubon – 10 Plants for a Bird-friendly Yard

Illinois Wildflowers

 

University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

A Thistle Banquet

On a recent walk through a local meadow I spotted a bank of Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

It was eye-catching for two reasons.  The sight of the plant itself is arresting, with its tall candelabra-like shape topped with purple pompoms of flowers instead of candle flames.  But it was the sight of so many visitors to the flowers, often several on a single flower head, that was really breath-taking.  Bumble Bees, Honey Bees, Clearwing Moths and so many different butterflies moved quickly from flower to flower, pausing briefly to dine.  Field Thistle presents a sumptuous feast for potential pollinators!

At one ‘banquet table’, a Honey Bee, a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) and a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth all dined amiably together.

A Honey Bee, a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) and a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth all drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

At another, several Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and Thistle Long-horned Bees shared a meal.

Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) feeding from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

How is it that one flower head can accommodate so many visitors simultaneously?  Field Thistle is a member of the Aster or Composite (Asteraceae) family.  Each of the purple pompoms consists of a cluster of many long narrow tubular disk flowers.  You can see the individual flowers in the head in the lower part of the photo below.

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). Note the individual narrow, trumpet-like disk flowers shown below the bee.

The Long-horned Thistle Bee in the photo below is actively eating both pollen and nectar, and harvesting more to provision her nest for her larvae.  You can see the pollen she has collected packed onto hairs, called scopae, on her hind legs. We know this is a female, because only female bees harvest food for their offspring.  This bee species specializes on pollen from Field Thistle and a few other closely related plants (all of the genus Cirsium) for her larvae.  This makes her an excellent pollinator for Field Thistle, since she won’t be visiting other flowers.  It also means that without these thistles, this bee species would not survive.  It’s the same concept as the Monarch butterfly’s dependency on Milkweeds (Asclepias species) for survival, because Milkweeds are the only food their caterpillars can eat.

Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) feeding on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). She’ll bring the pollen on her hind legs to her nest. Note the pollen grains all over her body! Some will help with pollination.

Although it appears in the photos above that the various visitors to these flowers are happy to share the wealth of the Field Thistle banquet, I’m sorry to have to report that the Honey Bees actually indulged in bullying behavior.  They were especially hostile to the Thistle Long-horned Bees, trying to chase them away by bumping them.

Honey Bee bullying Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Fortunately, the Thistle Long-horned Bees were undeterred.  They were also respectful of other diners, even those smaller than themselves.

The small bee (possible Eucera species) in the upper left is harvesting pollen. With Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

I visited this meadow several times within a few weeks, and each time there were at least a half dozen Hummingbird Clearwing Moths at the thistle.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moths on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Their close relative, a Snowberry Clearwing Moth, also stopped by for a drink.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

One of the Hummingbird Clearwing Moths shared a thistle banquet table with a female Zabulon Skipper, while a male Zabulon Skipper and Peck’s Skipper dined together at another.

Female Zabulon Skipper and Hummingbird Clearwing Moth drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Male Zabulon Skipper (left) and Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

These skippers are small butterflies who specialize on various grass species as food for their caterpillars.  Many of these grasses can be found nearby in the meadow.

Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Peck’s Skippers were ubiquitous, sipping nectar alone and in the company of others, including Spicebush Swallowtails and Great-spangled Fritillaries.

Spicebush Swallowtail and Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Two courting Great-spangled Fritillaries and Peck’s Skipper on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails also visited the flowers for nectar.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

All of these large butterflies specialize on plants found in the adjacent woodlands as food for their caterpillars.  Spicebush Swallowtails require Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), their namesake plant, or Sassafras (Sassafras albidum);  Great-spangled Fritillaries need violets; and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails use various tree species, including Ash (Fraxinus species), Tuliptrees (Liriodendrun tulipifera), and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina).

It was very encouraging to see that there were many Monarch butterflies partaking of the thistle feast.  Both Common (Asclepias syriaca) and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) were available in the meadow for egg-laying.

Monarch butterfly drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Even Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visited the thistles for nectar, but they didn’t stay long enough for a photo op.

Field Thistle’s strategy to protect itself from being eaten is to have very spiny leaves and branches.  This works well in deterring mammals from munching the plant; Field Thistle is not a species that deer are likely to browse.  But caterpillars are a different story.  Painted Lady butterflies as well as Common Loopers and some other moth species use this plant as food for their caterpillars.

Painted Lady on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) is one of the plant species that Painted Lady butterflies can use as food for their caterpillars.

Common Looper Moth on New England Aster ( Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Common Looper Moths caterpillars also eat the leaves of Field thistle (Cirsium discolor).

After all of this help with pollination, Field Thistle produces seed-like fruits called achenes.  They have a light, white fluff (called pappus) attached, enabling their dispersal by the wind. But these fruits are also desirable food and nesting material for Goldfinches and other birds.

Eastern Goldflinches harvesting seeds from Field thistle (Cirsium discolor)

Field Thistle is native from Saskatchewan to Quebec provinces in Canada and in much of the eastern half of the United States, although it is less common in the southeastern states and absent from Florida.  The flower color can vary from purple to pinkish, and is occasionally white.  Field Thistle is a biennial or short-lived perennial, replacing itself by producing seeds.  It can grow to a height of five to seven feet (1.5 – 2.1 meters).  Unlike some non-native thistles, Field Thistle is not invasive.

There is a non-native thistle, Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), that closely resembles the native Field Thistle.  Some differences in their characteristics that can help tell them apart include:  Field Thistle leaves have consistently white felt-like or woolly undersides, Bull Thistle leaves are green to greenish-white below;  Bull Thistle has winged stems where the leaves meet them, Field Thistle does not;  Field Thistle usually has a ring of leaves pointing upward hugging the base of the inflorescence (flower head), like a very pointy stand-up collar, Bull Thistle may have one or two leaves below the inflorescence.

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) with great-spangled Fritillary butterfly. Note the stand-up leaf collar hugging the base of the flower head.

Field Thistle isn’t traditionally used in gardens, but in the right location in a sunny garden, it could really make a statement, and bring so many visitors!

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

 

Related Posts

A Butterfly garden that Embraces the Shade

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Black Cherry – for Wildlife and People, Too!

For Great-spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter

Spicebush or Forsythia?

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Clemants, Steven; Gracie, Carol. Wildflowers in the Field and Forest. 2006.

Newcomb, Lawrence.  Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.  1977.

Peterson, Roger Tory; McKenny, Margaret.  A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America. 1968.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Illinois Wildflowers

Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Bull Thistle

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet

 

 

 

A Wildlife, Family and Pet Friendly Lawn

Are you using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on your lawn?  If so, you really should stop.  For a few reasons.

One reason is that you’re missing out on a lot.

Herbicides used on lawns will kill beneficial plants including White Clover, dandelions, violets, Spring Beauty and more that would otherwise grow in harmony with grasses.  Why do I say these plants are beneficial?

Let’s take White Clover (Trifolium repans) as an example.  Native Bumble Bees are important pollinators for both native plants and agricultural crops, and are frequent visitors to White Clover flowers, eating and harvesting pollen and nectar.

Bumble Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover

Honey Bees love to visit the flowers for nectar, and they make a great tasting honey for the bees and for people.

Honey Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover

Many different butterflies visit White Clover flowers for their nectar.

Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from White Clover

Pearl Crescent drinking nectar from White Clover

Gray Hairstreak drinking nectar from White Clover

Least Skipper drinking nectar from White Clover

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from White Clover

Some butterflies who specialize on Pea (Fabaceae) family members as caterpillar food use White Clover.  The females lay eggs on the plant, and after hatching, the caterpillars munch on White Clover flowers or leaves.  The female Clouded Sulphur in the photo below is drinking nectar from a dandelion.  If the male Clouded Sulphur is successful in persuading her to mate with him, there is White Clover nearby for egg-laying.

A female Clouded Sulphur nectaring from a dandelion, while a courting male hovers hopefully nearby.

What about dandelions?  If you aren’t using chemicals on your lawn, you can pick dandelion leaves and add them to salads, or cook them with a little olive oil and garlic or onions.  Dandelion leaves have many times the nutritional value of spinach, and if you pick them from your lawn they’re free.

Eastern-tailed Blues and Sleepy Oranges are a few of the butterflies who visit dandelion flowers for nectar.

Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from a dandelion

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from a dandelion

Got crabgrass?  This pair of Sachem will thank you, because the female can lay her eggs on crabgrass, one of the few plants her caterpillars are able to digest.

Sachem butterflies, mating

Let violets creep into your lawn, and you can add the leaves or flowers to your salads.

Violets in the lawn ready for picking for a bouquet.

Pollinators like Bumble Bees will thank you for violet flowers.

Bumble Bee visiting violet flower for pollen and nectar

You may see Great Spangled and other fritillary butterflies, too, because violets are the only food their caterpillars can eat.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies drink nectar from many flowers, including the Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) shown here, but their caterpillars can only eat the leaves of violets.

None of these caterpillars will damage your lawn.  The caterpillars may make it through metamorphosis to become butterflies, or they may become a meal for hungry ground-feeding birds like Robins.  Both fates are good options.

American Robin. Insects, especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds. It can take thousands of caterpillars to feed one clutch of hungry baby birds!

Bluets mix well with a lawn, and their basil leaves are evergreen.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)

While in bloom their tiny flowers offer nectar for a myriad butterflies, bees, flies and moths.

White-spotted Sable Moth drinking nectar from a Bluet (Houstonia caerulea) flower

If you are using herbicides to kill the violets, dandelions, clover, crabgrass and other plants, you are eliminating any value your lawn may have for wildlife.

If you are using chemical pesticides, you are killing these animals outright, along with thousands of beneficial microbes that live in and help aerate the soil.  These microbes help keep the soil healthy.

Not convinced yet to stop using chemicals on your lawn?  Let’s consider a reason that might be more compelling.

You are also adding toxins to your soil, toxins that may find their way into the groundwater, our watersheds, and ultimately into your drinking water.

How toxic could these chemicals be?  Let’s look at a few highlights from their material safety data sheets to find out.

One commonly used fertilizer shouldn’t be too toxic unless a large amount is ingested.  But exposure can cause eye irritation, skin irritation, and if inhaled, may cause ‘respiratory tract irritation’. It also carries this warning:  “Avoid discharges into waterways as fertilizer can cause nitrification and algae blooms.”

The material safety data sheets for herbicides, the chemicals that kill plants, are positively frightening.  Here are a few excerpts (Bold added by me):

There is no specific antidote if this product is ingested.”

For dermal exposure or inhalation, effects of exposure include:  “Possible carcinogenicity, Allergic skin reaction, Drowsiness or dizziness”.

Highly toxic to fish and invertebrates. Practically non-toxic to birds and bees.”  (Please note, bees are invertebrates.)

“May cause an allergic skin reaction
May cause drowsiness or dizziness
Suspected of causing cancer
May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure

Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects

Danger. Causes irreversible eye damage. Harmful if swallowed. Harmful if absorbed through skin.

Application around a cistern or well may result in contamination of drinking water or groundwater.”

Some of these material safety data sheets include a skull and cross bones for emphasis.  If you would like to read them in their entirety, there are links to them at the end of this post.

Do you want you, your kids, grandkids, or pets to play and roll around on that chemically treated surface?  Do you want these chemicals getting into our water supplies and watersheds?

The use of these chemicals in lawn care is just a fashion, a choice.  It’s not a necessity.

Years ago, lawn ‘fashions’ were different.  White Clover was included in seed mixes for lawns, because the clover releases nitrogen into the soil in amounts that can be used by the soil and its microbe community. This helps lawn grasses thrive.  Violets were commonly seen creeping in with lawn grasses, aided by their seed dispersers and excellent soil aerators, ants.  When I was a little girl, I loved to pick bouquets of violets and clover from our backyard and give them to my mom.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

With the fashion that has been in favor now for a number of years, lawns must consist of nothing but carefully selected grasses, species that naturally thrive in cool, moist conditions.  They may look lush in spring, but when the heat and drought of summer arrives, lawns must be watered to maintain that green appearance.  That costs money and uses a valuable resource unnecessarily. Some states and municipalities have instituted hefty fines for watering lawns.

Money is spent on chemicals that are applied to the entire lawn surface to kill the clover, dandelions, crabgrass, violets and other non-lawn-grass plants that might otherwise creep in.  Chemical fertilizers are purchased and applied to add nitrogen to the soil, a job that White Clover does for free.  This chemical application of nitrogen is often more than the soil can absorb.  The nitrogen runs off, contaminating our waters with a toxic effect on aquatic plants and wildlife, and ends up in our drinking water.

We’re actually spending money to make our soil less fertile, our lawns toxic, and to contaminate our waters.  Who benefits from this, other than chemical companies, and lawn maintenance companies who apply the chemicals?

Here are some alternative actions you can take.

Instead of using chemical fertilizers, when you mow, let grass clippings fall into the soil.  In autumn, use a mulching mower to chop up any leaves that have fallen on the lawn.  The leaves and grass clippings will act as natural fertilizer, breaking down with the aid of the microbes in the soil, improving the health and consistency of the soil. Microbes and invertebrates will aerate the soil, making it more hospitable to plant roots, and more absorbent of rainwater.

Are you trying to grow lawn grass in the shade?  Just give up.  Please.  It’s a losing battle.  Lawn grasses will never thrive in shade.  In my experience, the grass will die every year by July, no matter what kind of seed mix you apply or how much soil you add.  If you start with sod it might take a bit longer, but the grass will still die eventually.

Our results when we tried to grow lawn in shade

Are you concerned about standing water in your lawn after a rainfall?  Do you see erosion in some places?  That’s because lawn grasses have very short roots.  They are only a tiny bit better than pavement in absorbing rainwater.

Our ‘lawn’ when it rained

The solution to the shade, standing water and erosion problems are all the same. Plant shade-loving native perennials, shrubs and trees instead.  They’ll do well and be far more healthy and productive for you and for local wildlife.  Their leaves will slow the flow of falling rain, and the roots will help the soil absorb rainwater, while holding the soil in place.

Soon after we replaced our lawn with a garden of native plants. It’s even more lush now.

Be cutting edge.  Be part of the lawn fashion revolution.  Welcome the arrival of clover, dandelions, crabgrass, violets, bluets, spring beauty, sedges and so many other plants to your lawn.  Don’t try to grow grass in the shade, where it will never thrive.  You’ll be keeping your family healthier, and save money at the same time.

A wildlife, family and pet friendly lawn should be small, just big enough for playing.  It should consist of a mix of grasses, clover, and other plants that might readily grow in harmony with each other, without any chemical applications.

Variegated Fritillary drinking nectar from White Clover

Related Posts

For Great Spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter!

A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Spring

A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Summer and Fall

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!

More pollinators on Bluets:  https://the-natural-web.org/2015/06/19/late-spring-in-stowe-vermont/

 

 

References

A Homeowner’s Guide to Stormwater Management

 

NRCS

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/il/plantsanimals/?cid=nrcs141p2_030726

Lawn and Garden Care, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Lowenfels, Jeff; Lewis, Wayne.  Teaming with Microbes – The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.  2010

Mader, Eric; Shepherd, Matthew; Vaughan, Mace; Black, Scott Hoffman; LeBuhn, Gretchen.  Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies.  2011.

 

Material Safety Data Sheets for some commonly used lawn chemicals

http://msds.mkap.com/LiquidFertilizer/2800.pdf

http://www.powerlineproducts.com/images/28_0_0UANSolutionMSDS.pdf

http://www.cdms.net/ldat/mp5JC002.pdf

http://www.fluoridealert.org/wp-content/pesticides/msds/prodiamine.barricade.4fl.2005.pdf

http://www.cdms.net/ldat/mp5JC002.pdf

http://www.keystonepestsolutions.com/labels/Trimec_992_MSDS.pdf

http://natseed.com/pdf/Trimec%20992%20-%20MSDS%20Sheet.pdf

https://www.domyown.com/msds/Q4Plus-MSDS.pdf

http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Detail_Chemical.jsp?Rec_Id=PC33374

How to interpret a Material Safety Data Sheet

http://www.ilpi.com/msds/ref/hazardclassification.html

 

 

Encounter with a Bluebird Family

As I approached a place where a meadow meets a narrow strip of woods, I noticed some movement in the shadows cast by a Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).  The light was low, so I had to use binoculars to be able to see that the bird flying from the ground to a low branch was an immature Eastern Bluebird.

Immature Eastern Bluebird

This is just the kind of habitat Eastern Bluebirds prefer, open meadows or even lawns with trees nearby for perching and nesting.  Bluebirds nest in cavities, using natural cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes in trees. This kind of real estate is in high demand, so Bluebirds also use nesting boxes.  The male brings materials to the nesting site, including grasses, spent plant stems and pine needles for the outside of the nest, finer grasses and sometimes animal hair for the inside.  The female is in charge of construction, building the nest inside their chosen cavity.

This youngster was apparently already learning and practicing a common Bluebird food foraging behavior, that of sitting on a low branch and flying down to capture an insect meal.  As is the case with most birds, insects and spiders are an important part of a Bluebird’s diet. Bluebirds eat quite a variety, including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and caterpillars.

Grasshopper – A good meal for a hungry Bluebird!

Tulip Tree Beauty – Nothing beats a caterpillar as a tasty treat!

In fall and winter fruit is added to this insect diet.

In fall and winter, Bluebirds add fruit like that offered by this Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) to their diet.

While I focused on this young bird, someone else entered my line of sight.  It was a vividly colorful mature male Bluebird.  He landed in a low bare branch of the Tuliptree, the remnants of last year’s fruit only slightly obscuring my view of him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

This dazzling male seemed intent on mesmerizing me with his beauty so that I would forget about his offspring in the shadows behind him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

His strategy was pretty effective.  While I didn’t forget about the young bird, I couldn’t take my eyes off its father.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

But eventually my peripheral vision picked up some movement behind this stunning male.

A female Eastern Bluebird was flying from a nesting box in the meadow, to the far edge of the tree line.  She flew back and forth, until the young bluebird finally followed her and they disappeared together through the trees.  When I looked again for the male, he had also taken off.

I walked to the lawn on other side of the wood line toward the place where the Bluebirds had escaped from my view and found lots of activity.  The female, now with two immature Bluebirds, flew back and forth from the lawn to the trees.  Practice flights?  One of the youngsters decided to stay in the grass, poking at the ground in search of insect food.  Mom stayed for a while, coaching her young student.

Female Eastern Bluebird (left) with tutoring her young offspring

Eventually Mom flew back to the shelter of the trees.  After a moment, the young bird followed the rest of its family, disappearing into the trees.

Young Eastern Bluebird

 

Resources

Eastman, John.  Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket.  1997.

Harrison, Hal H.  Eastern Birds’ Nests.  1975

Sibley, David Allen.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds