What I Saw On A Single Hoary Mountain Mint Plant
—100 Different Insect Species!--
By Brigitte McCauley
A couple of years ago my sister put one small plant of hoary mountain mint into our flower bed. It has now spread about a square foot at the base, and I love its display of white flowers and silvery foliage. But my favorite part about is how many bugs it attracts! Recently, out of curiosity, I decided to try to photograph the different species that I saw coming.
Over the course of a few days, I periodically checked the plant and took pictures of all the species I found on it. Paying close attention made me notice how many insects were depending on this single plant, from big, showy butterflies to tiny gnat-like flies and other bizarre-looking critters that I've never seen before. Each and every species had its specific purpose for visiting the plant. Most were drawn by nectar, but some came for other purposes. I saw grasshoppers eating leaves, weevils sucking juice from the stems, predatory bugs and spiders searching for prey, and a few insects simply seeking shelter beneath the leaves.
When I collaborated the images together, I was shocked. Over only a few days, one hundred different species were in some way using a single plant of hoary mountain mint! It made me realize just how important a single plant can be and that by adding one more native plant, we can help to make a big difference for so many insects!
**The 5 collections of photographs below are numbered with a coorisponding key where we labeled the insects to the best of our knowledge. Feel free to share your thoughts about their names.
**I'm sure there are dozens more visiting too that I somehow overlooked or wasn't present to photograph!
Insects on Hoary Mountain Mint
Why plant native plants? Seems like a simple question. We don’t get asked it a whole bunch by our customers, probably because we only sell plants native to VA and folks come here for that reason. It is a question worth asking and the answer isn’t as easy as the question….
So, why plant natives? Why plant at all? The reasons that we garden are many and they will not be listed here because that is beyond the scope of this little blog. I will mention that for us, with the possible exception of the vegetable garden, we plant because we see our property and former lawn as a small refuge for other animals and plants that used to be more common in the past before we humans began to take up so much space. Back before pavement was invented. Not caveman days, but maybe a couple of hundred years ago. You probably have a sense about what I am writing about.
We both have professional backgrounds in restoration ecology and have spent a good amount of time looking for ways to restore diversity to areas that had become ecologically simplified due to human activity. It seems clear enough to us that we are going to have to share our personal spaces with non-human life forms more and more if we want to keep the Earth as the kind of place that is human friendly. Best I can figure, it has been relatively human friendly for most of our recent evolution. Making big changes to it seems risky to me. For this simple reason we look at the place where we live and we ask “how can we make this place friendly to life in general?” When a place is friendly to life in general, then it is usually friendly to human beings. Perhaps I have strayed off topic a bit. I’ll reign it in.
Why native plants? Why not just pollinator plants? Pollinator plants are very important and should be a part of all gardens. If providing food for animals (primarily insects) is one of your goals, then planting a wide diversity of species that bloom continuously throughout the season is a very good plan. Continuous blooming is an important concept. Pollinators need to eat all season so they need plants that are in flower all season long. We can help with this. There certainly are some non-native plants that are very attractive to pollinators and as such are a good food source. So long as these plants stay put in the garden, it is easy to see how they can be a benefit. It is also true that non-native pollinator plants have limitations when it comes to native animals. These limitations are why we choose to focus only on native plants. There are a few non-natives in our garden, mostly from our earlier gardening days, and as long as they persist and stay local, we enjoy them.
Why native plants? Native plants evolved with native animals and are intimately linked with them. While it is true that most human dominated areas are very different from the places that they used to be, if we are trying to help restore a bit of what was here before many of the big changes, then we need to reintroduce the natives that were here before. Before what? I honestly don’t know for sure. For me this isn’t about before Jamestown settlement or after. I would say that I imagine a time before concrete domination, large agribusiness and widespread chemical use. Not a perfect time, not some fantasy, just a time when there was more wildlife around. Sure, some of it we didn’t really want that close to us or our kids. But we’ve become so good at getting rid of wildlife that maybe we’ve overdone it. Thus, the native plants. Native plants feed animals (mostly but not exclusively insects – which feed other things) during every stage of their life. Pollinator plants primarily feed adult insects, not their young. If we do not feed caterpillars and other young animals then, well, you know, there are fewer adults.
So plant native plants. Many different kinds so that something is always blooming. In clumps so it is easier for things to feed on them. Don’t worry too much about how “clean” it looks. Many critters need dead plants for homes and food so leaving dead stuff around for a little while is helpful. It is also true that the plants themselves need dead material to decompose on site as a food source…mulch is not exactly the same thing. You can have many different types of gardens under your care. Hopefully at least some of them can be wild!
That’s what I have to offer kinda late on a Sunday evening. Hope to see you here at the nursery soon.
Woodland gardens and conservation
Do you have shade on your property?Do you often think that this is a problem? If so, I might suggest that an area that is shaded could also be an opportunity to plant a woodland garden. Perhaps even a woodland garden that could give a home to rare plants!
Home gardeners such as us are important players in the collective effort being made to reintroduce and re-establish the native flora and fauna which once called this area home. A woodland garden can be installed anywhere that there is shade. A grove of trees is perhaps the ideal location for a shade garden but really anywhere that you find shadow can work for species adapted for shade. For many folks a shade garden could take shape under a single tree or on the north side of their house.
Plants adapted for life in a shady forest need soil rich in organic matter. You’ll most likely need to add compost to the site and a bit of leaf litter mulch if you are able. A short list of the plants that you might consider adding to your new site could include: Polyganotum biflorum (Solomon’s Seal), Heuchera americana (Alumroot), Trillium grandiflorum (Large flowered Trillium), Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort) and Symphyotrichum cordifolium (Blue Wood Aster).
Perhaps you’d like to take it a bit further! We’ve begun to establish colonies of some of the rarer woodland plants that have been in decline in recent decades. Because of the very real threat of poaching, I will not disclose the location of our efforts but I will mention that we have been slowly building up populations of Panax quinquefolius (American Ginseng), Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal) and Allium tricoccum (Ramps or wild Leeks). These lovely plants have been over harvested over much of their former range so if you can grow them in your shady spots then you can help them survive. The shade garden in your back yard is not the kind of place that plant poachers will look for! We hope to offer them for sale at some point to help more folks join in the effort to re-populate our shady spots. Stay tuned.
Panax quinquefolius (American Ginseng). Allium tricoccum (Ramps or wild Leeks)
Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal)
Hummingbirds are back!
By Brigitte McCauley
As I walk through the flowers at Hummingbird Hill, I hear a chorus of sounds. The warmth has awakened a multitude of blooms and insects alike. Bumblebees cling to blossoms, beneficial flies buzz from flower to flower, and above it all, there's the telltale whir of rapid wings—hummingbirds. The males were first to come, but now the females have returned also. They fly among the insects, sipping nectar from the wild columbines which started to bloom just in time for their arrival.
Wild columbine and bergamot, hummingbird favorites, seem to thrive in the rocky loam here, reseeding readily and creating a better habitat for ruby-throats every year. Being an early blooming plant, wild columbine draws the birds in spring when nectar is difficult to find. When its flowers fade, other species with overlapping bloom times make the area attractive to these fast fliers throughout summer.
Red flowers, such as scarlet beebalm, cardinal flower, and coral honeysuckle are popular, but hummingbirds are also just as happy with subtler colors. Purple giant hyssop, obedient plant, and beardtongues are some of their favorites. Many of the beds here have multiple plants of the same species grouped together as they'd naturally grow, so hummingbirds and other pollinators will notice the blooms easier. There are also small trees that offer perching spots, as well as nesting sites for the females, who act as a single parent, to raise their young.
Dozens of ruby-throats come here each year, enjoying the flowers in the beds and meadow. Several feeders with sugar water are hung around the house and nursery area, but to me, there is something extra special about seeing a hummingbird hovering at a flower. It's a privilege to be able to witness a private moment from a creature that moves so quickly in it's natural environment.
It’s spring and we’re busy preparing for a busy growing season. The wildflower meadow has had its annual mowing which we do in late February or early March. Mowing (or burning) yearly is necessary to maintain a meadow habitat in this part of the world. Without this maintenance the area would quickly revert to an early successional forest. Nothing wrong with forest. We have just chosen to keep this acre of our property as open meadow to increase the habitat diversity that we have to offer.
Our forests are also getting some maintenance. We spend a lot of time throughout the winter months on invasive species control efforts, primarily cutting and pulling non-native bittersweet and honeysuckle. No herbicides used here. Both of these species will climb high into the trees and eventually the weight of the vines will break them off or pull them down especially during wind storms like we saw a few weeks ago. In addition, we are working on increasing the diversity of species in our forested areas by adding in plants that are suitable for the habitat and will add wildlife value and beauty to the area.
The spring ephemerals are starting to bloom. A walk through the woods this time of year might reward you with patches of white, pink or purple blooms in amongst the brown leaves of winter on the forest floor. Bloodroot, spring beauties, cut leaf toothwort, Virginia bluebells, these first wildflowers to bloom each spring take advantage of the sunlight that is able to reach the ground through the still bare trees. Once the trees have their leaves, the spring ephemerals will be in deep shade and finished with the majority of their work for the year. We have only just begun.
The row covers have been removed from the wildflowers that we over winter and we are looking forward to watching them spring back to life. We are now growing over 250 species of plants that are native to Virginia. Species like the spring ephemerals that have evolved here and have an important and unique role to play in feeding and providing housing for native pollinators, butterflies, birds, mammals, and all of the other wildlife that live here.
This is also the time of year to recharge our water catchment system. We have a series of very large rainwater collection barrels linked to all of the gutters on our buildings. In total we can store 5000 gallons of water which we use to water all of the plants in the nursery. Our largest tank holds 2100 gallons. During the freezing months we drain the system to prevent freeze damage to the plumbing. Once the danger of hard freezing has passed we hook it all back up and begin to harvest the rain again! Just in time to begin watering when necessary. Much of our system was financed with assistance from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District. Our rainwater collection helps keep streams cleaner. You could easily do something similar. We’d be happy to provide more details if you’re interested.
We’ll be opening for the 2018 season on Saturday April 14th and will be open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 – 5:00 and by appointment. We’ll also be at a couple of events/plant sales this spring. Check our website or Facebook page for dates.
Come by, visit, check out all the beautiful native plants and make plans on how you can add some to your landscape.