Milkweeds Aren’t Really Weeds

I am always confounded as to why plants that are top pollinator plants in our ecosystems are called weeds. Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.) and Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) are two examples. I prefer the name Helen’s Flower for Sneezeweed. This plant, once used by some Native peoples as a snuff, doesn’t cause allergies at all. Weeds are usually defined as unwanted plants growing in a certain location. Maybe these plants encroached on farmers’ forage fields and were not palatable to livestock. Perhaps if our local Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was called “Monarch Butterfly Flower” it would get less of a bad rap.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on the fragrant flowers of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Photo by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA / CC BY (

Now, with the news of world pollinator declines and the movement to improve backyard and community biodiversity, milkweeds are all the rage. They should be, for not only are these plants among the top pollinator nectar plants for all kinds of native bees and butterflies, milkweeds are the only larval food plant for the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Monarch Butterfly caterpillars butterfly feed only on the leaves of milkweeds. The caterpillar will crawl up the stem and bite the plant’s midrib to cut off the flow of milky, sticky sap, and then move to the outer edge of the leaf to begin feeding. They do ingest some of this milky substance, which contains a heart poison (a cardiac glycoside). This sap deters many other insects, but the Monarch has evolved with this plant and is not harmed by it. In fact, the chemical makes the butterflies toxic to birds and other predators.

Three milkweed species are most common in our area: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Common Milkweed spreads by rhizomes, so the plant tends to roam. You will need a bit space to let it do so. I let the grass grow in a section of my lawn, but the milkweed has decided to pop up in another area. Oh well. I’ll just leave it for the Monarchs and gradually get rid of more lawn.

In the meadow I am slowly creating in my yard, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is slowly “running” left into the lawn; Photo by author

In many places of the country Common Milkweed is not so common anymore, particularly with increased planting of glyphosate-ready crops as well as roadside invasive plants taking over. When was the last time you saw milkweed in your neighborhood?

Butterfly Weed and Swamp Milkweed are both clumping species and would be fine in a pot outside your apartment or planted in your garden. Butterfly Weed can take dry soils once established, but is very adaptable.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is rather drought resistant once established and can do well in a pot. © Derek Ramsey /

Swamp Milkweed, as its name implies, likes moist soil, but it is also adaptable to regular garden soils. All three milkweeds will thrive in full sun, but will also do well in part-sun spots.

One of the most attractive milkweeds for Monarch Butterflies is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Despite its name, Swamp Milkweed can do fine in regular garden soils. Photo by peganum from Small Dole England/ CC BY (

Monarch butterflies, like other pollinators, are better able to see and find a grouping of plants rather than an individual milkweed hidden within lots of other plants. A study at the University of Kentucky found that planting milkweeds in clumps out in the open or at the edge of a garden bed attracted more caterpillars than plants within a bed. It also showed how important our urban gardens are to pollinator conservation.

A Monarch Butterfly larva’s (caterpillar’s) bright coloration warns predators that they are toxic. Photo by Bernard A Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand / CC0

Here in Connecticut, there are several generations, or broods, of Monarchs. The final generation is the “Methuselah” brood. Monarchs that hatch, or eclose, in this final brood in September will migrate 2,800 miles to a mountaintop oyamel fir forest in Mexico’s Monarch Biosphere Reserve! These butterflies have never been there. Scientists think they use Earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s position to guide them.

Many families like to raise Monarchs by seeing them through their life stages from egg to larva to pupa to chrysalis, and then releasing the adults. But research has shown that raising these butterflies indoors can cause them to not migrate successfully. Monarchs that are raised outdoors and purchased locally, rather than from elsewhere, are better able to migrate.

Scientists have found that Monarch caterpillars raised indoors don’t migrate properly. You can solve this by raising them outside in mesh laundry baskets. Just put milkweeds in pots or plant stems in water for larvae to feed on. Photo by author.

We can all help pollinators like the Monarch. Whether on an apartment stoop, in a garden, or at nearby open lot—plant it and they will come.

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

To get to the other side of course! At this time of year, many female turtles are crossing busy roads to find a place to lay their eggs. I saw a snapping turtle doing so just the other day. With more and more roads being added all the time, however, these reptiles are finding it harder and harder to survive these crossings. Please be on the lookout for them! Drive slowly, particularly near swamps, freshwater marshes, streams, ponds, and lakes.

The familiar Eastern Box Turtle (Terrepene carolina), a yellowish orange woodland turtle with a high-domed shell, was once common in the state. It now is a Connecticut Species of Special Concern, meaning that its population has declined and so is protected by law from being collected. Its decline is in part due to habitat loss and the increased network of roads.

Eastern Box Turtles (Terrepene carolina) aren’t able to close into their hinged shell until four or five years old.
Photo by Greg Watkins-Colwell

Years ago, when I was working at a nature center, a truck driver dropped off a box turtle he had found crossing a road in Georgia. He thought he was “rescuing” it by dropping it off here in Connecticut. A kind instinct, but not helpful. In reality, box turtles have a strong territorial and homing instinct. Had we released it in Connecticut, it would not have survived. Fortunately, we were able to find a permanent home for it. If you see a turtle in the wild, please don’t remove it. First, turtles can carry salmonella. And, in captivity they require a lot of care with a special diet and lighting. Once captive, they should not be released back to the wild. They would be unlikely to survive and can pass diseases to wild turtle populations.

With good habitat, such as an overgrown meadow near a wetland, box turtles can find plenty of food. They are omnivorous and eat plenty of slugs and other invertebrates, plus fruits like wild strawberries. In a high quality habitat a turtle can spend its whole life on only a half to 10 acres. Unfortunately, such habitat is increasingly fragmented. Protecting choice wild tracts is key for the continued survival of these reptiles. Box turtles reach sexual maturity only after 10 years or more and can live to be 100 years old!

Eastern Painted Turtles might now be in competition for food and basking areas by non-native, invasive Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta) which were released by pet owners.
Photo by Greg Schechter / CC BY (

When you’re near ponds, lakes, and wetlands, be on the lookout for aquatic turtles like the Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemmys picta), Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), and Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata), among others. The Eastern Painted Turtle and the Common Snapping Turtle are two of our most widespread species. They are often seen in ponds, slow-moving streams, rivers, and lakes. To regulate its body temperature, the Eastern Painted Turtle loves to bask on logs. Snapping turtles don’t bask very often. All three turtles have an omnivorous diet, feeding mostly on fish, tadpoles, aquatic invertebrates, and vegetation. Snapping turtle females “come ashore” to lay from 20 to 50 (occasionally 80) round eggs, which look like ping pong balls, in warm, loose soil. Interestingly, studies have shown that soil temperature influences the sex of the turtles that hatch. If the eggs remain at 58 degrees F (about 14 degrees C), all the turtles will be females. At 73 degrees F (about 23 degrees C), all will be males. But, if the temperature is raised to 77 degrees F (25 degrees C), the hatchlings will be females! Because soil temperature varies and the eggs are laid at different depths, there will be different combinations of male and female offspring in a season.

When you see aquatic turtles such as the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) walking on land, it is a female searching for a place to lay her eggs.
Photo by Twan Leenders

The Spotted Turtle is also a Connecticut Species of Special Concern, because the slow-moving streams, bogs, and other freshwater wetlands habitats they prefer are decreasing. This small, 4.5-inch (about 11 cm) turtle is often seen in early March basking in the sun after emerging from a deep type of hibernation called torpor. Females travel to lay an average of four to five eggs in sunny locations such as roadsides and meadows.

Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) can sometimes be seen basking in freshwater wetlands during early spring.
Photo by Twan Leenders

Turtles have been on the planet for millions of years. We need to help them survive much longer. So, if you see a turtle crossing the road, please slow down and give them a “brake”!

Worms Eating Up Forest Leaf Litter? That’s Crazy!

They might be coming to a yard or forest near you.

Sounds rather like a horror movie, right? Well, it is actually a bit scary. The Crazy Worm, also called Jumping Worm or Crazy Snake Worm (Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis, and Metaphire hilgendorfi), are three species from Korea and Japan who are co-invading our yards and forests here in the Northeast and other parts of the country.

Jumping Worms (Amynthas spp.) can be identified by having a milky white band called a clitellum. They also feel less slimy and wiggle or jump around.
Photo by Susan Day, UW Madison Arboretum

These species are called “crazy worms” or “jumping worms” because they wiggle violently when disturbed. They will even jump out of a shallow dish. When wiggling they often lose a section of their tail, which may be an adaptation to escape from predators. Crawling with a back and forth motion earned them the nickname “snake worms.” You can tell them from other worm species because they feel less slimy and have a milky white clitellum, the reproductive part of the worm.

We have heard about the “Red Wiggler” Worm (Eisenia fetida), which helps to break down our leftover fruit and veggies in our compost piles, and about vertical tunnels created by the European Nightcrawler (Eisenia hortensis), which aerate the soil. These species are beneficial in gardens. But did you know that all the worms here in the Northeast are not native, but have been introduced? There haven’t been worms here since the glaciation from the Laurentide Ice Sheet over 10,000 years ago. Colonists weren’t the only organisms arriving on these shores in the 1600s. Potted plants and soil from ships’ ballast contained worms that also colonized our area. And many worm species have since been introduced through landscape material.

But why are these “crazy” worms invasive? These worms don’t tunnel deep into the ground like some European species. They live in the top leaf litter or duff layer. This is a moist, thick, spongy layer that is slowly decomposed by fungi, bacteria, small isopods, and other invertebrates. These invasive worms ravenously and quickly consume this layer, leaving behind a thick deposit of their castings (waste) that looks like gray, chunky coffee grounds. This new top layer drains quickly and loses nutrients through runoff.

Jumping worm castings look like grey, chunky coffee grounds.
Photo by Annise Dobson, Michigan Invasive Species Council

Spring ephemeral plants such as Trillium (Trillium sp.) and tree seedlings can’t survive in this dry layer. I haven’t seen many Redback Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lately. This amphibian also lives in this moist duff layer and studies have shown they are also affected by Jumping Worms. Karen Caballos from the New York Master Naturalist Program created a Jumping Worm claymation video that explains this well.

This photo show most of the duff layer is gone and tree roots are exposed.
Photo by Annise Dobson, Michigan Invasive Species Council

Crazy Worms are extremely successful because they are parthenogenic—they can reproduce without mating. In the fall, the worms die at the first frost, but not before releasing small (2 to 4 mm, about the size of a fruit fly), difficult to detect cocoons that survive through the winter. The cocoons hatch when the soil reaches 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) in April. By July, they become adults that are 6 inches (15 cm) long.

What can you do? First, you can check to see whether you have these worms with a simple test: mix one-third cup (79 ml) of ground yellow mustard seed in one gallon of water (3.75 liters). Clean a section of bare ground and slowly pour this mixture over it (it won’t harm plants). This will drive the worms to the surface where they can be collected and identified.

Next, be really careful that you don’t introduce these worms to your yard. Make sure to buy heat-treated compost and soil amendments. Studies have shown that the cocoons cannot survive above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). Most commercial composts are required by law to be heated above that. Worms can also be introduced in potted plants from plant sales and swaps, and even nurseries. Look through the soil and refuse these plants if you see the telltale gray, coffee ground-like castings. Even if you don’t see those castings, discard the potted soil in the trash and just plant your new purchase with its roots. You can also buy bare root plants and grow plants from seed.

If you like to fish, don’t buy worms called Alabama or Georgia Jumpers (other names for our bad guys). Never dump excess worms of any kind in the wild. Dispose of them in your trash. When gardening, clean all shovels, forks, spades, and other tools, especially if you garden somewhere else.

Experiments with biochar, a soil amendment that has tiny, sharp edges, and a chemical containing tea seed oil may offer hope for the possible control of these invaders.

Migration Madness

The night sky in spring may seem serene, where nothing is going on. But in fact, it is bustling with energy and activity.

Why do birds migrate? First, to take advantage of a plentiful food source at their destination. Most birds in forest habitats feed on caterpillars and other invertebrates, fruits, and nectar. All are abundant during the warmer months. Also, there is less competition for nesting territories than in the tropics. During the day, most migrants land to rest and feed. Warblers—small, colorful “butterflies of the bird world”—flit from branch to branch to feed on the caterpillar and other insect “hatches” that they depend on as they migrate north.

Black-throated Blue Warblers (Setophaga caerulescens) winter in the Caribbean and nest in Mountain Laurels and Rhododendrons in mature deciduous forests in the Northeast and southern Canada down through the Appalachians.
Photo by C Wood

Most people don’t look up to notice them in the trees or realize they are even there. Nor do they hear their songs, a combination of trills and buzzes. As long as there are the right native trees, shrubs, and other plants with insects feeding on leaves, you will find warblers and other migrants passing through even in cities.

Worm-eating warblers (Helmitheros vermivorum) are named after eating caterpillars not worms. After spending the winter in tropical forests in the Central America and the Caribbean, they migrate north to breed in mature deciduous forests from Connecticut to Missouri.
Photo by C Wood

It’s not easy being a migrant. Many species of neotropical migrants are experiencing long-term population decline due to habitat loss at both their breeding and wintering grounds, not to mention their re-fueling stops. And there are other threats. Birds collide with skyscrapers, attracted by bright lights at night or fooled by reflections in the glass during the day. Millions are killed every year by predators, such as free-roaming cats. Climate change may make the availability of food out of sync with the birds’ arrival.

Some Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) that breed in western North America migrate up to 6,000 miles (10,000 km) to their breeding grounds after making a nonstop, trans-ocean flight from South America. When you hear or see a blackpoll warbler, the spring’s neotropical bird migration is almost finished.
Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / CC BY (

What can you do? Actually, you can help birds greatly by providing critical stopover habitat in your own yard or neighborhood. Plant native trees such as willows, oaks, cherries, and birches. For planting information in your area, go to the National Audubon Society’s Plants for Birds or the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder. Consider converting your lawn for birds. Our lawns are actually biological deserts and we are a turf nation. The amount of turf in the United States equals the size of New England. Imagine if each year we committed to taking out just some of the grass in our yards, lots, and parks and planted native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. We would increase our local biodiversity and those warblers might just stop by.

They’re Both Most Delicious

When Shadbush (Amelanchier sp.) is in bloom, I know that American Shad are migrating up Connecticut’s rivers to spawn.

The Eastern Shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) is one of 10 species of this native shrub in New England. Other names for Shadbush are Shadblow, Sarvis, and Serviceberry. In the past, when Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) was in flower, it signaled circuit preachers to ride through Appalachian coves and “hollers.” It was also a sign that the ground was thawed enough for people to hold funerals and bury their dead. I really feel for those who cannot gather for memorial services for their loved ones now. But I also think about spring as a time for re-birth and the return of life.

Shadbush’s lacy white flowers attract many native bees.
Photo by Tom Parlapiano

Shadbush’s white flowers are pollinated by small, solitary ground-nesting digger bees (Andrena sp.), mason bees (Osmia sp.), and queen bumble bees (Bombus sp.) who are establishing new colonies. Once pollinated and fertilized, very tasty red to blue berries form in June, hence another common name, Juneberry. The fruits are very tasty, that is if you can beat the birds to them! Quite a few shadbushes have been planted around Yale University’s Central Campus. Each June I walk by these trees and grab berries to eat, much to the puzzlement of passersby. Shadbush fruit helped Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition to survive when there wasn’t much else in the St. Louis area in May 1804.

If you can beat the birds to them, Shadbush’s fruit are very tasty and make great pies.
Photo by Лобачев Владимир / CC BY-SA (

Shadbush is a great 20- to 30-foot (6- to 9-meter) native tree to plant in your yard. It is quite tolerant of light, flowering best in part-sun to sunny locations in a variety of soils. Just make sure to water it once a week in its first year.

Shadbush is an adaptable small tree for your garden
Plant Image Library / CC BY-SA (

The American Shad (Alosa sapidissima), a member of the herring family, is also very tasty. The species name means “most savory” or “most delicious.” Shad were an important seasonal part of Native peoples’ diets. Captain John Smith, exploring near the Great Falls of the Potomac River, observed in his The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles in 1624 that Shad were “lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets…we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” The shad that Smith saw were migrating from the ocean up the river to spawn. A fish with this life cycle is anadromous. Other anadromous shad relatives are the Alewife (Alosa pseudoharangus) and Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalis).

Bald Eagles eat a variety of fish, including Shad. Notice the fish in the talons of the eagle landing on an active nest along the Quinnipiac River in Connecticut.
Photo by Mike Horn

American Shad feed on plankton, small shrimp, fish eggs, and occasionally small fish. They in turn are food for ospreys, herons, other fish, and seals, as well as humans.

Illustration from The Fishes of the East Atlantic Coast That Are Caught By Hook and Line by Louis O. Van Doren, The American Angler, NY, 1884

Since the 1950s, two festivals along the Connecticut River have celebrated the return of the shad from the sea: the Windsor Shad Derby Festival in mid-May and the annual Essex Shad Bake during the first week in June. These events were created to raise awareness about pollution in the Connecticut River and the decline of shad populations. Visitors are treated to cookouts with planked shad smoked on open fires.

Carpenter’s Dam Removal in 2016.
Photo courtesy of Save The Sound

Shad populations had also dropped steeply because of dams in many rivers. New Haven-based Save The Sound, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other organizations have been removing many of the 4,000 dams in Connecticut and the American Shad is rebounding. In this Anthropocene epoch, in which humans have drastically changed our planet in many negative ways, that’s a positive environmental story.

The Secret Life of Spotted Salamanders

They are so secretive, most people don’t even know they exist. In their more than 30-year lives they have little or no contact with humans. If you were to tell your neighbors that 9-inch-long black salamanders with yellow spots live in the woodlands of their town, they might well be surprised.

Spotted Salamanders can be 9 inches (23 centimeters) long and live for 32 years!
Photo by Greg Watkins-Colwell

Recently, I was walking by a vernal pool at a nearby state park and noticed a sign that salamanders had been there: a small, round egg cluster in the water. If you spy an egg mass in a vernal pool, it may be from a Spotted Salamander. Weeks ago, on a day when the first warm rain started and continued through the evening, 6- to almost 10-inch (15 to 25 centimeters) salamanders emerged from the ground and migrated en masse to shallow, often temporary, pools to mate. Most people don’t know about these amphibians, in a group called mole salamanders, because they are fossorial, spending most of their time below ground except when they emerge on rainy nights to mate or feed on crickets, spiders, slugs, and other invertebrates.

During the brief mating time, males arrive at the pools first and form a gathering called a congress. Jonathan Twining of Eastern Nazarene University has filmed this rarely seen underwater phenomenon (see his video here). When a female arrives, she and a male “court.” The male will rub the upper and lower surfaces of the female and she will nose the male’s back during the height of activity. This stimulates the male to deposit a sperm packet, a spermatophore, near her. She will pick up the spermatophore (or one nearby) with her cloaca to fertilize her eggs. A few days later, she’ll lay up to 200 eggs in that rounded cluster. The eggs will hatch in one to two months.

Spotted Salamander egg masses can be confused with the egg clusters of the Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), which are also found in vernal pools. But the Wood Frog’s egg masses don’t have the clear jelly-like covering on the entire cluster like the eggs of the Spotted Salamander. Within the same pool, some Spotted Salamander egg masses can be clear, and some can be opaque. This is because of certain proteins in the clusters. Researchers are not clear what advantage one has over the other. I’ve often noticed green algae covering the egg masses. Scientists have discovered a symbiotic relationship between this alga, Oophila amblystomatis (the name means “loves salamander eggs”), and these eggs. This alga is found nowhere else in nature. It provides oxygen for the developing eggs, and the eggs in turn make carbon dioxide for the alga.

In the same vernal pool, egg masses can come in two forms, clear or opaque. Researchers are not sure why.
Photo by Fredlyfish4 / CC BY-SA (

When the salamander larvae hatch they feed on small invertebrates in the vernal pool, like zooplankton, isopods, and amphipods. Two to four months after hatching, the larvae will lose their gills, develop lungs, and transform, or metamorphose, into young salamanders. They are then ready to live on the ground. It’s always a race to leave the water before the vernal pools dry up in mid to late summer. There are some years when the larvae don’t make it in time.

Spotted Salamander larvae are about one-half inch (1.25 centimeters) long. It takes to two to four months to develop into a small salamander.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke from DC, USA / CC BY (

Many conservation issues surround these creatures. It is unclear how climate change might affect water levels in vernal pools through time. Habitat fragmentation, especially in places where salamander migration routes cross the asphalt roads that humans use, can be disastrous. A salamander that can live to be 32 years old may be killed in an instant by a passing car. Many amphibians are slaughtered each year by vehicles during warm spring evening rains. Some town residents, donning reflective clothing and flashlights, form “bucket brigades” and stop traffic temporarily to help crossing salamanders and frogs. In response to a local road kill area in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1987 the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Amherst Public Works, the Massachusetts Audubon Society with the help of volunteers created one of the first salamander tunnels in North America. Such tunnels funnel the amphibians under a road. The Amherst amphibian population seems to be holding steady.

Something perhaps for your own town to consider? At the very least, when driving near wetlands on a rainy, warm spring evening, please be extra cautious and slow down.

Hummers Remember

In Spanish, they are rightly named joyas voladoras, “flying jewels.” A group of them is called “a bouquet,” “a glittering,” or “a hover.” They are hummingbirds and it is not too early to put up a feeder for the only species we see here in the Northeast—the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).

The migration map provided by the citizen science program Journey North is showing that hummingbirds are now mostly arriving in the Washington, DC area, so they’ll be here soon. Not long ago, these one-tenth ounce (3 gram) bundles of energy were wintering from southern Mexico to Panama. Some birds migrate north to the Yucatán, where they gain up to twice their weight in body fat. Then, at speeds up to 50 mph they make a non-stop, 600-mile, 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico! As you can imagine, they arrive from Texas to Florida quite famished, weighing as little as 2.5 grams.

Male Ruby-throated Hummers arrive first to set up breeding territories
photo by Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky / CC BY (

Banding studies suggest that individual birds follow a certain migratory route every year, not only arriving in the area where they were born, but within a day or two to the same feeding grounds. That’s an amazing feat of memory for an animal with a brain the size of a BB pellet!

Most people see hummers at their feeders for a few weeks from April to May, and then again in July, when some birds begin migrating south. Most birds return south in August and September. But you might be lucky enough to have a nesting pair nearby and see them throughout the summer.

The author hanging a hummingbird feeder. Photo by Linnea Sirch

Males arrive first in the spring to establish territories, and females come along about a week later. You’ll know the males from the ruby red gorgets (throat patches) they flash to attract females. This red is not a pigment, but is structural color created by the microscopic arrangement of the feathers reflecting the red wavelength of light back to the viewer. We consider the iridescent feathers of both male and female birds to be beautiful, and birds may think so too. This fascinating theme is explored by Yale ornithologist and Peabody Museum curator Richard O. Prum in his book The Evolution of Beauty (Doubleday, 2017). For an extraordinary look at hummingbirds, I highly recommend noted cinematographer Anne Johnson Prum’s Nature episode “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air” (Coneflower Productions/THIRTEEN/WNET.ORG, 2009).

You can create a good feeding ground for hummers by being among the first in the spring to put up a nectar feeder or two. There are many styles to choose from. Get one that is easy to clean. Make your own nectar by adding one-part white sugar (no honey or corn syrup) to four-parts water and heat until dissolved. Let this cool before filling the feeders. Don’t add red dye as it can be harmful. The red of the feeder will attract the birds. This sugar water can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. Place the feeder on a pole or hang it from a branch, but not too close to a window. Be sure to clean the feeder, including feeding ports, at least once a week in the cooler spring and fall, and twice a week in hot weather. A one to ten vinegar/water solution works well.

When you see Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in bloom, hummers are arriving.
photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA (

Along with feeders, it is even more important to provide hummingbirds with natural sources of nectar. A variety of red, orange, and blue tubular flowers blooming in your garden throughout the season will really bring them in. Right now, Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and native willow (Salix spp.) catkins provide nectar for hummingbirds. It also seems that hummers arrive when Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is blooming. Don’t forget native vines, such as Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirensi) is a well-behaved CT native vine
Photo by Qwert1234 / CC BY-SA (

Trumpet Vine, even though native, can really spread, so I prune the branches of mine back to two or three nodes or buds every winter (also making sure it does not go to seed) and it hasn’t caused me any problems.

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is a great hummer magnet for a porch or patio. It’s a tender perennial here and usually not able to survive our winters.
photo by Judy Gallagher / CC BY (

Other nectar plants visited by hummingbirds throughout late spring and summer include Pinkster Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides) in May, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) in June and July, and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in mid- to late summer.

When Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is in bloom hummers will come to little else.
Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and Ruby-throated Hummers have evolved to be mutually dependent. The key to growing this short-lived plant in the garden is to avoid burying the plant’s crown in the winter and to leave open ground around it to seed in.

One of the most important nectar plants for hummers during the fall migration is Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis). I have this plant throughout the borders of our yard and keep quite a few growing for hummers. Plants in unwanted places are easy to pull.

Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not is an important nectar source during the fall migration.
photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA (

It’s been said that hummingbirds feed on nectar plants just for the carbohydrates they need to fuel their carnivory. Like us, hummers need protein and they get it by eating spiders and insects. It’s what they feed their young. So, this week celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by planting an oak tree that will attract up to 500 insect species, or a native shrub or vine that provides nectar for hummers. Find many more ideas and activities on the Yale Peabody Museum’s website Peabody at Home . Happy Earth Day!

Here Today, Gone in a Few Weeks

Just missed it! I was hoping to take a photo of a queen bumblebee gathering pollen on the wildflower Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). As I looked away for one moment, the bee flew onto the plant two feet in front of me and flew off just as I saw it. I have heard that these flowers are an important early nectar source for queen bumblebees, who need to gather pollen for their new broods. I look forward every spring to seeing these wildflowers and their pollinating insects again, but there aren’t as many of either as there used to be.

Wildflowers such as Dutchman’s Breeches are called spring ephemerals. They emerge through the leaf litter here in Connecticut in March and April to take advantage of the short window of spring sunlight and flowering before leaves in the tree canopy above grow to shade them out. By summer, you would never know that they had been here.

Dutchman’s Breeches are an important nectar source for newly emerged queen bumblebees – Photo by author

The flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches look like upside-down pantaloons, hence the name. Walking along the nearby Farmington Canal Greenway this week, I came upon a nice patch in full bloom. It’s amazing to me how many people walked or rode by and didn’t look down and see them. Two researchers in 1998 called this “plant blindness,” for our inability to notice plants in our environment, which has consequences for conservation and human health.

Trout Lily can take up to 7 years to flower – Photo by author

The Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is another ephemeral found in the eastern United States. Also called Fawn Lily, its leaves resemble a speckled brook trout, or a fawn’s mottled fur. Another name is Dogtooth Violet for its pointed bulbs, although the plant is a member of the lily family and is not a true violet. Look for paired leaves because those will be the plants that will flower. It can take up to seven years for Trout Lily to flower, and only about half a percent of the plants in a patch will do so. Some patches, though can be up to 300 years old!

Blood Root is one of many spring ephemerals whose seed is spread by ants – Photo by author

Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis) isn’t a true ephemeral. Its leaves often don’t die back quickly, but it’s flowers last only a few days. However, the plant shares its seed dispersal strategy with many ephemerals. Blood Root, Trout Lily, and Dutchman’s Breeches all develop elaiosomes, fleshy structures full of lipids that are attached to seeds. Ants are attracted to these fatty structures and take them underground to their colony to feed on them. The seeds are then deposited in their subterranean waste pile, where they are fertilized and grow. This strategy is called myrmecochory. Blood Root gets its name from its scarlet sap, once used as a dye by Eastern Woodlands peoples.

Seed of Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) yellowish appendage called an elaiosome. This fat body attracts ants, which carry the seed to their nest -Photo by Hans Stuessi / CC BY (

How important are plant–pollinator relationships! Many of our insect pollinators, so critical for our own survival, are also vital for our spring flora. Among these are small solitary bees in the genus Andrena. There are specialist bees that are dependent on certain plants and the plants on them. The Trout Lily Bee (Andrena erythronii) only gathers pollen from the Trout Lily and the bee Andrena erigeniae only visits the flowers of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

The specialist Trout Lily Bee (Andrena erythronii) only pollinates Trout Lilies – Photo by Mary Anne Borge

Unfortunately, many native wildflower species are decreasing, and with them their specialist pollinators. Habitat fragmentation plays a big part in this. But increasingly significant are the introduced, invasive plants that are taking over. On a recent walk, I found a few patches of Blood Root completely surrounded by thousands of Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata) seedlings. Garlic Mustard not only can choke out our native plants, but research has shown that this invasive has allelopathic chemicals that can kill important soil fungi, preventing many plants from growing near it. Each Garlic Mustard plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds that can remain viable in the soil for five years or more.

Blood Root growing among thousands of seedlings of Garlic Mustard, an invasive that will choke out many plants including Blood Root – Photo by author

I see more Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) around too. These introduced plants do not contribute to our local ecosystems. They don’t have insects who co-evolved with them to eat their leaves or who are specialists to rely on their nectar and pollen and they can choke out native plants. As entomologist Doug Tallamy observes, “this is a growing problem for humanity because it is the plants and animals around us that produce the life support we all depend on. Every time a species is lost from an ecosystem, that ecosystem is less able to support us.” So, one way for you and your family to exercise during COVID-19 social distancing and help the environment is by removing these plants from your yard or neighborhood and putting them in the trash. Garlic Mustard’s mature, second year plants can be hand-pulled fairly easily.

The mature, 2nd year Garlic Mustard plant just before flowering. Pull it and put in garbage when you see it! Photo by Tom Parlapiano

You can add many of these spring ephemerals to your garden after removing invasive plants. But please don’t dig them from the wild. Many local nurseries are now carrying these wildflowers, but be sure to ask whether the plants are nursery propagated. Plant them in a soil enriched with compost where they will receive light shade and part sun in the summer. Make sure they don’t dry out in the spring. You only need add a thin layer of ground-up leaves (your mower works well for this) in the spring or fall. The bees will thank you.

Skunked Again!

When I was a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, my friends and I often explored the wilds of the neighborhood. Many of the forests and fields where we found box turtles then are now suburban lots and corporate headquarters. My friend Rick and I would tromp through slick, muddy swamps and fens to hunt frogs and occasionally chase each other with the torn, foul smelling leaves of the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Leaves that smell like a skunk—an interesting strategy for a plant to keep from being eaten. Although I have heard that bears, when they emerge hungry from their dens, will eat the young leaves.

The leaves are not the only part of the plant with a scent. Weeks ago, I headed to nearby wetlands to see this “first wildflower of spring.” The red and yellow mottled hoods of the Skunk Cabbage, which are modified leaves called a spathe, had emerged through the snow and ice, looking like they melted the area around them. That’s actually what happens. Remarkably, as the plant uses starches stored within it in respiration it can heat itself up as much as 36 degrees above the air temperature!

Skunk Cabbage melting snow – Photo by Chris Norris

The flower cluster inside the spathe is the spadix, a rounded head of tightly packed flowers. This flower head also puts out that skunky smell, and the heated air spreads it around to attract carrion-feeding flies and gnats to encourage pollination. It’s amazing that there are flies out pollinating flowers in February and early March.

Skunk Cabbage – Photo by Chris Norris

Pollinators are really important. More than 90% of flowering plants need them to spread pollen from one flower to another to fertilize those flowers so that fruits can form. We often think of only bees and butterflies as pollinators, but in fact flies are the second most prolific pollinators behind bees.

Right now, the large, dark green leaves of the Skunk Cabbage are about at half their full size. When fully developed, the broad deep green leaves look like cabbage. They are spongy and full of water. When the trees above are fully leafed out, Skunk Cabbage leaves begin to fade. Because no woody material is left behind with this true spring ephemeral, by late summer you wouldn’t even know that Skunk Cabbage had been there.

Skunk Cabbage leaves Photo by Chris Norris

But their spreading roots are still below the ground. Those roots have pulled the stem downward. As the plant ages it grows deeper and deeper into the soil, waiting for late winter and early spring to begin the cycle all over again.

What’s that Quacking in the Woods?

Many of us have taken to the outdoors recently. I don’t have to tell you why. It’s a great way to get exercise and still maintain social distancing. So if you’ve been out walking, you might be asking yourself, “What’s all that quacking going on?”
No, Daffy is still safe in cartoonland and mallards are not quacking in the middle of woods. For one thing, it’s not their usual habitat.
You are hearing the mating call of the male Wood Frog, Rana sylvatica, a brown, dark-masked amphibian with a fascinating life history. In the early spring, sometimes as early as February, when the first “warm” rains come with a temperature above 44 degrees F (7 degrees C), wood frogs crawl out of the leaf litter and head for vernal (literally meaning spring) pools. These often temporary and usually shallow pools are found in forests in the Appalachians, New England, and most of Canada and Alaska. By using these temporary pools, the frogs avoid being eaten by fish.
These frogs have been semi-frozen in the leaf litter all winter. In the late fall when temperatures drop to freezing, special proteins cause the water in the frog’s blood to freeze first. This pulls out most of the water in its cells. While this is happening, its liver is pumping sugar (glucose) into the cells. This “anti-freeze” keeps the cells from freezing. Everything then shuts down—no beating heart or other functions!
This unique adaptation has enabled wood frogs to survive as far north as above the Arctic Circle. Scientists are studying this freeze-and-thaw cycle and hope what they learn can help with human organ transplants.
Back to the quacking. Check out the Wood Frog’s call and others on the Yale Peabody Museum Vertebrate Zoology Collection’s Online Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Connecticut. After attracting a mate with its calls, the male Wood Frog externally fertilizes her eggs in the vernal pool. A female will lay an average of 1,750 eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, it’s a race for the tadpoles to develop into froglets and get out of the water before the vernal pool dries up in the heat of summer.

Click here to see the interesting findings that David Skelly, Peabody Director and Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology, and his graduate students have made in their study of wood frogs. Photo by Peter Paplanus from St. Louis, MO/ccby

Wood Frog by Peter Paplanus