Spare the Ant Hill, Spare the Wildflower

ant pin

Okay, I left you with a teaser about ants on Monday.

Over the years, I have made absolutely no secret about my love of ants. I call them one of the organic gardener’s 3 best friends (the other 2 being spiders and worms). But ants are always first and not just because they are the workhorses of the garden. I adore them. I even have this great pin to show my love.

Anyway, here’s what’s so great: ants pollinate a lot of our spring native wildflowers. Plants like trillium, dutchmans breeches, bloodroot, and hepatica all get pollinated by the lowly ant. I’ll bet you’re feeling a lot worse about spraying that Ortho Home Defense now, aren’t you!

In fact, lots of these natives need the ants to reproduce. It’s a complicated relationship. In these particular wildflowers (as well as others not so beloved like violets) the seed contains a little gooey piece that the ants like to eat called an elaisome.

And perhaps “pollinate” isn’t quite the right word because the ants don’t take nectar in the way that a bee does, for example. Instead, the ants carry the seed of the wildflower back to the nest, thereby dispersing the plant far and wide.

They do this because of that elaisome. It contains lipids and proteins (according to Wikipedia, as well as various other sources like the excellent Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast, which contains an exhaustive list of the plants that ants visit, as well as some really great photos of them doing so!). The elaisomes are fed to the young, while the unused part (the seed) are disposed of in the part of the ant colony set aside for waste.

Since that waste disposal area contains all sorts of other rich nutrients, the seeds germinate and new plants grow in areas where there were none before.

So please–no one is asking that you permit ants to infest your homes or to bite you or your children or pets. But if you can safely leave colonies at a distance away from your buildings, please do so. Ants really are “pollinators” in every sense of the word.

What’s That Weed?–Evening Primrose

This one always takes me by surprise because there is a cultivated garden plant that doesn’t look much like this.  This is Oenothera biennis, and as you already guessed from the name, it is another bienniel.  As you can see from the photo, it is a primarily evening blooming plant.  I was there about 11:30 am so I was able to catch a few open flowers, which you’ll see later.

The cultivated garden plant is smaller but it is aggressive and you will occasionally find it along the roadside, having “escaped from cultivation,” as they say.

Birds of all sort but especially goldfinch love the seeds and hawk moths are pollinators of this plant.  When I visited, the few plants with open flowers were loaded with bumble bees.

You can see the bumblebee and the smaller bee in this photo.

I’ve included this plant not so much because it has so many interesting stories but because it is another tall yellow plant that you’re likely to see along the roadside.  For years I looked at it and went, Hmm?  Not goldenrod, not verbascum–what the heck is it?  So I figured I probably wasn’t the only one wondering!

What’s That Weed?–Queen Anne’s Lace

This roadside weed is so common that many people actually think it is a native.  It is not; it was brought here by our European forebears.  In fact, Queen Anne’s Lace (daucus carotus) is a European native from which our modern carrots are derived.  

While the USDA classifies it as a “noxious weed,” it is actually used and preferred by many species of wildlife.  Its seeds do persist in the soil for quite some time, however, and of course because it is basically a wild carrot it has a long tap root and is difficult to remove.

Like common mullein, it too is a bienniel, growing just a basal rosette the first year and flowering the second.  It is these seed heads, however, that produce so many seeds that are problematic.

The leaves on the plant are poisonous and may produce a contact dermatitis-like rash if touched.  The first year root is edible but by the time the plant is flowering the root is generally too woody to be eaten.  Because the plant so closely resembles poison hemlock, however, correct identification is a must!

Just a few of the the species that use this plant in some ways are the eastern black swallowtail butterfly, the green lacewing (a beneficial insect), beneficial bees, and goldfinch, bluebirds and mockingbirds, which all shelter in the plant’s dense growth.

So the next time you see this common roadside weed, try to appreciate it for its value to wildlife!

What’s That Weed? Common Mullein

My husband calls my sister and me “the weed sisters,” a name he came up with years ago when we all were biking together in Colorado.  Every time he turned around, we were nowhere to be found because we’d hopped off our bikes again to stop and examine some wildflower or other.  So he’d pedal back and say, “Looking at another weed?” and the Weed Sisters were born.

It really started earlier than that because my sister would drive to Colorado to meet us and she’d describe all the flowers she’d seen as she’d been whizzing by them at 70-80 mph.  So that’s partly why we were hopping off the bikes all the time–trying to ID the things at a much slower speed (And of course Colorado in the summer has gorgeous wildflowers).

So I thought I’d save some of you the trouble of trying to ID some of the most common summer weeds.  And some of these have great stories too.

This is common mullein, (verbascum thapsus) also known in Colorado at least as Miner’s Candle and camper’s toilet paper. There are a few other varieties of verbascum out there but they are all very similar to this one–tall yellow stalks of flowers in either single or multi-branched stalks.  The stalks can actually be quite dramatic and rise to 6-7′ even here in the east.

It has many herbal uses, but since the leaves are hairy they must first be denuded.  Its leaves are also used to soothe sunburn and other inflammation.

The name “miner’s candle comes from the practice of dipping the stalks in tallow and using them as a cheap form of lighting. Supposedly this practice goes as far back as Roman soldiers. Camper’s toilet paper is self-explanatory.

Native Americans and the Colonists used the furry leaves to line shoes as protection against the cold weather.

The plant itself is a bienniel–this is the first year’s growth.  It is only in the second year that it produces the dramatic spires of flowers so easily seen from the roadsides.

Although this photo doesn’t show it, bumble bees were all over most of these plants.  So although it is not a native, it is certainly attractive to our bees.