Connecting to Our Food Web Dedicated to educational resources towards building and sustaining viable food webs and ecosystems Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Welcome To My Jungle -- December, 2018 Sat, 01 Dec 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Many gardeners are trying to attract more native insects, both in number and diversity into their landscapes in an effort to collectively patchwork a healthier ecosystem. There is an increased number of research projects focused on plant-insect interactions, trying to determine whether natives have a home field advantage over non-natives or cultivars of native plants. Several studies suggest that wild bees prefer to forage on the nectar and pollen from native plants...though not exclusively, while some studies have shown no preference one way or the other. Annie White, in her 2016 dissertation (The Univ. of Vermont), reported insect pollinators on the whole prefer to forage on native species over native cultivars. Because this preference was not true in all cases and also not exclusive suggests that some native cultivars may be equal to the native species. The Mt Cuba Center has an interesting report rating cultivars of our native Phlox paniculata. In it, they note P. paniculata 'Jeana' not only stood out for its mildew-free foliage, but found 'Jeana' attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. I checked to see how 'Jeana' performed against the native species, but was disappointed to learn the straight species did not survive. In a more recent HortTechnology article by Baisden et al. (2018), researchers found altering leaf color of native species from green to red, blue, or purple reduced insect use of a plant for growth and reproduction; concluding such native cultivars are not the best option when selecting plants to support insect-based food webs. No consistent pattern of use among the species and cultivars though were found for other traits such as variegation, fall color, habit, disease resistance, or fruit size; though the authors did suggest increased fruit size may present a problem to certain bird species. Additionally, there is concern native cultivars with reduced usefulness (i.e. red, blue or purple leaves) in terms of ecosystem health will potentially breed with native populations and hypothetically reduce the overall usefulness of the native species. The cat may already be out of the bag on that front, but the question still remains.

The take home to all this is nature is complicated and insects follow no hard rules. Many native pollinators would not hesitate to feed from an open apple blossom, even though it is not native to North America. More research is needed to understanding insect preference across the whole spectrum of plants for us to have a better understanding of a healthy ecosystem. So far though, research tends to support an overall preference of insects for native species…at least based on the limited number of species and locations included in studies to date. Keeping that in mind, those who want to make their landscape more inviting to insects and other wildlife should at the very least attempt to increase plant diversity, with a focus on incorporating native plant species. View your landscape though another lens: one that includes retention of leaf litter for overwintering beneficials and feeding your soil; plants that provide food (insect-based food web), shelter, nesting and landing sites for birds; and plants that additionally support a diverse population of insects.

Welcome To My Jungle -- November, 2018 Thu, 01 Nov 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Fall-blooming plants like Chrysanthemum dendranthema 'Cambodian Queen' are a very important source of nectar and pollen late in the season, and on a pleasant sunny fall day can be like Grand Central Station in the insect world. Because there is not much in bloom this time of the year, flower-visiting insects tend to congregate on the few plants that are in bloom. Just casually glancing recently at this pretty pink perennial mum stopped me in my tracks for what turned out a very rewarding flower watch. Not only were there bumblebees, honeybees (6) and various butterflies working the flowers, but also hoverflies, a.k.a. flower flies in the family Syrphidae (2 and 3), sweat bees (5), spotted cucumber beetles (a.k.a southern corn rootworm) (4), and orange assassin bugs (1) just to name a few.

You'll notice right away that many hoverflies have ornate body patterns, often of black and yellow, to mimic wasps and bees. And if you feel safe enough to look more closely, you might discern they have only two wings, meaning they are in the fly order (Diptera) and cannot sting. And yes, some flies do bite (think mosquito or horsefly), but hoverflies are nevertheless in the harmless group. You'll also find they are easily distinguished from bees or wasps by their huge eyes that seem to cover most of their head. Plus, they are amazing flyers and get their name for their ability to hover like a helicopter. Adults (flies) feed on pollen and nectar in flowers, while the larvae (maggots) are voracious predators of aphids and other small, slow-moving insects. Some hoverfly species overwinter as adults, though most overwinter as larvae in leaf litter; further emphasizing the need to maintain adequate leaf cover for beneficial insects.

The orange assassin bug (Pselliopus sp.) truly looks like a nasty piece of work, but all the same, strikingly beautiful. Like other assassin bugs, this true bug (Hemiptera) is predatory and feeds on other insects…not being particular who it catches. These patient hunters may either stalk their prey, or quietly wait for an unsuspecting insect to come within reach, then suddenly attack with their dagger-like, piercing-sucking beak. A word to the wise; some assassin bugs can and will deliver a painful bite if picked up and handled carelessly. They overwinter as an adult, usually sheltering under loose bark, rotting logs, or stones. Eggs are laid sometime during the spring (March-May) in loose, circular clusters. The nymphs in turn emerge June-August, taking about 85 days after the egg hatches for it to develop into an adult.

Another late fall flower for our area is a reblooming (remontants) iris, though freezing fall temperatures can damage blooms before they have a chance to even open in some years. But this year 'Again and Again' managed to bloom ahead of a killing freeze. I try to plant these types close to the front door so they can be admired by all who arrive…and from the cover of the front porch during rainy weather. Still, even in named reblooming varieties, reblooming may or may not occur every year. All cultivars vary in their ability to rebloom according to their genetic makeup, plant age and environmental growing conditions. Whereas 'Again and Again' came as promised this year, 'Zee,' 'Summer Olympics' and a host of others just didn't get what they needed to perform again. Maybe next year will be better.

Welcome To My Jungle -- October, 2018 Mon, 01 Oct 2018 08:00:00 +0000 The Missouri Botanical Garden has transformed an area of turf adjacent to the Lehmann Building into a space of wonder. Hundreds of thousands of flowering bulbs carpet the lawn in a succession of bloom from late winter well into fall, starting with dwarf iris and spring crocus, and ending with fall crocus (Colchicum spp.). Turf has never been that interesting to me but this technique was so transformative, I was encouraged to try it in my jungle this fall…though to a much smaller scale. To naturalize bulbs in my selected turf area, I started with late-winter bloomers to hopefully give foliage enough time to "ripen" completely next spring before the lawn needs mowing. I borrow the word "ripen" to mean that the leaves will have enough time to sufficiently feed the bulb before being fully or partially mowed off. I randomly planted early crocus, three dwarf iris cultivars (Iris reticulata) and striped squill (Puschkinia libanotica). Some I planted in groups of various sizes (2-5) and others I planted singly to give a more naturalized appearance. If all goes well next spring, I may consider adding some winter aconite (Eranthus spp.), glory-on-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) or mini daffodils like 'February Gold' next fall.

Bulbs usually come with instructions on how many should be planted per square foot for bed planting. But what if you like circles of colors rather than squares? A square foot is equivalent to 144 square inches (12" x 12"). Then calculate what the diameter of a circle whose same area is 144 square inches. Using the area of a circle formula (A=πr2), we find a circle with the interior diameter of 13.54" equals 144 square inches. You can now make a simple template out of a cardboard box regardless of whether you like squares or circles, while still maintain the proper density regardless of how big of bed you are planting!

Rodents can be serious pests following bulb planting, especially to small bulbs which are not planted deeply. Just in a short period of time, scavenging rodents, most especially squirrels and chipmunks, can dig up all your hard work. Edible bulbs either mysteriously disappear or little bits are left behind on the surface to signal their destruction, while the inedible ones are usually just left scattered on the surface. For this reason, inspect planting sites the next several days after planting to insure that any uprooted bulbs get replanted and any obviously eaten ones are noted for the next bulb order. From experience, any noticeable disturbance in the soil attracts rodents to scavenge, so effort should be made to conceal signs of digging. To reduce scavenging, always plant bulbs to their maximum depth using soil to firmly refill the hole rather than mulch, just to make it less attractive. Camouflage the disturbed area with leaf or bark mulch, followed by watering just enough to settle the planting area surface. In some cases, wire mesh over the planting area may be warranted until the soil settles and removed before foliage emerges in the spring. Where moles are an issue, some bulbs can be underlain with wire mesh to protect them from underground feasting. Incidentally, my dog shows the same behavior with disturbed soil. Anytime I do a poor job of camouflaging a newly planted "anything", she digs it up enthusiastically as if spying a rodent in its burrow. Out of thousands of plants, she can immediately find and harass anything newly planted.

It is pretty obvious that brown marmorated stink bugs (BMSB) are now congregating and looking for winter lodgings. While I was planting bulbs the last day of September, various layers of clothing including a sweatshirt, gloves, hat and apron came on and off throughout the day. When off, they were draped over one of the patio chairs and in just a matter of moments, several BMSB found their way into the nooks and crannies and had to be shaken out before redonning. Out of curiosity, I opened the umbrella we keep on the patio for taking the dog out when it's raining, only to find it totally infested with BMSB. By the time I had removed them all, I had to go inside for a breath of fresh air. I'm pretty sure one came in with me!

Welcome to My Jungle -- September, 2018 Sat, 01 Sep 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Late summer flowering perennials may be less common but they are still an important addition to any garden, both for adding color in an otherwise drab time of year, and possibly as valuable pollen/nectar sources for visiting insects and birds.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is native throughout much of Illinois and is happiest in a uniformly moist soil situated in a partly sunny location. It will take more sun if the soil is moist. Put it in a hot, dry sight and it will be toast. This herbaceous perennial grows to 1-4' tall, with an erect growth habit that usually remains unbranched. In my jungle, the beautiful china blue flowers are constantly visited by butterflies, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees, and to my never ending wonder, sometimes a ruby throated hummingbird. Great blue lobelia reseeds itself so you only need to plant one to get more. But this is one reseeder that I have never felt the need to reign in. Just pull up a chair and watch the pollinators come in for a visit!

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua var. speciosa) is a native of Illinois as well, though more so in the southern and western counties…including Madison and St Claire. With a spike of medium to deep pink snapdragon-like flowers and almost always handsome foliage, pink turtlehead will generally succeed in any rich soil in both sunny and shady conditions. It has some tolerance for brief periods of dry soil, making it useful as a rain garden plant. Pink turtlehead is upright, usually unbranched and growing to roughly 3 feet tall. It's easy to understand the common "turtlehead" name once you look at the flowers with a bit of fanciful imagination. Each inflated, tubular flower is irregular in shape, with the two upper petals fused into a hood-like structure (imagine a skull and upper beak) and the other 3 petals forming a bearded, 3-lobed lower lip (imagine the tongue and lower beak). Bumblebees though, fear it not.

Some pollinator plants can be like a watering hole full of crocodiles. Hold that thought. Hairy Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum) is native to Illinois, though more to the central parts of the state away from the extreme northern and southern counties. Multiple branching within the plant results in a slender bushy appearance, 2-4 feet tall. Compared to other mountain mints, P. pilosum has hairy leaves and stems, and slightly wider leaves. From a standing height, the bloom of mountain mints appear white, but if you look a bit closer you will see that each individual flower is liberally speckled with minute purple dots. The bloom of mountain mints are nectar-rich, making them very attractive to many kinds of insects, including a number of bees and wasps. Parasitic beetles (Ripiphooridae) have evolved to make use of heavy trafficked flowers to target their prey, which is mostly solitary bees and wasps. Adult beetles, depending on species, are known to visits other flowers as well, including elderberry (Sambucus), bonesets (Eupatorium), beebalm (Monarda) and goldenrod (Solidago). Once the female beetle lays her eggs on the selected flowers; the hatching instar (triungulins) attach themselves with their mandibles to a visiting bee or wasp, and are carried back to the bee's nest where they feed on bee larvae and food stores. The adults only live a few days, long enough to find a mate and lay eggs…making them somewhat elusive even if in reality they are quite abundant locally. After learning this, I wondered if I might find any of these beetle species on my own hairy mountain mint plant. Almost immediately, I sighted a suspect (see picture) and moved in for the capture. I think I have it tentatively identified as one of the ripiphorid beetles, but I am going to have it confirmed by a fellow entomologist. Because of the rather secretive nature of these parasitic beetles, and limited research to date, the overall impact on bee and wasp populations is unknown. Regardless, my eyes have been opened to yet another piece of our vast and dynamic food web.

These types of interactions are going on around us all the time, mostly unwitnessed or unknown. On a more obvious scale, I like to watch the comings and goings on various blooms with my camera ready. Many times, I have noticed various assassin bugs (Reduviidae) tending to hang out for an easy meal on my tartarian asters (Aster tataricus 'Jindai') and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea). I cheer when it's a Japanese beetle and mourn when it's a bee that strays too near. Hopefully, you're ready to start looking at flowers a little closer.

Welcome to My Jungle - August 2018 Wed, 01 Aug 2018 08:00:00 +0000 It is amazing how just putting the emphasis on a different syllable can almost turn a normal common word to you into a foreign language…just try saying "em-PHAS-is on a different sill-LAB-ill" to see what I mean. Case in point, I just attended a fruit and nut conference that had attendees from across North America. In a setting like this, you quickly realize that some fun can be had just learning all the different common names and how they are pronounced. Take the tasty pecan (Carya illinoinensis). I think I heard it pronounced at least 6 different ways…all of them regionally correct for the person speaking; pah-CON, puh-CAN, PEE-can, PEE-con, pee-CON, and pee-CAN. This line of discussion naturally leads to others, like how to pronounce peony, Lirope or maybe even Clematis.

Some plants have a ridiculous number of common names. Take for example a plant in bloom now, the cold hardy Lycoris squamigera (summer-blooming bulb; zone 5-9). It is commonly referred to as magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies; hardy amaryllis, naked ladies (or nekked ladies) and pink ladies, just to name a few. Many of the names seem to stem from the plant's growth habit of waiting to send up an unbranched flower stalk until after all evidence of its spring emerged amaryllis-like leaves have completely senesced…Surprise!...I'm not done yet! Though not native to the US, they are so widespread that many have given them assumed naturalized citizenship status much like the ditch lily (Hemerocallis fulva). Spider lily is another common name that is attributed to species and their cultivars with exceptionally long stamens resembling spider legs, hence the common name. But through it all, the scientific name allows gardeners to discuss plants using their local common names while still maintaining a universal translation. How else would I get away with calling a green pepper a mango as I did growing up without qualifying that I was referring to a Capsicum species rather than Mangifera indica. By the way, referring to a green pepper by the name "mango" seems to be unique to pockets in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) fruit harvest tends to coincides with the appearance of magic lily bloom in my jungle. If you have never seen or eaten the fruit, I would describe then as looking like an elongated cherry, pit and all. The texture and flavor is very cherry-like, though sour. Like a cherry, they are sweeter and better flavored if harvested at full ripeness. They will drop from the tree when fully ripe and there is competition with wildlife for a share of the harvest. Pictured here are fruit from an unimproved species type, though a number of named selections with improved fruit quality are available in the nursery trade.

I recently had the opportunity to tour some University of Illinois black currant research at the Champaign fruit research farm, including a taste test of five cultivars harvested from a larger cultivar trial. Compared to 'Consort,' which most agree rates fairly low in flavor, the four additional cultivars were excellent, including Blackcomb, Tsema, Chime and Tenah. I may just have to give black currant another go in my jungle, assuming these tastier cultivars have white pine blister rust resistance and I can source the plant material. Ahh, another challenge that I am fully up for.

Welcome to My Jungle - July 2018 Sun, 01 Jul 2018 08:00:00 +0000 What a difference the heat of late spring and early summer has on my jungle. I like a changing garden. Gone are all remnants of spring flowering plants; replaced with summer blooms, the likes of shasta daisy, bottlebrush buckeye, monarda, skullcap, oakleaf hydrangea and daylily. Everything has filled in and the entire garden has taken on the feel of secret, enclosed spaces.

Gardens like my jungle are a lot of work though. Unwanted volunteer plants like pokeweed, bush honeysuckle, and redbuds can easily become establish unnoticed. I just cut down a 5-foot tall black walnut trying to escape notice by growing in another plant. It is a constant vigil to keep and/or maintain spreading plants you want while rogueing out those you don't. A recent scouting of beds ended in a happy dance that I hope none of the neighbors witnessed. But really, what is more exciting than spotting a volunteer Indian pink (Spigelia)? Indian pinks are one of my favorite US natives, but I have always found it difficult to get new plants to take. Suffice it to say, Indian pinks are a welcomed spreader in my jungle.

Pretty soon it will be time to start dividing iris. Late summer through early fall is the best time to divide and replant bearded iris. This timing allows iris the four to six weeks needed following flowering for new rhizomes to fully develop before digging and dividing. Once the clump is dug, the individual new rhizomes can be cut away from the mother rhizome with pruning shears or a knife, then replanted. The spent mother rhizome can be disposed of in the compost pile. I usually tag iris that I plan to remove in the spring at flowering so I have a positive identification. Otherwise it becomes difficult to identify one set of rhizomes from another with just leaves present, especially if several cultivars have grown into each other. What I didn't plan for was our new golden retriever puppy, Sophia. Removal of those little ribbons tied to plants seems to be the best game in town.

I was asked recently if it was too late to plant onions in the garden. Although onions can be one of the earliest planted vegetables, early planting is needed only if the goal is the formation of large bulbs by late summer. If the goal is to produce green onions, then onions can be succession-planted throughout much of the growing season because a lot less growing time is needed if no bulb is being formed. Onions grown for bulbs need enough time to grow leaves (modified leaves that form "rings" in the bulb) before longer daylengths trigger the plant's bulbing phase (ring swelling with storage reserves). Onion cultivars are categorized by how many hours of daylength trigger the bulbing process: long-day (14 hours), intermediate (12 hours) and short-day (10–11 hours). In the northern half of Illinois, gardeners whose goal is large bulb onions should grow only l ong-day onion cultivars; gardeners with that goal in the southern half of Illinois can grow either intermediate- or long-day cultivars. A short-day cultivar never has enough time in Illinois to grow leaves before forming bulbs unless started very early as transplants and that is why they are usually planted only for greens in Illinois. This late in the season though, daylength is long enough to trigger bulbing in all types of onions, so long story short, yes it is too late to plant for big onions but not for greens.

Welcome to My Jungle - June, 2018 Fri, 01 Jun 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Portugal is a beautiful country and I wish everyone the opportunity to visit as I did just recently. Portugal is famous for many products but probably port wine come to mind first. Port wine is a Portuguese fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is hard to grasp the human effort over the eons that have gone into building rock walled terraces that follow the contour of every inch of the Douro Valley. Much like the Mosel wine region in Germany, the Douro Valley is made up of incredibly steep slopes that one would think only a mountain goat would be able to traverse. But the Portuguese for centuries have scaled these steep slopes to hand harvest both grapes and olives. Stunningly beautiful!

The climate in Portugal is heavenly, zone 9a to 10a for winter lows but without the blistering summer heat and humidity of south Florida, which has a similar hardiness zone. The average high in the hottest part of the summer is in the mid 70's to low eighties. Since most of the country appears to be built on a steep slope, I can't imagine the effort to walk anywhere if it were hot. One thing you notice is that almost all Portuguese, young or old, have what out travel agent describes as "ballerina" legs. After walking about for two weeks I now know why.

The landscape is a gardener's dream…perfect for roses, camellias, orchids and any number of other temperate and semi-tropical plants. At one market I visited, one of the vendors was selling orchids. And not just measly little cuttings, but huge root bound clumps. Oh, how I wished I could have brought some of those clumps home.

It was not uncommon to see huge camellia hedges and shrub/trees. Unfortunately we missed the peak bloom season, but there were enough hangers on to get a taste of their beauty. While visiting the Lello Bookstore in Porto, rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling's depictions of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, I bought a book on the Camellias of Portugal, written in both English and Portuguese. The very next day, we visited the private gardens of Casa Villar d'Allen, and wouldn't you know, the current owner turned out to be a contributing author for that very book! Had I put it all together ahead of time, I would have taken my copy for her to sign but instead I have to be happy with a picture of her with her copy of the book.

Did I mention cork? Let's just leave it that Portugal has a lot of cork oaks (Quercus suber) and in addition to their wine cork industry, you can buy just about anything made out of cork.

Portugal is covered with beautiful tiles. It was not uncommon to see entire buildings faced with tiles, including floors and walls. Many were repeating patterns while others were individually unique, painted to tell stories when put together. The U.S. is such a relatively young country, it is always stunning to see a work of art like 'Susanna and the Elders,' a wall-sized work of tile attributed to Marçal de Matos from 1565, still intact in an outdoor environment

It is hard to not think of all the craftsmen over the centuries that contributed to the beauty of Portugal. In additional to the impressive architecture, most of the city streets are still cobbled and the walkways made up of intricate tile work. Walking was not always the easiest, partly due to the unevenness and partly due to the distraction of its beauty.