On a sunny Sunday that was also the first day of spring, I led a RIWPS group on a walk in the wetlands of the Great Swamp. It had rained the day before and dense fog lingered into the morning.
—This article by Dorothy Swift first appeared in our publication WildfloraRI, Fall 2021
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a favorite wildflower. But, in order to have it flourish on your own land, you must do some planning before you plant and care for it.
Here are some tips for maintaining cardinal flower in the Rhode Island region, based on my own trial and errors. Some of this experience was acquired since my earlier article about cardinal flower and its ability to attract hummingbirds (Wildflora, Spring 2015).
Most reference materials state that cardinal flower prefers wet areas in partial shade. This is true for the southern United States. The part about moisture is true for plants that self-seed in the wild, and must compete with other species in order to proliferate. You will commonly find wild cardinal flower in ditches and other moist places. However, in cultivation, I have found that sunny areas with normal good soil and drainage are just fine for plant growth and flowering.
Aim for some clear sky above to provide good light, though there can be some shade from distant trees or dwellings. Plants placed in a shaded area, where bottle gentian thrives, bloomed little and have died off. If it is dry in summer, plants should be watered, along with the other garden plants. They do not need a swamp, bog, ditch or shade to grow well on your own small property.
Another point in reference materials is that cardinal flower is a short-lived perennial. And that is where I made my recent errors. I had observed that my plants increased in the number of flowering stalks and in their height each year for about eight or nine years. I mistakenly thought that they would keep on growing year to year, so I deadheaded plants to avoid too many new seedlings. I figured I had enough plants. However, the following spring of 2020, the cardinal flowers did not re-sprout. And I did not have seedlings coming up, due to deadheading plants the previous year. My hummingbird magnet had disappeared!
Starting from scratch again, I found about four seedlings in the lawn and transplanted them to garden beds. I also bought plants from the August 2020 RIWPS online sale and then some more in June 2021. To maintain these beautiful flowers, I’m going to leave seed on some plants to produce new seedlings. I’ll encourage some self-sown seedlings every year, in order to have a population of plants of various sizes and ages that will persist from year to year.
So, to summarize: full sun is fine, plant in good garden soil and irrigate as needed in summer; leave some seed on plants to produce some new seedlings each year; encourage lots of plants, and be happy when seedlings surprise you in new locations around your garden. Learn to recognize young seedlings, so that you can transplant them to other locations if you wish. In late summer the hummingbirds can’t keep away.
—This article by Dick Fisher first appeared in our WildforaRI, Spring 2021
We are by now aware of the importance of pollinators in our ecosystem to promote diversity, fertilize native and food crop plants, and take their place in the food web. Pollinator gardens are the rage and for good reason. But the story does go deeper, so let’s start with a nice summer day last August.
Passing by an actively growing red-twig dogwood, aka red osier dogwood (Swida sericea), it was obvious some leaves were missing and stems were wiggling. Indeed the leaves of several small branches had been stripped and were being devoured by a large number of gray, striped, clamoring caterpillars. Although the shrub was small, less than one percent of it seemed affected. The caterpillars remained bunched together and confined themselves to the several adjacent twigs. Over the next few days their numbers decreased, and then they were gone; the red-twig dogwood did fine.
This was a red-humped caterpillar (Schizura concinna) and is just one of 113 species listed in the National Wildlife Federation database that feed on the dogwoods in our area.1 Several species are limited to dogwoods only but most, like Schizura, feed on a multitude of native trees and shrubs.2
The red-humped caterpillar is the larval stage of a small brown inconspicuous moth. The adult moth emerges from the pupa in the spring or early summer and lives only seven or so days during which the female deposits small yellow eggs on the underside of the host plant’s leaves. The eggs hatch in about two weeks to begin the larval stage as caterpillars and begin eating, perhaps increasing their mass one thousandfold over one and a half months until they are mature.2
As they grow they molt, shedding the outer cuticle and forming a new covering. Between molts they are known as “instars.” There are multiple instar stages as the caterpillar grows. The first instar is the larval form that hatches from the egg, and the final instar forms the pupation cell. Most butterflies spin a cocoon in which the pupa develops while moths usually develop an unprotected pupa cell. The red- humped caterpillar’s final instar drops into leaf litter and soft ground beneath the host plant and spends the winter in a pre-pupa stage. Pupation begins after the winter and ends with the emergence of the adult moth. In our area there is usually just one or perhaps two cycles per year.2
The red-humped caterpillars were not alone last summer. The dogwoods here hosted at least three other dependent species including the rusty tussock moth (Orgyia antiqua), the dogwood sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus), and the yellow sawfly (Macremphytus lovetti). Sawfly larvae look and behave much like caterpillars but differ in some fundamental anatomical features such as the number of appendages or eyespots.3 True caterpillars belong just to butterflies and moths, but the life cycles of both the true caterpillars and sawfly larvae mentioned in this article are similar as is their dependence on the dogwood.
We see these caterpillars and larvae for just a short time, but it is the time when they are most vulnerable. Schizura concinna, like the others, is a food source for something at every stage of its life cycle. The eggs are attractive to other insects, the adult moth is not a beautiful butterfly but is food for birds, and the pre-pupa and pupa stages are prey for soil organisms. The larvae, being highly visible, are at high risk, so much so that they have developed several defensive strategies. When disturbed these particular caterpillars show a collective warning display by thrashing about in unison, and they excrete an offensive fluid containing formic acid.3 Despite that behavior, they slowly disappeared over the next week or so, and I am not sure where they went. Perhaps some dropped into the leaf litter to begin their next stage, but many were still small and I suspect became part of the food chain for local birds.
In addition to our red-twig dogwood, two other dogwood species grow here: alternate-leaved dogwood (Swida alternifolia) and gray dogwood (S. racemosa). They flower and require pollination to produce seed. If not the red-humped moth then maybe another adult stage from the 113 species they host will help out. But they also have many non-lepidoptera pollinators including bees, wasps, and, yes, sawflies. The sawfly adults look like a cross between a fly and a wasp, they do not sting, and they can pollinate many crop and flowering plants.4
As the dogwood seeds ripen in mid and late summer, we can watch the birds clear them from the branches and disperse the seeds to begin the dogwood life cycle anew. The dogwood and its predators require interaction with the soil microbiome and the vast ecosystem it supports. It is all a fragile system, which we should take care to respect and support.
2 Wagner, David L. Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton/Oxford. 2005.
You’ve covered the basics—planted natives for the pollinators, done away with insecticides and other harmful chemicals, and are whittling away at that huge monoculture so beloved in suburbia, the lawn. Now what? What more can you do to make your yard more wildlife friendly?
—This review by Marnie Lacouture first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021
Carol Gracie’s Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast is not a field guide but rather a natural history—an in-depth look at thirty-five wildflowers along with some of their close relatives. Gracie has organized the entries alphabetically by common name with the Latin name and family following each entry. As she says in the preface, she wants the general public to feel comfortable reading her book while learning to enjoy wildflowers without being intimidated by their Latin names. She does, however, explain to us how plants are named in Latin and why that is important. Gracie also provides a sizable glossary of botanical terms with a few insect-related definitions as well. Her references are extensive.
The wildflowers of summer, she says, often take a backseat to the spring bloomers which capture early-season enthusiasm, but this book makes us eager to explore the summer ones as well. She reminds us that a bonus in the summer months is the greater number of insects that visit the plants. Included in the book are plants from a variety of families and a variety of habitats. Some are familiar such as cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the goldenrods (Solidago ssp.) and the asters (various genera: Symphyotrichum, Oclemena, Sericocarpus, Doellingeria, Ionactis, and Eurybia). But I quickly found that they are not to be taken for granted and that there is much to be learned about them.
Some of the entries, however, are new to me and several are not native wildflowers but were introduced to the area and have naturalized, like Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and the lovely blue chicory (Cichorium intybus) that bloom along roadways. Some, finding hospitable conditions, have even become invasive, such as American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), a beauty which often is planted as an ornamental in small ponds or lakes, and broad-leaved helleborine, (Epipactis helleborine) an orchid that has made itself at home in the northeast and has become a pest in parts of the Midwest.
Every page of the book is filled with color photographs inspired by several decades of Gracie’s interest in photography together with her passion for wild plants. The close-ups of the buds, the flowers, the leaves, the seeds, and the insects that frequent each plant are fascinating as well as stunning.
We learn how each wildflower was used throughout history, perhaps for medicine, as food or drink, for dyeing textiles or in other ways. There is poetry — I was surprised that Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) and that Robert Frost penned one about the rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). There is captivating history such as a story of how British soldiers stationed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1676 gathered the abundant early greens of jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) — the name is most likely a distortion of Jamestown-weed— to make a stew which, after eating it, left them out of their minds for eleven days. In present-day Jamestown, the only jimsonweed that Gracie and her husband could find on a visit to the historic site was growing in a pile of dirt where the seeds had been unearthed during an archeological dig. And there are also entertaining stories like an amusing account of how in the 19th century Asa Gray had great difficulty, practically to the point of hopelessness he wrote to fellow botanists, in sorting out the asters for his Flora of North America. That frustration continues for some of us today as the asters have been reclassified and renamed.
Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast does not need to be read from cover to cover but may be enjoyed by opening it to any of the entries. I began near the end by reading the chapter on wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). Our property is suitable for this disappearing wildflower because the soil is sandy, dry, and poor and the woods include pitch pine and oak, just the habitat that it likes. Gracie tells us that the Latin word lupus for wolf was used to name lupine’s genus, Lupinus, because it was believed that lupine stole or “wolfed” nutrients from the soil. Today we know that lupine, which is included in the bean family, can fix nitrogen and actually improve the soil. Years ago, I read the book Miss Rumphius, based on a real historical figure in Maine, to my children. I didn’t realize at the time that this female Johnny Appleseed of lupine was actually planting the seeds of the western species (Lupinus polyphyllus) which, although stately and beautiful, has naturalized and become quite invasive in Maine and other places where it has escaped cultivation. Sadly, Lupinus perennis is most likely gone from the wild in Maine and is rare in Rhode Island.
Gracie’s first chapter on a variety of alpine wildflowers is so alluring that I’m eager to head for a New Hampshire mountaintop this summer to see these hardy miniatures. Her descriptions of many of the wetland plants inspire me to want to suit up and tread, lightly of course, into some swamps and bogs when the time is right. I am certain that other readers will be encouraged to explore these wildflowers in their natural habitats this summer as well and to return to the pages of this beautiful, informative book again and again.
This article by Anne Raver originally appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021
You can’t help but wonder how the beavers are doing on Rhode Island, if you read Jeff Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Our RIWPS book club had discussed Eager in early March 2021, marveling at the abilities of this natural engineer, Castor canadensis, to hold and cleanse water, and to create habitat for myriad species of plant and animal life. (Beavers also flood roads, farm fields and septic systems; and they kill trees. But more on that later.)
Goldfarb fires the imagination with images of pre-historic North America, where beavers crossed the land bridge millions of years before humankind and may have numbered between 60 and 400 million before the year 1600. Forget that idea of clear, racing streams and wide rivers flowing through the wilderness. Beavers, driven to build dams, turn running water into mucky ponds and marshlands. As Goldfarb puts it, “a sluggish, murky swamp, backed up several acres by a messy concatenation of woody dams. Gnawed stumps ring the marsh like punji sticks; dead and dying trees stand aslant in the chest-deep pond. When you step into the water, you feel not rocks underfoot but sludge. The musty stink of decomposition wafts into your nostrils.”
Beavers, North America’s largest rodent, seem to be drawn to the sound of running water and driven to build dams of sticks and logs, packed with stones, grass and mud. These nocturnal mammalsusually construct a mounded lodge of logs and sticks in the pond behind the dam or on the edge of the bank. Plastered with mud, these cozy lodges remain above freezing, and are big enough for a male and female, who mate for life, to raise their young. The juveniles remain for two years, then move out to find mates and new territory. The pond has to be deep enough to enter and exit the lodge underwater, and to reach a submerged cache of tender stems of woody plants and roots for winter food. This watery lifestyle offers protection from land-dwelling predators.
Beavers’ back feet are webbed, and their front hand-like, clawed feet are built for digging and grasping sticks. Their incisors, which never stop growing, are sharpened and filed by constant gnawing. A beaver’s large, flat tail doubles as a rudder when swimming and as a prop when standing to chew down a tree. The animal’s transparent eyelids allow it to see underwater.
Indigenous people revered the beaver for many reasons. “Beaver is a hardworking animal,” said Lorén Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. “It’s industrious, creative, and scientific in creating the type of dwelling that has multiple purposes. It also creates natural systems that create the balance that you need.” The museum, which is devoted to indigenous cultural education, takes its name from the Narragansett word for beavers.
Indigenous people throughout North America used the beaver’s fur for warm, waterproof clothing, its incisors for tools, its meat and glands for food and medicine. They traded these treasures with the first explorers, and then the colonists, who generated a craze for furs and castor sacs that Goldfarb likens to the Gold Rush. Beaver meat was also in demand, Goldfarb notes, once the Catholic church classified beavers as fish, which they are not, so that meat-lovers could eat this ‘fish’ during Lent.
“By the early 1800’s, the beaver had been extirpated from Rhode Island and much of New England,” writes state wildlife biologist Charles Brown, in Beavers in Rhode Island, a guide he created for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM). However, as farming declined in New England, forests regenerated. At the same time, a growing conservation movement and wildlife management practices, including reintroduction programs, brought back the beaver.
By the late 1960s, there were active colonies in Connecticut and Massachusetts. By the 1970s, trappers and fishermen began noticing chewed trees and peeled twigs in the western part of the state. “They probably traveled from Connecticut along the Moosup River,” said Brown, who joined DEM in 1999. By 1976, state biologist Charlie Allen had found an active lodge along the Trestle Trail in Coventry, in a tributary of the Moosup River. He later reported half a dozen colonies in the Moosup River watershed. By the 1980s, beavers were building dams in the Pawcatuck, Blackstone, Pawtuxet, Quinebaug, Hunt and Woonasquatucket watersheds. That’s when proper
ty owners started calling DEM about flooded roads, orchards and ornamental trees. By 1995, DEM established a trapping season. Brown extended Allen’s work with a survey of beaver and river otter occupancy. He covered the state’s largest watersheds—the Pawcatuck, the Pawtuxet, the Blackstone and the Quinebaug—on a five-year rotation from 2001 to 2012.
Beavers are now expanding their range in the northeast part of the state, primarily throughout the lower Blackstone the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket watersheds. “Beavers have defied everybody’s expectations,” Brown said. “I think it was widely assumed, they needed a certain amount of wild area, that they wouldn’t coexist with people. But they obviously have proved everybody wrong.” The determining factor, he said, is food. Beavers eat aquatic plants, such as cattails, water lilies, ferns and grasses during the summer, and the cambium of woody species, including willow, alder, cottonwood, poplar and red- osier dogwood in winter.
Their dam-building creates ponds and meandering side channels, marshes and wet meadows beneficial to so many plants, insects, and animals that biologists consider the beaver a keystone species. Brown has studied aerial photographs that show how beavers can change the landscape over decades. They can turn a forested red maple swamp, for example, into an open water marsh by flooding the area and killing the trees. “Great blue herons will nest in those dead standing trees,” said Brown. The quiet water channels provide nurseries for fish and amphibians. “Beavers will impound a section of stream with low topography, and sediment will accumulate on the bottom,” he said. If the beavers move on, the dam breaks down, “exposing rich sediment to plant growth.” That abandoned marsh then becomes a meadow, generating scrubland and trees.
Beaver ponds also filter pollutants and break down nitrates; their surrounding marshes serve as flood control and firebreaks. A study by scientists at the University of Rhode Island found that the processes of plants, soil, and microbes in beaver ponds could remove from 5 to 45 percent of nitrates in the water. Graduate students, led by Julia Lazar, collected samples from three beaver ponds in Washington County, during the fall of 2011 and the spring and summer of 2012. They paddled canoes into the middle of two ponds on the Chipuxet River and one on Roaring Brook to collect soil rich in organic matter deposited over decades.
Back at the lab, the students applied nitrate with a tracer to the samples. Bacteria in the organic-rich soil transformed nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen gas, which makes up 79 percent of our atmosphere. This process, known as denitrification, is constantly going on in beaver ponds and surrounding marshlands.
John Crockett, a master’s degree candidate at the University of Rhode Island, is building on Brown’s surveys in a joint project funded by DEM. The five-year project is focused on beaver occupancy and on the presence of river otters and muskrats. Crockett started out in December, on foot and by kayak, looking for dams, lodges, chewed sticks, and any other sign of beavers. One morning in late March, as we took a walk together, he pointed out a large lodge in the Great Swamp Management Area, in South Kingstown. He leaned over some dried gray scat, probably left by an otter, brushing it apart to reveal bits of dried fish scales, crayfish, and fish bones. Beaver runs, or paths, led up from the water and continued across the trail into the swampy woods. We found stumps of young trees and gnawed sticks with the telltale marks of sharp incisors.
Granted, beavers can cause problems for humans. In Westerly, where Route 91 bisects a wetland for about a mile, beavers have frequently plugged a As Brown said, “Beavers look at an existing dam, or a causeway bisecting a wetland, and they see the culvert as a hole in the dam, so they plug it up.” When beavers first built dams on the East Sneech Brook, in 2014, they flooded a swamp full of rare Atlantic white cedars, as well as hiking trails in the Cumberland Land Trust’s nature preserve adjacent to the Nate Whipple Highway.
Mike Boday, the land trust’s vice president, recalled pulling sticks out of an historic culvert that harks back to farming days. “When we broke that first dam, we released a few hundred thousand gallons of water and flooded the highway,” said Boday, who lives on the edge of the 154-acre forest and wetland. “The mayor wasn’t too happy about that.” The beavers just plugged up the hole again. “I would come in here with a garden hoe and break it open,” said Boday. “The next day, it would be filled again.”
When the Atlantic white cedars began to die, the land trust called up Mike Callahan, in Southampton, MA whose expertise in water control devices helps communities to live and let live with beavers. “We’re not going to trap them, because then you have to euthanize them,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the land trust. “They do a lot of good, so we’d rather live with them.” Great blue herons now nest in the tops of the dead white cedars. There are wood ducks, muskrats and river otters.
Callahan visited the site and advised land trust members where to install each device—essentially a pipe driven through the dam, to allow water flow, surrounded by fencing to keep beavers from plugging the hole. Members built the devices themselves. “They work,” said Tuomisto. “But you have to maintain them.”
A large lodge, about five feet tall and 15 feet wide, sits within 50 feet of the hiking trail, which has been rerouted, and now includes a DEM-approved boardwalk and bridge over the beaver- engineered wetland. Another large lodge is hidden downstream. “You usually don’t see them, but if they hear a noise or notice the water level going down, they’ll come out and look,” said Tuomisto. “I was working away and saw this beaver about 20 feet from me. He slapped his tail in warning, and dove under the water.” To no doubt return later, to rebuild the dam.
“They work seven days a week; they’re not unionized,” said Boday, who has watched them, admiringly, jam sticks into the mud and push ten-pound rocks through the water. “They know exactly what they’re doing and they’re defending their home.”
Living in Charlestown along Foster Cove, it can be overwhelming to know what from what, and I have discovered that I have lots of each! I have seen my neighbors hire landscapers to clear out “invasives” but they end up just clear-cutting everything. The invasives roar back saying “thanks for the trim!”
Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson and translated by Lucy Moffatt
–Review by Pat Cahalan
This review first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Winter 2020
Entomologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson really likes bugs. In this book she takes us on a romp through the world of insects, delighting us with tales about these fascinating, curious, and sometimes funny creatures, delving into their anatomy, adaptability, and the myriad ways they make our world livable.
It’s that anatomy and adaptability that has enabled them to survive five rounds of mass extinction, from before the days of the dinosaurs. She tells of flies with tongues on their feet, bugs with ears on their knees (and other seemingly unlikely places), insects with vision ranging from acute to blind, and mind-boggling sex lives. The dragonfly is so well adapted to its mission as a hunter (a 95% success rate) with wings, eyes, and brain superbly suited to its task that the US Army has studied it as a model for drone design.
Svedrug-Thygeson’s point: these tiny fascinating creatures, so often either taken for granted or looked down upon by us humans, are highly deserving of our respect. In fact, we couldn’t live without them. She quotes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who writes: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change . . . But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could live more than a few months.”
We are all familiar with the contribution of insects as pollinators. But we owe them for so much more.
Just imagine, she asks of us, what life would be like without their janitorial services: As life dies off, the insects move in to clean up, recycling the nutrients to the soil, allowing new life to grow. Without them our planet would soon be awash in dead plants, animal carcasses, and dung.Without them we wouldn’t have beeswax, silk, carmine dye, chocolate, shellac, and Shakespeare’s plays (written with long-lasting iron gall ink derived from oak tree galls).
And that’s not all. Blowfly larval therapy is being used to tackle drug-resistant bacteria, and crickets as pets can improve our mental health. One day it may even be possible to send a cockroach with a microchip in its backpack on a rescue mission in a collapsed building.
And insects may one day provide healthy, environmentally friendly food. The “livestock” reproduces rapidly using little space, food, or water. It provides a high-protein food while emitting minimal climate-changing gas. What’s more, it can be raised on our food waste. Research is already underway on using it as feed for fish, poultry, pigs, and dogs. And with proper marketing and processing, it could even become food for human consumption.
And what about all that “nonbiodegradable” plastic littering our planet? Sverdrup-Thygeson tells of one study where mealworms gobble up polystyrene, leaving behind only some carbon dioxide and a spot of beetle poo. And another where the greater wax moth ate holes in polyethylene, the kind of plastic used in supermarket shopping bags, leaving behind only ethylene glycol, familiar to us as antifreeze. The challenge is finding ways to put this knowledge to practical use.
But insects are in severe decline. Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s delightful, and carefully researched book, with 20 pages of chapter-by-chapter citations gives us a new respect for these tiny creatures that accomplish so much for us — and underscores the need to help them survive. She points out that “we never know which species will turn out to be useful next.”
How many of us were out in the garden last fall, watching the bumblebees nuzzling the aster and the goldenrod. “Other pollinators may be in trouble, we thought, but the bumblebees are doing just fine.” Well, they’re not.
Every spring I look forward to seeing the whitish patches that start creeping across open grassy areas. No, it’s not the last of the snow, but a tiny, very light blue flower known by a variety of names.