What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.
Late summer and early fall in much of the country are characterized by golds and purples, if you know where to look. In fields, prairies, vacant lots, and roadsides, the gold of goldenrod makes its determined and brilliant appearance. Growing from spring through summer, slowly sending its flower buds forth, it finally bursts into explosions of gold when many plants have long finished flowering and are already getting ready to slow down for winter. Bees and butterflies then flock to its flowers, stocking up on pollen and nectar before hunkering down or flying south. And then, just like that, the spectacle of color is over – or seemingly so – as a new spectacle then appears: birds, coming to feast on the seeds.
While some goldenrods do look a bit on the weedy side at times, we can forgive them for that, because everything else about them is, well, golden. For further reading, we cannot think of a better writing on this amazing plant and flower than the poem “Goldenrod” by Mary Oliver. You can read that here.
The occasional sad reality of doing landscape design is that not all landscapes you create will survive long-term. Ownership can change, and maintenance can be spotty. At the very least, you can expect that some plants will die or be less successful than planned due to circumstances outside of your control, and the result will be a landscape different than what you had envisioned. In our case we never could have anticipated the bumper crop of rabbits that seemed to emerge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2009, or how that bumper crop would subside by 2014. Nor could we have anticipated how much the monarch and honeybee populations would dwindle during that same period. Fortunately, we’ve had a living laboratory of sorts in which to observe all of these phenomena long-term and to see what plants are bunny magnets, and which are monarch and bee magnets.
Here is our run-down:
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ / Walker’s Low catmint: Blooms for at least a month (reblooms after a mid-summer haircut), with the bees (bumble, honey, and solitary, not to mention hoverflies, hummingbird moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds) on it from sunrise to sunset
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Very good late-summer nectar/pollen source
Solidago speciosa / showy goldenrod: Also an ideal late-summer nectar/pollen source
Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’ / Butterfly bush honeysuckle: Bumblebees love the little yellow flowers; lightly cut back after blooming for a second bloom
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Longin’ / ‘Longin’ Russian sage: Bees of all varieties love this plant, and it blooms from July virtually til the end of summer
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ / Autumn Joy stonecrop: Amazing late-summer nectar/pollen source
Liatris ligulistylis / meadow blazing star: They bloom, and the monarchs come. . . in droves; it’s as simple as that
Eutrochium purpurea / Joe Pye weed: Huge, tall, and full of monarchs once they bloom in July
Verbena bonariensis / Brazilian verbena: An annual that blooms from June (depending on when you plant it) until the end of summer and thus provides a very consistent nectar source for monarchs, which flock to it
Echinacea purpurea / purple coneflower: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2013, have replanted new ones and caged them
Panicum virgatum / switchgrass: Ultimately disappeared after two years and space taken over by other plants
Sporobolus heterolepis / prairie dropseed: Initially took a huge hit from the rabbits but now seems to be doing better now that it’s been in the ground longer (maybe rabbits don’t like crusty old grasses?)
Koeleria macrantha / June grass: Suffers some damage by rabbits each year in the spring, becomes less attractive to them by July
Rudbeckia hirta / gloriosa daisy: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2012; some that had self-sown in cages around other plants managed to survive, and now the landscape is full of them again (but there are also fewer rabbits now)
Liatris spicata / dense blazing star: Caged them and the rabbits have since kept away; landscape now dense enough that the plant has self-sown here and there, and the seedlings seem to be protected by other plants (that is a very loose hypothesis based on casual observation)
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Some were gnawed down to the ground and died; remaining ones caged and are now thriving and self-sowing with a bit too much aplomb
Liatris ligulistylis / prairie blazing star: A choice meal of rabbits of all shapes and sizes; the plants need cages around them if they are to survive a rabbit’s dinnertime whims
Just to be clear and in layman’s terms: bee and monarch magnets will bring you happiness; rabbit magnets, without the proper protection, will bring you sadness.
Imagine if human pregnancy also involved and required custom-building a house for the newborn babies – and not with the help of a contractor or designer, but on your own, with your own hands and with your own gathered materials. This is in essence what a hummingbird does in anticipation of the arrival of its young; every mother hummingbird is her own architect. Check out the video and marvel for yourself, as it is something to marvel over. Happy viewing.
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ with a mix of other cultivars and prairie natives in the Joppa Avenue Landscape
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that pollinators are drawn to areas with a diverse variety of flowering plants they enjoy dining on. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report on the matter, and the findings further underscore the importance of plant diversity for encouraging pollinator subsistence and survival. However, some have seen fit to take this evidence and create a causal relationship that the research conclusions do not: plant only native plants, as if ‘diversity’ and ‘native plants’ were one and of the same. They are not. Rather, diversity, simply implies a large array of plant species that, in this case, are concentrated in one area that pollinators like. Plant 100 plants endemic to your region but then add one cultivar that pollinators also love, and just by sheer numbers you have created more plant diversity in your landscape than one with just those 100 native plants alone.
We take Nepeta x faasenii ‘Walker’s Low’ as a case in point. In the Joppa Avenue Landscape (which has become a bit of a testing grounds for the plants we choose to use or not use in other landscapes we do) we have planted over 15 Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ interspersed with other cultivars, and plants of the Minnesota prairie. Since the Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ began blooming over two weeks ago (while none of the plants of the Minnesota prairie we have planted have yet), we have observed in considerable numbers the following flocking to the plants: over five kinds of soliary bee, various varieties of hoverfly, honeybees, multiple varieties of bumble bee, hummingbird moths, hummingbirds, ants, and pollinating wasps. And no, we didn’t somehow trick them into coming to the plants; they came of their own accord. The plants have served both as an early source of color and a wonderful stand-in for pollinators before the huge flush of native plants of the prairie make their big emphemeral show in July.
One could make the argument that cultivars and exotics end up “crowding out” native species and thus should be avoided. We do buy this argument in the case of a habitat restoration project; in a garden or landscape settting, however, we do not. Gardens and landscapes are by their very nature intentional spaces and the human hand in their creation is real and always evident (even however slight at times). As such they are enhanced or magnified versions of nature, containing groupings and mixings of plants designed to please the eye and that would not otherwise occur in a purely natural setting left to its own devices. Cultivars and exotics are not breaking any proverbial “rules” by their presence in the landscape. Additionally, It is a misperception that most cultivars and exotics are invasive and/or weedy. University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Horticulture Jeff Gillman conceded this point recently in a column on native plants in the StarTribune. “There are many exotics, such as Japanese maples and most crops, that are well-behaved and stay right where they’re placed,” said Gillman. Added to that list would also be Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low.’ It won’t spontaneously take over your landscape with seedlings sprouting up everywhere but will simply grow in the place where you have planted it. And there are many more like this that are well-behaved and attract endless numbers of pollinators when many native plants of the prairie aren’t in bloom.
At the end of the day we are really advocating for people to graduate from the notion that landscapes can only be one of two things: all cultivars and exotics, or all native. As if there was nothing in between. There is, and the research on plant diversity in the landscape supports such hybrid, mixed landscapes. Finding the right mix depends on the particular landscape, the tastes of its creator, and the type of wildlife you seek to attract.
So, plant and landscape enthusiasts the world over, go forth, diversify, mix, and be merry.