Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Monarchs and a Mid-Summer Multitude of Wildflowers at the Barden

So, I was at the Barden today, that being the Botanical Art Garden in Herrontown Woods, and amidst all the positive energy of budding flowers I had a cynical thought. There are a couple spots around the Veblen Circle of wildflowers where milkweed has been spreading. Lots of leaves and none of them being eaten by monarch caterpillars--an all too common observation over the years. People say to plant milkweed to help the monarchs, but the monarchs aren't helping themselves to the milkweed. What gives? 

As if on cue, a monarch appeared an instant after I had that thought. Only the third I'd seen this summer, it was checking out the milkweed and other plants growing in the sunny openings of the Barden. There are many kinds of native flowers blooming right now, which I'll show photos of later in this post, but the monarch headed over to one in particular,

a buttonbush, whose tiny flowers form the shape of a golfball--a convenient surface upon which the pollinator can go from flower to flower, sipping nectar. For an insect it must be like an assemblage of Hold the Cone miniature ice cream cones, but no need for a freezer. 

Moments later, another monarch butterfly caught my eye, and this one was showing a more intense interest in the milkweeds. There are two types at the Barden--purple and common. Both kinds spread underground, creating clones with many stems--enough to support a whole gang of hungry caterpillars. The butterfly was landing on the edge of the purple milkweed leaves and dipping its abdomen under the leaf to lay an egg. 
After doing this a number of times, it headed elsewhere, allowing me to take a look. Not easy to see. There, in the lower left. 
Here's an egg a little closer up.

There's actually quite a bit going on underneath a milkweed leaf. Here was a whole cluster, which I'm guessing are the eggs of the milkweed tussock moth--another Lepidoptera that can stomach milkweed's cardiac glycosides. 

Of course, it's a hopeful sign to see a monarch laying those single eggs, but we saw this last year, and it didn't lead to any sightings of caterpillars later on. It's possible the eggs are getting eaten by ants and spiders. A complex food web can have its perils, and it's interesting to note that milkweed that once grew in farm fields (in the days before Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans) might have had better monarch survival due to there being less predators in that simplified landscape. 

Still, we can hope that this is the year when the Barden does its part to build monarch numbers in preparation for their perilous flight back to Mexico in the fall.

Another sweet sight today, again not captured in a photo, was the pair of hummingbirds that landed on a wire cage just five feet away. Hummingbirds, in my experience, actually spend a lot of time perching, which makes sense given how intense is their flight. Their presence was the answer to a question overheard at the checkout counter at the Whole Earth Center: "Has anyone seen any hummingbirds?" Like monarchs, they also have to negotiate a difficult migration every year.

Maybe they were attracted to the tubular flowers of wild bergamot, 

or beebalm, or jewelweed.

What follows here is a documentation of all the flowers seen blooming right now in the Barden, as the midsummer diversity kicks in. After all the work of weeding and planting, there's pleasure in simply walking the paths and appreciating all that is growing so enthusiastically. 

There's a lot to document. These signs, created by Inge Regan, offer four species to look for. When learning plants, it's good to focus on a few at a time. 

For those more familiar, we've brought together some 40 species that bloom in mid-summer, some of them shown below. Maybe you can walk the pathways and see how many you can find. We're trying to figure out how to pot up all the excess and make them available to visitors to take home.

To see some of the other species showing their stuff this time of year, click on "read more", below.

purple coneflower,
narrow-leaved mountainmint,
black-eyed susan,
Wild senna is just opening up. 
A kind of Joe-Pye-Weed.
Hollow Joe Pye Weed, just opening up. This is the one seen along the canal near Carnegie Lake.
Culver's Root
Elderberry. If the birds let the berries turn black, we can make a pie.
The biggest buzz in the garden is on the St. Johnswort shrubs that bloom week after week and don't get eaten by deer. That's daisy fleabane in the foreground, still blooming.
Our first bloom of black cohosh in the Barden. This is one of the few wildflowers that is also found growing in the deep woods during the summer, up along the ridge. Very interesting smell.
Wooly mullein (its velvety leaves are often mistaken for lambs' ears) is not native, but is so dramatic we let a few grow. Like teasel, they are a dramatic weed that grows along roadsides and traintracks, and somehow found the Barden.
Oak-leaved hydrangia
Sweet pepperbush, or summersweet, or Clethra alnifolia. Almost never found in Princeton in the wild, it grows like crazy in West Windsor, just upstream of the Princeton Junction train station. Different soils over there.

We're trying to get some Great Lobelia to bloom, but this tiny lobelia grows on its own, and goes by the common name Indian tobacco. 
Here's the woolgrass, actually a sedge, forming its inflorescence. 
A native grass so common we tend to pull it out is wood reed.

Purple headed sneezeweed flowers look like they're gathering at the door to greet us.
Ironweed, 8 feet tall this year. 
Red clover, not native but pops up here and there and doesn't take over.
This blue vervain just came over from the Smoyer Park wet meadow that FOHW takes care of. Another species to add to the list. 
Clustered mountain mint really drew the pollinators last year.
Pokeweed--an elegant weed

white vervain
Boneset is another great attractor of insects.

It's worth noting that most of this diversity is reintroduced. The rest of Herrontown Woods, beautiful and tranquil and enjoyable as it is, has very little to offer pollinators through the summer. Historically, hundreds of years ago, nature created its own clearings where the sun could reach the ground, and the seed bank in the soil was full of native wildflowers that could quickly sprout to take advantage. But now, even where land is protected, not all the forces of nature are in place. Nature was shattered by the agricultural era and modern development. It needs help putting the pieces back together. 

The Barden can be reached by driving out Snowden Lane in Princeton, then turning left, across the street from the main Smoyer Park entrance. A short way down the side road is the parking lot for Herrontown Woods. The Barden is right there. 

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