It’s sprayed with herbicides. It’s mowed and mangled. It’s ground to shreds with noisy weed-trimmers. It’s scorned and maligned. It’s been targeted for elimination by some governments because it’s undesirable and “noxious”. And it has that four letter word in its name which dooms the fate of any plant that possesses it. It’s the Common Milkweed, and it’s the center of activity in my garden at this time of year. Yep, I said milk-WEED.
Now, you need to understand that my garden is small—less than 2,500 square feet. There is no lawn, and there will be no lawn. I’ll have nothing to do with the lawn nonsense. Those of you who know me, know that the lawn, or anything that looks like lawn, and I are through.
Anyway, most of the plants in the garden are native species. There are trees, numerous shrubs, some water features with aquatic plants, and filling the sunny margins is a mix of native grassland plants including Common Milkweed. The unusually wet growing season in 2018 has been very kind to these plants. They are still very green and lush. And the animals that rely on them are having a banner year. Have a look…
I’ve planted a variety of native grassland species to help support the milkweed structurally and to provide a more complete habitat for Monarch butterflies and other native insects. This year, these plants are exceptionally colorful for late-August due to the abundance of rain. The warm season grasses shown below are the four primary species found in the American tall-grass prairies and elsewhere.
There was Monarch activity in the garden today like I’ve never seen before—and it revolved around milkweed and the companion plants.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
The tall seed-topped stems swaying in a summer breeze are a pleasant scene. And the colorful autumn shades of blue, orange, purple, red, and, of course, green leaves on these clumping plants are nice. But of the multitude of flowering plants, Big Bluestem, Freshwater Cordgrass, and Switchgrass aren’t much of a draw. No self-respecting bloom addict is going out of their way to have a gander at any grass that hasn’t been subjugated and tamed by a hideous set of spinning steel blades. Grass flowers…are you kidding?
O.K., so you need something more. Here’s more.
Meet the Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). It’s an annual plant growing in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls as a companion to Big Bluestem. It has a special niche growing in the sandy and, in summertime, dry soils left behind by earlier flooding and ice scour. The divided leaves close upon contact and also at nightfall. Bees and other pollinators are drawn to the abundance of butter-yellow blossoms. Like the familiar pea of the vegetable garden, the flowers are followed by flat seed pods.
But wait, here’s more.
In addition to its abundance in Conewago Falls, the Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) is the ubiquitous water’s edge plant along the free-flowing Susquehanna River for miles downstream. It grows in large clumps, often defining the border between the emergent zone and shore-rooted plants. It is particularly successful in accumulations of alluvium interspersed with heavier pebbles and stone into which the roots will anchor to endure flooding and scour. Such substrate buildup around the falls, along mid-river islands, and along the shores of the low-lying Riparian Woodlands immediately below the falls are often quite hospitable to the species.
A second native wildflower species in the genus Hibiscus is found in the Conewago Falls floodplain, this one in wetlands. The Swamp Rose Mallow (H. moscheutos) is similar to Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, but sports more variable and colorful blooms. The leaves are toothed without the deep halberd-style lobes and, like the stems, are downy. As the common name implies, it requires swampy habitat with ample water and sunlight.
In summary, we find Partridge Pea in the Riverine Grasslands growing in sandy deposits left by flood and ice scour. We find Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow rooted at the border between shore and the emergent zone. We find Swamp Rose Mallow as an emergent in the wetlands of the floodplain. And finally, we find marshmallows in only one location in the area of Conewago Falls. Bon ap’.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, Massachusetts.
It has not been a good summer if you happen to be a submerged plant species in the lower Susquehanna River. Regularly occurring showers and thunderstorms have produced torrents of rain and higher than usual river stages. The high water alone wouldn’t prevent you from growing, colonizing a wider area, and floating several small flowers on the surface, however, the turbidity, the suspended sediment, would. The muddy current casts a dirty shadow on the benthic zone preventing bottom-rooted plants from getting much headway. There will be smaller floating mats of the uppermost leaves of these species. Fish and invertebrates which rely upon this habitat for food and shelter will find sparse accommodation…better luck next year.
Due to the dirty water, fish-eating birds are having a challenging season as they try to catch sufficient quantities of prey to feed themselves and their offspring. A family of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at Conewago Falls, including recently fledged young, were observed throughout this morning and had no successful catches. Of the hundred or more individual piscivores of various species present, none were seen retrieving fish from the river. The visibility in the water column needs to improve before fishing is a viable enterprise again.
While the submerged plant communities may be stunted by 2017’s extraordinary water levels, there is a very unique habitat in Conewago Falls which endures summer flooding and, in addition, requires the scouring effects of river ice to maintain its mosaic of unique plants. It is known as a Riverine Grassland or scour grassland.
The predominant plants of the Riverine Grasslands are perennial warm-season grasses. The deep root systems of these hardy species have evolved to survive events which prevent the grassland from reverting to woodland through succession. Fire, intense grazing by wild herd animals, poor soils, drought, and other hardships, including flooding and ice scour, will eliminate intolerant plant species and prevent an area from reforesting. In winter and early spring, scraping and grinding by flood-driven chunk ice mechanically removes large woody and poorly rooted herbaceous growth from susceptible portions of the falls. These adverse conditions clear the way for populations of species more often associated with North America’s tall grass prairies to take root. Let’s have a look at some of the common species found in the “Conewago Falls Pothole Rocks Prairie”.
The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants. We’ll look at more of them next time.
Brown, Lauren. 1979. Grasses, An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
She ate only toaster pastries…that’s it…nothing else. Every now and then, on special occasions, when a big dinner was served, she’d have a small helping of mashed potatoes, no gravy, just plain, thank you. She received all her nutrition from several meals a week of macaroni and cheese assembled from processed ingredients found in a cardboard box. It contains eight essential vitamins and minerals, don’t you know? You remember her, don’t you?
Adult female butterflies must lay their eggs where the hatched larvae will promptly find the precise food needed to fuel their growth. These caterpillars are fussy eaters, with some able to feed upon only one particular species or genus of plant to grow through the five stages, the instars, of larval life. The energy for their fifth molt into a pupa, known as a chrysalis, and metamorphosis into an adult butterfly requires mass consumption of the required plant matter. Their life cycle causes most butterflies to be very habitat specific. These splendid insects may visit the urban or suburban garden as adults to feed on nectar plants, however, successful reproduction relies upon environs which include suitable, thriving, pesticide-free host plants for the caterpillars. Their survival depends upon more than the vegetation surrounding the typical lawn will provide.
The Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly familiar in North America for its conspicuous autumn migrations to forests in Mexico, uses the milkweeds (Asclepias) almost exclusively as a host plant. Here at Conewago Falls, wetlands with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and unsprayed clearings with Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) are essential to the successful reproduction of the species. Human disturbance, including liberal use of herbicides, and invasive plant species can diminish the biomass of the Monarch’s favored nourishment, thus reducing significantly the abundance of the migratory late-season generation.
Butterflies are good indicators of the ecological health of a given environment. A diversity of butterfly species in a given area requires a wide array of mostly indigenous plants to provide food for reproduction. Let’s have a look at some of the species seen around Conewago Falls this week…
The spectacularly colorful butterflies are a real treat on a hot summer day. Their affinity for showy plants doubles the pleasure.
By the way, I’m certain by now you’ve recalled that fussy eater…and how beautiful she grew up to be.
Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.