Friday, April 23, 2010

Celebrating Earth's Biodiversity

With Earth Day's passing yesterday, I would like to talk a bit about biodiversity. We really do live on a remarkable planet. Just driving down the road, you can see a wide variety of plants and animals. On our dinner table, you see the same thing, plants, and animals that eat plants, all consumed with little thought to their origin or their makeup. As someone plagued by what Edward O. Wilson calls "biophilia", one of my favorite things to do is just pittle around in my yard and watch the wildlife. And I plant as many different types of plants as possible, knowing full well, that a diversity of plants will bring a diversity of animals.

One hobby I have that also enables this biophilia is hiking. Recently, I was in St. George for a golf tournament. I arrived a day early, in order to get a day of hiking in. The St. George area is a marvelous place to hike with an interesting assortment of flora and fauna. At the northern edge of the Mojave desert, you have many species of plants unique to the mojave interspersed with plants that thrive in the colder, slightly moister great basin desert. Joshua trees, a signature plant of the mojave mix with stansbury cliffrose and other common great basin regulars. Turbinella oak, an evergreen oak with holly-like leaves replace the gambel oak of the great basin, but sage brush (artemisia species) and rabbitbrush (chrysothamnus) are found in both desert environs.

I enjoy taking a pad of paper with me and documenting what plants and animals I see, any interesting tracks I get a good look at as well as make notes about any interesting geologic formations and rocks that I see. Seeing basalt overlaying sedimentary navajo sandstone created an interesting contrast between two different types of rocks, one old and rapidly eroding, and one younger, but heavier and denser and less prone to erosion.

The point I would like to make in this post, is to look around and observe the great beauty and diversity we have the good fortune of surrounding ourselves with. Enjoy this diversity, even if we get a bee sting once in while, or poked by a cactus. We also have to remember that though the earth's biodiversity is resilient, it isn't omnipotent. God did not create this, and God will not protect it, that job is left to us.

And with that, I wish everyone a happy earth month.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Earth Day Shout-out to the All-American Penstemon

With Earth Day only a week away, it is time to talk about our local environment again. In my previous post, I gave some thoughts on the use of native plants. One family of plants I’d like to highlight is the wonderful flowers known as penstemons. Penstemons are truly American plants, having evolved on this continent. There is some debate as to which botanical family to place them in. Most references put them in the family Scrophulariacaea, but Wikepedia has them in the family Plantaginaceae. I’m not a trained botanist, so I’ll leave the debate to them, but I generally consider them in Scrophulariaceae for what it is worth.

Penstemons are snapdragon like flowers of which many are stunningly beautiful. They have co-evolved with insects and other pollinators of North America. Many penstemons are red, and clearly co-evolved with that unique American bird, the hummingbird. As a hummingbird lover, I’ve planted plenty of wonderful red penstemons such as P. rostriflorus, P. barbatus, P. eatonii, P. cardinalis, P. pinifolius, and P. subulatus. Pink varieties such as P. pseudospectabilis and P. parryi are also good hummingbird magnets.

Many penstemons utilize insects for pollination, and many of them are the most strikingly beautiful penstemons. P. cyananthus (Wasatch penstemon), P. palmeri, P. strictus, P. angustifolius and P. grandiflorus are among the pantheon of beautiful insect pollinated species. Bumblebees in particular like several of these species. P. palmeri, with it’s big pink snapdragon like flowers fit a bumblebee just perfectly. I’ve seen many small butterflies take a real liking to diminutive penstemons such as P. rydberghi, P. procerus and P. virens.

Because penstemons evolved on this continent, their co-evolvers in the animal kingdom utilize these flowers liberally and they are wonderful plants to add to your garden if your intent is to attract different types of wildlife to your yard. I’ve also seen birds eat penstemon seeds, particularly during the cold winter months, so leave some penstemons standing through the snowy winter months.

Some considerations regarding penstemons that you should know. First, they can be difficult to germinate depending on the species. Many need cold treatment for a month or two in order to break the seeds out of dormancy. Also, most penstemons don’t like getting too much water. Penstemons and petunias tend not to make good bed fellows. Soil needs to be fairly well-drained. It also takes some patience with penstemons, because many don’t bloom their first year. They also aren’t as available as other flowers, primarily because they take more effort to grow. But for those willing to make the effort, it is truly worth it.

So you want to be a real American? Grow American. Try some penstemons. The critters will thank you, as will your eyes.

(Photo Notes)
Top Photo- Penstemon cyananthus (Wasatch Penstemon)
Bottom Photo- Penstemon rostriflorus among roses, the hummingbird's favorite flower in my yard.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Some Thoughts on Planting Native Plants

When I ask people about flowers or shrubs in their yard, I sometimes ask them, “are they native?” Invariably, the answer is that they don’t have a clue, with one exception, quaking aspen. Why does it matter? First let me address this issue in a couple of ways.

First of all, there seems to be a culture here in Utah where the ideal is to recreate a British countryside look. Lots of grass, well manicured bushes and shrubs, meticulously spaced seems to be the desired look for most Utahns. It is almost a status symbol to have a large lawn that is green and weed free. Some homeowners associations demand it and some city ordinances enforce the maintaining of green zones of grass. The second ideal people look for is a bug-free yard. Companies make a fortune killing the few remaining bugs that dare access such a sterile landscape. What is left is a monoculture of lawns, boxwoods and Norway Maples, with weed barriers, sterile mulches and sparse plantings of understory bushes and flowering plants.

Some ambitious Utahns may put in some Dutch bulbs for the spring, or some annuals for the summer. Petunias, marigolds and perhaps impatiens is the limit of plant diversity in many yards with a few irises thrown in for good measure. Admittedly, for most people, they want their yard to look as good as possible with the least amount of work. And the results are an abundance of non-native, often invasive plants that aren’t bothered by “pests”. And the result is predictable. Few species of animals living among us that are adapted to only a few types of plants.

As we approach the planting season for our yards, I’m going to make a plea to my fellow Utahns. Let’s be a little tolerant of our little bug friends. Let’s help them out. If you want to keep them out of your house and want to call the Orkin man, that is fine, but bugs are what makes our overall ecosystem work for most species, including our own. The same pesticides that kill unwanted bugs, also kill honeybees, native bumblebees, butterflies and their larvae, as well as a host of crawling things that actually make the world an interesting place to live in.

And how do we help our bug friends? Plant many different types of plants, weighing heavily towards native plants that have evolved on our continent concurrently with the bugs that utilize them. You may see some eaten leaves in the process, but you can’t have butterflies, if you don’t have caterpillars. And most birds depend upon protein rich insects as food for their brood, even many seed and fruit eating species. During the next months, I’m going to post about some of the wonderful native plants that I have had success with and encourage people to use them in place of grass and non-native ornamentals. The critters that will thank you include butterflies, moths, bees, spiders, robins, kingbirds, hummingbirds, finches and juncos. If you have small children, introduce them to the different species you see and encourage an interest in them.

For the record, I have my fair share of lawn. I have small children and a well kept lawn is a valuable play area for small children. But I also have large tracts that I use for vegetable and fruit gardening as well as wildlife forage. And yes, I consider wildlife to be anything not domesticated. I don’t treat all wildlife equally. Mice that come inside are exterminated. Squash bugs that take a nab at my butternut bushes will not survive the summer. But I try to be as tolerant as possible of wildlife in my yard and relish the fact that I’ve seen some rather unique species come to my yard. I’ve heard my share of whisperings from the neighbors about all the darn bees that come to my yard. Well, I haven’t been stung once in my yard, though one of my daughters was once. Considering how much time we spend in the yard, that isn’t a big concern unless you have allergy problems.

One more note before I end this post. Some plants are better than others at attracting critters, particularly the right kinds of critters you want in your yard. So many people plant aspen trees in areas that are not suited for them, that I recommend you stay away from them. Insects, disease and wind will really take a toll on weakened plants such as an aspen in the wrong location. There are many better choices. Also, some closely related plants native to the area are great choices. For example, gambel oak, a white oak, which usually grows as a bush is a good native plant to have in your yard, however, it grows best as a bush. However, a closely related white oak, “bur oak” grows tall and majestic and provides the local wildlife with the same type of forage they would get from a gambel oak, but in a more tree-like form. I will address issues like this in more detail in future posts.

So let’s let the critters have a break. We’ve taken so much of their territory from them, let’s share some of our space with them. And I promise, you'll see more butterflies, moths and birds as a result.