Roots and Shoots: Thank You, to the Plants

Here in my yard, I want to take a moment to share an appreciation for all the hardworking and beautiful flora that keep things running. This system I exist in and inadvertently support or destroy by my choices and actions. Life is much bigger than the world we pass by in our cars, the buildings and the busy-ness that fills our days. 

Pussy willow catkins in spring; willows are a key species for insects and therefore, birds. Photo by P. Doan

Pussy willow catkins in spring; willows are a key species for insects and therefore, birds. (Photo by P. Doan)

Starting with the area around the house, thank you to the sugar maples, witchhazel, redbud, shadbush, winterberry, red twig dogwood, pussy willow, crabapple, hemlocks and spruce. These trees and shrubs create a network of shelter and food for birds and insects. 

The pussy willow (Salix discolor) is one of the key trees supporting more than 450 types of butterflies and moths that use its leaves for food and laying eggs. Many birds survive on and feed their young with a caterpillar-based diet. I should plant another 10. It’s a bonus that the glowing catkins are simple and lovely in the spring. The bark brightens up in the winter landscape. They thrive in wetter soil and are easy to grow in a rain garden or near a stream or lake. 

Sugar maples, the dominant species in the woods where I live, are impressive supporters of insects, too. Nearly 300 types of moths and butterflies use their foliage and flowers while they make nesting sites for birds and other animals. 

Having a shade tree near a house can lower the temperature and reduce cooling costs. These maples lower the temperature by up to 6 degrees in summer and the temperature in the shade of a tree can be as much as 25 degrees cooler. A shade tree on the south side of a house will provide maximum cooling effect. 

In the kitchen-door gardens, a native honeysuckle vine still has a few tubular blooms shooting off the top of the trellis. Although I don’t put up a hummingbird feeder (to avoid attracting bears), I get great views of the birds daily when they visit the honeysuckle, bee balm and bergamot. The mountain mint, echinacea, lavender, hairy beardtongue, bleeding heart, prairie dropseed, asters, little blue stem and wood poppy combine with a rose bush that doesn’t seem out of place among its wilder companions. This flower bed is buzzing throughout the season and creates a view from the living room windows that would otherwise be an uninteresting driveway. 

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) wins for best pollinator attractor here. A study by Penn State researchers counted visitors to more than 80 species of native, pollinator-friendly plants over three years and mountain mint came in first as the most-visited and also attracted the most diverse pollinators. For human visitors, the blooms are longlasting — six weeks or so in the summer — and the leaves can be used for mojitos or mint tea.

Further up the hill are two red oaks, their marscensent leaves still flipping in the breeze. After reading The Nature of Oaks, entomologist and ecologist Douglas Tallamy’s month-by-month observations of a tree in his yard, I’ve entered a new relationship with these trees. I already knew that oaks had the highest impact in ecosystems, but now I’m able to understand them better. 

For instance, I recently found an oak leaf on the ground with a gall on it. I’d just read Tallamy’s chapter about the brief window in the spring when wasps can lay eggs on a budding leaf that will grow around the egg and become a protective shell for the larva to eat its way out of. Some of the galls are insect eggs that won’t emerge until spring. My daughter and I gently broke this one open and peeked at the chamber where an insect had lived. 

Oaks host 534 species of moths and butterflies, in the most-documented activity for a tree. Additionally, many wildlife eat acorns, including deer, bear, turkeys, raccoons and squirrels, of course. Birds nest in an oak’s cavities and can feed themselves and their young with the mass of insects that live in its branches. For a single specimen, nothing beats an oak tree for trying to balance the losses in nature. 

Thank you, then, to the plants and trees, for cleaning air, for cleaning water, for holding in the excess carbon dioxide humans produce on the planet, for holding soil, for keeping life alive and making the world a beautiful place.

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