All of a sudden, it’s really spring, and I have not put in my plug for native plants. That’s bad, because the deadline for ordering from Knox-Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District plant sale at knox-lincoln.org/spring-plant-sale is April 12! A brightly colored plant catalog is so fine in temperamental April weather. Go!
Most of the offerings are natives. Researchers like Douglas Tallamy and Desiree Narango are documenting the vital importance of native plants. Where native plant biomass was 30% or less in an area, Carolina chickadees disappeared because they couldn’t find enough caterpillars to raise their young. But in an area with 70% or more natives, chickadees and other birds thrive. Counts vary, but it definitely takes at least 5,000 caterpillars to raise a normal brood of chickadees. Most birds rely heavily on caterpillars: soft, juicy little food packets for the babies. That matters to all of us because insects are an essential key component of the world. If we inadvertently starve out most insects and birds, we are in trouble. We depend on nature’s web. We are driving many species into oblivion. Let’s not cut any more strings of the web that supports us!
Tallamy has found that a few kinds of plants are especially important food sources for insects. Oaks are by far the best bug breeding host. That’s nice, because they are also beautiful, commercially valuable, harvested sustainably (of course), and provide important acorns for deer, turkeys, squirrels, and others. Going down the list of native trees, willow, cherry and plum, birch, and poplar are also caterpillar favorites. Most Knox-Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District’s trees are native, and marked in the catalog so you can tell. In addition, one can order shrubs, fruit trees, perennials, etc. What a shopping feast! Scheduled curbside pickup is Saturday, May 8, at the Union Fairgrounds. With questions or requests, contact Julie at 596-2040 or email@example.com. And then an insect feast for years to come. Bugs and birds, butterflies, and parts of the web of life we don’t even know yet. Of course we won’t spray poison on everything.
The photo shows a group of dogwood sawfly larvae. They stay in a tight group on the underside of red osier dogwood leaves, right beside the bird feeder. Lucky location for the birds! Some larvae are curled up like intriguing little wheels, some lined out, feeding. They won’t metamorphose into butterflies. They belong to the big and diverse family of Tacinid flies, which includes some with parasitoid larvae. Meaning the larvae parasitize other insects: Japanese beetles, for example. The larvae look like caterpillars, and are fine baby-bird food.
Imagine a snowy winter scene with a bright red cardinal sitting on a bright red dogwood branch. Sorry, the plant sale doesn’t list red osier this year, but there are many choices as beautiful and good insect producers.
Going back to March, my friend Virginia Campbell told me a story she is willing share. She wrote:
“I went for a walk at Bass Falls … It was wonderful. I came across a raven and an eagle just as I approached the river. To my surprise, I jumped a yearling deer at the water’s edge on the far side. I thought she was drinking but after much stomping and nervous twitching I thought she must want to cross. I was frozen in my place on the bank waiting to see what she would do, when I spotted the coyote up in the trees above her. I honestly only saw one coyote? Were there others? Did they give up earlier? I waited for the longest time, then finally saw the coyote retreat to the northeast. The deer was standing in the river now but not far from the edge. My butt was getting cold as now it had soaked through and water from my sitting spot chilled me. I finally turned and left wondering what would transpire in the lives of those two beings. That was a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Lucky me.”
It’s not just luck. She sees, and knows how to diminish her presence by sitting still.
(Nancy Holmes prowled Linekin Neck in Boothbay as a child, then an Illinois bottomland while earning a master’s degree in wildlife management. Once back in Maine, she raised children and kept assorted animals, wild and domestic. She and her Carolina dog roam their woods in Newcastle. Write to Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org.)