Search results for ‘weeds’

Early Season Field Weeds

Spring wildflowers are the most prominent feature in our forests at this time of the year, while cold-season weeds are most prominent in the vegetable fields. If you want to see images of the spring wildflowers in the forests of Hawthorne Valley, please go into the archive and find the blog we posted on April 30, 2011.

Today, I am going to share the results of a little inventory of early season weeds found during the last two weeks in the vegetable fields at Hawthorne Valley Farm. (Be assured, the farmers have been very busy discouraging the weeds from completely taking over and replacing them with neat rows of vegetable seedlings…)

Probably the most common and ubiquitous weed of early spring is Common Chickweed (Stellaria media). It is originally from Europe, but now found on all continents, including Antarctica. It was documented in New England as early as 1672. Common Chickweed is very hardy and often stays green under the snow. Its trailing stems can be several feet long. It grows very quickly and is capable of producing seeds five weeks after germination. No wonder, that certain garden beds are all but covered in it!

CARYO Chickweed (Stellaria media) 7931

Common Chickweed is a member of the Pink Family (Caryophyllaceae) and is characterized by small opposite leaves with a pointed tip. The flowers are composed of five deeply cleft petals.

CARYO Chickweed (Stellaria media) 7904

Tender leaves of Common Chickweed can supposedly be eaten raw as an addition to salads or boiled and served as greens. A tea of this herb is traditionally used to relieve coughs and externally for skin diseases and to allay itching. An infusion of Chickweed is also an ingredient in a skin healing salve prepared here in Columbia County on Red Oak Farm.

A close relative is the introduced Mouse-Eared Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum ssp. vulgare). It too has small opposite leaves, but they are hairy and their tip is more rounded.

CARYO Mouse-Eared Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum spp. vulgare) 7902

There are several other early season weeds in the Pink Family, all recognizable by their opposite leaves. My current assessment is that they are the introduced Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris = S. cucubalus), White Campion (Silene latifolia = Lychnis alba), and Ragged-Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).

The following weed, which I tentatively identified as Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris), has very regularly-spaced, extremely smooth, opposite leaves.

CARYO Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) 8007

The weed below, tentatively identified as White Campion (Silene latifolia), has much larger, slightly hairy leaves that emerge closely spaced, almost creating a rosette.

CARYO White Campion (Silene latifolia)

Finally, these very narrow, smooth, and opposite leaves likely belong to Ragged-Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).

CARYOPH Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) 8019

This sums up the prominent opposite-leaved weeds of early spring.

The next group are the weedy members of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae), which also happens to include many of our cultivated plants, such as Arugala, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts, Kohlrabi, Cabbage, and Kale. Many of these weeds start the season as basal rosettes.

Currently the most prominent in the fields around here is Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). This weed comes from southern Europe and was reported in North America prior to 1672. Its basal rosette is slightly reminiscent of Dandelion, but its leaves are more deeply divided and the leaflets of interesting, irregular shapes (and extremely variable from plant to plant). A broken-off leaf does not exude white milk (as it would in Dandelion or Chicory) and, upon closer inspection (hand lens!), Shepherd’s Purse has branched hairs to help with its identification. Sometimes, these plants can’t wait to flower and instead of growing a proper flowering shoot, they produce a few flowers in the center of the rosette.

BRASSICA Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) 7943

Some rosettes have less divided leaves…

BRASSICA Field Pepperweed (Lepidium campestre) 7984

… some more. But like many early season weeds, Shepherd’s Purse always has a long taproot.

BRASSICA Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) 7939

Below is a typical example of a flowering Shepherd’s Purse. The flowering shoot emerges from the center of the rosette and bears only slightly divided or toothed leaves. The flowers are tiny, white and have four petals, like all members of the Mustard Family.

BRASSICA Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) 7936

The young leaves (gathered before the flowers appear) of Shepherd’s Purse can reportedly be used in salads or prepared like spinach. Dried seedpods make a pepperlike seasoning. Traditionally used as a diuretic, to stop bleeding, and during childbirth for its uterine-contracting properties.

Field Penny-Cress (Thlaspi arvense) is another very common early season weed in most vegetable fields at Hawthorne Valley Farm. It originates in the eastern Mediterranean region and was first reported on this continent from Detroit in 1701. As one apprentice observed, it almost looks like Corn Mash. It is considered an edible plant for salads, cooked greens, and seasoning. But it also bears the name “Stinkweed” and supposedly gives meat and milk an unpleasant flavor if animals consume a lot of it.

BRASSICA Field Penny-Cress (Thlaspi arvense) 7901

When Field Penny-Cress is getting ready to flower, its axis begins to elongate, just like in a bolting lettuce and most other rosette forming plants.

BRASSICA Field Penny-Cress 2 (Thlaspi arvense) 7922

An intense peppery taste identifies the following weed as Field Pepperweed (Lepidium campestre). Although it is considered edible, just like its cousins mentioned above, it is a bit strong for my taste. Its leaves are not as deeply divided and as closely hugging the ground as those of Shepherd’s Purse, but they are also not as smooth-margined and organized-looking as those of Field Penny-Cress…

BRASSICA Field Pepperweed (Lepidium campestre) 8016

The following weed, which looks like a hairy Dandelion, is actually also a member of the Mustard Family, most likely a Hedgemustard (Sisymbrium officinale).

BRASSICA prob. Hairy-Pod Hedgemustard (Sisymbrium officinale) 8025

Continuing with variations on the theme of basal rosette, these smooth and very round-lobed leaves belong to Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris). This is another species that basically stays green below the snow. The young leaves are supposedly excellent when picked while the nights are still frosty and can be added to salads or cooked like spinach. With warmer weather, the leaves become very bitter, but the tight clusters of flowerbuds can then be boiled and served like broccoli.

BRASSICA Wintercress 2 (Barbarea vulgaris) 7925

Finally, here is a mustard weed that somewhat breaks the basal rosette stereotype. Its young plants are upright and its leaves entire. However, the branched hairs (a character it shares with the otherwise very different-looking Shepherd’s Purse) make me believe we are looking at Wormseed Mustard (Erysimum cheiranthoides).

BRASSICA Wormseed Mustard (Erysimum cheiranthoides) 8029

Change of gears: let’s look at a couple of weeds with roundish, opposite leaves. Their square stems (amongst many other characteristics) place them in the Mint Family. The first one is Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), a very common weed of lawns, pastures, and obviously also fields. It is a creeping plant which roots at the nodes. Its opposite leaves are born on long stalks. Crushed leaves are aromatic, medicinally-smelling. Traditionally, a leaf tea was used for lung and kidney ailments and as “blood purifier”. Externally, it is a folk remedy for cancer, backaches, bruises, and hemorrhoids. Supposedly, the dried leaves make a fine herbal tea when steeped for 5-10 minutes in hot water.

LAMIA Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) 7907

The other weed species is quite similar and also belongs to the Mint Family. But its shoots are more upright, not rooting at the nodes. Its opposite leaves are stalked in the lower parts of the plant but in the upper part they are sessile, attached directly to the main shoot. This identifies it as the much less common (in our region) Henbit (Lamium amplexicaulum).

LAMIA Henbit (Lamium amplexicaulum) 7923

Ground Ivy flowers are bluish-purple, while Henbit flowers are pink.

LAMIA Henbit (Lamium amplexicaulum) 7924

Another pretty early flower is produced by Bird-Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica), a member of the closely Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae). Its toothed leaves are opposite along the base of the shoot, but near the flowers they become alternate.

SCROPH Bird-Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica) 7955

The sky blue flowers with their prominent dark blue “landing strips” that guide bees to the nectar, are presented on relatively long stalks.

SPROPH Bird-Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica) 7952

The Corn Speedwell (Veronica arvensis) looks very similar, but tends to have smaller leaves and its tiny blue flowers have no or only very short stalks.

SCROPH Corn Speedwell (Veronica arvensis) 8017

We will close with a few “oddballs”. Here are the three-foliate, Strawberry-like leaves of Rough Cinquefoil (Potentilla norvegica), a member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae) that will soon be producing little yellow flowers. Rough Cinquefoil is considered native to this continent and one of the few native plants that readily associate with cultivated soil.

ROSA Rough Cinquefoil (Potentilla norvegica) 8009

Somewhat similar in appearance are the palmate (“hand-like”) leaves of a member in the Geranium Family, possibly Carolina Geranium (Geranium carolinianum).

GERANIA possibl. Caronlina Geranium (Geranium carolinianum) 8012

Finally, there is a little violet, aptly named Field Violet (Viola arvensis) that can become very prevalent in some vegetable fields. It has toothed, long-stalked leaves of variable shape …

VIOLA Field Violet (Viola arvensis) 7911

and flowers very early in the season.

VIOLA Field Violet (Viola arvensis) 7949

The information about the date when an introduced weed species was first documented on this continent was gleaned from “Weeds of Canada and the Northern United States” by France Royer & Richard Dickinson. I consulted the Peterson Field Guides on “Edible Wild Plants” by Lee Allen Peterson and “Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants” by Steven Foster and James Duke about culinary and medicinal uses of the weeds. Weed identification was facilitated by “Weeds of the Northeast” by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso, and the “Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada” by Gleason & Cronquist.

As I indicated in the text, some of the identifications are tentative, because they are based on sterile specimens. Please do let me know if you detect any obvious errors in my best guesses. Thanks!


Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Agriculture, Nature


Our New Old Fields in Three Acts.

The Line Storm by William Gibson (from Pastoral Days, 1882). Habitat along a split rail fence – place for Bobwhite, Regal Fritillary and Goldenrod.

Preconceptions are a challenge in historical ecology. After all, doesn’t the word ‘forest’ or ‘field’, even if written more than 150 years ago, conjure up some clear images in your mind? However, both culture and ecology can muddy this apparent clarity. The definition of a word can change with time and society. For example, medieval English references to ‘woods’ meant something other than what it does here and now. And even if there were general agreement on what was meant, changes in landscape ecology over time may mean that exact botanical equivalence is very unlikely.

The changing nature of our forests, while still only partially understood, has been widely described. Forest succession and other forms of forest change have been recognized and attempts made to document them. While not completely ignored by historical ecologists, the evolving identity of fields is less well understood and so is meat for further exploration.

This display, although far from comprehensive, asks ‘what did our 19th century fields look like botanically and zoologically?’ We will explore that question through illustrations and narratives appearing in 19th century books and will profile three organisms: Bobwhite Quail, Regal Fritillary, and Goldenrods (Goldenrods are actually several species which we won’t tease apart here).

In part, the motivation for this work is simple ‘natural historyitis’ – the affliction of some human beings for knowing what there is to know about the creatures and land around them, be that current ecologies or past lives. While not conclusively predictive, history can help us better understand an organisms’ current ecology and at least be alert to the potential outcomes of our intentional or unintentional interventions.

One final word – it is easy looking at these old books to imagine stodgy old men, bent over candle light, carefully turning their browned and brittle pages. This is, of course, far from true. These were once crisp, new, hot-off-the-press publications eagerly awaited by aspiring field naturalists. While it is true that not everybody was able to afford the more ornate works, the widespread interest from people who spent much of their lives surrounded by nature is demonstrated by the presence of economy editions meant to satisfy that market.

Listening for the Bobwhite.

The Bobwhite Quail was perhaps the flagship bird of 19th century fields. De Kay, in the same 1843 book that contains Hill’s illustration, wrote, that it “occurs in every part of the State, where it breeds and is a constant resident”; Edward Forbush, harkening back to a Massachusetts childhood during the second half of the 1800s noted, “During my boyhood the cheery, heartening call of the Quail was one of the most common and welcome sounds of spring and summer. The plowman resting his team gave ear to the gladdening sound and it mingled with the ring of the whetstone on the scythe.” Others spoke of Quail feeding with chickens in the barnyard. In fact, it was such a common character that its call, now transcribed as “More Wet, More Wet“, entered the lexicon of folk weather forecasting. Even in the early 1900s, it was described as a fairly common resident breeding bird of Columbia County.

Today it is rarely seen (or heard) and may effectively be extinct in New York State, with scattered sightings probably representing game farm escapees or releases. What happened? There may be no single answer. Instead, as is often the case, a maelstrom of factors may have caused its demise, these likely included the following:

  • The Decline and Sanitization of Farm Fields. These birds consumed the seeds of many openland weeds and grasses and also relied on insects, especially for their young. At the same time they needed nearby cover in the form of shrubby fencerows and edges. As year-around residents at the northern margin of their range, thick winter cover was especially important. Look at the farmland in the background of Hill’s painting or in Gibson’s A Corner of the Farm. Today, not only is the total extent of farm fields much less but few have the openland habitat diversity occasioned by premechanization haying, pasturing and fence cleaning. One author even placed some of the blame for the Bobwhite’s demise on the arrival of wire fencing and the evaporation of scraggly rock and rail fencing.
  • Weather and Reintroduction. There are many accounts of Bobwhite Quail being hit hard by severe winters, especially when ice followed snow and the birds, who apparently sheltered together on the ground, were entombed. Perhaps this was always a bird of more modest climes, which, in our region, only ventured away from the warmer coastal plain as upland farming spread. In this scenario, winter survival was perhaps always a crapshoot. However, human reintroduction attempts may have worsened this. By repeatedly reintroducing southern birds as northern birds declined, sportsmen may have brought in quail strains which were less well adapted to winter weather and thereby hastened the species’ regional demise.
  • Hunting/Trapping. There appears to be little doubt that harvesting heavily impacted this species. Edwin Kent, recollecting late-19th century life in Dutchess County, describes the Bobwhite’s near extirpation of from at least the southern portion of that county, and he attributes it largely to on-farm market trapping, which took advantage of the already-mentioned willingness of quail to enter the barnyard in search of late-season food. The bird’s social ways meant that multiple birds could be trapped at a time. Alexander Wilson, writing American Ornithology during the first decades of the 1800s, also recounts market trapping and describes the farmyard traps in detail. Shooting is also described as a major decimating factor, especially when hunters with dogs ‘cleaned up’ the few surviving birds after a hard winter.

From the Bobwhite’s perspective 19th century fields, at least during the first half of the century, seemed to have been a place of bounty. Relatively loose field management ensured both food and shelter, while abundant barnyards probably served as emergency food lots. Today, our incessant drive for efficiency and our relatively new-found mechanical prowess means what few fields are left tend to be much neater than their predecessors. Because of this (not to mention the booming house cat population), even were they to be re-introduced, Bobwhite would probably be hard-pressed to survive in our modern landscape.


Bobwhite Quail, two illustrations by J.W.Hill (from DeKay’s Zoology of New York, part II: Birds, 1843, and a reproduction of his 1867 Hanging Trophies from The New Path, 1985, Brooklyn Museum ). John William Hill was both an illustrator (perhaps most notably of several animal volumes in the Natural History of New York series), and, later, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  The Natural History was a mammoth, multi-decade undertaking by New York State. It produced volumes not only on various plants and animals, but also on agriculture, paleontology and geology. While other states likewise produced their own natural histories, none were so grandiose.

Bobwhite Quail by William L. Baily (from Our Own Birds, published posthumously in 1863) I have found little information on William Baily. He was apparently a writer and artist who died young. Judging by the book’s preface, he seemed to feel that popular, inexpensive children’s books on nature were important. Strangely, a few examples of this small book have some finely-colored illustrations – hardly a cost-cutting addition.

A Corner of the Farm by William Gibson (from Pastoral Days, 1882). Gibson was a wondrous illustrator whose works are worth exploring. In his day, he was widely respected as an artist-naturalist. The theme of this small image is, according to the text, a backwoods tramp gunning for Bobwhite.

Hedge Removal in Game Survey of the North Central States by Aldo Leopold (1931). Although this is not a 19th century work, Leopold was witnessing some of the same trends in land use (e.g., intensification) and Bobwhite populations (downward) as his East-Coast colleagues had some decades earlier, albeit with tractors to now drive the process. Leopold went on to write one of the first textbooks on game management and various of his essays were collected in the posthumous Sand County Almanac.


Regal Fritillary in Print and Life.

At about the same time that Bobwhite were winking out in New York State, Regal Fritillary was also waning. It is difficult to know how common this butterfly ever was in our region. Many more youth ventured Bobwhite hunting or trapping than took the time to note the abundance of particular butterflies, as a result, our glimpse into the butterfly past gets foggier faster. Historical records of this species exist from throughout southeastern NYS, including Columbia County. Scudder, a great 19th century lepidopterist based in Boston, described it as ‘tolerably common’ in adjacent Berkshire County, MA.

The past of the Regal Fritillary is almost as mysterious as its present: it was reported to favor wet meadows and yet apparently relied on dry field plants; it was widespread and yet rarely common; and its abundance apparently fluctuated dramatically meaning that its presence was sporadic at best. Today, its range has retracted dramatically for reasons still unclear. Once found throughout much of the East Coast, it is now gone from all but one site in the region – a Pennsylvania National Guard training area. One of the last confirmed NY sightings was in 1975. Another subspecies is still moderately common in parts of the Midwest.

Such uncertainty might be more understandable (although not necessarily excusable) were the Regal Fritillary a small, inconspicuous creature, but, at least by butterfly standards, it is not. Indeed, it is one of our physically most impressive butterflies with its relatively large size and dramatic, contrasting markings. “Fine” is how several 19th century lepidopterists appreciatively described it.

Its apparently conflicting ties to both wet and dry habitats can perhaps be reconciled if one supposes that, at least late in the season, the adults sought nectar sources that can be especially abundant in wetter meadows while nonetheless requiring drier land plants for caterpillar food. As a species of tall-grass prairies and their eastern analogies, Regal Fritillary caterpillars consume violets and some of their favored species are those of dry fields. There also seems to be a connection to native bunch grasses such as Little Bluestem, perhaps because they provide important shelter for overwintering caterpillars.

The East Coast demise of this species may yet be shown to relate to some species-specific disease, parasite or pesticide sensitivity, but more likely it was the result of a more straightforward, yet equally challenging force – habitat loss. The sporadic occurrence mentioned earlier hints at a life history based upon wide mobility and taking advantage of conditions that are patchy in time and space. This worked, so long as a sufficient number of patches appeared often enough. However, as agriculture declined and industrialization gathered momentum in the East, the species eventually fell over a demographic cliff – those populations that winked out were not subsequently repopulated and that, in turn, further reduced the repopulation pool.

Native warm-season bunch grasses are typical of dry, low-productivity pastures and hayfields. These were among the first fields to be abandoned as agriculture shrank in the East Coast. Wet meadows have probably also declined, first due to beaver extirpation and then due to draining for agriculture or excavation for ponds. As a result, except in perhaps a few special circumstances, it seems unlikely that the Regal Fritillary will again return to our landscape.


Regal Fritillary by C.J. Maynard (from Butterflies of New England, 1886). This book includes, so far as I can tell, relatively basic, hand-colored engravings, long a staple of natural history illustration. A black and white plate was created and then painted according to the lead artist’s instructions. The results were as impressive as the care of the painter made them. These illustrations are effective but not stunning. This is not a critique – Maynard was a wide-ranging, self-taught naturalist who circulated largely outside of natural history’s higher echelons and his goal was apparently, in part, to produce something that was more or less widely accessible. More detailed and time-consuming hand coloring would have upped the book’s price.

Regal Fritillary (center and lower right, together with several other fritillaries) from Samuel Scudder’s The Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada (1889). Samuel Scudder was one of the preeminent 19th century lepidopterists, and this was his life’s tome. To create the color illustrations for his three-volume masterwork, he resorted to technique that might be called the pinnacle of color lithography. These images were not hand painted, instead they were the result of an extremely precise, multi-stone printing process involving, in some cases, up to 15 separately colored and imprinted stones. The precise registry and multi-layer printing gives the illustrations almost a three-dimensional presence. So far as I know, Scudder’s work was the first our butterfly books to include range maps; his map for the Regal Fritillary shows it spreading from the Midwest, through Pennsylvania and into southern New York and New England. Compare that map to the species’ current distribution as reflected on inaturalist.

Regal Fritillary (center) and relatives from W.J. Holland’s The Butterfly Book (1898). This book was published just as color photography was entering popular publishing. Holland was an energetic individual who, aside from being a lepidopterist, was a priest, paleontologist, Chancellor of Carnegie University, and director of the Carnegie Museum. Somewhat like Maynard, but now armed with new technology, he set out to create an affordable, if weighty, butterfly field guide including photographically reproduced color illustrations. He succeeded. His book sold well, inspired many, and was reprinted numerous times. Even if the illustrations lack the vivacity of Scudders’ or the hand-made touch of Maynard’s, they did their work.


A Lively Account of the Regal Fritillary from John Henry Comstock and Anna Botsford Comstock’s How to Know the Butterflies (1904). While actually falling slightly outside of our 19th century purview, the account is almost assuredly based on 19th century observations. Note the reference to Goldenrod, the topic of the next section. Anna Botsford Comstock was a key mover and shaker in the Nature Studies Movement, a widespread and influential turn-of-the-century educational undertaking to promote the direct study of nature. The illustration accompanying this was a color specimen photograph similar to Holland’s; the book was dedicated to Scudder.

(For more on the 19th century world of North American lepidopterists, we would recommend Butterfly People, by William Leach, a spirited tale of that era’s ecology and society.)


From Road Crew to Field Crew.

Picture an ‘old field’. Likely as not your image includes a rough display of Blackberries and other brambles, Grey Dogwood, Multiflora Rose, Goldenrod and late-season asters. Yours is a rough and scruffy place that nonetheless produces ample wild flowers in the right seasons. It is probably an abandoned agricultural field of some sort – crop field, hay field or pasture – that has been left to its own devices for several years, perhaps even a decade or two. It is heading, faster or slower, towards forest.

Nineteenth century botanists did use the term ‘old field’, and it’s tempting to assume that they had the same conceptualization of it, but they apparently did not. To them, ‘old field’ seems to have meant something more akin to what we would call a fallow field. That is, a crop field that intentionally or not has laid fallow for a year or two, and sports an exuberance of crop field weeds. The long-abandoned farm field that we associate with ‘old fields’ was probably not a common component of the 19th century landscape, at least for its first 75 years or so. During that time, farmers were more likely to be opening new land rather forgetting old acres.

This does not mean that Goldenrod and its companions were not present in the landscape, but they were apparently largely elsewhere – lining roadsides and enveloping walls and wood fences (helping to provide, one might add, ample Bobwhite cover). The technology to mow (or spray) road edges or weed-whack fence lines was yet to come. Thus, ‘rough and scruff’ was more a habitat of edges than of whole fields. That said, hand-cut hay fields and lightly grazed pastures were no doubt more patchy than modern ones, and accounts do mention Goldenrod in some of those as well.

Solidago (Goldenrod’s scientific name) derived from Elizabeth Colden’s botanic manuscript in the British Museum, unpublished,1740s and 50s. Elizabeth Colden was the daughter Cadwallader Colden, a prominent colonial administrator and a some-time botanist. She began assembling (but never finished) a Flora of New York. She described and created uncolored pen & ink drawings of each species, sometimes including notes on use or habitat. She profiles several Goldenrod species. Many of her specimens probably came from around her family estate in Orange County.

Description of Goldenrod’s Medicinal Value, from Formulae for Making Tinctures, Infusions, Syrups, Wines, Mixtures, Pills, etc., published 1875 by Tilden and Company, New Lebanon. The Tilden Company, which evolved out of Shaker industries, used plants, both native and imported, as ingredients in one of the nation’s first large-scale pharmaceutical industries. Goldenrod was one of their ingredients. As they note, Goldenrods (there are several species) were common at that time but more strongly associated with fencerows than ‘old fields’.

Willow Leaved Golden Rod from Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours, 1851. Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the author James Fenimore Cooper, wrote this journal describing the natural history and society around her home in Cooperstown. She was an acute observer and the pages are filled with intriguing natural history. This illustrated edition used the same lithographer who produced The Natural History of New York State series, and some of the same plates, including this one, appear in this work. Her 6 Sept entry notes that Goldenrods are “lining all the fences”.


Pictures of Roads from Picturesque Berkshire, 1893. Most 19th century photographs are of people or single buildings rather than landscapes. While this book contains its fair share of those, it also includes many photos of roadsides and fields. The landscape is late-19th century with wire beginning to replace rock walls and split rail fences, but the landscape still contains many earlier traces, and the photographs of roadsides on this page, although they do not clearly show Goldenrods, likely show where you could have found them. Note that both hayfield and pasture are rougher lands than their current incarnations and probably left more space for diversity.

Taken together, Bobwhite, Regal Fritillary and Goldenrod hint at a landscape that is both familiar and foreign. Bobwhites sheltered in thickets that no doubt look somewhat like those along certain of today’s back roads, only such tangles were more common. Regal Fritillaries glided above fields perhaps similar to those one can still find on a few drier hillsides, only such fields were more numerous. Goldenrods, perhaps as common today as in the 19th century, have become flags of modern “old fields”, and are perhaps now less common – although certainly not unseen – along our roadsides and farm field edges. We are, I believe, moving from a landscape of messy gradations towards one of either/or, from one of either forest or tidy farm field, lawn and development. Certain forest creatures have benefited from the wood’s return, and that is worth celebrating. Less encouraging is the neat control of our open areas. I wonder if, in another 50-100 years, field Goldenrods (there are also a few woodland species) won’t be rarer organisms, not, perhaps, gone the way of the Bobwhite and Regal Fritillary, but nonetheless fading into memory.



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Posted by on October 8, 2018 in Uncategorized


Encouraging Fall Flowers and their Insect Visitors on Farms in the Hudson Valley

Flowers are beautiful. Flowers are also necessary to produce many fruits and vegetables we like to eat. For example, there are no tomatoes without tomato flowers and no cherries without cherry blossoms. Additionally, flowers are a crucial resource for many insects, some of which, in turn, are beneficial for agricultural production.

In this blog, we want to share some late season images (most of them taken in late September/early October 2017) from the Hudson Valley, which illustrate different approaches to enhancing flower abundance on farms. While some of these approaches were the result of deliberate management to invite more flowers and beneficial insects onto the farms, others were more incidental. The photos were taken by various members of our team (see photo credits at the bottom) as part of a multi-farm study to compare the distribution of flowers and insects in vegetable fields and surrounding semi-natural areas. The pictures are from Hawthorne Valley Farm, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Ironwood Farm, and Hearty Roots Community Farm.

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Creekhouse Garden

Increased on-farm flowers through adjacent residential landscaping

Our program occupies one of the buildings on the farm, adjacent to a pasture. Since 2010, we have worked slowly, but steadily, to invite more species of native plants into the 1/2 acre yard around the house. The early years of that effort are described on the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program website.

This fall, the rain garden (where we collect the runoff from the parking lot), sported a mix of planted and volunteer native plants, such as New England Aster, Purple-stem Aster, Panicled Aster, Canada and Rough-leaved Goldenrod, Brown-eyed Susan, Obedience Plant, Indian Grass, and Big Bluestem.

View from the rain garden at the Creekhouse towards the barns of Hawthorne Valley Farm (photo by CKV).

The dryer roadside garden has several of the same species (they usually don’t grow as tall, there) in addition to Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint and Wild Bergamot.

A part of the roadside garden at the Creekhouse, featuring (counter-clockwise from bottom left) New England Aster, Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Brown-eyed Susan, Wild Bergamot, Big Bluestem, and Purpletop Grass (photo by CKV).

In the shadier areas, Heart-leaved Aster displays a last hurrah of summer with its dense lavender-colored flowers.

A dense patch of Heart-leaved Aster in a shady part of the Creekhouse Garden (photo by CKV).

Much of the former lawn has slowly been transformed into a native wildflower meadow, where New England Aster and Showy Goldenrod put on a spectacular show of colors in late September.

New England Aster and Showy Goldenrod both propagate readily from seeds collected in the fall and stored in a dry cool place over the winter (photo by CKV).

Migrating Monarch butterflies, of which there were a lot more this year as compared to the last few years, were thankful for the nectar!

Monarch on New England Aster (photo by CKV).

But not only the showy butterflies graced the garden with their presence. Honey bees were busily collecting nectar on the different aster and goldenrod species…

A Honey Bee with its pollen baskets filled to the brim, buzzing among the flower heads of New England Aster (photo by CRV).

… as did the native bumblebees.

A Common Eastern Bumblebee is approaching the flower heads of Panicled Aster (photo by CRV).

The less conspicuous small wasps where everywhere. Many of these smaller cousins of the dreaded Yellow Jackets are important beneficial insects for the farmer. Most of them are parasitoids, which lay their eggs into the larvae of other insects and thereby contribute to the biocontrol of pests.

A probably parasitic small wasp (photo by CRV).

Another group of beneficial insects are the hoverflies. Other than bees and wasps, which they often resemble because of their yellow and black markings, these flies do not sting. The larvae of many species are ferocious predators of other insects and also contribute to biocontrol of pests. The adults feed on nectar and pollen, and serve as pollinators. Here are images of three different species of hoverflies found on asters in the Creekhouse Garden.

Most likely, this hoverfly is Syrphus torvus, a common species whose larvae feed on aphids. This adult is visiting the flower heads of Heart-leaved Aster (photo by CRV).

Toxomerus germinatus, another species of hoverfly, visiting the flower heads of Panicled Aster (photo by CRV).

Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax), an introduced, migratory hoverfly, whose larvae are not predatory, visiting the flower heads of Heath Aster (photo by CRV)

However, not all flower visitors were interested in collecting pollen or nectar, or functioning as pollinators. This katydid was happily munching away on the white petals (ray flowers) of a Calico Aster.

A Katydid eating flower parts (photo by CRV).

Another creature was not interested in the flowers per se, but had set up shop to try and catch one of the abundant flower visitors.

A curiously-shaped orb weaver spider, most likely an Arrow-shaped Micrathena (photo by CRV).


Hawthorne Valley Farm – Hedgerows

Increased flowers by letting natural diversity bloom

Hawthorne Valley Farm has an abundance of hedgerows which separate the various pastures and fields. In the Spring, most flowers in this habitat are borne on the native (and non-native) shrubs that compose the backbone of these hedgerows. Late in the season, asters and goldenrods thrive along the unmowed edges of the hedgerows. Such “soft edges” between different habitat types or landscape features might appear ungroomed, but are very important for insect life. Unmowed riparian corridors and infrequently mowed wetlands can serve a similar purpose.

New England Aster of two varieties (purple and pink flowers) grow along the unmowed edge of a hedgerow at Hawthorne Valley Farm (photo by CKV).

Ironwood Farm – Old Fields Surrounding the Intensively Managed Fields

Increased flowers by allowing some former farmland to remain fallow

Ironwood Farm is a young farm reclaiming former farmland. Currently, the intensively managed vegetable fields are surrounded by old fields that have developed into perennial meadows, composed of varying mixes of native and non-native plants. We have observed an exceptional abundance of native bees in the vegetable fields of this farm and suspect that the surrounding old fields and their flowers may help support these bees, which then serve as pollinators in the vegetables. In addition, the Common Milkweed plants (note the large, oval leaves in the center of the image below) in the old field served as food plants for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, making Ironwood Farm a nursery as well as a stop-over for migrating Monarchs.

A goldenrod and aster dominated old field just outside the deer fence of the vegetable field at Ironwood Farm might contribute to the abundance of native bees we observed in the vegetables (photo by CKV).

In the fall, the flowers of New England Aster contrast beautifully with those of Canada Goldenrod in the old field (photo by CKV).

Earlier in the season, the old fields had many flowers of non-native plants, such as Knapweed, which nonetheless were very attractive to native pollinators.

A native bee nectaring on the flower head of a non-native Knapweed (photo by CRV).

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Corner Garden Cropland

Increased flowers through interspersed in-bed annuals

The Corner Garden near the school parking lot is a small, intensively managed vegetable field. The farmers are experimenting with augmenting the abundance of flowers near the vegetables by interplanting annual wildflowers (such as the pink Cosmos pictured below) within the vegetable beds. While some vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash have to flower before producing the vegetable we eat, others, such as lettuce, carrots, parsnips, chard, beets, fennel, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi don’t get to flower before they are harvested. Occasionally, when feasible within the crop rotation, left-over crops (such as the Fennel pictured below) are allowed to bolt and flower, adding to the abundance and variety of flowers in the garden.

Late season flowers in the Corner Garden are provided by a Cosmos plant which was interplanted with Fennel and the Fennel itself, which is allowed to bloom before the bed is seeded with a cover crop for the winter (photo by CKV).

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Corner Garden Borders

Increased flowers through perennial edge plantings

In addition, we have collaborated with the farmers to bring more flowers into the Corner Garden by establishing small plantings of woody and perennial native plants around the perimeter of the vegetable beds. On the right in the image below is an area that was planted in early summer (with the help of several volunteers) with New England Aster, Showy Goldenrod, Wild Bergamot, Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed, all propagated from seeds collected at the Creekhouse Garden, in addition to some Yarrow and Lemon Balm plants. The abundant flowers of New England Aster (patch of purple flowers in image) became a true insect magnet in the fall, feeding migrating Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies, the Honeybees from the nearby hives, a plethora of native bees, hoverflies, and other beneficials, as well as the not-so-beneficial Cabbage White butterflies.

This planting was recently expanded (again with the help of several tireless volunteers) to incorporate a number of additional native wildflowers grown from seeds by volunteer Betsy Goodman-Smith. The perennial patch now also contains Purple Coneflower, Black- and Brown-eyed Susan, Anise Hyssop, Lance-leaved Coreopsis, Mistflower, Cardinalflower, Partridge Pea, Slender Lespedeza, and Purple Prairie Clover (the seeds for most of these species were donated by the Hudson Valley Farm Hub). We are looking forward to this wildflower patch providing nectar and pollen for insects all through the season, next year…

The expanding perennial native wildflower patch in the Corner Garden (photo by CKV).


Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Vegetable Fields

Increased flowers through bed-scale annual insectaries

In the large vegetable fields at the Farm Hub, the farmers experimented with several annual insectary plantings. The image below shows a section of the garden that had been seeded with Prairie Coreopsis in spring and was allowed to flower for a second time to provide late-season floral resources for insects.

An insectary strip of annual Plains Coreopsis integrated in the vegetable fields at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (photo by CKV).

The Coreopsis insectary became a lunch stop for migrating Monarch butterflies. We estimate that at least 50 Monarchs were nectaring in this patch at a time.

Monarch butterfly on Plains Coreopsis in insectary (photo by DAC).

However, the Monarchs were not the only migratory butterflies who stopped to fuel up on energy-rich nectar. Painted Lady butterflies on their way to Texas and Northern Mexico were even more common than the Monarchs on the Coreopsis flowers.

Painted Lady butterfly on Plains Coreopsis in insectary strip (photo by DAC).

Other visitors to the Coreopsis flowers in the insectary planting included Sulphur butterflies, hover flies, and Honey Bees (all pictured below).

A variety of insects, other than the migratory butterflies, visited the Coreopsis flowers (clockwise from top left): Sulphur butterfly, hover fly (most likely Syrphus torvus), and Honey Bee (photos by DAC).


Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Test Plots

Increased flowers through field-scale planting of perennial native meadows

This spring, we established 4.5 acres of native meadow trial areas in flood-prone fields at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. We are experimenting with two seed mixes (Mix A and Mix B; see below) to compare their success in establishing meadows without the use of herbicides on former corn fields. We also monitor their suitability for erosion control, soil building, and as insect and wildlife habitat. We received invaluable technical support on this project from the Xerces Society, who is collaborating with the USDA/NRCS throughout the US to help make farms more pollinator-friendly.

Seeding the native meadow seed mix into bare ground in mid May 2017 (photo by CKV).

Mix A is rich in wildflowers and might, eventually, be most attractive to pollinators and other beneficial insects. It is also quite expensive.

Mix B is rich in native grasses with some wildflowers added. It is more economical and might, eventually, lead to meadows that attract grassland breeding birds as well as a decent amount of beneficial insects.

By early October, some of the test plots are well on their way to dense and diverse native meadows. The vegetation is relatively low because the test plots had been mowed throughout the summer to discourage the annual weeds.

A native meadow test plot (Seed Mix A) in October of its first year (photo by CKV).

A closer look into this patch of meadow (seeded with Seed Mix A) reveals a mix of blossoms from Mistflower (light blue), Black-eyed Susan (yellow), and Blanketflower (red). The seedlings of about 20 additional native plant species are well established and have spent their first season developing a strong root system. They are expected to begin flowering next year. The seeds of a few species remained dormant for the first season and are expected to germinate next spring.

A native meadow established from seed at the end of its first season: the most conspicuous wildflowers are Black-eyed Susan (yellow), Mistflower (light blue), and Blanketflower (red) (photo by CKV).

A closer look at the late season flowers in the native meadow trial (photo by CKV).

Bees, wasps, hover flies, moths, and butterflies, including Monarch and Painted Lady, were visiting the flowers in these meadows, but in smaller numbers compared to the Coreopsis insectary, which had a much higher flower density.

Two very different species of hover flies: Drone Fly on Blanketflower (left) and Helophilus fasciatus on Black-eyed Susan (right) (photos by JM).

The Sulphur butterfly is one of the most ubiquitous butterflies on farms. Its larvae feed on clovers and alfalfa, and adults can be found nectaring on a large variety of flowers.

Sulphur butterfly on Black-eyed Susan (photo by JM).

An exciting observation was the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly visiting flowers in the native meadow trial. This is a northern species which, in some years, shows up in our region. This is our first sighting of this species in the Hudson Valley in more than a decade.

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly on Black-eyed Susan (photo by JM).

Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Medicinal Herb Garden

Increased flowers through blossoming herb crops

One of the farmers in training at the Farm Hub chose to experiment with the growing of medicinal herbs, this season. By mid summer, her herb garden was buzzing with bees and hopping with butterflies. The herbs were harvested by the time we took our last round of photos, so here are a couple of images from the herb garden in July.

The medicinal herb garden in July. In full bloom at this time were Toothache Plant (yellow), Calendula (orange), and Blue Vervain (purple) (photo by CKV).

It was particularly impressive, to see the Blue Vervain, a native plant of wet meadows, in a dense bed of obviously very happy plants in full bloom. The insects were all over them in July!

Blue Vervain in the medicinal plant garden (photo by CKV).


Hearty Roots Community Farm – U-Pick Flower Beds

Increased flowers through bee- and butterfly-friendly cut-flower beds

Another type of flower found on several farms this fall were ornamental plants grown for cut flowers. While ornamental flowers often originate from other parts of the world (e.g., Calendula comes from Southern Europe and Strawflower from Australia) and horticultural varieties bred to please the human eye often don’t provide much (if any) nectar and/or pollen for insects, we were happy to observe during our flower watches in the cut-flower beds of Hearty Roots Community Farm, that some species were very popular with the insects.

One of them was Zinnia, an easily grown annual which is represented in many flower gardens and a staple in cut flower arrangements. It is native to the Southwestern US and into South America.

A bed of Zinnia in the cut flower garden at Hearty Roots Community Farm (photo by CKV).

The Monarchs and Painted Ladies might “know” this plant from Mexico and seem to LOVE it! (Of course, the individual butterflies we observed here this fall have not yet been in Mexico, so their “knowledge” of Zinnia–if any–would be at the level of the species which have co-evolved with the nectar plants.)

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia (photo by DAC).

Painted Lady butterfly on Zinnia (photo by DAC).

Globe Amaranth is also often a component of locally grown flower bouquets, but its natural distribution is even more tropical than that of Zinnia, from Central into South America. Its flower heads are reminiscent of clover and seem to be very attractive to a variety of butterflies.

A bed of Globe Amaranth in the ornamental flower garden at Hearty Roots Community Farm (photo by CKV).

It was visited by some butterflies that are common resident species of our area farms, such as the Sulphur and Gray Hairstreak.

Sulphur butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

Gray Hairstreak butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

However, we also observed several butterfly species on the Globe Amaranth, which are resident in the southern US and only sometimes stray as far north as our region. These include the Fiery Skipper, Common Checkered Skipper, and Common Buckeye.

Fiery Skipper butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

Checkered Skipper on Globe Amaranth (photo by CRV).

Buckeye butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).


Fortunately, there are many possibilities to enhance flower abundance and insect life on farms (and in your gardens!), whether it involves adjusting the mowing schedule of natural areas/field edges/surrounding old fields so that the wildflowers can blossom; allowing certain vegetables to bolt and bloom; planting flowering medicinal herbs or pollinator-friendly cut flowers; interplanting annual flowers with vegetables, either as individual plants, or in insectary strips; using flowering cover crops; or establishing perennial wildflower areas at the field or nook & cranny scale. Each of these approaches can help make the farmscape more diverse and alive. They vary in their scale and in the time and money investment they require, so think about what’s the best fit for your situation. Where there are suitable flowers, the pollinators and other beneficial insects will be rewarding you with their beauty and service.

We thank the farmers at Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub for their collaboration with the experimental establishment of native wildflowers. We also thank them, and the farmers at Hearty Roots Community Farm and Ironwood Farm for tolerating our research for the multi-farm comparison of the distribution of insects across on-farm habitats.

Photo credits: Dylan Cipkowski (DAC), Julia Meyer (JM), Conrad Vispo (CRV), and Claudia Knab-Vispo (CKV).

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Posted by on October 17, 2017 in Agriculture, Farmscape Ecology, Nature


Gardening with native plants

As some of you might know, we have begun two years ago to landscape with native plants around the Creekhouse in Harlemville. We had been motivated to do this by the beauty of the native plants we have gotten to know during our inventories in their wild habitats, by witnessing the ecological impact of invasive plants that have escaped from ornamental gardens, and also by books like “Bringing Nature Home” (Doug Tallamy, 2007) and “Noah’s Garden: Restoring the ecology of our own backyards” (Sara Stein, 1993).

We thought, we were part of a rather new “gardening with native plants”  movement.

However, last week, I realized how old this tradition of gardening with natives really is. Conrad gave me a copy of the book “American Plants for American Gardens” by Edith A. Roberts, Professor of Botany at Vassar College, and Elsa Rehmann, Landscape Architect. It had been published in 1929!!!

In this blog, I will share with you some images of native plants we have invited into the landscape around the Creekhouse. Some of these native plants grow in traditional garden beds that were started “from scratch” either by smothering existing vegetation with newspapers and mulch (e.g., the Roadside Garden and the Shade Garden) or by digging holes and then filling them with topsoil brought in from other places on the farm (e.g., the Rain Garden and the Welcome Garden). Other native plants continue to grow right where we found them and we are slowly working on giving them more and more space by removing non-native competitors (e.g., the South and West Slope). Finally, there are areas currently largely dominated by non-native plants, where we have begun to introduce native plants by transplanting or seeding (e.g., the Orchard Meadow, the Fence Line, and the Seep). If you would like to see pictures from the very beginning of the Creekhouse Garden, please go back to the blog from 21 July 2011.

You will see, we try to be relatively strict in our definition of “native”. We mostly (although not exclusively) invite plants into the garden that are considered native to NY State and have a long history of growing wild in Columbia County (see “Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York” (McVaugh, 1958) and our draft of an updated plant list for Columbia County).

I should also say that we NEVER transplant plants from the wild into the garden. Many of our native plants are not common in the wild and there is always a large risk that a transplant does not survive. Native plant gardens should supplement, not diminish the wild populations! We do collect seeds from wild-growing plants and try to grow our own seedlings (which has worked really well with some species and not at all with others…) and we accept transplants from gardens of other native plant enthusiasts.

The most visible of our garden areas is the Roadside Garden:

The Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) which brings a lot of yellow to the Roadside Garden had been lingering among the “weeds” in the original overgrown garden bed and was one of the few species we did not smother with newspaper. These plants have thanked us with a spectacular come-back and we are happy to have their cheerful color, although nobody knows for sure whether they should be considered truly native to the County. The tall pink-flowered Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) has been planted from a potted plant purchased from Project Native two years ago. The orange Turk’s-Cap Lilies (Lilium superbum) are strictly native only to Long Island and a set of counties along the southern border of NY State. But they were given to us by our neighbor John Piwowarski and we love to have them!

Further along the road, the Brown-Eyed Susans are joined by the purple Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) which we grew from seeds collected two years ago from the bank of Route 22, just south of its junction with Route 5 in Austerlitz (this is so far the only wild patch of this species we know). The blue mist in the background are the flowers of Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana), a species so rare that it is listed as endangered in NY State. It has not yet been found in Columbia County and the plants in our garden were propagated by Project Native.

A close-up of Showy Ticktrefoil reveals it as a member of the legume family with pea-shaped flowers and tri-foliate leaves. It’s pods are “stickers”, equipped with a hairy surface that is designed to make the seeds hitchhike in animal’s fur. So, watch out when weeding near a Ticktrefoil, else you might end up with seedpods in your hair and on your clothes…

A few plants of Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) are still in full bloom in the Roadside Garden. The closeup image below reveals the delicate shape and coloration of each of the tiny individual flowers.

These Mountain Mints were transplanted from another garden, but we do find this species regularly thriving in old fields, often together with Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa).

Bee Balm was in bloom all through July in our garden and had some awesome visitors…

… such as this Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (probably Hemaris thysbe).

The west end of the Roadside Garden is defined by Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa), growing happily from stem cuttings taken from plants in Ruth Dufault’s garden. Wild Senna naturally grows in Columbia County along the Hudson River near tidewater but does not mind a spot in a garden bed, either…

Here and there, throughout the Roadside Garden, one can find clumps of native grasses, such as Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Purpletop (Tridens flavus).

Closeup of the dangling stamens (yellow) and the feathery stigmas (deep purple) of Big Bluestem. Who said that grasses don’t have flowers? They might not have showy petals, but everything else that is needed to produce seeds is there!

Earlier in the summer, the Roadside Garden was dominated by a big patch of white flowers from Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Several of these plants were barely “hanging in there” amongst the non-native grasses and weeds along the roadside when we first began to shape the garden. We have saved and transplanted several of them and they have recovered spectacularly! In the foreground, you see two Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) plants with their broad leaves and reddish stems. This is a rare species of goldenrod which does not spread as aggressively as the common Canada Goldenrod (Solidago altissima). The clump of grass on the right is Purpletop (Tridens flavus), a warm-season grass that is slow getting started in the spring but produces beautifully delicate purplish inflorescenses in late summer. This grass was grown from seed collected from a road-side population by our landscaper friend Wendy Carroll.

Finally, a spring image of the Roadside Garden… Much of the ground cover is provided by Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), which we transplanted here from other parts of the Creekhouse garden. The yellow flowers are Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus), transplanted here from another garden down the road. In nature, this species occurs only in wetlands. The pink patches are Carolina Pink (Silene caroliniana), propagated by Project Native. This species is listed as rare in NY State and we have seen it in only a few places in the high Taconics and along a roadside in Copake. Also present in the Roadside Garden (as in many other places in our garden) are Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), transplanted here from a forgotten corner behind the Farmstore.

Let’s switch our focus to the Rain Garden, which was designed to catch at least some of the runoff from the parking area in front of the Creekhouse and to create an interesting habitat full of seasonal color changes and rich in insect and bird life near the main entrance.

It is composed of a variety of shrubs and perennials which grow in dense profusion and maybe somewhat “disorderly” fashion. But do come closer and have a peek who all is hiding in this lively spot…

This lovely trio of shades of red are Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incana), and Showy Ticktrefoil (Desmodium canadense). All three were grown from seeds collected in the wild and raised in pots in our “nursery” below the porch of the Creekhouse. Hummingbirds have been frequent visitors to the Cardinal Flowers and Monarchs and other butterflies can’t get enough of the Milkweed nectar.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a botanical cousin of Cardinal Flower and known in Columbia County only from a handful of calcareous wetlands. These plants were transplanted from the garden of David Lewis and Ellen Winner in Hillsdale.

The bold white Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is found in many wet meadows and swamps. These plants all grew from a single potted plant propagated by Project Native. We are yet waiting for a Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly to discover these plants to lay its eggs on and raise its caterpillars. A Viceroy butterfly had discovered the willow shrub in the Raingarden and a “bird poop” caterpillar typical for this species was feeding for a few days on its leaves. Unfortunately, when we finally got around to taking its picture, it had disappeared.

A little known plant worthy of more attention by native plant gardeners defines one border of the Rain Garden.

For weeks now, it has been producing its lovely yellow flowers and its peculiarly-shaped fruits, one at a time…

In another month, the foliage of Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) will turn a deep dark red and the red fruits remain on the plant into the winter. This is another species that we rarely see in the wild, but which readily reproduced in our “nursery” from seeds collected on a pasture right here at Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Finally, one of the shrubs in the Rain Garden is Bottonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Sadly, it is a bit slow in leaving out in the spring and its lovely white flower balls last only for about a week. However, while in bloom, the flowers attract a multitude of insects, such as this flower fly (possibly Temnostoma vespiforme). This shrub occurs in the wild in a variety of wetland habitats and is often the dominant shrub in so-called kettle-shrub-ponds. These ponds now fill depressions that were formed by chunks of ice left behind by a retreating glacier.

Back in June, the Rain Garden was dominated by the white flowers of Beardstongue (Penstemon digitalis), transplanted here from the Roadside Garden, and the white flower clusters of Elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis). The showy flower stalks of early-blooming Angelica (Angelica purpurea) are also visible in the foreground.

And all the way back in May, it was still somewhat of a mystery to see who had survived the winter and would fill in the garden bed as the season progresses…

The Shade Garden is slowly taking shape under the big Honey Locust tree south of the Creekhouse.

Here, we have invited a variety of woodland ferns, sedges, grasses, spring ephemerals, as well as shade-loving asters and goldenrods. Work on this garden bed only began a year ago and it still has a “young” feel to it. Most of the asters and goldenrods grown from seeds collected last fall are not yet going to flower this year.

Along the “weedy” fenceline between the parking lot and the pasture, we began to enrich the vegetation with New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) seedlings grown from seeds collected along Harlemville Road last fall. The seedlings will be protected from competition by a layer of mulch for a couple of years and then they’ll be on their own to hold their place… We are eagerly waiting to see if any of the seedlings are strong enough to produce flowers this year.

In the meadow (former lawn) below the fruit trees, we also began to transplant New England Aster seedlings, as well as established Beebalm, Mountain Mint, and Beardstongue from the Roadside Garden.

And while I wrap this up, the hummingbirds continue to visit the Cardinalflowers in the Rain Garden and the Monarch caterpillar munches happily on the leaves of Common Milkweed in the Roadside Garden. It’s elder sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed, while the Milkweed Beetle is going about its own business…

If you would like to see pictures from the very beginning of the Creekhouse Garden, please check the blog from 21 July 2011. I also would like to extend an invitation to all of you to come visit the garden in person. Thursdays 6-8pm is a great time, because we are always here for open house. If you are hoping to come some other time, please give us a call to make sure, somebody will be here to show you around. You are also welcome to just stop by and look around on your own! The Creekhouse is located at 1075 Harlemville Road in Ghent. Our phone is (518) 672-7994.

Finally a great big THANK YOU: Many people have contributed with their expertise, with plants and seeds, and with muscle power to the conception and realization of the Creekhouse Garden. Foremost I would like to thank Ruth Dufault and her crew, who really got us started. We also received valuable advise from Judy Sullivan (formerly Project Native), Linda Horn, Tina VanDeWater, and numerous other native plant gardeners and landscapers. Additional hands-on help came from the garden crew here at Hawthorne Valley, the FEP summer interns and several volunteers. I would like to particularly thank Anna Fialkoff for her enthusiastic help and expertise with the native plants and Ken Kilb for his steady support with weeding, hole-digging, transplanting, and mulching during this year. The garden would be much poorer if it hadn’t been for these two wonderful people!

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Posted by on August 19, 2012 in Nature



This posting gives an update on the Native Plant Garden around the Creekhouse here at Hawthorne Valley. Our  goal with this garden is to showcase native plants with ornamental potential, provide a sanctuary for rare natives and their associated insects, and inspire more people to choose native plants as part of their own garden designs. Many native plants have become extremely rare in the wild, so please, never dig them up in their natural habitat, unless the habitat is about to be destroyed. If you do collect seeds from the wild, please collect them only where there are plenty and take only a small proportion of the seeds to ensure the sustainability of the wild population. Throughout this posting, I will point out where the plants in our garden came from. We are happy to swap seeds and plants with other native plant gardeners.

And should you get sick and tired of looking at late fall images of the garden, remind yourself how the garden looked at the height of the season with the images in the post of July 21, 2011.

When you drive by the Creekhouse these days, you see the Roadside Garden slowly going to sleep for the winter. However, there is still a lot going on…

We left most of the seed heads on the native asters and other plants, so there are still interesting patterns of color and texture to look at. As a side benefit, the seeds remain available as food for animals.

Aside from the rather dry-looking stalks and seed heads of grasses and asters, etc., there is still an amazing amount of green in the garden bed.

Golden Ragwort or Groundsel (Packera aurea, formerly Senecio aureus) provides a nice ground cover with its rosettes of ovate leaves. Golden Ragwort is locally abundant in swamps throughout the county, but these plants had been transplanted here from another ornamental garden last fall. The dry spikes on the left are Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), which was bought from Project Native and planted here last fall.

Another Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) forms its own rosette of green leaves. We know Great Lobelia in the wild only from a handfull of places in calcium-rich wet meadows in the eastern part of Columbia County.

Amidst a rigorous ground cover of Wild Strawberry (Fagaria virginiana), transplanted here from another part of the Creekhouse garden, thrives the tender but prolific American Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Note its blue bell-shaped flowers which it presented continuously since June and is still not ready to give up… This plant was bought from Project Native and is very rare in the wild: we know of a single spot where it grows in Columbia County on top of the Taconic Ridge in Copake.

Hiding in the shade of the rock is another great ground cover: the velvety leaves of Pussytoes (Antennaria sp.). Pussytoes are not uncommon in dry meadows and on banks along roads. This one was transplanted from another garden.

This is the rosette of a Carolina Pink (Silene carolinensis), which was bought from Project Native and planted here in the fall. This species is rare throughout NY State and in our County we have seen it at only two locations, both in Copake.

Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) has been known historically to occur in the south-western corner of the town of Hillsdale. We have not yet been able to re-locate this only known population from the County. Wild Lupine is one of the flagship species of the Albany Pinebush and host plant to the federally endangered Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). Although the Karner Blue is highly unlikely to ever show up in our yard, I got this plant last summer on sale at Agway and it has rewarded us with beautiful blue flowers way into the fall.

And here is the Rain Garden which collects and channels the runoff from the parking area…

All the native wetland shrubs we had bought from Project Native in the spring for this part of the garden have gotten well established and have been left alone by the deer (knock on wood!).

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is still presenting its red berries.

The sturdy sporophylls (= “spore-bearing leaves”) of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) have great ornamental value throughout the winter. We have Ostrich Fern from Project Native as well as some plants transplanted from a friend’s garden in the Rain Garden.

The pale leaves and stalks of Purpletop (Tridens flavus) contrast beautifully with the reddish hues of Bayberry (Myrica gale). While the latter came from Project Native, we proudly grew the Purpletop from seeds given to us by a friend last fall!

A rather indestructible native plant common to many roadsides in our area is Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). It was already established among the grasses along our roadside and we have transplanted it from that population to a variety of locations within the Native Plant Garden, where we now enjoy its sturdy late-season rosettes.

Another very sturdy rosette is formed by Cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis), which we grew from seeds collected last fall here on the farm. The seeds of Cardinalflower are tiny, almost dust-like and their newly-germinated seedlings looked rather fragile. But as soon as they were in the ground, they grew vigorously and now we are looking forward to next year’s flowers.

This Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) was bought from Project Native this spring and has gone through an array of beautiful colors, including beautiful shades of green and pinkish-purple, until it finally settled on its late fall tan.

This Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) came from Project Native and is still taking its time to go to sleep for the winter.

This little well-armed shrub is a native Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) we grew from seeds collected in a swamp on the farm last year. This species is distinct from the invasive Multiflora Rose. It likes “wetter feet”, its flowers are pink (not white), and both its flowers and rose hips are bigger than those of Multiflora Rose.

Somewhat covered by the dried leaves of Sweetflag (Acorus americanus) is another rosette of still-green leaves: Yellow Avens (Geum allepicum), grown from seeds collected in a wet meadow on the farm last summer.

Unperturbed by the late season stands Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), grown from seeds collected on a dry hillside here on the farm last fall.

This newly cultivated area is our attempt to create a Woodland Garden surrounding the large and established Honey Locust tree, which is not native but tolerated for the shade it gives to the house.

After smothering the weeds with newspapers and covering the newspapers with bark mulch, we planted examples of native woodland plants, such as this Plantain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginifolia), which came from Project Native.

We also started a little fern glen with ferns from Project Native, including Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Marginal Woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis), Hairy Lipfern (Cheilanthes lanosa) seen on this picture, plus several other species not depicted. The grass-like green leaves sprouting all throughout are the invasive Garlic Grass (Allium vineale) which had been growing in this spot before and has found its way through the newspaper and mulch…

Another recently cultivated area is around these wonderful established stone steps below the Honey Locust tree.

We began by establishing the beds, claiming the space with mulch and then transplanting Columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) from another garden area on the farm.

We call this area the “Wild West Hill” and our efforts to date have been focused on watching which native plants want to grow there and trying to discourage the invasive Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), Teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus), and Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), who would gladly take over this space in no time. We are also discouraging two of the native Goldenrods, Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Wrinkle-leaf Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), who are all too happy on this disturbed hillside and hope to increase wildflower diversity by creating small “native wildflower islands”.

Another “wild” area is this dry grassland near the road. It actually has a nice variety of uncommon Goldenrods, such as Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Silverrod (Solidago bicolor), Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), and Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and so far, our management consisted of discouraging the Wrinkle-leaved Goldenrod to take over the area.

Along the wooded roadside and also around the foundation of the house, Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is a common sight. We know it from several calcium-rich forests and rock outcrops throughout the County and consider it a native species that we welcome to volunteer in the Creekhouse garden.

A Hawthorn tree by the parking area had a mockingbird nest this summer. Now, that the leaves are down, it turns out that the nest has found another purpose as the pantry and dining hall of some small rodent, who filled it with hawthorn berries.

I would like to thank Ruth Dufault and the many other people who have helped shape the Creekhouse Garden with their knowledge and ideas, their muscle power, their patient weeding, and/or with plants and seeds from their own gardens. This would not have been possible without you!

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Posted by on December 6, 2011 in Nature


More Fall Flowers

Did I say in the last posting that we were at the peak of the fall flowers? Well, it has been a long peak and there are still many flowers in the Valley, as well as striking displays of fruits. So, I hope you will tolerate (and maybe even enjoy) another botanically focused blog.

For those of you who can’t visit Hawthorne Valley on a regular basis, this is how the landscape presents itself at the moment as seen from the Creekhouse on Harlemville Road:

The pastures are still amazingly green. The trees are very slowly beginning to change color…

Along the edges (and in less intensively grazed areas) bloom a profusion of white, yellow and purple flowers of the aster family.

from the distance…

and close up.

But before delving a bit deeper into the diversity of asters and their close relatives that make up the bulk of flowers at this time of the year, I would like to share some other noteworthy botanical discoveries from last week.

These gorgeous deep purple berries are the fruits of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), which grows here and there along field edges. One can be seen north of Ben Ocean’s bridge behind the school. Pokeweed has dangerously poisonous roots, seeds, leaves and mature stems. However, in the spring, the young shoots are supposedly edible if prepared correctly. I have never tried to eat this plant but delight in looking at it… Pokeweed is native to our area, but sometimes has a tendency to grow profusely in places with bare soil and in some peoples’ gardens.

Another autumn delight for the eye are these hairy fruit heads of virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), which is usually found in moist soil near streams or in swamps.

These unusual fruiting capsules belong to a rare native plant called seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia). We have found this species in the wild only in two places, so far: on the “Solar Field” here at Hawthorne Valley, where it grows in a wet spot along the eastern fence line (see picture below) and on another farm in Kinderhook. The seed capsules contain tiny seeds which readily germinate. Seedbox is now also thriving in the native plant garden at the Creekhouse.

This is how seedbox looks from further away: the two reddish plants along the fence line.

Nearby, on the North Hill, but also by the Firepond and in Indian Valley, as well as in many other fence rows, we currently have a phenomenal harvest of autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata). Now there is an edible plant that is waiting to be picked! Raw, the berries are a bit too tart for my taste, but they make delicious fruit leather and I have some berries in the fridge waiting to be made into jelly…

Autumn olive is originally from Asia and is considered an invasive plant because of its tendency to take over old fields, so you have to have no trepidations in harvesting as many berries as you can get your hands on.

These red berries are found in the forest.

They belong to a native plant called false solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa).  Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants states that the berries are edible but are mildly cathartic (which means they might give you “the runs”) and I don’t know of anybody who eats them

Another plant with red berries growing in our forests is Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

At this time of the year, the leaves and spathe/spadix (who originally surrounded the flowers and young fruits) have withered and the ripe berries are ready to be picked by birds and box turtles. The berries are not edible for people, because they contain calcium oxalate.

Not all fruits are red, at this time of the year!

These curious little “chinese lanterns” were found in the meadow near the swimming pond and are the old fruits of ground cherry (Physalis sp.). The edible berries that were ripe inside the lanterns earlier in the summer, were obviously never found and are now rotting inside. Which is not to say that the seeds won’t germinate next spring…

Now, we’ll slowly inch our way from fruits to flowers.

This lovely little orchid (around here, it is usually 4-6 inches tall) is called nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua) and is currently flowering in at least three different locations on the farm. It likes wet meadows and seepy areas, but at each location there are only very few plants.

The exact opposite are several profusely growing smartweeds (Polygonum sp.).

Which, upon closer inspection, have almost orchid-like flowers, themselves…

This species is the native Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum). It is characterized by its dense flower heads of pink or white flowers and the conspicuous glands on the stem just below the flower heads.

But other smartweed species grow nearby on the edge of the Beefield.

Left to right, you can compare the introduced waterpepper (Polygonum hydropiper), with narrow, elongate and nodding inflorescences of whitish flowers and leaves that are extremely peppery to the taste; the native Pennsylvania smartweed (P. pensylvanicum), with its glandular stems; and a third, yet unidentified, species with slightly smaller flowers and smooth stems.

And, finally, the Aster family (which was introduced in the last blog posting):

Annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is a native member of the aster family that begins flowering in May and can still be seen in full bloom at this time of the year along field edges and in extensively grazed pastures. To me, the biggest difference from the “true asters” is that the disk flowers of fleabane don’t seem to change color as they mature. Or at least one doesn’t get to see it, because the ray flowers turn from white to pink and fold themselves up to cover the maturing disk flowers (see bottom left flower head).

You can see the change in color of the disk flowers from yellow to purple in the left (more pinkish) aster below:

The color of the ray flowers in New England aster (Symphyotricum novae-angliae) does not change with time but is a characteristic to each plant. This picture shows a (rarer) pink and a (more common) purple form growing next to each other. Where you see a clump of pink New England aster, you will likely see another clump next year.

The wet meadow west of the former Banjo Mountain Cafe, like many other wet meadows, is currently dominated by the lavender flowers of purple-stemmed aster (Symphyotricum puniceum).One clump of New England aster (purple flowers, bottom right) contrasts with the sea of purple-stemmed aster (lavender flowers). Below, a close-up comparison of the two species:

Purple-stemmed aster (lavender and whitish flowers on left) tends to occur in wetter places and usually has at least somewhat toothed leaves, while New England aster (purple flowers on right) tends to occur in dryer places and its leaves are never toothed. Both are rather hairy, can have purplish stems, and have sessile leaves with clasping leaf bases.

Road banks are a great place to spot asters. This site on Harlemville Road has at least five species growing next to each other.

Smooth-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum laevis) has lavender ray flowers and the entire plant is super smooth, almost waxy.

The leaves of smooth-leaved aster are narrow, sessile, and not at all toothed.

Right next to it, on the dry road bank, grows heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), which has a very similar ray flower color, but very different leaves.

The leaves of heart-leaved aster are heart-shaped (at least the ones low on the plant), rough to the touch, strongly toothed, and have a long, sometimes slightly winged, petiole.

Dry road banks are also a good place to spot wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotricum undulatum), another species with lavender ray flowers.

The leaves of wavy-leaved aster can be hairy or smooth, toothed or not, but they always have a distinct winged petiole which clasps the stem in a characteristic way.

Willowleaf aster (Symphyotricum praealtus) is another species that likes to grow in the open, often along field edges. It has ray flowers that are almost white with just a hint of lavender. It is superficially very similar to panicled aster, but distinguished by its narrow, willow-like leaves.

The leaves of willowleaf aster are never toothed (those of panicled aster usually have at least a few teeth) and have a characteristic, isodiametric network of secondary veins.

Finally, I would like to share a few aster species from the shaded forest understory with you:

This picture from near Ben Ocean’s bridge contrasts white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) in the foreground with Schreber’s aster (Eurybia schreberi) in the back. The almost ubiquitous white wood aster has narrower, more strongly toothed leaves and its flower heads tend to be arranged in a flat-topped inflorescence. The rarer Schreber’s aster tends to have more elongate inflorescences, the leaves are broader and the colonies tend to be composed of flowering plants as well as a ground cover of basal leaves.

Another rarer woodland aster is large-leaved aster (Eurybia macrophylla). It is superficially very similar to Schreber’s aster, but the ray flowers tend to have a lavender tinge and a magnifying glass reveals tiny glands that cover the stems near the inflorescence. A patch of this aster grows west of the Baba Yaga house at the base of Phudd Hill.

Two goldenrod species are currently very prevalent in the forest along the Agawamuck:

Zig-zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) has broad leaves and a stem that tends to zig zag from one leaf to the next. It prefers the deep alluvial soil near Ben Ocean’s bridge.

The flowers of zig-zag goldenrod are not arranged at the top of the stalk and above the leaves, like in most other goldenrods, but grow from the axils of the leaves, thus alternating with the leaves along the stalk.

Bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) grows in slightly dryer, but also shaded habitat. Some nice patches can be observed on the trail to the swim pond.

Bluestem goldenrod also alternates flower clusters and leaves. The leaves are long and narrow, the extremely smooth stem is sometimes bluish/purplish-colored and often has a waxy cover that can easily be wiped off.

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Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Nature


Farm Creek Corridor

This posting was prepared before “Irene” came through and I am sending it off from our vacation spot in Canada. Anna, who is holding the FEP fort in Harlemville, assured us that, although there was flooding at Hawthorne Valley, it was not as extensive as two years ago and has all receded by now. Sorry, no pictures from the flood, because we were not there to witness it. However, this blog is about the corridor along the farm creek: For at least six years now, the corridor along the farm creek from the pump house to the cattle crossing has not been grazed. The cows were fenced out and the vegetation was left to develop for a while, to see what would come up. The invasive multiflora rose got a bit more common than desired and removal of this aggressive species in the creek corridor has begun last year. A few other invasive species are present in smaller amounts and might need to get discouraged in the future. Other than that, we are pleased to see many native shrubs and wildflower species thriving along the creek, creating a structurally and botanically diverse habitat that attracts a lot of insects and birds, protects the creek from surface runoff, and begins to shade sections of the creek. Here is a mid-summer inventory (pictures mostly by Lauren McDonald) of the  colorful and vibrant habitat that we now find along the creek.

A view from the edge of the water with the native Agrimony, Goldenrod and Boneset flowering on the shore in the bottom left corner, the native Tussock Sedge growing along both shores, the invasive Purple Loosestrife flowering in the center, surrounded by the native Joe-Pye-Weed, Coneflower and more Boneset.

A view from the “outside” of the corridor. Amongst the woody plants in the background (near the stream) are native Willows and Sumach, and the invasive Multiflora Rose which is overgrown by the white-flowering native Virgin’s Bower.

Virgin’s Bower also takes advantage of the deer fence surrounding the vegetables in the “main field” just west of the creek.

Some sections are overgrown by this orange, spaghetti-like plant called Dodder. Dodder is a native, parasitic plant that does not bother to grow leaves or any other green tissue and can not photosynthesize. It steals nutrients from other plants by tapping into their roots. It thrives in many wetlands throughout Columbia County.

Another type of climbing plants (though not parasites) in the farm creek corridor are the two species of Tear-thumb. You’ll know them when you touch them, as the recurved hooks along their stalks (which come in handy when they try to get a grip on other plants) do just what their name suggests: tear thumbs… The picture above shows the more common Arrow-leaved Tear-thumb, and the picture below the rarer Halbert-leaved Tear-thumb.

Both Tear-thumbs are members of the buckwheat family (which also includes knotweeds and smartweeds) and are characterized by clusters of tiny, orchid-like flowers in shades of white to pink.

Bittersweet Nightshade is a non-native climber related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. It thrives in many of our wetlands and also can become a weed in vegetable gardens.

One of the most conspicuous insects along the farm creek is the Ebony Jewelwing, a damselfly. Its larvae are aquatic, like those of many other insects, and the adults are often seen hunting for flying insects along creeks.

Spiders also know where there is an abundance of insects. Did this spider build its web in a thorny Multiflora Rose on purpose? Many birds like to nest within the protective thorns of the rose…

We don’t know if this little sparrow actually had a nest in the farm creek corridor or was just visiting to check out the food situation.

Swamp Milkweed (big pink flower clusters) is an important nectar plant and also host to the caterpillars of monarch butterflies. Here it grows intermingled with Spotted Jewelweed (orange flowers) and Dock-leaved Smartweed (white flower clusters). All three of these wildflowers are native to Columbia County.

We did not spot any Monarch caterpillars along the farm creek. They are generally not very common this year. But we do have this one munching on one of our Swamp Milkweeds in the roadside garden in front of the Creekhouse.

Less conspicuous, but pretty ubiquitous, is this Willow-herb. Its tiny pinkish-white flowers develop into plenty of feathery seeds which will fly off in great numbers in the fall.

Another rather inconspicuous plant along the creek is Wild Mint, which we often first notice by the delicious smell it exudes when stepped upon.

Monkeyflower, a native relative of the Snapdragons of our gardens, adds some blue to the flower landscape and likes to grow right next to the water.

Blue Vervain is another native wetland plant that thrives in the farm creek corridor. It is related to Lemon Verbena, and I often get asked if it is also a medicinal plant. According to Peterson’s Medicinal Plant Field Guide, native Americans have used the leaf tea as a “female tonic”. It was also used for colds, coughs, fevers, bowel complaints, dysentery, and stomach cramps. It large doses it is reported to be an emetic (induces vomiting). Modern herbal uses include headache and rheumatism relief and tranquilizer. The Peterson Edible Wild Plants guide reports that its tiny seeds can be made into a somewhat bitter flour.

Blue Vervain has a cousin, the White Vervain, which tends to be more of an upland species, but is common along the higher shore of the farm creek. It’s tiny white flowers (which individually look basically the same as those of the Blue Vervain, just paler) are arranged much more loosely along the spreading inflorescence spikes.

The picture above shows the sprawling White Vervain.

An exciting find along the farm creek this year was the frequent occurrence of an otherwise rare hybrid Vervain (Verbena x engelmannii), which is intermediate between Blue and White Vervain with its lavender-colored flowers that are not as tightly packed along the inflorescence spikes as in Blue Vervain, but also not as loosely arranged as in White Vervain…

In the foreground, an example of a Hybrid Vervain (tiny, lavender-colored flowers on long spikes), surrounded by Green-headed Coneflower (yellow flowers) and Joe-Pye-Weed (whitish to pink).

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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature


[This week’s blog is written by our departing interns Lauren McDonald and Emily Reiss; not only have they been helping us here at the Farmscape Ecology Program, but they have also been spending long hours helping out on the Farm itself. This blog describes a bit about what they have seen on the Farm of late.]

Just as in the natural areas we explore in Columbia County, the farm itself constantly changes with new and exciting happenings every week as different crops are planted, harvested, and turned under; the insects pollinating them arrive, mate and lay eggs; and new weeds sprout, flower and go to seed. When living and working on the farm, these natural cycles and the changing of seasons become integrated into the forefront of our consciousness and planning, not just the backdrop to a daily routine.

Right now we’re in full-on summer mode with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, green beans, cucumbers, and zucchini all coming in along with lettuce, chard, beets, carrots, kale, fennel, cauliflower, and more. Between the cultivated and non-cultivated plants, insects, birds and other animals on the farm, the fields are diverse, dynamic places to explore. Here are some pictures of what’s growing on the farm (both what was planted and not) and some of the animals who have made their homes in the vegetable gardens.

It’s especially interesting to compare some of the cultivated varieties to their related, non-domesticated weedy competitors.

For example, horse nettle (Solanum carolinense var. carolinense), a member of the nightshade family of plants, is quite prolific in parts of the Corner Garden. However it does seem to be popular with both bees (can you see the bumblebee in the picture?) and flea beetles, so it is useful to have around for attracting pollinators and keeping flea beetles from eating holes in the eggplant and brassica leaves. Thank goodness none of the delicious cultivated nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant have the vicious spines of horse nettle!

Here is the horse nettle flower,

and a tomato flower (& 'fruit')….

an eggplant flower (& 'fruit')…

…and a pepper flower (& 'fruit').

Similarly, bittersweet or climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara var. dulcamara) grows along the farm creek, and you can see from the poisonous fruits why Europeans were originally wary of tomatoes and other nightshades brought over from the New World.

They say that carrots love tomatoes, so the Corner Garden is experimenting with companion planting of the two.

This red/purple amaranth is a weed in the Corner Garden, but ...

its relative in the Amaranthaceae family, Swiss chard, is one of the most popular greens on the farm.

Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), Fennel, and Carrots of the Apiaceae family all grow in the gardens as well.

This is the Corner Garden fennel.

You can see the similar umbellate inflorescence of these wild carrots on the edge of the field.

And this is an impressive head of green oakleaf lettuce that bolted, or started to prepare to flower and go to seed.

The plywood greenhouse with the next successions of basil, lettuce, kale, and more.

Here are the beds of Siberian Kale in the Main Field.

Then zooming in, here are the eggs of a cabbage butterfly on the underside of a kale leaf.

In this winter squash flower you can see a striped cucumber beetle, a spotted cucumber beetle, and likely a Peponapis bee. The bees in the Peponapis genus are North American natives that specialize on the Cucurbitaceae family (squash, melons, gourds etc.). They originated near Mexico with their squash hosts, and have followed the movement of squash plants north with indigenous and later European cultivation. They are by far the most important pollinator for squash plants, but you’ll also find other bees and pollinators getting in on the action too. Unlike the honey bee and other social bees, Peponapis are solitary bees and dig holes (easily a foot deep) in the ground to lay eggs and raise young.

Thanks to the efforts of this Honey Bee and others, we’re starting to see...

small watermelons in the Corner Garden.

Bumble Bees are not as discriminating as Peponapis in their floral selection. They are well known for their tomato and other nightshade pollinating (remember the bumble bee on the horse nettle earlier), but can also be found enjoying red clovers, ...

and helping out the Peponapis (though they probably don’t need it) on Cucurbitaceae (melons, squashes, cucumbers and the like).

Joe Pye Weed planted in the Corner Garden. It grows along streambeds and in wet areas throughout Columbia County and is also quite popular with the bees.

Both native and non-native ladybugs are quite common in the gardens, and are incredibly valuable in eating aphids off the plants. This one is native,

but this one, which you might be more used to seeing, originally came from Asia.

Both can feast on these aphids though, shown on a chard leaf.

The Japanese beetles have done a bit of damage to basil, but thankfully not too much else. They can devour entire leaves except the veins and completely destroy plants.

Here is a head of red cabbage that can be harvested soon.

The Meadow Fritillary is a native butterfly that not surprisingly prefers meadows and other open areas for the abundance of their host plants, violets. The initial colonial clearing of land was a boon to the Meadow Fritillary, but once tilling and crop cultivation became more common, the important violets were not as available. The Meadow Fritillary is now gone from eastern Massachusetts, though it remains in the western part of the state. Although this butterfly was found in the vegetable gardens, most of the open land surrounding the vegetable fields is either cut for hay, or used for cow pasture, practices which might maintain the low-growing violet population for the Meadow Fritillary.

Birds on the farm are a great assets especially when they eat pests. When they (mostly crows) start going for the tomatoes though, it’s less ideal. These pie tins on the stakes in Main Field reflect light and make noise in the wind to scare the birds away.

These two killdeer are probably protecting one of their small, unassuming nests laid on open ground, often right in the fields. If you get too close, the male will shriek and the female will pretend to have a broken wing to sacrifice herself for their young. These are some of the grassland breeding birds that can use farm fields as analogies to their original coastal, wet meadow or prairie-like habitats.

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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature


See what the site of our visit looked like from the air in 1942 or 2009. (The yellow circle indicates the location of the rocky, dry slope where we ended our outing). Note especially the extent of forest.

keywords: old field, ants, butterflies, grass

What was once forest is now field with forest creeping in from the edges and from toe-holds within the fields. The field in the foreground is dominated by European grasses and weeds, although here and there native plants such as Little Bluestem and Milkweed appear.

The thistle on the lowlands, an exotic weed, has passed from flower to fluff; the wind was carrying the tufts off like feathered balloons.

This Buckeye butterfly flitted across the field as we arrived. Buckeyes don't overwinter in our area; rather, they are migratory. In some years, such as this one, there seem to be more of them about. In other years, we don't see a one.

Also present are old field butterflies like this Northern Broken Dash, here perched atop Spotted Knapweed. Its caterpillars feed upon our relatively common "panic grasses". Neither those grasses nor this butterfly are very common in these fields.

We have seen few Monarchs this year, but there were several dodging back and forth across this field when we visited. Apparently, they were able to find the scattered clumps of Milkweed...

This Monarch caterpillar is well on its way. Monarchs aren't the only insects using the Milkweed. There were Black and Red Milkweed Beetles. And some plants are spattered with aphids.

These yellow aphids are being tended by the "Somewhat Silky Ant", a common visitor to field, home and picnic. Its silvery sheen is caused by a fine coating of hairs over most parts of its body.

The silver sheen of the "Somewhat Silky Ant" is better seen in this photograph of two ants comparing notes on a Milkweed leaf.

The big eyes and dark coloration of the "Somewhat SIlky Ant" are perhaps typical of ants that spend much of the day out and about. However, across our various ant species, there is much variation in body size, texture, color and shape.

Forest edges into the field both spontaneously (when pieces are abandoned and reforest through the natural return of woody plants) and through plantings. These Scotch Pine were planted decades ago on an abrupt ridge that was probably difficult to farm.

Within that same pine stand, one finds a cooler, somewhat moister microclimate (that's our dog poised in the clearing). We pick up a few forest-dwelling ants in this little pocket.

This is a "Broken-Back Ant" nest. These are generally woodland-dwelling species. Like most ants they'll eat a variety of foods (that is, they're 'omnivores'), but this group is also known to disperse plant seeds because of its predilection for the food packets that some sedges and spring flowers attach to their tiny seeds in much the same way that other plants create larger fruits, such as cherries or blackberries, which then attract birds who carry those seeds elsewhere.

This is a "Broken Back Ant", so-called because its thorax (the part behind the head) is long and contorted. It is also armed with sharp spines, as are the backs of several other groups of ants. Some say that such spines help protect the spindle-thin waist from attackers. Who knows. Ant society does not seem to be a peaceful place, and attacks from other ants seem common, so a tendency to evolve protection against such attacks seems possible. How much poking power these relatively short spines would provide is unclear.

This Sugar Maple was probably left in the middle of the field for shade. Given its distance from the farmhouse, it's hard to believe that tapping for maple syrup provided any motivation, although settlers did favor Sugar Maples, and our forest seems to have more Sugar Maples in it now than prior to European settlement. The low-hanging branches and adjacent fencerow can discourage grazers and hay makers, and form an initial 'crystallization point' for returning forests.

The butterflies and moths we find in these fields seem to have come in mainly for the nectar sources. The caterpillars of Spicebush Swallowtail, here seen drinking at a still-flowering Thistle, probably feed on its namesake in the adjacent wet forest.

Although the Spicebush strongly resembles the Black Swallowtail, it is slightly larger and, as this wings-open perspective shows, has a larger blue patch on its hindwings and less yellow.

Likewise this unfortunate Small-Eyed Sphinx, being eaten by the Jumping Spider attached to its abdomen, has caterpillars who feed on woodland plants such as Cherries and Shadbush.

This rocky prominence is slowly reverting to forest. The thin soils may have been made even thinner by the work of grazers' hooves which sloughed the delicate mantle of dirt off of the smooth bedrock. Left to its own devices, this area supports many of our native plants. These are more adept at living on such lands than the European plants brought over to grow in rich gardens or farm fields. The tall, bright green grass to the left of the rocks is Little Bluestem.

Little Bluestem grows in discrete bunches and is a 'warm season grass' meaning that its most exuberant growth occurs relatively late in the summer when many of our other grasses are beginning to look more 'tired'. In autumn, it will add a beautiful almond haze to this hillside.

This Spirea, Steeplebush, also grows in the rocky 'savanna' (savanna refers to an area where woody plants are interspersed with large areas of more open lands). Meadowsweet, a white Spirea, grows nearby here; both are native to our area.

"Sweetfern" is, in fact, no fern at all. But it does have fern-like leaves and when those leaves are crushed, they are sweetly aromatic.

Reindeer Lichen (so named because reindeer reportedly eat a tundra relative) grows thick and brittle on the rocks.

Nestled in one clump of lichen was this ant nest (the rock that covered it has been put to one side).

The nest in the previous photograph and the one in the photograph here are of small "Lasius" ants. These ants apparently live most of their lives below ground, tending and 'milking' various root-dwelling insects.

As perhaps befits their underground life style, Lasius tend to be paler ants with relatively small eyes. At least one of Lasius species is holarctic meaning that it naturally occurs in both North America and Eurasia.

These red and black "Formica" ants are common midst the rocks and dry vegetation (indeed, in our neck of the woods, ants generally seem more common in dry areas; somewhat the reverse of ground beetles). There are various kinds of such ants, but almost all are raiders of other ant's nests or frequent victims of such raids. Apparently, the majority of such raids are in search of forced recruits to the ranks of the raiding nest's workers, rather than attacks for food (although that happens too) or attempts to oust other ants from preferred nesting sites. Many of these are 'mound building' ants such as those also mentioned in our 13 May 2011 blog entry. Compare the profile of this ant to that of the "Broken Back Ant" pictured earlier - there's a lot of room for variation in the architecture of what we just generally describe as 'ant'!

This is the mound of one such ant, albeit from May and from Hawthorne Valley itself. It is however located in the same kind of dry, rocky habitat. The choice of such habitat may be due in part to the fact that it tends to stay open (due to the rocks) and yet is rarely subjected to the intense mowing or grazing that would quickly destroy the mounds. That said, many mound builders can and do make less conspicuous nests.

Aside from the ants in this 'savanna', some of whom are generally described as forest-dwellers, other insects also hint at a woody future. This Brown Stink Bug, pictured here on the somewhat unnatural background of my backpack, apparently feeds most commonly on oaks.

Perhaps including trees such as this Black Oak found nearby. Black Oak seems to occur in dry forests in our area - not as dry perhaps as where we find Chestnut Oak, but not as rich as prime habitat for White Oak or Red Oak (although both of these species were also in the neighborhood).

The future for this dry knoll? This shot, which looks like a green mish-mash, is full of some of the trees that may come to dominate. The Birch, whose gnarled trunk suggests senescence, may have come in when this was first abandoned open land. As the forest thickens, the Birch will probably give way to trees such as Shagbark Hickory, Red Maple, and those White or Red Oaks; all species who seem to have saplings in the foreground of this picture. Or perhaps, if some level of grazing is maintained by livestock or deer, or if a rare grass fire burns through, then the savanna and its ants and plants will persist for a bit longer.

While much of this blog was put together with ingredients from the sun-drenched fields, some of it happened here. At my nighttime desk, beneath the microscope, the only place where I can really get a good look at those ants, put names to them, and hence, add another ecological color - or level of understanding - to this landscape.

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Posted by on August 1, 2011 in Nature


Native Plant Garden

Native Plant Garden at the Creekhouse

This posting is an update of our slow but steady efforts to create a native plant ornamental garden around the Creekhouse. During our inventories of wild-growing plants, we keep coming across native beauties that are well worth being cultivated as ornamentals. Furthermore, books like “Bringing Nature Home” make a very convincing point about the potential of ornamental gardens for supporting native biodiversity and overall ecological well-being of a region.

We’ll start at the beginning, pretty much a year ago, when Harlemville landscaper Ruth Dufault led a series of gardening workshops at the Creekhouse.

We began with an inventory of the plants that had established themselves around the Creekhouse and along the roadside in what was to become our “roadside garden”. We found that introduced grasses and common pasture weeds, such as Chickory and Wild Carrot, dominated the scene.

However, native beauties, such as this Beardtongue were also present, together with Common Milkweed, Asters, and Goldenrods.

We flagged the native plants we wanted to save, and then proceeded, with the help of many wonderful volunteers, to cover the unwanted plants with cardboard and newspaper.

The newspaper was covered with mulch and we had a “clean slate” to begin designing the roadside garden.

We began cautious planting with some potted plants from Project Native and with donated transplants from other gardens. The roadside garden was shaped to contain some areas with deeper, richer soil, where topsoil (from a construction site here on the farm) and compost (from the farm) were worked into the soil to allow moisture-loving plants, such as Joe-Pye-Weed and Swamp Milkweed, to thrive. Other areas of this bed were pretty much left with their original, very clayey soil and begun to be planted with drought-resistant native plants, such as Sweetfern and Butterfly Weed. All unplanted areas in the bed were initially covered with a generous layer of wood chip mulch. As the plants grow and new plants get added, the unplanted areas will decrease and we hope to eventually not need any more wood chips to keep moisture in the soil and to avoid excessive weed growth.

Last fall, we also got busy collecting seeds from wild plants that we thought might do well in our garden. Right here on Hawthorne Valley Farm, we found seeds of Blue Vervain, Swamp Milkweed, Seedbox, Monkeyflower, Beardtongue, Turtlehead, Yellow Avens, Cardinalflower, and a variety of sedges.

On Michaelmas workday, a crew of eager students helped us plant the first seeds into little pots so that they could overwinter outside, experience the wintery temperatures, and be ready to germinate in spring. Most of the seeds germinated beautifully with no special treatment, while we had no luck with any seeds from the aster family, including Joe-Pye-Weed, Boneset, or any of the Asters… I had been told that they need a few months of moist cold (think sitting in moist soil in a plastic bag in the fridge) before they can germinate, but didn’t heed that advise…

The last preparation last year was the digging of our future rain garden next to the parking lot and the removal of a big Multiflora Rose right at its edge. The Hawthorne Valley gardener Nate and his big machine made this effort look like child’s work…

This spring, Nate and his big machine helped us fill the hole with topsoil and compost and then we did one big spring planting with potted plants from Project Native, just to get the garden started. Again, we covered all unplanted areas with wood chips. Some of the mulch was promptly washed downhill by the first downpour, so now we have a bare intermittent creek bed traversing the rain garden.

Little by little, we then incorporated the seedlings we had raised from collected seeds as they became big enough for transplanting.

By June, the rain garden began resembling an ornamental garden bed…

The tremendous downpours of June were a good test for the rain garden and everybody (except for the mulch in the lowest parts) held up beautifully, even the Monkeyflowers we had planted smack in the center of the intermittent creek bed that transports runoff from the parking lot into the pasture. In fact, the cool and rainy spring helped all our transplants through the first difficult period. Not one was lost and the deer haven’t found them yet, either… Shhhhh!

The larger, purchased Turtlehead plants are surrounded by Turtlehead seedlings we grew from seeds collected last fall. The hope is, to eventually create large clusters of each species and to significantly reduce the amount of mulch needed.

We did not purchase plants of each kind we eventually want to establish in the garden. For example, these are seedlings of Cardinalflower…

and Blue Vervain…

… which we grew from seeds and will hopefully come into their own next year!

The rain garden now is a mix of shrubs, perennials, grasses, sedges, and ferns.

The roadside garden is beginning to fill in nicely with its mix of saved, already established plants (such as the Common Milkweed on the right), purchased potted plants (such as the Joe-Pye-Weed on the left), and donated transplants from friend’s gardens (such as the Turk’s Cap Lily in the front).

With the help of our tireless summer interns, we transplanted most of the saved Beardtongue into a neighboring, cleared area and then smothered the patch where they had been growing with newspaper and mulch. In spite of their being transplanted right before flowering season, they went right ahead and provided us with a wonderful display of flowers, anyway.

Ruth made sure to include some detailed stone work in the design, such as this…

or this…

and we tried to arrange the plant species for a pleasing combinations of color as well as texture and growth form.

Right now, we spend most of our garden time weeding and watering and hoping for the little seedlings to grow strong and fill in even more – and for the deer never to discover them…

Please feel free to stop by the Creekhouse any time to have a peek at how the roadside and rain gardens are evolving. None of the plants grown from seeds planted last fall are going to flower this year, but next year, we hope to showcase some of the uncommon native plants in their full glory.

This is just a beginning, there are large areas around the house that we have not even begun to transform, but this slow and steady approach should lead to a garden design that is appropriate for the place and our availability for maintenance.

This blog would not be complete without a big THANK YOU to Ruth Dufault (Bittersweet Gardens) and Judy Sullivan (Project Native) who helped conceptualize the Creekhouse Garden, to all the willing helping hands of landscapers, gardeners, volunteers and interns who did the groundwork, and to those who shared seeds or plants from their own gardens. I am looking forward to continue to work with all of you on the transformation of the weedy Creekhouse yard into an aesthetically pleasing and ecologically valuable native plant garden!

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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Nature