Homely but Valuable: Don’t Pull that Weed!

It's a dilemma: Some of the plants we call homely weeds, beneficial insects call home-or dinner, or incubator.

I was reminded of this when a visitor recently remarked, "You're growing all the stuff I pull out." He was looking at the patch of gone-by milkweed.

The milkweed family, I said, is the only one that supports the full life cycle of monarch butterflies.

"Really?! But it gets so homely," he said.

I can't argue with that, but sometimes homely plants are critical to the life cycles of bees, butterflies, dragonflies, birds, and other creatures.

Consider the common staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta). It not only fails to meet the tastes of the average human viewer, but it and another three native sumacs are unjustly burdened by association with the "poison" prefix. The real poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) lives in wet areas and is not at all common in the northeastern U.S.

Mention sumacs to Adam Fuller, though, and he becomes passionate. Fuller, a professional honeybee keeper with 34 years' experience, runs AZ Apiaries (www.azapiaries.com) in Hampton and is president of the Eastern Connecticut Beekeepers Association. He keeps numerous hives in New London County towns.

"Even 30 years ago, when I was getting started, there were more open fields, fence rows, hay fields, back lots, and roadside ditches. Sumacs grew in all those places."

Sumacs are very reliable producers of high-quality pollen, and their blossoms once filled the mid-summer calendar nicely for regional beekeepers. Says Fuller, "In the '40s and '50s, beekeepers' journals contained comments to the effect that if it weren't for the sumacs, it would not be worthwhile to keep bees in southern New England."

Without sumacs, there aren't enough blossoms for bees to forage in late July and early August-which places the onus on the beekeeper to run a bee cafeteria or risk losing the hive. According to Fuller, controversial purple loosestrife was a good substitute for sumacs, but it has been the target of eradication. He suggests that native sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) partially helps close this mid-summer forage gap.

Why aren't the blossoms in our backyards sufficient?

Fuller explains that bees operate on a much different scale and schedule than most people understand.

"Honeybees are very selective," says Fuller. "They look for plants with an adequate supply of nectar and pollen. The plants have to be ones that their mouths and tongues can physically access. And there has to be a sufficient quantity of pollen every day to have an effect on a colony with 40,000 to 60,000 individual bees."

And that's just one colony.

Bees are far from the only pollinators. Butterflies, beetles, some flies, dragonflies, and birds all fill that role as well and the problem of disappearing "weeds" affects them, too. The most famous example right now is the endangered monarch butterfly, which relies exclusively on the milkweed family to complete its life cycle. For the milkweed to be effective, it has to remain long after the flowers have gone by. And we have to let the caterpillars chew the leaves.

But other critical associations are far less known. When we pull out sassafras, a small native tree that colonizes some areas, we eliminate one of two plants that sustain the spicebush swallowtail. (The other plant is spicebush.) Sassafras also sustains the Promethea silkmoth and the pale swallowtail. Nettles, unpleasant as they are to humans, are important to red admiral butterflies.

And then there's goldenrod, visited by creatures too numerous to mention, including many native bees, butterflies, and birds. Yet it is believed by some people to be the source of late summer sneezing and wheezing, so out it goes. In reality, goldenrod coincides with ragweed, the more likely allergy culprit. (See The Pollen Library: www.pollenlibrary.com/Genus/Solidago).

One solution to this dilemma is for homeowners to allow some "weeds" along with ornamentals and smaller lawns. Susan Pelton, a home and garden educator with the UConn Extension System in Storrs, says home gardeners can help pollinators by following a few simple principles.

"The pollinators need a variety of blossoms at various heights, and there needs to be something always in bloom from May to October," she says. "And it's valuable to include native plants because they feed our native bees and butterflies."

She suggests visiting www.xerces.org to obtain a copy of the fact sheet"Northeast Plants for Native Bees."

Kathy Connolly is a landscape designer, writer, and speaker from
Old Saybrook who specializes in naturalized landscapes. Email her at
kathy@speakingoflandscapes.com and visit her website, www.speaking-oflandscapes.com.

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