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Green and Growing: Protect the pollinator plants hiding in your lawn

Landscapes and plants are making some noise.

In April, the U.S. Senate declared National Native Plant Month. Now, some organizations around the United States, Canada and Great Britain have declared “No Mow May” — including Connecticut’s fast-growing Pollinator Pathway organization.

Why choose the merry month? “Because many ground-nesting bees emerge and begin their search for pollen this month,” says Jana Hogan, a member of the Pollinator Pathway steering committee. “If they are successful, the females can launch this year’s young.”

Spring lawns are full of budding flowers, a sort of pollinator grocery store. While many people think of non-native dandelions, clover, and buttercups in lawns (all of which provide forage), lawns nurture native plants, too. You might say these natives are “hidden in plain sight.”

The upshot: We don’t have to visit a garden center to find native plants. We can protect what we have.

Why protect native plants? All pollen and nectar sources are not alike nor equal in value. Native plants, in general, provide the highest quality forage for the most significant number of native insects. Furthermore, some insects are feeding specialists — entirely dependent on just one or a handful of plant species for sustenance during part or all of their lives.

Consider our region’s dozen violet species, for instance. Petite and pretty in the April grass, they are often bulldozed by lawnmowers in May. Some people dowse violets with weedkillers.

Yet violets offer exclusive relationships with numerous butterflies and one bee.

“The fourteen species of greater fritillary (butterflies) and sixteen lesser fritillaries will only lay their eggs where there are violets for their larva to feed upon,” wrote Xerces Society author Justin Wheeler. “Violets are also hosting plants for the mining bee (Andrena violae), a specialist pollinator common to the eastern United States that only visits violets.”

Ants, it turns out, are violet farmers. Violet seeds offer a “snack pack” on their surfaces, which entices ants to carry the seeds home. The insects consume the snack and bury the seeds, assuring next April’s purple, white and yellow drifts.

Birds and other critters also consume and disperse violet seeds.

I’m always pleased to find diminutive, native blue-eyed grass volunteering near shady edges aside from violets. Native bees and pollinating flies obtain both nectar and pollen away from this little flower; birds eat the seeds.

Bluets or Quaker ladies are tiny light blue natives that take up residence along tree roots and among blades of grass. Bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects visit bluets.

Violets, blue-eyed grass and bluets are short, but lawns launch taller natives, too. Fleabane, for instance, is a 2-foot-tall, daisy-like flower that hosts 19 species of butterflies and moths, according to the National Wildlife Federation’s pollinator host plant database.

Purple anise hyssop is another tall pollinator plant that often volunteers near lawn edges.

Tree seedlings appear in lawns as well. I’ve plucked many an eastern red cedar from the grass and potted it. Some of those volunteers are now 15 feet tall. Eastern red cedar is a food and nesting source for at least 18 regional birds, including colorful cedar waxwings and cardinals, according to the native plant finder offered by Audubon.org.

Sassafras is a familiar volunteer on lawn edges, considered by many too aggressive to keep. Yet the National Wildlife Foundation plant database shows that sassafras hosts 30 butterflies and moths, including the spicebush swallowtail and promethea silk moth. Might there be room for one or two sassafras somewhere on the property?

Finally, don’t forget moss. Like violets, it is often the object of weedkillers. Yet moss is a native ground cover that provides nesting materials for robins, doves and chickadees, among others.

Highly absorbent, moss is a water source for bees, butterflies and moths. Small reptiles and amphibians use moss for water and camouflage.

If No Mow May seems like a giant leap, the Pollinator Pathway suggests starting small. Pick a tiny patch and let it grow. If you’re worried about what the neighbors will say, mow a buffer along the edges. Above all, learn to recognize the natives that volunteer in and around your lawn.

Kathy Connolly writes about landscape ecology, horticulture, and landscape design. Reach her through her website, speakingoflandscapes.com.

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