Virginia Nature Journal for July

The Garden of Eden might be a metaphor for peace and, indeed, for the whole world, but today’s gardens are shrunken images. They are lawns to highlight a property; or a pain to weed and mow; or a chance to grow unsprayed fruit and vegetables; or, for flat-dwellers, something strange they don’t want to own. But a garden can be a place of peace for everyone, including city-livers, to connect with nature and for educating children.

Tennyson There are two wonderful local examples in Williamsburg.

Stonehouse Elementary School

This school in James City County started a native plant garden called Habitat in 2004, winning several awards. It is a place where children from kindergarten age through sixth grade have lessons about nature and get involved in garden care.

The garden was originally a barren plot between two wings of a building where turf struggled to put down roots into the baked clay. With the help of volunteers from the Virginia Native Plant Society, a few teachers and parents, and donations from well-wishers, it has been transformed into a rich and diverse habitat.

The project launched with the arrival of truckloads of well-rotted chicken manure and llama poo, which were dug into the ground and covered with mulch to slow erosion and evaporation in baking Virginia summers. The first seeds and small shrubs were in the ground by spring of 2005. All are native species, and most have thrived with the help of human hands and without spraying.

Native plants are more supportive of animal communities than aliens. According to Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware: “alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.”

The Habitat at Stonehouse Elementary School
The Habitat at Stonehouse Elementary School

A decade later, it is hard to see any bare ground between May and October. Flowers decorate the top of a multi-story profusion of greenness, and are visited by dancing insects and hovering humming birds. Barn swallows nest in the eaves under a drainpipe, and bluebirds swoop to catch insects. If you separate the foliage you are likely to see scuttling beetles and a praying mantis, and perhaps a frog or even a harmless reptile. None lived there before.

Beebalm burns scarlet, Soldier Mallow towers head-high, and Hoary Mountain Mint hosts nectar-hungry bees. Many other plants are also in full flower, making the Habitat as colorful as any ornamental garden planted with aliens, but it is far richer in life and quite free of poisons. If the leaves of violets, milkweed and Golden Alexander look chewed, we can celebrate the eaters for these are food plants for caterpillars of fritillaries, monarchs, and swallowtails. None of these butterflies were introduced artificially: when their ancestors turned up they made it a home, and for generations to come.

Surely, everyone loves butterflies. Even children growing up nervous of creepy-crawlies will soon offer them a welcoming finger for landing on to become their friend. Children are natural naturalists, and naturally inquisitive about nature. As David Attenborough said to President Obama, the challenge is keeping their interest alive when they grow up.

Williamsburg Botanic Garden

The botanic garden in Freedom Park is mainly populated by native species of the Coastal Plain. There are wetland and meadow habitats for wildflowers and grasses, as well as a green roof pavilion, and a therapy garden. It is a two-acre ellipse open to all ages.

The therapy garden is not like a physic garden of medicinally important species (a good project for the future), but a classroom for children and adults, including people with disabilities. They can get hands-on training for cultivating ornamental and food plants.

It feels good getting hands dirty in dark loam. There is something therapeutic about physically working with nature, and especially a tactile engagement en plein air. Konstantin Levin, a nobleman in one of Tolstoy’s epic stories, became “awfully fond” of hand mowing. He found it was a blissful activity that earned respect from his peasants when he shared in the haymaking.


The botanic garden has a butterfly garden with a monarch waystation where researchers attach a numbered tag to monarch wings for tracking their migration like bird banding. It draws many butterflies, bees, and other pollinators to suck nectar from the abundant flowers at this time of year. The garden also has food plants for caterpillars of some butterflies and moths, and nearby are stands of oak, birch, and sourwood that are favored by other species.

Never too old to make a new friend
Never too old to make a new friend

Last weekend, the garden hosted a butterfly festival. Hundreds of visitors of all ages, a few in wheelchairs, endured temperatures in the low ‘90s in the long tent so they could walk among the fluttering insects. There were hundreds of specimens from a butterfly farm, including two species of swallowtails, monarchs, viceroys, buckeyes, sulfurs, and painted ladies, and perhaps others I missed.

What a spectacle! How many more human generations will be able to enjoy the more threatened species? It was another garden opportunity against the tide of modern life that alienates us from nature.


Next Post: Mitochondria Matter


Virginia Nature Journal for June

“Hey, look!” I exclaimed as a man rolled down a window of the truck he drove into our yard this morning. I think my hand was shaking as I pointed at a flower bed. “Over there! It’s our first monarch butterfly of the year. They’re rare now.”

A large butterfly fluttered around for a food plant. Its wings looked like a hinged pair of stained glass windows made of amber inside cames of black lead.  They dazzled me. And then I pondered the mystery of generations that make the long migration possible and the thousands of miles for the return journey in September. They astounded me.

“Where’s your broken pane?” the man asked. “You still want it fixed?” I guess he thought I was wasting time on a stupid butterfly. It’s harder to convert someone to care for nature when there’s business to be done.

Monarch butterfly
Making new monarchs

Neighbors told us that monarchs were common twenty years ago, but now we only catch sight of them a dozen times in a whole summer. The numbers are down by 90% in Virginia as well as elsewhere. Perhaps you have to live long enough to notice a difference, and that’s why it’s important to help children to care.

The fading of monarchs from the landscape has prompted lots of speculation. Is it climate change, or logging in their mountain fastness where they overwinter in Mexico, or pesticide exposure during their peregrinations, or food shortages as they traverse swathes of monoculture crops? Perhaps a little of all of them, but entomologists think the disappearance of the food plant for their caterpillars is the main reason. They only eat certain types of milkweed.

Milkweed species used to be ubiquitous, but intensive farming and mowing of fields and highway verges is stripping them across their range. Part of the problem is that we are less tolerant of “wastelands” and “weeds.” A little more “untidiness” might help them and the critters depending on them. Any creature like a monarch that depends on a single food source is more vulnerable than a less fussy eater.

It made evolutionary sense when the first monarchs laid eggs on milkweed. The plant is named for its milky sap which contains alkaloids that Native Americans used as folk remedies, and the scientific name for the genus is taken from the Greek god of healing (Asclepias). Since the alkaloids are distasteful to most birds, the caterpillars and the adult butterflies had an advantage, and prospered as long as milkweed was abundant.

There is a silver lining to this gloomy story. While agriculture and urban development are squeezing out milkweed, countless people across the country are running to save it.

The Internet is full of appeals by milkweed activists and ads from seed merchants. Some vendors even offer free milkweed seeds, bless their hearts. The US Fish and Wildlife Service are sufficiently concerned that grants are offered to help save the butterfly. And in our own county master naturalists are planting it in school gardens or rearing butterflies indoors or tagging them so researchers tracing their migration can discover the most vulnerable stages of their migration.

Swamp milkweed seedlings

Even tiny efforts can feel worthwhile when they are part of a larger endeavor. I bought swamp milkweed seeds in March. After germinating in trays of potting soil I planted them out, and they are now over a foot tall in damp corners around the yard. Perhaps the colorful visitor I had today has already found them and laid its eggs under the leaves. And maybe in a couple of weeks they will grow into a bunch of fat caterpillars with black, yellow and white stripes like pajamas. Of all the critters that feast on our vegetation, they are most welcome.

Red admiral butterfly
My red admiral friend. Photo: Judy Jones

Butterflies are wonderful ambassadors for nature, and monarchs are as fine symbols for conservation as giant pandas. I never heard anyone say they disliked them, except perhaps a gardener moaning about cabbage white butterflies on his brassicas. Butterflies are almost entirely harmless, and exquisitely beautiful. You can even make a friend of one if you hold out a finger very gently to offer salt in your pores.

Next Post: Honey for Health?





Milton’s Mulberry Tree

According to tradition, a mulberry tree was planted at Christ’s College in Cambridge the same year that John Milton was born (1608). The tree shaded the poet when he went up to university as an undergraduate, and survives in what is now the Fellow’s Garden.

I never visited the garden when I lived in Cambridge. At busy times in life, and in cities that offer much, it is easy to postpone the sights, but we move away before tomorrow arrives. So while I was staying in college last week, I took the opportunity to see the famous tree.

It is now a sprawling mass of shoots rising little more than fifteen feet. The trunk rotted away long ago and horizontal branches are propped up like the arms of old men leaning on canes. A less venerable tree would have been axed long ago to make way for a pretty flower bed.

Even in Victorian times when the tree was barely two centuries old there were worries that it would not last much longer. “Time’s effacing finger must at no distant season sweep it entirely away from its much honoured site. Serious apprehension is entertained of the tree not being able to survive through another winter” (Eliza Cook’s Journal, 1854).  But if you look closely, its shoots are still vigorous, foliage is free of disease, and there is a crop of fruit for another batch of mulberry jam. When trees grow old, they can still thrust up arms of youthful vigor.

Perhaps resveratrol flowing in its veins helped to preserve the tree. But no matter its age, if shoots are still healthy there are germs of longevity in their tips. They contain meristems like stem cells derived from animal embryos which can recreate a whole organism (think of clones or Adam’s rib). Most gardeners take the regenerative power for granted, but when I take cuttings to make a new rose I think of embryology. In 2008, on the four hundredth anniversary of Milton’s mulberry tree, shoots from the old stock were planted in Wales for the Hay Literary Festival.

Who dares to guess how long they will thrive there? The indefinite longevity of plants is a marvel denied to mortals. Perhaps Charles Darwin pondered the difference after seeing the mulberry tree when he was admitted to the college in 1827.

Five years after going down from college in 1632, Milton was contemplating the premature demise of Edward King in a shipwreck. He composed an elegy for his college chum, which ascends from pastoral life to a resurrected plain that an immortal mulberry tree has no need of.Lycidas

Next Post: Virginia Nature Journal for June

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