Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds and seed pods are arranged in a still life. Native throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the plant’s bright-orange coloring and copious nectar production attract bees, hummingbirds and other native pollinators. Milkweed seeds’ fine, feathery fibers—called silk or floss—allow the seeds to be carried on the wind.
As its name implies, butterfly milkweed is perhaps best known for its importance to butterflies. Also called butterfly flower or butterflyweed, the plant—along with other types of milkweed, including common milkweed and swamp milkweed—is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. Milkweed produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in the insect’s body, making them poisonous to predators.
But historically, milkweed has played an important role for humans as well. Pillows and mattresses have been stuffed with milkweed silk for centuries. During World War II, the plant gained national fame when war with Japan cut off access to the soft, cottony fibers of the seeds of the kapok tree, which the U.S. had used as filling for military life jackets. Through a national campaign, an estimated 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected—primarily by children using pillowcases—as a substitute filling.
Although potentially poisonous, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma. Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor, or to thicken soups—although special care was needed in the identification and preparation of the plant, to avoid its toxicity.
Image by Will Parson
During the summer months, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats and beetles can be seen darting from flower to flower, collecting nectar and carrying pollen. But no pollinator has quite as close a relationship with humans as the European honeybee. Found on every continent except Antarctica, the honeybee has been facing enormous environmental pressure in recent years, resulting in mysterious mass die-offs. Learn more about this iconic insect—and what you can do to help—with this list of nine honeybee facts.
1. The European honeybee is an introduced species. Honeybees may be one of the most recognized insects in the nation, but they’re actually relative newcomers to North America. Just like sheep, cows and chickens, honeybees were brought from Europe by early settlers, arriving in Virginia around 1622.
2. Those swirling swarms are nothing to worry about. A teeming cluster of honeybees may seem menacing, but a swarm of honeybees is actually when the insects are at their safest. When a colony gets big enough, the queen bee will fly off in search of a new home, taking a portion of the colony with her, while a new queen takes her place in the old colony. Because they’re not defensive of a hive or stores of honey, these swarms pose little threat to humans. They may make brief stopovers on tree branches, walls or road signs, but will most likely take off on their own within a day or two. If a swarm makes you nervous, call a local beekeeper to come safely remove the bees.
3. Honeybees typically only sting when they sense the hive is threatened. When out foraging, bees will rarely sting unless they’re roughly handled. If a bee is buzzing around you, she may smell a flowery perfume or lotion and think the smell is a food source—but if you stand very still, she will realize there is no nectar and fly away.
4. The average American eats one pound of honey each year. To make that pound of honey, a colony of bees would have to fly more than 55,000 miles and visit two million flowers. One bee collects just 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
5. Close to one-third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly benefitted by honeybee pollination. This amounts to more than $15 billion in crop production each year. Crops like fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts benefit from honeybee pollination, and some foods—almonds in particular—are completely dependent on honeybees.
6. A syndrome has caused the honeybee population in the U.S. to drop by more than half since the 1940s. Colonies affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) appear as a suddenly empty colony—no adult bees or dead bee bodies are near the hive, but the queen and some immature bees may still be present. No causes have been proven, but scientists are researching pesticides, disease, parasites and habitat degradation as possibilities.
7. Honeybees are highly social insects that are able to communicate through complex movements. Their “round dance” and “waggle dance” allow them to communicate the direction and distance to nectar and pollen. But the use of pesticides—in particular those containing neonicotinoids—may cause disorientation and memory loss, meaning bees have difficulty finding food or returning to their hive.
8. A diverse diet helps bees resist the effects of disease, parasites and even pesticides. But single-crop fields often lack the variety of plants needed by bees for proper nutrition. By planting wildflowers in marginal land, at the end of fields or along streams, farmers can help provide the variety of pollen and nectar that bees need.
9. To a honeybee or other pollinator, a manicured lawn is more like a desert. Reducing the size of your lawn and allowing native wildflowers to grow benefits honeybees, native pollinators and other wildlife. You can also plant a pollinator garden, with native plants that flower at different times to provide a consistent source of food.
Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay—they protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy. However, since European settlement of the region in the 17th century, deforestation has taken a toll on the once thriving forests of the mid-Atlantic region. Human influences such as development and parcelization have reduced forest acreage from 95 to about 45 percent of historic coverage.
Deforestation in the Bay region may seem a problem that is too complex to tackle, but one man, dubbed the modern-day Johnny Appleseed, is proof that a little curiosity, passion and hard work can have profound effects on the environment. John Smucker, a Technology Education teacher at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown, Maryland, has become a catalyst for reforestation efforts, melding his engineering experience with restoration initiatives.
Smucker recalls the moment 10 years ago that sparked his interest in forest restoration. “It all started behind my house with a reforestation effort, but all of the trees that were planted slowly died. I didn’t like that so I did a lot of research to help [the trees] out and fell in love with the process, which led me to start dropping acorns into empty tree shelters,” said Smucker.
The moment created a ripple effect that resulted in Smucker spearheading forest restoration by organizing volunteer plantings and entering into a partnership with Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Francis Scott Key Center. Both locations provide space for Smucker to grow the thousands of trees he uses for plantings.
Smucker spends about 700 hours every year in all aspects of creating riparian buffers, like meeting with landowners, auguring the holes, organizing the volunteers and also conducting the most critical part of the process Smucker says, maintenance. Plantings are held on Saturdays during April, May and October – the most opportune months for tree survivability and comfortable outdoor temperatures for volunteers to work.
When choosing planting locations, Smucker explains, “Being a grower really is a game changer for me, because I can fully understand what the trees need to survive.” Once a site is selected, he samples the soil, observes what plant species are in the area, spends time in his greenhouses flagging all of the appropriate trees for the site and rallies his volunteer base around the planting.
When it comes to tree plantings, the name of the game is fun and education. Many of his volunteers are young people who are in a mindset to learn. Each planting is preceded with an ecology lesson highlighting the importance of riparian zones, stream shading and nutrient removal. “As a middle school teacher it is important to organize the event so it’s fun and rewarding, because if they get frustrated, they will associate that frustration with tree planting. If they associate it with fun, then the environmental stewardship will perpetuate a lot better. If it’s organized right and goes smoothly then it’s a feel-good thing, just like in the classroom,“ Smucker explained.
Smucker encourages his students to work out solutions to engineering problems with the tree plantings and challenges them to think up innovative ways to overcome obstacles. “Tree planting and technology education are really the same thing. It’s problem solving and the engineering design process. What is the problem? What is the solution? Evaluate and modify,” said Smucker.
Over the years, Smucker’s volunteer base and partner organizations have expanded to the point where he has been able to launch an organization of his own, Stream Link Education, a nonprofit that organizes and leads tree plantings with local community members, organizations and businesses. “The coolest thing I think we do is Natives for Nonprofits. We grow trees for giveaways to other organizations, which is great because budgets are really tight and donations are hugely welcome. It also helps establish partnerships, not because I want something in return but because it’s neat to make connections,” said Smucker.
Smucker aims to perpetuate choices and actions by providing people with hands on educational experiences. “If you’re excited about something and value it, then demonstrate the value, they [the volunteers] will see it. The excitement can be catching,” he said. He continued to explain that in addition to educating others and improving the environment, his enthusiasm for restoration remains strong because he is still able to grow as well, “I’m going to turn 50 in January and I’m thinking, ‘if I do this right, I’ve got my 50’s and 60’s and if I can stay healthy, I can do this for a long time.’ And that’s great. There is always something to learn.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
These dreary winter days got you down? Fortunately, there's still plenty of color out there! We’ve compiled a list of nine native plants that are particularly beautiful during our coldest season. Go on a scavenger hunt for them, or plan on planting them this spring to brighten up your yard next winter – not to mention provide food and shelter for wildlife all year round.
(Image courtesy Tigermuse/Flickr)
Two varieties of this small tree flower in late winter. Extracts found in witch hazel's bark and leaves help shrink blood vessels back to their normal size. Witch hazel extract is used in medicines, aftershave lotions, and creams that treat insect bites and bruises.
(Image courtesy Mary Keim/Flickr)
Wildlife feed on inkberry’s purplish-black berries, which often persist through the winter. Raccoons, coyotes and opossums eat the berries when other foods are scarce. At least 15 species of birds, including bobwhite quails and wild turkeys, also rely on this plant.
(Image courtesy Wallyg/Flickr)
Winterberry is very easy to grow, and isn’t susceptible to many pests and diseases. Its bright red berries stand out in mid-winter snow and look beautiful in holiday arrangements. Not to mention they provide excellent nutrition for winter wildlife. But be careful – they’re poisonous to humans!
(Image courtesy Patrick Coin/Flickr)
This low-growing shrub has purplish berries that last through the winter. In early summer, staggerbush's unique, urn-shaped flowers will surely accent your landscape beautifully.
(Image courtesy JanetandPhil/Flickr)
Yellow-rumped warblers rely heavily on northern bayberry’s berries, which have a waxy, light blue-purple coating. When this deciduous plant’s leaves are crushed, they give off a spicy scent. Bayberry essential oil is extracted from these leaves and used to scent many products.
(Image courtesy treegrow/Flickr)
Sumac berries are quite sour, so they usually aren't the first choice of wintering wildlife. But they are high in vitamin A and have helped many a bluebird when insects are scarce. Shining sumac’s shrubby nature is perfect for critters looking to take cover.
(Image courtesy flora.cyclam/Flickr)
Staghorn sumac is easily identified by its pointed cluster of reddish fruits, which often last through the winter and into spring. Since it can grow in a variety of conditions, staghorn sumac is perfect for novice gardeners. Humans have used the fruit to make a lemonade-like drink high in vitamin A. Native Americans used the plant to make natural dyes, and often mixed it with tobacco.
(Image courtesy Kingsbrae Garden/Flickr)
Southern arrowwood is an eye-pleaser year-round, with furry, white flowers in summer, wine-red foliage in autumn and dark blue berries in winter. This shrub prefers well-drained soils.
(Image courtesy underthesun/Flickr)
Yellow birch trees even smell like winter; when their twigs scrape together, they give off a slight wintergreen scent. The tree is named for the color of its bark, which will brighten up any winter landscape.
Do you have a favorite native plant that looks great in winter? Tell us about it in the comments! And if you’d like more suggestions for native plants that provide winter interest, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have launched the Native Plant Center, an online guide to help homeowners identify and choose plants that are native to the Chesapeake Bay region.
Users to the website, www.nativeplantcenter.net, can search for native plants by name, plant type, sun exposure, soil texture and moisture. Users can even find native plants with the same characteristics as some of their favorite non-native plants. The website also includes a geo-locator feature to identify plants suited to a user’s specific location.
Planting native plants is an important part of restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Residents who replace their typical backyard landscaping with native plants use less fertilizer and pesticides, provide critical habitat for pollinators, and reduce polluted runoff to storm drains.
The portal uses the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s native plant database, associated with the publication Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
To learn more about native plants, visit www.nativeplantcenter.net.
The birds are chirping, the sun is starting to feel warm on your face, and those afternoon thunderstorms are rolling in. It’s officially spring in the Chesapeake Bay region, which means it’s time to get outside and plant!
If you’ve been looking for a way to help the Chesapeake Bay, planting native plants in your yard is a great way to make a difference. Native plants are adapted to our region's environment, so they need less watering and no fertilizer – which saves you money. Less work, less cost and helpful to the Bay? Sounds great to us!
Here are ten native plants we recommend you plant in your yard this year!
Coneflower (or Echinacea) is a popular, long-lasting perennial that grows 2-5 feet tall. Its bright lavender flowers attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other beneficial wildlife. Coneflower is also known for its herbal remedies as an immune system booster.
Sweetbay magnolia is a slender tree or shrub with pale gray bark. It is native to all the Chesapeake Bay states, except West Virginia. It usually grows 12-20 feet tall, but occasionally reaches 50 feet in the southern part of its range. When in bloom, the plant’s fragrant magnolia flowers open in the morning and close in the evening.
Scarlet beebalm is a popular perennial with tufts of scarlet-red flowers. The 3-foot stems are lined with large, oval, dark green leaves that have a minty aroma. Scarlet beebalm will attract hummingbirds to your garden.
This popular, beautiful shade tree tree grows 40-60 ft. in cultivation, occasionally reaching 100-120 ft. in the wild. Red maple is named for its brilliant red autumn leaves. It has the greatest north-south distribution of any East Coast tree species.
Considered one of the most spectacular native, flowering trees, flowering dogwood is a 20-40 foot, single- or multi-trunked tree with white or pink spring blooms. Its fruit is known to attract birds and deer.
The eastern redbud is a 15-30 foot tree with a purplish or maroon trunk and a wide, umbrella-like crown. Its tight, pink flower clusters bloom before its leaves grow, offering a showy spring display.
Blazing star has long spikes of dense, feathery white or purple flowers that bloom from the top down. Birds, bees and butterflies will be frequent visitors to your garden if you plant these beautiful native flowers.
Boneset’s tiny, white flowers are arranged in fuzzy clusters atop 3-6 foot stems. Early herb doctors thought this plant helped set broken bones. Its leaves were wrapped with bandages around splints.
New York ironweed is a tall perennial, growing 5-8 feet in height. Its clumps of striking, deep reddish-purple flowers attract butterflies.
This perennial grows 2-4 feet tall and has showy, red flowers. Although relatively common, cardinal flower is scarce in some areas due to over-picking. Because most insects have difficulty navigating the plant’s long, tubular flowers, cardinal flower depends on hummingbirds for pollination.
For more information about native plants in our area, check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s special Plants of Chesapeake Bay collection. This database contains hundreds of native plants and a link to a BayScaping guide that will help you use native plants in a Bay-friendly garden.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question comes from Claudia: “This past winter, a tall Japanese pine on [our bay property] uprooted and fell over in one of the storms. I would like to plant some small trees and bushes [to replace it]. What are the best to plant in this area?”
It’s a great idea to learn about plants that are native to our area before taking on a new landscaping project. Native plants are acclimated to the climate, soil and pests in our area. This usually means they require little to no fertilizer and pesticides. Native species also provide better habitat for wildlife such as bees, birds and butterflies, encouraging a healthy ecosystem.
An excellent resource to learn about native plants in our area is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s guide to Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. This document includes a wealth of information about Chesapeake natives.
You can search by type of plant, including:
Once you choose a type of plant, you can select an individual plant by its scientific name for more information, including height, flowering months, fruiting months, soil and light requirements, what wildlife it attracts and other details. For example, switchgrass grows 3-6 feet in clay, loam or sand, and has flowers July through October. It provides food for sparrows and is effective at controlling erosion. All of this information is vital to successful planning and maintaining your native landscape.
You can also search plants that have special purposes, including plants that are good for:
This section is helpful if you are trying to reproduce the natural habitats that plants are used to and to prevent excessive runoff and erosion.
Once you have determined what plants you want to plant, check out one of the following websites to find nurseries that sell native plants:
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events!