“Eighty percent of flowering plants require a critter to pollinate them – most of them are bees,” said Dr. Brenda Kiessling, as she led the group along a path at the White House Farm Foundation. “If we want to keep a variety of plants growing we need to support our pollinators – they are responsible for alfalfa, almonds, broccoli, and many other crops.”
Despite the humid heat of the July morning, a group of participants from Luray and the surrounding area gathered at the farm for the first ever riparian ‘Naturalist Stroll’, organized by Chris Anderson, executive director of the White House Farm Foundation. They were interested in plant identification, methods of controlling invasives, which species best support our native pollinators, and which plants rank as the best wild edibles.
The group walked along, discussing wingstem, vipers bugloss, teasel and rudbeckia, all of which were in bloom. A swallowtail butterfly alighted on a thistle blossom, pausing briefly for the photographers in the group. It passed over the Japanese knapweed, a prolific non-native and alighted again on a wand of sweet white clover, a favorite of honeybees. We stopped to admire a very strange origami home knit by an unknown creature. Charles Layton, urban forester for Fairfax County, said that a leafroller might have fashioned this.
In the riparian area, several plants abound which are a delicacy to humans as well as wildlife. Bees flock to the bold and statuesque pokeweed, often growing conveniently close to lamb’s quarters. These two plants comprise a delicacy in the spring for hungry foragers, eager for fresh wild greens after a long winter.
“You can freeze the pokeweed berries in the summer to give the birds in the winter,” said Jack Price, president of the Old Rag Chapter of Master Naturalists. Just be extra careful to label them clearly so they don’t get mixed up in your freezer and end up on your breakfast cereal – they are very poisonous to humans. The edible part of the plant are the young shoots and leaves, harvested in the spring at a height no taller than eight inches.
A bumblebee with legs laden with pollen paused next to the bright bloom of a plains coreopsis and Dr. Kiessling pointed out that bees carry pollen back to their homes in tiny pollen carrying sacks called ‘scopa’. In bumblebees, these are located on the hind legs. She explained that the native pollinators are having a hard time of it, with habitat decrease and a lack of nutrition when large monoculture crops are planted. When the variety of pollen available to bees decreases, so does the health of the bee population.
“Farmers, landowners, municipalities, schools, churches, etc. can do a lot to assist bees by planting a variety of crops which support them with nectar and pollen. These include native trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, etc.”
According to Beekeeping, An Illustrated Handbook by Diane G. Stelley, a single tulip poplar blossom can have as much as a half teaspoon of nectar in it. According to the book, the honey is dark brown and has a mild, quince-like flavor. Tulip poplars grow tall, provide shade trees and have beautiful shape for landscaping.
For more information on bees, native plants, and the exquisite balance between then, read the book Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. Mr. Tallamy is the keynote speaker at the upcoming 8th Annual Native Eastern Grass Symposium, October 1-4, 2012 in Charlottesville, Virginia. From the website the symposium is described as ‘plac[ing] special emphasis on the role that native grasses can play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Sessions will feature topics related to biofuels, ecosystem restoration, forages, seed production/landscaping, land reclamation (mines, landfills) wildlife management and other relevant issues for native grasses in the eastern United States and Canada. The program will include several field trips to selected sites in Virginia and hands on workshops.