Tag Archives: insects

Ramble: Echinacea, and the Bees

EchinaceaDear Readers, It was REALLY hard to write about Echinacea and stay on topic! There was an idea running through my head which I tried to pin down for you, but so many intriguing subjects popped up. Herbal medicine, ethnobotanical uses of the plant, wildlife food value, stories about plant breeders, plant marketing, “snake oil salesmen”, morphology of the Asteraceae, scanning electron microscope photos of pollen…

Echinacea — a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the Asteraceae family. Commonly called Coneflowers, there are 9 species in the genus (according to USDA PLANTS) and they are endemic to Eastern and Central North America. The word Echinacea comes from a Greek word meaning “spiny”, (as in Echinoidea, the word for sea urchin,  ) and refers to the stiff, bristly center disk of the flower.

EchinaceaEchinacea is a great perennial garden plant. It is tough, drought tolerant, cold tolerant, and not invasive! They are impressively able to hold their own against insects and diseases as well. Three species —Echinacea purpureaEchinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida, have been utilized in creating new garden cultivars. There have been so many cultivars released in the past 10-12 years that it’s hard to keep track. One website I checked had 28, and another lists 53!

Echinacea trialThere are a few Echinaceas which can be started from seed in January to flower the first season. ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ is one. This is unusual in a perennial plant and lots of fun for the gardener! Seeds for the All- America Selections Display Garden have arrived and they include the appealing ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ Echinacea cultivar. It’s shorter and stockier than the species Echinaceas, which can be 3 or even 4 feet tall. It is a rainbow of warm color tones, rich orangey red, paler orange, yellow, gold, pink, and cream. A sturdy little plant with long-lasting pretty flowers –what could be better?


It’s not so busy in the garden and I have been thinking a lot and reading a lot about honey bees, being a beekeeper as well as a gardener. Everyone knows that it is hard times for the bees! Diseases, mites, lack of forage, and chemicals of all kinds are combining to take their toll.  Last year I observed that bees and other pollinators love Echinacea purpurea, which we have here in the garden. But the ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ and other recent cultivars had no pollinators visiting them. Like many flowers that have been “engineered” for certain qualities by plant breeders, they may no longer be particularly attractive to insects.

butterfly on echinacea“…When it comes to ornamental flowers, plant breeders select for beauty. What you lose in this process are many of the characteristics that made the flower attractive to pollinators in the first place. By selecting only for beauty, for example, you may lose fragrance, sweet nectar, nutritious pollen—or any number of things that the pollinators liked. This loss of pollinator-attracting features … happens in all sorts of flowers from roses to pansies. It is the main reason why people interested in planting native bee habitat or wild pollinator habitat are encouraged to plant either native species or heirloom species that have not been highly manipulated. The important thing to remember is that the flowers most attractive to humans are often not those most attractive to pollinators.” (From “Who Pollinates the Daffodils?” by Rusty Berlew of Honey Bee Suite. Read the original article here.)

echinaceaIt seems to me that much has been lost in this type of “improvement”.  I am certainly not against improvement; for example, some hybrid vegetables have a welcome place in my garden. Disease resistance, drought tolerance, heat tolerance; these are plant “improvements” that we probably could not live without. And I am not against beauty, but I think in this case I find the beauty in Nature and her system of plants and pollinators who go hand-in-hand.

honey bee on echinaceaTo conclude, I will just say that I don’t want “beautiful” to outweigh “useful” in my garden. I want both! I would love to know what plants and varieties you find attractive to honeybees and other pollinators in your gardens. And another day I will fill you in on some of those other topics which distracted me today.


September Sights


Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’   ‘Indian Summer’,  I think!  That’s what happens when I let everything seed in…


Rosa ‘Dortmund’

locust borer beetle

Megacyllene robiniae, the Locust Borer Beetle. A new one to me!

ant and bee

Apis mellifera, warming my beekeeper’s heart, and an ant (Lasius niger??) on Hydrangea ‘Tardiva’.

goldenrod and physostegia

Solidago and Physostegia, the colors of September.



By my way of looking at it, this is a pretty good growing year. After a long cold spring, most of the summer has brought great weather. Not too hot or humid, just warm, sunny, and pleasant, with cool nights —  a reminder of why in the days before air-conditioning, people would come north to New England for the summer. The soil is dry now, and a rainy day or two would be good, but still, I’ll take it! So many things have grown so well this season (and it’s not QUITE over!) that I wanted to share a few.

marigoldsOrange flowers and vegetables are everywhere this year!

AAS zinniaNumex peppersungoldMostly I like them, some, well, with so many great petunias to choose from, why would you plant this one:ugly petuniasBut on to other abundant things!

More raspberries (almost) than I could put up, in my home garden.

raspberriesA second cutting of hay in South County:

cutting hayHornet’s nests, big and beautiful in their own way:

hornets, larchhornet, rhodiesFlowers and fruit of all kinds.

bee balmblueberries

Did something grow really well for you this year? I’d love to hear about it!

Featured Plant: Venus Flytrap

Dionaea muscipula

A while back I wrote about our Bog full of carnivorous plants, including the strange little Venus Flytrap, in  ” Creatures-from-the-Black-Lagoon/ “.

Last week my favorite blog, Botany Photo of the Day from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, featured the Venus Flytrap. It linked to a video of an insect being captured by the plant. I have spent plenty of time staring at Venus Flytraps but I don’t think I ever saw one in action. It’s really fast!

Technical ridiculousness prevents me from actually getting the video up, so here is the BPotD writeup, with the link:

“Today we have an image of Dionaea muscipula, by Anne Elliott (aka annkelliott@Flickr), who also provided the photo of the Oxalis for the series. A photograph of this species showing its completed nastic movement is available via the Botany Photo of the Day Flickr Pool: see Rob Co’s photograph of Dionaea muscipula. Thank you Anne and Rob for sharing your great shots!

To finish off the series on nastic movements, I couldn’t resist including Dionaea muscipula or the Venus flytrap. This species exhibits seismonasty or thigmonasty, which is the nastic movement due to a touch stimulus (see a video: Venus flytrap capturing prey). This type of nastic movement was also highlighted in the first entry of the series on Mimosa pudica.

Dionaea muscipula is native to North Carolina and South Carolina in the USA. Populations of plants recorded in New Jersey and Florida are often considered to be exotic introductions. Due to its special qualities, Venus flytrap is also a popular houseplant.

As noted above, Venus flytrap is a carnivorous species that traps and digests insects for a source of nitrogen. The modified leaves of this species consist of an upper and lower portion. The lower portion, a flat stalk, terminates with the two-lobed upper portion (with the lobes joined by the midrib). Each lobe is lined with comb-like bristles. The red-coloured centre of the trap contains three sensitive trigger hairs (seen clearly in Anne’s image). When stimulated by touch, the trap shuts by means of electrochemical signals. The trap may take several minutes to close fully. Once closed, it will remain so for 5-7 days in order for the plant to secrete enzymes and digest the insect (see: Volkov, AG et al. 2008. Kinetics and Mechanisms of Dionaea muscipula Trap Closing. Plant Physiology. 146(2):694-702).”

There are a number of Venus Flytrap videos on youtube but the one linked above ( Venus flytrap capturing prey ) on Wikipedia is by far the best one I’ve seen.

Dionaea muscipulaDionaea muscipulaVenus Flytraps are easy to grow at home. There are just a few things to remember since they do not grow like your average houseplant.

1.They like full sun.

2. Pot them up in sphagnum moss and sit the pot in a saucer of water. They need to be that wet, after all, they are bog plants. Don’t let them dry out. Change the water occasionally so it stays somewhat clean.

3. Don’t fertilize! A bog is a low fertility environment; that’s why the flytraps eat insects: to supplement their diet. Fertilizer will kill them!

4. Don’t feed them –they have evolved to feed themselves. Feeding will kill them.

5. Opening and closing takes a large amount of energy for the plant. If you touch it to make it close repeatedly, it will become weak and die.

6. From the Logee’s Greenhouse website: “Maintain a minimum temperature of 30°F . They prefer cool night temperatures for two months during the winter to induce a dormant period. Night temperatures in the high 30’s to low 40’s are ideal. A cool, neglected windowsill is perfect. During active growth, we keep them warm, above 60°, which speeds up growth.”

So, this is a houseplant that does well being left alone (except for water). If you are curious about other carnivorous plants or would like more information about the Flytraps, the International Carnivorous Plant Society  can tell you everything you need to know, and more.


I had the good fortune this weekend to be in a very beautiful place:yawgoo pondyawgoo pondIt looks like Maine, but is actually close to home here in Rhode Island.

There were some fantastic looking mushrooms which popped up after the late afternoon squall on Friday:cortinarius iodescortinarius iodes

I am pretty sure it is Cortinarius iodes, the Viscid Violet Cort (!) Cortinarius iodes forms mycorrhizal associations with deciduous  trees, particularly oaks.

Other plants caught my eye–moss growing among the tree roots like a landscape:


A fuzzy/spiny white caterpillar on the bayberry near the edge of the water:

hickory tussock mothI think it is Lophocampa caryae, the hickory tussock moth. Plenty of hickory around the pond, as well as oak, white pine, and swamp maple.

deer printsDeer left footprints on the sandy edge of the pond, although I did not see them. I heard barred owls in the night, and coyotes.

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”

Garden Glory in July

Monarda 'Cambridge Scarlet'

Bee Balm (Monarda) ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ in the sunny border.

hydrangea 'Endless Summer'

Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ , cool blue like nothing else in the garden.


Lots of Echinacea in “Jo-Anne’s Garden” near the Outreach Center.

globe thistle and day lily

Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) and Day Lilies (Hemerocallis) thrive in a hot and sunny spot.


An unknown-to-me pollinator on Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) west of the greenhouse.

Tiny Predators

praying mantis egg case

Praying Mantis egg case with newly hatched mantid.

Jamie’s Praying Mantids hatched ahead of schedule and she released some from their rearing container into the Horridge Conservatory.

newly hatched mantis

Beginning to leave the container.

newly hatched mantids

The mantids are very small but will grow quickly.

The mantids love to eat aphids, which are not in abundance here. They don’t go for scales or mealybugs, because they hunt insects which are moving. So we put them on a plant where I had seen some thrips — thrips are really fast.

newly hatched mantids

Off to look for food.

Check out this post from the Archives,  “Insect Dreams” , for pictures and some fun facts about the Praying Mantis.

newly hatched mantids

Featured Plant: Welwitschia mirabilis


The Horridge Conservatory is fortunate to have a specimen of a weird and wonderful plant: Welwitschia. (Thank you, Arielle!) Mirabilis is the only species in the genus and Welwitschia is the only genus in the family Welwitschiaceae. It is native to the Namib Desert on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Namibia and Angola.

What makes it so unusual? An adult Welwitschia consists of only two leaves, a stem base and roots. Its two permanent leaves are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling– they continue to grow and are never shed. Those two leaves grow from a basal meristem in the plant’s terminal groove. They eventually grow to a length of 2 – 4 meters and become split, frayed and shredded into several well-separated strap-shaped sections which lie on the ground. This gives the appearance in older plants of having many leaves, but there really are only two.

welwitschia mirabilis

The stem is low, woody, and obconical in shape. It grows to about 500 mm in height. There are separate male and female plants. Welwitschia produces cones but is not wind pollinated as most cone-bearing plants are. It is pollinated by flies, true bugs, and most commonly, the Welwitschia bug, Odontopus sexpunctatus.

welwitschia bug

Welwitschia is ecologically highly specialized, and is adapted to grow under arid conditions receiving regular fog. This regular, dense fog is formed when the cold north-flowing Benguela Current meets the hot air coming off the Namib Desert. The fog develops during the night and usually subsides by about 10 a.m The broad, downward drooping leaves collect condensation, which drips down onto the plant’s own root zone. It also has numerous stomata on both leaf surfaces and fog-water is taken up directly through these stomata. The fog has been estimated to contribute 50 mm in annual rainfall! A long taproot reaches deep for underground water in this part of the world which often receives less than100 mm of rain a year.

According to the Wikipedia article “Welwitschia”,

“Although Welwitschia mirabilis is not at present immediately threatened, there being abundant populations over a large area, its status is far from secure; its recruitment and growth rates are low, and its range, though wide, covers only a single compact, ecologically limited and vulnerable area.”

Welwitschia mirabilis in the Namib Desert.

It is interesting that it is possible, and not even terribly difficult, to grow Welwitschia as a house plant. A few Botanical Gardens (but not URI) offer seed for sale on line. The greatest danger to the germinating seeds is fungal infection. A very sandy soil mix helps reduce this risk. There is a great article on germinating and growing Welwitschia at home on the Planzafrica website, as well as information about the discovery of the plant by Friedrich Welwitsch.

Welwitschia mirabilis is thought to live 1,000 years or more!


Young Welwitschia mirabilis plant in the desert area of the Horridge Conservatory.