Seed Dispersal via Caching – The Story of Antelope Bitterbrush

Generally speaking, individual plants produce an enormous amount of seeds. This may seem like a huge waste of resources, but the reality is that while each seed has the potential to grow into an adult plant that will one day produce seeds of its own, relatively few may achieve this. Some seeds will be eaten before they get a chance to germinate. Others germinate and soon die from lack of water, disease, or herbivory. Those that make it past the seedling stage continue to face similar pressures. Reaching adulthood, then, is a remarkable achievement.

Antelope bitterbrush is a shrub that produces hundreds of seeds per individual. Each seed is about the size of an apple seed. Some seeds may be eaten right away. Others fall to the ground and are ignored. But a large number are collected by rodents and either stored in burrows (larder hoarding) or in shallow depressions in the soil (scatter hoarding). It is through caching that antelope bitterbrush seeds are best dispersed. When rodents fail to return to caches during the winter, the seeds are free to sprout in the spring. Some of the seedlings will dry out and others will be eaten, but a few will survive, making the effort to produce all those seeds worth it in the end.

Fruits forming on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata)

Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is in the rose family and is often simply referred to as bitterbrush. It occurs in grasslands, shrub steppes, and dry woodlands throughout large sections of western North America. It is a deciduous shrub that generally reaches between three and nine feet tall but can grow up to twelve feet. It has wedge-shaped leaves that are green on top, grayish on bottom, and three-lobed. Flowers are yellow, strongly fragrant, and similar in appearance to others in the rose family. Flowering occurs mid-spring to early summer. Fruits are achenes – single seeds surrounded by papery or leathery coverings. The covering must rot away or be removed by animals before the seed can germinate.

Bitterbrush is an important species for wildlife. It is browsed by mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates, including livestock. It provides cover for birds, rodents, reptiles, and ungulates. Its seeds are collected by harvester ants and rodents, its foliage is consumed by tent caterpillars and other insects, and its flowers are visited by a suite of pollinators. For all that it offers to the animal kingdom, it also relies on it for pollination and seed dispersal. The flowers of bitterbrush are self-incompatible, and if it wasn’t for ants and rodents, the heavy seeds – left to rely on wind and gravity – would have trouble getting any further than just a few feet from the parent plant.

Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in full bloom – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In a study published in The American Naturalist (February 1993), Stephen Vander Wall reported that yellow pine chipmunks were the primary dispersal agents of bitterbrush seeds in his Sierra Nevada study area. The optimal depth for seedling establishment was between 10-30 millimeters. Seeds that are cached too near the surface risk being pushed out of the ground during freeze and thaw cycles where they can desiccate upon germination. Cached bitterbrush seeds benefit when there are several seeds per cache because, as Vander Wall notes, “clumps of seedlings are better able to push through the soil and can establish from greater depths than single seedlings.”

Another study by Vander Wall, published in Ecology (October 1994), reiterated the importance of seed caching by yellow pine chipmunks in the establishment of bitterbrush seedlings. Seed caches, which consisted of anywhere from two to over a hundred seeds, were located as far as 25 meters from the parent plant. Cached seeds are occasionally moved to another location, but Vander Wall found that even these secondary caches produce seedlings. Of course, not all of the seedlings that sprout grow to maturity. Vander Wall states, “attrition over the years gradually reduces the number of seedlings within clumps.” Yet, more than half of the mature shrubs he observed in his study consisted of two or more individuals, leading him to conclude that “they arose from rodent caches.”

A study published in the Journal of Range Management (January 1996) looked at the herbivory of bitterbrush seedlings by rodents. In the introduction the authors discuss how “rodents [may] not only benefit from antelope bitterbrush seed caches as a future seed source, but also benefit from the sprouting of their caches as they return to graze the cotyledons of germinating seeds.”  In this study, Ord’s kangaroo rats, deer mice, and Great Basin pocket mice were all observed consuming bitterbrush seedlings, preferring them even when millet was offered as an alternative. The two species of mice also dug up seedlings, possibly searching for ungerminated seeds. Despite seed dispersal via caching, an overabundance of rodents can result in few bitterbrush seedlings reaching maturity.

A cluster of antelope bitterbrush seedlings that has been browsed. “Succulent, young seedlings are thought to be important in the diets of rodents during early spring because of the nutrients and water they contain.” — Vander Wall (1994)

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Photos of antelope bitterbrush seedling clusters were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden, where numerous clusters are presently on display along the pathways of the native plant gardens and the adjoining natural areas. 

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In Praise of Poison Ivy

This is a guest post by Margaret Gargiullo. Visit her website, Plants of Suburbia, and check out her books for sale on Amazon.

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No one seems to like Toxicodendron radicans, but poison ivy is an important plant in our urban and suburban natural areas. Poison ivy (Anacardiaceae, the cashew family) is a common woody vine, native to the United States and Canada from Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Michigan and Texas. It is also found in Central America as far south as Guatemala. It is all but ubiquitous in natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic United States. It has been recorded in over 70 wooded parks and other natural areas in New York City.

Leaflets of three? Let if be. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). photo credit: wikimedia commons

Leaflets of three? Let if be. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Poison ivy does have certain drawbacks for many people who are allergic to its oily sap. The toxins in poison ivy sap are called urushiols, chemicals containing a benzene ring with two hydroxyl groups (catechol) and an alkyl group of various sorts (CnHn+1).

These chemicals can cause itching and blistering of skin but they are made by the plant to protect it from being eaten by insects and vertebrate herbivores such as rabbits and deer.

Poison ivy is recognized in summer by its alternate leaves with three, shiny leaflets and by the hairy-looking aerial roots growing along its stems. In autumn the leaves rival those of sugar maple for red and orange colors. Winter leaf buds are narrow and pointed, without scales (naked). It forms extensive colonies from underground stems and can cover large areas of the forest floor with an understory of vertical stems, especially in disturbed woodlands and edges. However, It generally only blooms and sets fruit when it finds a tree to climb. When a poison ivy stem encounters a tree trunk, or other vertical surface, it clings tightly with its aerial roots and climbs upward, reaching for the light (unlike several notorious exotic vines, it does not twine around or strangle trees). Once it has found enough light, it sends out long, horizontal branches that produce flowers and fruit.

Flowers of poison ivy are small and greenish-white, not often noticed, except by the honeybees and native bees which visit them for nectar and exchange pollen among the flowers. Honey made from poison ivy nectar is not toxic. Fruits of poison ivy are small, gray-white, waxy-coated berries that can remain on the vine well into winter. They are eaten by woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers, and other birds. Crows use poison ivy berries as crop grist (instead of, or along with, small stones) and are major dispersers of the seeds.

The fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) - photo credit: Daniel Murphy

The fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – photo credit: Daniel Murphy

It is as a ground cover that poison ivy performs its most vital functions in urban and suburban woodlands. It can grow in almost any soil from dry, sterile, black dune sand, to swamp forest edges, to concrete rubble in fill soils, and along highways. It enjoys full sun but can grow just fine in closed canopy woodlands. It is an ideal ground cover, holding soil in place on the steepest slopes, while collecting and holding leaf litter and sticks that decay to form rich humus. It captures rain, causing the water to sink into the ground, slowing runoff, renewing groundwater, filtering out pollutants, and helping to prevent flooding.

Poison ivy is usually found with many other plants growing up through it – larger herbs, shrubs, and tree seedlings that also live in the forest understory. It seems to “get along” with other plants, unlike Japanese honeysuckle or Asian bittersweet, which crowd out or smother other plants. Poison ivy is also important as shelter for birds and many invertebrates.

While those who are severely allergic to poison ivy have reason to dislike and avoid it, Toxicodendron radicans has an important place in our natural areas. No one would advocate letting it grow in playgrounds, picnic areas, or along heavily used trail margins, but it belongs in our woods and fields and should be treated with respect, not hatred. Recognize it but don’t root it out.

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Further Reading: Uva, R. H., J.C. Neal and J. M. DiTomaso. 1997. Weeds of the Northeast. Comstock Publishing. Ithaca, NY.

This piece was originally published in the New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation, Daily Plant.

Drought Tolerant Plants: The Yarrows

Few plants are as ubiquitous and widespread as the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. A suite of strategies have made this plant highly successful in a wide variety of habitats, and it is a paragon in terms of reproduction. Its unique look, simple beauty, and tolerance of tough spots have made it a staple in many gardens; however, its hardiness, profuseness, and bullish behavior have also earned it the title, “weed.” Excess water encourages this plant to spread, but in a dry garden it tends to stay put (or at least remain manageable), which is why it and several of its cousins are often included in or recommended for water efficient landscapes.

Achillea millefolium - common yarrow

Achillea millefolium – common yarrow

Common yarrow is in the aster family (Asteraceae) and is one of around 85 species in the genus Achillea. It is distributed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. European plants have long been introduced to North America, and hybridization has occurred many times among the two genotypes.

Yarrow begins as a small rosette of very finely dissected leaves that are feathery or fern-like in appearance. These characteristic leaves explain its specific epithet, millefolium, and common names like thousand-leaf. Slightly hairy stems with alternately arranged leaves arise from the rosettes and are capped with a wide, flat-topped cluster of tightly-packed flowers. The flower stalks can be less than one foot to more than three feet tall. The flowers are tiny, numerous, and consist of both ray and disc florets. Flowers are usually white but sometimes pink.

The plants produce several hundred to several thousand seeds each. The seeds are enclosed in tiny achene-like fruits which are spread by wind and gravity. Yarrow also spreads and reproduces rhizomatously. Its roots are shallow but fibrous and abundant, and they easily spread horizontally through the soil. If moisture, sun, and space are available, yarrow will quickly expand its territory. Its extensive root system and highly divided leaves, which help reduce transpiration rates, are partly what gives yarrow the ability to tolerate dry conditions.

john eastman

Illustration of Achillea millifolium by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman, which has an excellent entry about yarrow.

Common yarrow has significant wildlife value. While its pungent leaves are generally avoided by most herbivorous insects, its flowers are rich in nectar and attract bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, and even mosquitoes. Various insects feed on the flowers, and other insects visit yarrow to feed on the insects that are feeding on the plant. Despite its bitterness, the foliage is browsed by a variety of birds, small mammals, and deer. Some birds use the foliage in constructing their nests. Humans have also used yarrow as a medicinal herb for thousands of years to treat a seemingly endless list of ailments.

Yarrow’s popularity as an ornamental plant has resulted in the development of numerous cultivars that have a variety of flower colors including shades of pink, red, purple, yellow, and gold. While Achillea millefolium may be the most widely available species in its genus, there are several other drought-tolerant yarrows that are also commercially available and worth considering for a dry garden.

Achillea filipendulina, fern-leaf yarrow, is native to central and southwest Asia. It forms large, dense clusters of yellow-gold flowers on stalks that reach four feet high. Its leaves are similar in appearance to A. millefolium. Various cultivars are available, most of which have flowers that are varying shades of yellow or gold.

Achillea alpina, Siberian yarrow, only gets about half as tall as A. filipendulina. It occurs in Siberia, parts of Russia, China, Japan, and several other Asian countries. It also occurs in Canada. Unlike most other species in the genus, its leaves have a glossy appearance and are thick and somewhat leathery. Its flowers are white to pale violet. A. alpina is synonymous with A. sibirica, and ‘Love Parade’ is a popular cultivar derived from the subspecies camschatica.

Achillea x lewisii ‘King Edward,’ a hybrid between A. tomentosa (woolly yarrow) and A. clavennae (silvery yarrow), stays below six inches tall and forms a dense mat of soft leaves that have a dull silver-gray-green appearance. Its compact clusters of flowers are pale yellow to cream colored. Cultivars of A. tomentosa are also available.

Achillea ptarmica, a European native with bright white flowers, and A. ageritafolia, a native of Greece and Bulgaria that is low growing with silvery foliage and abundant white flowers can also be found in the horticulture trade along with a handful of others. Whatever your preferences are, there is a yarrow out there for you. Invasiveness and potential for escape into natural areas should always be a concern when selecting plants for your garden, especially when considering a plant as robust and successful as yarrow. That in mind, yarrow should make a great addition to nearly any drought-tolerant, wildlife friendly garden.

More Drought Tolerant Plants Posts:

Podcast Review: Native Plant Podcast

Always on the lookout for more podcasts to listen to, I somehow stumbled upon Native Plant Podcast. I wish I could remember the rabbit hole I went down that brought me to this masterpiece, but I can’t. What I do remember is being hesitant at first. I am all for calling things what they are. A restaurant called “Restaurant?” Why not? A podcast about native plants called “Native Plant Podcast?” Sure. It’s not the most creative name, but it works. What I was worried about, though, was that a podcast calling itself after native plants was going to be preachy, pushy…or just dull.

Yet I work with native plants every day(!), and I love them – so my initial judgement must say more about myself than anything else. Despite my hesitation – and my inclination to judge a podcast by its cover – I gave it a shot. I’m so glad that I did, because what I found was a highly informative show that is simultaneously delightful, fun, goofy, and entertaining. It’s a podcast that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts and their guests share an important message about the benefits of native plant gardening, and they do so with passion and a sense of urgency while remaining lighthearted and approachable.

native plant podcast logo and sign

Native Plant Podcast is young. The first episode came out in January 2016. It is run by three individuals that met at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina (a conference that is often mentioned on the podcast). Mike Berkeley and John Magee are the regular hosts; Jesse Turner mainly operates behind the scenes but makes appearances on a few episodes. They each have their own nursery and/or landscaping businesses that deal largely with native plants. Together they have decades of experience working with native plants. In an episode with Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Mike makes the comment that they “were into native plants before it got cool.” Several of the guests that have been on the podcast so far can say the same thing.

One such guest is Miriam Goldberger, owner of Wildflower Farm and author of Taming Wildflowers, who appears on two episodes (part 1 and part 2). Other notable guests include Thomas Rainer, co-outhor of Planting in a Post-Wild World, and David Mizejewski, a naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. So far all of the guests have been great, and since the the podcast has only been around for a few months, it is easy to catch up on past episodes.

As someone who enjoys sitting around talking about plants, this podcast is perfect since much of the “airtime” is taken up by such discussions. The episodes about winter interest and spring gardening are particularly great for this sort of thing. Two other standout episodes are the introductory episode, in which Mike and John discuss how they got started working with native plants, and the episode about defining native plants, in which Mike, John, and Jesse all take a crack at coming up with a definition. A topic that comes up often on the podcast is native plant cultivars (John understandably cringes each time he hears the portmanteau of “native” and “cultivar”), which seems to be a controversial topic in the native plant world.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) - one of Mike and John's favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) – one of Mike and John’s favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In each episode of the podcast there is an interview/discussion followed by three short segments: listener questions, stories about dogs or other pets (the hosts really love their dogs), and a toast (in which the hosts pop open their beers in front of the microphone for all to hear). The twitter bio for the Native Plant Podcast sums it up well: “A podcast started by a group of goofballs to highlight the beauty and functionality of native plants in the landscape.” These goofballs really know their stuff, and I highly recommend listening to their show.

Bonus quote from the episode with Neil Diboll:

Everybody says they love Mother Nature, but if you look at people’s yards, very few people actually invite her over. Most people have lawns that are mown to within an inch or two of their lives, and the typical American garden is like a big pile of mulch with a few perennials stuck in it or maybe a few shrubs stuck in it. These are really non-functional gardens from a standpoint of an ecological approach, so bringing your landscaping to life is creating ecological gardens that are not just for the owner of the property, but for all life that you can attract to the land for which you are the steward.

Drought Tolerant Plants: The Junipers

When I first developed a real interest in plants, I was in the heyday of my zine writing career. As my interest in gardening grew, writing a zine about it became inevitable. Initially I envisioned the zine as a journal of sorts – the journal of a budding horticulturist (pun intentional). Since I was new to gardening – and plants in general – the zine was meant to follow my journey as I explored this new world.

A zine needs a name though, so what would I call it? It didn’t take long for me to land on, The Juniper. I was familiar with a common disdain for the unsightly, overgrown, neglected, evergreen shrub full of spiders and cobwebs that for whatever reason was at one point planted right outside just about every house in America (a fire hazard, by the way). I was aware that many people were resorting to tearing them out, cursing as they battled the pokey, dirty, half dead things.

That was basically all I knew about junipers – they were common landscape plants that were just as commonly despised. My affection for freaks, geeks, outsiders, and rejects led me to name my zine after a shrub that everyone hated. I guess I just felt like we had something in common, and that despite being the bane of people’s existence, it deserved some recognition.

the juniper zine

And it does. Junipers are an important species in their natural habitats. In some areas they are dominant features to the point where entire plant communities are named after them. Consider the piñon-juniper woodlands of western North America – prominent steppe habitats that occur throughout high desert regions and support diverse forms of wildlife unique to this part of the world. Dan Johnson writes in the book, Steppes, “the piñon-juniper zone dominates huge expanses of the West in varying stages of  health, providing a wealth of habitats and resources to the wildlife and the people who call it home.”

Johnson goes on to describe some of these habitats:

In the Colorado Plateau this zone is dominated by Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma, with J. scopulorum occupying drainages with more moisture. In the Great Basin, P. edulis is replaced by P. monophylla as the dominant piñon pine, still mixing with J. osteosperma, yet as one moves west, this juniper is increasingly replaced by J. occidentalis. Move farther north, and J. occidentalis dominates completely, with neither piñon pine making an appearance.

The genus Juniperus is in the cypress family (Cupressaceae) and includes up to 67 species, at least 13 of which are native to North America. They are long-lived plants that range from prostrate, sprawling groundcovers to expansive, bushy shrubs to tall, narrow trees. Their foliage is evergreen and can be either needle-like or scale-like. Most juniper species have needle-like foliage in their seedling and juvenile stages and then scale-like foliage at maturity. Some species, like J. communis, never develop scale-like foliage. Junipers are gymnosperms, so their reproductive structures are housed in cones. However, their cones are fleshy and so are commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as berries or fruits. Juniper cones are most often blue or gray-blue, but in some species they have a red, brown, or orange hue.

In general, junipers are quite drought tolerant, particularly those species that are adapted to hot, dry climates. Again referring to piñon-juniper steppes, Johnson writes, “in prolonged periods of drought, the piñon pines seem to suffer long before the junipers; whole hillsides of pine may go brown, leaving islands of olive-green juniper relatively unscathed.” In the book, Shrubs of the Great Basin, Hugh Mozingo attributes this drought toughness to the scale-like leaves: “Because they are smaller and so closely appressed to the twigs, these scale-like leaves are a superior adaptation to the frequently very dry conditions in piñon-juniper communities.” This herculean ability to survive on little water makes them a great addition to a dry garden.

But we may first have to get over our disdain for them. As this post on Chicago Botanic Garden’s website puts it: “Junipers have suffered from overuse and underimagination.” (This article also examines our hatred of juniper bushes). Probably a bigger problem is that, like so many other plants used in a landscape, mature height and width often isn’t taken into consideration, and rather than removing a plant when it gets too big for the site, sheers or a hedge trimmer are regularly deployed. I’m not a huge fan of the sheered look. I much prefer a more natural form to the boxes and globes that are so common in commercial and residential plantings. I’m even less of a fan of the misguided inclination to force a plant to fit in a space that it isn’t meant to be (unless you’re a bonsai artist, I guess). This treatment is what leads to exposing the ugly, brown insides of a juniper shrub – an unsightly look that only makes people hate them more.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in a site that is too small for its britches.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in an improper site.

There are numerous commercially available cultivars of juniper species, offering a plethora of sizes, shapes, and forms as well as various colors of foliage. For small or narrow areas, select dwarf varieties or columnar forms that won’t need to be kept in check, and in all cases let the plant express its authentic self, controlling the urge to sheer and shape it against its will.

As if their natural beauty and low water requirement wasn’t enough, junipers are also great for supporting wildlife. Birds and other animals use them for cover and for nesting sites. The fleshy cones are edible, the shredding bark is used for nesting material, and the evergreen foliage provides much needed protection during winter months. Oh and, among many other benefits that junipers offer humans, their aromatic, fleshy cones have culinary value and are used to flavor gin.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am opposed to pruning and shaping shrubs. For aesthetic reasons, I think it should be done. However, my opinion is that unnatural shapes should be avoided. Sure, boxed hedge rows have their place in certain types of gardens, but my preference is towards more natural shapes. The following video by University of Illinois Extension provides a brief tutorial on how to achieve that.   

Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Since Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy was first published in 2007, it has quickly become somewhat of a “classic” to proponents of native plant gardening. As such a proponent, I figured I ought to put in my two cents. Full disclosure: this is less of a review and more of an outright endorsement. I’m fawning, really, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

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The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.” Ninety three pages into the book, Tallamy elaborates further: “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.” And one of every country’s richest assets, as far as I’m concerned. “But isn’t that why we have nature preserves?” one might ask. “We can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity,” Tallamy asserts in the Q & A portion of his book. Humans have altered every landscape – urban, suburban, rural, and beyond – leaving species of all kinds threatened everywhere. This means that efforts to protect biodiversity must occur everywhere. This is where the You comes in. Each one of us can play a part, no matter how small. In closing, Tallamy claims, “We can each make a difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby.”

A plant is considered native to an area if it shares a historical evolutionary relationship with the other organisms in that area. This evolutionary relationship is important because the interactions among organisms that developed over thousands, even millions, of years are what define a natural community. Thus, as Tallamy argues, “a plant can only function as a true ‘native’ while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.” A garden designed to benefit wildlife and preserve biodiversity is most effective when it includes a high percentage of native plants because other species native to the area are already adapted to using them.

Plants (and algae) are at the base of every food chain – the first trophic level – because they produce their own food using the sun’s energy. Organisms that are primarily herbivores are at the second trophic level, organisms that primarily consume herbivores are at the third trophic level, and so on. As plants have evolved they have developed numerous defenses to keep from being eaten. Herbivores that evolved along with those plants have evolved the ability to overcome those defenses. This is important because if herbivores can’t eat the plants then they can’t survive, and if they don’t survive then there will be little food for organisms at higher trophic levels.

The most important herbivores are insects simply because they are so abundant and diverse and, thus, are a major food source for species at higher trophic levels. The problem is that, as Tallamy learned, “most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history.” Insects are specialized as to which plants they can eat because they have adapted ways to overcome the defenses that said plants have developed to keep things from eating them. Healthy, abundant, and diverse insect populations support biodiversity at higher trophic levels, but such insect populations won’t exist without a diverse community of native plants with which the insects share an evolutionary history.

That is essentially the thesis of Tallamy’s book. In a chapter entitled “Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?” Tallamy expounds on the specialized relationships between plants and insects that have developed over millennia. Plants introduced from other areas have not formed such relationships and are thus used to a much lesser degree than their native counterparts. Research concerning this topic was scarce at the time this book was published, but among other studies, Tallamy cites preliminary data from a study he carried out on his property. The study compared the insect herbivore biomass and diversity found on four common native plants vs. five common invasive plants. The native plants produced 4 times more herbivore biomass and supported 3.2 times as many herbivore species compared to the invasive plants. He also determined that the insects using the alien plants were generalists, and when he eliminated specialists from the study he still found that natives supported twice as much generalist biomass.

Apart from native plants and insects, Tallamy frames much of his argument around birds. Birds have been greatly impacted by humans. Their populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and many species are threatened with extinction. Tallamy asserts, “We know most about the effects of habitat loss from studies of birds.” We have destroyed their homes and taken away their food and “filled their world with dangerous obstacles.” Efforts to improve habitat for birds will simultaneously improve habitat for other organisms. Most bird species rely on insects during reproduction in order to feed themselves and their young. Reducing insect populations by filling our landscapes largely with alien plant species threatens the survival of many bird species.

In the chapters “What Should I Plant?” and “What Does Bird Food Look Like?,” Tallamy first profiles 20 groups of native trees and shrubs that excel at supporting populations of native arthropods and then describes a whole host of arthropods and arthropod predators that birds love to eat. Tallamy’s fascinating descriptions of the insects, their life cycles, and their behaviors alone make this book worth reading. Other chapters that are well worth a look are “Who Cares about Biodiversity?” in which Tallamy explains why biodiversity is so essential for life on Earth, and “The Cost of Using Alien Ornamentals” in which Tallamy outlines a number of ways that our obsession with exotic plants has caused problems for us and for natural areas.

Pupa of ladybird beetle on white oak leaf (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Pupa of a ladybird beetle on a white oak leaf. “The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.” – Doug Tallamy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Convincing people to switch to using native plants isn’t always easy, especially if your argument involves providing habitat for larger and more diverse populations of insects. For those who are not fans of insects, Tallamy explains that “a mere 1%” of the 4 million insect species on Earth “interact with humans in negative ways.” The majority are not pests. It is also important to understand that even humans “need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” Tallamy also offers some suggestions on how to design and manage an appealing garden using native plants. A more recent book Tallamy co-authored with fellow native plant gardening advocate Rick Darke called The Living Landscape expands on this theme, although neither book claims to be a how to guide.

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Interested in writing a book review for Awkward Botany? Or helping out in another way? Find out how.

Drought Tolerant Plants: Rabbitbrush

Gardener seeking shrub. Must be drought tolerant. Must have year-round interest. Must be easy to grow and maintain. Preferably flowers in late summer or early fall. Must be attractive – not just to humans, but to wildlife as well. Serious inquiries only.

My answer to a solicitation such as this would be rabbitbrush. While there may be other perfectly acceptable plants that fit this description, I think rabbitbrush deserves major consideration. It’s easy to grow and can be kept looking attractive throughout the year. When it is flush with vibrant, golden-yellow flowers at the close of summer, it not only becomes the star of the garden visually, but also a savior to pollinators readying themselves for winter. Plus, it requires little to no supplemental water, making it a true dry garden plant.

There are many species that go by the common name rabbitbrush. The two that I am most familiar with are Ericameria nauseosa (rubber or gray rabbitbrush) and Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus (green or yellow rabbitbrush). Both of these species are native to western North America, and both have a number of naturally occurring varieties and subspecies.

Rubber rabbitbrush - Ericameria nauseosa

Rubber rabbitbrush – Ericameria nauseosa

Rubber rabbitbrush is a densely branched shrub that reaches an average height of 3 feet. Its leaves are slender and numerous, and its stems and leaves are covered in short, white, felt-like hairs giving the plant a light gray appearance. Native Americans used the flexible branches of this plant to weave baskets. They also made a tea from the stems to treat coughs, colds, chest pains, and toothaches. Bundles of branches were burned to smoke animal hides. The stems and roots contain a latex sap, and certain Native American tribes are said to have used this sap as chewing gum, possibly to relieve hunger or thirst. A rubber shortage during World War II led to investigations into extracting the latex from rabbitbrush. This idea was soon abandoned once it was determined that even if every rabbitbrush in the West were to be harvested, the resulting increase in rubber would be modest compared to other sources.

Green rabbitbrush is typically smaller than rubber rabbitbrush, reaching a maximum height of about 3 feet. Its stems and leaves appear similar to rubber rabbitbrush except they lack the dense, white hairs and are brown and green respectively. Also, the stems and leaves of green rabbitbrush have a stickiness to them, and the leaves are often twisted or curled.

Rabbitbrush is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Plants in this family generally have inflorescences that are a combination of ray and disk flowers (or florets) clustered tightly together and arranged in such a way that the inflorescence appears as a single flower. Consider sunflowers, for example. What appear to be petals around the outside of a large flower are actually a series of individual ray flowers, and in the center are dozens of disk flowers. Both rubber and green rabbitbrush lack ray flowers, and instead their inflorescences are clusters of 5 or so disk flowers that are borne at the tips of each branch creating a sheet of yellow-gold flowers that covers the shrub. Native Americans used these flowers to make dyes.

The fruits of rabbitbrush are achenes with small tufts of hairs attached. Each achene contains one seed. The tuft of hair (or pappus) helps disseminate the seed by way of the wind. Many of the fruits remain attached to the plant throughout the winter, providing winter interest and food for birds.

As rabbitbrush ages it can become gangly, floppy, or simply too large for the site. This can be avoided easily by cutting the plant back by a third or more each fall or spring, which will result in a more manageable form. It can also be cut back nearly to the ground if it is getting too big.

Seed heads of rubber rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa)

Seed heads of rubber rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa)

The leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds provide food for a variety of animals including birds, deer, and small mammals. The plant itself can also provide cover for small mammals and birds. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a pollinator magnet. It has wildlife value, it’s drought tolerant, it’s easy to maintain, and overall, it’s a beautiful plant. What more could you ask for in a shrub?

More Drought Tolerant Plant posts at Awkward Botany:

Fernbush

Blue Sage

Prickly Pears

Water Efficient Landscape at Idaho State Capitol Building

Desert Willow

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.