Last year, I was given a small, shrub- like leafy green plant which I planted in my garden. It came from land that was once my great-grandmother’s farm in Kentucky, and I was told it was a Rose of Sharon. I happily placed it in a sunny spot and went on with my gardening business, occasionally taking a moment to envision my grandma enjoying looking at the beautiful blooms of one of its predecessors as a young girl at her childhood home. It did well and grew that first year, but never blossomed. It faded over the winter and came back in the spring like a typical perennial should do. As it grew, I anticipated beautiful hibiscus flowers to grace my garden at any moment, but the flowers never came. I suspected it might not be a Rose of Sharon when it started to look like this-
Now, I typically grow seeds or buy plants from a nursery which are clearly marked and labeled. Trying to identify a grown plant was new territory for me. So, I did what most people of my generation who own a smartphone would do. I downloaded a plant identification app and took some photos. The particular app I used was a little hit and miss, coming up with all sorts of unusual results (poison ivy??). What was this thing I had planted in my garden? I wasn’t sure, but I was sure it was staying put. If you’d read any of my previous blog entries, you can probably tell that I’m incredibly sentimental when it comes to anything having to do with my grandparents (whether it be Frank Sinatra music, roses, or giant mystery plants growing it my yard). Whatever this perennial plant was, it was here to stay. Finally, after several more photo identification attempts, a picture on the plant app caught my eye. The leaves matched, the purple spots on the stem matched, and when it did eventually bloom, the blossoms matched too. It is a Joe Pye Weed, which isn’t actually a weed at all, but a perennial plant in the sunflower family! Fortunately, for my gardening purposes, a Joe Pye Weed is actually better than a Rose of Sharon! Joe Pye Weeds provide a nectar source for monarch butterflies, and are a great addition to a pollinator-friendly garden. They are also native in my region. For the past several weeks monarchs have been visiting the garden every day and their favorite food source seems to be the light pink blooms of the 9-foot-tall towering “weed”. It also attracts other pollinators such as honeybees and bumblebees.
On the subject of monarchs, we recently had our garden certified as a Monarch Waystation with Monarch Watch by visiting their website www.monarchwatch.org and completing the online certification process. Coincidentally, the Joe Pye Weed is listed as a nectar plant option in their application to become certified. Monarch Waystations provide a habitat for monarchs, including food and shelter, host plants for caterpillars, and use sustainable gardening management practices. There is an application fee, and an option to get this neat sign, so you can let all of your neighbors know that your yard is now a haven for butterflies!
Aside from the aforementioned Joe Pye Weed, our waystation includes purple coneflower, cosmos, milkweed, black-eyed Susans, and marigolds among others. Larger perennials provide shelter, along with a wooden butterfly house. One of the sustainable practices I use is to avoid the use of insecticides, including organic insecticides. Their use has not been missed, as I’ve found companion planting and the resulting beneficial insects and birds it has drawn to the garden has led to less of a pest problem than I’ve dealt with in years past. I also planted my yellow crookneck and green zucchini squash later than usual, so the squash bugs seem to have bypassed the garden this year. Aside from aiding in conservation of the monarchs, a vegetable garden filled with flowers that doubles as a butterfly habitat is simply beautiful. It’s always brings a smile to my face when we’re out picking vegetables and I hear one of my children exclaim “Mom, I saw a monarch!”.
Seashell Cosmos, one of our pollinator garden flowers.
Happy gardening and growing!
All photos in this blog post by Cathy Pouria