Michael Pollan’s excellent 2001 book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, really gets you thinking. About a lot of things. His thesis is that we tend to believe that people choose plants for a variety of reasons (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, control) and cultivate them so as to intensify those attributes. Pollan says that maybe it’s the plants that are choosing us.
“Of course their willingness to take part in the moving game of human culture has proven a brilliant strategy for their success, for there are a lot more roses and tulips around today, in a lot more places than there were before people took an interest in them. For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever shifting ideals of beauty.”
Pollan dives deep to explore the intersection of human desire and the flowers and fruits that satisfy it. It’s a wonderful book. You should check it out.
This is the jumping off point for the subject I really wanted to get to today – three plants that have long been favored here at Cross River Design. The Serviceberry (Amelanchier), the Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii), and the humble Catmint (Nepeta). While we prize them for the benefits they provide in a visual landscape, our interest today is in the community of activity they foster between plants, birds, bees and butterflies, and human observers.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier) in its May glory.
The Serviceberry’s chief attribute, from a landscape architect’s point of view, is its elegant, up-reaching structure. It is enormously useful in softening the hard vertical line of a building’s edge or as focal point among low-growing plants. In addition, it blooms white with abundant flowers in the early Spring and soon bears colorful deep red berries. In the Fall the leaves turn a deep red and it’s graceful bare branches look good all Winter as well. It’ll drop some leaves over a hot, dry Summer but will soldier on even if you don’t give it enough water.
For the careful observer however, what Serviceberry really brings to the party is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). These lovely birds really dig the berries and are fascinating to watch as they gather their harvest each Spring. A pair (or even three birds) alights on the Serviceberry’s branches, one tests the tenacity with which a berry is attached by it’s stem to the plant, and if the bird judges it to be ready, pulls the berry off with its beak. This is where the fun begins. The mates then pass the berry back and forth, beak to beak (I imagine them saying “You take it”, “No, you take it”, “No, you take it”) until one of them flies off with the berry. It soon returns to repeat the charming ritual. It’s said they will sometimes eat overripe fruit and get a buzz but I haven’t observed any erratic flying. Anyhow, you can stay well entertained in a chair by a window with a view of the proceedings.
The Butterfly Bush’s blue-purple flower clusters attract, you guessed it, butterflies. Lots of them. From June through September. This summer ours have hosted Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), a single, well-worn Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on its extraordinary journey from southern Canada to Mexico. and a bunch of other, yet to be identified species. Bubblebees (Bombus terrestris) like it, too. As does the occasional hummingbird stopping on its way over to the trumpet vine.
In New Jersey, Butterfly Bushes had a rough winter this past year and got a slow start this Spring. They seem to have regained their footing. We just cut them down to the ground early in the Spring and watch them grow. They get to be eight feet tall and about as big around. Oh, and they smell nice, too.
While butterflies crave the bush’s nectar, North American caterpillars don’t eat its leaves. Milkweed is a better alternative for larval food and it’s something we’re thinking of adding to the garden. Also, native plant enthusiasts dislike the Butterfly Bush’s invasive tendencies. So we try to keep it boxed-in when planting to ensure it stays put.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii) and frequent visitor, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
Catmint finds its way into many Cross River Design landscapes. It does a number of nice things visually. We usually select the lavender-blue varieties, which grow about 18” tall. They flow nicely between a border of low-growing liriope and taller, more formal boxwood, for example, where their willowy stems provide softness and movement in the slightest breeze. They have a pleasant, minty fragrance and are a magnet for bumblebees and honeybees foraging for nectar and inadvertently transporting pollen. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wading through catmints awash in bees and have not been stung once. The industrious bees seem to be focused on their nectar-quest and their tolerance makes you happy to be among them. If you are allergic to bee stings then it might be wise to avoid catmint altogether. Otherwise, there’s something inspiring in the bees’ earnest hard work.
One can derive an enormous amount of simple, thoughtful pleasure sitting in a sunny haven among these three, busy plants. They reward us with more than just visual beauty. They become an inspiration for investigation into the natural world – and the resulting purchase of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region and The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies (D’Oh!).
When friends come to hang around the pool we often get distracted and stop talking about our kids or work or food and start talking about all the activity going on around us. Which leads to someone’s remembrance of an amazing trip to Costa Rica. Or another’s vivid memory of Monarchs in Pacific Grove, California and their epic journey. Or a missed friend who is raising honeybees in suburban Atlanta and the delicious honey we’ve been receiving for Christmases since. Or, if you’ve recently read Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, you might just start thinking about the nature of beauty, the sources of our spirituality, and what it means to be human. Another reason we love landscape.
A border of Catmint (Nepeta)