The Native Wildflower Garden

by Dana Atkinson | Apr 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Why,” you ask, “would I want to include native spring ephemerals in my wildflower garden?”

Well, in my experience, these wildflowers are much more than pretty flowers. They bring to your doorstep a fascinating and storied world. They connect the landscaping to an intricate, ecological web of native plants, insects, and pollinators. They make a native wildflower garden a storyland.

Trout Lilies are native wildflowers that hold a special place in our landscaping. Even though for much of the year you wouldn’t know there’s a colony there, each spring I look with expectation at the trout lily colony’s location. When they are in full bloom, I have been fascinated by the variety of solitary bees visiting the flowers, and their entertaining territorial squabbles. In fact, I once positioned a dead bumble bee in front of a patrolling bee’s favorite trout lily flower. That “trespasser,” although many times the size of the patrolling bee, was satisfactorily attacked.

yellow trout lily
Yellow trout lily. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

I suggest a visit to a trout lily patch on a pleasant spring day to watch the constant patrolling, chasing, and refueling on trout lily nectar. Perhaps you’ll want to import that storied ecological web into your own wildflower garden.

One of the faithful visitors to the trout lily patch is a specialist, the trout lily miner bee (Andrena erythronii). The miner bee gathers trout lily pollen to provision her underground nest. I found and excavated a trout lily miner bee nest in the soil on our river bank. The burrow’s tunnel went straight down for a few inches, and then there were branches. After a miner bee excavates a branch, she places a ball of pollen in it and lays an egg. The branch is then sealed off with dirt. The nest I was looking at had an egg in some branches and a larva in others, as they were in different stages.

Miner bee on yellow trout lily
Miner bee on yellow trout lily. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

The cell that was actively being provisioned was lined with a stabilizing waterproofing and contained a ball of bright yellow trout lily pollen. Now when I see a pollen-laden miner bee on the trout lilies, I know what it is about to do.

pollen in miner bee tunnel
Pollen in miner bee tunnel. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

To locate the miner bee nest, I trailed a miner bee and lurked around as she tried to relocate her nest. Locating the nest seemed rather difficult because she buried the entrance to her nest to hide it while she was out foraging.

The reason miner bees are careful to hide their nests is because they have enemies called kleptoparasites. One type are called satellite flies. These flies will trail the miner bees to their nests. Other kinds of kleptoparasitic flies will stalk/lurk to locate the miner bees’ nests. They’re spying on the miner bees, watching for a chance to slip up to, or into, the nest and deposit their offspring. The fly’s larvae will steal the miner bee’s provisions, and, instead of miner bees eventually emerging from the nest, there will be flies.

There are also kleptoparasitic cuckoo bees (Nomada sp.). I’ve watched them relentlessly patrolling our yard in search of miner bees’ nests. If a cuckoo bee locates a miner bee’s nest, then, of course, eventually cuckoo bees will emerge from the miner bee provisioned nest instead of more miner bees. One positive of having the cuckoo bees around is I’ve been able to observe their unusual method of sleeping.

cuckoo bee
Cuckoo bee. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

Yes, there’s even more to the trout lily story! After the frenzy of activity around the flowering trout lily patch fades away, there’s a time of quiet expectation as the seed heads mature. The seed heads droop to the ground, wilt, and generally look pathetic. But they still have an amazing trick up their sleeve! The seed heads split open and spill their seeds on the ground. Each seed has an attachment of ant bait (elaiosome). When ants discover this “bait,” they seem to think they have discovered a massive treasure. Their desperate antics while trying to transport the seeds to their nest are very entertaining. See the picture below of an ant that, when all else failed, tried to be a helicopter. The ants carry off the seeds to their nests, unaware that they will only be able to eat the elaiosomes. Since the seeds are too hard for them to eat, they’ll discard the seeds. It’s like the elaiosomes are their pay for propogating the trout lilies.

ant with trout lily seed
Ant with trout lily seed. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

Spring Beauties are another of the spring ephemerals worthy of being included in a wildflower garden. I like them in the landscape simply because of the beauty of their sparkly white petals tinged with a dainty pink blush. Add to that their pink pollen. Beyond their beauty, they bring some added benefits —the cutest little flies, bees, and other insect visitors come to gather pollen and nectar in the spring beauty patch.

There’s plenty of story with the spring beauties and their visitors, but let’s ponder their benefit to native pollinators. Some of the pollinators are specialists that “live” for the spring beauties. There are also generalists that utilize the spring beauties. Generalist bees seem to have a strategy of gathering a bit here and there so as not to accumulate too much of any one plant’s defensive chemicals. These generalists are instrumental in pollinating many other flowering plants, so, in a round-about way, spring beauties played a role in those other flowers.

spring beauty with miner bee
Spring beauty with miner bee. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

Ants planted the violets in our flower beds. I like some of the violets to stay for the sake of color and, of course, their story. Violets, like many other plants, have chemical defenses so that not everything will eat them. I have yet to catch sight of whatever dares eat holes in our violet leaves. I also watch for violets with leaves positioned directly under their flowers because pollen will fall onto those leaves. Thereupon, I will be able to watch the tiniest cutest little yellow globular springtails feeding on the pollen.

Best of all is the violet’s explosive seed dispersal system. When the seed head is mature, it deploys a triple array of seed missile launchers. The seeds are launched similarly to how you shoot a watermelon seed by squeezing it between your fingers.

Violets’ explosive seed dispersal is fairly easy to observe. When a seed pod is pointed straight up and just starting to split open, pick it, prop it up on your table, and place a plastic cup over it. Shortly, the sound of seeds ricocheting around in the cup will alert you to observe the barrage. Incidentally, I took a time lapse of the process, and the seed head itself was doing a slow rotation in order to shoot the seeds in all directions.

Then after the violet seeds are shot in all directions, for good measure, the violets hire the ants to disperse their seeds over hill and dale.

violet seeds
Violet seeds. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers Honorable Mentions

Virginia bluebells: a patch will have an array of visitors with stories enough to fill a book.

Hepatica: take one look at those blue flowers and their hairy stems, and you will know there’s a story there. Seeds dispersed by ants.

Dutchman’s breeches: surely there’s a story in the name—it is also called staggerweed. Bumblebee pollinated; seeds dispersed by ants.

ant with Dutchman's breeches seed
Ant with Dutchman’s breeches seed. Photo © Dana Atkinson.

Trilliums: pollinators are flies; seeds dispersed by ants.

Bloodroot: this is another flower with a story in the name; variety of pollen-collecting visitors; seeds dispersed by ants.

Tips for the wildflower garden

These plants grow in forested, well-drained soils rich in organic matter. It may be helpful to amend your soil accordingly. To acquire starts, you may want to transplant some from a friend’s woods. Alternatively, starts are likely to be commercially available at your local native plant nurseries. They may do well and become established in a wooded setting or a shaded rock garden. Once the challenge of getting them established is accomplished, they’ll do a fine job of bringing to your doorstep a fascinating and storied world.

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