Goldenrods and Spotted Joe-pye at the entrance to Harkness Park in Waterford September14, 2015

Goldenrods and Spotted Joe-pye at the entrance to Harkness Park in Waterford September14, 2015

My tent stands in a garden
Of aster and goldenrod,
Tilled by the rain and the sunshine,

And sown by the hand of God, –   Bliss William Carman

Goldenrods, Solidago ssp., form one of the most interesting interrelationships between flora and fauna of the late- season flowering plants in New England.  The name solidago is from two Latin words meaning  “ to make” and “ whole”, referring to its use as herbal remedies in the form of teas or compresses, among other uses. Goldenrods are perennial herbs that are members of the Asteraceae, or aster, family. Flowering in August and September they are often found blooming together with the Joe-pyes and asters. The time of year that they bloom has made them a scapegoat for many allergy sufferers who believe  they are to blame them for symptoms that are actually due to the ragweeds that flower at the same time.

The colorful brown-hooded owlet caterpillar that feed on goldenrod flower buds as well as leaves

The colorful brown-hooded owlet caterpillar that feed on goldenrod flower buds as well as leaves

Goldenrods naturally produce rubber, the Solidago altissima, or Tall Goldenrod being the champ at 6.34.%  rubber content. Thomas Edison experimented with a cultivation process to increase rubber content in these plants. George Washington Carver and Henry Ford devised a process to make a much- needed rubber substitute during World War II using goldenrods.

Goldenrods have a unique type of inflorescence that consists of many tiny flowers that aggregate together in a flower head and form a “ false flower”. The individual flowers are most commonly in the form of ray flowers or disk flowers. Identification of species is often done by observing the hairs on the seeds, which may be visible when the plant is still in flower. Goldenrods vary in height, with the tallest (Solidago altissima) at six feet. Some, such as Solidago odora (Sweet Goldenrod) have pleasant odors.

Honey bee on Downy Goldenrod

Honey bee on Downy Goldenrod

One of the most common goldenrods in New England is the Canada goldenrod, Solidago Canadensis. It is considered alleopathic to sugar maple seedlings, producing chemicals that inhibit their growth. Habitat is disturbed areas- meadows and fields or roadsides. This is a tall plant with hairy stems and a plume flower arrangement. It is associated with the goldenrod  gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis, whose larva feed inside a round gall on the stem which is formed by the reaction of the plant to the larva’s saliva. You can easily find these galls when green or later in the season when stalks turn brown. The larva chew an exit hole before the plant tissue hardens up for the winter. In the spring, the adult fly will exit through this hole. Downy woodpeckers and chickadees will peck at these galls to access the larva, especially in harsh winters.

Goldenrod bunch gall and goldenrod fly gall.

Goldenrod bunch gall and goldenrod fly gall.

Tiger Swallowtail on Canada Goldenrod

Tiger Swallowtail on Canada Goldenrod

Licorice goldenrod, Solidago odora, has a licorice or anise, scent and the leaves were used in a tea by the Cherokee for colds, coughs, and fevers. This plant is found in the southernmost parts of the New England states, but is absent in Maine. Found in woodlands, along roadsides, disturbed sites and old fields, the flowers have been used to make deep yellow dyes and attract beneficial insects such as lady beetles and lacewings.

Solidago bicolor, white goldenrod, is found at the edges of woodlands. It is also sometimes called “ silver rod “ in reference to its white flowers, the only goldenrod with white flowers in the eastern part of the country. The stamens and pollen will give it a slightly yellow look. Sometimes the spectacular brown hooded owlet caterpillar can be found on this plant where it primarily eats the flower buds and flowers. Found more often on goldenrods with longer flower spikes, this caterpillar is a favorite  of many lepidopterists.

Silverrod on woodland edge

Silverrod on woodland edge

Solidago juncea, or early goldenrod, gets its common name from its bloom time, which can be as much as a month prior to many other goldenrod species. This attractive, slender plant has a very delicate appearance, and can be distinguished from other goldenrods by the lack of, or near lack, on the stems and leaves. White-tailed deer, woodchucks, cottontail rabbits and livestock may feed on the plant if less desirable food is available.

Goldenrods provide a source of seeds for Eastern Goldfinch, Tree, Swamp and Song Sparrows as well as some migrating warblers such as the Yellow- rumped warblers.

There are many insects and other arthropods that rely on goldenrods for survival. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, cucumber beetles and many others visit flowers for nectar and pollen. Blister beetles are often found on these plants in the late summer and early fall. Butterflies of many species benefit from the long nectar season provided by goldenrods that provide bloom in succession for two months. Migratory butterflies especially depend on this food source as they travel south. Many beneficial insects, such as soldier beetles and assassin bugs use the flowers as either food sources or hideouts, where they wait to ambush other insects. If you see a butterfly hanging upside down without moving, check and see if an ambush bug or crab spider is feeding on it. Caterpillars such as the Asteroid and Brown-hooded Owlet, aphids, tarnished plant bugs, and many other insects feed on flowers, stems and leaves. Wasps, goldenrod and crabr spiders, praying mantids, lacewings, ambush bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and birds prey on insects that visit or live on the plants.

Asteroid Caterpillar- named for the family of plants it feeds on.

Asteroid Caterpillar- named for the family of plants it feeds on.

Chinese mantids also hang out around goldenrods, and often lay their egg masses on its stems. Look for these in the winter if heavy snows haven’t mashed the plants into the ground. I sometimes take a stem with the mantid egg case and stick it in my garden. The mantids usually emerge by mid- May.

There is a great interconnection between goldenrods, vertebrates and invertebrates, and nature reveals such things to the careful observer. If you happen upon some goldenrod, or seek it out on purpose, just a few moments of careful observation will be rewarded with a peek into the drama that is on display in a simple stand of yellow flowers.

Pamm Cooper                               All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper

monarch on aster 

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

This year was a disappointment in many ways due to a harsh winter and droughty, hot summer. Many plants in both gardens and the natural landscape suffered as a result, but certain creatures had a splendid year. Butterflies in particular seemed to do well, especially certain species of hairstreaks.

In my area, Black Swallowtails were not as common due to the activities of certain predatory wasps. A friend had twelve caterpillars on her dill and fennel she bought for the express purpose of watching the caterpillars develop. Eleven were eaten by the wasp or paralyzed and taken away for the wasp larvae to eat. Only one lived to make a chrysalis, and that was because a protective mesh was put around the fennel plant to keep the wasp out.

Giant swallowtails appeared for the third year in a row, at least in the northern parts of the state. These tropical butterflies wander up here and were not known to overwinter here. But several people were reporting a third year of spotting the larva in their gardens, so perhaps they may become residents as the weather permits. Look for larva on gas plants, rue, and skimmia, as well as on citrus plants put outside for the summer. This butterfly is the largest swallowtail in North America, so caterpillars are equally large and can defoliate plants. In the south where citrus is grown commercially, the larva is considered a pest.

Last year I found a population of Baltimore butterfly larva in leaf shelters constructed for overwintering. In late spring the caterpillars were everywhere in the field in various stages of forming chrysalises. These butterflies are uncommon, but may be found locally in wet meadows where the larval host plants are found. Turtlehead and English plantain are common host plants of these caterpillars. A couple of weeks later, this field abounded in the Baltimore butterflies. This field is a property managed by the CT. DEEP and the manager is careful to mow around the caterpillars when they are “ nesting”. Look for these butterflies in June.

Baltimore Checkerspot at Belding WMA July 6, 2014

Baltimore Butterfly on Common Milkweed

Tiger Swallowtails and  Spicebush Swallowtails emerge about the time their respective larval host plants start to leaf out. Tigers prefer small trees- especially black cherry, tulip tree and magnolia, while spicebush and sassafras are the host plants for the Spicebush caterpillars.

This year there was an abundance of two hairstreaks at the golf course where I work. In the mornings and early afternoons I had to remove them from fairways and greens to avoid mowing them over. These were the Banded Hairstreak and the Hickory Hairstreak, the former common and the latter uncommon.  Both larval stages may be found where oaks  are abundant and flight is from June – August. This year they were around for at least two months, probably as they eclosed gradually depending on temperatures where the chrysalis was formed.

banded hairstreak

Banded Hairstreak saved from a mower

Common Buckeyes, Red- banded Hairstreaks and Fiery Skippers, vagrants that were noted in Connecticut in good numbers in 2012 have been few and far between since then. Places where I could usually find them over the years were unproductive in searches this year.

A site where wood lilies are abundant always provides an opportunity to observe a number of butterflies that like these flowers. Native to our forests, wood lilies grow even where forests have been cleared, and there are local areas where they can be found. The butterflies that use them as a food source and a perching or patrolling spot ( males ) include: Spicebush Swallowtails, Coral and Gray Hairstreaks, American coppers and many skippers. If a male is using the flowers as a patrol site, if you scare it away it usually will return or pick a flower not too far away. It is to note that the Spicebush Swallowtail is one of the few butterflies that can squeeze into a lily flower to obtain nectar and then back out with no harm done.

American copper on wood lily Ju;y 2014

American Copper on Wood Lily

 

coral hairstreak on wood lily Mt Rd 7-18-14II

Coral Hairstreak on Wood Lily

As the year winds down, there are still some butterflies flying around, especially migrating species such as  Cabbage whites, Sulphurs, Monarchs and Painted Ladies. Question marks and Commas are seen in flight as late as October and Mourning Cloaks can be seen in flight both in spring and late summer or even winter. Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults and may fly during the winter on warm, sunny days. As a note to monarchs, this year there were more reported sightings than last year, so perhaps populations may be rebounding somewhat. MonarchWatch.org is a good site for anyone interested in this butterfly.

Mourning cloak July 11, 2014 Mt RD

Mourning Cloak

As a final note, it is always a pleasant surprise to see a butterfly of any kind to those of us who delight in them. The caterpillars are also fascinating and I have raised many since childhood. I have kept records for years on where and when I find specific butterflies and their caterpillars and the value of this information is well worth the time spent on all the hiking, leaf turning and  documenting involved. And the best part is that each year is different,

Pamm Cooper    All photos copyright 2014 by Pamm Cooper

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Above:  Photo of Male monarch on Spotted Joe- pye weed. Copyright 2013 Pamm Cooper

Most people who are butterfly aficionados have noticed that the Monarchs are few and far between this year. I have only seen two all year, and I am always out and about on power lines, in meadows, and walking trails where there is plenty of milkweed for the caterpillars to eat and native nectar source plants for the adults. The second monarch butterfly I saw was just this weekend at the Hebron Fair. It was all over the Spotted Joe- Pye weed outside the Better Living building. Hopefully, we will begin to see more as they begin their journey to Mexico where they spend the winter.

Any butterflies that emerge in late summer and early fall in the Northeastern United States will migrate to Angangueo, Mexico, where they rest hanging on Oyamel fir trees. As long as there is not a period of wet followed by a freeze, the monarchs are able to survive even a snowstorm, as long as snow is not prolonged. The monarchs that survive the winter will leave their overwintering site and travel back up to the Eastern U.S., laying eggs on milkweed as they go. As these early caterpillars hatch and complete their lifecycle, they will also begin travelling north, laying eggs until milkweed sources run out. Monarch butterflies from this second generation are the ones that will migrate to Mexico, having never been there before.

When there is a hard winter that is followed by a hard spring/ summer, Monarchs may have a difficult time surviving the journey northward. That is what happened in the winter of 2012- 2013 and the spring and summer this year. The spring was cold and dry in the southern portion of their migration, and flowers for nectar and milkweed for larvae were not as abundant as usual. June here in New England was unseasonably cold and wet and may have slowed monarchs on their way up here.

According to  “ Monarch Butterfly News ‘, the number of butterflies that migrated to Mexico to overwinter in 2012 was 80% less than normal- 60 million vs. 350 million. The reason was attributed to low reproduction due to excessive heat and drought during the summer of 2012. So far this year, numbers of both caterpillars and butterflies in New England seem to be very low.  It may take a few favorable years to return populations to previous numbers.

Some people that have butterfly gardens containing milkweed wonder why they never find a chrysalis on the plant even though there was a caterpillar on it. Many caterpillars, including the monarch, leave the host plant and may travel quite a distance before climbing up a plant to pupate. The monarch below I found on a giant foxtail on a rainy September day. The butterfly is resting  right beside the chrysalis shell from which it has just eclosed. This butterfly would have begun its journey  to Mexico  after muscling up on some nectar.

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As a final note, sometimes people get worried when they see milkweed tussock moth caterpillars on the same milkweed plant as a monarch caterpillar. They think they will be fighting it out for the same food, when in fact, the tussock prefers the older bottom leaves and the monarch the upper, newer, green leaves. So one minor “ problem “ solved!

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Above: Milkweed Tussock Moth  caterpillar.

Monarch ready to pupate

Above: Monarch caterpillar ready to pupate. Both Photos copyright 2013 Pamm Cooper (more…)