Luring Glebe wildlife with native plants

Monarch butterfly on native butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Courtesy of Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library
Black/eyed Susan (Rudebeckia hirta) in the author’s backyard
Photo: Barbara Jane Davy

By Barbara Jane Davy

Our resident crows sounded a new alarm the other day. We’re used to them cawing alerts to one another as they look over their fledglings among the oak trees. They note every off-leash dog that goes through the NCC land between us and the canal.

Yesterday, it was a young coyote, looking completely bewildered by the city. I stepped out my front door and joined the crows to see what the fuss was all about. He took off up Patterson, looking over his shoulder at me.

You might be alarmed to hear that coyotes are in the Glebe, but I was thrilled to see him. We have so many squirrels and rabbits here, it’s hard getting a new garden established. Maybe he’ll eat a few, or better yet, maybe he’ll get the rats.

I’m happy to see wildlife and even to have them eat from my native plant garden, but the serviceberry that had such a nice branching structure when I planted it has been eaten down to just a few remaining twigs. I spotted a rabbit in the act and tried to shoo her away, but she just placidly continued munching leaves. I’m happy to see bunnies in my front garden, well established by my mother-in-law who used to live here, and I am planting the back garden with a view to feeding native species. But these tender young plants are having a bit of a hard time.

I’ve planted native groundnut (Apios americana), a vine that will make nice pink flowers and edible tubers while it blocks the view of my neighbours’ garbage bins. A pussy willow (Salix discolor) will make adorable furry catkins early in the spring to provide food for the first insects, who will feed goldfinches, chickadees and maybe eastern phoebes. In years to come, the pussy willow will serve as a host plant for Viceroy, Mourning Cloak and Compton’s Tortoiseshell butterflies. I hope the serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) will bring Cedar Waxwings and Baltimore Orioles to the garden to eat the berries, among the 35 bird species that favour their tiny fruit, if the rabbits let it grow.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), like all milkweeds, will feed Monarch caterpillars and butterflies. It will also provide a showy pop of bright orange flowers that attract hummingbirds. Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) is much prettier than its name implies, with two-toned purple and white flowers. It serves as a host to various Checkerspot butterflies, and it attracts hummingbirds and bumblebees. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), with their daisy-like yellow blooms, are perhaps more familiar native plants, and fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) may be recognized as a daisy-like weed, but these feed a variety of moths and butterflies. Fleabane is a host plant specifically to Northern Metalmark, and several species of native bees depend on its nectar. As well as providing nectar in the summer, black-eyed Susan seeds provide food for finches in the fall and winter.

Spotted joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) fills a partly shaded back corner. As well as providing a beautiful, tall backdrop to my garden, it will provide late-season nectar for Swallowtail, Monarch and Variegated Fritillary butterflies, as well as for many smaller pollinators and hummingbirds. Its leaves will feed as many as 41 different species of caterpillar, providing food for many birds who might later eat its seeds. Raspberries line the front edge of garden, making a natural fence bearing delicious fruit, if we can harvest any before the birds find them.

Truthfully, I’m happy to share. Almost all of these plants are the result of gifts, either as roots, young plants or seeds. Most came from seeds I got for free from the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library and from their free plant exchanges. The Seed Library is a local group that provides free seeds and promotes native plant growing in the region. Like a book library, the seeds are available for free, with the intention that seeds be collected by recipients,  returned to the library and given in turn to more people each season.

In the world of native plant enthusiasts, word is “If nothing is eating your garden, you’re not doing it right.” I want birds eating my berries, bugs chomping on the foliage, caterpillars munching my milkweed, bunnies trimming my asters and, yes, even coyotes hunting. If we can restore bits of healthy ecosystems in our yards by growing native plants, I hope we can learn to thrive here together, building old relations anew.

Barbara Jane Davy is a researcher and writer living in the Glebe.

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