Why do we plant Joe-pye Weed? Especially a plant with a common name that ends in Weed?
Because it is beloved by every pollinator in the hood!
Let me count the Ways – a nectar plant for Tiger Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, Painted Ladies, American Ladies, Monarchs, all manner of bees, and many more beneficial insects!
Joe-pye Weed is a native wildflower and wonderfully easy to grow. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade and the blooms last longer in part shade. The plant does prefer average to moist soil, but if planted in dryer conditions, provide shade and water.
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In thinking about where have all the butterflies gone, I am reminded of the poignant song written by Pete Seeger “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which although a song about the futility of war, sums up much about the environmental impact of habitat loss. Without wildflower habitat, there will be no pollinators of any sort.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Buckeye and Seaside Goldenrod
Where have all the butterflies gone? Different species of butterfly populations fluctuate from year to year. For example, some years you may see far greater numbers of Buckeyes, the next year not so much. That same year you may hardly see any Tiger Swallowtails but will the following.
That being said,, everyone must realize that every year there are fewer butterflies than the year before. Butterflies thrive in meadows, the very same topography that is the easiest to build upon. Every time a new house or shopping mall is built on a meadow, we decrease not just butterfly habitat, but a whole community of wildlife habitat.
In the above photo you can see a Monarch with a Black Swallowtail flying overhead. This stunning patch of wildflowers and nectar plants was sited in Gloucester at a prime spot for Monarchs to rest and refuel after migrating across Massachusetts Bay. The new home owners ripped out most of the wildflowers and planted the site in a more formal style, with non-native perennials and shrubs. At this location, I would often see Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, Painted and American Ladies, Sulphurs, and many other species. That is no longer true.
Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Joe Pye-weed at the same wildflower patch, no longer in existence.
Butterfly and bee populations are declining overall, not only because of habitat loss, but because of the unbridled use of herbicides and pesticides in agriculture and home lawn care.
Butterflies are especially sensitive to fluctuations in weather, and also to overall climate change. This year we had a long, cold wet spring. The inclement weather is continuing, too, from a butterflies perspective, because although we are seeing some warmer temperatures the past few days, it has mostly been rainy, foggy, or overcast. Butterflies thrive during long stretches of sunny, hot weather. Their wings don’t work very well in the damp and cold. Because of global climate change, we have seen a seven percent increase in precipitation worldwide.
One of the best years I have ever seen for dozens and dozens of species of butterflies, including Monarchs, in the Northeast, was the summer and fall of 2012. That year, we had a warm winter followed by a warm spring, then a warm, dry summer, and a long, warm Indian summer. It was butterfly bonanza that summer and autumn!Adding to people’s concern is the fact that last year, there was an abundance of spring rain that in turn created an extraordinary wildflower bloom in Texas, which got all the butterflies off to a good start. In 2019, we were seeing Monarchs as early as early June, which was very unusual for Cape Ann. Folks are comparing this year to that of 2019, however, 2019 was not an average year.
Monarchs are a case unto themselves. Their spring and summer numbers depend upon a variety of additional conditions, including how successful was the previous year’s autumn migration, whether or not there were nectar providing wildflowers on their northward and southward migrations, and wind and weather conditions from Canada to Mexico.
Note the bar graph in that the eastern population of the Monarchs plummeted by half, according to this year’s spring count by the World Wildlife Fund Mexico.
Particularly in the northeast, the wind patterns during the Monarchs spring northward migration matter tremendously. My friend Charmaine at Point Pelee, in southern Ontario, which is 49 degrees latitude (we are 43 degrees latitude) has been raising and releasing Monarchs for over a month now, while most of us on Cape Ann have only seen a smattering. The Monarchs moved this year in a straight northward trajectory. If the wind does not blow from west to east during some part of their northward migration, far fewer will end up along the eastern shores.Monarchs and Seaside Goldenrod
All is not lost. I am 90 percent certain we will soon be seeing some of our migratory and non-migratory local populations, we just need some good weather. They are later than usual, but not gone entirely.
For so many more reasons, I am hopeful for the future of wildlife and their habitats and see such tremendous, positive change. Despite the current administration’ s extremely harmful stance against the environment, many, many individuals and organizations are gaining a deeper appreciation about the importance of habitats and taking positive action. Many have made it their life’s work. These individuals and organizations are creating wildlife sanctuaries and conserving existing habitats. If the Monarch is declared an endangered species, that will surely bring an added awarenesses and increased federal spending for protecting and creating habitats.
How can you help the Monarchs, which in turn will help myriad species of other butterflies and pollinators? Plant wildflowers! Both Marsh and Common Milkweed for their northward migration, and lots of nectar-rich later summer blooming wildflowers for their southward migration, including New England Aster, Smooth Aster, Purple-stemmed Aster, Seaside Goldenrod, and Canada Goldenrod.Monarchs and New England Aster
Friends often ask, and I cover this topic extensively in my Monarch programs, “What is the best milkweed to plant in our region?” Without a doubt, the two most important and productive are Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
Marsh Milkweed also goes by the name Swamp Milkweed, but Marsh sounds so much more appealing, don’t you think? Milkweeds already have the suffix weed attached to their names. To some folks any wildflower that includes the word weed seems invasive, and we don’t want to frighten people from planting our sweet native wildflowers by inferring they are a swamp dweller, too.
Gallery of Marsh Milkweed
When a weed is not a weed – It’s unfortunate that so many of our native beauties end in “weed.” Ironweed, Joe-pye Weed, Sneezeweed, Thimbleweed, Butterfly Weed, and Milkweed are just some examples. Why were these native wildflowers at one time long ago named “weed.” Because the earliest colonists brought from their home countries flowering plants that were beloved and familiar to them, delphiniums and larkspurs, for example. In their new American home gardens, these treasured European plants would have been easily overtaken by our more vigorous American wildflowers.
To return to the topic of milkweed, Common Milkweed spreads by both underground and by seed. It’s ideal for dunes, meadows, and fields. Marsh Milkweed is more clump forming and stays relatively close to where you plant it. You can control how much it spreads by deadheading, or not, before the seed heads turn to fluff and sail away. I grow both Marsh Milkweed and Common Milkweed side-by-side. In our garden, the female Monarch does not discern the difference between the two species of milkweeds, she will flit from one to the other, and back again, depositing her eggs all along the way.
Gallery of Common Milkweed
By the way, both A. syriaca and A. incarnata are also the easiest milkweeds to grow in Massachusetts.
A ten-year nation-wide study was recently published. Across the country, Marsh and Common proved to be the most productive, in other words, more eggs were laid on these two species than on any other species of milkweed.
The map provided below is somewhat helpful; I write somewhat with a word of advice. If you click on Massachusetts, for example, not only are Common and Marsh Milkweeds listed but also Purple Milkweed (A. pupurascens), Fourleaf Milkweed (A. quadrifolia), Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa), Poke Milkweed (A. exaltata), Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata), and Clasping Milkweed (A. amplexicaulis). We grow a nice patch of Whorled Milkweed and I have never, ever seen a Monarch once visit the foliage or flowers. Purple Milkweed can be very challenging to get started, and Butterfly Weed is not as hardy in our region as are Common and Marsh.
Milkweeds are the only food plant for Monarch caterpillars and also provide nectar to a host of pollinators including many, many species of butterflies, bees, beetles, and even hummingbirds. Plant for the pollinators and they will come!
This is an image from my recent adventure to Cerro Pelon. I am dying to write about the trip, but have had a very full schedule finishing up my film, organizing landscape jobs for the season, and hoping to get the PiPls settled in. The Monarchs in the photo are mud-puddling. Tens of thousands leave the butterfly trees during the heat of the day, sucking up water and much needed nutrients from the mud at nearby mountain streams
A bodacious beauty possessing the toughest of traits, Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium) is the stalwart star of the eastern native plants garden. Large, airy dome-shaped flowerheads blooming in a range of shades from pink to lavender to purple provide food, by way of nectar, foliage, and seed heads to myriad species of bees, butterflies, and songbirds. Beginning in mid-July and continuing through mid-October, pollinators on the wing can find sustenance in a garden planted with Little Joes and Big Joes.
Joe Pye, the person, is thought to have been a North Carolina Native American medicine man who used these wildflowers to cure many ailments, including typhoid fever. The plants became know as Joe Pye’s weed.
A name changer from weed to wildflower would be a game changer for numerous species of native plants. Why do so many native wildflowers have the suffix weed? Because when the colonists arrived from Europe, they wanted their crops, as well as European cultivated flowers, to grow in their new gardens. Anything native that interfered with their plans was deemed a “weed.” Examples of beautiful and invaluable North American native pollinator plants with the name given weed are milkweed (Asclepias), sneezeweed (Helenium), ironweed (Veronia), and jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).
Three favorite and fabulous species for the New England landscape are Eutrochium purpureum, E. maculatum, and E. dubium. Joe-pye grows beautifully in average to moist soil, in full sun to light shade. Plant Joe-pye in the back of the border. E.purpurem grows five to seven feet tall, while Little Joe grows three to five feet. With their beautiful blossoms, robust habit, winter hardiness, and disease resistance, these long blooming members of the sunflower family are treasured for their ability to attract an array of butterflies, bees, and songbirds to the garden during the mid- to late-summer season.
Just look at this sampling of the different species of Lepidoptera finding noursihment from the blossoms of Joe-Pye!
Painted Lady Black Swallowtail
Joe-Pye does especially well in a coastal native plants garden.
If you enjoyed reading this post, I hope you will consider donating to the completion of my documentary film Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly. Every contribution is tremendously appreciated. For more information on how you can help, please visit the film’s website at http://www.monarchbutterflyfilm.com
There is an exuberant abundance of wildflowers blooming in marsh and meadow all along the shores of Cape Ann and here are just a few snapshots. When out and about on a wooded walk, you may notice a wonderful sweet spicy fragrance. What you are smelling is more than likely our native summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), which also goes by the common name sweet pepperbush; perhaps a more apt description of its potent and zippy honey-spice scent.
Plant summersweet for pollinators–bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies love the nectar-rich florets.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also loved by hummingbirds
In preparation for my upcoming season of programs, which are centered around designing gardens to support pollinators, one of my jobs is to refresh and update the photos that are an integral part of the presentation. This past month I have been immersed in colorful images and tomorrow I am giving my new monarch butterfly presentation at (the other) Cape. Here are some of the outtakes from my pollinator habitat programs for our winter weary eyes.
Cape Ann Milkweed and Monarch Habitat, Eastern Point
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding Monarchs as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. A one-year review is underway to monitor the butterfly’s status. Since the 1990s the population has plummeted from about one billion to approximately 35 million. That may seem like a substantial number, but the Monarchs need stronger numbers to be resilient to other threats such as harsh weather.
The reason for the decline is primarily because of loss of milkweed habitat in the agricultural heartland of the United States. With the development of Monsanto’s Roundup and Roundup Ready (glyphosate resistant) seed, farmers are now able to spray glyphosate directly on their corn, soybean, and sorghum crops. Roundup also destroys milkweed. Secondly, with the push for ethanol, farmers have begun to plant corn on conservation land.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service determines that the Monarchs are threatened, they will set aside land for milkweed.
You can read more about the the Monarch Butterfly Endangered Species Act here:
Below is a list of some favorite nectar- and pollen-rich bee-friendly North American wildflowers for attracting native bees and honey bees to your gardens. They are listed in order of bloom time, from spring through late summer, to provide your foragers with nourishment all growing season long.
Sneezeweed, Butterfly Weed, Ironweed, Milkweed, Joe-pye Weed–these are names European colonists assigned to the wildflowers they found growing in North America. Is it any wonder these native beauties have long been overlooked for gardens. The name Butterfly Weed gives us a clue that what to the early settlers was a “weed,” is a pollinator’s dream.
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
For the past week, our blooming patch of six-feet-tall Joe-pye Weed has been covered in a bevy of butterflies including more Painted Ladies than ever I even imagined visiting our garden, dozens of newly emerged Monarch butterflies, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Question Marks, and thousands of bees.
The Eupatorium growing in the Harbor Walk Gardens is a lower growing species called ‘Baby Joe,’ and it too is as equally attractive to the pollinators.
In full bloom this month at the Harbor Walk is the fabulous North American native ‘Baby Joe’ (Eupatorium). While maintaining the Harbor Walk gardens, Jay Ramsey of Farm Creek Landscaping reported seeing no less than half a dozen species of butterflies nectaring simultaneously at the ‘Baby Joe’ on a warm sunny morning this past week. Given your average warm sunny summer day, butterflies are typically on the wing throughout the day; I find the very best time of day to see the very most is between 10:00 am until 12 noon.