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(More) North American Native Plants to Tempt Pollinators and Beautify Your Garden

Joe Pye Weed – photo from The Spruce

To round out my recent posts showcasing some very showy flowers native to the Northeast (and far beyond), I’m presenting 6 more here. All but one are loved by bees and butterflies … the outlier is a friend of lizards and toads, who are important and adorable, too! Read on to learn more about North America’s native beauties.

Joe Pye Weed

A fifth native flower that benefits the North American ecosystem is lesser-known: Joe Pye Weed. Native to eastern and central North America, this wildflower has a vanilla scent and attracts pollinators and butterflies. Also known as gravel root, kidney root, and trumpet weed, Joe Pye Weed is commercially available, grows up to 7 feet tall and each plant is 2-4 feet wide; it has lance shaped dark green leaves that grow up to a foot long – this is an impressive plat! An herbaceous perennial, it blooms in late summer and likes moist soil and full or partial sun.

Garden Phlox

Garen Phlox

Garden Phlox has been a summer garden mainstay since colonial times. Native to the eastern and central United States, it’s popularity isn’t mysterious – it has big blooms, long blooming times, and easy care. It attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Garden Phlox blooms from July to September, carrying flower gardens through the hottest period of the year. It comes in many colors and cultivars, can be between 1 and 5 feet tall, depending on the cultivar chosen, and is also called summer phlox, tall phlox, and border phlox.

Phlox is easy to grow– the plants in my garden appear every year even though I ignore them! Plant in full to partial sun and loamy soil, mulch and water to keep it moist, and you’re done!

New England Aster

New England Aster

Native to the northeast, The New England Aster typically has bright purple flowers with yellow centers, but the flower color can vary, appearing in lavender, pink, and a variety of shades of purple. New England Aster are unique: they have a hairy stem and leaves that clasp the stem in a unique way, making them easy to identify.

Blooming from August to October’s first frost, asters attract butterflies and have special value to native and bumble bees. They are a nectar source and are often seen with goldenrods in native fields. Asters are between 3 and 6 feet tall, likes full sun to part shade and do well when they are divided every few years. They are drought resistant though they prefer moist soil, can be self-seeding and can grow to 5 feet.

Coral Bells (Heuchera)

Coral Bells are native to the United States. Photo:

Coral Bells (Heuchera) are perennials native to the United States and come in a wide variety of varieties, colors, and variegations. They send up clusters tiny bell-shaped flowers, called inflorescences, in pink, white, red, or coral from their foliage; they are a source of nectar for native bees and hummingbirds love their delicate flowers.

While these plants do make flowers they are treasured by gardeners for their foliage, which comes in a spectacular array of vivid colors. Heuchera form a leaf mound, and the flower stalks can be very tall compared to the height of the leaf mound, which range from 12-36 inches tall and 12-18 inches wide when they are mature. Heuchera are semi-evergreen in the northeast and evergreen in warmer places, versatile and easy to care for; they can be grown in the sun, shade, or partial shade, preferring some shade, and they like well-drained, rich soil. Mine did perfectly well in full sun with mulch around them, retaining their gorgeous eggplant color right up until they disappeared under the snow. To care for them: water regularly during the first year of growth, mulch them to avoid root exposure during seasonal soil shifts and cut back flower stalks in the fall.

Foam Flower

Tiarella Cordifloria, Foam Flower, from

A cousin to Coral Bells, Foam Flower is native to the United States and Canada. Also called the Heartleaf Foamflower, and Tiarella Cordifolia, these wildflowers are shade-loving. The origin of its name is fun: Tiarella from the Greek tiara, and Cordifolia from the Latin cordi, meaning heart, and folia, meaning leaf.

Foam Flower has long, flowering stems with frothy-looking, cream-colored inflorescences (flowers) that grow up to 12 inches. The frothy appearance of the flowers comes from its long, slender stamens. Mature foamflower send out runners or rhizomes, and can grow into colonies over time, but they are not invasive.

Small bees and butterflies pollinate foamflower, and in its native setting it compliments a matrix of streambank plant systems.

Maidenhair Fern

Maidenhair Fern, from

Our final native plant is not a bee-friendly, butterfly friendly, hummingbird friendly plant. Instead, this plant, the Maidenhair fern, which is native to the eastern United States and Canada, provides shelter for toads, lizards, and small mammals. Not everyone gets excited about toads and lizards, but I do. I think they are sweet. One time we found a little newt trapped in our basement – somehow it had gotten into the pan that our hot water heater sits in and tripped the alarm that alerts us to water in the pan. Poor little guy. I found a nice fern and dropped him off.

Which brings us back to the Maidenhair fern. Commercially available, maidenhair ferns have delicate, light green foliage and don’t like to dry out, they need to be kept moist and will thrive in shard or part shade locations. They grow between 12 and 24 inches tall, are deer resistant, and reproduce by spores, which are reproductive cells. An interesting fact about maidenhair ferns: native americans made tea from the leaves to treat cough and other respiratory conditions.

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Native Plants for the Uninitiated 4: Bee-Friendly Coreopsis

Threadleaf Coreopsis is a wildflower that is native to the United States and Canada

In this fourth post of the series, another native flower that is friendly to our North American ecosystem and lovely in the garden: Coreopsis. Sometimes called tickseed, this flower grows wild in the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico. It is adaptable and prolific, a part of the Aster family, and has flowers that look like little daisies. Most bloom in yellow, but there are pink and red varieties, too. And with respect to varieties–there are many. Threadleaf, lance-leafed and large-flowered seem to be the three main varieties. I have a bunch of threadleaf Coreopsis growing next to my potting shed; the thin little leaves have a bunching, delicate look, and this variety makes a nice border since it doesn’t grow tall. Some varieties do, though, so check to see which type you are planting before you clear a place on the border of your garden for it!

This plant has been popular with gardeners since the 19th century and comes with references: The Spruce calls it easy to grow and adaptable, even foolproof. They have a nice article that features 8 varieties. The U.S. forest service calls the lance-leafed Coreopsis, which is the most common variety of this plant a “dependable and prolific flowering native perennial.”

A few attributes that are of interest to the ecologically minded:

  • it has special value to native bees
  • attracts birds and butterflies
  • is a nectar source
  • its seeds are eaten by birds.

Coreopsis, like Rudbeckia, Bee Balm, and Purple Coneflower, is commercially available and can be propagated with seed. It likes well-drained soil and full sun. These plants grow in clumps but they have rhizomes and form in colonies. It is drought tolerant, and will self seed where it doesn’t come back after a cold winter. Of note, Coreopsis requires frequent deadheading to keep it blooming–that is the the only drawback to this plant, I think. Dividing every two seasons will keep them vigorous.

Consider leaving them uncut for the winter to provide food for your local birds! And then in the spring, cut back as needed before new growth begins to enjoy a season of beautiful, bee-friendly blooms!

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Native Plants for the Uninitiated: 3. Bee Balm

Bee Balm is native to North America

Bee Balm, also called monarda and wild bergamot, is a flowering, edible herb native to North America. Aside from being an eco-friendly native to our region, bee balm has many virtues: its foliage is fragrant, it is great in pollinator gardens, it has medicinal properties, and its flowers are beautifully bright and vibrant.

A member of the mint family, bee balm’s leaves can be dried to make a spicy-sweet tea and its flowers can be used to garnish salads. Native Americans and colonists used it in salves and drinks, and a balm of the plant can be used to treat rashes, other skin irritations, and bee stings (hence the name). Here are several bee balm herbal recipes for those that are interested in bee balm for more than its beauty.

Bee balm attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, has pink, purple, red, or white varieties, and likes to be planted in full sun, though it will tolerate partial shade and still bloom. Deer-resistant, most varieties of bee balm will grow to about 2.5-4 feet tall. It likes loamy, rich, fertile soil and will thrive if kept moist.

I learned about monarda when one of our garden club members divided hers in the spring and gave me some. I planted it straight away in a partially shady spot, not realizing it would be happier in full sun. Still, it bloomed the first year. I’ll never forget how astonishingly vivid the red flowers seemed the first time I saw them–I was immediately hooked.

Other growing tips:

  • Plant in spring or fall
  • Deadhead to encourage more flowers
  • Left unchecked bee balm will spread, it should be divided every 2-3 years to keep it vigorous.
  • Bee Balm is susceptible to powdery mildew after flowering; so planting it where there is good airflow is beneficial and it benefits from cutting back when the mildew appears. You can cut the plant all the way back to the ground if foliage looks tattered, it will return again next year with its brilliant blooms.

#plants #nature #flowers #environment #garden #gardening #nativeplants

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Native Plants 2: Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia, or Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia, native to much of the continental US, bloom throughout most of the summer

Black-eyed Susans are one of the most common native “wildflowers” in the continental US. Hearty and cheerful, they are famous for their ease of care and unpretentious beauty, have become garden staples, and are great for wild-flower gardens. Rudbeckia is native to the central US, they can be found from Massachusetts to Wyoming, and as far south as Florida and New Mexico. Self-seeding coneflowers requiring little other than dead-heading to extend blooming time, they will spread if given the space. The first summer after we bought our house they appeared in our backyard, blooming all along our garage. I’ve done nothing for them over the years — they return every summer, blooming despite my neglect, steadily drifting eastward in our yard.

Rudbeckia like full sun, can manage in part shade, and like well-drained soil that isn’t too rich– they handle drought well once established, making them a good choice if you are conscious of how much water you use in your landscape. Often people let them go to seed in late summer to leave food for birds and winter interest. As seen in this photo from our backyard above, they clump, making big sprays of bright yellow flowers. These plants are diverse, too; they can be found in a range of colors – yellow, orange, red, bronze, and mahogany, and varieties range from 1 to 9 feet in size.

Their virtues include being deer resistant, providing nectar and food for birds, and attracting butterflies. also says that American Indians used them medicinally, as an external wash for sores, snakebites, and swelling and as a root tea for worms and colds.

Adding them to your garden is easy. They can be direct seeded once daytime temperatures are reliably around 60 degrees, started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost, or purchased and transplanted. If you start seeds indoors, they do best kept in a cool place (even your refrigerator) for 4 weeks after seeding. For more on this, the Spruce has a nice article. Keep them moist during the first season as their roots establish.

A final note about natives: many plants we think of as weeds are actually not native to the US — they come from Europe or Asia. Examples include the Dandelion, the Oxeye daisy, Bull thistle, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Rudbeckia are truly native to the United States and contribute as natives to our ecosystem, making them an environmentally conscientious choice for gardeners.

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Native Plant Primer for the Uninitiated, 1.

We’ve been hearing about native plants for a while, especially in my garden club, where a whole committee set about cataloguing the native plants that are growing in member’s gardens last year. Despite being this year’s president I sat this popular effort out because I didn’t know which plants in my garden are native and which aren’t.   I had the mistaken idea that natives are only plants like ferns, buttercups, milkweed, skunk cabbage, and violets–the things you see everywhere and that no one planted. Those things are native, yes, but I’ve since learned that so are purple coneflower, black-eyed susans, phlox, asters, and a host of other fun and interesting lovelies.

Being environmentally minded, it matters to me that birds have food to eat in my garden and that I am supporting the local ecosystem rather than challenging it. Native plants provide shelter and food for local wildlife and support our ever-important and ever-disappearing pollinators. It’s also worth noting that some non-native plants actually negatively impact the environments they are imported to–so native plants help to balance the negative effects of some non-native species.

A not so fun fact: I learned last year that spring peepers are being negatively impacted by the dying off of ash trees. North American frogs rely on ash trees because the leaves ash trees drop are suitable for tadpoles to eat.  Other kinds of trees, like maple trees, have more tannins, and are much less suitable for the frogs. A recent decline of ash trees in our forests has meant a lower survival rate for frogs. I love peepers. So that’s really bad news.

So with all of that in mind, I checked in with Trista Ashok, an experienced member of the Holliston Garden Club, co-chair of the native plants initiative, and blogger at She provided me a list of ten natives off the top of her brilliant head for me to look into and write about for the garden club. 

The first of them: Purple Coneflower – Also called echinacea, purple coneflower is a fun, popular plant with long-lasting flowers.  Drought and heat resistant, echinacea will spread if the seedheads are not pruned off. Echinacea attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, is a nectar source, has special value to native bees. Leaving the seedheads on the plants provides food for birds in the fall and winter.

Interestingly, echinacea has medicinal uses. It is a mild natural antibiotic. Extracts of echinacea are also thought to help fight infection and improve white blood counts because echinacin stops bacteria from forming hyaluronidase enzyme, which makes cells more susceptible to infection (see You can find echinacea supplements in health food stores.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, says that excellent drainage is a must for these plants, that they like full sun, and that planting in spring rather than fall is better because it allows them to establish sturdy roots before cold weather arrives.  She also says that some of the newer hybrids featuring a range of beautiful colors can be shorter-lived and hard to overwinter. 

I grew them in my garden before learning they are native because they are colorful, not fussy to care for, and have a kind of simple elegance.

I can hardly wait for them to pop up this spring so that I can tell them I now understand they aren’t just another pretty face in the garden–they’re working flowers!

#plants #nature #flowers #environment #garden #gardening #nativeplants

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The Gorgeous Ground Beneath Our Feet

Asparagus emerging in the spring

I was reminded over Christmas to come back to the basics.

It seemed like the signs were myriad, reading the news: bizarre bombing in Nashville, criminals pardoned by the president, the pandemic surging and mutating … it was a good day for WW84 to release. To remember, sitting in my brother’s living room with my kids, eating a meal that he and his partner had lovingly prepared for us, that truth and kindness matter. They are the ground we walk on.

And speaking of the ground we walk on … soil. The food we eat starts with the soil it grows in. Soil is an overlooked wonder; jammed with microbes, microorganisms, and nutrients—soil, together with water and sun, are the alchemical ingredients to health and well-being— not to mention beautiful, strong plants.

It’s too cold in the northern hemisphere to be outside working with the ground but it’s not to cold to think about compost!

Soil has been defined as a natural body composed of minerals, air, water, organic matter, and living organisms. It is complex, having layers, it changes based on the underlying rock, local climate, topography, plants, animals, and fungi that inhabit it. It’s alive with a microbiome that nourish our digestive systems. Fun fact: there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on Earth. Kind of makes you feel gratitude to contemplate that, right?!

Other facts: the mircobiomes in soil have been known to affect human mood, encouraging calm. No wonder so many of us find gardening therapeutic. Soil is non-renewable, can die, and has an environmental impact because it stores carbon. Soil management can actually affect climate change.

For a beautiful article about soil check out a nice article at

We gather up kitchen scraps, including daily coffee grinds, for our compost pile. I am no composting expert but I can tell you that a pile of these things in the backyard, left to do its thing in the sun, rain, and cold for a few months, produces some of the most nutrient-rich, wormy dirt ever. It’s called black gold for a reason.

I know a lot of people don’t have the outdoor space for a compost pile. There are some interesting alternatives like vermicomposting and bokashi fermentation out there that are fun to read about. Check out if you’re interested in a fun site that’s focused on the virtues and nuances of composting.

For backyard-type composting, keep adding to your pile and consider covering it to keep in heat and moisture during cold months. Alternatively, birds and other animals seem happy to pick through compost for nutrients. It’s always fun to see which tracks are around my compost pile after the snow. 🙂

Happy Boxing Day!

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Sage … Delicious, Healing, Magical, Under-appreciated, and Easy to Grow.

Sage growing in my kitchen garden. Irresistible.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of my favorite plants. Having beautiful velvety leaves of a light hue it grows up to around 18 inches tall and has lovely purple flowers during the summer. If you’re considering planting kitchen herbs this year, sage should be on your list. Aside from being a culinary herb that is beautiful in stews, squash soups and all manner of other dishes, it has healing properties:

  • a styptic: it stops bleeding when lightly worked (chewing it, for instance) and applying to a cut or wound.
  • It calms indigestion and discourages constipation. It’s good for ulcerated stomachs.
  • It can be made into a gargle to treat oral infections. Steep a teaspoon of sage in boiled water for 10 minutes and use it as a wash for gum problems and mouth sores or as a gargle for a sore throat.

Along with that, a cup of sage tea taken daily is reputed to help reduce body odor!

Sacred to the tribes of North America, it is commonly used to cleanse and purify the energy of a place. To do this, burn dried leaves and stems; the smoke and fragrance sweep away undesirable energies and influences from a space.

The old-time herbalists had some great and–to a modern reader– amusing things to say about sage:

Culpeper wrote, “A decoction of the leaves and branches made and drank provokes urine, expels the dead child, brings down womens’ courses, and causes the hair to become black. it stays the bleeding of wounds, and cleanses foul ulcers or sores.”

Gerard said, “Sage is singular good for the head and braine, it quickeneth the senses and strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsie upon a moist cause, takes away shaking and trembling of the members, and being put up into the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head.”

More recently, Paul Beyerl wrote that, “One of its constituents, thujone, is a potent antibacterial, one of the best among herbs, which is contained as a volatile oil.”

Sage is easy to grow. It’s a tough plant that is drought resistant and its beautiful in the garden; planted behind shorter plants it’s a respectful neighbor (not invasive) and it’s fragrance is lovely. It attracts pollinators and gives the space of feeling of grace and vitality.

When I’m cooking I just pop out with some scissors to cut a sprig for my dish, and in the fall I cut it back and hang the branches to dry for cooking or tea. I’ve noticed that the plant flowers more when I haven’t cut it back aggressively the year before so I leave some of the plant to encourage blooms.


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Winter Thyme

Last night we made a stew that called for fresh thyme. We’ve had storms but there’s no giant pile of snow outside our door, so the kitchen thyme continues to thrive. It’s compact, fragrant, woody little self is a persistent and adorable tenant in our landscape.

It would be hard to overstate how satisfying it was to step out into the cool air of our kitchen walkway and snip fresh sprigs of this sweet little plant rather than open a glass jar of dried herbs.

Most of our kitchen herbs grow just down a stone walkway near to the kitchen, and they are looking very dormant right now. But there is a tiny patch of ground just by the door that is big enough to accommodate a little thyme plant; it seems happy in its protected south-facing spot. So last night I grabbed a pair of scissors, pulled my hood on, opened the door, and snipped what I needed, thanking my little friend and thankful that it isn’t buried in a mountain of snow, yet.

In these dark winter days, the cool, moist fragrance of this little thyme plant was reassuring and comforting, nourishing to my mind and senses, and helped me be fully present for a moment of sweet appreciation.

Hooray for the little things.

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Home Office

At the start of the pandemic I worked at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. When they sent everyone home to work, the parent company Harvard Pilgrim Health Care invited us to send in photos of our home offices.

I found it challenging to assemble and share a photo of my space. First, I was busy working. But also, every attempt at settling myself into a space that felt good and comfortable seemed to result in another round of tweaking. The sun was causing glare if I sat here. The space was too cramped if I sat there. The wifi was better on one side of the room than the other owing to the router being upstairs …

I’d worked from home lots up to that day but I’d always perched at the kitchen counter on a stool. With the kids at school all was quiet and that arrangement worked. But the pandemic brought everyone home at once, the kitchen now had teenagers rummaging around in the fridge and talking loudly on face time with their friends between classes.

So, I retreated to a spare bedroom that faces the north west of our old farmhouse.

A view to the west from my home office desk. African violet and succulents for company.

I finally settled on a spot that works, popped a couple of plants onto my desk and brought a comfy dining room chair in to sit on. Together with being able to work in pajamas or yoga pants if I want to, this arrangement has proven very agreeable.

peppermint, oxalis, and a small rose next to my desk looking south

Likewise, everyone in our house has settled in. My son Tristan, taking engineering classes from his bedroom at the University of Massachusetts, has created a desk space that features a keyboard and speakers to accommodate his passion is making/producing hiphop beats between classes.

Tristan’s space: electrical engineering, physics, calculus, and hiphop beats done here.

My daughter Inga, a sophomore in high school, has created a desk on her vanity. If you knew her, you’d know that’s absolutely perfect. 🙂 Importantly, along with being a highly motivated makeup artist, evaluator of personal care products and skin care expert, she’s an athlete, social justice activist, and a serious student, too (lest I misrepresent my beautiful daughter as shallow, which she is not).

My husband Jon, an entrepreneur and emergency physician, had an office that was not well organized (it was a mess), had a pile of framed diplomas collecting dust behind a door, and boasted the ugliest area rug ever created. Inga and I, sick of looking at it, went out shopping when he was at the hospital one night and got him a new carpet, replacing it and organizing his desk and surrounding space before he returned from his shift.

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the 5 most prized

We had a lot of fun rummaging through the box and picking 5 frames to hang that we know are the most important to him.

Aloe and a big jade sit in the foyer window next door to Jon’s desk

It’s certain that if we had never descended into months of working from home during a pandemic these personal work spaces would not have come to be. I would never have appreciated how cool my son is–sad to say, but I think it’s probably true. Or that my daughter would want to be able to monitor her appearance throughout the school day.

Actually, I might have been able to guess that. 🙂

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In the Dark, During the Long, Long Pandemic… New Growth

We heard from the hospital this week that they are hoping to administer vaccinations for clinical care workers starting in mid-December. Huzzah. At 62 with heart disease Jon is a risk, and we worry all the time.

Still, the rest of us will wait and this winter will not be a festive one. Getting outside is always welcome, but there’s not much that’s green or blooming to see. The sun’s day is shorter and shorter … it’s definitely time to look for reasons to be cheerful, to find some surrogates for sun and company.

So, here’s one: little green babies. I love them.

In this case, jade babies. I bought a $3.00 tiny jade last year at Weston Nurseries. They had a table of tiny succulents that were no doubt intended for people wanting to create a little garden of succulents in a container. But this little plant caught my eye and I popped it into my cart. No other succulents, no container.

It became tall and leggy, gained no width, and was bending way over toward the window, top heavy and gimpy. So I snipped it, and snipped it again, nestling the cut stems into potting soil, and popped them into a window. I wasn’t sure what would happen but the plant definitely needed a haircut so why not give it a try? I watered them weekly (more or less) and this is the result.

Whenever I pass by them my eye catches the light, fresh new green of these little leaves, it’s a little having low maintenance kittens. So cute!

You can do this with leaves, too. If a jade sheds leaves you can lay them in the soil and water them. It takes a while but they root, and make sweet little plants.

They remind me that a little bit of care can go a long way, and a small thing can bring some happiness and pleasure. Even during the darkest days of a pandemic.

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