Spicebush Replaces Forsythia

Posted & filed under Butterfly, Gardening Tips, Native Shrubs, Native Species, Pollinator.

Spicebush replaces Forsythia as a harbinger of Spring! Makes a great title even if it is a bit of a misnomer. Spicebush has been around for quite some time and because of that, it does so much more than make a seasonal privacy fence.

Non native Forsythia in bloom

Forsythia’s Rise in Popularity

Now many of you may be wondering how did Forsythia manage to become so popular. It is a tale as old as time. With the modernization of garden centers and magazines once one person says Forsythia makes a great living privacy fence, the idea just took off. However, this sacrificed the bees. Forsythia is sterile so the blooms do not produce pollen. While bees might flock to it they typically don’t hang around when they realize there is no food. Not to mention Forsythia may soon join the invasive species lists as it grows quickly and makes it difficult for anything else to grow near it.

Spicebush’s yellow blooms on a gray early spring day. Photo by: Kristi Shepler

Return of Spicebush

Spicebush can be grown as a living privacy fence if so desired. However, this understory tree is shade tolerant for anyone with a part to full-shade garden. It can also survive in full sun which provides fantastic fall color. Roots prefer moist soil that drains well, so if in full-sun make sure it gets plenty of water. Make sure to plant male and female plants for cross-pollination and the female will produce berries.

Spicebush Ecosystem

One of the many reasons to grow Spicebush is that it is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly along with Sassafrass and Tulip Tree. While most have seen the butterfly, the larva is often time missed as it hides in a leaf that it will later use in metamorphosis. Who wouldn’t want this little cutie hanging out in their garden! For more on Papilio troilus check out this article from the NC State Extention.

The fall berry of the Spicebush will also attract animals to your yard. Some of the birds that will come include:

  • American Robin
  • Eastern Blue Bird
  • Gray Cat Bird
  • Great-Crested Flycatcher
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Red-Eyed Vireo
  • Wood Thrush

What not to do?

Just remember that no matter what you plant, if you are spraying pesticides they are typically a broad spectrum. This means even our native friends are killed off as well. With the introduction of plants from across the globe into our everyday garden we have forgotten that plants are meant to be eaten. It is time to embrace an imperfect garden that has lots of chew marks!

Removing Forsythia

The best way to remove Forsythia becomes more intensive the larger the plant. Start by cutting back the branches but leave some of the lower ones to grab onto later. Next start digging around the drip line of the shrub moving your way in until you find the roots. Use an old pair of loopers to start cutting through the roots. Try pulling on the lower branches that you left to bring up the shrub with the root ball. You may need to use a chain and a truck if the bush is large. Just make sure you have something to replant in the space or weeds will take over.

Ready to plant?

If you have planned out the perfect spot in your garden for a Spicebush, or maybe two, or three check out our resources page. On this page, you will find a list of greenhouses in the Capital Region of New York. If you are out of this area check out Wild Ones journal for nurseries in your area or one that ships nationally.

Grow Milkweed From Seed

Posted & filed under Gardening Tips, Pollinator.

Even though it is March the Monarch Spring Migration is starting! Thankfully for those of us up North, we have just enough time to grow Milkweed from seed and be ready for their arrival. If you want to watch the Monarch’s progress, check out Journey North. There are a few stages that our Milkweed seeds need to go through before they take off. First is cold stratification, second is germination, and then you will see sprouts ready to grow into full Milkweed plants.

Cold Stratifying Milkweed

Honestly, this should say cold moist stratification. Stratification really just means the seed has a coating on it that needs something, in this case, cold and moisture to prep itself for gemination. There are a few methods that you can use and we will start with the least successful, then work our way to the most successful.

Of course, if you are really short on time you, can just scatter your seeds in the garden. Milkweed is a perennial so even if there are not enough cold days right now they will come up next year. Just keep in mind that the success rate is very low this way. Many animals will find the seeds to be a tasty treat!

Another option is to clip a very small portion of the tip of the seed. Some people say this provides just enough space for the first root to erupt from. However, cutting the seed too deep will prevent its ability to germinate.

The last method which will drastically increase your success rate is to mimic the winter conditions for 30 days. Take a wet paper towel and wring it out so it is just damp, too much water might cause mold. Then on one half of that paper towel sprinkle milkweed seeds. Make sure they have enough space between them don’t be afraid to move a few if you need to. Then fold the empty side over on top of the seeds and then fold one more time to make it a square. Now take a plastic bag with a zip-top and write what type of milkweed and the start date (or end date). Lastly, place the seeds into the bag and then into the fridge. Leave it undisturbed for 30 days between 33-38 degrees F. This will break the dormancy cycle that the seeds are in.

Germenating Milkweed

On to the next phase of growth, germination. This means we will actually get to see some growth depending on the method you choose. The method you choose really comes down to how much time you have and your dedication. In both methods, keep in mind that if you have a seed heat mat, use it. This process requires warmth instead of cold. Too much water with soil in this stage will also terminate the seed. Of course, at this stage, you can once again direct sow right into your garden if you wish.

The first method is pretty simple and it is time to get a bit dirty. That is right, fill up your containers with dirt and then place your seeds right on top. Yup, right on top Milkweed seeds actually need light to germinate, so don’t cover with dirt or bury into holes. You may wish to use some clear plastic wrap over the top with just a few air holes to create a greenhouse effect. Just make sure to take it off after about 5 days.

The second method is fun because you can actually watch the root start to grow. Place the seeds in water and place them in a warm spot that receives light. Then, ideally twice a day once, in the morning and once at night, change the water out with room temp water. Within 3-5 days you will start to see a little root pop out. As soon as you see that white bit, transfer it to your containers. Again do not burry the seed. Try using tweezers to gently set the seed into the soil with the white root pointed down into the dirt.

Milkweed Seedlings

Now that the seeds are safely in the dirt it is time to watch the green portion of the plant emerge. Milkweed loves sunlight so use grow lights when possible. Place them right over the top of the containers. Watch daily to see if the growing plant is just about to touch, then raise the grow light just a little bit. About the time that the first set of leaves appear is a good time to set up an oscillating fan. This will recreate the wind that the seedlings would normally endure outside and is a great first step in hardening off your plants.

The next step is transplanting. While it has been fun watching the seeds grow into little green stems with leaves, it is time for them to move out. Milkweed has a taproot that does not like to be disturbed, so do not repot. After any and all chances for frost has passed, it is time to start the move. First, give your plants a drink and place your seedlings outside where they will get sun for a few hours, about 2-4 hours. Then the next day place them outside for 3-6 hours. On the third day give them about 5-8 hours. Finally, on the last day, it is time to plant them in your garden for those Monarchs to enjoy.

Time to Grow Milkweed

By now you have fully enjoyed watching Milkweed grow from seed. But the best is yet to come. Milkweed has a beautiful ecosystem unlike any other. With this one addition to your garden, not only will you welcome the Monarch, but so much more. You may find yourself researching a bunch of new fascinating insects. Even the bird population might increase from this powerhouse plant!

As always, make sure to check out our events page to see what that chapter is up to. We host an annual seed swap where you can pick up a few verities of milkweed. Sometimes we even hand out free milkweed seeds at our events!


Posted & filed under Butterfly, Native Species, Pollinator.

Also known as Milkweed, even though it is not a weed, but in fact a widely beneficial native plant. This plant puts out leaves in early spring but doesn’t bloom until the summer months. In the fall watch for the seed pods to burst open in a dazzling show. Don’t forget to leave the stems over winter for beneficial bugs to hide in.

Close up of Butterfly Weed and the insects it supports.

According to the New York Flora Atlas the following milkweeds are native to New York but check their website to ensure the plant grows near you.

Asclepias amplexicaulisblunt-leaved milkweed
Asclepias amplexicaulis × A. syriaca = A. ×intermediaintermediate milkweed
Asclepias exaltataforest milkweed
Asclepias incarnata ssp. incarnatawestern swamp milkweed
Asclepias incarnata ssp. pulchraeastern swamp milkweed
Asclepias purpurascenspurple milkweed
Asclepias quadrifoliafour-leaved milkweed
Asclepias rubrared milkweed
Asclepias syriacacommon milkweed
Asclepias tuberosabutterfly weed
Asclepias variegatawhite milkweed
Asclepias verticillatawhorled milkweed
Asclepias viridifloragreen milkweed
Milkweed that is native to New York
Milkweed seedpods are hard at work developing seeds that will burst forth and float away in the fall.

Monarch Butterfly

While milkweed plays a vital role in the ecosystem for many insects, it is of utmost importance to the Monarch caterpillar. While the butterfly will gather nectar from just about anything that is blooming, the caterpillar will only eat milkweed. The monarch has co-evolved with the milkweed in an attempt to protect itself from predators. For example, the caterpillar can handle eating the toxic sap contained in the stems of the milkweed. Important note, wash your hands if you happen to touch the sap. If any happens to get into your eyes seek medical attention immediately. The transformation of the monarch is quite astonishing, read more about it on Monarch Watch.

Monarch butterfly resting in a field

How to Help

Now you may be wondering how can you help this beautiful monarch butterfly. The good news is there is hope even if you are not a master gardener. There are plenty of opportunities to help, check them out:

  • Help reforestation efforts of the overwintering sites (Forests for Monarchs and Monarch Butterfly Fund)
  • Ask your mayor to take the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge
  • Help raise the quality of life for the locals in Mexico so they do not resort to logging (Alternare)
  • Plant native milkweeds to support the monarch life cycle
  • Plant native nectar powerhouses especially fall blooming ones such as goldenrod and aster
  • Introduce native shrubs and trees as they also support a bunch of butterflies and benefical insects
  • Register your polinator garden on Polinator Pathway
  • Add signs to your garden about polinators

Don’t forget that sharing is also caring. Share this blog with friends or even gift them milkweed for their own garden! Share information that you learned with your circle of influence. All of the little acts add up to some pretty big impact!

What Not to Do

Likewise, there are a few “do not” items that we need to cover as well. These topics may be hotly debated but we are going to share what the scientist who have dedicated their careers to and what they have found.

  • Avoid non-native milkweed species as they can harbor parasites (Tropical and Hairy Ball)
  • Do not spray pestacides and encourage others to stop as well
  • Say no to captive breeding and monarch releases
  • Do not rear monarchs indoors, if you would like to for education pourpuses limit to 10 and keep them outside in a mesh net.

Saving the Monarch butterfly always seems to raise strong emotions. If you have participated in an item on the “what-not-to-do list” that is ok. We are all learning and working on doing better. Keep in mind as more scientists research these topics, these best practices will also change. Keep reading and learning and we will do our best to update this blog as more information becomes available.

Tagging Monarch Butterfly

This topic gets more than a bullet point as it is a bit more involved. Monarch Watch has a program where citizen scientists can place a small round tag on the last generation of Monarch butterflies. This is the group of butterflies that will migrate to Mexico in the East. Once these beauties make it to Mexico the locals are compensated for each tag they bring in, helping their economy. There are several ways you can help. First, you can help by tagging the migratory generation just sign up for a kit on monarch watch. If you are not into catching butterflies then you can always keep an eye out for tags and report any that you find.

Before entering into this program, take some time to really think it through. For the time being, there has not been very much research done on the tags used on the butterflies. Clearly, they don’t do any short-term damage. However, it is unclear if there is any long-term or unseen damage done. In addition, only the tags are recovered which means the butterfly itself is not studied. With the rising number of OE, it would be beneficial for those tagging to provide test results. Then, in Mexico, have the butterfly recovered with the tag and tested for OE again. This would provide some data for researchers and the butterflies could be further studied on other projects as well.

If you enjoyed this post make sure to check out more of our blogs. We will be adding more so make sure to come back and visit often!


Posted & filed under Invasive Species, Native Species, Native Trees.

Once again it is winter and the evergreen trees are taking center stage. The hemlock drops needles too much making it not a prized Christmas tree however our native hemlock looks beautiful on the snowy landscape. Tsuga canadensis has provided much-needed shelter for example the Ruffed Grouse, and food for wildlife such as the porcupine and red squirrel. Not to mention, who doesn’t love the smell of pine needles as the cold nips at your nose?

Hemlocks are also important nesting sites, food sources, and even breeding habitat for the following birds.

Blackburnian WarblersYellow-rumped WarblersRed-shouldered Hawks
Mourning DovesBlue JaysRed-breasted Nuthatch
Northern FlickersBlack-capped ChickadeesBoreal Chickadees
Common GracklesWhite-winged CrossbillsBay-breasted Warblers
Magnolia WarblerAmerican RobinsBlack-throated Green Warblers
Evening GrosbeaksPine SiskinsBlue-headed Vireo
Dark-eyed JuncosRed CrossbillsAmerican Goldfinch
Golden-crowned KingletNorthern ParulaWood Thrush

Identifying Hemlock

First look for the Eastern Hemlock feathery silhouette, with fine, lacy twigs whose tips tend to droop gracefully. Then take a closer look for short, flat, flexible needles attached to the twig by tiny slender stalks, about ½ inch, long. They are rounded at the tip, dark green above but pale silvery below. When the tree is young, the bark is gray-brown and relatively smooth becomes cinnamon brown, with thick, ridges forming flat plates as it ages. Male flowers, which appear from April to early June appear in light-yellow clusters at the axis of needles from the preceding year. While the Female flower develops on the terminals of the previous year’s branchlets; and is pollinated by the wind. After pollination, the light green cones gradually turn into brown cones about ¾ inch long. They remain soft and flexible until the seeds are released in the fall.

Photo credit New York Flora Atlas https://newyork.plantatlas.usf.edu/photo.aspx?ID=3130

Apart from this, if you would like more details on identifying hemlock and ruling out other conifers check out this article from Wild Adirondack. https://wildadirondacks.org/trees-of-the-adirondacks-eastern-hemlock-tsuga-canadensis.html

Growing Hemlock

For those with full shade and part shade consider growing a Hemlock as this is their ideal growing condition. While they can be pruned into hedges they have a delicate almost swiping cone shape when left to their own course.


The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), is an insect pest native to Asia and accidentally introduced to the US. This invasive pest has led to the decline and mortality within four to ten years. It has thrived along the East coast, damaging hemlock forests from Maine to Georgia including 25 counties in New York State, especially in the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes. Consequently, climate change may accelerate the spread into the Adirondacks.

photo credit New York Invasive Species Information

Identifying HWA

Adult females are black and oval-bodied. But are usually concealed under the white woolly masses of woolly wax they secrete from special glands. From March through May, these females lay 50 to 300 brownish-orange eggs that hatch from April to June. The winter generation one female produces an average of 200 eggs which in turn mature. Then during the spring, they produce on average another 200 eggs each. That’s 40,000 eggs in one year, per female HWA!

Newly hatched nymphs aka crawlers are reddish-brown with a small white fringe near the front. Crawlers search for suitable sites to settle, usually at the base of the hemlock needles. They hitch a ride on the wind, feet of birds, or the fur of small mammals. This is where they begin to feed with their specialized sucking mouthparts for the rest of their lives.

HWA feeds deep within plant tissues by tapping directly into the tree’s food storage cells and not the sap. The hemlock responds by walling off the wound and this disrupts the flow of nutrients to the needles. Eventually, this leads to needles and twigs drying out and losing color until they die completely. Overall the growth will slow and there will be dieback of major limbs within two years. Generally, this process progresses from the bottom of the tree and can completely kill the tree in as little as four years.

Reporting HWA

Once you have identified HWA make sure to report it to the proper organization. For instance, if you are in New York use the iMap Invasives tool from PRISM. First, check out the helpful training they provide and then create your account. Once you have an account created, download the app, and use your smartphone to report in the field.

Eradicating HWA

At the present time, there are two approaches for managing HWA infestations chemical insecticides and biological control. Both come with pros and cons to ensure we do not do further damage to the environment. Prevention is also a good starting point. As always be careful moving plant material from infested areas especially during March – June when crawlers are most active. Keep bird feeders away from hemlocks to prevent crawlers from coming into contact with healthy trees. If a tree is heavily infested then it may be best to bring the tree down and burn it on site.

Insecticides, typically applied as a soil drench or an injection are incorporated by sap flow into the tree’s tissues. A single treatment can provide multiple years of protection. However, the costs, environmental safety, and the reproductive potential of HWA makes this approach on a broad scale unfeasible. Homeowners can first use horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps provided they apply it so it comes in contact with the HWA. Then try reducing stress in the tree by ensuring there is enough water and prune dead/dying limbs. Last but not least try to avoid nitrogen fertilizers as this can enhance the survival and reproduction of HWA.

Over the last 10 years, researchers have been investigating the use of biological control agents. At this time, scientists are evaluating the effectiveness of several HWA predators. A beetle and fungal pathogen, from Japan and the Pacific Northwest. Further study is needed to test the effectiveness on large scale and if there will be any long-term side effects from releasing another species.