Monday, June 27, 2022



One of the most unusual and beautiful plants endemic to North America is the American Beautyberry. It grows well in a variety of habitats, including damp thickets, woodlands, wet slopes, rich bottomlands, and swamp edges. They grow best and produce the most berries in full sun but will adapt to partially shaded areas just fine. Reaching a height of five feet and a diameter much the same they are a nice large statement plant for any backyard landscape. Heights of nine feet have been reported under ideal growing conditions, but in most situations, they will not reach that massive size. The tiny white flowers are not particularly showy nor highly fragrant, but many butterflies are still attracted by them and will be found nectaring at the blossoms. The real showy part of this plant comes late in the season when the berries appear. Clusters of waxy, purple, or sometimes white berries develop at the axil points of the leaves along the stem. Once you witness these berries, you will understand how this shrub earned its common name.


Sometimes referred to as the French mulberry or sourberry, which hints at its edibility. Reportedly the raw berries have a somewhat sweet-sour-spicy taste and should be consumed in small amounts as they can cause stomach upset. However, if cooked their complex taste is great in teas, jellies, wines, and other recipes and not known to cause the gastric upset they do in the raw stage. Although, with any native plant small amounts should be consumed to determine your tolerance for it. A concentrate can be made from the berries by boiling equal parts berries and water for 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes. Strain the berries with a fine mesh strainer to separate the skins, and seeds from the juice. Next strain into jars using a finer mesh strainer. Juice can be stored in jars in the refrigerator for up to a month. Or freeze them into ice cubes and store them in the freezer for a much longer period of time. Concentrated juice tastes much like hibiscus roselle tea with a slightly sweet tangy flavor. Concentrated juice can be used for many recipes including jellies, wines, teas, and sorbet.


Native Americans used this plant for medicinal remedies for common ailments. Roots and leaves were used to make a tea for the sweat lodge to treat fevers and rheumatism. A tea for drinking was made from the roots to treat dysentery and stomach aches. Root and berry tea was made to treat colic. Farmers in the early 1900’s used crushed leaves to repel biting insects from their mules and horses. They rubbed the leaves on their skin under the harnesses. It was common for humans to utilize the leaves in the same manner, and in some areas still do today. Scientific studies were conducted by the University of Mississippi to assess the claim that this plant was a natural insect repellent. Their findings showed there was some validity to the power of this plant in warding off ticks, ants, and mosquitoes. If you found yourself outdoors with no insect repellent and this plant was available, it would certainly be worth trying.


 Mark Catesbury, born 1683, was an English naturalist and author who spent much of his adult life in the New World studying flora and fauna. On one of his collecting trips to Virginia while visiting his sister, he collected beautyberry and sent specimens back to England. It continues to be grown in European garden landscapes today.

For hundreds of years the beauty, as well as the medicinal and nutritional value this plant possesses has been highly valued among gardeners, herbalists, and naturalists. They are easy to grow and do well in neglected soils, with low rainfall. They provide beautiful color on the fall landscape and are a valuable food source for quail, robins, finches, thrashers, and other native birds. Deer favor the leaves and other mammals, such as foxes, raccoons, armadillos, and squirrels will eat the berries.

Try adding beautyberries to your own yard landscape, you will not be disappointed.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Hackberry Emperor


Who has noticed the explosion of small brown butterflies recently? Thousands upon thousands of butterflies being slaughtered by vehicles, swarming buildings, and using humans as perches, it would be hard not to notice! What are these butterflies and why are there so many? The first part of that question is easy to answer, they are hackberry emperors, or more commonly called the hackberry butterfly. The second part of that question is a little more difficult to answer. Swarming activity in animals can be for many distinct reasons, low food in a given area prompts swarms of certain species to seek food elsewhere (locusts commonly show this behavior). Weather conditions can create swarm-like migrations to warmer areas. Males of some species will gather in large swarms to attract mates in a form of an insect dating game. While I could find no definitive answer to the question “Why?” We know weather is not a factor as we are nowhere near fall and migration season. I doubt food resource is a viable reason as there plenty of hackberry trees around as well as the food sources the adults prefer (more about this later). I think we can assume these are males all competing for nearby females. Where did they all come from? The hackberry butterfly uses the Hackberry tree exclusively as their host plant for the caterpillar. When conditions are right, such as plenty of hackberry trees, a warmer winter, and less predation on caterpillars, and a host of other unknown conditions could work together to create a perfect scenario to allow these population explosions to occur.

In the 1950’s a study was done in Louisiana that reported similar conditions as we are experiencing in our area. Other reports indicated that these same swarms have been happening and recorded since the 1880’s, all in southern regions. As recent as 2019 these swarms were reported in Northeastern, Kansas. Are weather patterns changing to such a degree that swarming behavior in these butterflies is now moving further north? We do know our winters are nowhere near the conditions we experienced decades ago. We have much less snow and ice and significantly warmer days for longer periods of time. This is bound to have an effect on plants and animals and their ability to survive and adapt. Is it having an effect on the hackberry butterfly in our area? Probably. Could these swarms become commonplace? Maybe.

Fortunately. this behavior is typically short-lived and should be over and done with in about 3 weeks. Until then we will have to tolerate this momentary butterfly apocalypse. They are harmless, and those landing in your personal space are seeking out the moisture and salt from your sweat, not to mention the males of this species are highly attracted to light or bright colored objects. Wearing a white t-shirt may act like a homing beacon for dozens of territorial males.

The hackberry emperors scientific name is Asterocampa celtis, Asterocampa translates to “star caterpillar” and is in reference to the star-like “antlers” at the front of the caterpillar that it shows when alarmed. The word celtis is the genus name for the hackberry tree. The feeding activity of these caterpillars is not known to cause long term damage to the trees, although smaller trees that are heavily populated with feeding caterpillars may become defoliated but should bounce back the next year. Treatment against the caterpillar is usually not needed or recommended. There are two generations of caterpillars in our area. The first generation is what we are experiencing now. The second generation will begin appearing in late summer or early fall. These caterpillars will overwinter in a curled-up leaf they stitch together with silk. Their body color will change to a brown shade to blend in with a dead leaf. In the spring they will become active again and begin feeding on the newly leafed trees and their bodies will change back to their former green color.

After a couple of weeks of feeding they will form a chrysalis and become the new spring butterflies. As adult butterflies they do not typically nectar at flowers or move pollen from one plant to another. They instead prefer to dine on overripe fruit, sap flows from trees, carrion, and dung. Occasionally you will see one visit a flower, but they offer no pollination service. Instead, they hover over the flower inserting their proboscis into the flower, sipping a little nectar before darting off. This behavior puts them in no contact with the pollen inside the flower just waiting for an industrious individual to transport it to the next flower.

Like all insects these butterflies are cold-blooded and have been referred to as “children of the air” because they are at the mercy of ambient temperatures. They need to warm their bodies and will do so by perching on the tops of plants, wings held perpendicular to the suns rays as a form of solar panel. They also have the ability to shiver in a process called thermogenesis. They use the strong muscles in their thorax as a heat generator, this shivering has a warming effect allowing the butterfly to take flight.

It is believed by some that the spirits, souls and departed loved ones piggyback on the wings of butterflies. These spirits travel the world visiting and checking in on those they left behind. When one lands on you, it is a past loved one letting you know they are near and watching over you. As you step outside into the swarm of butterflies over the next couple of weeks, whisper hello to those dearly departed souls, maybe they will hear.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Eastern Cottonwood

The Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) is a fast growing hardwood tree native to the Eastern United States. They are particularly common in the Midwestern states. They may be found as far south as Northeastern Mexico and as far north as Southern Canada. The name Populus translates to "The Peoples Tree" and is probably in reference to the usefulness this tree represents to humans. 

These rapidly growing trees may reach heights well over 100 feet and are the tallest tree east of the Rockies. Some reports I read said they may reach a height of 190 feet!!! 

They often tower over all other trees in their vicinity. While they grow quickly, and reach imposing heights they are short lived at around 75 to 100 years. They are classified as a hardwood because of the way they propagate. They are in fact very soft and readily shed limbs and twigs in windstorms. These trees are still a favorite among many individuals because of their rapid growth and quick shade they can provide. However check the ordinances in your area as many cities have outlawed planting them. This is because of their tendency to break during storm events and the copious amounts of fluffy seeds they disperse. This fluff can clog air conditions, vents, and create allergy issues for many people. 

They grow well along rivers, creeks, streams and other areas with moist soil in full sun. Once a seed has sprouted and survived its first month as a new sapling growth tends to take off and they may grow between 5 to 13 feet in a single year.  A mature cottonwood may consume up to 200 gallons of water daily!! Cottonwoods produce a rooting hormone, an amazing adaptation, that allows broken branches that float down rivers or streams to root into the banks, thus spreading into new territories. The female tree produces seeds at between 5 and 10 years of age, and a single mature tree may produce 48 million seeds!! These seeds are carried on the wind by the cottony fluff they are attached to. They will travel hundreds of yards away from the mother tree before landing, in some cases they may travel on the wind for miles.

While Eastern cottonwood is the most recognized common name, they are also referred to as the Cottonwood poplar and the necklace poplar. This is in reference to the long seed capsules that resemble a strand of pearls. Other trees in the Populus genus are the poplars and the aspens.

The deeply triangular shaped leaves resemble a heart and have flattened stems which allow them to quake and tremble in the slightest breeze. This quaking sounded like falling water or a waterfall to travelers who would follow the sound and would find the cottonwood tree growing along a much needed water source. You can imagine early settlers traveling by wagon train long distances over harsh landscapes in primitive conditions, often low on water, the sight of the cottonwood standing tall in the distance would be a welcome sight indeed. They could fill containers to continue their journey not knowing when the next water source would appear. Livestock got a much needed drink and everyone could bath and wash the trail stench off. Having found a reliable water source many settlers would decide to set up homestead and not continue the arduous journey. Traveling during the winter carried with it another set of challenges and food was often scarce, especially for livestock. The bark of the tree could be fed as fodder to cows and horses if needed. In fact Colonial Custard in the winter of 1868-69 reported during a particularly harsh winter south of Arkansas feeding his horse the bark of this tree during a campaign against the native tribes of the area.

Cottonwoods not only pointed to much needed water, but provided medicinal benefits as well. A compound called salacin is found in the bark, buds and leaves. This compound is used to create medicine to treat fevers, and help ease inflammation and pain. An astringent tea can be made from the inner bark and used to treat gastric upset.  Resin is a waterproofing agent and was used to waterproof boxes. Buckets could be made out of the bark to store and carry items. Essential oils made from the cottonwood could treat arthritis pain and muscle aches. Loaded with antioxidants topical ointments can be made from the oils to treat sunburns and other skin conditions. The resin is often called bee glue because bees gather it to seal up their hives to prevent invading insects and microbes from entering. It is also a key ingredient in bee propolis.  Birds use the fluff to line their nests, and woodpeckers are especially fond of this tree as it is often full of insects feeding on the heart wood and it is easy to hammer into. You will often find large woodpecker holes drilled into these trees as homes for woodpeckers as well. The viceroy, tiger swallowtail, mourning cloak and red-spotted purple all use cottonwood as a host for their caterpillars. 

The cottonwood tree is host to many pests that can damage or even kill the trees. One particular insects is the cottonwood leaf beetle (Chrysomela scripta)The adults feed on the midrib and veins of tree leaves. The larvae will feed on the same leaves, but they carry it to an extreme, they completely skeletonize the leaves, eating all the good fleshy parts of the leaves and leaving the veins and midrib. In large numbers these beetles could potentially harm trees, by reducing their seedling growth. Adults hibernate through the winter under bark or leaf litter. In the spring they become active again and begin feeding on the tender leaves and early buds of Cottonwood trees. Several days later the female will begin laying her eggs on the underside of leaves on trees in the Willow or Cottonwood family. The tiny reddish to yellow colored eggs hatch in a few days and the tiny black larvae will begin feeding. You will commonly find adults and larva together feeding on the same leaves. These beetles are plentiful and can be found most anywhere that Cottonwood, Willow, Poplar and sometimes Alder are found.

Native Americans believe all living things come from the Earth. Legend says that the stars lived within the soil waiting to be born into the sky. One day they heard a joyful sound and decided to follow this happy noise. They came to the strong, wide roots of the cottonwood tree and entered the roots. The cottonwood took the stars into the knotty twigs and branches. Soon all the stars came to hide out in the cottonwoods. They desired above everything to be near this joyous noise of human talking, laughter and dancing. Soon the night sky began to notice fewer and fewer stars in the sky. He spoke to the night wind and asked for his help. The night wind knew where the stars were hiding and sent a great gale of wind to shake the cottonwood trees. The branches fell to the ground and broke open releasing the stars to fly into the night sky. To this day if you break a cottonwood twig on the growth rings you will find a perfect five point star within. Breaking the twig at night, as you aim it toward the sky it will release the star held inside. Look towards the direction you released the star and it will twinkle its thank you. Native Americans as well as early trappers and traders made dugout canoes from the trees, as the soft wood was easier to carve than other trees, it was sturdy and lightweight making it a great choice for a river vessel. Cottonwoods shade rivers and streams along the shoreline helping to cool the waters for salmon and other species living there. 

We can see how the Peoples Tree has played an important part in the history of the United States. It provided shade, medicine, food for livestock when needed, canoes for water travel and trading at the forts. It was a homing beacon to water for thirsty settlers and travelers.  It is a host for many beautiful butterflies that brighten up the landscape. It was and still is considered sacred to many Native Tribes, including the Lakota Sioux that use it as part of their ritual Sundance. The cottonwood may argumentatively be the most historically important tree on our landscape.