As I near the southwestern end of Butterfly Loop, a monarch catches my eye. He circles a few times and heads straight for a small clump of common milkweed I hadn’t noticed, half-hidden behind a locust tree. He stays only for a couple of seconds before moving on, however — perhaps because the flowers are covered with various species of beetles, busy feeding and mating and clambering over each other in their excitement. It’s interesting the extent to which one can find quite distinct gatherings of insects in neighboring milkweed patches. I imagine it’s a combination of which stage the flowers are in and what other sorts of plants they adjoin, but who knows, really?
Butterfly Loop circles the widest part of our 40-acre meadow; this end of it skirts the skinny part, which contains areas so infertile that goldenrod is stunted and scarce, and the ground is covered by low dewberry vines, ground cedar and polypody. Other, slightly more fertile areas are dotted with oxeye daisies. We don’t know too much about the use-history of the field, other than that much of it was orchard at one time and/or planted to hay and other crops by sharecroppers. Piles of rocks can be found just inside the woods’ edge all around the perimeter of the field, but despite what must’ve been decades of effort at rock removal, the soil is still heavy, rocky clay with a natural hardpan about a foot down. Unlike the rich limestone valley to our east, it’s not exactly ideal for agriculture. Since old-field habitat is at a premium in Pennsylvania these days, we figure keeping our fields as meadows is probably their highest and best use.
It’s getting past 11:00 o’clock now, and the sun’s too high for good photography. But I can’t resist trying to get a portrait of this Hypericum perforatum plant. Common St. John’s wort is a European herb of great reputed powers:
The common name comes from its traditional flowering and harvesting on St John’s day, 24 June. The genus name Hypericum is derived from the Greek words hyper (above) and eikon (picture), in reference to the traditional use of the plant to ward off evil, by hanging plants over a religious icon in the house during St John’s day. The species name perforatum refers to the presence of small oil glands in the leaves that look like windows, which can be seen when they are held against the light.
Although “ingestion by livestock can cause photosensitization, central nervous system depression, spontaneous abortion, and can lead to death,” it’s increasingly prized as an herbal treatment for depression in humans — “St John’s wort has been shown to be effective in the treatment of mild to moderate depression in many studies.” It’s a traditional brewing herb, but I’ve never experimented with it — it seems too potent a substance to mess around with.
Just before Butterfly Loop merges with First Field Trail (which despite its name goes mostly through the woods adjoining the field), there’s a patch of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) on the left. This is the rarer and showier of our two species of dogbane. Its more open shape and larger, more bell-like flowers give no doubt as to the ID. If you have to wonder which dogbane you’re looking at, it’s almost certainly Indian hemp.
Spreading dogbane likes “a somewhat barren soil that is sandy or rocky.” That’s us! But it’s an excellent plant to include in butterfly gardens, along with the milkweeds; many butterfly species seek out its nectar. (See, for example, this list of butterfly nectar sources.) That’s a silver-spotted skipper in the photo.
Crossing the powerline right-of-way, we pass a small patch of blackberries that’s just appeared in the last three or four years. Back in the 1970s and early 80s, the brushier parts of the field had huge blackberry patches, and we picked and froze many dozens of quarts every year. Then we made the mistake of mowing them down, thinking that would help regenerate them, and they never came back — the white-tailed deer population had exploded, and they grazed out not only blackberries but our volunteer raspberries and currants, too. Now that two decades of good hunting have brought the deer herd down to a more reasonable size, we’re starting to see some of these things come back, though it varies from year to year. You’d think having abundant thorns would be enough to keep the grazers at bay, but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Pasture rose (Rosa carolina) is blessed with scimitar-like thorns, but that doesn’t stop the deer from loving it to death. This bush near the end of Butterfly Loop is one of only three or four that, for whatever reason, seem to have escaped the notice of our “mountain cattle” — at least for now.
Pasture rose is one of my favorite shrubs. I love its simple, un-showy pink flowers, which make me think of rocky seacoasts, for some reason, and in the winter few things are as picturesque as the leafless, arched branches of a pasture rose studded with red rosehips against the snow.
A monarch lands on the last common milkweed plant before the trail ends at the garage. By this time, I have perfected my butterfly stalking techniques, and manage to get some good, close shots. (I don’t have a telephoto, just a 10x zoom lens.) Having just spent some three and a half hours over two days looking at butterflies through a camera lens, I am struck anew by how much more gorgeous this species is than any of our other leptidoptera — barring, perhaps, the luna moth. “Monarch” is a very fitting name. And this seems a fitting way to end our ramble around Butterfly Loop.
See the whole set of photos on Flickr.
As a coda, here’s a fun reader-reaction from Joan Ryan, who lives in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Light verse as it may be, she makes an important point, I think.
I see these photos you have shot
Of wildlife forms that I have not,
Admiring their complexity
On how unfair it is that I
Must take a bus or car or fly
To spots where one can find such herbs.
Alas, they are not in our burbs.
Where uniformity is blessed
Untidy may lead to arrest.
But damping envy down is hard
When beauty grows in your front yard.
And yet, I do have to admit
If these grew here, I’d have a fit
And mow them down to proper height
In fear their seeds would soon take flight
And propagate my neighbor’s space.
I labor daily to erase
These flowers and I do succeed.
In branding each wildflower a weed,
I’ve won the battle, lost the war
And done something I should abhor.
Examining myself comes hard
When beauty grows in your front yard.