The Secret Sidewalk in our neighborhood is no secret, but its pollinator garden might be.
Tucked along half of a single block is an “Accidental Pollinator Garden:” a glorious border of native wildflowers. It’s a pleasure to walk past. But though beautiful for humans, it is a lifesaver for animals. It is habitat. Nectar and pollen feed countless bees, butterflies, and other invertebrates, while birds and small mammals eat the seeds.
Compare this bounty to one of the manicured, mown, blown, “treated”, mosquito-Joe-d, 100% turfgrass lawns nearby.
Who planted the wildflowers? Birds? Wind? A habitat-minded neighbor? Every year, the patches get bigger, more beautiful, and more FUNCTIONAL.
That’s the important thing about native plants: they function not only as curb-appeal for humans, but as vital food and housing for “the little things that run the world.”*
Take a late September Tour to Meet the Neighbors:
• Frostweed (a.k.a. White Crownbeard) is at its peak now. Frostweed is a famous nectar source for butterfly gardens, and because it blooms late, is an invaluable pitstop for Monarch migration.
Frostweed bonus: The morning after the first hard frost, come back to see a surprise: ice sculptures! Frostweeds extrude magic ribbons of ice through their winged stems.
• Sweet Joe-Pye Weed grew powder-pink blooms all summer, and is now maturing into fluffy seedheads. Look for goldfinches twisting seeds from the domed panicles.
• Black-eyed Susan is everyone’s favorite, and another long-blooming nectar source. Look for tiny looper caterpillars wearing bits of flowers and pretending to be . . . bits of flowers.
Also, look for small, yellow crab spiders who match the yellow petals while waiting for unwary prey.
• The blue flowers—low and little—are Whitemouth Dayflower (Communis erecta). Look for two blue petals and a tiny white petal below. On sunny mornings, small black bees go nuts over these. The bees wear golden saddlebags of pollen while they zip from flower to flower. They zip SO fast, I’ve never gotten a photo clear enough to yield a bee ID.
(On up the sidewalk to the left (going North) is a humongous patch of these blues. They’ve faded now, but put on quite the bee show every year, thanks to the attentive person who spares them from the weedeater.)
Here’s a native Oakleaf Hydrangea leaning in from a neighbor’s garden:
Look around, too, for the many exotic thugs these native heroes compete against: Wintercreeper vine, Periwinkle, Privet, and Bush honeysuckle, which are all on the State Invasive list.
In the Secret Pollinator Garden, there are two vines that look like exotic weeds, but are natives, too: Carolina Snailseed and Honeyvine Milkweed.
• Carolina Snailseed Find the clumps of berries that start green and mature to orange-red. (Almost the same size as berries of the bad bush honeysuckle.)
If you open a berry with a fingernail, you will see why Snailseed is called Snailseed: the seed looks like a ridged snail shell.
• Honeyvine Milkweed / Bluevine Milkweed swings from shrubs and trees like a tropical liana, but is a bona fide native Milkweed that hosts caterpillars of Monarch butterflies.
Flowers are tiny white blooms held in Barbie-sized bouquets that smell like honey. They mature into smooth, fat, green pods.
Honeyvine also feeds the other creatures who use Milkweed plants as hosts: Milkweed Tussock moths, Milkweed bugs, and Milkweed beetles.
The photo below is from this past spring, when native Crossvine flowers fell onto the Secret Sidewalk. Crossvines can thread through trees, but unlike invasive English ivy or Wintercreeper, it doesn’t hurt its hosts. And hummingbirds drink the nectar…
Why I wrote this post:
Yesterday on the Secret Sidewalk, we discovered Frostweed flowers snapped in half and discarded. In full bloom.
Every year, I see flowers get chopped. Most likely by someone far tidier than I am, and just as well-intentioned, but who doesn’t realize that these plants, although wild, are not weeds.
These flowers feed millions.
I’ve made this post to be the destination of a QR code I’ve placed along the sidewalk.
I’d like to introduce passersby to their wildflower neighbors, so that we can all enjoy and protect our Accidental Pollinator Garden every year.
LINKS for more info about these native plants and their animals:
Frostweed / White Crownbeard / (Verbesina virginica)
Sweet Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Whitemouth Dayflower (Communis erecta)
(These are the natives, but nearby are exotic lookalikes: Communis commune, with spathes that don’t shut, with wider leaves, and with rootlets sprouting at low nodes.)
Carolina Snailseed (Cocculus carolinus)
Honeyvine Milkweed / Bluevine (Cynanchum laeve)
Frostflowers (ice ribbons) on Frostweed at first hard frost: link to my SidewalkNature post.
Where is the Secret Pollinator Garden? It begins at Westwood Ave., and only runs a few feet.
Can we extend it, somehow?
Make a true wildlife corridor?
My Instagram posts are 100% nature, and most of it the Sidewalk kind.
I’m not fond of facebook, but some people aren’t on Instagram, so I post nature things there from time to time.
Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday natural wonders amid every habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals.
*”The Little Things that Run the World” — Edward O. Wilson.