What are local ecotype plants and why do they matter to pollinators?

With the planting season upon us, many of us are starting to think about what flowers may be the best for our gardens and pollinators. We may have started to look into floral mixes or even flower starts, but probably there are too many choices and now we’re overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. In previous posts, we talked about the importance of diverse floral choices and how appropriate native species are when choosing plants for pollinators. There is, however, an extra twist that is becoming more mainstream in this story and today I want to talk about it. Let’s chat about local ecotypes, what they are, what they contribute, and how to get them (and how to not get them).

What are local ecotypes?

In a few words, local ecotypes are native plant species that have a genetic background typical for the local region and adapted to it. I know, there were a lot of technical words in that sentence, so let me break it down to make it easier to understand.

Like all organisms, plants have lineages that reflect their ancestry. In the same way that we as humans are genetically more closely related to members of our own family than to those of other families, plant populations are also more closely related to other plants of the same species that live close to them. From a genetic point of view, this means that plants that come from regions close to each other will tend to have more similar genetic characteristics than those from regions far apart from each other. This genetic makeup specific to a given region is what we call broadly a local genotype.

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Variety is the spice of life: creating a new garden with native plants

Nothing like starting out a blog with a cliché, right? But this perfectly sums up one reason to change from a monotypic lawn to a mix of native plants. Instead of looking out at a sea of sameness, the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes of plants offer a more pleasing landscape to view. And, bonus points, more and different kinds of plants attract more and different kinds of butterflies, birds, and beneficial wildlife!

butterfly milkweed with monarch caterpillar
Butterflyweed planted in spring 2020 provides food for Monarch caterpillars later in the summertime.

A do-it-yourself garden is harder but more fulfilling

Once you figure out that you do want more variety of plants instead of lawn in your yard, the real planning begins. But, it can be hard to know where to start – do you just chop up the lawn and start planting? How much will it cost? What’s the maintenance on these plants? What about soil conditions? Don’t worry! There are some really good online tips for beginners. To sum mine up: start small, don’t overthink it, and stick to things you like looking at.

For example, my sister moved into a small house with a fenced backyard. She knew she wanted to avoid the pain of mowing. She knew she wanted low-maintenance, flowering plants. And since she’s a redhead, she knew what colors she liked (hint: little to no red flowers). The first thing we did was start tracking the sun, in both the front and back yards. Each month over the winter, we took a picture in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. We also got started on the paths needed through the garden areas.

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Houseplants – The Garden Thyme Podcast

two houseplants on a windowsill

Happy New Year! It is hard to believe that we are already in a new year. We are kicking off our third season by sitting down with Extension Educator Ginny Rosenkranz. Like many of you, during the pandemic our acquisition of houseplants increased exponentially. Ginny guides us on caring for all of our botanical beauties.

We also have our: 

  • Native Plant of the Month, Musclewood, Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) at ~24:55
  • Bug of the Month, Ice crawlers or ice bug family Grylloblattidea at ~29:05
  • Garden Tips of the Month at ~31:50

To listen to the podcast visit https://www.buzzsprout.com/687509.

podcast sound wave image

We hope you enjoy this month’s episode and tune in next month for more garden tips.

  1. If you have any garden related questions please email us at UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com
    or look us up on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GardenThymePodcast.
  2. For more information about University of Maryland Extension and these topics, please check out the UME Home and Garden Information Center website at https://extension.umd.edu/hgic.

The Garden Thyme Podcast is a monthly podcast brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel- Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County). Theme Song:  By Jason Inc.

Introducing the king of fall fruits: persimmons!

It’s fall, the air is starting to get crisp, you are walking and you see these strange trees. You are sure that they are trees, yet they have these fruits that look like tomatoes… but they are on a tree. What are those fruits? They look so attractive with that wonderful orange… should you harvest them? Should you eat them? Are they any good? What IS this? In today’s post, I want to (re)introduce you to these plants and their fruits, and hopefully the next time you see them you will have answers to all those questions and will know what to do. 😉

persimmon tree in a yard
In the fall, persimmon trees are recognized for their many orange fruits that look like tomatoes! Photo: P. Tain.

What are these orange fruits?

These fruits are what here in the USA we call persimmons (from the Powhatan word “pichamin”). Persimmons are the fruits of a group of trees that belong to the same family as ebony, and that can be found on a number of continents, including North America. Among all the persimmon species that exist, a number of them are edible, producing fruits in late fall. In the USA, there are two persimmon species that produce edible fruits, and one of them is native to right here in Maryland: the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

Although the wild American persimmon still grows in our forests and was well-known by native Americans, who used its hardwood, consumed the fruits, and introduced them to the European colonists (see some Native American legends involving persimmons here), the American persimmons we see cultivated in orchards come from selected lines. Indeed, varieties of American persimmons have been selected, and many cultivars of American persimmons can be purchased and grown in gardens and orchards to produce fruit. Besides the American persimmon, there are also other species available for purchase, in particular the Oriental persimmon (D. kaki), which is very well-known in Europe.

close-up of an orange persimmon fruit in a tree
The American persimmon tree harbors fruits that turn orange, soft, and tend to fall when they are ripe. Photo: W. Pollard.

Although American and Oriental persimmons are edible both raw and cooked (see here for some recipes), it is important to note that the fruits are very astringent prior to ripening, meaning that they have to be ripe for them to be palatable. The level of ripening is usually shown by the coloration of the fruit (ripe fruits are orange), its softness (ripe fruits become soft to the touch), and their voluntary falling from the tree while not rotten. It is often said that persimmons need to go through a frost in order to ripen. This is in fact not accurate: unripe persimmons will simply rot after a frost; ripe persimmons will not rot after a frost and will in fact start slowly drying out, which will make them become sweeter. This may have led people to assume that frosts actually lead to ripening, while the frost will not help in the ripening of any fruit that was not already ripe at the moment of the frost.

Is it true that I need to plant more than one persimmon tree to have fruits?

The short answer is mostly no. American persimmon trees are what we call dioecious plants. This means that each plant will either harbor female flowers (which will become fruits) or male flowers (which will provide pollen for pollination and will not produce fruits). The first consequence of this is that if one plants or encounters a male plant, it will be impossible to ever harvest fruits from it. The second consequence of this is that a female persimmon flower needs to receive pollen from a male plant in order to produce seeds (and reproduce). In most wild forms of American persimmons, pollination is also required for fruit production.

small yellow flowers on a persimmon tree
American persimmon trees display small and delicate white flowers, which are either female or male. Photo: M. Beziat.

That being said, female plants of most selected cultivars of American persimmons can actually produce fruit without pollination. If they do not receive any pollen, these female flowers will still develop into fruits, which will not harbor any seeds and which will be fully edible. If one were to plant these cultivars in their garden or orchard, fruit production would not be restricted by female flower pollination.

But does that mean persimmons do not need pollinators?

Not really. Wild persimmons still need pollinators to transfer pollen from the male to the female plants. So who are these pollinators? In fact, we know relatively little about wild persimmon pollination. In terms of flowering time, American persimmons flower between May and June, and their flowers are small and white (and cute!). Floral visitors have not been extensively studied, but there is at least one study describing a large variety of wild bees (e.g., sweat bees, bumblebees, leaf cutter bees) visiting their flowers. From this respect, persimmons play a role in sustaining this group of pollinators and will benefit from their pollination services.

immature and adult moths that use persimmon trees for food
Persimmons also support other insects including many lovely moths from our region, such as Luna moths – top – and Regal moths – bottom). Photo: Askalotl, C. McClarren and A. Reagol, M. Clock-Rust.

Although not pollinated by them, persimmons also support other types of insects (and sometimes pollinators): moths! In fact, persimmon leaves are the favorite food of caterpillars of many native moths. In particular, Luna moth and regal moth (besides many others) caterpillars prefer persimmon leaves. It appears then that persimmons do not just feed us with their delicious fruits, but also feed many of these beautiful native moths, allowing for them to maintain their populations in our area!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí. Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Create a pollinator-friendly garden

What did you have for breakfast? 

If your plate included toast with jam, fresh berries, granola with nuts, coffee and juice, you had a nice balanced breakfast, right? Take away everything that needs a pollinator and your left with only dry toast and plain granola. That’s how dull and diminished our diets would be without pollinators.

Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are responsible for one in three bites we eat.  They are crucial to not only our food supply, but to our ecosystems. Pollinators build healthy habitat. They keep plant communities vigorous and able to reproduce naturally, supporting biodiversity and providing food, cover and nesting sites for wildlife.  

Unfortunately many pollinators are threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use, disease and changes in the way we manage the land.  They need our help.  While bees and butterflies are our pollinator poster children, we should also thank wasps, flies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds and bats for their services. 

How does pollination work?  Buzzing, flying, crawling and humming along, pollinators get dusted with pollen as they sip nectar and gather pollen from a flower.

Bee on bee balm
A bee searches for nectar and pollen in the tubular flowers of hyssop. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Barb Hendershot

When they visit another flower – bam! – pollen gets transferred which triggers the formation of seeds and fruit.  That is how plants grow our food.

Without pollinators, there would be no strawberries, juicy peaches, crunchy nuts or corn on the cob.  I’m not willing to give that up.  Are you?

I didn’t think so.  So join me in helping pollinators by creating a pollinator-friendly garden.

Start with diversity. Plant many different flowering plants that bloom from spring to frost so pollinators have a constant source of pollen and nectar. Mass plants to give them a better chance of being noticed by pollinators.  Plant three coneflowers, not just one, to put out the welcome mat.  

Include native plants.  Since native plants co-evolved with native insects – including Maryland’s 400 species of native bees – they naturally support them best with better nutrition.

A silver spotted skipper butterfly explores a zinnia.
A silver spotted skipper butterfly explores a zinnia. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Barb Hendershot

Think big.  Include not only annuals and perennials, but trees, shrubs and vines. Each plant type provides habitat for different pollinators’ needs from food and shelter to places to raise young.

What are some favorite plants for pollinators?  The list is long but includes columbine, phlox, purple coneflower, bee balm, butterfly weed, goldenrod and asters, redbud, ninebark, oak and birch. Here are some good resources for pollinator plants from the Xerces Society and Pollinator Partnership: and this guide on pollinator.org.

Provide habitat for nesting and egg-laying by pollinators by adding shrubs, grasses, a brush pile and orchard mason bee house.  Add water with a birdbath with a few rocks for pint-sized pollinator access. 

To really boost your yard’s pollinator appeal, limit or eliminate pesticides.  Bees, in particular, are very sensitive to chemicals.   Opt for kinder, gentler organic controls like insecticidal soap and hand-picking.

Learn more about creating a pollinator garden at our University of Maryland fact sheet. You’ll find resources for native and pollinator plants as well as tips for garden design and maintenance. 

I hope you will make your garden a pollinator hot spot, the place to be.  Or is that bee? 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.  

Rain Gardens – The Garden Thyme Podcast

In this month’s episode, we are chatting all about the benefits of rain gardens (~12:45).  Every time it
rains, water runs off impervious surfaces such as roofs, driveways, roads, and parking lots, collecting
pollutants along the way. Maryland’s average rainfall is about 44”. That is a lot of storm water, isn’t it?
Think about how much water can go back into our groundwater table instead of directly into a storm drain by
using a rain garden. We also answer a listener’s question about how to prepare an area for planting a
new garden next year by removing turf grass (~00:45).

To listen to the podcast visit: https://gardenthymepodcast.buzzsprout.com or search for us on Itunes
or the Stitcher App.

Helpful resource: Rain Gardens Across Maryland 

We also have our: 
 Native Plant of the Month (Woolgrass) at  29:50
 Bug of the Month (splitter bug aka frog hopper) at ~ 33:40
 Garden Tips of the Month at ~ 38:45

We hope you enjoy this month’s episode and will tune in next month for more garden tips.  If you
have any garden related questions please email UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GardenThymePodcast

The Garden Thyme Podcast is a monthly podcast brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension.  Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County). 

Theme Song:  By Jason Inc

Monarchs and Milkweed – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Listen to podcast

In this month’s episode, we are chatting about the marvelous relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed.   Undoubtedly, there is no other butterfly so easily recognized with its orange and black wings fringed with white spots. Their seasonal flight from Mexico through the United States towards Canada is long anticipated for gardeners.

Timing :
Milkweed and Monarchs: ~1:36
Migration and Life cycle: ~6:58
Milkweed recommendations for Maryland: ~ 11:06
Native Plant of the Month: Joe-pye weed- Eupatorium spp. at  ~ 27:40 
Bug of the Month: Asian Tiger Mosquito at ~  ~33:05
Garden Tips of the Month at ~ 39:20

We hope you enjoyed this month’s episode and will tune in next month for more garden tips.
If you have any garden-related questions please email us at  UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com  or look us up on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GardenThymePodcast

The Garden Thyme Podcast is a monthly podcast brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension.  Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County). 

Theme Song:  By Jason Inc