Featured Species #5: Monarch

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the classic poster child of butterflies, at least in North America. There are plenty of good reasons for this. It’s large and gorgeous. Its annual migratory pattern is a stunning story. Its life cycle is easy to observe and study, making it ideal for classrooms and amateur naturalists alike. The monarch is also an object lesson in conservation, as it has been endangered by a once-systematic elimination of its only host plants (milkweeds). Its lookalike, the viceroy, is the classic example of Batesian mimicry. In short, the monarch is a biology and ecology lesson all neatly wrapped in a beautiful package.

Danaus plexippus (15)

The monarch also just so happens to be the only butterfly species I have documented in my garden through all of its life stages. I have also collected its caterpillars to raise. I learned (or possibly relearned?) the term “instar” by way of the butterfly garden, and had the privilege of viewing monarch caterpillars at each of these stages. If you ask me, the caterpillars are almost as attractive as the adults. It’s pretty astonishing to watch them eat and grow so rapidly from the moment they emerge from their eggs as tiny pinheads of life.


Caterpillars, from first to fifth instar



Danaus plexippus (57)

Danaus plexippus (58)

If you want monarchs, all you need do is plant milkweeds (flowers in genus Asclepias). Several species are native and/or do well in the Mid-Atlantic region. I have common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and bloodflower (A. curassavica) in my garden. Bloodflower is not native in Maryland, but it  grows well here and the monarchs still eat it. Additional milkweeds for your area can be found here. The fact that “weed” is in the name must be what turns folks off, because it really is an attractive plant available in a variety of colors. Milkweeds support a wide variety of other native insects, as well, so they are an excellent choice for anyone desiring to plant natives.

As picky as the caterpillars are, adult monarchs seem to be pretty gregarious feeders. I have seen them take nectar from the milkweeds as a one-stop shop but also from joe-pye weed, butterfly bush, and zinnias. It seems the best strategy for helping monarchs find your milkweed is to plant a variety of perennials and annuals that flower at different times throughout the summer. With the right mix of plants you can expect to see several generations between their mass migrations. If you want to protect them from predators and watch them through a full life cycle, all you really need is a clear, ventilated box or jar, some sticks, and milkweed leaves.

Danaus plexippus (56)

Monarch Links

Maryland Biodiversity Project

Featured Species #4: Bloodroot

sanguinaria-canadensis-4.jpgA clue to the nature of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) lies in the reference to “blood” in both its common and scientific names. At first glance, the plant would appear to have little reason to bear these names, except perhaps because it’s bloody beautiful. It stands out all the more because it is one of the earliest bloomers in Eastern North America and bears larger flowers than most other plants in bloom at this time. So why “bloodroot” then? If the root is cut or squeezed, it will exude a (toxic) red juice. That, too, is beautiful in its way.

I decided to feature this plant simply because I’ve been seeing it lately, I have some photos, and it’s pretty. My research, though, sent me in all directions and told me I had made a great choice. Thanks Wikipedia! Also Google! Oh, what times we are living in.

Sanguinaria canadensis (11)

For example, I learned that bloodroot is an example of a plant whose seeds are spread by ants. I was aware of this as a general relationship in nature, but now I know some new five-dollar words related to it. For example, myrmechocory is the proper name for this relationship (and possibly a superb hipster band name). An elaiosome is a bit of protein-filled goodness attached to the seed which attracts the ants and inspires the wee beasties to distribute the seed. What became clear as I perused more and more resources is just how fundamental this relationship is to life the world over.

Then I got into the section on “uses” and the rabbit hole really opened up. The idea that it was used in Native American medicine and art was interesting to consider but unsurprising. Some other listed uses were a bit more eyebrow-raising. An extract from the plant has apparently been used in mouthwash and toothpaste, but has since been linked to pre-cancerous lesions. Then I went on to read that the substance has also been marketed as a treatment for cancer, although FDA disagrees that it is useful for this purpose. Most of the top search results for “bloodroot” seem to be sites debating whether or not it is useful to treat cancer (or other things). Finally, there’s the story of “Pinkard’s Sanguinaria Compound.” It sounds like this was one of those miracle tonics of the early twentieth century that was of course not miraculous at all. I guess the major takeaway is that eating or rubbing this plant all over yourself is probably not advisable.

Sanguinaria canadensis (10)

Bloodroot should be easy to find in damp, wooded areas for the next couple of weeks. It really stands out with its large, white flowers and is easy to identify by both the flower and the unique leaf that sheathes the stem. Often I will see them singly, standing sentry over a wide span of leaf litter. They do also sometimes occur in large clumps, though and it’s quite a spectacle when many are in bloom together.

Bloodroot Links

Maryland Biodiversity Project
Missouri Botanical Garden

Featured Species #3: Northern Water Snake

The title of Douglas Adams’s Mostly Harmless could have easily been referring to the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon). Spoiler alert: it isn’t. It’s about people. We’re way less harmless. since we’re mammals and wired with an instinctual mistrust for reptiles – snakes in particular – it’s understandable that many of us nonetheless have a visceral and negative reaction to the sight of them. I get it, and I feel it too. I promise if you encounter one it won’t end too badly. Sure, it’ll have a mouth, so it could bite you. But that’s extremely unlikely (unless you grab or otherwise harass the thing, in which case maybe you deserve it), and if it did you’d be faced with some mild pain and heavy bleeding while it slithered away. That’s not a license to go poking the creatures – they should remain as undisturbed as possible. I merely suggest that rather than screaming and/or running away the proper response to a sighting is to observe briefly and then move on.


The northern water snake is often mistaken for a copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) or water moccasin (aka cottonmouth, A. piscivorus), due to its brown, patterned body and similar overall shape. One way to clear up the confusion is to look for an “arrowhead” shaped head. However, the northern water snake may appear to have this head shape when in a defensive posture, so that can complicate things a bit. If you’re in Maryland, DC, or northern Virginia, you can be confident you’re not seeing a water moccasin because those don’t naturally occur here. However, the copperhead is fairly common throughout the mid-Atlantic and in my opinion looks a lot closer, too. It’s a good idea to be careful, especially if you can’t see the snake’s head.

I will admit that for most of my life northern water snakes hardly seemed worth my attention, with their dull, brown color and general snakeliness. When I’moved back to this area after college and started seeing them more regularly, I realized I’d been missing a treat. They’re one of the more easily found snakes and can often be seen basking near bodies of water, and their harmlessness makes them ideal candidates to study in the wild. I’ve come to see the beauty in their patterns of brown scales.

This one thought it was being sneaky.
Can you spot it in this photo?

In this area I see them with some frequency around the ponds in Wheaton Regional Park and in various sections of Rock Creek Park. I believe, though, that they can be found near most natural bodies of water throughout the region. Like most snakes, they are accomplished at hiding, so investigating behind logs and in rocky crevices can be rewarding – but exercise caution when moving rocks, logs, stumps, etc. and always replace them as you found them.

Northern Water Snake Links

Featured Species #2: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is quite common in our region. It’s no less beautiful for its abundance. These beauties can be seen in virtually any meadow, stream bed, or other open area from Spring through early Fall. They are one of the more photogenic butterflies because of their size, coloration, and relatively relaxed movement. Along with the cabbage white, they are some of the most frequent visitors to my butterfly garden.

An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting a butterfly bush in Wheaton Regional Park

I recall referring to them decades ago as “yellow swallowtails” as distinguished from “black swallowtails.” I’m not sure if this was a regional colloquialism or my own failing; either way it’s confusing. The eastern tiger swallowtail has both a yellow and a black morph, and several local species of swallowtail are predominantly black. Black swallowtail is actually the common name of one of them. In parts of the Mid-Atlantic, it overlaps with the similar Appalachian tiger swallowtail (Papilio appalachiensis) and the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The latter is fairly easy to identify by multiple characteristics, including its giantry. The former is a bit tricky and requires close observation of the trailing edge of the ventral forewing. The row of yellow dots found on the eastern is more of a continuous bar on the Appalachian.

A pair of eastern tiger swallowtails feeding on buttonbush
And another, feeding on bee balm

Host plants include a variety of trees and bushes: tulip poplar, common lilac, black cherry, and species of ash and willow, for example. Many of these are common in the mid-Atlantic both as naturally occurring plants and as native ornamentals.

The adults will feed on just about any plant for nectar. I frequently find them on my butterfly bushes (my one non-native concession inside the butterfly garden) and they seem to love buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) as well. I’ve also seen them feeding from coneflowers, bee balm, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, and more. They seem willing to give a chance to any flower large enough to support them while they feed.

This one is “puddling” on the muddy bank of a creek.

Eastern tiger swallowtail links





Featured Species #1: Black Bears

I promised charismatic megafauna, and it’s time I delivered! The American black bear (Ursus americanus) might be THE local example. They’re starting to be seen more often in nearby populous areas like Bethesda and Rockville, occasionally attaining local celebrity status. They’re large, adorable, a little scary but actually not all that dangerous, and have a tendency toward human-like actions. The smallest bear in North America and the least threatened bear in the world, they are also much less dangerous and aggressive than grizzlies and polar bears. Nearby Shenandoah National Park has the highest population density of black bears in the country, and I see at least one there almost every time I visit.

A cub hanging out in a tree.

Often it’s easy to spot bears in Shenandoah because of the vehicles stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, passengers either all pasted against the windows on one side or physically out of the car at the edge of the woods. You’re not supposed to do this, and the rangers will lightly scold you and break it up if they see it, but when confronted with an actual bear to observe this can be a hard rule to follow. The Drive is after all the most likely place to spot bears, since one covers a lot of ground quickly and the animals aren’t afforded enough time to sneak off. I’m comfortable with this rule being bent or broken as long as one isn’t openly harassing or feeding the animals. I can’t stress enough how bad it is to feed a wild bear, though. Just… don’t.

One such encounter came about because a driver in front of us had stopped to look at some deer in a field on the opposite side of the road. As we approached and slowed, the other car started moving again but I heard some rustling branches out my open window and asked Laurel to stop. I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car, expecting perhaps an opportunity for a photo of a bird or other small animal. As I took a couple tentative steps toward the pine in front of me, a furry black face emerged from the needles. I was startled, but the bear only looked my way long enough to see what I was before it resumed browsing. It was only a couple arms’ lengths away but couldn’t have given less of a damn about me. I watched for a moment, snapped a couple of hurried photos, and got back in the car. In terms of pure excitement, this was about the best thing that could’ve happened. That said, I shouldn’t have been so close to a wild bear – for my benefit and its as well – and had I known it was there I’d have stayed in the car, content to observe briefly and quietly from there. I’m still glad of the experience, though. It’s always oddly gratifying when a wild animal is aware of you yet unconcerned.

Yeah, that was this guy. At first he was hiding behind that tree to the left.

By far our worst bear encounter didn’t even involve seeing the actual bear. Instead it was Franklin seizing an opportunity to roll in one’s feces while Laurel and I were distracted by something else (a small snake, if memory serves). It was during a long weekend camping trip, and we had little choice but to share our tent with him. The best we could do was give him a sponge bath, hold our noses, and refuse to snuggle him. I’ve never seen the little bastard so pleased with himself. I’m certain he brags about this to Oscar every time we go camping now. All of our other bear encounters have pretty much been textbook observation.

The price one pays for that “textbook observation” is out-of-focus photos with stuff in the way. Low price.

American black bear links

I bearly restrained myself from all the ursine puns I wanted to make. Really stuck to the bear bones. Saved myself the embearassment. Bear in mind that I did this for you; it was quite unbearable. I can be pretty ursinine.