Making Friends with the Hummingbirds

Article by Margaret Fisher, Plant NOVA Natives

Fall is a great time to work on the guest list for next year’s garden party. Hummingbirds make some of the best guests of all, or to put it more accurately, we can make ourselves better guests of them by providing what they need around their homes, otherwise known as our yards. Our local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are migratory, departing Virginia in September for Central America and returning to the place they were born in mid-April. It will not surprise anyone to know that what they need when they arrive back is not sugar water but an intact ecosystem that provides food and shelter for them and their offspring.

It is well known and indeed true that hummingbirds are attracted to bright colors, especially red, so for viewing opportunities, do plant Eastern Red Columbine and Coral Honeysuckle for spring blooms, Scarlet Beebalm for early summer and Cardinal Flower for late summer. It is fun to watch the hummingbirds make the rounds from plant to plant, timing it exactly to when the nectar has had a chance to re-accumulate. All of these plants co-evolved with hummingbirds and have the tubular-shaped red flowers that fit the bill – literally. Hummingbirds have incredible memories and know the location of individual flowers not only around their own homes but along the thousands of miles of their migration routes. They also recognize humans as individuals, learning to trust you and hovering in front of you when they are wondering when you are going to refill their feeder, if you have been in the habit of providing one.

Although we think of hummingbirds as nectar eaters, the great majority of their diet is made up of insects and spiders. We can provide them with insects by planting native plants. Because most insects can only eat the plants with which they evolved, a yard full of European and Asian plants such as turf grass and Japanese azaleas is largely an empty yard, devoid of food sources not only for hummingbirds but for songbirds in general. The red-flowering plants that were named above are all native to our area, as are hundreds of other garden-worthy plants which are increasingly being planted in our yards as Virginians start to recognize the beauty of our own flora as well as its value for the non-human residents of our properties.

The ideal time to plant is in the fall, which gives the plants a chance to become well established before facing the heat and droughts of summer. To help you plan, the Plant NOVA Natives website has a plant finder function in which you can search specifically for plants that attract hummingbirds. There are also lists of local garden centers that specialize in native plants as well as lists of conventional garden centers where Plant NOVA Natives volunteers are labeling the natives with red stickers. Just for fun, check out our silly one minute video of local hummingbirds and other critters interacting with native plants. And when your neighbors stop by to gawk at the sight of hummingbirds in your yard, you can give them this pamphlet so they can learn about planting natives in their yards to attract hummingbirds, too.

What Can You Do About Climate Change? Make It Personal (With Rare)

According to Rare’s Center for Behavior and the Environment: “Two-thirds of Americans think that citizens should do more to address global warming. And yet, most of us don’t really know what to do. We recycle, carry our grocery bags. But turns out that’s not enough.’

Rare recently conducted research to identify the individual behaviors people can adopt with the greatest potential for climate impact. And it turns out, there are 7 things that many Americans might find surprisingly within reach. If each of these changes was adopted by even 10% of Americans, it would reduce the gap to America’s emissions targets by over 75%.

While we still need larger changes from corporations and governments, it’s pretty empowering to know we do not have to wait. We can each find at least one way to start making positive changes now. When it comes to our environment, we are all in this together.”

Food for thought from Rare: Seven behaviors with the largest climate impact

Rare Conversations, with Robert Frank and Madhuri Karak: Can Peer Pressure Solve Climate Change (43 mins of sensible, inspiring exchange)

Robert Frank, in the New York Times: Behavioral Contagion Could Spread the Benefits of a Carbon Tax

Making Scents of Your Yard

Photo: Ana Ka’Ahanui

Margaret Fisher

Fragrant flowers can add a whole extra dimension to gardening, and the flowers of native plants are no exception. The scents are there for the sake of the pollinators, but we can enjoy them as well. If you try putting your nose up to every flower you meet, you will have some interesting surprises.

Modern day humans are good at identifying human-made smells such as suntan lotion or diesel fumes but are pretty oblivious to the smells of nature.  This may be partly from lack of practice and partly because of our species’ tendency to run roughshod over the planet which includes the olfactory environment as well. If we pay attention, though, we can experience some of the sensations that are so important to other animals. Can you sometimes predict a rainstorm by the smell of the air? You already have developed some skill at interpreting nature’s cues. That slightly metallic odor is ozone, pushed down by atmospheric disturbances. If you have a dog, he or she may have introduced you to the scent of foxes, which is surprisingly strong and similar to a skunk. Once you learn to recognize it, you may find yourself spotting foxes that would have sneaked by you otherwise. The smell released by rain after a long dry spell has its own name – petrichor – and is created by a combination of chemicals released by plants and soil bacteria.

As you walk along in the woods, you will notice that the scent of life and decay (which is actually just more life) is subtle and complex but distinct enough for you to know when you are passing from one layer to another. In this unusual year when so many people are out walking their neighborhoods, one local resident has watched as folks stop in front of the Common Milkweed that volunteered itself near her sidewalk. Some people comment on the beautiful flower, one person only noticed the bees, but many were brought to a halt by the intoxicating fragrance. So many people inquire about it that she plans to put up a sign.

Why not create a natural olfactory landscape in your own yard? Planting fragrant native plants is the perfect way to do that while simultaneously pleasing the butterflies. Many have sweet smelling flowers, some faint, some strong. Some are a little unusual. The tall white spires of Black Cohosh, for example, smell simultaneously sweet and barn-like. Wild Bergamot smells like, well, bergamot, which gives Earl Gray tea its flavor. The flowers of American Holly trees are tiny but fill the air with sweetness for many weeks in late spring. Arguably the winner of any fragrance competition would be the aptly named Sweetbay Magnolia, with its large, soft flowers that smell of lemony rose. Plant one by your front door and you can inhale a lungful of beauty whenever you pass by.

For a list of fragrant native plants and where to buy them, see the Plant NOVA Natives website. The site index will point you to sources for signs. Let your neighbors in on your secrets! Why should the bees have all the fun?

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake

Reviewed by Diana McMillion

Merlin Sheldrake uncovers the surprising magic of hidden worlds in his fascinating book, Entangled Life.

Published in May 2020, Entangled Life takes the reader on a journey through the rich and varied worlds of fungi and the often-invisible struggles and triumphs of these essential organisms.

Looking beyond the fungal fruits we can see, such as ordinary toadstools, Entangled Life explores complex concepts in beautifully explained, simple language that non-scientists can feel a connection to. Sheldrake examines the inter-workings of fungi and plant roots, the extraordinary ability of lichens to survive in improbable places, and the ways in which fungi can affect the human brain.

Merlin Sheldrake has a wonderful ability to explain the arcane workings of fungi in ways that make these concepts easily understood to laymen. I give this work 5 out of 5 stars for conveying the complex in a simple way, and for its thoroughness in showing how fungi are entangled in all the doings of plants and animals, including humans. It’s an essential read for anyone curious about the natural world.

Want to review a resource? We’d love to hear from you. Instructions for submission await your click and commitment.

Order Your Earth Science Week 2020 Toolkit Today

Place your order for an Earth Science Week 2020 Toolkit now. The toolkit contains everything you need to prepare for Earth Science Week (October 11-17, 2020), which celebrates the theme “Earth Materials in Our Lives.” This year’s toolkit includes:

  • 12-month school-year activity calendar, suitable for hanging
  • New Earth Science Week poster, including a learning activity
  • Factsheet on minerals in cellphones and Navy gear from USGS
  • NASA materials on water science and a poster on agriculture
  • National Park Service resource on paleontology in our parks
  • Factsheet from the Soil Science Society of America
  • Geologic Map Day poster dealing with Earth materials
  • Mineral Education Coalition material on mineral science
  • IRIS flyer dealing with seismology and earthquakes
  • AmericaView Earth materials board-game poster
  • Geothermal Resources Council poster on energy science
  • American Geophysical Union poster on environmental science
  • UNAVCO sticker and poster on geoscience measurement
  • Switch Energy Project sticky notes about energy science
  • Hydrology flyer from Nutrients for Life Foundation
  • Bureau of Land Management dinosaur coloring page
  • National Science Foundation worksheets on rocks and water
  • GemKids poster from Gemological Institute of America
  • Water Footprint Calculator information on water science
  • Forest Service, Paleontological Society, AIPG items and more

Order the Earth Science Week 2020 Toolkit today. The toolkit is free and available for the cost of shipping and handling. Pay just $8.50 for the first toolkit and $2.25 for each additional toolkit in the United States. See the AGI Store for special pricing on a multi-pack of three years’ toolkits addressing different topics.

Toolkits are available for advance order now. The Earth Science Week 2020 Toolkit will begin shipping in August 2020. For ordering, special shipping, bulk orders, and more information, email AGI Publications at pubs@americangeosciences.org

About AGI

The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) is a nonprofit federation of scientific and professional associations that represents over a quarter-million geoscientists. Founded in 1948, AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in the profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in society’s use of resources, resiliency to natural hazards, and interaction with the environment.

AGI is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to serving the geoscience community and addressing the needs of society. AGI headquarters are in Alexandria, Virginia.

The American Geosciences Institute represents and serves the geoscience community by providing collaborative leadership and information to connect Earth, science, and people.

Listen to Science Friday’s “The Climate Is Changing—But Can We?”

34:02 minutes

Ira Flatow’s Degrees of Change series has looked at some of the many ways our actions affect the climate, and how our changing climate is affecting us—from the impact of the fashion industry on global emissions to the ways in which coastal communities are adapting to rising tides.

Climate journalist Eric Holthaus and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, talk with Ira about creating a climate revolution, the parallels between the climate crisis and other conversations about social structures like Black Lives Matter, and the challenges of working towards a better future in the midst of the chaos of 2020. 

Native Plant Landscaping: Three Factors for Success

Margaret Fisher, Plant NOVA Natives

For anyone who wants to help the birds and butterflies but is not an experienced landscaper, a few design concepts can help make the difference between a random collection of native plants and a beautiful but manageable landscape that supports our local ecosystem. Three major considerations come into play.

The first is the understanding that basic garden design principles apply to any garden, whether using native plants or not. For example, the human eye has trouble with randomness and will rove around seeking meaning and a place to rest. You can control that process by adding repetition, lines and focal points, which can be provided by plants and also by human-made objects such as pots, walkways, or benches. Since most plants only bloom for a short while, for consistent beauty it helps to choose plants with contrasting size, form and foliage and not just interesting flower colors.

The second consideration is maintenance. Some people are allergic to weeding while others find it a relaxing pleasure. Either way, no one has infinite time to put into it. When adding new planting areas, there is a lot to be said for starting small. For maximum ecological benefit for a minimum or work, you could simply add a small grove of native trees, or swap out the non-native shrubs for native ones. Gardening in the shade is always easier than in the sun where plants and weeds grow so much faster.

The third consideration is the needs of the critters you are trying to help. They don’t care how your property looks, but they do have other strong preferences. For example, the more plant diversity, the more biodiversity in general. It is also useful to provide clusters of the same plant species since that will increase the foraging efficiency of the bees. A diversity of plant height is also important – from the canopy trees to the ground – for critters such as birds that nest at different levels. The closer you can come to reproducing the original plant communities, the more your home habitat will contribute to a functioning local ecosystem.

The above examples are just a few of the many helpful tips you can find on the new Plant NOVA Natives web page on garden design. The campaign is also planning a series of quick virtual “workshops” where you can ask your questions of garden designers – sign up for campaign updates to get notifications of the dates. And be sure to sign up for the August 3 talk by Rick Darke, co-author with Doug Tallamy of The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

Are You Really Sure You Want to Water Your Plants From the Tap?

Author: Anna Gershenson

Some plants may benefit from chlorinated water, due to its ability to kill unwanted bugs or microbes in the soil. However, chlorine is actually toxic and harmful to plant growth in high concentrations. It injures the plants’ roots and accumulates in the leaf tissue, causing enduring damage.

So, how much chlorine is too much chlorine? And what can we do about it given that most people water their gardens and houseplants straight from the tap, and the tap water in Virginia contains small amounts of chlorine? I have a tip for you based on research that I performed in school.

As a freshman at Fairfax High School, I participated in the school’s Science Fair for my Honors Biology class. For our project, my partner and I designed a project to test the effect of chlorine on Wisconsin Fast Plants, a type of Brassica rapa plant, developed by the University of Wisconsin as a research tool.

We grew four groups of the Wisconsin Fast Plants, from the seeds, and fed each group natural spring water with different amounts of chlorine mixed in. The first group received the water without chlorine (this was known as the control group). We watered the second group with a mixture of water and one teaspoon of chlorine, the third with 2 teaspoons of chlorine mixed with water, and the fourth with 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) and water. My partner and I used powdered chlorine, so before we gave each plant the mixture, we let the chlorine fully dissolve in the water. We watered the plants every two days and measured their heights during those days. We studied the plants for two weeks.

The results were significant. The images below represent the four plant groups at the end of the two weeks. 

As you can see, the group that did not receive the chlorinated water grew the most and looked very healthy. The average final height for the plants in that group was about 5.10 centimeters. 

The plants that received 1 teaspoon of chlorine grew a little bit, but looked unhealthy. The plants looked more brown than did the healthy plant. Their final average height was 1.50 centimeters. 

A small plant sprouted in the pot that got 2 teaspoons of chlorine,, but it did not grow as much as did the previous two. That group’s final height was about 1.00 centimeter. 

And finally, the plants that received 3 teaspoons of chlorine barely grew. Though it is difficult to see the plant, the calculated height of that group was about 0.50 centimeters.

It was clear that even 1 teaspoon of chlorine stunts the growth of plants and makes them lose pigment.

Now, you might be wondering: “What can we do to solve this problem? Buying natural spring water costs extra.”

Don’t worry, I have the perfect solution for you!

My mom actually familiarized me with this technique. She enjoys working in our garden and knows all sorts of tricks. When I decided to grow a vine plant in my room, my mom suggested that rather than watering them with tap water fresh out of the faucet, to begin by pouring the tap water into a plastic cup and letting it sit a couple of hours before watering the plant. Letting the water wait enables all of the chlorine to evaporate, clearing it and making it healthy and safe for the plants.

I did the controlled research to validate her advice. You don’t have to subject your plants to extra chlorine, but you can see if letting the chlorine evaporate helps your house plants and garden do better. Enjoy watering your plants chlorine-free!

Anna Gershenson is a rising senior at Fairfax High School.

This post is part of the series Creative Counsel from Students in the Time of COVID-19. Do you know students with research to report on the natural world? Encourage them to direct their proposals to vmnfairfax@gmail.org after reading the instructions in the link above.

Creative Counsel from Students in the Time of COVID-19

Naturalists are at home this summer, and so are many of our teens and grand-teens who may have lost their planned summer activities. The FMN chapter invites them to share their practical and scientific wisdom with our readers. Options include:

  • Writing up or posting a video about the results of science fair projects that touch on the natural world, as Curated Resources.
  • Documenting their experiences with iNaturalist or eBird or another app, either in writing or as a video
  • Reviewing a film or show of interest to naturalists. Yup, in writing or as a video.
  • Producing a short series of related posts or videos

Whatever they choose to do will add their perspectives and learnings to our public presence, and we’ll have the honor of offering engaged, enterprising students a platform to speak with the world. 

Please direct the students in your life to vmnfairfax@gmail.com, and we’ll work together for the good of all parties. All contributors under the age of 18 must have the express written permission of their parents or guardians to post to our site.

See also: Are You Really Sure You Want to Water Your Plants From the Tap?, by Anna Gershenson, Fairfax High School

Social Justice–Centered Science Teaching and Learning

Reposted from Philip Bell and Deb Morrison, at the University of Washington, Seattle, via the National Science Teachers Association:

Some cultures have historically been privileged in particular times and places, and as a result, some ways of knowing and doing science have had more social standing. We work from the stance that scientific ways of knowing and science education are fundamentally cultural and inherently political. All students have a right and a responsibility to learn how science has been implicated in creating many social inequities over time and how diverse scientific knowledges and practices can promote justice.

For example, the ice floe knowledge of Arctic Indigenous peoples was not initially brought into the larger scientific conversation on global climate science until sustained relationship building and deep listening between Indigenous and Euro-Western-trained scientists occurred. This knowledge held within Indigenous communities allowed for refinement of global climate modeling. Tribes and Indigenous peoples are engaged in hundreds of such efforts to understand and respond to climate change (see Chapter 15, Fourth National Climate Assessment for details).

Teachers can foster such cultural bridging in ways that help students recognize their agency to engage in social justice projects in ways informed by the sciences. Specifically, justice-oriented science educators should engage in culturally-based pedagogies that identify and leverage the knowledge and practice resources of students and their communities.

Read more for principles and resources