2013 Plant Talk 10 Plants Affecting Biodiversity

July 20, 2013

What’s Blooming

Ornamental plants i have noticed recently include Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) as well as Crepe Myrtle (Lagestroemia spp.) and Privet (Ligustrum spp.) Favorite edible/medicinal flowers right now are Rose of Sharon (Hibsicus syriacus) and other Hibsicus species as well as Clover blossoms (Trifolium spp.) Elderberry flowers (Sambucus nigra and ssp.) Happy Tree (Albizia julibrissin).

Recent Events

 i was honored and thankful to teach for Juliet’s Blankespoor’s classes once again recently. i did a gardening overview and also taught the weekend class about fermentation. We crafted kimchees, dosas, and sprouted wheat breads and  tried prepared water kefir, seed cheeses, yogurt cheeses, dairy kefir cheese, beet kvass and kimchi.  www.chestnutherbs.com .

For the sixth year i led a plant walk for the incredible culinary educational experience known as the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts www.schoolofculinaryarts.org. The whole weekend was focused on food of Appalachia. i took the students on a tour of the Permaculture landscape at the Eco Dorm at Warren Wilson . I was lucky enough to be on the committee that designed this first in the country Platinum LEED  certified  dorm and also was its first Resident Director in 2004. See info below





Recently taught a Forage and Feast at Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies (AIMS) in Burnsville, NC. i was tickled to notice that my colleague and friends 9 years old son Ian knew almost every plant we saw and its potential uses. We employed around 30 spp. of plants to make a meal including Green Salad, Hummus, Quinoa Tabouleh and Fruit Compote mostly with Apple From the land “Lodi” and another variety. We will have a Cider Pressing event this fall on September 8th featuring many more varieties and a diverse selection of apple products i.e. cider, apple jelly, apple cyser, apple sauce and more.

i give thanks for the many chances i have had this year, to teach, guide and make the foraging way clear….

I also recently was able to attend my first Cullowhee Native Plant conference that is now in its 30th year www.wcu.edu/academics/edoutreach/conted/conferences-and-community-classes/the-cullowhee-native-plant-conference/index.asp . I got to hear from the likes of many incredible speakers including Janisse Ray (1999, 2003, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012), Charles Allen (2005), Doug Tallamy (2009) and others .

Upcoming Events

Soon i will lead plant walks at the 2013 Wild Herb Weekend www.ncherbassociation.org/whw.html . Topics include Supernatural Sodas and Magical Meads, Exotic invasives plant walk and the ethnobotany of Appalachian trees an shrubs. Many other awesome teachers will be presenting including Matthew Wood www.matthewwoodherbs.com/ , Phyllis Light www.phyllisdlight.com , Corey Pine Shane www.blueridgeschool.org, and Jeanine Davis www.ces.ncsu.edu/profile/jeanine-davis just to name a few.

Upcoming events include the annual Permaculture Gathering www.southeasternpermaculture.org. This gathering is truly a prototypical lead in to the amazingness that the Asheville area has to offer with food, education, celebration and relaxation. This year my plate will be rather busy with facilitating the over-all food operations and procurement with 5 other chefs and numerous volunteers. We are going for all local jam and as much food as possible in concentric circles starting with the South Toe River Valley then Asheville and beyond. Nonetheless we will certainly collectively have plant walks where we try to add to the 246 taxa of plants already identified over the last 12 years!

Plants that Support Biodiversity

This particular class is focused on biodiversity. Much information for this class comes from my graduate research like some of the other classes this year. For that reason some ideas are more germane to Appalachia than other areas. However, much is applicable to anywhere in the U.S.A. and the temperate world in general for that matter. Biodiversity is a concern across the globe. Many studies have led to a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges with maintaining biodiversity and the significant role diverse ecosystems play (Bailey, 1995; Groombridge, 1992; Groombridge & Jenkins, 2002; Ricketts et al., 1999). Appalachia is an area of international significance in regards to biodiversity clearly from such studies mentioned above. Studies local to the area also support such a claim (Boone & Aplet, 1994; Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Cooperative & USDA, 1996).


i considered two types of agrobiodiversity in a former class this year about temperate cultivated foods. The first type concerns the number of species that are used in an agricultural system. The second type involves the number of varieties of any given species that are grown. Grower/consumer education and awareness is essential in order to promote either type of agrobiodiversity. Communication of tantalizing preparation possibility is just as importance as knowledge of cultivation and acquisition.

Biodiversity in the Garden World of Insects

            Most vegetable and flower gardens are designed to provide food and/or aesthetic beauty. A well designed garden can provide both. Some gardeners think to provide for insects such as butterflies/moths, birds and bees. Fewer gardeners still, probably think to plant for the vast array of beneficial insects that may deter and/or control the pests of their crops. Such a planting scheme goes by the name of Farmscaping (Dufour, 2000). Every landholder needs to take personal responsibility in supporting biodiversity to whatever degree possible. I recently attended a presentation by the Xerces Society which is an excellent resource for maintining the diversity of insect like pollinators www.xerces.org. They have excellent publications as well (Shepherd, Buchmann, Vaughan, & Black, 2003; Society & Institution, 1998).

            Butterflies and Moths

            Butterflies are desired by some and despised by others. How many people make the connection that beautiful butterflies come from caterpillars that are sometimes pests of crops? Butterfly caterpillars and butterfly adults often use different plants for support (Cranshaw, 2004). The Sunflower (Asteraceae) family is by far the most diverse host for adults. Caterpillars use a wide diversity of plants as hosts including a large number of trees. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and other species of this genus are aptly named and very popular with butterfly adults and some caterpillars. Nancy Adamson  from Xerces stated that over 700 spp. occur in North America. Dire reports of the current state of Monarch Butterflies that travel to Mexico say that their populations are down up to 90%.

Moths affect a number of field crops and trees and can even eat through linens and grains in the household. However, a relatively few moth species are pests (Marinelli, 2008)  also according to Nancy Adamson  from Xerces over 4,000 spp. occur in North America alone. The biggest moth pests of crops affect members of the Brassicaceae and Rosaceae families. European and Asian Gypsy moths are currently decimating oak trees in the northeast and quickly moving south (USDA, 1996). However, some moths also are known for their exceeding beauty. My friend Dana Nagle had quite an adventure with a Luna Moth over last winter for instance http://dana-dee.blogspot.com/search?q=Luna+Moth . Adult moths typically are night feeders that are drawn to fragrant white colored flowers. Moth caterpillars are specialized feeders that depend on a host of trees and other plants like butterflies  (Marinelli, 2008). A detailed account of the role moths and butterflies play in the environment has been recently published (Tallamy, 2009). The Catalpa Sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpa) is currently munching away at Catalpa trees (Catalpa spp.) and constitutes a favorite bait for fish.


The European Honey Bee (Apis melifera) is attracted to a wide variety of plants. This insect is not native to the Americas and it  is very challenged currently due to a number of insect pests, diseases and pesticides like neonicitinoids. They and other pollinators are in dire need of our support! Four main periods of blooming plant cohorts occur in western North Carolina. The first period includes Willows (Salix spp.) and Maples (Acer spp.). The second period includes Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and various members of the Rose family (Rosaceae). The third flow makes for a special cherished honey from the Sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) which can sometimes mix with the less desirable Sumac (Rhus spp.). The last flow is from various members of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae). Typically the first and last flows are left for the bees while beekeepers remove the “extra” honey from the second and third flows. Members of the Mint family (Lamiaceae) when planted or naturally occurring are also favorites of bees. Field crops including Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) and Clover (Trifolium spp.) tend to be popular as well. Basswood (Tilia spp.) may provide another source of specialized honey when abundant and is popular in Europe too. Definitive texts may be consulted for more in depth understanding of the variety of plants used by bees around the country (H. B. Lovell, 1977; J. H. Lovell, 1999; Pellett, 1977).  Every area will have a similar cycle of blooming cohorts often from the same families mentioned above.

Beneficial Insects

A definite pattern may be observed in plants families that are considered good for beneficial insects. These families include various members of the Sunflower (Asteraceae), Mustard (Brassicaceae), Mint (Lamiaceae), Buckwheat (Polygonaceae) and Bean (Fabaceae) families. Some outlier plants include Autumn Joy (Crassula sp.) Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and Borage (Borago officinalis) (Ellis & Bradley, 1996; McDonald, n.d.).  Many plants in these families have small flowers that are easy for beneficial insects to access. The presence of extra floral nectaries also aids in use by beneficial insects. However, research done in the Piedmont of North Carolina through NC State showed that the attraction and employment of beneficial insects may be complex, hard to characterize, and analyze (Forehand, 2004).

Trap cropping is another technique sometimes used by growers to fend off pests. This concept has to do with using a plant that pests prefer to distract them from the crops that farmers are trying to grow. Once insects congregate on trap crops hand picking or other type of control is easier. Plants that have purported use in such a way include Dill (Anethum graveolens), Zinnias (Zinnia spp.), Marigolds (Tagetes spp.), Eggplant (Solanum melongena), Mustard (Brassica nigra) and Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.) (R. B. J. Yepsen, 1976). i have personally observed the preference of Japanese beetles for Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) and types of Knotweed (Polygonum spp.) versus other typical fare. Dissenters, however, state that trap crops might simply act to bring in more pests to the general area as is also possibly the case with pheromone lures. Many species of Evening Primrose have now been moved to the genera Calylophus  and Camissonia  according to the USDA.

A trend may also be observed in plant families that are claimed to repel pest insects. Some overlap can be seen between these plants and plants that encourage beneficial insects. The Onion family (Alliaceae) is the chief repellant to pests and the use of Garlic (Allium sativum) sprays as a pest deterrent is well known. Other families that are often used to deter pests include the Sunflower (Asteraceae), Mint (Lamiaceae), and Mustard (Brassicaceae) (R. B. J. Yepsen, 1976). Often these plants are installed as “companions” along with more intentional crops. The next level of protection would seem to include grinding up various species and spraying them on the crops for more inclusive coverage. Such a technique has been alluded to before through the practice of biodynamics and other sources (H. Philbrick & J. Philbrick, 1974; R. B. J. Yepsen, 1976).  However, i am not aware of specific formulations and their efficacy on particular pests. The potential deleterious effects on beneficial insects and human applicators is also unknown to me. Further research in this arena might greatly benefit the organic plant production community.

Some plants can also be employed to kill insects outright. Typically most “organic” insecticides have come from tropical areas. Some examples include Rotenone, Sabadilla, Ryania and Pyrethrum. Native and naturalized plants that are listed for such a use include American Plum (Prunus americana), Hops (Humulus lupulus), Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), Cucumber (Cucumis sativus), Pumpkin seeds (Cucurbita spp.), False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), Larkspur (Delphinium  sp.), Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Peach (Prunus persica), Chamomiles (Matricaria  spp.) and Calamus (Acorus calamus) (Jacobson, 1958). A type of rotenone has also been produced from a native Appalachian plant called the Hoary pea (Tephrosia virginiana) (Horn, Duhl, Hemmerly, & Cathcart, 2005). Research from China may offer insights. Different species of many genera that occur in Appalachia and a number of exotic invasives from Asia have been tested for pest control properties (Yang & Tang, 1988). Caution is certainly appropriate in regards to the use of pesticides. Often the effects can be wide spread and long lasting. Some of the benefits of accepted organic insecticides are that they tend to be more focused on particular pests and do not persist in the environment. However, even some organic insecticides are broad spectrum and affect a wide array of organisms. My thinking is that further experimentation with local sources of insecticides that can be applied judiciously when appropriate might decrease dependence on tropical products and synthetic alternatives. The biggest thing is to spray in the evening or ideally after bloom to avoid affecting bees and other pollinators adversely when using anything broad spectrum.

Plant Biodiversity for Birds

My research to date has mainly been focused with the interface between people and plants. However, many people enjoy observing birds. Many bird species are also suffering from declining populations (Boone & Aplet, 1994; Marinelli, 2008). Some birds may in addition help with control of pests in the garden. Therefore, a treatment of major plants for encouraging the success of bird life is in order. Scientific names of the birds have been omitted for the most part because i am a botanist and many sources did not list scientific names.

Three forms of plants are useful for bird feeding. A person can provide food for birds by growing plants that they prefer. Food can also alternatively or in addition be provided through a variety of manufactured feeders. Finally, some birds will feast on pests that afflict crops plants.  Certain plants can also be used to provide habitat as well.

Many types of fruiting plants may encourage the presence of birds. Of course, this might not always be a good thing. Netting may be in order if you are trying to grow fruit for yourself. The holy grail of bringing in birds that will only eat insects and other pests while deterring birds that eat fruits seems like a mythic objective. However, an extensive list of beneficial birds has been compiled complete with habitat requirements (Jacke & Toensmeier, 2005). Some of the birds that damage crops the most include finches, crows, sparrows, bluejays, starlings, brown thrashers, and waxwings (Martin, Zim, & Nelson, 1961).

Fruits that are not edible to humans may also be supplied as a potential distraction. Some examples of these include Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Magnolia (Magnolia spp.) and some types of Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) A number of these plants are actually toxic to humans which should be taken into account in the case of children being nearby.

Parts of Appalachia are within the Atlantic flyway that many migrating birds use when going south for the winter (Marinelli, 2008). Magnolia (Magnolia spp.) and Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) along with Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) are favorite plants of winter migrating birds (Marinelli, 2008). The ideal bird sanctuary would provide multiple types of food throughout the year. Some birds also feed on tree buds as well as seeds and fleshy fruits (Roth, 1998).

Prime plants that are recommended for feeders include Sunflower (Helianthus spp.), Millet (Panicum sp.) and the exotic Niger. The height placement of feeder and the size of feeding holes are important in encouraging certain species.

Hummingbirds are often popular with gardeners. These birds are endemic to the Americas (Roth, 1998). Many people buy plastic red feeders and fill them with sugar water to attract these creatures. Red flowers can do the same thing in a more natural way. Some examples include Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), Bee Balm (Monarda spp.), Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia). In the eastern U.S. we are graced by only one species the Ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Several more species of Hummingbirds live out in the western U.S.

Habitat can be created in many ways. Bird houses may be constructed from various types of wood. A novel birdhouse that has history in the south is the use of Bottle Gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) to support a community of Purple Martins (Progne subis). Chocktaws, Chickasaws and other Native American tribes encouraged purple martins to nest because these territorial animals would protect livestock from hawks and other predator birds (Roth, 1998; Wolinski, 1994). Swallows, Chickadees and Wrens also appreciate gourd houses (Roth, 1998).

A few dead trees known as snags may be left to provide a natural source of housing for various bird species. Also, some birds depend on shrubs and thickets for protection. Evergreen plants that produce attractive fall foods such as Hollies (Ilex spp.) and members of the Pine (Pinaceae) and Juniper (Cupressaceae) families can perform two functions at once.

Many birds may help control pests in the garden. Some examples include Flycatchers, Wrens, Flickers, Kingbirds, Killdeer and Warblers. Birds have co-evolved with plants over millions of years. Lots of fruits are just the right size and ready at just the right time for consumption and seed distribution by certain birds. Around 300 trees, shrubs and vines in North America depend on birds for seed distribution (Marinelli, 2008). Use of native plants versus exotics is important so that birds don’t help spread problem species around.

Plant diversity for other animals

Other animals than the ones mentioned already are of less interest to my current research. However, a brief treatment seems appropriate. Many studies have been published from the Center for Appalachian Farming Systems in regards to forage in particular www.ars.usda.gov/naa/afsrc. Below are some of the main plants studied by the center including grain crops.

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

Lowland rice/ Upland rice

Barley (Hordeum sp.)

Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata)

Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor)

Chickory (Cichorium intybus)

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Corn (Zea mays)

Tall Fescue (Schedonorus phoenix syn Festuca arundinacea)

Flatpea (Lathyrus sylvestris)

White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)

Wheat (Triticum aestivum)


The families of Grass, (Poaceae) and Legumes, (Fabaceae) take up a remarkable amount of space for research that spans from 1965 to 1999. These two families comprise the vast majority of plants used for livestock forage. Additional forages includes members of the Mustard (Brassicaceae), Spinach (Chenopodiaceae), Rose (Rosaceae) and Oak (Fagaceae) families. Various brambles such a multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and other briars in Appalachian areas may be foraged on and thereby controlled by goats (Belesky, Koch, & J. Walker, 2007).  

Other wildlife may be encouraged by the presence of certain plants. These animals may be seen as a boon to some and pests to others. Deer, for example, represent a source of high quality meat but also may decimate crops and native wildflowers. Other references may aid in further exploration of the role plants play in supporting deer and various other mammals, reptiles, etc. (Martin et al., 1961; J. H. Miller & K. V. Miller, 2005). The reference by Martin et al. (1961) uses a novel ranking system by which over 250 plants to the genus level are listed for their prevalence in the diet of hundreds of animals referenced from hundreds of thousands of analyses. The country is broken into five regions and most of Appalachia falls into the Northeast including parts of Georgia and Alabama. Oak (Quercus spp.), Pine (Pinus spp.), Cherry (Prunus spp.), Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Dogwood (Cornus spp.), Grape (Vitis spp.) and Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) make up some of the most important food sources for both the southeast and northeast regions (Martin et al., 1961). A more modern resource may also be consulted for understanding how to encourage a wider range of beneficial organisms (Jacke & Toensmeier, 2005).

The Role of Environmental Education in Promoting Biodiversity

The more we understand the diversity of nature the more we will be able to value and appreciate it (Harper-Lore & Wilson, 2000). Luckily an inherent affinity for nature may be fundamental to all people at a base level. Significant research on various population demographics has offered insight into how people connect with and value nature (Kahn Jr, 2001). Many people in the developed world have become divorced from their dependence on nature in the last 50 to 150 years. Such ignorance allows for the death and destruction of the natural ecosystems that we see today. All age demographics need to become educated about the role of nature in our lives. However, school age people are more primed for such an experience and possibly more receptive as well. Starting with children in particular has much appeal. i recently attended a presentation by the organization Muddy Sneakers which offers up a neat model www.muddysneakers.org.

Joseph Cornell (1998, 1999) is one of the foremost environmental educators for children in the world. He has written books that have inspired many. He has four basic principles: Awaken enthusiasm, Focus attention, Direct experience, and Share inspiration. Many activities have been designed to get children to have a sense of wonder that will allow for transformation (Lachecki, Passineau, Linnea, & Treuer, 2002). A book has also been published that has specific activities related to Smoky Mountains National Park (Voorhis & Saville, 1993).

People in urban environments also have a role to play in aiding biodiversity. Much prime habitat has been lost through the process of population growth. Urban dwellers with small yards can provide much needed way posts for wildlife (Tallamy, 2009). Flowers and vegetables can be grown in containers adding aesthetic beauty and functionality all in one.


            Plant biodiversity depends upon a number of non-plant biota. i have presented in this class how the interface between plants and people as well as birds and other organisms affect overall biodiversity. The complexity of interactions illustrated serves to round out the role that plants play in the environment.

            Plant poisons also can deleteriously affect biodiversity of various creatures. Often plant poisons affect human children by accident.  Such occurrences may be avoided with proper awareness. Increased knowledge of the natural world will not only lead to greater safety but often greater appreciation as well. Other plant poisons may be employed judiciously to protect crops from unwanted predation. However, such actions are not to be taken lightly as they may have far reaching effects beyond the target organism. More about poisonous plants can be seen in another talk from this online class series www.botanyeveryday.com/online-classes/2013-plant-talk-8-poisonous-plant-families.

Future sustainability definitely depends on our ability to support biodiversity…

For the next class we will cover major Craft plants and families and it will be posted around August 5th

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary under this class. I WOULD REALLY LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!!!

-          Make a list of the plants around you that support wildlife and share that  

           info with some people. Use this knowledge to personally support wildlife in

           a habitat near you!

-  Look up some of the families mentioned in this post in Botany in a Day and

   share some information about them   with the group. Or provide info from    

    your personal experience.


- Attend a workshop or a class and write up a brief description of plants or

   information learned.

-  Post any clear photos of question plants to Facebook or send in an email.

Praises to all that have donated to the cause!!! i encourage everyone reading this to donate as they are able financially, commentarialy, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and any way i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

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