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Native plant thorny for humans, but bees love it

Native plant thorny for humans, but bees love it Native plant thorny for humans, but bees love it
By Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University, Master Gardener

This past week, I had a new experience at Sandhill Gardens. I was walking around the gardens and heard a buzz coming from the area of the moon garden. I have heard the buzz of bees in a blooming apple tree, but this was much louder.

I wondered what could possibly be causing the bees to gather in such numbers. As I came closer, it looked like a cloud surrounding feathery blooms.

A closer look confirmed that honey bees were responsible for the hum, but the cloud included many other species, all hungering for sweet nectar. In addition to the honey bees, there were bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees and other solitary native bees. I also observed at least three different species of butterflies joining in the feeding frenzy.

The flowers causing this hubbub were not any of the ones I have planted in the moon garden, but they do fit in well.

The white panicles are themselves like great clouds floating above the tall stems of devil’s walkingstick. Botanically known as Aralia spinose, the native plants rise above two huge rocks that make up the seating area of the moon garden. The rocks are about eight foot high, and the stems of these plant stick up above the rocks and give viewers a level view of the flowers and their busy visitors.

One must beware of the stems if invading the territory of this native plant. The stems and even the compound leaves are covered with sharp thorns responsible for the common name, devil’s walkingstick.

Also called Hercules’s club, many people have suffered the misfortune of grabbing the thorny stems when looking for a convenient stem to steady oneself while hiking.

The nectar-rich flowers will be followed by shiny black drupes. They are not poisonous, but they are not good for eating. However, the birds do not seem to mind the bitter taste and will pick them clean quickly.

I have never seen Aralia spinose in a nursery, but they may be started from the seeds or from root cuttings. As long as one plans for the thorns, they may be included in a pollinator garden.

They will grow in shade to partial sun and need moist, but not soggy, soil. Few pests bother the plants, and they are generally deer resistant. As this week’s spectacle demonstrated, they are a great pollinator plant and a wonderful addition to native plant gardens.

There are about 70 species of aralia found in the Americas and Asia, and some are grown as ornamental plants.

Aralia racemosa is known as American spikenard and is often grown as a shrubby herbaceous perennial. Japanese aralia is often used as a bonsai specimen, especially popular for bonsai forest plantings.

I have had several readers who have contacted me lately about the flower stems on hostas.

If you do not want to collect the seeds, it is fine to go ahead and cut off those stems. In fact, some people do not let the hostas bloom at all, cutting off the stems before the flowers appear.  Removing the stems will allow the plant to put more into the leaves and roots instead of forming seeds.

One may also cut the flower stems out of daylilies. Doing so may trigger more flowering in the varieties that form a second round of flowers.

As summer winds down, remember that pollinators and other wildlife will be preparing for the coming winter. Give them a little help by planting good pollen-producing plants in your garden.

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