How Plants Fly

As my mother and I pulled up at the Jones Nature Preserve in Rappahannock, a brilliant bird dipped through the air—a rich tropical blue on delicate wings. They came in this week, Bruce Jones told me, the indigo buntings. He had led a bird walk over the weekend, and they saw 15 to 20 of these migrants, which flourish in the shrubby areas between his meadows and his woods.

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A cedar waxwing feasts in a mulberry tree. Photo by Bruce Jones

I had been here a few weeks earlier, to join a plant walk, when the woods were at their spring peak—viburnum trees thick with fragrant blossoms, flowering vines climbing up old snags, all kinds of trilliums and columbines in bloom. We saw a serpentine cousin of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and an abundance of ladyslipper orchids.

Now, the woods were blossoming less profusely, but the warmer weather had brought butterflies, Bruce said. It was a wet day, and we wouldn’t see them. But he had just had a triumph. Days ago, he found his first giant swallowtail, lofting on its huge wings between the prickly ash trees he had planted to attract it, and laying its eggs there.

The newcomer joined a robust community of butterflies—the zebra swallowtails that are drawn to pawpaw trees, the spicebush swallowtails and pipevine swallowtails that can live only off of those plants, the variegated fritillaries with their taste for passionflower, the numerous species that thrive on wild violets, and the bright monarchs that depend on milkweed.

Bruce cultivates these and a multitude of other native plants on his 80 acres of woods and meadows and lake. “Maybe a lot of that is for my self-satisfaction,” he said, “to see things you’ve never seen before. But maybe it’s making it a better place. I think it is.”

Part of the theory behind Bruce and Susan Jones’ home-grown nature preserve comes from Doug Tallamy’s influential book, Bringing Nature Home. When Tallamy set about eradicating invasive plants on his land, he noticed that the leaves of the exotic species remained intact, while the leaves of the native plants were chewed full of holes. That was how he realized that native plants were providing a far superior source of food for insects—and thus the rest of the food chain. Plants fed insects, insects fed birds, and so on.

“The light bulb went off!” Bruce told me.

For me too. Later, when we looked at a viburnum’s tattered leaves, I had to see them differently. Up until then, I would have thought, Here is a plant with a bug problem. What Bruce was showing me was a plant doing a magnificent job of feeding the local animal kingdom.

To transform his property into a haven for native plants, Bruce had to clear out a gang of “thugs,” as he calls invasives species—ailanthus trees, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, mile-a-minute. Managing them is an ongoing job.

The reward is his blooming spring woods and bright summer meadows. Each year, two bee specialists come out to visit in the summer heat, he said. “They find more bee species, because of all the native plants, than any place they’ve ever been. And that’s heartwarming.” In his fall meadows, amber and burgundy grasses blow in the wind, with hawks and kestrels hunting overhead. In winter, his shrubs are bright with berries and flickering with wings. Goldfinches harvest seeds from the dried stalks of coneflowers.

Bruce, who is now retired, has been cultivating this habitat for decades. It’s consuming, but it’s a joy. “Once you get it in your blood,” he said, “it’s hard to switch to TV.”

Recently, I saw a long line of people holding boxes, waiting for a native plant sale to open. I suggested to Bruce that interest in native plants seems to be on the rise, and he agreed, noting that the number of chapters of the Virginia Native Plants Society has grown by about 50% in twelve years. “How do people get interested?” I asked.

This is what I really want to know. How does one individual’s act of stewardship connect with others? How does it grow into a movement that can change a landscape, a community, an ecosystem? And if the work is done mainly by individuals, what, if anything, do they need from organizations, like PEC, to move things forward?

Bruce answered, “Exposure.” First, people need to see the possibility.

A fair number of people pass through the Jones’ private nature preserve each year—some on tours organized by PEC, or garden clubs, or other groups. Other times Bruce and Susan simply invite folks to join them on a guided walk. I was struck by their hospitality. They had welcomed me for the plant walk; then, Bruce made time for this interview, and let me bring my mom, who was outside photographing the yellow flags in bloom by the lake.

But not all outreach seemed to pay off, Bruce told me. He had found trying to convert the disinterested to be a poor use of his energy. What he found valuable was connecting with people who already want to know about native plants and habitat. Groups like PEC, he said, helped him to make those connections, to meet the people who were most likely to do something.

I wondered how many native plant growers it would take to change these foothills from a butterfly’s point of view. (At least one giant swallowtail was impressed already). “Lets say most people can’t be bothered to get into native plant gardening,” I said. “But one out of twenty people can be bothered. Does that create a landscape that is a more robust ecosystem?”

Bruce smiled. He nodded: yes. “It’s kind of a little start here, and a little start there. And then you start seeing some rewards.”

By Rose Jenkins

PEC’s Senior Writer and Editor, Rose Jenkins, is moving on—traveling across the country to document other environmental movements that are energized by people’s connection to their own place. This story will be joined by others on her blog, Ways to Here. We are going to miss Rose and wish her all the best on her journey!

This article was featured in our Summer 2012 Member Newsletter, The Piedmont View