Environmental Almanac | Homegrown entertainment with native shrubs

Environmental Almanac | Homegrown entertainment with native shrubs

Like many people who have the time and means to travel, I relish getting away to places where the riches of scenery and wildlife are more pronounced than they are in central Illinois — the north country of New Hampshire where I fish with my brother and his son, the west where my family and I hike and camp, and Costa Rica where I travel with UI students to study environmental sustainability.

But even in a good year for travel, I spend more than 48 weeks at home. On top of that, I'm constituted to appreciate life in the day-to-day, and I think I derive more enjoyment from activities I can engage in regularly than those accessible only at long intervals.

Maybe all of this is just a long way of saying that in a summer with no exotic travel plans, I'm spending a lot of time enjoying my yard, especially watching the activity on and around the native shrubs I have planted over the past five years.

I'm big into shrubs because much of our yard is shaded by tall trees, and that limits the possibilities for gardening with native plants — neither milkweed nor any of the other sun loving plants of the tallgrass prairie do well for us.

A few of my woodland shrubs were given to me by a friend, dug from his property on the Salt Fork River. The majority, however, I've bought through an annual sale conducted by the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program. In all, I've now planted about 30 native woodland shrubs representing more than a dozen species in our yard.

Rather than boring you with the details of what I love about each one of these plants, let me tell you about one of my favorites, spicebush, which is a common component of the understory in Illinois woodlands and popular among gardeners as well. Spicebush produces showy clusters of little yellow flowers early in spring before it leafs out, and its small fruits (on females only) turn bright red as they mature. Spicebush gets its name from the spicy fragrance given off by twigs and small branches when they're scraped as with a fingernail.

Spicebush is beautiful in its own right, but I started planting it around my yard with an ulterior motive; I wanted to see for myself the caterpillars of a spicebush swallowtail butterflies. I had seen pictures of them in books and online, but had never been able to find them in the wild.

In the early stages of their development, spicebush swallowtail caterpillars have two ways of avoiding predation. They can stay out of sight by retreating into little shelters, which they create by folding a leaf over on itself into a shape that reminds me of a taco. How does a caterpillar fold a leaf? It's true genius. They spread a line of silk across the mid-vein that contracts as it dries, which pulls one half of the leaf over onto the other.

Alternatively, when they're small, spicebush swallowtail caterpillars can also hide in plain sight, right on top of a leaf. That's because their skin is a shiny, mottled gray and black with a saddle of white across the back, which makes them look just like bird poop.

As they mature, spicebush swallowtails maintain the practice of hiding during the day in self-made leaf shelters, but they adopt a new style of camouflage. Their bodies take on the color of the leaves they live on — so ours are bright green — and their forward end develops a triangular appearance with dark, eye-like spots, so they end up looking like tiny snakes.

Thanks to my spicebush planting habit, my family and I are now able to watch spicebush swallowtail caterpillars develop every summer.

In addition to the direct entertainment value of hosting showy caterpillars, planting native trees and shrubs in a home landscape can provide a whole range of benefits for people and wildlife alike. If you're interested to learn more about these, I've got two suggestions. One is to pick up a copy of the book "Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest," published by UI Extension.

The other is to attend an educational seminar on the topic conducted by UI Extension Horticulture Educator Ryan Pankau this week. The seminar will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the UI Extension Auditorium, 801 N. Country Fair Drive in Champaign. Advance registration is encouraged but not required.

Additionally, you can obtain high-quality native trees and shrubs at a very reasonable price through the East Central Illinois Master Naturalists' sale, which is going on now. Order plants online for pickup in early October (Friday and Saturday, dates TBD). The deadline for ordering is Sept. 21. Thirteen different trees and 11 shrubs are included, with spicebush, of course, among them.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.