Pollinator Powerhouse

Chrysothamnus sp are native bushes in the Aster family that grow in dry regions of the western US, northern Mexico, and parts of Canada. Other genera that are closely related, and that include some species that were once also included in Chrysothamnus, include Lorandersonia and Ericameria. Called rabbitbrush, probably because rabbits love to hide in its tangle of woody stems, these bushes produce clusters of yellow flowers that give off a smell that makes me think of honey.

Tachinid fly on rabbitbrush. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Tachinid fly on rabbitbrush. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Last year I planted two rabbitbrush bushes in my backyard and just this month they’ve come into bloom. That’s late for rabbitbrush, which usually flowers sometime in August or September, but maybe the late summer or cold snap in April affected their timing. Despite the late start, however, they are hugely popular with pollinators.

Hoary comma on butterfly bush. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Hoary comma on butterfly bush. Photo by Jamie Simo.

While most of the other flowers in my yard have dried up and are now producing seeds, rabbitbrush is a late-season dynamo and one-stop buffet for bees, flies, butterflies and skippers. Just a couple weeks ago I saw the first bumble bee I’ve ever seen in my yard feasting on the rabbitbrush and this past week a painted lady butterfly and a hoary comma butterfly came by for a taste too. That’s in addition to the buzzing swarm of honey bees that have regularly been coming by.

Not only is rabbitbrush a great late season flower for feeding pollinators, but it’s a gorgeous plant too and provides color when a lot of other plants have gone dormant. Although I haven’t had a need to yet, I’ve read that rabbitbrush can easily be trimmed back in late winter to keep it tidy since it does have a tendency to sprawl. Best of all, because it’s a native plant, rabbitbrush is extremely waterwise. After they established, I’ve never had to water mine. They do just fine getting their water from rain.

So next time you’re at the nursery, maybe skip the rose bush and pick up rabbitbrush instead. The pollinators will thank you and you’ll have a unique and beautiful plant that might be the envy of the block.

Welcome Home

A black-footed ferret looks out of a crate during a release of 30 of the animals by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. The rare black-footed ferrets were turned loose on the 25-square-mile refuge, which was a former toxic waste site before being reclaimed after a $2.1-billion cleanup. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A black-footed ferret looks out of a crate during a release of 30 of the animals by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. The rare black-footed ferrets were turned loose on the 25-square-mile refuge, which was a former toxic waste site before being reclaimed after a $2.1-billion cleanup. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Yesterday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 30 Black-footed Ferrets (Mustela nigripes) at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, CO, as part of a national reintroduction program. Once thought to be extinct, their population devastated by the loss of their favorite prey (prairie dogs) to poisoning and plague, and loss of habitat to development, a small population of ferrets was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. Since then, the ferrets have been involved in a captive breeding program to restore their numbers. One of the facilities involved in the breeding program is the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, where I studied for a semester.

Black-footed Ferrets are small, weasel-like animals with a black bandit mask. Historically, they roamed from as far north as southern Canada to as far south as northern Mexico. Highly endangered, it’s estimated that only about 300 live in the wild. Those 300 are the result of previous reintroductions, like the 42 ferrets released at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area last year and the additional 17 released there just last week. The goal is to expand the ferret population to 3,000 individuals.

Because Black-footed Ferrets are mostly nocturnal and there are so few of them, it’s probably not likely you’ll see them when visiting the Arsenal, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try looking!