Nature walk: Joe Pye’s butterfly bar

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Joe-Pye-weed. (photo by Anita Barbour)

Our little front pond has finally, if only partially, filled with water after this summer’s drought. The hot, dry weather also took its toll on plants in our yard. Ostrich ferns turned black and crispy-fried. Bee balm leaves and flowers wilted until I watered them overnight. After a few days, a few new flowers appeared, but that was it for the season.

But one plant next to the pond has been having its best year ever. Our Joe-Pye-weed is eight feet high, multi-stemmed and blossom-heavy. Botanist/author Alfred Hottes says the genus Eupatorium, containing the Joe-Pye-weeds and the bonesets, was named “for Mithridates Eupator, King of Pontus, who discovered a species to be an antidote” against some kinds of diseases and poisons. Hottes also noted that Joe Pye was a real historical figure, a Native American herbalist healer who tended Pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts, curing typhoid “from a decoction of the plant.”

Recently the genus Eupatorium has been separated into several genera, with the purplish-flowered species subsumed under a new genus Eutrochium. Though this complicates the classification system, it brings the benefit of one-to-one correspondence between the scientific name and the common name of each plant genus — Eupatorium for the bonesets, and Eutrochium for the Joe-Pye-weeds. White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), also used to be included in Eupatorium.

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The Woodstock-Saugerties area boasts three species of Joe-Pye-weed — spotted Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum), hollow Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) and sweet Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum) with a vanilla-like fragrance. The one towering over our pond is spotted Joe.

Joe-Pye-weed’s domed clusters of pinkish fragrant flowers set bloom in mid-summer, just as the second flights of many butterflies commence. With such opportune timing it is a tremendous attraction for Lepidoptera. The characteristically robust plants and prolific flowers (hundreds of individual blooms, and fresh ones opening daily) accommodate all comers with ample seats at the bar.

In the few last weeks we’ve seen as many butterflies at our stand of Joe-Pye-weed as we’ve seen at the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). Joe seems to say “Come one, come all, large and small.” The list so far exceeds ten, including giant swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, great spangled fritillary, monarch, cabbage white, silver-spotted skipper, hummingbird clearwing moth, and several small skippers and gossamer-wings that were too quick for us to identify. One small skipper, however, stayed long enough to peg as Zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon), a southern species we had not yet recorded this far north.

The biggest butterflies — swallowtails, fritillaries and monarchs — flutter from flower to flower, sparring sometimes. Or they sail out and away, then return quickly or disappear for longer periods. Some butterflies bar-hop, moving back and forth between the Joe-Pye and a nearby butterfly bush, as if comparing the vintage and the ambience. We recognize individuals of the same species sometimes, by color differences or by wing damage, apparently nicks (from sharp twigs?) and nips (from bird attacks?).

In the last week, the larger, older flower heads on our pond-side Joe-Pye-Weed have lost their nectar and proceeded toward seeding. Only little side heads from lower leaf axils are left to bloom; its season is diminishing. In a friend’s garden a different, brighter red-purple Joe-Pye was fresh and prolific, with the fall monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) taking sips while braving lurking Chinese mantids (Tenodera serotina).

The days are getting short and the season late, but if you look around, there’s still time to catch the butterfly show at Joe’s.

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