Maine Horticulturist Presents The Beautiful Native Plants Of The Northeast - 27 East

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Maine Horticulturist Presents The Beautiful Native Plants Of The Northeast

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Andy Brand, the interim director of horticulture at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and an upcoming Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons guest speaker.

Andy Brand, the interim director of horticulture at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and an upcoming Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons guest speaker.

A cecropia caterpillar, which in its adult stage is North America's largest native moth.

A cecropia caterpillar, which in its adult stage is North America's largest native moth. ANDREW BRAND

An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly.

An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. ANDREW BRAND

Cephalanthus occidentalis, or buttonbush, a host plant of sphinx moths.

Cephalanthus occidentalis, or buttonbush, a host plant of sphinx moths. ANDREW BRAND

Painted trillium, or painted lady, a native Northeast flower.

Painted trillium, or painted lady, a native Northeast flower. ANDREW BRAND

Polyphemus moth, a North American giant silk moth,

Polyphemus moth, a North American giant silk moth,

Monarch butterfly caterpillars can only eat plants in the genus Asclepias, like common milkweed and swamp milkweed.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars can only eat plants in the genus Asclepias, like common milkweed and swamp milkweed. ANDREW BRAND

Brendan J. O’Reilly on Aug 31, 2021

Exotics and carefully bred cultivars are typically the plants of choice to add color and interest to a garden, but horticulturist Andy Brand wants gardeners to know that native plants can achieve the same ends while also enhancing biodiversity.

Mr. Brand, the interim director of horticulture at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine, will present “Spectacular Natives, Beauty & Biodiversity of the Northeast” for the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons monthly lecture series on Sunday afternoon, September 12.

He will identify a number of specific plants that provide food to insects, birds and other wildlife both directly and through the food chain, and he will present his photographs of those plants and the moths, butterflies and other insects that rely on them.

Due to the pandemic, Mr. Brand will offer the presentation virtually, via Zoom. He said during an interview on Friday that he will share what he has observed in his 30 years living and gardening in Connecticut and these past four years that he has lived in Maine.

The Importance Of Observation

Mr. Brand said he encourages gardeners to talk a walk through a preserve and watch what the insects are doing: Where are the butterflies and moths landing and laying eggs? What plants are caterpillars and other insects eating?

“I really stress the importance of observation,” he said. Observe, connect with nature, then experience it, he tells audiences.

Mr. Brand came to Maine after 27 years at Broken Arrow Nursery — a small nursery that specializes in rare and unusual trees, shrubs and perennials in Hamden, Connecticut — where he was the nursery manager. He joined Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in 2018 as the curator of living collections, a job in which he worked with staff horticulturists to choose plants for the collections and to decide where they will go.

Now, as the interim director of horticulture, he continues to oversee the collections but also manages 11 full-time horticulturists, as well as interns and seasonal employees.

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has 19 acres of cultivated land and 300 acres in total.
The botanical gardens include a mix of nonnative plants and plants that are native to the Eastern Seaboard. Mr. Brand noted that a number of plants that are native to the Mid-Atlantic States and the Southeast are still perfectly hardy in Maine’s winters. The native plants and near-natives are mixed with nonnative plants that make for interesting combinations.

Mr. Brand stressed that the gardens do not include invasives. Invasive are plants that are not only nonnative, but aggressive — they spread readily and outcompete native plants.

He said he strives to make the gardens accessible and relatable to the visitors so when they leave they take home ideas that they can realistically incorporate into their own landscapes.

The Importance Of Native Plants

Another of Mr. Brand’s passions is to incorporate native plants that have relationships with native insects that they co-evolved with. People often take insects for granted, but they are just so important to having a rich biodiversity, he said.

A primary reason to support native insects is pollination, Mr. Brand explained, pointing out that people typically think of the European honeybee when they think of pollinators while overlooking native moths, flies and beetles.

Native insects are also beneficial decomposers that break down leaves and logs on the forest floor to provide nutrients to trees and shrubs, he said.

And then there is the aesthetic value: Butterflies and moths are pleasing to have in the garden.

Birds and other wildlife up the food chain also require insects for their survival. “It all starts with insects getting their nutrition from the plants, and birds eating the caterpillars or the other insects, and then things eating the birds,” Mr. Brand said.

Chipmunks and squirrels also eat insect larvae, and then hawks, bobcats or foxes eat the rodents. “It just keeps that intricate web together,” he said, adding that losing a beetle here or there may not appear to make a difference, it could lead to a domino effect. “We would start to see some major changes in our landscape, and I think not only would our birds and animals suffer but we will eventually as well.”

The Beauty Of Native Plants

In his talks and educational programs, Mr. Brand identifies plants that are renowned for both their beauty to humans and their ecological value.

“We’ll talk about Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower, which is in full glory up here in Maine right now with its brilliant scarlet trumpet flowers that attract the ruby-throated hummingbirds,” he said. “You can sit on the bench and just sit and watch hummingbirds getting nectar out of them.”

Lindera benzoin, or spicebush, is another perennial he likes to talk about, not because it will knock anyone’s socks off with its beauty, he said, but because it’s one of the main food sources for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. “It has one of the most incredible caterpillars that people are going to see. Always, when I show the slides of this caterpillar, people are just like blown away by it because it’s so unusual.”

Then there is the eastern tiger swallowtail, which is closely associated with native black cherry trees, he said.

For the birds, Myrica pensylvanica, the native bayberry, “with its beautiful powder-blue fruits that are super super-nutritious,” provides food in winter.

Pycnanthemum, the mountain mints, are excellent for supporting pollinators. “If you’re really intent on gardening for attracting pollinators — bumblebees and honeybees and things — the Pycnanthemums are really high on my list, as well as Solidago, goldenrods,” Mr. Brand said. He added that goldenrods are often falsely maligned for causing allergic reactions, but it’s actually ragweed that is at fault: “It’s the pollen from the ragweed that floats in the air, whereas goldenrod pollen is heavy and drops to the ground.”

For a coastal community such as the East End, he recommends Clethra alnifolia, or summersweet, a shrub typically found in the understory at the edge of woods where the soil tends to be damp. “It has white terminal inflorescence of flowers that are very sweetly fragrant and very attractive aesthetically but also to numerous insects,” he said.

Asters do well on the coast and are important for migrating monarch butterflies because they are flowering right now and into October after other plants have gone dormant. “Monarchs are looking for plants that are in flower where they can get as much nutrition and energy to build up all of that energy in them so they can then fly that incredible distance to their overwintering grounds,” Mr. Brand said.

To register to attend “Spectacular Natives, Beauty & Biodiversity of the Northeast” via Zoom on Sunday, September 12 at 2 p.m., call 631-537-2223 or email hahmember@optonline.net. Admission is $10, or free for Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons members. Visit hahgarden.org for more information.

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