Thom Smith, NatureWatch columnist.

A field of zinnia flowers

Zinnia attract monarch butterflies and should be planted, with butterfly bush, cosmos and goldenrod, to attract them. 


Q: We have mourning doves and cardinals in our yard almost all year and want to know what we can feed them? During the winter, I put our woodpecker’s suet blocks and several birds like nuthatches and chickadees, although woodpeckers have not come by yet. During the summer, these two birds are around and probably have been nesting there. What can I feed them now? We also have chickadees that come to a suet cake from time to time, any suggestions for them?

— Marty, Dalton

A: I can make a few suggestions, but these birds will find a variety of foods now. Mourning doves will feed on sunflower seeds, fruit, and cracked corn (I purchased this food for them after hearing they like it, but our doves ignore it). Although I don’t toss out bread, it is said they enjoy breadcrumbs from time to time and will make a fair treat. Our Northern cardinals also go for sunflower seeds and crushed peanuts (unsalted), and some eat bananas and raisins, but ours have never tried them. The black-capped chickadee, our state bird, will eat crushed peanuts, sunflower seeds, and of course, as you mentioned, suet.

Q: A few years ago, I was able to transplant small milkweeds, and now we have a small patch, but they don’t do not seem to attract any monarchs. And we have a nice little flower garden, too. Any ideas?

— Phil, Stockbridge

A: I have found that newly planted plots take time to attract various insects. Without milkweed, there probably wouldn’t be monarch butterflies here. Monarch larvae feed on milkweed, adding the chemical to monarch larvae that make them unpalatable to predators.

If you want a monarch butterfly garden, there are also other additions to the garden; for other plants that attract this species, add goldenrod (it isn’t the culprit causing your allergies, it is usually ragweed); this common lovely wildflower depends on pollinators like butterflies and bees (dusty pollen from ragweed is dispersed by the wind.) Another plant, this a cultivated one, is the butterfly bush that attracts most butterflies, including the monarch. Actually, this plant attracts almost all butterflies. A commonly planted garden flower is the cosmos, a daisy family that attracts monarchs. And it is an easy seeded plant come spring. Lantana is another good flower to plant, as is the zinnia. (Our gardens are a mixture of native and non-native.)

Why the interest in monarchs? The monarch butterfly population has dropped to numbers low enough that it has been considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in some places.

Q: I should have kept the column in the paper you wrote about the ground ivy. Our new yard has this ground ivy growing instead of grass. Can you recall the column?

— Anonymous

A: I don’t recall the column, but I recall when we lived in Dalton, it was ground ivy, or gill-over-the-ground was one of our main weeds; today, here in Pittsfield, we leave all “weeds” that decide to grow in our lawns to feed the honeybees and bumblebees, and rarely pull if interfering. "He is growing like a weed" is a saying my grandmother was fond of using. To her, we children grew like weeds, and to her way of thinking, we probably did. That thought came to me the other morning as I weeded one of my flower gardens. And didn’t spend much time unless they became obnoxious. And, as I knelt on the damp earth plucking roughly a dozen species of weeds, my thoughts drifted to, "Why am I pulling these tiny adventures from the ground?" I planted the ancestors of several species I plucked as weeds last week. By doing so, I affirmed that one of the definitions of the term weed is "a plant out of place." For I found myself pulling tomato, pansy, and cosmos seedlings. 

Malva neglecta, known to gardeners as common mallow or cheeses, is a little plant that has naturalized from Europe and grows from time to time in our garden and is found in fields (cultivated and wild), gardens and lawns. It’s for its tiny fruit that resembles a miniature wheel of cheese and has a delicate flavor. Maybe more about this in another column.

And like other many mints, gill-over-the-ground that I have written about recently is strongly aromatic due to the presence of volatile oil. My late friend Dave St. James would make a brewed cup of gill-over-the-ground tea in the spring and tell stories of its medicinal uses; one was for ear help, though I have misplaced it among many other uses I learned thirty years ago. Like chamomile, it is not a native, but one would think it might be.

In Mrs. William Starr Dana's "How to Know the Wild Flowers," published in 1900, we read, "Its common title of gill-over-the-ground appeals to one who is sufficient without interest in pasture-land (for it is obnoxious to cattle) to appreciate the pleasant fashion in which this little immigrant from Europe has made itself at home here, brightening the earth with such a generous profusion of blossoms every May. But it is somewhat of a disappointment to learn that this name [Gill] is derived from the French guiller, and refers to its former use in the fermentation of beer.”

Email Thom Smith at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.