Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Choose plants, seeds for pollinators' garden wisely

In our previous Naturewatch, we skipped from mountain lions to germinating milkweed, Project Milkweed, The Xerces Society, and finally 1001 Pollinator Gardens Project, an initiative to encourage, support and document the commitment of 1,001 people in Western Massachusetts (if there is something similar in southern Vermont or eastern New York, please let me know). Thus far, 60-plus have "joined" the 1001 Project by going to and filling out the simple questionnaire that, by the way, answers the question, "What is a pollinator garden?" I also found another 1001 pollinator gardens initiative, the pollinator blog,

Just what is a pollinator? Quite simply, it is any creature that pollinates, or better put, according to U.S. National Park Service, "A pollinator is anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma). The movement of pollen must occur for the plant to become fertilized and produce fruits, seeds and young plants."

Some of the better-known pollinators include hummingbirds, honey bees, carpenter bees, butterflies and moths, and perhaps less loved, the yellow jacket, hornet and other wasps, along with the myriad of smaller flies and other insects.

Of greater importance than simply planting a hit-or-miss flower garden, lovely as it might be, is choosing the best plants for a local garden, native or cultivated. As is planting pesticide-free seeds and plants. And not using insecticides. The only trusted sources for seeds and plants in Berkshire County that I know of are Ward's Nursery in Great Barrington and Helia Nursery at Sky Meadow Farm in Alford/West Stockbridge  (phone for catalog and orders). If you know of other sources, let me know.

Before I knew better, I would sometimes use systemic insecticides for house plants. These water-soluble insecticides allow them to be taken up by the roots, absorbed by the leaves and stems. Outdoors in the garden and on lawns, usually even stronger doses are used and are picked up by pollinators gathering nectar and pollen. These chemicals, better known as Neonicotinoid insecticides, commonly called neonics, are surprisingly enough derived from nicotine produced by tobacco plants as protection from insects! (If you use nicotine in any form, keep this in mind.) Not only do insects carry off these chemicals, but so does ground water, eventually ending up in rivers. In garden soil, they may persist for months or years. Song birds we so enjoy feeding can be killed by ingesting treated seed.


I have received several queries about the dangers of giant hogweed in The Berkshires; one from a lady frightened by Queen Anne's Lace along the highways and even city streets. My answer to her was if there is more than one or two plants, fear not. I contacted our local MassWildlife for an update, and promptly received this answer from Andrew Madden, Western District supervisor, in Dalton.

"MassWildlife doesn't track giant hogweed records or distribution. However, I can tell you that it is uncommon in the Berkshires, but there are a few occurrences. Massachusetts Department of Agriculture deals with hogweed. They have a site where it can be reported (

There are plants that look similar (Queen Anne's Lace, Cow Parsnip, etc.). So, it is good for people to be aware, but they shouldn't be overly worried at this point. Typically, you would expect to find a single hogweed plant or maybe a couple. If the plant in question is covering a large areit is probably not hogweed."


For the last two weeks, we have been watching monarch butterflies lay eggs on our small patch of milkweed and the resulting green and yellow caterpillars. At times, there were 25 to 30 caterpillars of varying sizes, the most we have had in 40 years. Since they have decimated the milkweed leaves and are eating the pods, I assume this is the group that will fly south this fall.

At times I wondered where they were going as they crawled up the side of the garage, but just this morning I noticed six bright green cocoons or chrysalis attached to the garage soffit.

— BB, Lanesborough

Congratulations, it pays to be patient! — Thom

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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