September 7, 2022
If you’re familiar with the Carroll College campus, you’ve probably walked past it countless times. It’s a small, bushy patch of plants in front of the Corette Library, spilling exuberantly onto the sidewalk. A bunch of plants, you’re probably saying: who cares? But these plants are special. They’re from the wild, members of Montana’s native flora. And here in the heart of the city, this garden is supporting a bunch of interesting wildlife.
When you think of Montana’s wildlife, you probably think of elk, grizzly bears, bison, and sandhill cranes. And no, I’m not suggesting that you’re likely to find grizzly bears or elk stopping in front of the Corette Library. To see the wildlife in this garden, we just have to think smaller. Take bees, for instance. Among Montana’s wildlife, there are at least 399 species of bees – and that’s just bees! Besides bees, there are countless flies; colorful and harmless wasps; various spiders… To see our state’s mini wildlife, all we need is a change of perspective and a bit of patience.
So what creatures are there in this native plant garden? This article is a teaser: an introduction to the garden, a guide to some of its plants, and a few snippets about some of the creatures here. Later this winter, watch for a follow-up article where I’ll identify all of these creatures and look at what they’re actually doing here.
Planting the garden
The Carroll College native plant garden got its start in 2012. Carroll Grounds staff and many volunteers helped plant 32 species of native plants in this little patch in front of the library. It was an effort that involved the larger Helena community, too, with funding from Last Chance Audubon Society and the Kelsey Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society.
For several years, the Carroll community continued to watch the garden, producing a report every fall on how the plants were faring. But by 2018, when I began taking classes at Carroll, it seemed that interest in the garden had waned. Unless you were one of the people involved in planting it back in 2012, it would have been easy to walk past without recognizing the garden.
But recognized or not, the plants have persisted. Ten years from its original planting, the Carroll native plant garden continues to thrive. Which plants are growing here? Let’s meet a few of the most prominent ones.
Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
Recognize showy milkweed in the garden by its lush, velvety leaves, each pair placed opposite each other on the stem. In the fall, look for the strange seed capsules, covered with warty bumps. As they dry out, they’ll release hundreds of flattened brown seeds, each attached to a white tuft of silk. The fall winds scatter the seeds to new sites.
Showy milkweed is the plant that feeds the larvae of the well-known, rapidly-declining monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus). This summer, I found a monarch caterpillar feeding on a showy milkweed patch in the Helena Valley. Are there any at Carroll College, as well? If you’re around next summer and you spot some, let me know!
Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)
It’s hard to miss these bushes in the fall, when their narrow gray leaves are overtopped by masses of soft yellow flowers. And today, a crowd of honeybees are busy having lunch here. They’re constantly moving from one flower to the next, burying their heads deep within the bright yellow corollas. But it’s not just honeybees – with a closer look, it’s possible to find a surprising diversity of insects on these flowers.
Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
The tallest shrub in the garden, recognize blue elderberry by its clusters of powdery, whitish-blue berries. If this bush were growing a few miles outside of town, I’d be expecting black bears or grizzly bears to come in and strip these juicy fruits. Here in the middle of Helena, watch for robins, cedar waxwings, or other fruit-eating birds to come and harvest the bounty.
Lewis’s flax (Linum lewisii)
The leaves of Lewis’s flax are delicate and easy to overlook, but the flowers are hard to miss. They’re flat, showy, five-petaled blue blooms. This is a common grassland species across Montana, and it can flower for months through the summer. The fruits look like miniature tan pumpkins. Watch for a variety of small bees on these flowers.
Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Oops! This prickly plant, with its feathery pink flowers and fluffier tufts of seeds, isn’t native to Montana. And why someone decided to name it “Canada thistle,” I don’t know: it’s actually native to southeastern Europe. This plant is a “weed” that has crept into the native plant garden uninvited. But as long as it’s here, it is providing some habitat for wildlife. I spot an orange hoverfly, camouflaged to resemble a honeybee, visiting the thistle flowers.
Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii)
Back to the plants that are “supposed” to be here. In this garden, Wood’s rose is easy to identify: just look for a rose bush with lots of red fruits and spaced-out prickles along the stems. When it’s flowering in June, Wood’s rose is a magnet for pollinators. And will any birds come to the garden this winter to eat the fruits? Let me know if you see any!
Common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
Its leaves look like mouse ears and they’re arranged in pairs on the stem, just like showy milkweed. The flowers are tiny pink bells. By the winter, if they get pollinated, they’ll be replaced by globe-shaped, waxy white fruits. Watch for bumblebees and striking, spiny-haired flies visiting these flowers. In wilder parts of Montana, these bushes provide excellent cover and nesting sites for songbirds such as lazuli buntings.
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
This plant is similar to the sunflowers that farmers grow for birdseed and Spitz snacks – but while those sunflowers must grow from seed each year, Maximilian sunflower plants are perennials that live for multiple years. The flowers are smaller, too. But just like the annual sunflowers that produce birdseed, these plants can attract quite a diversity of wildlife to the garden. Some species of bees are specialists on sunflowers. And once the flowers fade and the seeds get ripe, watch for American goldfinches coming in to feed on them.
Plants, plants, plants, you may be thinking – what about the wildlife? Here’s a quick sketch. Note that this is all just from a couple of hours in the garden on one fall morning, September 7, 2022. As the weather and the plants change through the year, the wildlife you could see here is going to change, too.
The honeybees are everywhere this morning. There are hundreds of them, hungrily visiting the rabbitbrush flowers. It’s like lunchtime at the STAC [the Carroll College dining hall, for those who may not know], honeybee-style. And the honeybees aren’t the only wildlife on the rabbitbrush today. Several bumblebees join them in the flower-feeding frenzy. (These may be Hunt’s bumblebees, Bombus huntii.) There are also a few woodland skippers (Ochlodes sylvanoides), triangular orange butterflies prone to rapid escape flights when disturbed.
A few grasshoppers are resting on the snowberry leaves and the rabbitbrush flowers, taking a break from chewing holes in plant leaves. And then – what’s that? A banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) has built her web in the shade of a rabbitbrush bush. And in her web, lightly mummified in silk, is a grasshopper. Chewing holes in the garden plants has its risks!
Carroll College’s tinier wildlife
Some of the other wildlife in the garden today are harder to see. But I’m looking closely – and I’ve got an insect net with me. I’ll be collecting specimens of some of these harder-to-identify creatures – and once I’ve learned more about them in the lab, I’ll be able to share their stories in depth this winter. I spot several solitary wasps on the rabbitbrush flowers. They’re black with yellow lines across the abdomen. Much smaller than yellowjackets, they’re also much less aggressive. You probably wouldn’t notice them unless you were looking.
There’s a fuzzy bee fly with dark wings on the rabbitbrush. Another has wings that are entirely clear. I spot a white-haired bee with long antennae. Another bee is small with white lines across its abdomen. A large black wasp with a narrow waist is investigating the rabbitbrush leaves, and nearby a brilliant green fly is resting. Several hoverflies that mimic honeybees are visiting the rabbitbrush and Canada thistle blooms. A tiny wasp with a long ovipositor takes off from the rabbitbrush, while a spiny black fly lands on a snowberry flower.
In roughly an hour of watching and netting, I collect 15 insect specimens. It’s a sample of just a few of the species of wildlife that this garden is supporting today. This winter, watch for more details about these particular insects.
And in the meanwhile, if you ever need a break from your daily routine, consider stopping by the Carroll College native plant garden. You probably won’t see grizzly bears or bison here. But you’re very likely to see a few of Montana’s smaller wildlife – creatures that are around us all the time, but that we may not know as well as the large mammals.
Ten years ago, Carroll College and the community came together with foresight to plant this garden. Perhaps a bit forgotten, it’s still an educational resource, a complex world in miniature, and a reservoir of biodiversity in a time when biodiversity is rapidly declining across the globe. It’s a place that we, the community, created – a place that’s full of life. Quiet and unadvertised, but in plain sight for all of us to appreciate, it’s a silent testament to the Carroll College motto: non scholae, sed vitae. And indeed, this garden in front of the Corette Library is a place that’s for life.
Wilson, J.S. & Carril, O.M. (2016). The bees in your backyard: a guide to North America’s bees. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.