A tall plant worthy of the room it demands
Rudbeckia laciniata (wild golden glow)
Rudbeckia laciniata is not a plant for every location. It can grow to over 8 feet tall and will spread wide by its roots if there is not something to stop it. In the wild, I typically find this plant near bodies of water. In a garden setting, it can handle drier conditions in heavier soil (such as clay).
R. laciniata blooms in late summer alongside goldenrod, shortly after Monarda fistulosa. From a design perspective, I find it does best when "boxed in" by medium height plants. These boundary plants help hold R. laciniata in place and provide a smooth transition that hides the somewhat leggy stems. In the image on the left you can see Monarda fistulosa forms a transition to the shorter Solidago flexicaulis (zigzag goldenrod) and Elymus canadensis (Canada wild rye).
For such a tall plant, it might be also good idea to have this plant bordering a taller viewing station, such as a retaining wall or a platform. In our yard, we have this plant backing up to our deck so that the flowers bloom at eye level. This provides the best possible opportunity for viewing floral visitors--and there can be quite a few of them!
Melissodes sp. bees are sometimes mistaken for bumble bees. They both are very "fuzzy", but Melissodes bees differ from bumble bees (Bombus sp.) by their furry legs. It looks like they are wearing chaps or UGG boots [does anyone still know what UGG boots are?]. Many Melissodes bees have a small host range, so diverse native plants could encourage unique bee visitors.
Skippers are a staple of late summer, and they are a species that can thrive in cities. They look like moths, but are actually butterflies. Their larvae feed on grasses, but the adults enjoy a broad range of nectar sources. They can often be observed fluttering between the flowers of R. laciniata. Although their tones are muted when compared to the vibrant monarch, skippers have a subtle beauty and an elegant flight pattern.
My favorite plants are the ones that attract predators. Predaceous insects like wasps are important for controlling prey insect populations (particularly in vegetable gardens). But I also just find them interesting. If predators are gathering around a plant, it must be a good place to find food.
Most wasps in North America are quite peaceful. They don't use their stingers to protect a hive (the vast majority of wasps live alone). Instead, they use them to paralyze their prey (often a specific type of insect/spider). This silhouette can be a bit intimidating, but it is no threat (unless you are a susceptible insect).
Bumble bees (in the genus Bombus) are in the minority of native bees in North America, because they actually form social colonies. Although the social honeybee (which was introduced from Europe) is perhaps the most well-known bee species, most bees actually live solitarily as they tend for their larvae. Unlike honeybees, bumble bee colonies only last a single season. Single bees need to find a place to overwinter, which is usually under leaves in the ground. Queens emerge in early spring searching for new nesting sites and early season forage. By the end of the year, late-blooming plants like R. laciniata provide important forage to fuel up for a long winter.
Bees in the family Megachilidae (like the one to the right in the genus Osmia) can be identified by hairs on the underside of their abdomen. This is their unique method of carrying pollen. This family is commonly referred to as "leaf cutter bees" because they form nests from leaf material. To do this, the bees use their mandibles to cut nearly-perfect circles or ovals from the leaves of plants. Then, they role the leaf piece into a nice sleeping bag for their larvae. Most leaf cutter bees nest in cavities like plant stems, so you will support more if you resist cutting down last year's plant material.
Ceratina sp. bees (below) also nest in plant material. Because they can nest in holes in logs, they are sometimes referred to as "small carpenter bees" (but they are unrelated to the larger carpenter bees). They are also unrelated to the black sweat bees in the family Halictidae. These unique metallic bees are active early in the year through the end of summer.
The bumble bee (left) and Halictus sp. bee (right) are both visiting the R. laciniata for nectar while also functioning as pollinators. While the male bumblebee is not actively collecting pollen, the female Halictus on the right has quite the load.
I'm often amazed at the pollen production by these flowers. I can watch for hours as a string of bees comes to gather a seemingly endless supply of pollen. Plenty to share with the bee larvae while still having enough to fertilize the next generation.
According to Illinois Wildflowers, R. laciniata is a host plant for many insect species that feed destructively on the leaves and stem (this is a good thing for those of us wanting our urban landscaping to support more biodiversity). It is also visited by numerous pollinators (probably more species than have even been documented. As a late season bloomer, I see many species of bee, beetle, and butterfly feeding on pollen and nectar from R. laciniata.
Below, I highlight some of the unique species I have observed interacting with this plant. I hope these photos inspire you to consider planting R. laciniata (or working to get it planted in a nearby public place). If you are lucky enough to have access to this plant within walking distance, go spend an afternoon looking for visitors. Do you see any of the same species listed here? Do you see any others? Keep a journal, sketch what you see, note the behaviors, take photos.
If you see anything unique or interesting, I would love to hear about your observations or see your sketches/photos.