The idea to grow native plants began improbably with the death of Lady Jane Grey (my cat not the Queen). This imperious but kindly feline dowager had outlived 3 other cats, 5 dogs and 1 marriage. It seemed fitting when she died at the age of 21, to honor her with a small grave.
My husband, the green-thumb thought it was fitting to landscape it with "Pussytoes," a plant with a silvery stem and a flower that looks a bit like a cat's foot. Honestly, I didn't pay much attention because my contribution to plant cultivation has always been to look at them and then say, "How Pretty! or "What are those?" and then go back inside.
But I did notice after a few weeks that, we had some new visitors, a butterfly I had never seen before. It was an American Lady butterfly, whose caterpillars feeds on Pussytoes. Soon more native plants: violets, cardinal flower, coneflowers, partridge peas were planted, and suddenly, there were more butterflies, bees and other unique tiny creatures. None of which I had ever seen in my small suburban yard in NE Massachusetts. The transformation was amazing. Sitting on the deck and watching birds and butterflies became a new past-time - a new channel in my existence, one without commercials. Soon there were seeds that "needed" to be planted in pots for new plants. This made a lot of pots: stacks and stacks of pots of small native wildflowers and plants needing a home..
Pictures from my backyard in Chelmsford, MA: From left to right: Cardinal flower which was soon appropriated by the local humming bird who wouldn't let any other bird or bee near the stand. American Lady butterfly, Tiger swallowtail caterpillar on our choke cherry. Great spangled Fritillary -caterpillars eat native violets. There always seemed to be one flitting in the yard but I never got a good picture so this one is here courtesy of NH Mountain Hiking. Giant swallowtail, Blacks swallowtail caterpillar - there were three : we named them Chomper, Muncher, and Karen Carpenter and moved them to our dill plants closer to the house. They didn't seem to mind.
In the middle of the COVID pandemic, my husband and I escaped to the Berkshires. We rented a cabin and decided to look at real estate, really - just to look and dream. We found a listing for a farm in Colrain, a tiny town near Shelburne Falls. It was the Brigham Farm, a former dairy and producer of show draft horses. Most of the land had been sold off but there was this meadow....we bought the farm.
Why Checkerspot Farm?
The name refers to the rare Checkerspot butterfly named for the Checkerspot pattern on its wings. We have no Checkerspot butterflies on the property. And if I am being entirely honest - the space only recently became a "farm" again when we started planting. But like all names, there is a story behind it. One of the flowers planted on Lady Jane's grave (dead cat-see above) was Turtlehead. It's a tall, leafy plant which has white, "turtle head" flowers. Ours however hadn't bloomed so it looked a bit like crabgrass on steroids.
Turtlehead is the main food for the Checkerspot butterfly. It is their whole world. The caterpillars are born from eggs laid on the plant and then eat the leaves, tenting together for protection as they get bigger. The adults drink nectar from other flowers but they never flit too far from the stand of Turtlehead where they were hatched and in the summer, the females lay their eggs on the plant and the cycle starts anew. Since Turtlehead is pretty but not sold commercially, it has largely disappeared from the landscape along with the butterfly. I hadn't really considered that butterflies could be so specialized and that a simple act of mowing over what most people would call weeds would eliminate an entire species. But it was my husband's story that stuck with me:
Maybe because I am just a little off-center, this story struck me as profound. Teenage me would have wanted to knock out their nest as well because I didn't know that many insects are tied to one or two types of plants. I didn't know that most caterpillars don't strip the trees bare. I thought all plants were pretty much the same in terms of food content for bugs which mostly, I considered gross. But this shy teenage boy with an interest in entomology did know and so he saved them. And now the Checkerspot butterfly, is for me, a symbol of the education and reparations we need to do to preserve our tattered environment. We have planted Turtlehead on Checkerspot farm. Will they come? Maybe not. But I am hopeful.