Flowering plants, whether herbaceous perennials, annuals, shrubs or trees, are delightful to the senses. We are drawn to their clusters or punctuations of color in delicate or robust shapes, varied textures and subtle or bold scents. Insects and birds are also drawn to flowering plants. Flowers provide nutritious and tasty nectar that insects and hummingbirds need for energy to fly, reproduce and ensure the health of future generations. Flowers often develop seeds that are a vital source of food for birds, humans and other animals.

The shape and color of a flower or inflorescence is usually an indicator of the type of insect that will be attracted to it. Bees love purple and yellow flowers, especially those of the Asteraceae family. Butterflies do not seem to be partial to flower colors. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red and to any flower that is tubular. Of course the long beaks and tongues of hummingbirds and the flexible proboscis of butterflies and moths can reach into many tubular flowers that store nectar deep within. Lines, ridges and folds in flower petals help guide insects, like a plane on a runway, towards areas of the flowers that guarantee maximum connection with grains of pollen, that will be transported to other flowers, thereby increasing chances of pollination.

As insects, birds and other animals go about their business of survival, they ensure the survival of many other species including humans beings, by pollination. Food crops and other plants and trees often depend on the dispersal of seeds by birds, rodents and other creatures. Every nut-carrying frantic squirrel is adding to the survival of oak trees by the many acorns that are buried and are meant to be later dug up by absent-minded furry nuts. Every squawking blue jay that lands on a city windowsill with a beak full of nut seeds ensures the survival of many interconnected species.

Below is an assortment of plants that I've been growing in the Memorial Garden and other areas in the R.L Clinkscales Community Garden and Playground in Harlem. Please note that some of these images were found online. 

Buddleia davidii is a non-native and often considered an invasive shrub. Apparently butterflies do not distrust immigrants as they flock in multitudes to feed on the numerous tiny flowers on long panicles. I do not plan to exclude this plant from my garden palette anytime soon.

Foeniculum vulgare is another non-native and if left unchecked, it will seed prolifically. This short lived-perennial is also a host plant of black swallowtail caterpillars. Black swallowtails are fond of yellow-flowering umbiliferous plants. Fennel, dill, parsley, celery and Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander) are among their favorites.

Towards the end of summer when many flowering plants are past their peak, pollinators are rewarded with a special treat of nectar and pollen from asters and goldenrods. These perennials are essential to the survival of many species that need energy to fuel their long migration to warmer lands. Monarchs gorge themselves at stop-over points along their way to Mexico. Like New Yorkers, other pollinators brace themselves for the winter cold. Most will not have access to food for months and honker down to avoid freezing winds. Asters and goldenrods provide food that will take sustain butterflies through the hibernation period.

Last November I was thrilled to find Salvia elegans (pineapple sage) with its bright red tubular flowers, still going strong in the Memorial Garden. I bet hummingbirds and other pollinators were equally delighted.


Butterfly sightings elicit excited shrieks from delighted children and adults. In our urban landscapes it is a special treat to glimpse these beautiful winged insects floating on the air or darting about. For some, seeing a butterfly is magical and a hint of the spiritual realm. For others it is a natural wonder and a reminder of the beauty of all life. Whatever you may feel when a butterfly captures your attention note that you are experiencing a privilege.

Like bees, butterflies and moths are vital to our existence and like bees, their numbers are declining. Many are on the endangered species list and others are rapidly nearing extinction. Human intervention in the form of pesticides applications and soil and water pollution has weakened their bodies; their food supplies and habitats are razed for infrastructure and urban expansion. Unpredictable climate and increasing temperatures are also disrupting their food supplies and survival rates. Butterfly and moth populations in cities increase or decrease in direct proportion with pockets of greenery, trees, flowering plants, community gardens, parks, rooftop and green roof plantings and window boxes, all of which, provide food and habitat for these attractive winged insects.

Last winter I began a project to become better acquainted with common butterflies, moths and caterpillars that I spot on various landscapes and while gardening. My goal was to inspire curiosity, increase awareness and appreciation of these beautiful soft bodies and winged creatures, decrease caterpillar anxiety and create many ah-ha moment among my fellow community gardeners and among  parents and children in the adjoining playground.

 Still tweaking and adding to the collection. Eeach block will be posted in various areas of the  community garden.

                                                                     Red Admiral

It is not difficult to fathom how certain caterpillars may seem scary or icky. However, I was shocked to find that some people are terrified of butterflies. One teen described an episode of Sponge Bob in which the body and compound eyes of a butterfly were magnified and appeared to terrorize the screaming Sponge Bob and his starfish friend Patrick. Those two are such drama queens.

Some caterpillars, especially ones donning spines, bristles or hairs, have been known to cause skin irritations. In Trinidad and Tobago, where I grew up, a hairy or spiky caterpillar is called a “chinney” after the French word for caterpillar ‘chenille’. Some assume that these caterpillars “sting” or cause itching. In response, such creatures are avoided and, unfortunately, often killed.

Like all organisms, caterpillars seek to defend themselves when threatened. Some, like the black swallowtail caterpillar extends its osmeterium, a v-shaped structure that secretes a foul smelling substance that birds dislike.

Others attempt to look as threatening as possible, like the tomato horn worm which raises its upper body, somewhat like a sphinx, hence the name sphinx moth. Some caterpillars have horn-like structures that look sharp while others possess hair-like appendages that are whipped around to ward off predators. The spicebush caterpillar sports prominent eye markings to seem more like the eyes of a serpent, which is threatening to birds and scary to humans.

Some caterpillars protect themselves from predators by means of clever disguises or camouflage. The giant swallowtail caterpillar is mottled brown and white and resembles fresh bird droppings. Others are colored as to be mistaken for leaves, stems or twigs. Some are colored to resemble tree bark

The monarch butterfly caterpillar absorbs toxins from its host plants that in turn make it and its butterfly unpalatable to birds. Other butterflies have evolved the great defense mechanism, which is to physically mimic a different butterfly species that taste nasty or is toxic to predators. A bird may see a Viceroy butterfly and mistake it for a Monarch, which they know from experience, makes them ill. Similarly, the Black Swallowtail and the Spicebush Swallowtail are often mistaken for the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. Birds stay clear of all three.

Monarch caterpillars may look fierce with their horn-like appendages but they are quite docile. They feed exclusively on various species of milkweed. Look for them on common milkweed in weedy areas.

Unless you are a bird other predator, all the grandstanding, strong odors or nasty taste should not deter close observation of the wondrous lives of these little creatures whose metamorphosis is such and extraordinary event. Caterpillars generally do not move very quickly so you can get really close. Try not to disturb them or redirect them if you think they are straying from their food source. Often a caterpillar will seem to be aimlessly wandering off in no particular direction but may just be searching for the right place to hide and form a chrysalis.

You may be allowed to get really close to a butterfly. Like bees they sometimes get so focused on feeding that they do not notice you creeping closer. Butterflies and moths are eye-catching and their distinctive wing shapes and patterns are truly awesome. Be patient and you may be rewarded with a display of both the dorsal and the underwing. Wing undersides are generally of different colors and patterns than the dorsal surface. Some have incredible marbled underwing designs, wonderfully arranged shaped in linear and often concentric patterns and eyespots. Others don less distinctive or mottled shapes. All are unique and provide incredible visual entertainment.

                          Lovely under wing on this butterfly in my mom's garden
This single male Monarch found the nectar of blazing star to be absolutely delicious. I watched him for many days, always returning and always alone.


Monarchs are popular for their size and beauty and for their migratory pattern in vast numbers over long distances. This natural phenomenon is threatened as monarch butterfly numbers decline. Gardeners all across the US are growing various species of milkweed, their host plant, to increase their population. These majestic creatures also need lots of nectar from flowering plants as they make their long journeys to and from wintering grounds. It is always a pleasure to see them in the garden.

          Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed nectar but enjoy nectar from many plant species.

The common Buckeye butterfly can easily be identified by its many eyespots and rows of chevrons on wing margins.

Variegated Fritillary

There are four stages in the life cycle of butterflies and moths: egg, caterpillar or larvae, pupa or chrysalis and adult. A butterfly or moth can lay thousands of eggs during its short lifespan, which is usually between a few weeks to about nine months, as in the case of monarch. However, in all stages, staying alive is a precarious business as there are many natural predators lurking, often allowing only a small percentage of eggs, caterpillars, pupae or chrysalis to reach the final adult stage.

None of the black swallowtail caterpillars on my flowering parsley and bronze fennel lived to grow past an inch long. They were all gobbled up by wasps that used caterpillar juice to nourish their offspring. Lifeless shriveled skins sometimes were left behind.

I do feel particularly sorry for the poor tomato or tobacco hornworm that morphs into the elegant Sphinx Moth, seen visiting the moonflower at evenings. The larval stage often becomes food for larvae of parasitic wasps that penetrate the skin and lay their eggs in the caterpillar's body. When they emerge, the hungry larvae feed on the soft wormy body of their defenseless host. You may notice the white cocoons of the soon-to emerge young wasps attached to the body of the ill-fated caterpillar. It is a curious sight and one that I do not relish. This parasitic relationship is beneficial to tomato growers as it keeps hornworm populations in check. I came across a recipe for fried tomato hornworms. I wonder if they taste like fried green tomatoes. Hmmm.

In their adult butterfly or moth stage, these lovely winged creatures become food for birds, spiders, and praying mantis. Last summer I found many Monarch wings at the base of flowering plants. Large praying mantis, very cleverly hidden, were always nearby on the butterfly bush, waiting but never in vain.

In both the ornamental and vegetable gardens caterpillars may be uninvited guests. The aim of a caterpillar is to eat and grow through various stages before becoming mature enough to morph into a butterfly or moth, so the adult can mate and reproduce. Caterpillars have ravenous appetites and a few can quickly strip a plant of its leaves.

The sight of Cabbage White butterflies flitting around a garden is a sign that their offspring may be responsible for the holes in collard greens, kale and cabbages. I don’t mind them or the bites they take. I grow enough for us all. However, I would not like to take a bite of one of these green creatures while eating my dinner. Yuck!

A gypsy moth caterpillar in Ashfield, MA. This non-native is considered a pest.

Some caterpillars can cause major leaf loss, leading to reduced chlorophyll and overall tree health. I do not hesitate to destroy large colonies of tent caterpillars, which morph into moths.

A similar pest is the Fall Webworm that have invaded my community garden. Here is a colony on Ilex verticillata.

The pesky Fall Webworm caterpillar will morph into a white moth after growing fat on leaves from the apple tree and dogwoods in the community garden. Although some defoliation takes place, these caterpillars cause little damage to otherwise healthy trees. This is undoubtedly in part because of the wide range of trees and plants they nibble on. Fall Webworms have nibbled leaves of kale, the tender first leaves of sunflowers and can be found just about everywhere in the garden this summer. Mostly, they are just annoying. Unwanted caterpillars play a significant role in the ecosystem too. After a few weeks webworm moths will be plentiful and will feed hungry song birds that need to fatten up before the winter days.

Finding ravished plants in the pollinator garden is reason to rejoice. I am thrilled to find bites on any of the various species of milkweed growing in the Memorial Garden bed at the R. L. Clinkscale Playground and Community Garden in Harlem. I welcome Monarch butterflies, their caterpillars and all butterflies, bees and wasps. The very attractive bronze fennel with its lovely yellow umbells are much loved by multitudes of inspect species. Fennel leaves are very tasty, like licorice. They are also much loved by the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Swallowtail caterpillars also love the leaves, stems and flowers of Zizia aurea or Golden Alexander and other plants in the parsley family.

Lindera benzion or spicebush shrub is the larval host plant of the spicebush butterfly. So far this summer there is still no evidence of caterpillars but the leaves of the native shrub are a favorite of the leaf-cutter bee.

The Question Mark butterfly can often be found feasting on rotten fruit, which may be available when flowering plants are not so plentiful.

Don't be surprised to find butterflies resting on soil, on beaches, on muddy or sandy puddles and sometimes daring to land on a sweaty brow or shoulder. These insects seek salts and nutrients that can be found on various moist surfaces. You may also spot butterflies in unexpected places. Some species enjoy sips from a juicy turd or rotting animals. Decomposition releases easily digestible nutrients that these butterflies recycle into nourishment for their bodies.

Skippers are smallish butterflies with short, stout bodies. See them resting with their wings held upwards.

Some moths are daytime feeders and flyers, like this Virginia Ctenucha


The Eight-Spotted Forester is  a day-flying moth.

Although a non-native and considered a invasive weed by some, Buddleia davidii is a favorite of butterflies. I once spotted more than six monarchs in a one-foot radius of this shrub.

                Monarch and Black Swallowtail on blazing star, a butterfly magnet.

Black swallowtail on Vernonia fasciculata

 As cute as a button, the Sootywing is a tiny butterfly with a swingspan of just about one inch. It flies low to the ground to avoid being noticed by predators. It loves Verbena bonariensis.

Gardening, in so may ways, is a leap of faith. If you want to see more butterflies, moths and caterpillars, grow what they love and they will come. You will also attract multitudes of bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial and pollinator insects.

Grow native plant species and other (non-invasive) plants that provide nectar and habitat. Grow wherever you can; on your windowsills, window boxes, tree pits, backyards, containers and between herbs and vegetables in community garden beds. Entice butterflies with rotting fruit, puddles and patches of nutrient-rich soil. Refrain from cutting back plants that may be their over-wintering shelters. Avoid using pesticides. Sprays and powders that are toxic to caterpillars are often toxic to butterflies, bees and other beneficial organisms. They are also hazardous to human health and may remain in the soil to pollute several seasons of crops. Opt for hand picking or hosing pesky caterpillars off plants.

Butterflies are emblems of hope, endurance and change. Keep being curious. Never loose hope that human beings can work together for change, for the survival of our beautiful pollinators and our planet.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy.

The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze fennel plants in the Memorial Garden. Caterpillars soon emerge.

Crocosmia 'Lucifer' in the Memorial Garden

The Memorial Garden bed in summer


The death of a loved one, coworker or pet reminds us of our own mortality. At least temporarily, we reevaluate what is important, what is worth our time and energy.  Those departed, especially the most recent ones, are really adept at their job.  I had a fair share of loss over the past year, the most recent being the loss of my cat, Gigi. Often referred to as Mr. Gigi, that mischievous fur ball joined my family when my boys were one and three years old. He would have been seventeen years old this year. As I held his skinny, fur-covered body, still and still warm I realized I would never again get mad at him for peeing on the bathroom rug and would miss seeing him waiting on the sink for a drink of running water. He was often a pain in the ass but he was family and he knew we loved him. Mr. Gigi is gone.

This loss coincided with a time of conflict. It occurred around the time of an argument with someone I cared for; an argument that changed the course of our relationship and made me adjust my priorities. At the same time I began the dreaded task of organizing my tax returns. I love trees but paperwork, not so much. Gigi’s death also occurred during an altercation with a gardener at a community garden near my home in Harlem. Being able to grow delicious and gorgeous tomatoes requires some attention. However, many with limited skill and knowledge assume the role and title of expert and evidence of their handiwork is clear to more trained eyes. Over 27 million Americans filed their own taxes in 2017. Does that mean they are qualified accountants?

On my first garden day of the season I found that someone had already cleaned the perennial flowerbed that I planted and devoted much of my limited finances, time and energy to for the past three years. What most distressed me was the loss of the Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil' that was rescued from an old client's garden years ago. It needed much more sun than was available in that backyard and it was finally thriving in its new home in the community garden. I pampered that tall, lanky shrub with extra water and mulched it heavily each winter. On that eventful Tuesday I found the ilex severed to about one third of the height it had struggled so many years to grow to. It now showed no signs of life. The buddleia was cut within an inch of the soil and several other shrubs were cut so low that I wonder if they would ever resurface. The ground was scraped clean and bare of leaves, garbage bags of cutting were piled in a nearby corner and the rosemary bush was gone. I reached out to the persons I thought responsible. It was not easy to explain that being able to grow tomatoes from seed or potted plants or growing sunflowers is not quite the same as knowing how, when, why and if to prune a shrub or a tree and when to cutback plants. The gardener who slashed the ilex also cut back the ornamental grasses dangerously low to the soil. He called the grasses "straw".

I tried to explain that this bed should not be “cleaned” the same way the annuals in the bed of tomatoes and collard greens would and the importance of what I was tiring to achieve with maintaining this almost all-native plant garden. This garden had finally gotten the attention of monarch butterflies and had become the home and feeding place of numerous bees, wasps, praying mantis and birds. I tried to explain that every plant in the bed was paid for out of my pocket; it was not okay for a member to cut every single one of the liatris that struggled through three growing seasons and were finally standing tall. I reminded the gardener of the many times I had provided plants, vegetables, seeds and garden assistance and asked that he and other members check with me before removing flowers that were meant or monarchs. The response I received was very surprising. There were no apologies. It was clear that gardeners with longer membership felt entitled to the plants of that bed and confident of their skills yet unaware of their limited knowledge of plants.


In another garden, closer to my home, a garden caretaker lopped off limbs of the London plane trees, slashed the Japanese maple, witch hazels and dogwoods were mutilated mid- trunk. These disfigured trees and shrubs do not seem to disturb non-gardeners and this caretaker will soon be assigned to maintain the new garden proposed by a crew of architecture students. These students are not landscape architecture students, horticulturists, botanists or gardeners. However, they are proposing designs that will include paving a large portion of the garden space and the removal of mature Calgary pears and four 70’ London plane trees that sustain a population of birds that are so important to our North Harlem neighborhood.    

Over the years I have encountered many trained, skilled and expert gardeners, garden designers and horticulturist, some of whom have published books and write garden articles. These experts are aware of how much there is to learn and know in the fields. At the same time I meet many persons who know so little yet claim to be experts. I understand the zeal. Climate change, global warming and environmental awareness have made gardening and related activities timely, fashionable, hip and sexy. Getting dirt on one’s hand is admirable. Caring enough to know the importance of knowing is even more admirable.The beginning of wisdom is awareness of just how little one knows.

Each year I find bodies of cats, birds and squirrels that do not survive the winter in gardens after the snow melts. I have buried many. Like leaves and decomposed stems that are spared the misfortune of being scraped off the earth and hauled away in garbage bags, these bodies go back in the ground after they have been nourished by all the good things that spring out of it. April brings life to the garden. April also brings varying degrees of skilled and unskilled garden enthusiasts. This April as with all previous Aprils, I will file my taxes with the help of an accountant.

Birds and Blooms of T&T

The garden in January, February and March may not offer much in terms of color, especially when you live in a snow-covered New York City. But the garden during these months is something to look forward to, when you have deep roots in The Land of The Hummingbird. Cultural hybridity has many advantages. 

These photos of flora and birds of Trinidad and Tobago were taken at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

                                                        Beloperone guttata

Chrysothemis pulchella also grows around my parents' home in Rio Claro.

Holmskioldia sanguinea is also known as Chinese Hat. Beautiful and strange are the flowers. 

           Helconia chartacea

    Jatropha podagrica

Erythrina pallida or Wild Immortelle

Trinbagonians call this vervaine Ven-ven. My mom recommends a tea of ven-ven leaves as a blood cleanser. Hummingbirds love it.

Powder Puff Flower (Calliandra surinamensis)   


Emerald White-chested hummingbird  


White-necked Jacobin Hummingbird


This photo was taken by Tahlia, my brother Matthew's brilliant little girl.

                                                  Hummm. Yummm.


      Torch ginger (Phaeormeria magnifica)

Kohleria tubiflor


Bamboo patches cover the hillsides. This clump sits near the main entrance of Asa Wright.

Trinidad is home to vast number of pteridophytes.


         Selaginella flagellata

This heliconia is the symbol of the PNM (the People's National Movement), the political body governing Trinidad and Tobago. Humming birds love the nectar in little flowers hidden in the cups. Trinbigonians call this helconia Balisier.

Bois canot (Cecropia peltata)

The leaves of Bois canot are favored by still photographers. You can see why.

Green Honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza)

Purple Honeycreeper  (Cyanerpes caeruleus)


Flowering plants, whether herbaceous perennials, annuals, shrubs or trees, are delightful to the senses. We are drawn to their clusters or...