ECOLOGICAL HORTICULTURIST Andy Brand can’t help himself. He just has to look closely at everything outdoors, every plant, every insect, every process that’s unfolding. And he has to take camera-phone pictures, too, lots and lots of pictures.
These up-close observations aren’t just visually compelling, though. They also pull him down a rabbit hole of inquiry about who or what he’s looking at, and what’s going on, anyhow, and why? Nature’s endless fascinations and what they can teach us if we allow ourselves the time to explore was the topic of our recent conversation.
Andy, who worked for many years at the rare plant specialty nursery Broken Arrow in Connecticut, has since 2018 been at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where he is director of horticulture, managing its big-picture garden scenes, while he also savors the tiny ones, which he shares on Instagram. (Like the faded Hydrangea paniculata floret, above.)
He encourages us all to slow down and have a closer look, and shared some of the ahas he’s learned about nature along the way.
Plus: Enter to win one of the calendars of Andy’s macro nature photos, created by Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 29, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
exploring nature up close, with andy brand
Margaret: So the backstory of our conversation today was we recently worked together on a really popular story for “The New York Times” for my garden column that captured people’s attention. It was kind of about your looking closer, like I said in the introduction, and the iPhone photos that you take and share on social media.
When we talked then, you said something like this, you said your hope was not just to put a bunch of pretty pictures out there, but hopefully get people inspired to learn more. You also said when you look at things, it’s not just like, “Oh, look, this is this.” It’s like you say, “I wonder what it was doing last season. I wonder how long it lives. I wonder…” [Laughter.] So, tell us about your process, your thing? What’s going for you out there?
Andy: Yeah, no, since that article went out, it has been really, truly amazing the feedback that I’ve received, just wonderful comments from people. Just some people that are doing similar things, taking the time, but others that are inspired now to actually take the time when they’re out in a field or taking a hike and not just going from point A to point B as quickly as they can. That’s not the main purpose when I go out, anyhow.
It is truly fascinating to me how I can spend endless hours in this three-quarter of an acre field next to my house and see so many different things every day. [Laughter.] It’s amazing. It could be the same insect, but a different day, it’s doing something totally different. I’m the type that I just need to spend the time and watch it. What is it doing? For instance, why is that butterfly hanging from that flower in a weird position? So, you get in closer and sure enough, there’s a spider that has caught that butterfly [below].
Andy: It’s just then starts the brain going, thinking about the whole, how everything is connected. We need the spiders to control populations of insects. And without spiders, which I know many people don’t like, but they serve an amazing purpose in our whole ecosystem that we live in.
Margaret: Yes. A person, a spider expert I once spoke to, from a university out West, said something like, “Without spiders, there could be no life on the planet.” They provide such an important… There’s so many of them and they provide such an important pest-control, so to speak, balancing role. Yeah.
Andy: Yeah. For sure.
Margaret: Yeah. So, even in just coming across a spider who had that butterfly, then you can go down a whole tunnel of learning and so forth. And you allow yourself to do that.
Andy: Yeah. Oh, it’s pretty much endless. Then that leads to something else. And maybe while you’re watching that spider, your eye gets quickly drawn to something else that’s going on in that same patch of goldenrods that you’ve been watching.
Margaret: Right. Well, when we did the Times story, I mean, one thing, and it just had never occurred to me to even look for– and maybe it’s because I live in an upland site and I’m not around ponds, and I’m not a kayaker or whatever like that; .I’m not around the edge of water a lot in my current life. But you showed a picture, you told me about and you showed a picture of one phase in the dragonfly’s life. We all see them in gardens flying around, but they have this close relationship to water. Right?
Andy: They do. I mean, they spend majority of their lives in water, when they’re in the nymph stage. Then, once they get to the final mature stage, they crawl out onto some of the emergent vegetation around the pond edge or stream or onto rocks, some type of substrate. Then the adult emerges from this, what’s called an exuviae [above]. And it’s then the adult emerges and you’re left with this perfect shell of that nymph stage of the dragonfly. I caught one, I think the one you’re talking about is the exuviae photo. It was on a cattail leaf.
The sun was just right, and it reflected on the water and it just led to a really cool picture. You can see the eyes on exuviae and where the wings were forming and everything. It just totally fascinates me to see that and then start thinking about this creature that was living in the water for all these months, and now, it’s just total amazing acrobat in the sky hawking all the mosquitoes in my yard, hopefully [laughter].
Margaret: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. It molted, right?
Andy: It did.
Margaret: That’s a thing that, with so many insects, there’s various stages of metamorphosis and some are complete and some have fewer stages, but the molting, I mean, I remember the first time… I love millipedes and we have the big one here in the Northeast, as is in many areas, the Narceus americanus, the giant millipede. I just love, it’s sort of this brownish taupe-colored, long creature. And it has like Chinese lacquer red little, like orangey-red little tiny markings along each segment. It has lots and lots of legs, of course [laughter]. Anyway, and I know them, the full grown ones, I know them.
Then once I saw something that looked like one, but it was so much smaller and it was on the wall of the house. It was crawling up the house. I was like, “What’s that?” And I did what you tell me to do, you’ve taught me to do, which is I went and researched. Sure enough, they look identical throughout their life, but they molt as they become adults, they molt and they leave behind an old shell, so to speak [laughter]. Yeah. So, it was just a youngster. It was like a miniature.
Andy: Yeah. It is. It’s totally fascinating. Like I said, every day, there’s just always something new and different just to see.
Margaret: Yeah. One time when you visited my garden years ago, we were doing, I think, a program together. We were walking in the garden and you said, “Oh, look at that such-and-such caterpillar.” And I was like, “What? What?” [Laughter.]
Andy: Yeah. I remember that. Yeah.
Margaret: Right. It was a caterpillar that looks like a stick. And it was on a twiggy branch of a tree, of a shrub. It just looked like another twig, and the common name is stick caterpillar of some moth, a Geometrid moth, I guess, and you saw it right away. So, that was like hiding in plain sight, that sort of cryptic thing. So, I think a lot of your images are about that, too.
Andy: They are. That leads me to start looking at other things. And you start looking at how do caterpillars defend themselves? Camouflage is a big way. If you look at some of the caterpillars on the trees in your yard, some have markings, they look like the edge of a leaf that’s been chewed by other insects. If you put that next to the chewed part of a leaf, that caterpillar would almost mimic the exact colors of that chewed leaf.
The stick caterpillar, it does look like a short cut-off, broken-off branch. It’s just so amazing that these creatures have evolved to find these ways to protect themselves by being eaten by birds or some other type of predator, or hide from parasitic wasps and flies.
Margaret: To hide in plain sight, to go about their eating and other things without being eaten.
Margaret: And so many moths, I mean, so many moths, we see all those moths, they’re sort of nondescript looking, they’re not wildly patterned, colorful or whatever. Because they spend the daytime, when somebody might find them and gobble them up, they spend the daytime on rocks or bark of a tree or some of them on moss, and they kind of look like that. They have the pattern of where they want to hide in daylight a lot of times.
Andy: Yeah. I think for me, too, for some of these insects that, just being in the nursery industry for so long, I never had an affection for borer insects.
Margaret: Yeah. I wonder why [laughter].
Andy: So many of them are moths. And a lot of these really fancy-looking moths that I didn’t know until I saw one, one time on of flower and I didn’t know what it was. So, I took obviously lots and lots of photos and then figured out what it was. I was just totally amazed. It was the most delicate, furry moth, and it did not look like your normal moth. But it had clear spots in its wings and it had these really elaborate antennae, and very furry legs.
That just made me want to look for other types of borer insects. We’ve talked before about sawflies, and how much we love sawflies [laughter], even though they destroy my pines and birch and such, but they’re a incredibly fascinating group of creatures.
I think I just recently posted something, a sawfly, because I saw this tiny little insect, looked like a small wasp–sawflies are related to wasps, same family. It turned out to be a female birch sawfly. I thought she was just sitting on a leaf. But then when I got down closer and started taking photos, I realized that she was actually laying eggs all along the margin of this birch leaf [above, in process; below, the result]. There was just these little pockets you could see that she’s inserted an egg between the layers of the leaf.
It was just, again, one of those moments, it was like, “Wow, this is unbelievable. This is going on right here in this two foot tall birch tree in my field next to my house.”
Margaret: Well, and that each species has these very specific– in the same way that each bird species has a nest type, and I always wonder, “How did the next generation learn to make this shape or size of nest?” You know what I mean? My mind is just blown by those questions. Where’s the book that taught them how to do this [laughter]?
Andy: That’s right.
Margaret: You know what I mean?
Andy: I know, yeah.
Margaret: Who handed down this knowledge? Is it genetically coded or something? So, you see these things and you think things like that. So, speaking of things that kind of hiding in plain sight, or being cryptic or physical appearance and how it serves creatures in the world. You just posted on Instagram, I think it was a fly that looks like a hornet [below], but it’s not a hornet or whatever, this sort of mimicry thing going on.
Andy: Yeah. Mimicry, that’s another, as you said, rabbit hole that you can go down and stay there for quite a while. I’ve seen these flies before, but every year, I can’t help myself but take another photo. Because you can always get a different angle, different shot, close up of the eyes. Yeah.
It’s a type of fly. It’s called the bald-faced hornet fly. And as the name suggests, it is an amazing mimic of the nasty bald-faced hornet that builds those big paper nests that you often see, and that used to terrorize me when I was at the nursery [laughter], I was inspecting, accidentally, get too close to one and they would hunt you down.
Margaret: They protect their home base for sure.
Andy: They’re very good protectors. But this fly just, it’s black and white, it’s got the markings on there, its abdomen that look like the hornet. But it has two wings, Diptera, which is what flies are in, and they’re classified in the Diptera. So, Diptera referring to the two wings as opposed to four wings of the hornet. So, that’s a good way to tell. But you can tell a little bit the way it flies that it’s not a hornet, but sitting on a flower or on a leaf, from somewhat of a distance, it definitely has a look of that hornet. Yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. So, if I’m a fly, why do I want to look like a hornet?
Margaret: So, it says to some bird who might want to bite me and swallow me. It says, “Uh-uh, I’m going to hurt you.”
Andy: That’s right. Yeah. There are others that mimic bumblebees. I may post one eventually. I want to see if I can take more photos of it. It’s a little small, but it’s black and yellow, which the striping on the abdomen and looks just like a small bumblebee.
Then another fascinating insect that I actually had never seen till I moved to Maine, but I think they’re around, is called a mantisfly. It looks like the cross between a praying mantis and a wasp. I mean, it has these front legs that look like the front legs of a praying mantis and it flies. It’s the coloration of a paper wasp, and it mimics a paper wasp, it has the striping, some subtle striping on the abdomen, flies just like a wasp, but looks like this creature that should not belong here. I’m totally fascinated. I spent hours following it, trying to get decent photos of it.
Margaret: Yeah, that coloration, that sort of often black and yellow that, I think they say aposematic coloration, that warning coloration is kind of a universal signal to predators that, “You don’t want to bite me. You don’t want to taste me. I’m not good to eat. In fact, I might hurt you.” Kind of, right?
Margaret: It’s sort of a universal… The way we have black and yellow road signs. It always makes me laugh that we have those black and yellow signs for curves in a road or warning or whatever, we use the same colors [laughter].
Andy: Yeah. I know. That’s true.
Margaret: So, let’s talk about some plants. You do have an obsession with plants, obviously, I mean, you started out in school, you actually even studied micropropagation, tissue culture, speaking of tiny little bits of things to look at, laboratory microscope kind of stuff. But you have a particular obsession with–and I mean that in a loving way, Andy, not critical [laughter]–with plants of the spring woodland, I think including Epimedium, I mean, you’ve grown how many different kinds of Epimedium?
Andy: Over 150 probably.
Margaret: Because…you couldn’t help yourself?
Andy: Yeah. It’s just one of those… I just fell in love with them and they were easy to grow, they grew in the conditions I had, dry shade. And they flowered early. They had really awesome foliage. Some were spreading, groundcovers. Some were clump-formers. Some were pretty much evergreen through a good part of December, January in Connecticut. The deer didn’t eat them for the most part, which was always a benefit. They were just, yeah, you could plant them and with very little care, have great success with them.
I was always fascinated when Dan Hinkley from Heronswood, and Darrell Probst from Garden Vision, they brought in so many awesome new species that they introduced from their marvelous travels in Asia, various parts. I think that whole story kind of sucked me into them as well. They literally, no pun intended, grew on me [laughter] and I just had to each one and it’s just a great, great hobby to collect those.
But yeah, I do love, I’m fond of woodland plants in general, and have a lot of those spring ephemerals.
Margaret: Yeah. Lately, or not lately, but and additionally, you’re a lover of milkweeds, like monarch butterflies, you’re a lover of milkweeds.
Margaret: You were talking to me about how there’s a milkweed species for so many different habitats. It’s not just of the meadow, so to speak.
Andy: Yeah. That’s what I really love about them. For the most part, many of them really do prefer full sun situations. Some are spreading, that are pretty aggressive, like our native syriaca, the common milkweed that you see in meadows throughout the region. But the butterfly weed, the Asclepias tuberosa, the bright orange flower, wonderful plant, couple feet tall, grows in meadows, wonderful nectar plant for not just monarchs and other butterflies, but all kinds of types of pollinators.
I learned about poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, which actually does well in high-canopy shade situations. Actually, when you find it in the wild, that’s a typical situation where you’ll find it, is under… It’ll tolerate some shade, which was great.
Then you have swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata, below at seed dispersal time], which if you have a wet site in your yard, perfect. Then you can get into a lot of… There’s so many species, native to other parts of the U.S., that are fun to try with interesting flowers. Then the seedpods are pretty fascinating.
Margaret: Well, and that’s what I want to spend our last four or five minutes on, I want to talk about seed dispersal, because some of the photos, besides your crazy photos in the winter of the bubbles in a puddle on the ground, a frozen puddle [below], and all these faces that you see in the ice and things like that, which just are great. And some of your photos of reflections in water and so forth. But ones that I love in particular are of seed dispersal of, as you say, “taking flight,” like the milkweed pod opening and the seed taking flight and those types of journeys of the next generation and so forth. So, let’s just talk a little bit about seed dispersal. That is a fascination of yours, right?
Andy: It is. In milkweeds, that is pretty amazing. With the milkweeds, I played a lot with lighting with those and trying to backlight the pods as they were splitting open, and those seeds were starting to emerge from those pods. They’re very light and fluffy. They have almost like parachutes when they take off, and the slightest wind takes them and gets them up high into the air. But backlit, they just shine, and they have this silky texture to them that sometimes you get multi-colors in that silk, which is quite fascinating to me, the way that… It’s a combination of the lighting and the camera.
But that just takes you thinking about how other seeds are dispersed. You can look at lupines, here in Maine, lupines are everywhere for the most part. They split open, and actually their seeds get tossed a little bit as they split open. Then they twist and they look almost like a helix the way they dry seedpods, and these perfect black seeds inside.
In the garden, looking at Jeffersonia, and that’s has a really fascinating seed capsule. It’s this capsule replaces the flower and it has this rim as the seed capsule matures, it opens up and it reveals these mahogany shiny seeds inside this cup-like structure and that cap lifts off this hinge. Then the seeds are just, as the stem breaks down a little bit more, the wind blows these seeds are then dispersed onto the ground for the next generation to begin to germinate and start the following spring.
But it’s just amazing the different techniques that plants use. How those pods open up, and to catch them in different times, just starting to open, fully open. I love dandelions [laughter], for their early flowers, for pollinators, when the first flower, so many of our early bee species are native bees. But when you look at that perfect brown seedhead, when you look at it close, which a lot of my photos are pretty close macro photos, it’s gorgeous.
Then put some different sunlight on it from different angles, they take on this just beautiful character to them. It makes you think, when you see those milkweed seeds flying, it’s like, where is that going to eventually end up? Is it going to germinate, and start a new patch somewhere else? Or is it going to be eaten by some small mammal? Who knows? But that’s the way my brain is thinking when I… It’s not just looking at them and taking a photo, but just what’s going to happen with these seeds? What’s the journey?
Margaret: Well, indeed. What’s the journey of those of us human types going out into the world and maybe slowing down our journey [laughter] and bothering to look and taking some pictures and so forth. So, I mean, we’re out of time, but I just want to say that we should be taking time to do, follow your inspiration,. People can find more on Instagram, @andyjbrand, is that right?
Andy: Yes, that’s it. I’d love to get people’s. I try to respond to a lot of people when I can, just because I enjoy that and I enjoy people’s enthusiasm for the natural world.
Margaret: Well, thanks for turning us on to it today. And I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 29, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).