Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, July 25, 2016

More Than A Hummingbird Feeder

During the hot, sultry days of summer, when most of us are melting from the heat, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are full of energy, racing around as if it were the Indy 500. I often hear them screech to a halt and reverse course, chasing one another wildly from one end of the garden to the other. The hummers stop to refuel at many of the plants that have been included in our garden design specifically for them. However, we also hang several feeders so we can enjoy watching them from various vantage points around the garden.

The tray style feeders are a favorite with the hummers plus they are easy to clean, which is a bonus. The baby hummers have fledged their nests by this time, so the numbers in our garden have increased over the past few weeks. The young hummers are infrequent visitors to the feeders as the males expend extraordinary energy defending their nectar sources. They are greedy gents not willing to sharing with fellow hummers. Placing multiple feeders out of sight of one another gives the females and juveniles a better chance of getting to the feeders.

These feeders are not only used by hummingbirds. Several species of small songbirds such as chickadees, goldfinches, warblers, and house finches are known to appreciate a sweet sip. Some even use the ant moat as their personal water hole.

Carolina chickadee drinking from hummingbird feeder

Several species of butterflies also appreciate the convenience of these feeders. I mostly observe butterflies here, who are not traditional nectar feeders, like the red spotted purple butterfly, who prefers sap, rotting fruit, and carrion (to each their own!). 

Red-spotted purple butterfly

cloudless sulphur butterfly
Take a look at your hummingbird feeders. Are they doing double duty too? You may be surprised to discover a multiplicity of visitors.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Garden Study: Insects' Favorite Blooms

Summer is peak insect season and as a habitat gardener, observing how the pollinators use our garden is important in gaining insight into how well the native plants are working in our ecosystem. Part of this process is documenting which blooms are being visited by pollinators over the course of the day/month/season.

While some plants have a special relationship with one pollinator, other plants are very popular with a wide variety of insects.  Last summer, I highlighted a few of the plants that attract many beneficial pollinators to our garden, including devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). (Read: Not All Plants Are Created Equally ) Here are a few more plants that are invaluable to pollinators in our garden.

Not all plants that attract pollinators grow in the sun. Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is a key nectar source in the shadier parts of our garden. Blooms are covered with several species of bees and beetles, who dine amicably on this open buffet. Bumblebees maneuver themselves around the creamy white flowers so rapidly it's difficult to capture a decent photo.

Swallowtail butterflies are constant visitors, morning to dusk, to the summer blooming bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) flowers. Another shade loving shrub, this is one of three species growing in our garden. Others include red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), one of the best plants at attracting hummingbirds and one of the first red tubular shaped flowers of the season, and painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica), also an early spring bloomer with white tubular blooms.

Bottlebrush buckeye also attracts bumblebees, wasps and hummingbirds. Bees and wasps hang onto the wand-like panicles to reach into the trumpet to retrieve nectar.

Watching the insects moving around the flower as they dangle and swing through the inflorescence is like watching 'American Ninja Warrior' competition for pollinators.

blue mud dauber

Narrow-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) flowers are alive with dancing pollinators. A spectacular variety of bees, butterflies, wasps and moths call on the showy blooms that have a long bloom period throughout the summer.

Variegated fritillary butterfly and bumblebee
Variegated fritillary and Pearl Crescent butterflies
Bumblebee hugging mountain mint bloom

Pearl Crescent butterfly
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a popular milkweed choice, is an ecosystem unto itself. I've written about this milkweed previously (Read: Got Milkweed) but would be remiss if I didn't include it here because it is covered with bees and butterflies throughout the summer season.

Monarchs butterflies usually visit our garden during their Spring and Fall migration, but milkweed blooms provide nectar to other pollinators during the summer months and also serve as a host plant for the milkweed tussock moth and food source for milkweed bugs.

With more homeowners wanting to support monarchs the demand for milkweed plants has increased dramatically, hence more and more nurseries have it available. This is good news for the monarchs and other beneficial pollinators; however, it is important to know if the plants you are purchasing have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids, a systemic chemical that is distributed through all parts of the plant including the pollen and nectar. The intention is to prevent infestation of sucking and chewing 'pests' such as white flies, emerald ash borer, and Japanese beetles, but it is also detrimental to important pollinators who visit the plant's blooms seeking nectar. If you grow treated plants in your garden you will be doing more harm than good to the pollinator populations.

So, where is the pollinator party in your garden? Have you ever considered observing the diversity of pollinators that visit the plants in your garden? Try comparing native plants versus ornamental plants or straight species versus hybrids and discover what are the hardest working plants in your garden. Then plant more of them!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Celebrating Pollinators~The Keystone of our Gardens

Ah, the summer heat and humidity has arrived, making it a real challenge to do any serious gardening. Watering. Weeding. Walking. the garden is about all that gets done on these sweltering days. I prefer to get out at dawn about the time the wren sings his first song. This gives me a few hours to complete the necessary garden chores before I melt away. But, no matter how early I get outside the bumblebees and hummingbirds are already hurrying about their day with some serious oomph. The full service pollinator buffet that is our garden is open.

This week is National Pollinator Week. A week to celebrate all pollinators and their vital role in our ecosystems. This year I decided to share some of our native plants and native hybrids that attract and support bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, birds, moths, and ants in our garden.

Blanket flower, butterfly weed, hypericum, golden alexander,  passiflora incarnata
The photo above is our front walk. We are south facing and this area gets lots of sun plus heat off the brick of the house. Despite the harsh conditions these plants thrive here providing nectar sources, host plants and shelter for bees and butterflies. I often see lizards and anoles skulking about. Birds love to perch in the black locust 'twisty baby' before descending to the ground to pick up an insect to feed their young.

As our garden has evolved I have endeavored to plant communities that are not only appealing to the eye but service the pollinators so (1) they don't have to travel to another garden seeking nectar sources and (2) provide bloom sequences to keep them in our garden throughout the year.

Here is a hot color combo that makes an impact and attracts bees and butterflies. Blanket flowers are low growing and easy for smaller butterflies and bees to access. Butterfly weed provides some height and brings in bigger butterflies in the swallowtail family and the monarchs.

blanket flower with butterfly weed
Milkweed plants not only host monarch butterflies but, milkweed tussock moths, milkweed bug and aphids, an important food source for syrphid fly larva and lady beetles. (Read: Got Milkweed

Another delightful combination is the pastel colors of yarrow, echinacea and  buttonbush. In addition to the vibrant color, this combo offers texture. The shape of the cones on the echinacea are echoed in button bush flowers. These blooms attract an array of bees and butterflies.

Cephalanthus occidentalis, Echinacea, Achillea

If you have the right conditions (moist to wet/sunny) Cephalanthus occidentalis is essential for a pollinator garden. (Read more: Bodacious Button Bush).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoying Buttonbush blooms

The tall and bold rudbeckia maxima is a ravishing addition to a wildflower garden, naturalized area or cottage garden. The big blue basal leaves are attractive unto themselves but when the giant stalks rise up and tower over the surrounding plants, in my case monarda, goldenrod 'fireworks' and Georgia aster, it becomes a real conversation piece. The tall cones attract butterflies and later in the autumn, goldfinches will land on the tall stalks to forage seeds.

Rudbeckia maxima

This dramatic coneflower is in a class of its own and in my opinion not seen in gardens enough. Wouldn't they make lovely cut flowers too! But maybe its most endearing feature is that deer don't like them.

the developing blooms of Rudbeckia maxima

Vines are a fabulous way to get even more gardening real estate by growing your garden vertically. Tubular blooms like this clematis texensis are enjoyed by our hummingbirds while adding striking color and shape to move your eye upward.

Clematis texensis 'Princess Diana'
Angularfruit milkvine is a high climbing vine in the milkweed family. I picked this plant up a few years ago at our State Botanical Garden's native plant sale. Like other plants in the milkweed family, this is host to the monarch butterfly caterpillars, milkweed tussock moth caterpillars and nymphs of the milkweed bug.

Angularfruit milkvine

It grows in well drained soil in an open woodland setting. The primary visitors are flies and butterflies who prefer to visit rotting fruit, tree sap and manure such as the Red Spotted Purple, Red Admiral, Viceroy and Question Mark. But don't let this deter you, the attractive star shaped blooms and heart shaped leaves are an attractive addition to a garden.

star shaped blooms of Angularfruit milkvine

Passiflora incarnata is a staple vine in our garden. It serves as host plant for the Gulf and Variegated Fritillary butterflies. The showy flowers provide nectar for the adult butterflies but are also adored by carpenter bees, who often get so drunk on the nectar they roll off the blooms.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly on passiflora incarnta bloom

Our meadow garden is a pollinator haven. Not only do all the plants here provide nectar sources for a variety of native pollinators, they also help to restore an area of the garden that was dry exposed clay.

Rudbeckia hirta

Blooming in June is Rudbeckia hirta, Hyssop, Partridge Pea, Bergamot, Yellow Coneflower and Switch Grass. The lavendar blooms of Bergamot are faithfully visited by our hummingbirds, day flying moths and bees. Switch grass has quickly become a favorite of mine. It is an attractive companion to most wildflowers and its stiff stems standup well, especially in winter, and provide a dense cover for wildlife.

Bergamot with Switch Grass
Prairie Gayfeather has been difficult to establish in our garden because the voles like to feed on the corms. So far this year a few plants have survived, surprisingly since the voles have eaten so many other plants in our garden. The blooms on this blazing star have a host of visitors including long-tongued bees, bee flies, diurnal moths and a variety of butterflies including swallowtails, painted ladies and skippers.

Liatris spicata
Long-tongued bees are the primary visitor to the Partridge Pea, including bumblebees, leaf cutting bees and long horned bees. The bumblebees are particularly amusing to watch as they circle around inside the bloom collecting pollen and nectar.

bumblebee visiting Partridge Pea
In late summer we welcome the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, who lays her eggs on partridge pea making this plant an all around winner by providing nectar for pollinators, seeds for birds, leaves for caterpillars and effective erosion control and soil fertility.

Wildflower meadow with partridge pea &  rudbeckia
Pollinators are what hold our gardens together. Because let's face it, without them our blooms wouldn't go to seed and create the plant communities we love. Seed and fruit loving birds would go hungry. Nesting birds would loose their primary food source for their babies and our kitchen gardens would be barren. Here at Southern Meadows, we celebrate pollinators everyday because they are the keystone to our thriving ecosystem. We just can't live without them!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Dark Side of Butterfly Releases

The popularity of public grounds to include gardens for butterflies and the desire of well meaning organizations to educate the public on ways to support butterfly conservation has seen an increase in the beloved activity of releasing butterflies. In my neck of the woods alone there have been three butterfly releases in the past two weeks. One such annual event, now in its 20th year, brought hundreds of eager children to a nearby park to partake in the release of 1,500 painted lady butterflies. When my children were younger we participated in this event thinking that it would be a joyous experience. We were far from awestruck. In fact that was the last time we ever partook in such an event, until this past weekend.

A new butterfly garden was dedicated at Lake Lanier Olympic Park on the heels of the Pan American championships,the Olympic qualifiers. The release was held during my sons' paddling club end of season races. Most certainly it was scheduled at this time because there were a few hundred children at the venue that day. Of course I had to check out the garden and hence was handed a butterfly in a triangular envelope. I was very tentative because of my previous experience at a butterfly release. Albeit it skeptical, I thought I would give it another try.  Sadly, it was another disheartening experience and hence I am writing this post.

So what is the down side to a butterfly release?

The magical scene where thousands of majestic butterflies go fluttering up in the air beautifying the sky with their fluttering wings is a scene only found in movies. It simply is not the reality of such an event. These butterflies have been purchased from commercial breeders, usually from other parts of the country, such as California, who ship hundreds of butterflies overnight for events such as weddings, memorials, dedications and fundraisers.

Mail order butterflies are placed in envelopes which are packed in an insulated box with an ice pack to keep them in a state of forced hibernation for shipping. When the envelopes are opened by eager children and adults the butterflies are stunned, sometimes dead or almost near death. Imagine being locked in a dark, freezing room for 24 hours, and then released into bright sunlight in a crowd of monsters. If you survived, at best, you would be disoriented and dazed too.

Open envelope to find dead butterfly

Children anxious to see the butterflies flutter away, poke at them to encourage flight, while the misunderstood butterflies are trying desperately to gain some energy. Many of the butterflies land on the ground struggling for their life. They are accidentally stepped on by little feet and big feet alike. Attending my first ever butterfly release, I was horrified to witness dead butterflies littering the ground after the crowd had dispersed. The lucky ones who made it to the blooms desperately sipped nectar in a struggle for survival.

And if this heartbreaking event is not bad enough, the ceremonial release of butterflies, in truth is a practice that poses serious risk to local wild butterfly populations. Commercially grown butterflies present a serious threat to wild populations by rapidly spreading disease, such as Ophryocystis, a devastating parasite which can wipe out entire colonies.

New York Times, Sept. 15, 1998. Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, and one of the few scientists sudying Monarch diseases says "In natural populations there are all sorts of parasites present that aren't a problem until you do captive breeding at high densities in close quarters. In addition, many people raise caterpillars on drugs that can suppress diseases caused by protozoa and bacteria but not eliminate them. When such apparently healthy butterflies are released, they can act as carriers, spreading disease."

Monarchs, Painted Ladies, American Ladies, Red Admirals, Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries and Heliconians are allowed to be shipped under regulations of the USDA. Some of these butterflies are not naturally found in all parts of the United States, making it even more inappropriate to release them. Several organizations, including Georgia's own Calloway Gardens, have stated that they oppose the practice of butterfly releases. You can view their statements here.

So, while many organizations and participants of butterfly releases may view such an event as a celebration of nature and completely harmless to the environment, the reality is that this practice should be stopped. There are many other ways to educate the public on the benefits of butterflies than this misguided practice.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Butterfly Gardening: a new book by The Xerces Society

Have you heard? There is a new book out on gardening for butterflies. A book that is worthy to sit on every gardener's shelf and referenced frequently.

Spicebush Swallowtail visiting butterfly weed
Gardening for butterflies has been trending in the gardening world for many years. I have given presentations to garden clubs, master gardeners, mom's groups and other garden organization on gardening for butterflies and moths. I love educating on this topic!  Gardening for butterflies is what I consider the gateway to gardening for all wildlife. If people get hooked on attracting butterflies to their garden and see all the joy and life it brings, they will soon graduate to gardening for bees and other beneficial insects.

Spring Azure

But despite people's enthusiasm for butterflies they, like many other insects, are in peril. I have noticed in my own garden, that butterfly populations fluctuate from year to year. Some years I have an abundance of a certain species, while other years there seems to be more diversity. Mounting evidence is showing that butterflies as a whole, not just the Monarchs, have been in decline at exceptional rates.

Monarch on Ageratum
When you consider that just one in ten butterflies makes it to adulthood, habitat loss and use of insecticides makes their survival even more challenging. To encourage gardeners to plant more to support butterflies, the Xerces Society recently published a new book Gardening for Butterflies. My friend, Penny, gifted this book to me as an early birthday present.

The forward, written by Robert Michael Pyle of Gray's River, Washington pens that "by nurturing, enriching, and diversifying your own habitat of home, you are taking part in real butterfly conservation."

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Carolina Jessamine
This comprehensive book begins with why butterflies (moths and other beneficial insects) matter, then moves on to the butterfly life cycle and different butterfly families.  An entire section of the book focuses on how to design a butterfly garden, providing sample plans to put the principles into practice using regionally appropriate plants.  Examples include a rain garden and upland habitat, xeriscape garden, multi-use backyard garden, meadow and roadside habitat.

Question Mark finding minerals in sandy soil in driveway

A large part of the book consists of native plant profiles, which support butterflies. Beyond garden design, the authors discuss plant selection, installation and maintenance. I was thrilled to see an entire chapter on gardening for moths included.

Pearl Crescent on coreopsis

And even if you don't have a place to garden at home, the book (and arguably perhaps the most important section) discusses how to get your community to incorporate gardens to support wildlife, be it businesses, college campuses, parks and greenspaces, roadsides and utility corridors, or farms and wild areas.

gray hairstreak on summersweet
All this fabulous information is supported by outstanding photos submitted by Xerces Society members. My fellow gardening friend and native plant advocate, Penny, has several photos featured in the book, a few of which she photographed in my garden. One of the photos is of me in front of (and behind) the camera.

The Xerces Society 'Gardening for Butterflies' page 265

This book will benefit novice and veteran butterfly gardeners alike. Whether you are looking to start a garden that attracts these beautiful creatures or spruce up and expand your established butterfly garden there is information in here for you. Reviewing the best plants for butterfly gardens (by region), I found that there are still a few plants I need to add to our garden.

Eastern Tiger swallowtail on buttonbush
Butterfly gardeners ARE changing the world. How much impact your garden will have to prevent butterflies from disappearing depends on what plants you incorporate in your landscape plan.

(Note: the butterfly photos appearing in this post are mine and do not appear in the book) 

Gardening for Butterflies can be purchased at The Xerces Society store or Timber Press