Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Big Leaf Out. It's All About the Trees

The leafing out of the trees is underway. By early April many trees and shrubs are already showing their greenery here in North Georgia, creating a stunning canopy of fresh foliage. Do you enjoy watching leaves emerge in spring as much as the vibrant flowers? This spring I began to really pay closer attention to the beauty of this process. Each day I walk our woods and observe the new leaves and flowers appearing on the trees.  This is the street view looking toward the woods from a southerly direction. The majestic trees make one feel very small in this wondrous world.

Leaves have been breaking bud and unfurling their leaves for several weeks now. The tree canopy is already peppered with green from the hickory, sweetgum and tulip poplar trees. The oaks, beech and sycamores are not far behind.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) is one of several hickories common in our woods and one of the first of the big trees to begin to show its leaves.  The buds are fascinating to watch emerge.

Hickory leaves unfurling

These leaves are food for the larval of several moths including Luna and Regal.
See my post on these showy moths here.

As if someone is handing you a bouquet of leaves

Within a week the tree is full of luscious lime green leaves and the tree canopy is beginning to fill in. This is where many birds and insects hangout in early spring.

Hickory leaves

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) trees are abundant at the woodland edge. They are fast growing and establish themselves in abandoned pastures and clear-cut areas. The leaflets are soft and attractive contrasting those fat, piercing thorns.

Black Locust leaves with thorns

This member of the legume family is a nitrogen fixer and grows in nutrient poor soils. Also a good tree for erosion control and with our sometimes steeply sloped property is welcome. Bonus is the flowers support bees and those thorns, well let's just say its good security.

Locust leaves and flower bud

The tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), a member of the magnolia family, synchronizes its leaf emergence with the first sighting of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. These dainty leaves will serve as larval host of the Tuliptree Silkmoth and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.

emerging leaves of Tulip Poplar

The tulip shaped leaves grow almost as quickly as my children, as my son is demonstrating in this photo.

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is commencing its leaf out, while still holding on to a few of its marcescent leaves. As new growth emerges the faded leaves gently fall to the forest floor sometimes scooped up by the wind and sent drifting off further into the woods.

American Beech

Beech trees are very shade tolerant and generally one of the later emerging leaves in our woods. Together with Sugar Maples they are an indication of a climax succession in a hardwood forest.

prominent lateral veining on Beech

A Boxelder (Acer negundo), which prefers moist conditions and generally found in floodplains, has established itself along a runoff area deep in the woods. This understory tree normally prefers sunnier conditions but seems to be content in this location.

Male flowers on Boxelder tree
The leaves emerge concurrently with the dioecious flowers as shown in the photo above. The young leaves are said to resemble those of poison ivy.

Boxelder leaves

What say you? Would you mix these two up? Maybe, if it was a seedling coming up through the leaf litter.

poison ivy leaves

The palmate lobed leaves of the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) tree are just starting to show themselves on the lower branches. This is a pioneer plant, growing quickly and taking over a disturbed area. It is well established on our property, once farmland with acres of open fields.

Sweetgum leaflets

Looking up the monoecious flowers are already blooming amid the more mature star shaped leaves that receive more sunshine. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will visit these blooms for nectar.

Sweetgum flowers and star shaped leaves

A typical stream bank species, Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) trees are long lived and rival the tulip poplar for height; however, the Sycamore has a much thicker trunk.

Female flower (red bud)on Sycamore
Simple leaves emerge after flowering has begun and will provide a wide canopy with its broad leaves.

Sycamore leaves with flowers
A mature sycamore stands at the edge of the woods on the Northeast side of our home. I'm rather in love with this tree for its fabulous exfoliating, mottled bark, which in my book rivals the South's revered Crape Myrtle any day. Plus watching the leaves dance and sway in the wind is very calming.

Newly emerged Sycamore leaves with male & female flowers

Trees are naturally gorgeous. They are inviting, protecting and endearing. Their leaves get most attention in fall when they bring vibrant color to the landscape but I think they are just as spectacular in spring when they are newly emerged.  I encourage you to get out and do a leaf walk and see what new discoveries you find.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Buds, Bees, Butterflies and Blueberries

It is easy to get spring fever when the garden starts to show the first signs of color, and I am eager to shake off winter. Tender buds are bursting open on each new day, fresh foliage is pushing its way up from the sweet earth, days grow longer and the sun shines brighter. But spring is not a season we enter into lightly in Georgia. It is a roller coaster ride with extreme peaks, gentle dips and sharp turns. I have a real urge to plant, but I know that it is best to tip toe through March because the threat of frost still looms. And yet the warm, sunny 80 degree days brings out the pollinators to visit the blooms and my heart is full.

Redbud tree with Swallowtail butterfly

The Eastern Redbuds stand tall at the edge of the stark woods, which is still waiting for foliage to leaf out and provide a opulent canopy. These small yet sturdy trees are a powerhouse of pink, covered with vivid blooms from top to bottom, even exploding out of the trunk.

Bumblebee on redbud blooms

This early blooming native tree is a package of happiness in our garden, attracting a variety of bees and butterflies to its dainty flowers.

Our 15 blueberry shrubs (yes, 15 and I still want more!) begin their bloom period this month. Their pastel buds bring renewed energy to the kitchen garden, catching the evening light glowing gorgeously as the sun gently sets each evening.

rabbiteye blueberry buds

I can hear the loud buzzing of the bees that cover the blueberry blooms, before I even reach the kitchen garden. These bees are essential to successful berry production because blueberry pollen is sticky and heavy and can't move on its own. Rabbiteye blueberries are native to Georgia and we now lead the nation in production, beating out Michigan, traditionally regarded as the blueberry capital of the country.

Southeastern blueberry bee
The Southeastern blueberry bees are a native pollinator that resemble bumblebees, but can be distinguished by their yellow face. Using buzz pollination, they are busy pollinators specializing in blueberries, but will also visit other native, early spring blooms such as Redbuds and Carolina Jessamine.

Butterflies are also a fan of the blueberry's sweet nectar. I adore how they hang upside down and cling to the drooping blooms, inserting their proboscis and drinking effortlessly.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on blueberry blooms

Based on the pollinators who are visiting the blueberries, I think I'm safe in saying that we will have another fruitful harvest this year.

Another fruit tree that has burst into its spring glory is the peach tree. Blooms range from pale pink to dark blush. These too are a pollinator favorite even though they don't requiring pollination services to produce fruit (self-pollinating). However, nectar-collecting insects will help move pollen subsequently assisting in fertilization.

This Eastern Tiger swallowtail continually returned to visit the peach blossoms, diving freely into the flowers. Enjoying the sun-kissed day.

Other recurrent visitors are beetles, native bees and honeybees. Notice the pollen covering the thorax and abdomen of this beetle as it bustles about the stamen and pistal. Fruit production is underway.

While seedlings are growing indoors, planting will wait until April and my fingers will feel the richness of the soil soon enough. So, as we gingerly march through this blissful season, I am delighting in each sweet sign of spring. The buds, the bees, the butterflies and of course the blueberries!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Lessons Learned this Winter

This winter I got off my laurels and took a closer look at what the somnolent winter season had to offer. Keep in mind that I'm not generally a cold weather person. And I know you folks in more northern climates are giggling, but the brief winter is one of the [many] things I love about living in Georgia. The time when I can't be out toiling in the garden is just short enough to catch up on some housekeeping chores, such as cataloging my photos, cleaning up the potting shed, planing for next year's garden and doing some winter sowing, and then it's back to digging in the dirt.

Oakleaf hydrangea providing long season of color

Capricious is the best word to describe this winter. Slow to get underway, it always seemed that winter was wrangling with Mother Nature. Bloom times were out of sync because the weather was sending the wrong messages. The sweet lullaby that put the plants to slumber was brief, like a toddler fighting nap time.

Blanket Flower emerging in January

Overwintering pollinators were spotted unexpectedly in the garden on warm winter days. Arising to enjoy the fine weather too.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly fluttering in December

Without any frost and balmy weather, flowers persisted well into January and some blooms on spring plants emerged. The Georgia garden community was all a buzz, pondering if we would see these blooms again in Spring. What would happen when the pollinators emerge and there would be no spring nectar / pollen sources to be found? Turns out all is well. The native plants in our garden have proved to be full of blooms this spring.

Phlox blooming in December
So the off season blooms provided a little something for those brave pollinators who buzzed and fluttered around in the midst of winter.

This winter, I took a closer look at the mystical beech trees that hold onto their leaves all winter long in my post Beech~A Winter Standout. I found a real beauty in these marcescent leaves, which brought a new splendor to the quiet winter woods.

I also observed that bluebirds will overcome their shyness and visit backyard feeders when other food sources are scarce, if you provide the right feeders and food in my post Feeding Bluebirds in Winter. Bluebirds always take my breath away. Their vivid blue feathers catch my eye and mesmerize me. As long as someone would serve me coffee, I could gaze at them all day!

Winter is also a great time to observe the needs of wildlife. I examined the feeding holes of the yellow-bellied sapsucker woodpeckers and took a look at the role of snags in Wildlife Trees.

The Farmer's Almanac predicted the weather to be 'wet and chilly' in the Southeast. I didn't find it to be so. In fact it was a pretty mild winter, which proved useful in our clean up on our recently purchased property. Fighting invasive plants such as privet, Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu, Bradford Pear trees among others has proven to be a grueling task. It will take much more than this winter to complete this clean-up and subsequent restoration. Here is a glimpse at what we are facing.

Japanese Honeysuckle vine

Some trees can't even be saved. While, we are desperately trying to rescue others from these aggressive invaders.

tree girdled by honeysuckle vine

It has been a busy and productive winter. Less rest than most years, but I feel a huge sense of accomplishment in the progress we've made in our clean-up efforts. We are now actually able to walk through parts of the property and see the topography of the land. Exciting times are ahead.

I am joining Beth over at Plant Postings for a seasonal review in Lessons Learned.