Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Different Kind of Butterfly House

Butterfly houses are great places to observe and learn about butterflies. Another stop during our visit to southwest Michigan was a butterfly house at the Sarett Nature Center. Most of the butterfly houses I have visited contain tropical species that we would never see in our American gardens. This butterfly house is different. It housed butterfly species native to North America.

This butterfly house serves as an educational center to local residence, student summer camps, and school field trips by showing them what butterfly species they can attract to their gardens, what nectar plants work best in this region as well as butterflies that they can find in other parts of North America. The butterfly house and plants are made possible by grants from several local organizations and donations.

The butterfly house is a net structure so the conditions inside the butterfly house are the same as outside. Fortunately for us, it had rained that morning and then the sun came out making it humid and sunny. Perfect flight conditions for the butterflies. And they were very active.

I was enamored with a few species that are native to North America but not species I would see in my home garden. The white peacock butterfly's strong hold is in south Florida and Texas where the conditions are more tropical. They are not particularly strong fliers and are less hardy than their cousin the buckeye, which is one I often see in my garden.

white peacock butterfly

Can you see the relation?

buckeye butterfly
Another butterfly found in south Florida is the Julia. It shares the same host plant, passionvine, with the Zebra Heliconian and Gulf Fritillary butterflies.

Julia Butterfly
The Zebra Longwing is another butterfly that is found from southern Florida over to Texas. At night large groups of Zebra longwings roost together on tree limbs.

Zebra longwing
The nature center has a limited license through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This licensing only allows them to have butterflies and these butterflies are not to be released outside the enclosure. That is why there aren't any host plants in the exhibit. But, this doesn't seem to stop the butterflies from trying.

butterflies mating
The nature center orders chrysalis every two weeks from May through the first week of September. Visitors can view the chrysalis through a window. While we were there the docent allowed my children to release some butterflies that had emerged from their chrysalis.

releasing a buckeye butterfly

releasing a Julia butterfly
In addition to nectar plants there are several nectar stations throughout the exhibit. These are made up of a natural sponge soaked in sugar water (4 parts water to 1 part sugar) with a splash of red Gatorade. Apparently, the butterflies like the minerals in the Gatorade drink and, according to the docent, they have tried other colors such as orange Gatorade and red is the favorite.

Oddly, some of the butterflies were very attracted to my son's feet. Not sure if they liked the stinky smell or just the color blue. We had to be very careful walking around because lots of the butterflies hung around in the gravel paths.

This was my first time seeing a Queen butterfly. It is a beautiful chestnut brown color and the white spots reminded me of the monarch butterflies. Like the monarch, Queens use milkweed as a host plant too.

Queen butterfly

One of my favorite swallowtails is the Giant Swallowtail and this one looks like it has been pretty beat up by the weather. It must be challenging to be such a big butterfly trying to maneuver in the winds and rain.

Overall, I was very impressed with this exhibit, although it was heart breaking to see the butterflies trying to reproduce knowing what the outcome would be. This exhibit serves to educate and encourage people to create and preserve the native butterfly habitat which needs all the assistance it can get.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Walk Through a Meadow In Search of Monarchs

On our summer trips to Michigan I am always impressed with how much common milkweed there is. It grows abundantly along the roadsides, in the sand dunes, in rocks along the lake, in the medians of the highways and in many gardens.

It is no wonder that it is here, in the northern states and southern Canada, that the monarchs come to summer. Despite all the common milkweed I see here, there has been a 58% decrease in milkweed numbers across the Midwest between 1999 and 2010 because of herbicide use and loss of habitat (source: University of Minnesota). This has serious consequences for the future of the monarch's migration.

On our most recent visit to Michigan, I had the privilege of touring a family friend's garden. Everything is grown organically here. As impressive as her garden is I was drawn to the meadow that covers a good part of her 14 acres.

The meadow is filled with Queen Anne's Lace intermingled with butterfly weed and common milkweed. Along the edge of the meadow grows ironweed and yarrow.

With all the milkweed I went on a hunt for monarch butterflies, eggs and caterpillars. This is what I discovered on my walk through the meadow.

A beautiful fritillary enjoying the common milkweed blooms. Inspecting the plant I didn't find any monarch eggs or caterpillars or evidence of munching.

Butterfly weed grows abundantly amongst the QAL and lots of pollinators were enjoying the blooms. One of my observations was that there were many more pollinators on the butterfly weed than the QAL. A testament that when insects have a choice they pick the native plants.

I spotted several black and blue butterflies. The black swallowtail were attracted to the QAL, a member of the carrot family, which is one of the host plants for this species.

Black swallowtail (male)
The Spicebush butterfly is also a member of the swallowtail family and I tend to mistake these two. I am not sure why because when you look at them they are indeed very different.

Spicebush Swallowtail
As I continued my search for a monarch, I spotted a glimpse of orange and black fluttering around at the far end of the meadow. Upon my arrival I discovered that it was its mimic, the Viceroy.

Viceroy butterfly

I inspected more milkweed. Still no signs of the monarchs. But a few red milkweed beetles that also feed on common milkweed.

red milkweed beetle

More Queen Anne's Lace. It looks beautiful swaying in the breeze and the birds perched on the tall stalks while hunting insects.

How do you feel about this non-native, biennial plant. It is a wild carrot introduced from Europe and does compete with native plants. Some insects have benefited from its introduction such as the black swallowtail butterfly which has adapted to use it as a host plant. Other insects such as the green lacewing come to the plant to find aphids and bees and butterflies sip on its nectar.

This plant is very abundant in Michigan, even more so than what I see growing in Georgia. It spreads its seeds by wind and is quite invasive.

But, on with the hunt...

More butterfly weed and more butterflies, but still no evidence of the monarchs. I was getting somewhat discouraged. So much milkweed and no monarchs. This spring's cool and wet weather has been hard on all butterfly populations and this doesn't help the situation when the monarchs are already in peril. The monarch populations crashed last summer and this summer the populations started low and have been staying low.

silver checkerspot butterflies
But, as I lifted my head I spotted something hanging on a plant on the other side of the fence, in the neighbor's field.

Could it be...

A sign of hope!

Many of us are doing what we can to help the monarch populations and that has to be worth something! We have to hopeful!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Largest Living Roof

Green roofs have been trendy for sometime now. I have seen a number of living roofs on public and private buildings over the last few years but never on such a scale as the one at Ford's Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. 

The 454,000 square foot roof, roughly the size of 10 regulation size basketball courts, was turned into a 10.4 acre garden. This is the world's largest living roof. The plant underwent a green makeover in 2004 but the primary function of the installation of this green roof was to manage storm runoff. Not only does it collect rainfall but it also helps lower the temperature inside the building by up to 10 degrees. It absorbs up to 4 million gallons of rainwater a year while converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.

The roof is covered in several varieties of sedum. Drought and freeze resistance was a major concern when choosing the plant material. Density of growth and weed control were also considerations. The sedum is planted on a thin 4-layer mat. The first layer contains shale, sand, peat, compost and dolomite for the sedum to grow in. The second layer is made of mineral wool fleece which absorbs water and nourishes the plants. The drainage layer carries excess water off the roof and the waterproof, root resistant membrane protects the roof. Even when soaked with water this vegetation weighs less than 15 pounds per square foot. 

One of the many benefits of this living roof is that it prevents extreme temperature fluctuations (summer temps have been as high as 150 degrees) that affect standard roofs. This is expected to double the life of the membrane roof below the green layers.

One of the challenges for such a large roof is the weight factor. Several have been done in the U.S. but they are very heavy. So the architects looked for solutions to this problem and found an example in East Germany where one had been developed for aircraft hangers as cheap camouflage during the Cold War. From this example the designing began. The beauty of their innovation was that the system only cost $13 million compared to a conventional engineering solution which would have cost between $30-48 million.

Next to the plant is a 16+ acre employee parking lot which is made of porous pavement. This allows rain and snow to seep through the pavement and into underground rock storage basins where it is filtered. The water then flows to nearby swales and natural treatment wetlands for additional filtering before entering the Rouge watershed. It takes 3 days for the water to get to the river now as opposed to 10 minutes under the conventional storm water run-off system.

In the lower left hand corner of the photo above you can see an orchard of fruit trees. There are several beehives in the orchard which house bees to help pollinate the trees. The honey made by the bees is available for sale.

In addition to the human benefits to green-scaping this industrial area it also now provides habitat for birds and insects. According to the docent, birds started nesting within 5 days of the living roof installation. Some of the animals that are seen here are dragonflies, bees, moths, spider wasp, monarch butterflies, bumblebees, killdeer, barn swallows, peregrine falcon, mallards, Canada geese, and robins.

There are also landscaped areas around the plant which include white coneflower, Russian sage, wild grasses, Queen Anne's Lace, American cranberry and cattails.

This green roof system and surrounding plants and watershed makes for a refreshing site among all the gray of the industrial complex and gives new life to this area.

The photos, with the exception of the last two, were taken from the 80 foot high observation room which provides a good view of the Rouge complex and the living roof.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Look at Cotswold Cottage

We are in Michigan visiting family and this week took a walk back in history at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan...

Cotswold Cottage is one of the many historic homes found at Greenfield Village. It was originally built in the 1620's in Chedworth, Gloucestershire in the Cotswold Hills of southwestern England. Henry Ford purchased the cottage, barn, dovecote, forge and fences for $5,000 in 1929. The structures were dismantled; each stone labeled individually, and then packed and shipped to America and reassembled in Michigan.

This was my favorite of all the historic homes. It is warm and welcoming and very picturesque.

The walled flower garden is typical of Victorian gardens. The ideology of the late Victorian era required less maintenance and more natural growth instead of manicured features. Exotics were most popular during the era of colonization. Azalea, hydrangea, peony, hosta, delphinium, aster, lavender, and yarrow are some of the commonly planted perennials.

Filled with happy plants and lots of color. All shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, blue and pink all together work in this garden.

This view looks out toward the barn and dovecote. The dovecote was used to house pigeons or doves. Dovecotes generally contained holes for the birds to nest. Historically, pigeons and dove were an important food source in Western Europe and were kept for eggs, meat and manure. Apparently the manure would fetch a nice price and was used in the tanning of leather. I wonder if they used it in their gardens too.

Clara Ford, the wife of Henry Ford, loved cottage style gardens and was President of the Women's National Farm & Garden Association for many years.

This cottage was built during the first waves of English immigration to the colonies. Limestone was an abundant resource in England and many of the modest homes found in the country were built out of this stone. (If you look at the photo above you can see the Farris Windmill built in the 1600's and said to be the oldest windmill in the United States.)

Look closely at the wall on this side of the house and you can see niches for birds to nest. The roof tiles are all crafted from limestone and the gutter and downspouts are very ornamental.


This building style became a favorite architectural model in America in the 1920's & 30's, especially for homes of the wealthy.

It is a little bit of country cottage heaven, English history and garden eye candy all rolled into one.