Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not All Plants Are Created Equally

Have you noticed how some plants really have it going on? It's pretty evident that not all plants are created equally, especially when it comes to servicing pollinators. Observing the insects flying around our garden they definitely have their favorites. Conversely, not all insects are effective pollinators.

Pollinators on Aralia spinosa
Pollinators on Aralia spinosa

Earlier this summer if you were a pollinator in our garden the Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) was the place to be.  If you are not familiar with this terrific plant you can read more about it here. In bloom now are two other natives that are all the buzz in our garden, Devil's Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). These two fabulous plants have the misfortune of having unbecoming common names; fortunately, however, pollinators aren't intimidated.

Pollinators on Eryngium yuccifolium
Pollinators on Eryngium yuccifolium

Have you ever taken the time to really observe the blooms in your garden through the seasons. In our garden some blooms are shrouded in pollinators while others are ostensibly barren.  Why are some flowers seemingly more attractive than others?

Spicebush Swallowtail on Devils Walking Stick

Plants have developed a partnership with pollinators to ensure cross-pollination. Blooms have a certain shape, color, smell or bloom time which provide signs to pollinators to stop by and visit. Insects, on the other hand, have a vested interest in visiting flowers; to gather nectar and/or pollen and they have special tools to do so. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. But now this begs the question, what are pollinators looking for in a flower?

Gray hairstreak butterfly on Rattlesnake Master
Gray hairstreak butterfly on rattlesnake mater

Some blooms are only serviced by a specific pollinator such as a moth, beetle, fly or solitary bee. These flowers have a distinguishing feature(s) to attract that pollinator and exclude other would-be pollinators. The pollinator too has a certain characteristic(s) which allows it to reach the nectar and/or pollen. So how do flowers appeal to different kinds of insects?

Scent~Some plants produce a fragrance to lure visitors. Bees, moths, flies beetles and bats all have a good sense of smell. Moths are attracted to blooms that have a strong sweet perfume that advertises to them in the darkness. Flies, ants and beetles on the other hand are attracted to strong unpleasant odors that resemble rotting flesh.

Time of Day~ Plants open their blooms to make themselves available to their most effective pollinator. Flower pollination can take place during the day, evening or night time from insects that are day, diurnal, crepuscular or nocturnal. Moths and bats drop in on flowers that open in the evening and night time hours while bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and hummingbirds are daylight flying.

Color~Bees don't see the color red instead they base their color vision on UV blue, green and yellow.  Flowers trying to attract bees often have UV patterns on their petals to guide the bees onto the flower landing platform and then into the flower. This is why you will sometimes see bees on red blooms. Butterflies have good vision and visit brightly colored blooms. Hummingbirds are particularly attracted to red and other vibrant colors while moths and bats prefer blooms that are pale in color which are visible on a moonlit night.

Shape~Flower pollination is aided by the shape of the bloom. Open, bowl shaped flowers are especially used by honeybees, bumblebees and some solitary bees that run around the inside of the flower in a circle to collect pollen. Flat, open flowers like members of the Asteraceae family cater to different types of insects including butterflies, bees and beetles. Tubular flowers are especially attractive to hummingbirds and long tongued insects that can reach deep into the back of the flower for the nectar. Bunched flowers such as members of the carrot family (Apiaceae) are attractive to butterflies, bees, wasps and hoverflies.

On the flipside, flowers exploit insects to achieve pollination and ultimately their survival. What characteristics make certain insects more effective pollinators to particular plants or plant families?

Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera)~ ingest nectar through their long, very thin proboscis. They take nectar from small tubular flowers and flowers with small tubular florets grouped together in larger inflorescences. It should be noted that some moths don't have mouths and therefore don't eat as adults. Most people are familiar with diurnal moths which are members of the Sphingidae family commonly known as hawk moths, sphinx moths or hornworm moths.

Scape moth (Ctenucha fulvicollis)

Flies (Diptera) are pollinators too! Hoverflies (Syrphidae) and Bee Flies (Bombylius) are two flies that frequently visit flowers. Hoverflies mimic bees or wasps but do not sting or bite. Syrphid flies tend to visit small, flat flowers which present nectar openly. They are flower specialists consuming nectar and pollen. Bee flies mimic bumblebees and have a long proboscis (like Lepidoptera) which is used to drink nectar. Unlike bees they hover in front of flowers.

Syrphid fly

Beetles (Coleoptera) are the biggest group of pollinators by sheer numbers although they are not always the most effective pollinators. The long-horned beetle and flower beetles are two species of beetles that are often found on flowers. Beetles are especially important to plants such as magnolias, sweet shrubs and spicebush. Lady beetles are often seen on flowers but they are mainly going after other insects such as aphids.

Trigonopeltastes delta flower beetle

Bees and Wasps (Hymenoptera) are both seen at flowers. Bees however, are very dependent on flowers to provide both pollen and nectar for their larvae. Wasps, on the other hand, provide spiders and other insects to their larvae and only feed on nectar as adults. Bees have tongues which they use to collect nectar and store in an internal chamber (honey stomach) and when they return to their nesting site they regurgitate the nectar.The length of their tongue determines which shape and size flower they visit. Some species of bees such as leafcutter bees and mason bees collect pollen on a hairy area under their abdomen (pollen brush). Mason bees are excellent pollinators of fruit trees and bushes. Like bees, most wasps are solitary and live in specialized habitats. They have short tongues and are attracted to flowers with sweet liquids (think rotting fruit or jam). This is why you see them immersing their head deep into blooms.

So, not all plants are equal. Each plant and pollinator has a specific survival strategy. Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? Being a specialists can be problematic if the plant or insect that are codependent disappear from the habitat putting the species in jeopardy. Likewise, as a generalist the risk is that cross-pollination doesn't occur because the insect flies off to visit a different type of flower. There is an amazing interdependence between insects and flowers. Both the Rattlesnake Master and Devil's Walking stick get gold medals when it comes to attracting an array of insects. However, there is no one size fits all plant and this is why it is essential to offer a variety of florae that will appeal to a multiplicity of  pollinators and protect biodiversity so that all these creatures can continue to play a role in the great web of life in the garden.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Gardening for the Marvels of the Night

When planning your garden have you ever considered plants specifically for moths? Butterflies get a lot of attention in gardening circles. The peril of the monarch butterfly has been in the news frequently and brought the subject to the forefront. Butterflies are beautiful pollinators and adding nectar and host plants to attract them is easy to do. For butterfly enthusiasts, there are endless resources including books, classes, articles and blog posts on how to attract butterflies. There are butterfly gardens at nature centers, botanical gardens, parks, zoos, schools and many other public facilities encouraging the public to create similar environments at their homes. Yes, I love butterflies but they are only one family in the insect order Lepidoptera. The other 96% are MOTHS.

Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea)
Often ignored or completely neglected, moths are hugely important in the garden. Not only are they critical pollinators but they are also important in a balanced ecosystem providing food for lots of baby birds. This week is National Moth week (July 18-26) dedicated to the awareness of this magnificent member of the Lepidoptera family. I encourage you to take some time to observe the diversity of moths in your region, learn about their life cycle and study up on the habitat needs of moths so that you can provide for them in your garden.

Virginia creeper sphinx moth (Darapsa myron)

There are three times as many moths species as butterflies and they are extremely diverse and interesting. Since most moths are nocturnal they are rarely abundent unless we see them by artificial light or conspicuously resting during daylight hours. This week try leaving a porch light on and see how many moths you attract after dark. You may be surprised who shows up. We left the lights on at our front door recently and got some tremendous results.

In one evening we attracted some impressive visitors. This is what caught my eye from inside the house and invited me to open the door to see who arrived. Two Luna moths, one at our front window and the other hanging from the door frame were my first observations.
Luna Moth

Luna moths are probably the most endearing moths; I suspect since they are so large and look very much like a butterfly.  They are also strongly attracted to UV wavelengths and therefore are often seen at house and street lights. There is some concern that light from man-made sources deters lunas from mating and therefore has a negative impact on their populations in urban areas. 

Luna Moth (Actias luna)

Their silk moth family name Saturniidae is based on the eyespots that contain concentric rings reminiscent of the planet Saturn. Members of this family are large and some of the showiest moths around with striking colors and shapes. Moths included in this group are the Cecropia, Polyphemus, Promethea, Luna, Io and Imperial moths.

The regal moth (Citheronia regalis) is another very large moths and was also at our front doorway. It has a wing span of 5.5 to 9.5 cm. and the caterpillar (larvae stage) is equally as large, growing to almost 14 cm. They host on a variety of trees including walnut, hickory, pecan, persimmon, sweetgum and sumac.

Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis)
Their gray and orange stripe pattern on the wings is stunning and I was taken by its adorable fuzzy striped head. I really wanted to reach out and give it a little tickle.

Another intriguing moth, found clutching to the window, is this Imperial Moth (Eacles imperialis). This moth has just one brood a year and hosts on several conifer and deciduous trees including pine, oak, box elder, maples, sweetgum, honeylocust, red cedar, sycamore, basswood, bald cypress and sassafras. Adults emerge before sunrise and mate after midnight the following day. The female then lays her eggs at dusk and the caterpillars hatch in about two weeks. Pupation takes place underground overwinter.

Imperial Moth (Eacles imperialis)

The forest dwelling Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) is one of the smallest of the silkworm moths with a wing span of just 2 inches. The caterpillar often called green-striped mapleworm, eats the foliage of maple and oak trees. Young caterpillars feed in groups and then become solitary as they mature. They are fierce feeders in their larvae stage sometimes defoliated trees. As adults however, they do not eat at all, relying on their fat storage to survive. Three generations are produced in the South and the last generation will overwinter in its pupa stage underground emerging the following spring.

Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)
The unmistakeable Giant Leopard Moth is another example of the gorgeousness of moths. Just look at those metallic accents. You can read more about this species on my post profiling this moth here.

Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia)

Moths in their adult form are essential pollinators. They are the night shift if you will, taking over pollination services from butterflies who fly during daylight hours. It is easy to create a habitat that supports moths.Here are a few essential elements.

Plant a variety of flowers
Most moths in their adult form need nectar for energy. Certain blooms have more available nectar so by choosing these plants for your garden you create a better feeding station for moths. Native plants are more nectar rich than hybrids or cultivars. In general moths are attracted to cluster blooms and flat open flowers that provide for easy landing preferably in white or dull colors. Double blooms have little to no nectar availability. Blooms that service moths typically open in late afternoon to early evening specifically for these nocturnal flyers many of which are highly fragrant. Some plants are solely dependent on moths for pollination and thus their survival. The yucca moth for example is the sole pollinator for the yucca plant. It is a good idea to have blooms available from early spring through late fall. Datura, Four o'clock, flowering tobacco, honeysuckle, morning glory, evening primrose, and Jasmine are a few examples.

You need host plants
Certain plants provide the necessary food for the caterpillars. Some species will forage on a wide variety of plants while others are restricted to a few plants and some only to one type of plant. Many trees are hosts for moths such as oaks, maples, hickory, sweetgum, cherry, pine, sassafrass, persimmon and willow. Moths in their larvae form can be as spectacular as adults. Take a look at a few we see in our garden.

Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

white flannel moth (Norape ovina)

American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana)
Wolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella)
Virginia Tiger Moth (Spilosoma virginica)

Stop being so tidy!
As a general rule you can't keep an immaculate garden and expect to support wildlife. So now you have an excuse to be a lazy gardener. Moths in the adult and larvae stage need leaf litter, old stems, logs and plant debris to hide from predators. Don't cut back your expired plants until spring. Many moths overwinter in the ground in their pupa stage and need undisturbed places to do so. 

Luna Moth resting in brush and leaf litter during the day

Dare to go organic
Herbicides and pesticides are harmful to moths in all stages. Organic gardening is beneficial to all wildlife plus eliminating these chemicals will also increase the number of beneficial insects in your garden.

This week, challenge your preconceptions about moths and get to know these marvelous insects. You may even be inspired to create a welcoming habitat in your garden by including some nectar and hosts plants specifically for moths.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Art of Topiary

What better way to kick off the official start to summer than a celebration of flowers.

A few weeks ago I made the drive over to Greenwood, South Carolina to meet up with friends who are kindred spirits when it comes to all things flora and fauna. Janet from The Queen of Seaford was our gracious host while the rest of us drove in from surrounding states and nearby cities. Our party included Daricia from A Charlotte Garden, Julie from Southern Wild Design and Julie from Garden Delights.

Janet's picturesque garden sits right on Lake Greenwood and invites visitors to linger and take in the panoramic views. Seriously, if I lived there I'd find it very difficult to get any gardening done. I'd simply plop myself down in one of the colorful chairs that lines the waterfront and never get up.

The garden is filled with a fetching blend of native perennials, stunning ornamentals and unique specimen plants all nestled under a canopy of hardwood and pines trees.

Every plant has a story and a purpose in Janet's garden and she shared these with us as we toured the property.

But I'm actually jumping ahead in the order of events of that day, for once we had all gathered at Janet's that morning we first took the short drive to Uptown Greenwood to view the renowned topiaries and take in the charming downtown area.

'Sweet Caroline' butterfly sponsored by Greenwood Chamber of Commerce

The Festival of Flowers, in it's 48th year, featured 40 mammoth topiaries, sure to wow visitors. And wow they did!

'Baron' Stately Horse sponsored by Friends of the Greenwood County Libraries

Ari the Lion and Jibari the Lion Cub created by Pinecrest Elementary School's Junior Master Gardeners
These topiaries begin as a vision in someone's head and through much hard work by a full horticultural crew lead by Ann Barklow, they become stunning pieces of living art.

'Milak' (the big one) the mama elephant
Horton the baby elephant

They begin taking shape during the cold, dreary winter months when Pat Tafta, a craftsman at a local machine shop, creates the custom designed frames that are the foundation of these topiaries.

'Gertie and Gidget' the Giraffes created by Nancy Collin

'Dino Dude' T-Rex created by ACTS Fine Arts Magnet Program at Brewer Middle School

Within the frames, "bladders" are placed to help fill the inside space so that only a few inches of sphagnum moss and foliage are required. This clever design keeps the weight of these massive topiaries to a manageable load.

Jeep Wrangler created by Lakeland Master Gardeners 

a look inside the front seat of the Jeep
Ferns in the back seat!
An irrigation system is then added which allows the correct amount of water to be directed to each different plant variety in the topiary. The water levels can also be adjusted depending on where the topiaries are placed and how much sun or shade they receive. Pretty brilliant!

'Bubble' the Seahorse created by The Greenwood Family YMCA
Ali's Banana Boy created by Matthews Elementary School

Most of the plants that are used in these topiaries are grown in greenhouses located right in Greenwood. The plugs are started in fall so that they are ready to be used in these fabulous creations the following spring.

'Expect Innovation' Quick Snap Camera sponsored by Fujifilm Manufacturing USA

Creeping Fig is used as a primary cover in many of the topiaries. Silver Falls Dichondra were used to create the mermaid's long sweeping hair. Frosty Curl sedge grass created the mane and tail for the horse and lion. Begonias, Coleus and Polka Dot plants and a variety of succulents are seen in many of the creations. Palm fiber was used to create the giraffes and tiger which are painted to create more realistic looking animals.

As you can imagine, one of the biggest challenges is keeping the plants growing in the proper direction. Plants naturally want to grow up toward the light and when they are planted vertically the plants require special pruning to keep them looking right. Sheep shears are often used for this task.

'Lily' the Mermaid sponsored by Piedmont Plastic Surgery
'Grrrrr Kasasa' the Tiger
These signature topiaries of Greenwood have become infamous with this event which is held annually in June. Each topiary is adopted by a local group and a local business in turn sponsors it. I loved that several local schools participated.

The Festival of Flowers tour also included several city gardens, a school 'roots and shoots' program and two private gardens. I'll be writing about those in an upcoming post. But for now a big thank you to Janet for opening her part of the world to us. Days like these, filled with flowers and fellowship, are ones to savor.