Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

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.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Celebrating Early Spring Treasures in the Woodland Garden

As soon as March rolls around I make a habit of walking our woodland garden daily. The birds are singing high in the tree tops, the air smells of the earth and many ephemerals are beginning to poke up out of the leaf litter. It is a glorious time and this year we seem to be marching through spring at a rapid pace.

Packera aurea (Golden ragwort) in woodland garden

The early risers are making the most of the sunlight that shines down through the open canopy. This is their time to bloom brightly before the trees leaf out and quiet things down. This time reminds me fondly of a story my mother read to me in German as a child Etwas von den Wurzelkindern translated as The Story of the Root Children by Sibylle von Olfers, originally published in 1906. The root children would sleep underground all winter until Mother Earth would awaken them in spring and help them create colorful new clothes (an analogy for spring flowers pushing up through the ground) and clean and paint the beetles and bugs (preparing the pollinators to emerge). It is an enchanting story and the illustrations are fabulous. It captured my imagination and appealed to my love of nature.

My treasured childhood book, Etwas von den Wurzelkindern

One of the first native blooms to emerge in our woodland garden is Sanguinaria canadensis or bloodroot. This impressive bloom is fleeting and must be rejoiced. It arises abruptly from the leaf litter like a candlestick aflame. The leaves wrapped snugly around the stalk akin to a mother protecting her child.

Sanguinaria canadensis emerging from leaf litter
And then hurriedly it reveals its bright petals and anthers, attracting native bees (mining bees, sweat bees, small carpenter bees) and flies (bee fly). These industrious pollinators collect pollen but are not rewarded with any nectar. In years when we experience early warm weather, pollinators are in abundance; however, when pollinators are absent bloodroot is able to self-pollinate. In an act of self-preservation its anthers reach down gently and deposit pollen onto the stigma.

Sanguinaria canadensis  in full bloom

But, the story doesn't end there. When the pollinators have finished, ants step in. The seeds contain elaiosome, which attracts ants, who in turn carry the seeds to their nest where they eat part of the seed and discard the seed proper, remaining in the nest, a good growing medium.

Bloodroot sans petals, showing basel leaf

The lovely Erythronium americnum (Eastern Trout Lily) is another woodland wildflower that has recruited ants to assist in seed dispersal. Ants eat the nutritious appendages attached to each seed and leave the rest to germinate. 

Erythronium americnum (Eastern Trout Lily) bloom

Growing in colonies, the non-flowering individuals commonly outnumber the flowering ones. Even more reason to commemorate the elegant tulip-like flowers that rise up from green and purple mottled foliage. These lilies are a bright pop of color staged against the muted brown forest floor.

colony of Erythronium americnum (Eastern Trout Lily)

The mighty Mayapple (Podophylum peltatum) also emerges in March in our garden. Its two large leaves resemble an umbrella when fully emerged. The flowers bloom later in spring and will be pollinated by bumble bees and other long-tongued bees. Box turtles will eat the berries and disperse the seeds on their journey.

Podophylum peltatum leaves unfolding

Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox) is a little stunner that attracts a range of early pollinators including bumblebees, bee flies, butterflies (especially swallowtails), skippers, hummingbird clearwing moths and sphinx moths. Drawing such a spectrum of pollinators is worthy of celebration.

Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox)

Dirca palustris (Leatherwood) is a woodland shrub which deserves a place in any wet/moist woodland setting, especially along pond and creek edges. The small, tubular, yellow flowers emerge first, promptly followed by the leaves, making it the first tree to unfold its leaves in our garden. Fruit that ripens in late spring/early summer is devoured by the birds. This underused native has fabulous bark which is tough and pliable and can be used in wilderness survival situations, so my boys tell me.

Dirca palustris (Leatherwood)

These are fleeting moments in our garden, which require one to stop and contemplate the story each of these plants has to tell. Observing the relationships between these early ephemerals and the pollinators who service them is a site to behold. Pollinators must act quickly or they will miss the opportunity for this nutritious food. Even as I write this post, the tulip popular trees have already broken bud. Spring is anxious to arrive this year.

With this post I am joining Gardens Eye View's Seasonal Celebrations. And next up I'll take a look at some Lessons Learned this winter with Beth at Plant Postings.