Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Walk Around the Buttonbush

Cephalanthus occidentalis is a native shrub that provides for pollinators.  The diversity of insects the pin cushion like flowers attract is impressive. As soon as it begins blooming in June pollinators from all around make this shrub their forage destination. 

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I took a walk around our shrub this morning to document the different pollinators visiting. Lets take a look.

Bumblebees were greatest in number. These native bees are critical pollinators for many edibles and flowering perennials. They are social bees that create a colony with a queen (similar to European honeybees but without the honey). They usually nest close to the ground under piles of wood, leaf mulch, compost piles or abandoned rodent holes. In winter the entire colony dies, except the queen, who will create a new colony next spring.

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The bees speed around the circular flowers, sometime running into one another. It's like watching kids on bumper cars. Pure entertainment. 

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Carpenter bees were bountiful. Their shiny hiney and larger size makes it easy to differentiate between bumble and carpenter bees. 

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Carpenter bee

We often see honeybees on our flowers. They probably come from one of several neighbors who have apiaries. We are happy to support their hives with our garden.

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European honeybee

Several species of butterflies were fluttering from bloom to bloom. We haven't observed as many large butterflies this year probably a result of our cooler, wet spring.  As summer begins to heat up, more and more butterfly activity is noticeable. Here are the species I noted.

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Easter Tiger Swallowtail 

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail dark morph

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Spring Azure 

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Dreamy Duskywing

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Silver spotted skipper

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American Lady 

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Common Buckeye

Hummingbird [Sphinx] moths are frequent visitors early in the morning and evenings. When they fly they remain suspended in the air, just like hummingbirds; hence, the name. Their appearance mimics bumblebees. These day flying moths host on a variety of plants including dwarf bush honeysuckle, dogbane and trumpet honeysuckle vine. Their caterpillar stage when fully grown drops to the ground and makes a cocoon in the leaf litter. [Another shout out for keeping leaf litter in your garden beds] 

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Snowberry Clearwing Moth
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Flower flies [syrphid flies] are beneficial insects in the garden. We mostly see them in their adult form hovering around blooms. They mimic bees, wasps and hornets in appearance. The Virginia Flower Fly (Milesia virginiensis) mimics a hornet. It buzzes loudly as it hovers in front of objects, sometimes even people. This is where it gets the name 'news bee' as it hovers around people's head as if it is trying to tell you something (deliver the news). It is completely harmless to people so don't be alarmed.

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Hoverfly aka 'good news bee'

Here is another angle, that shows the signature characteristics of flies, large eyes and open wings. The larvae of flies [maggots] are found in rotting/decaying wood where they feed until they develop into flying adults. 

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Teeny tiny flies/bees are just specks on the flowers. They are not showy like the butterflies or presidential as the larger bees and flies but they are industrious and very valuable pollinators. 

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This photo was taken with 105 mm lens and then cropped. Hopefully, this will give you an idea of how small these little pollinators are.

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Syrphid fly (still working on positive id)
A few different beetle species usually crawl around the round blooms. This morning, I only got a photo of one species, the longhorn beetle. They prefer blooms with inflorescence were they can move gingerly along eating pollen. 

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banded long-horn beetle

The beetles apparently do multi task, mating and foraging simultaneously. Why waist time. After mating the females lay eggs in dead or decaying wood where the larvae will bore through the wood. Support them at this stage by creating log piles for habitat. 

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Mason wasps are beneficial insects in the garden. The four toothed mason wasp, often mistaken for the bald faced hornet, helps control leaf rollers, cutworms and other pests by feeding them to their larva. She uses abandoned bumblebees ground nests and hollow plant tubes or branches to make her nest and lay eggs. 

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Four toothed mason wasp

The buttonbush also supports other insects and provides habitat and food for wildlife. I observed several insects skulking around the foliage. Leaf footed bugs are considered pests in most gardens because they have piercing, sucking mouth parts that they use to feed on plant juices from leaves, stems and fruit.   

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Sadly, Japanese beetles are abundant this year. We are even seeing them on many of our native plants. I don't need to say anymore regarding this pest. Just get out early in the morning with a container of soapy water and drop theses adult beetles in them. It makes one feel better and may make a small difference in their population.

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Japanese beetle

There are small spiders that have deliberately made their webs between the stems of the shrub to catch a butterfly, bee, beetle or fly as they fly from flower to flower. We support spiders in our garden and this is one example of how plants support the ecosystem and cycle of life.

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Ants are an important part of the ecosystem as well. They serve as 'ecosystem engineers' (moving soil) and as predators (prey on other animals). They eat a diet rich in proteins and carbohydrates and love sugar. They scurry around to find honeydew (a sugar substance produced by aphids) or get sugars that plants produce.

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Button bush shrubs prefer moist soil conditions in sun to part sun. If you have an area that floods or has shallow standing water this would make an excellent choice. Pruning is only necessary to keep its shape. We limb ours up a little to allow for more planting space underneath and for ease of access while weeding. Despite the glossy leaves this is a deciduous shrub. The limbs provide nice structure in the winter landscape. 
Our shrub grows in a flower bed at the bottom of a slope where it benefits from additional water accumulation. It is at the edge of the woods receiving morning and midday sun. Tall hickory, maple and tulip poplar trees shelter it from late afternoon sun exposure.

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Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) in landscape

This selection of insects I have shared is just a small profile of how this plant supports pollinators, insects and the ecosystem. If you have the right conditions I highly recommend at least one buttonbush. You'll be smitten and will spend hours mesmerized by all the activity. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Lets talk Echinacea

It's Wildflower Wednesday and today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite summer bloomers, Echinacea. Echinacea, commonly called coneflowers, are long lasting, blooming from spring through fall. They provide a lot of insect activity making it a must have plant for any garden with sunshine. We have experimented growing three different species in our garden: Echinacea purpurea, tennesseensis, and sanguinea.

Echinacea purpurea also known as purple coneflower is a wide spread perennial that is native to most of eastern North America. It isn't picky about growing conditions. Give it sun and it will tolerate drought, poor soil conditions, heat and humidity.

E. purpurea
Pollinators love coneflowers. The large landing pad invites a variety of butterflies, beetles, and long-tongued bees to enjoy the nectar.

E. tennessensis
Echinacea tennessensis is a more rare coneflower native to Tennessee. Once a Federally listed endangered plant species it was delisted in 2011 thanks to conservation efforts. This species has a less vigorous growth habitat than other species. Unlike E. purpurea, the petals of this coneflower are more erect and deeper pink in color. Note, that if you want to retain the genetic integrity of this coneflower to harvest seeds, it will need to be grown in isolation from other Echinacea species.

E. tennesseensis
Echinacea sanguinea is the most southernly ranging of all the coneflowers. It is native to prairies of eastern Texas and found in southeastern Oklahoma and Louisiana and southwestern Arkansas. This graceful coneflower grows about 3 inches above its base of leaves and is an important nectar source for our native bees.

E. sanguinea
Sanguinea is not as cold hardy as other echinacea but it has done well in our garden. The rays are more narrow than purpurea and tennessensis and the center disk is a much deeper red color.

E. sanguinea
What I really like about echinacea is the structure of the flower. The prominent cone shaped head of the inflorescence looks gorgeous in summer, fall and winter.

American Goldfinches foraging on seeds in winter
Echinaceas are an invaluable plant in the summer and fall/winter garden. They look great paired with grasses, rudbeckia, liatris, and many other meadow/prairie plants. If you don't already have them growing in your garden add some!

Note on hybrids: There are many hybrid coneflowers on the market. Most are breed from  E. purpurea. There are inconclusive studies whether or not the hybrids are beneficial to pollinators. What is known is that double blooms are useless to insects because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. Some hybrids are sterile and therefore don't produce seed that support birds and other wildlife so be mindful of your choices when shopping for this plant. Over the years we have fallen for some of the beautiful hybrids and have found that they do support pollinators often.

Echinacea hybrid: PowWow Wildberry with yarrow
Echinacea hybrid: Cheyenne Spirt with rattlesnake master seedlings

Thanks to Gail at Clay and Limestone for hosting Wildflower Wednesday and all the folks sharing the great native wildflowers growing in their gardens. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Garden Blogger Bloom Day: June 2020

After an unseasonably cool May, June has turned up the heat and humidity. And brought on the mosquitos, chiggers and ticks. But despite these pests there is much to celebrate in the garden.

For this post I thought I would deviate from my usual macro shots and show wider angles so you can see how the plants look in our landscape. June is the month for many of the herbaceous perennials to shine.

At the front of the house, a variety of native plants embrace the front walk and are enjoyed by numerous pollinators.

Asclepias tuberosa

Piedmont Barbara's Button (Marshallia obovata)

Spiraea tomentosa and achillea millefolium

This view is from the driveway looking toward the front walk over one of the front flower bed. Blooming flowers shown here are penstemon digitalis, achillaea millefolium, and lavender. The Redbud 'Forest Pansy' and Myrica cerifera anchor the bed.

In the side garden at the head of the driveway, hypericum, stokesia and achillea have taken over. This dense assortment of plant material is enjoyed by songbirds (for cover and foraging), toads, and pollinators.

Another angle of the white and blue stokesia, pink yarrow and St. John's wort mix.

Sometimes if you get out early enough the bees are still resting.

This lovely ground cover is Mimosa strigillosa. It reproduces by seed and stolons. Over the past few years it has spread in two of our flower beds making a wonderful carpet.

Pollinators big and small visit the blooms and the little yellow sulphur butterfly lays eggs on the leaves.

Spiraea virginiana grows near our pond and benefits from moist conditions. The flowers attract a variety of insects from bees to butterflies, beetles and pollinating flies.

Hymenocallis pymaea is spreading nicely between the pond and the stone retaining wall. this dwarf lily is the perfect ground cover for this spot.

In the pocket meadow is more butterfly weed, yarrow and coreopsis. Soon the partridge pea and bee balm will bloom.

The yucca filamentosa is blooming for the first time. It is spectacular and I have been out taking photos of it daily.

The ever so discrete Ilex verticillata are blooming at the edge of the woods. The tiny bees and honeybees are often seen visiting, which the birds will appreciate in the fall when they gorge on the berries.

And of course hydrangea quercifolia with their bold white blooms brightens the shade garden.

What is blooming in your garden this June? Join our host Carol at May Dreams Gardens for a spectacular start to the summer flowering season.