Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Life On A Passion Vine

Have you ever sat down in front of a plant and just observed all the activity that goes on there? My children and I recently did this as part of a homeschool assignment and it was fascinating to see all the life on our passion vine (passiflora incarnata).

A female Variegated Fritillary butterfly visits to lay eggs. First landing, then touching with her feet to "taste" that this is indeed the right plant to support her offspring. Then with gentle intent she deposits eggs on the underside of the leaves.

Other butterflies have been here already, before her. There is the obvious caterpillar munching away at the leaves. It is a host plant for several butterflies including the Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary and if you are further south than we are, you may find Zebra Longwing or Julia Heliconian caterpillars.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

Variegated Fritillary caterpillar

In fact, upon close observation, we find lots and lots of caterpillars in various instars. Sometimes alone on a single leaf and other times munching away in unison on a shared spot.

But there are other less familiar visitors to this vine. Several ants busily run up and down the stalks. They stop at the base of a leaf and start madly crawling around in circles. They are visiting the extrafloral nectaries (EFN), nectar producing glands that are separate from the flower.

ants collecting sweet liquid from extrafloral nectaries

Reading up on EFNs, studies indicate that they are used by plants to attract beneficials such as ants and beetles by secreting glucose, fructose, sucrose, protein and amino and organic acids. This is one way the plant protects itself and improves its survival and reproduction success. Sometimes referred to as host-plant resistance.

lady beetle larvae finding nectar at extrafloral nectaries

Stripped cucumber beetles run around the tops and underside of the leaves. They prefer vining plants such as cucumber, pumpkin, and squash but they will eat just about anything they can find. They are thought of as a garden pest primarily because they chew on the leaves and are largely responsible for bacterial wilt. If they were in my vegetable garden I might spray an organic soap on them but the cucumber beetles will get a pass this time because the passion vine is populated with far too many caterpillars and I wouldn't risk their survival. More importantly the cucumber beetles may be lunch for a wolf spider, ground beetle or even a bat.

stripped cucumber beetle
Other flying insects, such as flies and wasps make brief pit stops to check things out before departing in search of a meal elsewhere.

banded robber fly

Life on a passiflora is in no way dull. There is constant activity. Every insect interacting with the plant with their own resolve. Take a moment to observe the plants in your garden. How are they supporting your ecosystem?  You may be surprised what you find there.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Stroll through the Garden {May Garden Blogger's Bloom Day}

I typically start my day strolling through the garden, coffee in hand. I enjoy waking up to the sounds of the birds singing as the sunrise peers over the hilltop. The bright spring blooms also say good morning in a friendly way. And wildlife encounters are certain. This is my quiet time each morning, before the hustle and bustle begins, when I often take photos of the garden.

At the front of the house summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) has erupted into bloom. This silver spotted skipper butterfly made a quick stop for a bit of nectar before flying over to the nearby dwarf black locust 'twisty baby' (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Lace Lady'), a host plant from the legume family.

One morning I was lucky to catch sight of a green lacewing cleverly camouflaged on the leaves of the same black locust tree. These are beneficial insects that are general predators and the hungry larvae will eat a wide variety of slow moving insects such as aphids, scale, mealybugs, spider mites, thrips and white flies.

Nestled amongst the summersweet and black locust is St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum), a wonderful woody shrub that is a bee magnet.

The blanket flowers (Gaillardia) are a long season bloomer growing among a grouping of pots by the driveway where they get full sun all day long. The butterflies love their open face blooms but they are often frequented by bee flies.

The purple passionvine (Passiflora incarnata L.) began to emerge throughout our front beds in early May. They took over the front bed and sidewalk last year and I promised myself I would keep them more contained this year so we could walk to the front door. However, as quickly as they poked their heads out of the ground the variegated fritilliary butterfly found them and rapidly laid eggs.

The leaves are now dotted with various instars of tiny caterpillars. Both variegated and gulf fritillary butterflies host on this vine. Now what to do? Do I move the caterpillars to a few vines that will grow up the trellis? Do I relocate the vines and hope they survive along with the caterpillars? I wanted to dig some of them up to pot as pass-a-long plants for our Garden Walk, maybe attendees will get a bonus caterpillar.

In a timely way, numerous nectar sources are beginning to bloom which will support the adult butterflies. Southern ragwort (Senecio anonymus) grows in sun and part shade conditions around our garden and has been blooming prolifically for the past several weeks. The daisy-like flowers are a favorite of small bees and syrphid and tachinid flies.

We have several varieties of yarrow (Achillea millefolium). A tough perennial that we have grown in several sunny locations throughout the garden but it does best on our hill garden and is spreading happily. Just coming into bloom it is often frequented by butterflies who like the flat top for an easy landing. It is one of several host plants the American Painted Lady butterfly uses for laying eggs.  

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' has been prolific all month and is a star in one of our front beds where it receives full sun. Deer resistant it has been a good choice for this part of our garden plus the mounding habit gives it a shrub like appearance.

The periwinkle blue, star shaped flowers grow in lovely clusters making it very showy.

At the edge of the woodland garden grow a variety of native columbine including this new addition (Aqulegia vulgaris 'William Guineness'). I am very fond of the deep purple and cream blooms and they attract lots of pollinators, including hummingbirds.

Soft pink fuchsia blossoms (Stand Up Peggy) are paired with mouse ear hostas in pots in the woodland garden and are often visited by the hummers.

The red hot poker plants (Kniphofia uvaria) are just now coming into bloom and the hummingbirds immediately find them. It is such a thrill to watch these birds hover in motion as they reach to the back of tubular blooms and then in a dash they are off to another part of the garden.

Indian Pink (spigelia marilandica) is an absolute show stopper. Its unique tubular flowers are a hummingbird favorite (notice a pattern here). It is paired with blackberry lily 'hello yellow' (not yet blooming).

Abbeville Iris (Iris nelsonii) a native to Louisiana grows in our pond garden alongside spiderwort (Tradescantia) and has been putting on a good show this month.

Several other blooms are just beginning their bloom time but I will save those for June.I am joining our hostess Carol at May Dreams Gardens for bloom day. Do stop over to see what is blooming in other gardens.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A different kind of tulip

Late spring is tulip time. We don't have any of the traditional bulb type tulips planted in our garden but we do have an abundance of another kind of tulip. The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) known by many common names such as tulip poplar, yellow poplar, or tulip magnolia grows plentifully in our woods.

Reminiscent of the spring blooming bulb, both the blooms and the leaves make the familiar tulip shape. These creamsicle colored  blooms are real charmers and attract bees and ruby-throated hummingbirds when they open.

Looking strictly at the structure of the blooms you can see how this tree is a member of the Magnoliacae family. It is the largest tree in the Eastern forests, growing as tall as 80 feet or more. Daniel Boone used the wood for his 60' dugout canoe. George Washington said it was one of his all time favorite trees and planted them at Mount Vernon some of which are more than 140' tall now.  These trees create a very tall canopy in our woods with the tallest trees void of lower branches making it difficult to see any insect activity on the leaves or blooms.

It is a wonderful tree for wildlife. White-tailed deer and rabbits browse the young trees. A host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Spicebush butterfly as well as the Promethea and Tulip Tree moth. Migratory birds such as the Baltimore Orioles and Scarlet Tanagers feed in these trees while finches and hummingbirds seek out the flower's rich nectar. Seeds provide food for a variety of birds including finches, cardinals, and quail.

As the blooms are marooned so high up in the tree they are heavy with nectar, an adaptation developed to attract pollinators that don't normally forage so high up. After all there needs to be a reward for such a high altitude visit and these voluptuous blooms are the prize.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Celebrating Wildflowers

As a child I use to merrily frolic in wildflower meadows. I remember picking flowers to gift to my mom or make headpieces with my friends out of our favorite wildflowers. I loved dandelion blooms. Some of my most treasured memories of those times were sitting in a grassy meadow picking dandelions and making long chains that we would dangle around our necks and then dance around. At the time I didn't give any thought to the actual flowers and their purpose, I was a child after all and I just liked them because they were pretty. But what is a wildflower?

Long ago I defined wildflowers as any flower that grew in the ditches alongside the road or in meadows and fields that hadn't been intentionally planted or seeded but appeared as nature intended.

As I've become more educated in plants I am aware that many of the plants that grow alongside the road and show up in disturbed areas are non-native, invasive plant species that do not fall in my current definition of a wildflower. How times have changed from the carefree days as a child. Now, I feel a responsibility to these plants and my local habitat.

Today we use words such as native, invasive, introduced, or naturalized to more accurately describe the source of plants. It has changed how I define wildflowers. My current definition is a native species that naturally occurs in an area. Should native hybrids be part of this definition? Or naturalized species (introduced species that are considered native)?

In addition to being pretty, wildflowers provide crucial habitat for insects and birds, conserve water, and protect soil from erosion.

Now a days roadsides are often sprayed by county or state agencies or mowed at the wrong time of year making conditions more than challenging for wildflowers to grow and support the local ecosystem. Likewise, fields and meadows are hard to find today. They are gobbled up by strip malls, subdivisions and stores which are surrounded by massive parking lots and typically landscaped with non-native plants.

So this week is National Wildflower Week. An entire week set aside to celebrate our beloved wildflowers and provide learning opportunities on the importance of these plants.

Wildflowers can easily be incorporated into the home landscape. In fact it is become more and more critical that homeowners plant native species to support our pollinators. Every week insects are making the news because they are in danger due to loss of habitat. And yet, it seems to take a lot of convincing to get the public to pay heed to this message.

Plant wildflowers. Stop using pesticides and insecticides. Plant native. Attract pollinators & beneficial insects. Enjoy the natural beauty!

That love of the first dandelion has stayed with me. A member of the Asteraceae family, some of my favorite wildflowers are included in this group such as sunflowers, asters and ageratum. Wildflowers have a way of bringing us closer to nature. This is something that is missing from childhood today.

Take sometime this week to plant some wildflowers in your garden, visit a nature preserve to learn more about your local flora, remove invasive plants or join your local native plant society. Wildflowers and wildlife go together and the rewards are endless.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ants. Unlikely Pollinators

Some plants and insects go unnoticed most of the time. Often sitting under taller trees and shrubs in a woodland setting minding their own business is Euonymus americanus. Know by it's common name strawberry bush  or in my part of the world hearts a burstin', this bush comes into the spotlight in fall because of its incredible fruit which burst out of deep pink capsules and are eaten by songbirds and wild turkey. (warning: should not be ingested by humans as they are considered poisonous)

fall fruite of Euonymus americanus

In spring a careful observer will spy its little pale blossoms. As you can see they are not very eye catching and would go completely unnoticed if they weren't so abundant.

Look even closer and you will find there are ants sprawling all over the blooms. Red ants, black ants. It's bustling with activity.

And, these ants don't stay at one bloom for long. Scurrying along with a real sense of urgency.

Feeding on the nectar these blooms provide. And inadvertently pollinating? That is the question.

I can almost see some pollen grains sticking to the tiny hairs on the ants abdomen. It's easiest to see on the black ants. While these ants collect the energy rich nectar I see them vibrate their abdomen, possibly collecting and redistributing pollen.

Everything I read says that ants are not effective pollinators. They are more likely to take nectar without cross-pollinating flowers. Plus, some ants secrete a natural substance that protects them from bacterial and fungal infections acting like an antibiotic. Unfortunately for the flowers this secretion can also kill a pollen grain pretty quickly.

So are these social insects pollinators? Well, my Euonymus americanus was full of fruit last fall and as far as I can tell the ants are the only things pollinating these inconspicuous blooms.