Shortly many of us will be faced with removing fallen autumn leaves from our yards. According to an article that recently appeared the National Wildlife Federation’s magazine, National Wildlife, how you dispose of these leaves can have a significant impact on the number of blacklegged ticks that will infest your yard next spring.
Three ticks that are of great concern to Georgians are the lone star, American dog and blacklegged.
According to the piece, a study conducted by the Monmouth County, New Jersey Mosquito Control Division, revealed that homeowners that raked or blew the leaves from their yards into nearby wooded areas each fall actually promoted the blacklegged tick population in their yards. It seems that the following year the blacklegged tick population was three times greater than that found in their yards the previous year.
This is significant since blacklegged ticks carry tick-borne diseases such as Lyme’s disease.
A better way to deal with the leaves is to either compost them, or use them to create or enhance wildlife habitat in an ill-kept section of your property. In garden situations, leaving leaves on the ground helps valuable insects overwinter and creates feeding habitats for wintering birds.
Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows. However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.
The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state. It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts. However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.
At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red. Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads. Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.
The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.
Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree. It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels. If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle. It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma. While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.
Such is not the case with birds and mammals. In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer. Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it. In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer. It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.
Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies. I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.
Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.
If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape. It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.
Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.
Recently I wrote about the how birds are attracted to American beautyberry. In response to this blog, one of our fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Neace, was kind enough let us know this beautiful native shrub can easily be rooted using cuttings. This is great news for anyone wanting to incorporate this native into his or her landscape.
I want to thank Elizabeth for sharing her backyard secret with us. I am sure many folks will benefit from this valuable tip.
One of the most bizarre insects that inhabits our backyards is a critter known by a number of unnerving names such as the devil’s riding horse, devil’s darning needle, witch’s horse, and musk mare.
The names referring to horses relate to the fact that the much smaller male of the species is often seen attached to the back of a female. If you closely look at the picture accompanying this blog, you will notice a male clinging to the back of a much larger female.
The name musk mare refers to the insect’s ability to spray would-be predators with a foul-smelling fluid. It is believed this defensive spray helps thwart the attacks of ants, beetles, and even mice.
With that in mind, if you stumble across a devil’s darning needle, do not get your face too close to the insect. Should one happen to spray you; the chemical might cause temporarily blindness as well as irritation to your mucous membranes.
Photo credit: Angela Dupree
This insect is fairly large. Males may be only 1.5 inches long, whereas females can attain a length of 5 inches.
Even though this invertebrate may have been living in your backyard for years, you may never have seen one. However, your chances of seeing one are greater in the fall than at any other time of the year.
The places where you are most apt discover one of this fascinating insects are hidden in grass, secluded beneath the loose bark of a trees, as well as under logs, and other objects littering the ground.
Interestingly, in spite of the insect’s frightening names, it is not a ferocious, flesh-eating predator. It prefers instead to graze on the leaves of a variety of trees and shrubs including oaks, roses, rosemary, privet, and crepe myrtle.
I am surprised that, although I have spent a large portion of my life outdoors, I have never seen a witch’s horse. However, a couple of weeks ago my daughter found the two illustrated here. I guess that goes to show you can spend a lifetime watching wildlife and never see everything that is living just outside your backdoor.
People seem to either love or hate morning glories. Although it is often planted for the beauty it brings to the backyard garden, others consider it an invasive weed and pull it out of the ground whenever they find one.
On one hand, it can be a nuisance that sometimes blankets plants gardeners feel are more desirable. However, it is usually easy to control in a backyard setting.
On the other side of the coin, its seeds are often consumed by songbirds and quail.
Morning glories also provide food for nectar feeders such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, as well as native bees, butterflies, and moths. Remarkably, this fact is often overlooked by gardeners and even wildlife experts.
The morning glory is also a host plant for the morning glory prominent moth. This grayish, brown moth is often attracted to outside lights on warm summer evenings.
A number of butterflies such as the clouded skipper and cloudless sulphurs nectar at morning glory blossoms.
Late blooming morning glories can also be particularly valuable to rubythroats during the late summer and fall when they are preparing to migrate, or are already en route to their wintering grounds. Often these long-distance migrants have a difficult time finding enough food to navigate this difficult flight.
I suspect the morning glory is more often considered a foe rather than a friend. As is often the case though, the more you get to know a plant you consider to be a weed, the more you realize it may possess redeeming values you never considered before.
My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape. Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year. For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants. However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence. I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence. Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes). This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.
This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard. A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries. When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away. Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.
Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office. Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food. In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away. The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.
On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.
Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat. The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.
Mockingbird & American Beautyberries
If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you. Take the initiative and plant one yourself. This native shrub is easy to grow. The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter.
You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals. In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries. Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.
Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds. Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries. However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.
This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented. While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat.
I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them. Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.
One of the most striking butterflies flying about our backyards at this time of the year is the cloudless sulphur. Although they have been patrolling our yards for months, they are definitely more abundant and approachable in the late summer and fall than they are at any other time of the year. However, have you ever had the impression some of these midsize bright yellow butterflies are appreciably larger?
If you have, you may be happy to know that you are not seeing an optical illusion. The truth of the matter is right now some cloudless sulphurs are significantly bigger. It seems females remain the same size throughout the year. However, such is not the case with the males. They are what lepidopterist call seasonally dimorphic. This is because they take on a different appearance in the fall and winter. During this time of the year these butterflies have darker markings and are truly larger than males that emerged earlier in the year.
As any Georgia gardener knows, when it comes to producing nectar that attracts butterflies, not all plants are created equal. Based on my experience, one group of plants that is definitely in the group of those that produce little nectar is the traditional azaleas. Unlike our native wild azaleas, they are rarely visited by butterflies.
Over the years, my wife and I have planted our share of President Clay, George Taber, and Pride of Mobile Azaleas. For years, each spring they transform our yard into a floral wonderland. On occasion, I do see a few eastern tiger and pipevine swallowtails nectaring at their long trumpet shaped flowers. However, so few of these gossamer-winged beauties have attempted to feed on the azaleas blossoms, I would be remiss if I was to say they are butterfly nectar plants.
Several years ago, we set out a couple of Encore Azaleas. We planted them because the nurseryman guaranteed us they would bloom well after spring. To make a long story short, they have lived up to his guarantee. Consequently, they treat us to the stunning sight of azaleas blooming well after the blooms produced by our native and traditional azaleas have fallen and created colorful collars on the ground surrounding the shrubs.
cloudless sulphur butterfly nectaring at an Encore Azalea blossom
A couple of weeks ago I noticed eastern tiger swallowtails and cloudless sulphurs visiting our Encore Azaleas. When I looked more closely, I found these butterflies were not basking on the plants; they were actually nectaring. Members of both butterfly species flew from flower to flower collecting nectar. This was not a onetime event. This activity has been going on for days.
Since I made this discovery, I have gone online to see if others have also seen butterflies nectaring at Encore Azaleas. Much to my surprise, many of the nurseries that sell Encore Azaleas tout them as butterfly magnets.
I wish I could say I have seen butterflies using our Encore Azaleas in past years, however, either this is the first year they have done so, or I just did not notice this behavior before.
There are scores of different varieties of this popular hybrid. However, I cannot tell which I planted in my yard. All I can say is this year; two of the showiest butterflies that grace our yard are regular visitors to our Encore Azaleas.
I would be interested to know if you have seen butterflies use Encore Azaleas. If you have, I would like to know which variety butterflies you have seen at the plants. In addition, if you would let me know what variety of Encore Azaleas are being used by the butterflies that would be great!