THIS PASS-ALONG PLANT IS A SHOWSTOPPER

       The plant that is currently putting on the most spectacular show in the Johnson’s backyard is a pass-along plant known as swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia).  As is the case with many of the pass-along plants growing in our yard, it is not a plant my wife and I had on our list of plants that we wanted to incorporate into our backyard landscape.  However, now that it has established itself, we are glad that it is a member of our plant community.

      This Georgia native is extremely hardy.  The woman that gave me the plant simply pulled a handful plants up by their rhizomes and handed them to me.  When I told her I did not have any way to keep them from drying out until I got home, she told me not to worry about it.

      When I arrived home several hours later, I soaked the rhizomes in a bucket of water and placed them in the ground.  Honestly, I did not think they had any chance of surviving.  Much to our surprise, they did not die and now, several years later have expanded into a patch some 10-feet long.

      Swamp sunflower is a perennial that reaches a height of 8-10′.  This fall-bloomer produces a wealth of 2-3″ golden daisy like blooms.

      One thing that has endeared it to us is the fact that, in addition of adding beauty to our yard, it feeds a wide range of wildlife.  For example, swamp sunflower is a host plant for the gorgeous silvery checkerspot butterfly.  In addition, it is an important source of a food for a wide range of pollinators, including honeybees and bumblebees.  Although it is touted as a butterfly plant, we see far more bees and other pollinators visiting swamp sunflower’s showy yellow blossoms than butterflies.  Despite the fact it has the reputation of providing monarchs with food on their fall migration, we have never seen a monarch on our plants.

      Once frost ends swamp sunflower’s blooming season, its seeds are relished by waxwings and other birds that feed on seeds.

      The plant requires little water and is relatively pest-free.  The only thing that I do to the plants is remove their dead stalks in winter after birds have consumed all of its seeds. 

      Since it will spread via underground rhizomes, I suspect that sometime down the road, to keep the swamp sunflower patch from extending beyond the place we have designated for it, I am going to have to remove some of the underground rhizomes growing extending beyond the fringes of the stand.

      This is one pass-along plant that might be a perfect fit for your yard.  If it is, I hope a friend or neighbor will share it with you.

 

A PLACE THAT SELLS PARTRIDGE PEA PLANTS

        In a recent blog concerning partridge pea, I mentioned that it might be difficult to find partridge pea plants at a nursery this time of year.  Well, as it turns out, one of our fellow bloggers wrote that she had recently seen potted partridge pea plants at the Shady Oak Butterfly Farm located in the north central Florida town of Brooker.

       If you are looking for a source of this valuable native plant, you might find it worthwhile to check out this establishment.  The address for the facility is shadyoakbutterflyfarm.com.  Even if they have sold out the plant since the response was sent, I think you will find it worthwhile to visit their website.  The colorful site is full of information about their butterfly operation as well as plants of value to butterflies.  They do offer mail order services.

BACKYARD SECRET – MALE AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES OUTNUMBER FEMALES

        It has been estimated male American goldfinches outnumber females.  The ratio of this imbalance is three males to every two females.

       Researchers have not determined why this is the case.  One theory is it is due to the fact males live longer than females.

       Do you see more male American goldfinches than females in your yard?  I am certain I do not know if the ratio holds true in my backyard.  However, I am going to find out.

UNUSUAL CARDINAL FOOD

       One of the reasons I enjoy watching wildlife in my yard is every time I walk out the backdoor I have a chance of making a new discovery.  It does not matter whether or not anybody else has made this discovery elsewhere.  The important thing is it is new to me.  Finding it in my own yard makes it extra special. 

       I would like to take a moment to tell you about my most recent discovery.

       Each year my wife scatters globe amaranth seeds in large containers sitting on our deck.  She grows globe amaranth because it bears beautiful flowers that attract a bevy of different wild pollinators such as butterflies.  In addition, the plant does not require a lot of water, plant pests rarely bother it, and it blooms profusely from summer into autumn.

       For weeks, we have been noticing the papery remains of tiny amaranth blooms littering the deck and nearby rail alongside one of our pots containing globe amaranth plants.  We suspected that birds were the responsible for the scattered flowers.  Our suspicion proved to be correct.  Recently while I was drinking my second cup of coffee and gazing out the window over the kitchen sink, I saw a group of globe amaranth plants violently shaking.  When I focused my attention on those particular plants I realized a female cardinal had landed on them and was pulling apart their globe shaped flower heads.  After tearing apart several blossoms to reach the tiny seeds hidden inside, the bird snipped off an entire flower head and flew away.  Shortly thereafter a male cardinal arrived and ate his fare share of the globe amaranth seeds.

       Wow!  To say the least, we are elated to find that a container full of globe amaranth plants provides foods for butterflies, bees, butterflies, and cardinals.  Who knows what else is visiting our globe amaranth plants?  What I do know is we are going continue watching the plants in hopes of discovering if anything else is benefitting from them.

PARTRIDGE PEA FEEDS A VARIETY OF WILDLIFE

       In our quest for native plants that are attractive and valuable to a variety of wildlife, we often overlook partridge pea.  In fact, it may already be growing in an unmanicured spot in your yard. 

       In case you are unfamiliar with partridge pea, it is a native, annual legume that grows across the entire state of Georgia.  Seven species of partridge pea grow in the Southeast.

       Its attractive feathery leaves are dark green.  The plant bears bright yellow flowers from May into September and beyond.  After the flowers bloom, a crop of flat, pea like pods appears.  Encased inside each pod are 4-20 black seeds.

       Since the hard seeds persist into spring, they are a source of seeds for northern bobwhites, turkeys, songbirds, and even small mammals.  One reason the seeds are so valuable is that they provide wildlife with a source of food throughout the winter, a time when seeds are often scarce.

       Unfortunately, we often overlook the fact that the plant is the larval host for moths and butterflies like the io moth, gray hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, and sleepy orange.

       Partridge pea also draws a host of nectar feeding insects.  It is interesting to note that this hardy native’s blossoms produce pollen but not nectar.  Nectar is generated in what botanists call extrafloral nectaries located at the base of its leaves. 

       Many pollinators are attracted to the partridge pea.  It is especially important to the honeybees.  In fact, beekeepers often plant partridge pea near their hives.  Other insects that dine at partridge pea include a variety of native bees and wasps, ants, and even the so-called velvet ant, which is actually a wingless wasp.

      It is unlikely you are going to find partridge pea plants at a nursery at this time of the year.  However, if you take a walk about your yard, you just might find partridge pea plants living along the fringes of your yard.  Since plant grows in a variety of soil types, you might find it in places where little else grows.

       If you locate it, don’t cut it down.  All you have to do help ensure that it will not disappear is leave it alone.  With a little luck, it may reseed itself next spring.     

       If you cannot find any partridge pea plants growing in your yard, one way that you can get it started is to collect some seeds pods from plants growing along a highway.  When the pods ripen, they will split open and release the seeds.  Then scatter the seeds on the ground during the fall.

       Keep in mind this plant will spread from where it was planted.  Consequently, carefully choose the places you want to try to establish it.

BACKYARD SECRET–BUTTERFLY WINGS ARE ACTUALLY TRANSPARENT

       It is hard to believe that the colorful insects that are often called flying flowers possess wings that are actually transparent.  Let me explain.

       It seems that butterfly wings are composed of a rugged material called chitin.  This same substance comprises the exoskeletons of all butterflies.  The thin layers of chitin found in a butterfly wing is actually transparent.  The colors seen in a butterfly’s wings stem from literally thousands of loosely attached tiny scales covering each wing.  Some 600 scales/sq. millimeter blanket the surfaces of the wings of some butterflies.  These scales contain pigments that reflect light.  The colors we see on the wings of the butterflies we spot flitting around our yards are the result of the types of scales and the amount and kinds of pigments they possess.

       Butterflies constantly lose scales as they age.  Consequently, some of the individuals of the same species we spot are less colorful than others.  When we see pale versions of species, we know these individuals are much older than those that display more iridescence and color.  In some cases, butterflies lose so many scales it is difficult or even impossible to identify them.

      

A NEW ADDITION TO THE LIST OF BIRDS I’VE SEEN EATING BEAUTYBERRIES

       Years ago, I learned that one of the best ways to attract a variety of birds to your yard is to provide them with a variety of wildlife foods.  In an attempt to accomplish this goal, I now offer my feathered neighbors a variety of seeds, and suet, in addition to mix of seeds, fruits and berries produced on a number of native trees and shrubs growing about the yard.  One of these shrubs is American beautyberry.

       A northern mockingbird was the first bird that I saw feeding on the shrub’s bright purple berries.  Since then I have kept track of the different species of birds that I have witnessed dining on these uniquely colored berries.  Up until this year, the list included the gray catbird, house finch, northern cardinal and brown thrasher.

       In the last few days, I have enjoyed watching cardinals hopscotching around the bird feeding area located in front of my home office my yard eating suet, sunflower seeds as well as the berries of an American beautyberry growing nearby.  Meanwhile, brown thrashers have divided their time between eating suet, pieces of bread.  and beautyberries.

       Yesterday, I just happened to notice the bush’s foliage shaking.  I stopped what I was doing and waited to see if a bird would appear.  Much to my surprise, the bird causing the leaves to shudder was a female summer tanager.  For several minutes, the bird moved about the bush eating a several beautyberries before moving on to the next cluster of bead-like berries.  Then, just as quickly as she appeared, she flew away.

       When she vanished into the foliage of a nearby oak tree, I had a new addition the list of birds I have personally seen feeding on American beautyberries in my yard.  Better yet, I also now possess an unforgettable memory.

       If you would like more information on American beautyberries, type American beautyberry in the Search bubble found on the right of the screen.  When you press the return button, a number of former blogs dealing with beautyberries will appear.

DO HUMMINGBIRDS SEEM TO BE LEAVING EARLY THIS YEAR?

        It appears that hummingbirds are leaving my yard early this year.

       Throughout most of August, my wife and I made lots of hummingbird food.  During these hot days of August, we were preparing and feeding the birds 20-25 cups of nectar every day or two.  This was because we were feeding more hummingbirds than during any previous August.  Based on the maximum numbers of birds we were seeing at any given time, I calculated that we were feeding 100 or more hummers daily.

       These numbers remained steady until September 4 when the nectar consumption dropped significantly.  Suddenly we were feeding the birds 20-25 cups of nectar every three to four days.  This was surprising because, in a normal year, we don’t see a significant decline in hummingbird numbers that early in the month.

       On September 12, I was surprised to see an adult male ruby-throated hummingbird dining at our feeders.  The bird also returned the next day.  While seeing an adult male that late in the summer was big news, what was even bigger news was the male was one of only three hummingbirds using our feeders daily.

       Since then, the male has moved on, however, we are still feeding only two or three hummingbirds.  This is in spite of the fact that we are still providing the little migrants with plenty of sugar water and flowerbeds and containers are awash with the blooms of a number of nectar plants.

       The seemingly early departure of the birds has reinforced my realization that, in spite of studying these magical birds for decades, there is so much I still do not know about them.

       I sure would like to know whether you have noticed that rubythroats seemingly left your yard early this year also.  It would help me understand if this is a local or widespread phenomenon.

BACKYARD SECRET–TUFTED TITMICE ARE HOARDERS TOO

       There are a number of animals that hoard seeds in our backyards.  This list includes eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels, Carolina chickadees, and blue jays.  There is another bird you can add to this list of animals that prepare of the winter by storing up supplies of food. 

       It might come as a surprise to know that the tufted titmouse is yet another bird that hoards sunflower seeds and other foods to help it to survive lean times that are common during winter.

DON’T ENCOURAGE BIRDS TO EAT NANDINA BERRIES

        With fall just days away, red berries by produced by plants such as Carolina moonseed, dogwood, and nandina are now beginning catch the eyes of bluebirds and other backyard favorites.  Although birds are attracted to these brightly colored berries, we should discourage them from consuming the berries of the nandina plant.

       This might come as a surprise to many of you since nandina has been planted as an exotic ornamental in North America since the early 1800s.  The plant’s evergreen foliage and red berries that persist throughout the winter make is a favorite among home gardeners.  The fact that birds also consume the berries seemed to make it an ideal addition to any yard.

       However, in 2009 scientists with the University Of Georgia School Of Veterinary Medicine, Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study made a startling discovery.  It seems that when birds consume too many of the berries they succumb to hydrogen cyanide poisoning.

       This news sent shock waves across the wildlife community.  Immediately a plant once touted as a great wildlife food plant fell from grace and wildlife experts began recommending that homeowners remove the plants from their yards.  In spite of the warnings, nandina is still widely found across the state.  Just this past week, I spotted a nandina laden with berries growing in the yard of an avid backyard wildlife enthusiast.

NANDINA BERRIES

       If you still have nandina growing in your yard, I suggest that you at least clip off the plants’ berries and dispose of them in the trash.  This will prevent your backyard bird neighbors from succumbing to hydrogen cyanide poison.  Better yet, follow up by removing the plants before the next growing season.