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HOW TO MAKE GOLDENROD MANAGEABLE IN YOUR GARDENS

       Goldenrod is one of our most gorgeous fall flowers.  In addition to beauty, it is also a valued late season source of food for a wide variety of native pollinators including butterflies such as the monarch.  While its virtues are indisputable, goldenrod is rarely considered a desirable garden plant.  A primary reason for this it spreads and often grows extremely tall.  However, I want to share with you tip that just might make you less inclined to pull up goldenrods that often crop up in gardens across the state.

       More than 30 species of goldenrods are native to Georgia.  As such, various species of the plan thrive in a variety of habitats.  In addition, some goldenrods grow to be only a couple of feet tall while others can attain heights of eight feet or more.

       Like many of you, goldenrods volunteer in our flower gardens every year.  Obviously, the goldenrods growing in my yard are tall varieties.  These plants easily top out at six to seven feet tall.  This requires us to pull them up.  If we don’t, they completely shroud other plants growing nearby.

       This year my wife taught me, a trick that makes these lofty nectar plants easily managed.  In August, she trimmed a few of goldenrods down to where their stalks were approximately a foot tall. 

    

“Long-tailed skipper feeding on blooms produced by a goldenrod pruned in August.”

         Each plants responded by developing three to four stems.  As summer gave way to fall, the goldenrods growing along the edge of our property grew to be as tall as expected and produced golden plumes of flowers.

       Their tiny flowers were visited by lots of bumblebees, some monarchs, and a variety of other pollinators.  This feeding activity ceased a few weeks ago.

       Meanwhile, the pruned goldenrods continued to grow eventually topping out at three feet tall and just recently produced their crop of flowers.  These blossoms could not have come at a better time.  Although many pollinators still are active in our yard, with each passing day, it is becoming more difficult for them to find nectar and pollen.  Our pruned goldenrods are helping meet their need.  In addition, they are extending the goldenrod’s floral show into late autumn.  The bonus is we have found a way to include goldenrod in our nectar gardens.  Wow! A well-time pruning can make huge difference.

ZEBRA HELICONIANS HAVE BEEN RARE AUTUMN TREATS

     The appearance of a zebra heliconian (also called a zebra longwing) in our backyard, has always been special treat.  However, for reasons I do not fully understand, my wife and I have seen more of the beautiful black and yellow-striped butterflies this year than ever before.

       We saw our first zebras of the year back in August.  After a long hiatus, they began appearing weeks later on a regular basis.  Invariably, once they reappeared we never spotted more than one zebra heliconian at a time.  However, during the past few weeks we have been regularly seeing at least two at a time.  Two days ago, for the first time ever, we startled to find four of them feeding at bright orange Mexican sunflower blossoms.  Oddly, the day before a friend told me he had seen four in his yard.

       The zebra heliconian is a year-round resident in Florida southward through Central America.  Zebra longwings can also be found along the southern Gulf Coast of the United States all the way to Texas.  In fact, this Neotropical butterfly can be observed somewhere in the United States throughout the entire year.

       During the summer, in spite of the fact they normally doesn’t range far, many zebra longwings begin drifting northward far from the Sunshine State.  As such, each year, they are regularly seen in South Carolina.  In fact, sightings have been made as far north as New York.

       The field guides tell us that, in Georgia, this butterfly is most often seen in the Coastal Plain.  However, the truth of the matter is, in most years, as few will show up in backyard throughout the Lower Piedmont.  This year, for example, I have received reports of them being seen from Grovetown, Forsyth, and Woodland. 

       The zebra longwing has the distinction of having the longest continuous life span as an adult of any butterfly found in the United States.  While most adult butterflies live only a few weeks or less, the zebra longwing’s adult life extends for six or more months.  This longevity undoubtedly allows them to roam as far as they do.

       One of the things I find most fascinating about zebra longwings is they congregate at nighttime roosts.  These aggregations are called crèches and can number anywhere from 25-30 individuals.  Typically branches or Spanish moss are chosen for roost sites.  Such locations are sometimes used by the butterflies for days on end.

       I would dearly love to find a zebra longwing crèche this year.  Meanwhile, although I don’t know how long the Johnsons will be able to enjoy watching zebra heliconians drifting about our backyard, every time we see them, we will consider the event a rare autumn treat.

OCOLA SKIPPERS ARE MIGRATING THROUGH OUR BACKYARDS

       Whenever butterfly migration is mentioned, the monarch comes to mind.  However, while the monarch is undoubtedly our most famous butterfly migrant, a number of other butterflies also migrate.  One of these butterflies is the ocola skipper and it is passing southward through our backyards right now.

       The ocola is far from being our largest (wingspan: 1/5-1.75″) or most striking butterfly.  It is best described as being elongated in shape and dark brown in color. Whenever I see one, it reminds me of a jet airplane.  When it opens its wings, it displays a distinctive white arrowhead-shaped mark.  However, from the side, is appears to be a nondescript small, slender butterfly.  In addition, when its wings are closed, the butterfly’s light veins are distinctive.

       Although the ocola can be seen in Georgia from late March into early November, it is most abundant in my yard in late summer and early fall.  Currently the ocola is among the most common butterflies feeding on our flowers. 

       These distinctively shaped butterflies are feeding at a number of nectar plants including the butterfly bushes, cosmos, globe amaranth, and zinnias.

       Oddly, there is mounting evidence that, for some unknown reason, some Ocala’s actually migrate north in the fall and show up in places such as Ontario, Canada and Massachusetts.

       That being said, I believe it is safe to say that the destination of the ocolas we are currently seeing in our yards is Florida.  In winter, they winter throughout the peninsula of the Sunshine State.  Some even overwinter as far south as Key West.

       Who would have ever imagined this small butterfly could successfully navigate such a monumental journey?

THE MORNING GLORY – FRIEND OR FOE?

        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.

       

 

 

ARE CLOUDLESS SULPHURS LARGER AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR?

      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.

A SURPRISE BUTTERFLY NECTAR PLANT – ENCORE AZALEA

        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!

SULPHUR COSMOS – GREAT FOR HUMMINGBIRDS AND BUTTERFLIES

      Whenever my wife and I stumble across a plant that proves to be a great addition to our backyard wildlife gardens, we like to share our discovery with others.  One of our latest discoveries is sulphur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureous). 

       Over the years we have planted a number of different varieties of cosmos.  However, none of have proven to attract as many butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators as sulphur cosmos.  We have also found the flowers are popular with both bumblebees and carpenter bees. 

       As such, we have enjoyed watching these rotund pollinators land on cosmos blossoms and ride them downward toward the ground.

       We have planted sulphur cosmos in a couple of mass plantings.  However, it is purported to grow well in containers also.

       We have learned this annual is easy to grow.  We are growing them in moderately fertile clay soil.  However, the plant has the reputation of being able to grow in a variety of soils ranging from poor to fertile.

       The plant’s bright orange and yellow daisy like flowers are stunning.  Plants grow two to six feet tall (most of our plants reached a height of four to five feet).  The flowers last for a long time.  In addition, dead heading will prolong their bloom well into the fall.

       Our sulphur cosmos plants have been blooming for several weeks.  During that time, we have seen the blossoms visited by a host of pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern tiger swallowtails, common buckeyes, checkered skippers, gulf fritillaries, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, monarchs, and others.  The most recent addition to the list of butterflies seen on the flowers was a giant swallowtail.  This butterfly is uncommon in our neck of the woods. 

       If you decide to incorporate this ornamental in your garden, I would be very surprised if doesn’t please you as much as it has us.

THE CAROLINA SATYR IS A BACKYARD GHOST

      In spite of the fact that the Carolina satyr is one of the most common butterflies found in many Georgia backyards, its photograph rarely graces calendars or is featured in popular magazines.  Even in yards where it makes its home, since it almost never visits flowers, some homeowners do not realize it is there. 

       It prefers to live out its life in the moist, dark wooded spots where most flowering plants cannot live.  Even when is seen in its shady lair, it is often mistaken for a drab moth.  Indeed one could say it is our backyard ghost butterfly.

       The Carolina satyr is a small butterfly with a wingspan of only an inch to an inch and a half.  While it will never qualify as one of our most attractive butterflies, if you take the time to closely examine one resting on a dead leaf or twig, it quickly becomes apparent the pattern found on its ventral wings is quite attractive.

       Some have described the butterfly’s color as muddy brown; however, many field guides say it is light brown.  In fact, when the butterfly has its wings outstretched basking the sun; you can see the dorsal wings are devoid of any pattern.  Consequently, if you did not know what you were looking at, you would be scratching you head wondering what it the world you what it is.  Fortunately, for anybody trying to identify his or her first Carolina satyr, you do not often see a Carolina satyr in this pose.

       When we see one at rest, more often than not, it has its wings closed above its body.  In this position, the markings featured on the ventral side of the insect are clearly visible. Usually, the first things that catch your eye are the spots lining the trailing edge of the underwings.  The two largest spots are located in the bottom corner on the hindwing.  Each spot consists of a very small blue spot surrounded by a thick black ring.  In turn, this ring is rimmed in yellow.  Above these two prominent features, a series of smaller spots are positioned all the way to the tip of the wing.  These markings also have yellow rims.  A few will even have dark centers.  The underwings also feature two black traverse lines and dashes, respectively.

       Carolina satyrs are often seen fluttering about in shady woodlands, forest openings and nearby disturbed grassy areas.  They also do well in shady backyard settings. 

       Here they prefer to feed on tree sap, animal droppings and rotting fruit.  About the only time they are ever seen feeding at flowers is in late autumn.

       This is one butterfly that hugs the ground.  One observed flying more than a foot or so above the earth, is on a grand adventure.

       The Carolina satyr flight can be best described as slow and bouncy.  Those of us that watch butterflies appreciate the fact that Carolina satyrs rarely embark on extended flights.  As such, I have found that when I flush one in a shady spot, if I immediately stop and wait a few moments, the butterfly will often alight a short distance away.  This offers me the opportunity to take a glimpse of it through my binoculars or quickly snap a picture.

       Carolina satyrs are found throughout the state.  Depending upon where you live, you can see this delicate backyard ghost from late February until early November.

       If you and wondering whether or not these small butterflies are present in your yard, visit some of the shadier area of your yard.  Once there slowly walk about scanning the ground in front of you.  If you happen to catch the glimpse something slowly moving from place to place, more than likely you are not having a close encounter with something that goes bump in the night.  Instead you are probably looking at Georgia’s backyard ghost butterfly.

 

HOARY EDGE OR SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER?

       Summer is a great time to watch butterflies.  Depending on where you live, coupled with the abundance and variety of nectar plants growing in your gardens, it is possible to spot 25 or more species of butterflies in a single day.  Currently, I am finding anywhere from 12-17 species a day.  It is relaxing to watch butterflies flying from flower to flower.  However, I find it even more satisfying when I can identify what I am looking at.  With that in mind, I thought I would offer you some tips that will help you tell the difference between two similar butterflies that are likely to be seen in your backyard.

       The two butterflies I am going to focus on are the hoary edge and silver-spotted skipper.  Both are overall dark in color and display patches of white on the undersides of their rear wings.

       In my neighborhood, my wife and I see the silver-spotted skipper far more often than the hoary edge.  However, it is not uncommon to find them feeding close to one another on the same plant.   

       Both butterflies are similar in size although the silver-spotted skipper is a bit larger with a wingspan that measures 1.75-2.40 inches in width.  In comparison, the hoary edge’s wingspan is 1.4-1.75″ wide.

       The feature that you can use to most easily tell whether you are looking at is a hoary edge or silver-spotted skipper is the position of the splash of white visible when the butterflies are perched with their wings closed.  The white patch of the hoary edge extends inward from the trailing edge of the wing.  To me, this frosty patch also seems to be somewhat smeared.

       In the case of the silver-spotted skipper, its underwing patch does not extend all the way to the rear edge of the wing.  Instead, it is situated near the center of the wing.  In addition, this patch takes on a bright silvery white hue.  Also, the outer edges of the patch are more clearly defined.   

THE AMERICAN LADY

       One of the most common butterflies my wife and I are seeing in our backyard right now is the American lady (Vanessa virginianus).

       The American lady is a medium sized butterfly with a wingspan that measures from 1.75 – 2.4 inches wide.

       The American lady is a beautiful butterfly. From above the butterfly is reddish orange in color. Its forewings are bordered black. The tips of the forewings are also adorned with white spots.

       The American lady is gorgeous regardless of whether you see it from above or below. However, I personally find it most attractive when it holds its wings above its body while feeding. When you look at the ventral side of the butterfly in this position the first thing that catches your eye are two large eyespots. The underside of the wings also features a complex pattern of creamy white lines that will immediately remind you of a spider web. What a combination!

       The only butterfly that it can be confused with is the painted lady. Whereas there are a couple of subtle differences in the appearances of the painted lady and the American lady, the easiest way to separate the two is by counting the number of eyespots displayed on the trailing edge of the ventral side of the wings. The painted lady is decorated with four small eyespots whereas the American lady has but two large eyespots.

       Depending on where you live in Georgia, you may see American ladies flying from late January into November. Folks residing in the southern half of the state see them earlier and later in the year than those living in North Georgia.

       American ladies prefer to fly in open areas such as roadside, fields and meadows. Fortunately for us they are also commonly found in our backyards.

       American ladies nectar at any a number of ornamental and native plants. However, in our backyard, they are primarily nectaring at coneflowers and Miss Huff lantana.

       When you approach an American lady don’t be surprised if it flies away much sooner than an eastern tiger swallowtail. It is a bit skittish. However, if you stand motionless, often the American lady will soon return and land close by.

       Among the host plants used by the American lady are cudweed, some asters, and pussy-toes.