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PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.

MOUNTAIN MINT IS A GREAT PLANT FOR POLLINATORS

       Over the years, my wife and I have been planting a diversity of nectar/pollen-producing plants in our gardens. This has been done in an effort to provide our backyard pollinators with sources of food throughout the year. This approach has offered us the opportunity to watch pollinators feed at a parade of plants from week to week as well as season to season. As the blossoms of one plant wither and die, pollinators redirect their attention to plants that are currently blooming. Right now, many of these pollinators are visiting mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), one of the more recent additions to our landscape.

       Mountain mint is a native perennial herb that grows two to three feet tall. Eight species of this hardy plant are found in the Southeast. Plants grow two to three tall. They exist in a variety of soil conditions, including the dry clay soil found in our yard. While the plant does best in moist soil types, it is drought tolerant. Mountain mint will grow in partial shade as well as full sun.

    Mountain mint has a unique, eye-catching appearance. What makes this plant stand out is the fact that the leaves growing just below its flowers look like they have received a dusting of powdered sugar. In fact, to me, this foliage is far more attractive than the plant’s small white-purple blooms. In fact, these blossoms or so small you might overlook them if they were not arranged in clusters.

       However, though mountain mint plants won’t win any awards for beauty, the fact that it blooms from June into October makes it an important source of food for wild pollinators.

       Speaking of awards, in 2013 the Penn State Extension Service evaluated 88 pollinator-rewarding perennial plants for their importance to pollinators. At the end of the trial, mountain mint (P. muticum) received the highest rating for longevity of flowers, diversity of pollinators that use the plants, and the most insects attracted during the trials. In one trial, 76 insects visited the plants in just two minutes.

       I am not surprised at these findings. When my wife and daughter found our mountain mint blooming a few days ago, they saw a stand of mint being visited by three species of butterflies (juniper hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and pearl crescent). They competed with the likes of thread-waisted wasps, hornets, and bumblebees.

       One thing I like about mountain mint is that it is easy to grow. A friend gave us some mountain mint plants two summers ago. We set them out and kept them watered. The very next year the plants produced a crop of flowers.

       If you like to create dried arrangements, you will love mountain mint. Each fall after the flowers have disappeared, you are left with scores of unique prickly, round, brown seed heads displayed on long stems.

       Mountain mint is a plant that definitely deserves a place in your flower gardens.

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.

       Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.

       Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.

      The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.

       You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.

       I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.

       Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.

       In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.

       For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.

       As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.

       That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.

MONARCH NUMBERS TUMBLE

       Monarchs are already being seen in the Peach State. My wife and I saw our first monarch of the spring a little over a week ago. I hope that many more with visit our yard in 2020. While I am certain our gardens will be visited by this popular butterfly, according to a survey conducted on the monarch’s wintering grounds, chances are we will not be seeing as many monarchs as we did in 2019.

       It seems the annual survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico, National Commission of Protected Natural Areas, World Alliance-Telmex Telcel Foundation, and local communities in the monarch’s wintering area. 

       This year’s survey of the monarch’s wintering grounds situated in the mountainous region of central Mexico revealed the butterflies were occupying just seven acres of habitat. In comparison, monarchs were wintered in 15 acres during the winter of 2018-2019. This tells monarch specialists the monarch population plummeted 53% from the previous winter.

 

       According to Lepidopterists involved in monarch research and surveys, the precipitous drop in monarchs is linked to extremely low temperatures prevalent in South Texas in March and May 2019. These temperatures slowed down the growth of both monarch eggs and caterpillars. This, in turn, reduced the numbers of monarch adults that continued the migration on north to produce the 2019 crop of monarchs across much of North America.

MONARCH (True Truetlen Co. Record) – 13 October 2010)

       The survey leaders that conducted the study emphasized they felt this decline was temporary and the better weather (e.g. less drought, normal temperatures) would enable what is arguably our most recognized butterfly to rebound.

       Let’s hope they are right.

WILD POLLINATORS HAVE COLOR PREFERENCES

       It is common knowledge that wild pollinators will visit flowers displaying a kaleidoscope of colors. However, it you carefully watch the number of times they visit the flowers in your garden, you will notice wild bees, butterflies and hummingbirds seem to feed more often at flowers imbued with certain colors more often than others. This information can prove to be invaluable to anyone planning a pollinator garden.

       As we all know, hummingbirds prefer red flowers above all others. However, they are also partial to purple, orange, and pink blossoms. On the other side of the coin, they are not big fans of yellow flowers.

       Such is not the case with wild bees. Yellow flowers are favored by these insects, as are those that are white, violet, and blue.  

     Largely, butterflies are drawn to yellow, red, orange, and pink blossoms. Whereas they seem to visit green flowers least of all.

OAKS ARE IMPORTANT BUTTERFLY AND MOTH HOST PLANTS

              Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths.  In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants.  Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants.  Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard.  Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.

 

       Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies.  More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State.  Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards. 

 

       Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants:  red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth,  imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.

      If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks.  With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard.  If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.  If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list.  This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.

 

A PLACE TO RELIEVE THE STRESS CAUSED BY COVID 19

        Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.

       Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.

       One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.

       Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.

       As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.

       In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.

       Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.

       When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.

       I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.

       While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.

       If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.

THE GREAT PURPLE HAIRSTREAK IS AN OFTEN OVERLOOKED BEAUTY

        Each spring nature treats us to a kaleidoscope of beautiful plants and animals ranging from butterflies and moths to flowers and birds. In fact, with so many beautiful things to look at, nobody can appreciate them all. As a result, far too many stunning natural jewels go unseen. Take the case of the great purple hairstreak. It maintains its anonymity because its wingspan only measures 1-1.7 inches and it spends most of its life in the tops of trees. Consequently, although it is one of the most gorgeous butterflies we are likely to see in our backyards; it is safe to say most of us never spot one.

       Recently my daughter stumbled across one basking on the lawn surrounding the place where she works. When she stopped to take a closer look at the butterfly, its beauty took her aback.        The butterfly appeared to be what butterfly enthusiasts refer to as “fresh.” This means the butterfly recently emerged and was sporting undamaged wings cloaked with all of their scales.

      If you see a male great purple hairstreak basking, it is something you will not soon forget. This is because the butterfly’s wings are a bright metallic blue and literally seem to shine in direct sunlight.

       The upper side of the female great purple hairstreak is blackish in color and displays a limited amount of metallic blue.

       Being an amateur photographer, one of the things on my bucket list is being able to photograph the dorsal side of a male great purple hairstreak. However, since the only time you are likely see the topside of this butterfly is when it is flying or basking, my chances of photographing it from above are limited. Consequently, all of my photos of it show the ventral side of the insect.

       The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are best described as blackish in color and highlighted with red spots near when the wings join its body. In addition, a series of blue spots adorn the undersides of the hindwings.

       Lastly, short, fragile tails extend from the trailing edges of the hindwings. If you look carefully at a great purple hairstreak you will likely see the butterfly moving these fragile tails back and forth. It is believed this is done to distract would-be predators. Supposedly, a bird or other predator is more apt to strike at the moving tails and not the insect’s head and body. This would give the butterfly a chance to escape before the predator realized its mistake.

       One feature that immediately catches your eye when you spot one of these butterflies is its orange abdomen. Supposedly, this is a warning to predators that it is distasteful.

       The best butterfly gardens offer butterflies host plants and to nectar-rich flowers. While we can offer great purple hairstreaks a supply of nectar, we cannot plant its host plant. The reason for this is its host is mistletoe. With that in mind, if you see mistletoe growing atop a tree such as oak growing in your yard, there is a good chance great purple hairstreaks are living in your neighborhood.

       I should note that during the spring I most often see the great purple hairstreak nectaring on purple dead nettle (see accompanying photo). Purple dead nettle is an invasive introduced plant most homeowners would call a weed.

       If you do not happen to spot a great purple hairstreak this spring, all is not lost. Great purple hairstreaks can be spotted throughout the state from March to early November.

START PLANNING FOR SPRING GARDENS

      With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.

       Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.

SURPRISED TO SEE A MONARCH ON A FROSTY MORNING

         Today I awoke to a thermometer reading of 32˚F. This marks the first day the temperature has plummeted to the freezing mark this fall.  While I do not have any idea how long the temperature hovered this low, I know it could not have been too long since none of the plants flowering in my backyard showed any signs of frost damage.

When I ventured outside for the first time on this sunny, cool day the temperature had risen to 57˚.  Much to my surprise the first creature I saw this morning was a monarch butterfly.  The monarch was nectaring on the purple blossoms displayed on two butterfly bushes.

Needless to say, I was startled to see a monarch on such a cold morning since even on a sunny day, monarchs are rarely seen when the air temperature is in the 50s.  When it is cloudy, this magnificent butterfly often does not take to the air until the air temperature reaches 60˚.  That being the case how was this butterfly out and about feeding?

More than likely it must have spent the night roosting nearby in a location where the temperature remained above freezing.

In autumn, when monarchs are passing through the south on their way to Mexico they seem to prefer to roost in pecan and oak trees; especially those growing close to a nearby source of nectar. These trees offer protection from the wind and their dense foliage provide places to roost that at are often warmer than the air temperature.

During the past few years, I have noticed that late in the afternoon during the monarch migration, monarchs will nectar on one particular butterfly bush growing on the north side of my home.  Just beyond my driveway stand three water oaks.  Several times as the sunlight melted away, the monarchs would flutter up into the oaks and vanish from sight.  While I am not positive this is their nighttime roost, I suspect it is.

Wherever the monarch I saw this morning roosted, it could not move until the temperature rose above 40˚.  As the temperature slowly climbed, the butterfly had to crawl to a sunny spot and open its wings and bask in the warming rays of the sun.  The butterfly’s black scales and abdomen enabled to it to absorb the heat needed to raise its body temperature.  Once its flight muscles reached 55˚ degrees, the monarch was capable of flight.

I am certain the monarch I saw this morning is now miles away from my backyard.  As the sun begins to dip below the horizon this afternoon, I hope it finds another suitable roost site and the night will not be as chilly as it was last night in Monroe County.