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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.

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.