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.
The red-banded hairstreak is one of our smallest and seemingly most fragile butterflies. Whenever I am fortunate enough to spot one of these tiny flying jewels, I realize that they have little chance of surviving the attack of a predator. Without the benefit of speed or camouflage, they must rely on deception to avoid becoming a meal.
The red-banded is one of a handful of hairstreaks that inhabit my yard. Like the other hairstreaks, the red-banded’s hindwings bear short, slender extensions often referred to as tails or hairs. In addition, two black spots adorn the trailing edge of each hindwing. These spots serve as false eyes. They, along with the projections that look like antennae, are keys to the red-banded hairstreak’s ability to deter predators.
Whenever you look at a red-banded hairstreak perched on a leaf or flower you will notice its hindwings are in constant motion. When one wing goes up other goes down. The constant movement of the butterfly’s wings makes a bird believe it is looking at the head of the insect. As such, when it attacks what it perceives to be the head of its prey, it ends up with nothing more than pieces of the insect’s wings. This gives the butterfly the opportunity to fly away without suffering a lethal wound.
However, Dr. Andrei Sourakov, a scientist with the University of Florida, has conducted experiments that strongly suggest that the hairstreak’s ruse might actually serve to protect it from attacks of another predator known as the jumping spider. When the biologist placed hairstreaks that had their false heads cut off in the same container with jumping spiders, the spiders always attacked the butterflies’ true heads. However, when he placed hairstreaks possessing complete wings in a container containing the predators, the spiders only attacked the butterfly’s false heads.
I am certain the hairstreaks’ behavior dupes birds into striking at their false heads too. However, due to the jumping spider’s greater abundance, it makes sense, that the deception aids the butterflies from fooling spiders more than birds.
This is just another case where research is forcing us to question our long-held beliefs concerning the natural world.
The juniper hairstreak is one of our more elusive butterflies; in spite of the fact, it ranges across most of the state except in portions of Southwest Georgia. This is unfortunate because this small (wingspan roughly one-inch), butterfly possesses unique beauty. When you see a juniper hairstreak, the thing that jumps out at you is the jewel-like olive green color that covers most of its wings.
Juniper hairstreaks are often difficult to find anywhere, let alone in backyards. However, last summer I saw more juniper hairstreaks in my yard than I had seen in my entire life. My good fortune is appears linked to my transplanting mountain mint plants in four locations in my backyard. During much of August 2020, I could consistently find juniper hairstreaks nectaring at the mountain mint’s tiny blooms.
Prior to last summer, I would only occasionally find juniper hairstreaks nectaring on the blossoms of white clover in my backyard. However, I would often go a year or more without seeing one.
I did not understand why this is the case since several large red cedars grow in my large backyard. Red cedar is the juniper hairstreak’s host plant. It seems juniper hairstreaks do not venture far from the trees, preferring instead to spend the majority of its time in the trees aromatic foliage.
In fact, I have often read that the best way to see a juniper hairstreak is to flush one by shaking a limb or tossing a dead branch in the into the canopy of a red cedar. Although I have tried this trick many times, it only worked once.
The juniper hairstreak nectars on a variety of flowering plants, although for some reason, I have never seen a juniper hairstreak feed on any of the large array of nectar-bearing flowers in my yard. That is until I planted mountain mint.
If you long to see a juniper hairstreak and red cedars grow nearby, you might want to plant mountain mint in your yard. The native is hardy an easy to grow. If you do add this plant to your yard, set it out in a place where it will not compete with other nectar plants, as it will spread.
Once you spot the first juniper hairstreak in your yard, you will wish you had made its acquaintance a long time ago.
Butterfly bushes are truly butterfly magnets. However, if you want them to continue blooming from now until migrating monarchs pass through out state months down to road; you must deadhead the plant’s spent blossoms.
For reasons I do not understand, this spring my butterfly bushes have been covered with the largest clusters of flowers they have ever produced. Unfortunately, few butterflies were around to enjoy them. However, lots of bumblebees, honeybees, and carpenter bees constantly visited the nectar-rich blossoms while they were blooming.
Fortunately, butterfly bushes can be encouraged to produce a bounty of flowers throughout much of the growing season. All it takes is deadheading the bush’s flower clusters before they go to seed.
Recently I deadheaded my butterfly bushes for the first time this year. From experience, I know I will have to repeat this procedure many times. However, I realize that, if I am diligent, countless butterflies and other pollinators will benefit from the food produced by crop after crop of fresh flowers. In the past, I have been successful in prolonging the butterfly bushes’ blooming until the monarchs en route to their wintering home in Mexico. When they use my yard as a stopover area on their epic journey it is not uncommon to see anywhere from four to eight monarchs on a single butterfly bush.
When deadheading a cluster of flowers, remove the spent cluster down to the spot close to the point when the main flower stem joins two side branches. If this is done at the right time, the two side branches will quickly produce flowers too. When the blooms on the main branch and side branches have already turned brown simply, cut the stem just above the next juncture of side branches and the main stem.
This is definitely a case where a little time spent cutting back spent flowers will produce a beautiful bush and remain a source of nectar throughout the summer.
Recently I participated in the Annual Spring Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area Butterfly Count. All of the participants I have talked to since the count have told me that they found more butterflies on a wildflower known as Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) than any other plant.
Heal-all has long been recognized as a nectar plant used by butterflies, bees and other nectar feeders. However, many books dedicated to attracting butterflies either do not mention it at all, or, if they do, provide little information pertaining to the plant.
Depending on whom you talk to heal-all either is a native or naturalized plant in Georgia. However, at least three varieties of heal-all grow in Georgia.
During the count, we found the plant growing in sunny (the plant will also grow in partial shade) areas along roadsides, disturbed sites, and small unmowed tracts. In most cases, the plants were growing in dry soil.
In spite of its value as a nectar source, it is rarely planted in gardens. In years past, this was not the case. Back in the day, the plant was grown more as a medicinal plant that for its small, showy lavender flowers.
Blossoms appear on thick cylindrical spikes. The plant’s square stem-bearing flowers typically reach a height of a foot or more. The plants we encountered are now in full bloom. Deadheading the blossoms will extend the plant’s blooming period.
Those gardeners that utilize the plant for butterflies often incorporate it in natural gardens or use it in borders. Heal-all can even be grown in larger containers.
Plants can be divided in spring or grown from seed. If you want to prevent them from seeding, cut off the flower heads before they produce seeds.
If you have some unmowed spots on your property, you might find heal-all growing there. If you cannot find heal-all growing near your home, and want to see what it looks like drive slowly driving down country roads. Chances are you will find patches of heal-all. If you stop to look at one or more of the heal-all stands, do not be surprised if you find several species of butterflies feeding on heal-all nectar.
After you become acquainted with heal-all, you can see why I feel it is an underrated nectar plant.
Zinnias are among my favorite plants. Whenever I plant them, I cannot help but recall pleasant memories of planting them as a child many years ago. Now that I am a wildlife gardener, I am fond of them because the add beauty to my yard and are great wildlife plants too. With that in mind, my wife and I are preparing to plant zinnias for the first time this year. That’s right I said for the first time because my wife and I plant zinnias multiple times a year.
We plant patches of zinnias in our gardens as well as in large planters. The crop we are planting now will begin producing flowers in sixty to seventy days. Once the plants bloom, we prolong the time they bloom by deadheading spent blossoms. By planting zinnias once week for several weeks, we are ensuring that we will enjoy zinnia blossoms and our wildlife neighbors will have access to the food they provide well into the fall.
My wife and I have had the best luck attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and our nectar feeders using single-flowered varieties. They provide hummingbirds easy access to the plant’s nectar. In addition, many butterflies seem to prefer feeding on the relatively flat surface offered by the flat landing area found on the blooms of old fashion varieties.
While butterflies visit zinnias for their nectar, hummingbirds also eat the tiny insects often found on zinnia blooms. In fact, it has been suggested they visit zinnias as much for the protein provided by insects as they do nectar.
My wife and I also enjoy watching American goldfinches visit our zinnias during the summer. The birds spend day after day pulling the petals off zinnia flowers to reach the seeds found at base of the petals.
I think it is great that zinnias enhance by backyard wildlife viewing opportunities by attracting hummingbirds, scores of butterflies and American goldfinches.
I hope you will plant them in your garden this year. If you do, I will be surprised if they do not offer you some great wildlife viewing too.
My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds. In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants. The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more. These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors. Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.
Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds. Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.”
The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green. Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.
Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three. The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV). Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye.
The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range. Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.
I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors. Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?
The coral bean (Erythrina herbacea) is a Georgia native that has made the transition from the wild to Georgia gardens particularly along the coast and across the Coastal Plain.
Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub. In the wild, a plant is most often found growing in the sandy soils of open woods, forest openings, and disturbed areas.
Although coral bean will grow in zones 7-10, it is often found growing in gardens in the South Georgia than other parts of the state. Actually, I am surprised this perennial native shrub it is not planted in more gardens. Each spring dark (almost black) stalks emerge from the ground and display a bouquet of bright red blossoms. The contrast of coral bean’s red flowers borne on dark stalks is truly stunning.
The floral show will continue into summer. During this time, plant’s tubular flowers are favorite sources of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies. Since the plant begins blooming in spring, in many gardens, it is sometimes the only source of nectar available to these nectar feeders.
Once the blooming period has ended each plant produces a crop of 4-6″ seedpods. When the pods open, they reveal bright red seeds, which offer a splash of color to fall gardens. The seeds are eaten by both birds and small mammals; however, the seeds very poisonous to humans. For that reason, children should be kept away from them.
Coral bean is susceptible to frost. However, unless the plant’s roots succumb to freezing weather, new shoots should emerge the following spring.
Interestingly, plants growing, in locales where freezing weather is a rarity such as South Florida, can grow to be 15 feet tall.
Two of our fellow bloggers have responded to the recent post regarding where homeowners can purchase native plants. Here is the contact information they have provided.
Flat Creek Natives Phone: 478-955-1731
Comments: The blogger that suggested this addition to the list commented those interested in purchasing plants are required to make an appointment with the nursery owner Greg Lewis. Details can be found on the nursery’s Facebook page.
Nearly Native Nursery Phone: 770-460-6248
770 McBride Road email: nearlynative nursery.com
Fayetteville, Georgia 30215.
Telephone Number: 770-460-6249