BACKYARD SECRET – THE BLACK WALNUT TREE IS VALUABLE TO WILDLIFE
I suspect that most of the folks that have a black walnut tree growing in their yards enjoy the tasty nuts the trees bears, its yellow fall foliage, and attractive shape. However, whenever I tell folks that their black walnut tree is also valuable to wildlife, they are pleasantly surprised.
The tree serves as a host the banded hairstreak butterfly and more than 100 moths including the luna, royal and imperial.
A number of small mammals eat the nuts including the eastern chipmunk and both gray and fox squirrels. In fact, black walnuts can comprise up to 10 percent of the fox squirrel’s diet.
Whenever black walnuts are cracked open by mammals, or crushed by vehicles in driveways or highways, many birds eat the highly nutritious meat. In fact, black walnut meat is ranked as a choice food for the eastern towhee, cardinal, white-throated sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jay, and woodpeckers (hairy, red-bellied and downy).
GEORGIA MINT MAKES A MAGICAL CHANGE
I am sure you are familiar with the fairy tale that tells the story of how an ugly duckling magically turned into a beautiful swan. While my wife and I don’t have any swans swimming around the Johnson Homestead, each year we witness the similar transformation of a native plant known as Georgia mint from what many would call a nondescript weed into a beautiful wild flower. Let me explain.
If you visited our yard in early summer, you might wonder why we would find room for what some folks might think is an ugly weed to grow in our yard. However if you returned anytime from late summer well into October you would discover the reason why we are so fond of it.
At this time of the year, countless pale lavender-white flowers literally blanket our stand of Georgia mint. Admittedly these blossoms are small, however, what they lack in size they more than make in delicate beauty.
In our neck of the woods, the blooming period for Georgia mint extends for weeks. In fact, the plants are still in full bloom as I write this blog. In comparison, most of our most valued pollinator plants have either ceased blooming or will soon do so. As a result, with each passing day bees (particularly small bumblebees), and butterflies are faced with an increasing shortage of flowers. Fortunately, for them, in our yard, Georgia mint serves as a life preserver.
Currently, our Georgia mint is in high demand. Small bumblebees, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, a wide variety of skippers (e.g. ocolas, fierys, whirlabouts, cloudeds and duns), gulf fritillaries and buckeyes make daily trips to forage on the petite flowers. Although In past years, monarchs have also joined the assemblage of pollinators, we have not seen any this year.
Each year, when Georgia mint becomes the most visited pollinator plant in our yard, we are reminded that anyone that has the desire to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators should make the effort to provide a parade of plants that supplies these flying gems food throughout as much of the year as possible. For us, Georgia mint is one of our most important late season nectar plants.
SWEETSHRUB IS A FRAGRANT ADDITION TO YOUR YARD
I am surprised that more Georgians are not familiar with the sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). Since it bears some of the most fragrant blossoms of any of our native woodland shrubs, you would think that most folks would want it growing in their yard.
The sweetshrub’s blossoms are maroon in color and produce a pleasing aroma that my wife and I are convinced smells like apples. However, some describe the scent as smelling like spicy strawberries. Others inhale the shrub’s pleasing aroma and say it reminds them of a mixture of pineapples and bananas.
Regardless of how you interpret the pleasing odor, the vast majority of us love it. In fact, some people think so highly of it they plant sweetshrubs near their outside doors. This allows them to lean over and take a whiff of the flowers before heading out for the day.
The sweetshrub is also a pollinator plant. Although Sweetshrub blooms generate pollen used by native bees and butterflies, sap beetles are the plant’s main pollinator. However, since sap beetles are small (1.4-inch) and nondescript we often overlook them.
The way in which these beetles pollinate sweetshrub blossoms in a little strange. The fragrant flowers draw the beetles with the scent they emit. Once the beetles land on the blossoms, they crawl down inside the bloom and begin gathering pollen. Here is where this gets odd. When the beetles are ready to leave, they have a difficult time exiting the flower. As such, they often remain there until the flower matures enough for its petals to fold back enough for them to depart. Once they are on the wing, they fly off carrying granules of pollen. When they land on another sweetshrub blossom, they inadvertently pollenate that flower.
Sweetshrub is easy to grow from seed, transplants, and cuttings. While there are cultivars on the market, I have never planted any of them. If you want to be sure you are planting sweetshrubs that produce beautiful maroon blooms, a pleasing apple scent, and pollen relished by pollinators; you cannot go wrong buying plants from reputable nurseries that deal in native plants.
MISTLETOE IS FAR MORE THAN A SYMBOL OF CHRISTMAS
With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants. One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.
Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas. Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss. At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries. However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.
Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals. This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife. Let me explain.
This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak. This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe.
Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects. Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes. Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.
Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe. Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.
Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries. Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh. Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.
Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant? I am.
CAN WOOLLY BEAR CATERPILLARS PREDICT THE WEATHER?
This week I made an exciting find. While walking from my office to the house, I just happened to look down and spotted a woolly bear caterpillar curled up in the gravel. This was the first woolly bear I have seen this year.
The woolly bear is the caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). Stiff bristles cloak the caterpillar’s body giving it a fuzzy appearance. A rusty band extends across the midsection of the insect. Black bristles cover the front and rear portions of the insect.
When I spotted to fuzzy caterpillar, it brought back fond memories of my childhood. Back then, it was commonly believed the width of the rusty band can be used to predict the weather. According to popular folklore when the rusty band is wide, we are in for a mild winter. Conversely, when it is narrow we will have to suffer through a severe winter.
Entomologists tell us that the width of the rusty band is controlled by the age of the caterpillar and not the impending weather. As the caterpillar ages it goes through a series of molts. With each molt, the black bristles that comprise two black bands are progressively replaced with rusty bristles. Consequently, the width of the rusty band is broadest when the caterpillar molts for the last time.
From the looks of the caterpillar I found, if the woolly bear can actually predict the weather, the winter in my neck of the woods should not be too severe.
If you find a woolly bear crawling across your lawn or driveway, make a note of the width of its rusty band. Then next spring pull out the note and see if the woolly bear’s prediction was right or wrong.
ADD A TOUCH OF FALL COLOR TO YOUR YARD
If you are looking for a plant that will add a touch of fall color to your yard, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) may be the perfect addition to your home landscape.
This native tree grows throughout the entire state. Typically, it reaches a height of around 20 feet. In the fall, the tree’s foliage ranges in color from scarlet and orange to gold. While all of the leaves are attractive, I personally prefer its scarlet-colored leaves.
In addition, every 2-3 years female trees also produce a crop of dark-blue, oval fruits (drupes) perched on showy scarlet pedestals.
If you look at a sassafras tree’s foliage, you will quickly notice that it is comprised of leaves shaped like mittens, eggs, as well as those displaying three lobes.
In addition, to providing a flash of fall color, this tree is also a source of food for wildlife. For example, it is a host plant for a number of butterflies and moths including the spicebush swallowtail as well as promethea and imperial moths.
For a brief time in the spring, the sassafras also supplies food for wild pollinators.
Mammals such as rabbits and squirrels consume sassafras fruits. The list of birds that dine on the fruits includes woodpeckers, eastern kingbirds, gray catbird, eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, great crested flycatcher, mockingbird, and brown thrasher.
Indeed sassafras has a lot going for it; the tree is attractive, and provides for a wide range of wildlife. It does not get much better than that!
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.