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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
In our quest for native plants that are attractive and valuable to a variety of wildlife, we often overlook partridge pea. In fact, it may already be growing in an unmanicured spot in your yard.
In case you are unfamiliar with partridge pea, it is a native, annual legume that grows across the entire state of Georgia. Seven species of partridge pea grow in the Southeast.
Its attractive feathery leaves are dark green. The plant bears bright yellow flowers from May into September and beyond. After the flowers bloom, a crop of flat, pea like pods appears. Encased inside each pod are 4-20 black seeds.
Since the hard seeds persist into spring, they are a source of seeds for northern bobwhites, turkeys, songbirds, and even small mammals. One reason the seeds are so valuable is that they provide wildlife with a source of food throughout the winter, a time when seeds are often scarce.
Unfortunately, we often overlook the fact that the plant is the larval host for moths and butterflies like the io moth, gray hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, and sleepy orange.
Partridge pea also draws a host of nectar feeding insects. It is interesting to note that this hardy native’s blossoms produce pollen but not nectar. Nectar is generated in what botanists call extrafloral nectaries located at the base of its leaves.
Many pollinators are attracted to the partridge pea. It is especially important to the honeybees. In fact, beekeepers often plant partridge pea near their hives. Other insects that dine at partridge pea include a variety of native bees and wasps, ants, and even the so-called velvet ant, which is actually a wingless wasp.
It is unlikely you are going to find partridge pea plants at a nursery at this time of the year. However, if you take a walk about your yard, you just might find partridge pea plants living along the fringes of your yard. Since plant grows in a variety of soil types, you might find it in places where little else grows.
If you locate it, don’t cut it down. All you have to do help ensure that it will not disappear is leave it alone. With a little luck, it may reseed itself next spring.
If you cannot find any partridge pea plants growing in your yard, one way that you can get it started is to collect some seeds pods from plants growing along a highway. When the pods ripen, they will split open and release the seeds. Then scatter the seeds on the ground during the fall.
Keep in mind this plant will spread from where it was planted. Consequently, carefully choose the places you want to try to establish it.
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.
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?