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?
I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration. If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds. While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.
As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds. These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas. Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations. Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.
The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet. However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights. By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects. However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).
Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves. Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.
When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal. The worst trees are introduced ornamentals. Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies. Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.
Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies. The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses. This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy.
In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees. Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).
Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list. The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.
If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants. How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find. If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day. Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.
If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage. While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.
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.
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.