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.
On the second Sunday in May we celebrate a very special person in our lives. Yes, I am referring to our mothers. These very remarkable individuals shower us with love and devote their lives to raising us to become all that we can be. Today, while I was sitting on the deck of my home thinking about how much my mother has meant to me, a female hummingbird appeared at a backyard feeder. As the bird fed, it occurred to me that female ruby-throated hummingbirds are also special moms.
Each spring they return from their winter homes to raise another generation of rubythroats. When you stop to think about it this is not an easy task. Without the help of her mate, each female must construct an amazingly delicate nest in one to ten days (it takes longer if she does not rebuild an old nest). This requires her to make countless trips to gather the untold numbers of items needed to fashion her nest. The building materials range from bud scales, to the down from dandelions and thistles. The nest is held together with spider webs. She then plucks lichens from nearby branches and uses them to adorn the nest’s exterior.
After the nest is completed, she then lays two eggs and subsequently begins incubation. During the 12-14 days it takes to incubate the eggs, she will spend anywhere from 60%-80% of her time keeping her eggs warm.
Once the young hatch, she then dedicates the next 18-22 days of her life to feeding the voracious youngsters. This may require her to visit up to 1,500 flowers a day to collect nectar. In addition, she must also capture thousands of small insects and spiders and feed them to her rapidly growing youngsters.
If all goes well, the two young hummingbirds will take to their air and begin feeding themselves. However, in places like Georgia, the female may repeat the whole process again before leaving on her fall migration.
I am sure that as we celebrate Mother’s Day, thousands of female rubythroats proving they are indeed special moms too.
When the very first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in backyards across the state food is at a premium. This is because most of the flowers at that are blooming in early spring do not produce an abundance of nectar. As such, rubythroats must find other sources of food. In addition to our feeders, many hummingbirds rely on the sugary sap that collects in holes drilled in 246 species of native trees by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In case you are not familiar with this winter migrant, it is a woodpecker best known for drilling shallow holes in live trees. Often these holes are arranged in circles surrounding the trunk of a tree. Sap flowing through the tree collects in these cavities. In fact, in some cases, you can actually see where it oozed out of the cavities and dripped down the trunk of the tree.
The sap is a major source of food for the woodpecker. The sapsucker is able to dine on the sap because its tongue is equipped with an odd brush-like structure that it uses to collect the sticky liquid and bring it into its body.
Although sapsuckers often vainly try to discourage other wildlife from robbing their tiny sap-filled reservoirs, wildlife such as Carolina chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, moths, and ruby-throated hummingbirds often avail themselves of the food. Since the sap contains amino acids and sucrose, it is an ideal food for hungry hummingbirds.
It appears the food provided by the yellow-bellied sapsucker is more important to hummingbirds than we once thought. For example, rubythroats have been observed tailing sapsuckers through wooded areas seemingly to learn the location of active sapsucker wells. In addition, hummingbirds have been recorded actually trying to thwart other birds from feeding on trees containing sapsucker sucker holes.
It has also been demonstrated the northward migration of the yellow-bellied sapsucker closely mirrors that of the ruby-throated hummingbird. It should also be noted that when the rubythroats that nests in the northern limits of their breeding range, few nectar plants are blooming. This necessitates the birds to rely heavily on the sap collected in sapsucker wells to survive until nectar-bearing plants begin to bloom.
Chances are, if you have fruit or other hardwood trees growing in your backyard, they have been visited by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I guess you could say that when it comes to feeding hummingbirds early in the spring, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and we are the ruby-throated hummingbird’s best friends.