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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.

 

PARTRIDGE PEA FEEDS A VARIETY OF WILDLIFE

       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 CAN BE SEEN IN OUR BACKYARDS

       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.

JUNIPER HAIRSTREAK ON MOUNTAIN MINT

       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.

DON’T FORGET TO DEADHEAD BUTTERFLY BUSHES

       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.

         Butterfly bush w/spent blossoms

       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.        

HEAL-ALL IS POPULAR WITH BUTTERFLIES RIGHT NOW

      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.

       The plant is also known by a number of other names such as prunella, carpenter’s herb, woundwort, heart-of-the-earth, and self heal. 

       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.

LOOKING AT NECTAR PLANTS THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMMINGBIRD

      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?

CORAL BEAN IS A FAVORITE OF RUBYTHROATS & BUTTERFLIES

       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.

   Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub. 

       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.

LITTLE KNOWN CHOKEBERRY OFFERS WILDLIFE NECTAR AND FRUIT

       Few people have made an acquaintance with the chokeberry.  I am sure this is probably because this Georgia native often goes unnoticed unless people are looking for it.  However, in the right garden setting, this shrub provide homeowners with a splash of color in spring and autumn, as well as a source of nectar for native pollinators and fruit for wildlife.

       When trying to purchase chokeberry plants at a nursery, you might find red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa), as well as a hybrid (A. prunifolia).  Cultivars are also available, however, having had no experience with them, I cannot attest to their value to wildlife.

       Chokeberries are deciduous shrubs that can attain heights ranging from 6-12 feet.  In the spring, the plants produce 2-3-inch clusters of white blossoms.  These blooms provide pollinators such as butterflies and bees with nectar at a time of the year when it is often extremely scarce.  Retired teacher and conservation educator Betty Esco reports that on her property during early spring the chokeberry’s snow white blooms attract Henry’s elfins and falcate orangetips.

       From midsummer into fall and winter chokeberry shrubs display their small astringent fruits.  Birds such as cedar waxwings, chickadees, and even eastern meadowlarks eat these fruits.  Small mammals will also dine on chokeberries. 

       I should also mention that chokeberries are not rated as a top wildlife food plant.  However, this may be because it is rarely found in large enough numbers to provide large quantities of food.

       Unfortunately, white-tailed deer will browse on the plant.

       In autumn, the shrubs’ leaves are painted with lavender, red and orange hues.

       The shrub will tolerate a wide range of soils even those that are extremely moist. However, as you might expect, they prefer damp, rich soils with a ph of 6.8.

       Chokeberries will grow in moderate shade as well as direct sunlight.  Although, if you are looking to maximize plant’s growth and fruit production, plant it a well-drained location that receives full sunlight and features slightly moist soil.

       As is the case with many plants, these shrubs have their greatest impact when grown in mass plantings.  Such stands can be achieved by setting out a small number of plants. This is due to chokeberry’s propensity for producing numerous shoots.

AM I REALLY BUYING A NATIVE PLANT?

       Since most wildlife gardeners are finding room in their gardens for native plants that benefit hummingbirds, bees, moths and other wild pollinators, it is important that they know what they are buying.

       The first thing to keep is never buy plants actually taken from the wild.  Always buy native plants from reputable plant dealers that sell plants grown in nurseries.  The ensures that wild populations of native plants are not decimated.

       Also, be certain you are purchasing the correct plant.  You can never be sure what you are getting when you refer to a plant only by its common name.  Many different plants often share the same common name.  For this reason, always provide a dealer with both the plant’s common and scientific name.  This eliminates any ambiguity as to what you have in mind.

       It is also important to know whether you are purchasing a hybrid.  Often hybrids do not produce the same amount of pollen and/or nectar as the original form of the plant.  The reason for this is during the hybridization process the focus is often on developing varieties that display traits the plant breeders feel are improvements on the natural form of the plant.  In many cases, in the attempt to attain these goals, the variety’s ability to produce nectar and/or pollen is either lost or diminished.  If you purchase a hybrid and later discover it does not benefit wild pollinators you are not going to be happy.

       Therefore, before you purchase a hybrid, do a little research, and make sure it produces nectar and pollen.

HOW TO MAKE GOLDENROD MANAGEABLE IN YOUR GARDENS

       Goldenrod is one of our most gorgeous fall flowers.  In addition to beauty, it is also a valued late season source of food for a wide variety of native pollinators including butterflies such as the monarch.  While its virtues are indisputable, goldenrod is rarely considered a desirable garden plant.  A primary reason for this it spreads and often grows extremely tall.  However, I want to share with you tip that just might make you less inclined to pull up goldenrods that often crop up in gardens across the state.

       More than 30 species of goldenrods are native to Georgia.  As such, various species of the plan thrive in a variety of habitats.  In addition, some goldenrods grow to be only a couple of feet tall while others can attain heights of eight feet or more.

       Like many of you, goldenrods volunteer in our flower gardens every year.  Obviously, the goldenrods growing in my yard are tall varieties.  These plants easily top out at six to seven feet tall.  This requires us to pull them up.  If we don’t, they completely shroud other plants growing nearby.

       This year my wife taught me, a trick that makes these lofty nectar plants easily managed.  In August, she trimmed a few of goldenrods down to where their stalks were approximately a foot tall. 

    

“Long-tailed skipper feeding on blooms produced by a goldenrod pruned in August.”

         Each plants responded by developing three to four stems.  As summer gave way to fall, the goldenrods growing along the edge of our property grew to be as tall as expected and produced golden plumes of flowers.

       Their tiny flowers were visited by lots of bumblebees, some monarchs, and a variety of other pollinators.  This feeding activity ceased a few weeks ago.

       Meanwhile, the pruned goldenrods continued to grow eventually topping out at three feet tall and just recently produced their crop of flowers.  These blossoms could not have come at a better time.  Although many pollinators still are active in our yard, with each passing day, it is becoming more difficult for them to find nectar and pollen.  Our pruned goldenrods are helping meet their need.  In addition, they are extending the goldenrod’s floral show into late autumn.  The bonus is we have found a way to include goldenrod in our nectar gardens.  Wow! A well-time pruning can make huge difference.