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QUESTIONS CONCERNING CREPE MYRTLE

       When I posted a blog concerning the value of crepe myrtle to wildlife, a blogger posed her concern that I had wrongfully maligned this popular ornamental, and wondered what the basis of my opinion was.

       It seems when crepe myrtle is blooming in her yard bees converge on the plant’s colorful flowers. She went on the say that when she deadheads the first crop of blooms to encourage a second blooming, when a new crop of blossoms bursts forth the bees return to once again feast.

       To say the least, I was surprised to learn that the bees in her backyard are drawn to crepe myrtle blossoms in large numbers. The crepe myrtles that grow in my neck of the woods are rarely visited by bees. This could be explained by the fact that she grows varieties such as Lipan, Tuscarora, and Dynamite. I am not familiar with them; they may produce an abundance of pollen and/or nectar. I do not know the name of the crepe myrtle rooted in my yard; however, I am sure it does not produce much of value to pollinators. I have seen wild pollinators feeding on the honeydew secreted by the aphids that live on the plants.

       I should also mention I have seen American goldfinches eat crepe myrtle seeds.

       In addition to producing little food, crepe myrtle is an exotic plant is invasive in many sections of Georgia. When it “walks away” from the place where it is planted, it can usurp habitat originally occupied by native plants. Typically, the native plants it supplants are of more value to wildlife than exotics.

       I am not the only wildlife biologist that does not consider crepe myrtle to be a great wildlife plant. Here is what Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, has to say about crepe myrtle, “Crepe myrtle is an enormously popular landscape plant because it has a nice habit, beautiful flowers, and lovely bark. But it contribute almost nothing to the food webs in your garden. If every plant is your yard were a crepe myrtle, you would have no food webs, and, thus, no birds, butterflies or other beneficial wildlife”

       If you enjoy the beauty offered by crepe myrtles in your yard, and the varieties you plant provide bees and other wildlife with food, continue to cultivate them. Meanwhile, plant some native plants that evolved alongside the native pollinators and other wildlife in your area. If you do, I think you will find they will be of great value to your backyard wildlife neighbors. In addition, you will be contributing to restoring the natural ecology of your yard.

THE VANGUARD OF THE MONARCH MIGRATION HAS REACHED MIDDLE GEORGIA

      Late last week the first monarch of the fall fluttered into the Johnson backyard. Since that time, I have seen monarchs seven more times. Seeing these handsome orange and black butterflies is a sure sign the vanguard of the 2019 autumn migration has reached Middle Georgia. Although I am elated to see these amazing butterflies, I fear that this year these long-distance migrants will have a difficult time finding enough food to fuel their flight on south.

       The reason for my concern is for many weeks we have been suffering through a terrible drought. This severe weather has stressed or killed plants growing across the rolling southern Piedmont countryside and in backyards alike. This has significantly reduced the amount of nectar available to monarchs and bumblebees and other nectar feeders.

       If you doubt this, assess the availability of nectar in your own backyard. Even in a good year, fewer nectar plants are blooming in most backyards in autumn than during the summer. This year, however, this year’s drought has made the situation much worse.

       With that in mind, the yards that will offer these hardy migrants the most nectar are those that feature plants that do not require a lot of water. If there is a paucity of such nectar sources in your yard, I hope you will make an effort to remedy this situation.

       One simple way to enhance the availability of nectar plants in your backyard is to grow plants in containers. For example, during the summer my wife sows zinnia seeds in pots sitting on our deck. As a result, currently some of our plants most visited by monarchs, gulf fritillaries and other nectar feeders are zinnias.

       Here is a list of the plants growing about our yard that are currently visiting in the Johnson backyard: lantana, ageratum, butterfly bush, scarlet sage, zinnia, goldenrod, and verbena.

       Keep in mind, providing food for southbound monarchs is every bit as important as offering them an abundance of host plants.

SCARLET SAGE IS PRETTY SPECIAL

        If you are a wildlife gardener, you realize there is no such thing as a perfect plant.  That being said, I have found plants that exceed my expectations.  One such plant is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).

       My wife and I have grown scarlet sage in our home gardens and containers sitting on our deck for a number of years.  As expected, it has done well in our gardens.  However, its performance in containers has been truly remarkable.

       During the spring of 2018, my wife scattered scarlet sage seeds in several large containers.  In some instances, she planted it alone; in others, she mixed the seeds with black-eyed-Susans and zinnias. 

       As hoped, the plants did well and soon the bright red color of the plants’ blossoms could be seen from afar.  In addition, we were pleased to find that with regular watering, the plants flourished throughout a dry, hot summer.  Eventually after they finished blooming, they produced an abundance of seedpods, which soon dropped countless seeds onto the deck and into the containers where they were raised as well in nearby pots.  Many of these seeds, in turn, sprouted and produced a crop of new plants that displayed blossoms from late summer into fall.  In fact, the second blooming did not end until frost claimed them.

       This spring as my wife was preparing to replant our container gardens she noticed that, in each pot that contained scarlet sage in 2018 sage plants were sprouting.  In addition, young sage plants were appearing in pots adjacent to those dedicated solely to scarlet sage.  It was obvious, that enough young seedlings were taking root to eliminate the need to replant them.

       These third generation plants eventually bloomed profusely throughout what turned out to be one of the hottest on record.  The plants’ blossoms were pleasing to the eye and were a source of nectar for wild pollinators such as butterflies (particularly cloudless sulphurs), bumblebees, and carpenter bees as well as a host of other wild pollinators.  As was the case in 2018, the seeds daily attracted hungry beautiful American goldfinches.

       As was the case last year, the majority of the seeds fell into the containers in which they were grown.  Some weeks ago, they sprouted and are now producing blossoms.  This bloom could not come at a better time as from now into fall nectar is more difficult for butterflies and others to find.  Both migratory cloudless sulphurs and ruby-throated hummingbirds heavily feed on scarlet sage nectar at this time of year.  In addition, I am sure that the monarchs that will be passing through my yard in a few weeks will seek out scarlet sage nectar as they did last year.

       Oh, I should also mention more scarlet sage seedlings have emerged in each of our containers–this plant does not stop giving.

       I will never know how many nectar feeders these plants have already fed this year, or the number of American goldfinches that dined on the scarlet sage’s tiny dark seeds.  However, I am certain wildlife watching in our backyard would have paled without their presence.

       Is the scarlet sage a perfect wildlife plant?  No, but this hardy native has become a valued member of our backyard wild community.

DO NOT FORGET TO DEADHEAD MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS

        Humans and butterflies alike are drawn to the bold orange blossoms of the Mexican sunflower.  The problem is by the middle of August the blooms displayed by this tall plant are often quickly fading.  This is unfortunate for those of us that enjoy its stunning beauty and the butterflies and other pollinators that feed at its showy flowers.

       With this in mind, if you deadhead the spent blossoms displayed by your Mexican sunflower plants, they will produce a new crop of flowers that will continue to contribute their beauty to our gardens and be a source of nectar for butterflies such as monarchs later in the year when nectar will be less abundant than it is right now.

HUMMINGBIRDS ARE SWARMING TO SCARLET SAGE

      Having studied hummingbirds for decades, I have learned the folks that usually attract the most birds to their yards are those that plant a wide variety of flowering plants that offer the birds plenty of food from spring through fall; supplemented with sugar water served in feeders.  There is no better time to witness this than August. 

       I say this because hummingbirds are more abundant in our yards right now than they have been at any time earlier this year.  As such, if you have planted a wide variety of nectar-laden plants, this is a great time to see which of these plants these tiny-feathered jewels favor during the heat of summer.  The abundance of hummingbirds gives you the opportunity to assess their food preferences in a very short period.

       For years, my wife and I have been planting a host of different plants for hummingbirds.  Right now, by far, the plant most often visited by hummingbirds is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).  This Georgia native produces an abundance of scarlet red one-inch long tubular-shaped flowers.

       We are growing scarlet sage in flowerbeds with companion plants such as black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, zinnia, blanket flower, and cosmos.  We also have it planted in containers on our deck.  Some containers contain nothing other than scarlet sage.  However, since it produces an abundance of seed, some of the seeds dropped last year somehow found their way into nearby pots where my wife is rooting buddleia and roses.  Additionally, scarlet sage has volunteered in containers where she scattered the seeds of zinnias, blanket flowers, and black-eyed Susans this spring.  Scarlet sage is growing well there too.

       From morning to dusk, hummingbirds repeatedly visit the scarlet sage blooms more often than those of lantana, zinnia, trumpet creeper, Turk’s cap, purple salvia, hosta, Mexican sunflower, and other hummingbird favorites.  This plant has literally become a hummingbird magnet.

       While I thoroughly enjoy watching rubythroats feeding at scarlet sage blooms planted about the yard, I especially enjoy those growing in containers on our deck.  Regardless of whether I am working on the deck or sitting nearby the plants enjoying a cup of coffee and having the birds feed a few feet away.

       If you do not have as much hummingbird activity around the flowering plants blooming in your yard right now, I suggest you begin planting hummingbird food plants.  By including them in your gardens, next year your yard will be more beautiful, hummingbirds will have more food choices and the numbers of hummers using your yard should increase.  Now that is called a win, win, win situation.

        

SPOTTED HORSEMINT–GREAT FOR BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS

        Since you are a wildlife enthusiast, at this time of the year you are probably spending a lot of time gardening for wildlife.  With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider adding spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) to your home landscape.  In addition, to producing a bevy of gorgeous purple-spotted blossoms that are accompanied by creamy to pink bracts framing each cluster of blossoms, this native perennial is also a butterfly and hummingbird favorite.

        The spotted horsemint (also known as spotted beebalm) grows up to three feet tall.  It prefers sand, and well-drained soil types although it will set its roots in other soils too.  Plants seem to do best when planted in full sun.  In addition, spotted horsemint can withstand dry conditions.

        This plant produces a multitude of stems and spreads via rhizomes.  As such, I find it is best to plant it in spots where it will not compete with other plants.

        I should also mention this native wildflower is resistant to deer browsing.  This is a real bonus as many homeowners are faced with the problem of hungry whitetails devouring their favorite flowering plants and shrubs.

        Planting spotted horsemint in your garden is an excellent way to enhance the wild plant diversity in your backyard.

BEE BALM IS A GREAT NATIVE HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR PLANT

    Soon hummingbirds will be en route to Georgia.  As such, there is no better time than now to begin planning what to plant for the feathered dynamos that bring us so much please.  With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider planting bee balm.

        Bee balm (Monarda didyma), also known as Oswego tea) is a native perennial.  This hummingbird favorite grows anywhere from one to five feet tall.  It grows best in moist to well drained soil types.  The plant blooms best when grown in sites that vary from partial shade to full sun.  Bee balm blooms from March to May.

CONTAINER GARDENS ATTRACT WILDLIFE

        If you would like to attract wildlife to your backyard, but do not have a lot of space, time or equipment, consider planting wildlife friendly plants in containers.

       This year, my wife planted eight containers with a variety of flowers in hopes adding some color to our deck and food for some of our wildlife neighbors.  The results of her efforts have exceeded our expectations.

      Before I get started, I would like to tell you something about our backyard.  We have a fairly large backyard in which over the years we have planted a multitude of ornamental and native plants.  These plants have enhanced the beauty of our yard as well as provided our wildlife neighbors with an abundance of food throughout much to the year.  These plants range from host and plants for butterflies and moths, nectar plants for wild nectar feeders and seed and berries-producing plants for birds and other wildlife.

       As you can see, we did not have to resort to container gardens to attract wildlife, however, we were captivated with thought of being able to observe and photograph wildlife without having to leave our deck.

       This year my wife planted eight containers with scarlet sage, lantana, zinnia, black-eyed susan, and cosmos.  Since she has a green thumb, all of these plants have flourished creating a kaleidoscope of color. As the blossoms produced by these plants increased, so has the  wildlife visiting them.

       On any given day, we can sit on the deck and enjoy the comings and goings of bumblebees, American ladies, eastern tiger swallowtails, pipevine and spicebush swallowtails, nothern and southern cloudywings, gulf fritillaries, Horace’s and zarucco duskywings, pearl crescents, common buckeyes, as well as fiery, long-tailed, silver-spotted, fiery, clouded, checkered, ocola and dun skippers, to name but a few. In addition, ruby-throated hummingbirds make forays to the plants throughout the day.  Just this past week, as I sat beneath the umbrella shading a patio table, a ruby-throated hummingbird fed at Scarlet sage blossoms just four feet away.  Suddenly out of nowhere, another rubythroat flew in and chased the feeding bird away.

       Close encounters with butterflies and hummingbirds are commonplace.  In addition, the flowers have provided terrific opportunities to study wildlife close at hand without the aid of a pair of binoculars. 

       In addition, we have taken untold close up photos of butterflies, bees, and other nectar feeders attracted to our container gardens. 

       Creating these mini gardens has provided our wildlife neighbors with an abundance of food, and allowed us to gain a better appreciation of those critters that live just outside our backdoor.   Believe me, it doesn’t get much better than that.

BACKYARD NECTAR ROBBERS

A little more than a week ago while I was admiring the showy pink blossoms blanketing the large George Tabor azalea bushes encircling a chestnut tree in my yard, I noticed scores of large carpenter bees visiting flower after flower.  When I moved closer to floral show I realized that after the carpenter bees landed on the blooms, they immediately made the way down the outside of the blossoms to the junction of the petals and green sepals.  As it turned out, the hefty bees were robbing nectar from the large trumpet-shaped flowers.

       It seems carpenter bees are too large to fit through the throats of the bright pink blooms to reach the nectar located at the base of the blossoms.  Faced with this problem, most other nectar feeders would abandon their quest for the nectar. 

       Such is not the case with these carpenter bees.  These bees have the uncanny ability to obtain the nectar from the outside of a blossom.  What I was observing was the bees chewing longitudinal holes at the base of each bloom and then dipping their tongues into the flowers’ sugary nectar.

       Since I first noticed what was taking place I have closely examined a number of azalea blossoms and found any number of feeding portals created by the carpenter bees.  In addition, my wife saw a wasp using a feeding hole after the carpenter bee that created it left.

       Insects such as the carpenter bee are called nectar robbers simply because they feed on nectar without pollinating the flowers.

       If you would like to witness this odd behavior, on a warm, sunny day, look for carpenter bees flying about your azaleas.  When you spot them, watch where they go.  After they leave, look for the feeding holes created by the bees.

        I think you will agree you do not have to leave the confines of your yard to witness fascinating animal behavior.

RED SALVIA AS A CONTAINER PLANT

My wife and I are big fans of native saliva named red salvia or scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).  We like the fact that it is easy grow from seed, very attractive, and blooms for weeks on end. 

In the past, we have planted patches of the plant in flower gardens containing a variety of flowers.  It has performed extremely well when cultivated in this manner.

       This year my wife decided to experiment planting red salvia in a large ornamental container standing along the rail of our deck.  To say the least, this experiment proved to be a success.

      The salvia has done well in the pot.  In fact, it has grown a couple of feet tall.  Some folks might consider this a bit “leggy” for their taste; however, its tall stature is all right with us.  The scores of plants growing close to one another gives the salvia plants the appearance of being a small shrub.

       One thing I have liked about the plants growing in this setting is we have found we pay closer attention to them than if they were growing in a garden.  Since we walk by them several times a day, we have many opportunities enjoy their beauty and study their blooming habits.

       We have also come to recognize that pollinators tend to visit the flowers more often earlier than later in the day.  I am sure this is linked to nectar flow being greater in the morning.

       The red salvia is in full bloom right now and providing us with some fantastic butterfly and hummingbird viewing opportunities.  For example, with an influx of cloudless sulphurs, more often than not, the blossoms are hosting a few beautiful bright yellow butterflies. 

       Whereas throughout most of the summer, cloudless sulphurs seem elusive, those currently visiting our potted salvia are extremely tame.  In fact, they often allow us to walk up with a yard or less of them without ever removing their long, thin proboscis from a salvia bloom.

       Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also regular visitors.  One morning this week, my wife was standing within five feet of the salvia plants when two rubythroats flew up and fed with paying her any attention.  That was truly an exciting experience.

       If you have never considered planting red salvia in a container, you might want to consider trying it next year.  If you do, I am sure you a pot of red salvia will provide you with hours of gardening and wildlife watching pleasure.