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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.

OCOLA SKIPPERS ARE MIGRATING THROUGH OUR BACKYARDS

       Whenever butterfly migration is mentioned, the monarch comes to mind.  However, while the monarch is undoubtedly our most famous butterfly migrant, a number of other butterflies also migrate.  One of these butterflies is the ocola skipper and it is passing southward through our backyards right now.

       The ocola is far from being our largest (wingspan: 1/5-1.75″) or most striking butterfly.  It is best described as being elongated in shape and dark brown in color. Whenever I see one, it reminds me of a jet airplane.  When it opens its wings, it displays a distinctive white arrowhead-shaped mark.  However, from the side, is appears to be a nondescript small, slender butterfly.  In addition, when its wings are closed, the butterfly’s light veins are distinctive.

       Although the ocola can be seen in Georgia from late March into early November, it is most abundant in my yard in late summer and early fall.  Currently the ocola is among the most common butterflies feeding on our flowers. 

       These distinctively shaped butterflies are feeding at a number of nectar plants including the butterfly bushes, cosmos, globe amaranth, and zinnias.

       Oddly, there is mounting evidence that, for some unknown reason, some Ocala’s actually migrate north in the fall and show up in places such as Ontario, Canada and Massachusetts.

       That being said, I believe it is safe to say that the destination of the ocolas we are currently seeing in our yards is Florida.  In winter, they winter throughout the peninsula of the Sunshine State.  Some even overwinter as far south as Key West.

       Who would have ever imagined this small butterfly could successfully navigate such a monumental journey?

A SURPRISE BUTTERFLY NECTAR PLANT – ENCORE AZALEA

        As any Georgia gardener knows, when it comes to producing nectar that attracts butterflies, not all plants are created equal.  Based on my experience, one group of plants that is definitely in the group of those that produce little nectar is the traditional azaleas.  Unlike our native wild azaleas, they are rarely visited by butterflies.

       Over the years, my wife and I have planted our share of President Clay, George Taber, and Pride of Mobile Azaleas.  For years, each spring they transform our yard into a floral wonderland.  On occasion, I do see a few eastern tiger and pipevine swallowtails nectaring at their long trumpet shaped flowers.  However, so few of these gossamer-winged beauties have attempted to feed on the azaleas blossoms, I would be remiss if I was to say they are butterfly nectar plants.

       Several years ago, we set out a couple of Encore Azaleas.  We planted them because the nurseryman guaranteed us they would bloom well after spring.  To make a long story short, they have lived up to his guarantee.  Consequently, they treat us to the stunning sight of azaleas blooming well after the blooms produced by our native and traditional azaleas have fallen and created colorful collars on the ground surrounding the shrubs. 

           cloudless sulphur butterfly nectaring at an Encore Azalea blossom

A couple of weeks ago I noticed eastern tiger swallowtails and cloudless sulphurs visiting our Encore Azaleas.  When I looked more closely, I found these butterflies were not basking on the plants; they were actually nectaring.  Members of both butterfly species flew from flower to flower collecting nectar.  This was not a onetime event.  This activity has been going on for days.

       Since I made this discovery, I have gone online to see if others have also seen butterflies nectaring at Encore Azaleas.  Much to my surprise, many of the nurseries that sell Encore Azaleas tout them as butterfly magnets.

       I wish I could say I have seen butterflies using our Encore Azaleas in past years, however, either this is the first year they have done so, or I just did not notice this behavior before.

       There are scores of different varieties of this popular hybrid. However, I cannot tell which I planted in my yard.  All I can say is this year; two of the showiest butterflies that grace our yard are regular visitors to our Encore Azaleas. 

       I would be interested to know if you have seen butterflies use Encore Azaleas.  If you have, I would like to know which variety butterflies you have seen at the plants.  In addition, if you would let me know what variety of Encore Azaleas are being used by the butterflies that would be great!

SULPHUR COSMOS – GREAT FOR HUMMINGBIRDS AND BUTTERFLIES

      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.

THE AMERICAN LADY

       One of the most common butterflies my wife and I are seeing in our backyard right now is the American lady (Vanessa virginianus).

       The American lady is a medium sized butterfly with a wingspan that measures from 1.75 – 2.4 inches wide.

       The American lady is a beautiful butterfly. From above the butterfly is reddish orange in color. Its forewings are bordered black. The tips of the forewings are also adorned with white spots.

       The American lady is gorgeous regardless of whether you see it from above or below. However, I personally find it most attractive when it holds its wings above its body while feeding. When you look at the ventral side of the butterfly in this position the first thing that catches your eye are two large eyespots. The underside of the wings also features a complex pattern of creamy white lines that will immediately remind you of a spider web. What a combination!

       The only butterfly that it can be confused with is the painted lady. Whereas there are a couple of subtle differences in the appearances of the painted lady and the American lady, the easiest way to separate the two is by counting the number of eyespots displayed on the trailing edge of the ventral side of the wings. The painted lady is decorated with four small eyespots whereas the American lady has but two large eyespots.

       Depending on where you live in Georgia, you may see American ladies flying from late January into November. Folks residing in the southern half of the state see them earlier and later in the year than those living in North Georgia.

       American ladies prefer to fly in open areas such as roadside, fields and meadows. Fortunately for us they are also commonly found in our backyards.

       American ladies nectar at any a number of ornamental and native plants. However, in our backyard, they are primarily nectaring at coneflowers and Miss Huff lantana.

       When you approach an American lady don’t be surprised if it flies away much sooner than an eastern tiger swallowtail. It is a bit skittish. However, if you stand motionless, often the American lady will soon return and land close by.

       Among the host plants used by the American lady are cudweed, some asters, and pussy-toes.

PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.