Archives

MOCKINGBIRDS ARE DINING ON POKEBERRIES

               I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year.  This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year.  Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.

              Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies.   Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding.  Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property.  The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries.  While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.

              The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch.  Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries.  It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.

              If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow.  If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.  In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.

SWEETSHRUB IS A FRAGRANT ADDITION TO YOUR YARD

     I am surprised that more Georgians are not familiar with the sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus).   Since it bears some of the most fragrant blossoms of any of our native woodland shrubs, you would think that most folks would want it growing in their yard.

     The sweetshrub’s blossoms are maroon in color and produce a pleasing aroma that my wife and I are convinced smells like apples. However, some describe the scent as smelling like spicy strawberries.  Others inhale the shrub’s pleasing aroma and say it reminds them of a mixture of pineapples and bananas.

     Regardless of how you interpret the pleasing odor, the vast majority of us love it.  In fact, some people think so highly of it they plant sweetshrubs near their outside doors.  This allows them to lean over and take a whiff of the flowers before heading out for the day.

     The sweetshrub is also a pollinator plant.  Although Sweetshrub blooms generate pollen used by native bees and butterflies, sap beetles are the plant’s main pollinator.  However, since sap beetles are small (1.4-inch) and nondescript we often overlook them.

 

     The way in which these beetles pollinate sweetshrub blossoms in a little strange.  The fragrant flowers draw the beetles with the scent they emit.  Once the beetles land on the blossoms, they crawl down inside the bloom and begin gathering pollen. Here is where this gets odd.  When the beetles are ready to leave, they have a difficult time exiting the flower. As such, they often remain there until the flower matures enough for its petals to fold back enough for them to depart.  Once they are on the wing, they fly off carrying granules of pollen.  When they land on another sweetshrub blossom, they inadvertently pollenate that flower.

     Sweetshrub is easy to grow from seed, transplants, and cuttings.  While there are cultivars on the market, I have never planted any of them. If you want to be sure you are planting sweetshrubs that produce beautiful maroon blooms, a pleasing apple scent, and pollen relished by pollinators; you cannot go wrong buying plants from reputable nurseries that deal in native plants.

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.

GROWING OLD NURSERY SELLS HEIRLOOM AND NATIVE PLANTS

     Recently my wife and I attended THE FLOWER FANTASY AT PINEOLA FARMS located near Fort ValleyThe flower show was sponsored by the Magnolia Garden Club.  The event was great and the most unusual and fascinating flower show I have ever attended.   If the Magnolia Garden Club stages the event next year, prior to the event, I will describe what makes the flower show  so different than any others that I have attended.  This is a flower show you don’t want to miss.

       One of the vendors selling plants at the event was Growing Old Nursery.  The relatively new nursery is located between LaGrange and Columbus.  While the owners grow and sell a wide variety of plants they specialize in heirloom flowers and vegetables, and native plants.

       My wife and I bought a number  of plants from them including native azaleas, butterfly weed, touch-me-nots and hollyhocks.  I have found it hard to find hollyhocks that produce single flowers.  Invariably when I locate hollyhock seeds or plants they are double-flowered varieties.  The ruby-throated hummingbird and other pollinators prefer feeding on hollyhocks that display single flowers.

       For more information regarding the availability of plants, contact Mary Ann Johnson  at (706) 366-6863 or growingoldplants@gmail.com.

      

 

 

NOT ALL WAX MYTLE PLANTS ARE CREATED EQUAL

       Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) is a native tree/small shrub that produces berries eaten by more than 40 species of birds as well as a number of mammals.  Wax myrtle is also a host plant for the jewel-like red-banded hairstreak.  The plant also provides birds with nesting sites and escape cover.  Unfortunately, many people that plant wax myrtles in hopes the plants will annually bear a bounty of berries are left scratching their heads trying to figure out why their shrubs never produce any berries.

       The reason why they end up with barren wax myrtles is due to the fact that wax myrtles are either male or females. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Native Plant Center, often the wax myrtles grown by wholesale nurseries are cloned.  If you buy a small wax myrtle full of berries, there is a good chance it was cloned from female plants that were pollinated by male plants growing nearby.  Consequently, in future years, unless a male plant is growing in or near your yard, your shrubs will not produce any berries.

       With that in mind, if you want to ensure that wax myrtles planted in your yard will produce berries; explain to the folks where you buy your nursery plants that you want to purchase both female and male plants.  If they cannot guarantee that you are purchasing both male female plants, shop elsewhere. 

      You can begin your search for male and female wax myrtles by checking with nurseries that specialize in native plants. If they stock wax myrtles, they are undoubtedly aware of this situation and probably offer both male and female plants.  A good place to begin this search for a native plant nursery is to check the list of native plant nurseries listed in the Archive section of this blog.

       If you cannot find a source of male wax myrtles there, see if any of your friends and neighbors grow wax myrtles.  If they do, most likely they know the sexes of their wax myrtles.  Since these shrubs send out lots of suckers, I am sure they will let you dig a few of the suckers sprouting beneath a male plant.

       Good luck! 

CEDAR WAXWINGS EAT FLORAL TREATS

     The major portion (70%) of the cedar waxwing’s diet consists of fruits, berries and other fruit-related items such as sap. In fact, the bird’s name reflects its fondness for cedar berries. However, cedar waxwings also dine on buds, flowers and young leaves. In fact, cedar waxwings seem to eat blossoms most often during their spring migration back to their breeding grounds.  In fact, spring-blooming plants are more apt to be eaten by the birds that flowers that bloom later in the year.

     Some of the flowers most often eaten by blossom- eating birds such as the cedar waxwing include pear, apple, plum, crabapple, cherry, and red maple.

     You might be wondering why in the world cedar waxwings would even want to eat buds and blossoms.  The answer is simple – They are nutritious.  In fact, some experts claim that flowers have more food value than buds.

     Another reason is, by this time of the year, birds that dine on fruits and berries have an extremely hard time finding anything to eat.

     With that in mind, should you spot a flock of cedar waxwings eating flowers and buds in your yard this spring, I hope you won’t mind sacrificing some blossoms to the cedar waxwings whose beauty adds so much to the colorful spring pageant being played out in your yard.

IN SPRING, REDBUD TREES FEED MORE THAN POLLINATORS

       The redbud trees growing around my home are now in full bloom.   These native trees are pleasing to the eye and are currently feeding a surprising number of my backyard neighbors.

       One thing that is impossible to notice is that redbud blossoms attract an amazing number of bees and other pollinators.  In fact, on a warm late winter or early spring day my largest redbud seems to buzz.  The buzzing sound is made by the countless numbers of bees foraging among the dark pink blossoms that cover the tree’s branches.

       If the redbud blossoms do not fall before the year’s first ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive, I will have a chance of spotting a hummer or two visiting the trees flowers.  Although redbud blooms are not the greatest source of nectar for the birds, when it is one of the few nectar plants that are blooming at this time of the year, they will make feeding forays to the tree.

       Birds such as northern cardinals and cedar waxwings sometimes visit redbud trees in full bloom.  They are not there seeking nectar or pollen.  To the contrary, they actually eat the redbud’s buds and flowers.  Although these birds might seem to eat more than their share of these tasty morsels, there are more than enough blossoms to feed the birds and pollinators.

       Since the redbud’s blooms appear before its leaves, while I am admiring the tree’s floral show, from time to time I sometimes spot tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and downy woodpeckers hunting for insects and their eggs hidden on the bark of the tree.  Once the leaves appear, it is far more difficult to see these birds foraging for food.

       My only regret is that the redbud’s floral show is way too short. When redbud blossoms litter the ground, I know I must wait 12 months to enjoy its next stunning floral show and the wide variety of animals drawn to it.

IT’S TIME TO PRUNE TRUMPET CREEPER VINES

      One of the keys to transforming a backyard into a hummingbird haven is providing hummingbirds with an abundance of food throughout the year.  One of the plants that is often used to meet this objective is a native vine named trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).  This vine is so favorited by ruby-throated hummingbirds it is often called hummingbird vine.  However, like many hummingbird food plants, it requires some care.  In the case of the trumpet creeper, this Georgia native needs to be pruned annually; and now is the time to do so.

       Trumpet creeper does well on trellises, arbors, and fences.  However, since it grows rapidly it should never be planted near a building. To prevent this from happening, trumpet creeper vines need pruned annually.  Also, pruning back the vines will stimulate them to produce more nectar-laden flowers.

       As such this is one of the chores you need to accomplish before leaves begin to appear.  By doing so, you will be enhancing the beauty of your hummingbird haven and help ensure ruby-throated hummingbirds will have an abundance of nectar this year.

BRACKET FUNGI ARE ODD BACKYARD INHABITANTS

       Remarkably, our backyards are home to untold wild inhabitants.  I don’t think there is anybody that can identify all of them.  However, the fact is we do not know the correct name of them to appreciate their beauty and the role they play in wild communities.  One group of organisms most of us are largely unfamiliar with is known as the tree bracket (also called shelf) fungi. 

        As their name suggests, tree bracket fungi grow on trees (both dead and alive).  The shelf-like structures were see growing on the sides of trees are the fungi’s fruiting bodies. Each species of bracket fungi has its own distinctive appearance.

Photo taken South Monroe County, Forsyth, GA

 

       Kim Walton (this blog’s webmaster) submitted the attractive fungi depicted in the accompanying photo growing on the side of a tree near her home in Monroe County.

       Shelf fungi are more than just pleasing to the eye.  Throughout history, some species have been used as folk remedies.  In addition, these fungi provide cover for spiders, songbirds, insects, and a variety of other critters.

       If you know the name of this type of bracket fungi, I would appreciate it if you would share its identity with me.

BACKYARD SECRET–A CHEMICAL IN AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY CAN HELP REPEL MOSQUITOES

       American beautyberry is a native shrub that is gaining popularity among Georgia backyard wildlife enthusiasts.  Sometimes called French mulberry, clusters of round magenta berries festoon the plant from late summer into winter.  The berries are not only beautiful, but also serve as food for hungry gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, cardinals as well as other birds and mammals.

       Now it seems we have another reason to admire American beautyberry.  Researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture have discovered that the beautyberry’s leaves contain a chemical that repels mosquitoes.

American Beautyberries

       This remarkable finding is due to a conversation Charles Bryson, a botanist that works for the Southern Weed Science Program in Stoneville, had with researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Products Utilization Unit at Oxford, Mississippi.  Bryson told the researchers that his grandfather, John Rives Crumpton, related to him that back in the day farmers in Northeast Mississippi were able to keep worrisome biting insects away from mules and horses by placing crushed beautyberry leaves beneath the leather harnesses of their animals.  This led folks to crumple beautyberry leaves and rub them on their own skin.

       This fascinating story led chemists to attempt to isolate the chemical that seemingly had the remarkable ability to repel pesky insects.  One of the chemicals they were able to isolate was callicarpenal.  When the efficaciousness of the chemical was tested, it was found to be just as effective in repelling mosquitoes as the popular repellent DEET.

       Indeed the American beautyberry is more than an attractive native food plant.