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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.

A BIRD NAMED FOR ONE OF ITS FAVORITE FOODS

       When I was growing up the yellow-rumped warbler was called the myrtle warbler.  Although I had never seen this tiny warbler, I was intrigued by its name.  I guess that was due to the fact that one of my favorite aunts was named Myrtle.

       Much to my chagrin, later on the official name of the myrtle warbler was changed to the yellow-rumped warbler.  Although I understood the reasoning behind this change, to this day, I still prefer the name myrtle warbler to yellow-rumped warbler.

       The more I have studied birds the more I have become intrigued with the reasons why birds were given certain names.  One of the first birds I researched was the myrtle warbler.  This search revealed the bird was named after one of its favorite foods – waxmyrtle berries.  I also learned it is a choice food for many other birds such as tree swallows eastern bluebird, gray catbirds, northern flickers, and eastern towhees.

      This hearty shrub is an important source of winter food for many other birds that winter in Georgia.  It is also provides bird with cover from predators and the elements.  If you enjoy seeing yellowrumps and other birds around your yard, set out a border of waxmyrtle bushes.

       Meanwhile, in my mind, the yellow-rumped warbler will forever be the myrtle warbler.

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.

BACKYARD SECRET: RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAKS NECTAR ON BRONZE FENNEL

        For quite some time I have been documenting butterflies nectaring on a wide range of cultivated and native plants.  This effort has helped me gain a better appreciation of which species of butterflies use which plants.  Every so often, I encounter a butterfly nectaring on a plant I never realized they visited. 

       For example, a few days ago my wife and I checked our bronze fennel for black swallowtail eggs and/or eggs.  Much to our chagrin, we did not find either.  However, my wife did make a fascinating discovery. When she called me over to look at what she had found, I was surprised to see six red-banded hairstreaks nectaring on a bronze fennel’s pale yellow blossoms.

       Although we have been growing bronze fennel in our garden for a number of years, we never considered the well-known black swallowtail host plant a source of nectar for butterflies.  Oh sure, we routinely see the blossoms routinely visited by sweat bees and other native pollinators, but never a red-banded hairstreak other butterfly.  Yet, here were half a dozen beautiful red-banded hairstreaks so engrossed in sipping nectar they never attempted to fly away in spite of the fact we were standing only a few feet away from them.

       A quick check of the literature and Internet failed to uncover any mention of red-banded hairstreaks using the plant as a source of nectar.  In fact, most authors simply mentioned it was visited by a number of pollinators; however, none said it was source of nectar for butterflies.

       While my wife’s sighting may not be an

important scientific find, it was important to us.  It

advanced our understanding of the unbelievably

complex relationships that exist between the plants

and animals that live just outside our backdoor.  

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.

        

BACKYARD SECRET: THE WITH THE GREATEST VOLUME OF NECTAR MAY BE GROWING IN YOUR YARD

       Can you name the plant that displays flowers that contain the greatest volume of nectar?  It is not Mexican cigar, red hot poker, Turk’s cap  or one of the scores of other alien plants we plant in our gardens to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  You might be surprised to learn it is a native woody vine known as trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans)

       The woody vine’s orange blossoms are so popular with hummingbirds it is often sold in the nursery trade as hummingbird vine.

       This plant commonly grows in yards across the state.  However, in many cases it is considered a weed and not recognized as a valuable hummingbird food plant.  The reason for this is it will climb on houses and other manmade structures.  However, if you plant it alongside an arbor, trellis, or fence away from a building, it can be an asset instead of a liability.  Trumpet creep can also be trained to take on the form of a small tree.

BACKYARD SECRET: BIRDS ARE FANS OF POKEBERRIES

        Pokeweed is one of the many plants homeowners often refer to as weeds.  These objects of our distain try to grow in alongside our precious cultivated plants, invade our lawns, and are generally viewed of as nuisances.  However, some of these plants may be more valuable than you think.  One such plant is pokeweed. 

       Other than the few folks that dine on the plants tender shoots in the spring, pokeweed is not a plant most people allow to grow in their backyards.  This is unfortunate because, if allow to grow in the right spot it produces a bounty of dark purple berries that are relished by more than 50 species of birds.  Among the backyard favorites the devour pokeberries are cardinals, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and bluebirds.  The berries also provide nourishment for fall migrants such as thrushes and vireos that pass through our backyards on their fall migration.

       Although pokeberries are often considered a fall food, they are just beginning to ripen in my backyard.  This event caught the attention of a mockingbird.  Although the vast majority of the pokeberries in my backyard are still green, as soon as one turns dark purple the mockingbird gobbles it up.

       I must admit I remove pokeberries from some of my flower gardens.  Meanwhile, I let me grow in idle spots and in the shrubby borders that define the north and south sides of my yard.

       If a pokeberry takes root in a similar spot in your yard, I urge you to let it grow.  It will provide your avian neighbors with an important source of food later in the year.

ATTRACTING THE SUMMER TANAGER TO YOUR YARD IN SUMMER

       Now that summer has officially arrived, days are getting shorter with each passing day.  When this occurs many migratory birds beginning putting on the fat that will fuel the migration to their wintering grounds.  One such bird is the summer tanager.

       The summer tanager is a common resident of wooded backyards across the state.  However, in spite of the fact, males are cloaked in red feathers and the females display a two-toned plumage (olive-green above, yellow below) and sport large pale bills, this colorful bird often goes unnoticed.  This is because it often feeds in the tops of trees.

       The summer tanager primarily consumes lots of insects such as bees, wasps, cicadas, yellow jackets and grasshoppers throughout the spring and early summer.  However, throughout much of the summer as it is packing on fat in preparation for their autumn migration, fifty percent or more of its diet consists of fruits and berries. 

       Consequently, if you would like to attract local and migrating summer tanagers to your backyard at this time of the year, the best way to do that is to provide them with the fruits and berries they relish.  If you look around your yard and cannot find any of the plants that produce this much-needed food, you should make every effort to add some of them to your landscape.

       Here are some of the plants that provide fruits and berries gobbled up by summer tanagers as they prepare before they embark on their long flight to Central and South America:  blueberry, blackberry, grape, hawthorn, flowering dogwood, rough-leaf dogwood, pokeberry, and black gum.

BACKYARD SECRET: SUNFLOWERS HELP THWART BEE DECLINES

       The demise of bee populations across the country is a major concern.  The economic and ecological impact of declining populations of these pollinators is staggering.  For years, scientists have been diligently trying to determine both the causes and solutions to this problem.  The findings of a study recently published in Scientific Reports suggest the sunflower may provide a glimmer of hope for some species of bees.

        The study investigated the possible impacts of diets of two species of bees containing various pollens on populations of two of the parasites linked to high bee mortality and sluggish colony growth.  The study reported European honeybees and common bumblebees that fed on the pollen produced in the flowers of sunflower plants were less infected with these parasites than bees that did not consume sunflower pollen.

        In the words of Rebecca Irwin (one of the biologists that conducted the study), “We tried other monofloral pollens, but we seem to have hit the jackpot with sunflower pollen.”

        Although this discovery is promising, the biologists that conducted the study were quick to point that, since sunflower pollen is low in both protein and some amino acids, the bees cannot live on sunflower pollen alone.  As such, they need to supplement their diets with the pollen of a variety of other pollen-producing plants.

        Consequently, if we homeowners want to help in the fight to thwart the ravages brought about by two of the deadly parasites that plague our bee populations, we need to add sunflowers to the variety of other pollen- rich plants growing in our backyard.  I am please to say sunflowers are currently blooming in my backyard.  I hope you will find a place for them in your backyard too.