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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.

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.

BACKYARD SECRET: Coneflowers Are Great For Wildlife And People Too

        The coneflower’s value to wildlife is widely recognized.  It is a source of food for native pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  In addition, long after its blooms fade, American goldfinches and other birds feed on the plant’s prickly seeds.

       Those of us that plant this plant in our gardens enjoy the beauty of it uniquely shaped, colorful flowers.  However, according to many herbalists, the value of this plant to humans may go far beyond its pleasing appearance.  It has been purported to be beneficial in treating a wide variety of ailments.  For example, it has been reported that chemicals found in the coneflower a natural antibiotic and even enhance white blood cell counts.

       While I cannot substantiate claims of its medicinal values, I can attest to its value to wildlife.  This year, for example, my wife and I enjoyed watching bumblebees and carpenter bees daily visiting the blooms of coneflowers growing in our backyard.   In addition, the flowers produced by these plants were particularly popular with common buckeyes.   In fact, this year we saw more common buckeyes on coneflowers than any other plant growing in our backyard.  Numerous times, a single flower hosted four or more buckeyes.  

BACKYARD SECRET: DOGWOOD BLOSSOMS ARE NOT WHITE

To generations of Georgians, and all of the other folks that consider the blossom of flowering dogwood to be a symbol of spring, it might come as a surprise to learn that an argument can be made the flowers of this iconic tree are not actually white.

       The experts base this claim on the fact that the creamy, white petals that are the focal point of one of Nature’s most beautiful floral creations are not petals at all.  These petal-like structures are technically bracts.  The tree’s small flowers form the greenish-yellow button-like structure located at the center of the bracts.

       Although, I know plant experts are correct in making a distinction between bracts and petals, I am also certain the most people will continue to believe flowering dogwood flowers are white and not yellow.