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?
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.
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.
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.
There is a growing interest in incorporating Georgia native plants home landscapes across the state. However, whenever I make a presentation dealing with native plants of value to wildlife, invariably I am asked, “Where can I purchase these valuable plants?”
There is indeed a paucity of reputable wild plant dealers in Georgia. In fact, I am convinced the inability of gardeners to purchase wild plants is limiting the numbers of homeowners that are incorporating Georgia native plants in their home landscapes.
With this in mind, whenever I come across a reputable nursery that deals in native plants I am going to share contact information relating to these organizations with you.
In hopes of adding to this list as time goes by, please let me know about a native plant dealer that you have dealt with. This information will help me expand the list in the future.
Here is a list of four nurseries that can help you add a new dimension to your garden this spring.
Asclepias and More Phone: 706-533-1149
1055 Fieldstone Road
Grovetown, Georgia 30813
Vincent Gardens Phone: 912-381-0644
1960 East Baker Highway
Douglas, Georgia 31535
State Botanical Garden of Georgia Phone: 706-542-1244
2450 S. Milledge Avenue
Athens, Georgia 30606
Native Forest Nursery Phone: 706-483-3397
Chatsworth, Georgia 30705
I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration. If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds. While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.
As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds. These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas. Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations. Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.
The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet. However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights. By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects. However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).
Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves. Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.
When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal. The worst trees are introduced ornamentals. Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies. Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.
Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies. The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses. This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy.
In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees. Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).
Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list. The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.
If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants. How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find. If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day. Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.
If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage. While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.
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.
Now that our days are characterized by low humidity and cool temperatures, it finally does feel like autumn. While the weather has changed, the complexion of our gardens has been undergoing a major transformation. Those of us that try to provide wild pollinators with food throughout as much of the year as possible still have an abundance of nectar-bearing flowers in full bloom. However, alongside them are the dried seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the year. Although our first impulse is often to remove these plants, I wish you would consider leaving at least a portion of them for birds that feed predominantly on seeds.
The list of the flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds is quite long. Here is a short list of some of the more popular plants that produce nutritious seeds for birds: black-eyed susan, coneflower, cosmos, aster, scarlet sage, zinnia, coreopsis, and blanket flower.
Birds will eat these seeds directly from seed heads or when the seeds fall to the ground. In addition, it matters not whether the plants grew in containers on a deck or patio or in a traditional garden.
My wife and I have truly enjoyed watching cardinals and American goldfinches feeding on scarlet sage and zinnia seeds produced by plants grown in large containers on our deck.
It never ceases to amaze me how a cardinal can pick up a tiny scarlet sage with its large beak.
Among the birds that do not miss a chance to eat the seeds of nectar plants during the fall and winter are the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.
If you do, you will be providing your autumn/winter avian visitors with a great source of food. Meanwhile, you will enjoy watching the fascinating behavior of birds foraging for flower seeds.
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?
At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries. However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?
Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green. Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries. In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.
Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter. It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up. Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter. Even then, they are not considered a choice food. American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.
A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries. She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter. However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard. Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.
In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.
This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year.