Early last week the overnight temperature dropped to 24˚F. As expected, the hard freeze changed the complexion of my backyard. Prior to the frigid weather a dozen or so plants were still blooming. They were providing wild pollinators with a much-needed source of nutrition.
The only flowering plants that survived the cold weather were sweet alyssum, blanket flower, and sasanqua. Although most of the flowers on my butterfly bushes died, remarkably a few survived too.
However, some did survive and are visiting the meager array of blossoms that remain. The only insects I have seen lately are yellow jackets, bumblebees, and cloudless sulphur butterflies.
The yellow jackets have continued to feed on the sugar water found around the feeding portals of a couple of hummingbird feeders that are being maintained in hopes they will attract a rare winter hummingbird.
Tiny native pollinators have focused their attention on the tiny blossoms adorning sweet alyssum encircling a backyard birdbath. Two or three cloudless sulphurs and a couple of bumblebees are regularly spotted visiting butterfly bush, sasanqua and blanket flower blossoms. When they are gone, I will give my full attention to the animals that inhabit my backyard throughout the winter.
Indeed Mother Nature provides those of us willing to watch and listen great wildlife viewing opportunities throughout every season of the year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.