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PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.

MOUNTAIN MINT IS A GREAT PLANT FOR POLLINATORS

       Over the years, my wife and I have been planting a diversity of nectar/pollen-producing plants in our gardens. This has been done in an effort to provide our backyard pollinators with sources of food throughout the year. This approach has offered us the opportunity to watch pollinators feed at a parade of plants from week to week as well as season to season. As the blossoms of one plant wither and die, pollinators redirect their attention to plants that are currently blooming. Right now, many of these pollinators are visiting mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), one of the more recent additions to our landscape.

       Mountain mint is a native perennial herb that grows two to three feet tall. Eight species of this hardy plant are found in the Southeast. Plants grow two to three tall. They exist in a variety of soil conditions, including the dry clay soil found in our yard. While the plant does best in moist soil types, it is drought tolerant. Mountain mint will grow in partial shade as well as full sun.

    Mountain mint has a unique, eye-catching appearance. What makes this plant stand out is the fact that the leaves growing just below its flowers look like they have received a dusting of powdered sugar. In fact, to me, this foliage is far more attractive than the plant’s small white-purple blooms. In fact, these blossoms or so small you might overlook them if they were not arranged in clusters.

       However, though mountain mint plants won’t win any awards for beauty, the fact that it blooms from June into October makes it an important source of food for wild pollinators.

       Speaking of awards, in 2013 the Penn State Extension Service evaluated 88 pollinator-rewarding perennial plants for their importance to pollinators. At the end of the trial, mountain mint (P. muticum) received the highest rating for longevity of flowers, diversity of pollinators that use the plants, and the most insects attracted during the trials. In one trial, 76 insects visited the plants in just two minutes.

       I am not surprised at these findings. When my wife and daughter found our mountain mint blooming a few days ago, they saw a stand of mint being visited by three species of butterflies (juniper hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and pearl crescent). They competed with the likes of thread-waisted wasps, hornets, and bumblebees.

       One thing I like about mountain mint is that it is easy to grow. A friend gave us some mountain mint plants two summers ago. We set them out and kept them watered. The very next year the plants produced a crop of flowers.

       If you like to create dried arrangements, you will love mountain mint. Each fall after the flowers have disappeared, you are left with scores of unique prickly, round, brown seed heads displayed on long stems.

       Mountain mint is a plant that definitely deserves a place in your flower gardens.

AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES FEED ON SCARLET SAGE SEEDS

       One lesson I learned many years ago is some of the most fascinating wildlife sightings take place when you least expect it. Such was the case last Sunday. My wife and I had just finished dinner when she called out, “Come here, you have got to see this.”

       As soon as I heard her entreaty, I rousted myself out of my favorite chair and walked to the doorway leading to our sunroom. Once there she directed my gaze to a planter full of potted plants standing alongside the rail bordering the far side of the deck.

       As soon as I was able to locate what my wife was pointing at, I was surprised to see a female American goldfinch pulling apart the seed heads of a scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea). As we watched, the bird expertly extracted each unripe seed and immediately devoured it.

       Once I saw what was going on, I retreated to the house, grabbed my camera, and returned. Since this was the first time I had ever witnessed this behavior, I desperately wanted to photograph the event. Knowing that the bird would fly away if I opened the sunroom door, I slowly moved as close to the windows as I could and took several pictures through the sunroom’s windows. Knowing full well how difficult it is to photograph birds through window glass, I realized my chances of being able to take decent pictures were low. Remarkably, when I later reviewed the photos, I was surprised to find the photographs exceeded my expectations.

       A few minutes later a male American goldfinch flew in to enjoy the feast taking place no more than 10 feet away from us. This provided me with the opportunity to photo both birds from the comfort of my sunroom. What a treat!

       As we watched the birds feed, I could not help but wonder why they chose to feed on the scarlet sage’s tiny, green seeds when a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds was no more than 20 feet away.

       We watched this fascinating drama play out for several more minutes before something scared the birds away. As the goldfinches flew to a stand of trees, we were left with several super photos and memories of how a pair of goldfinches made a Sunday afternoon extra special.

       I am so glad my wife just happened to notice what was taking place just outside our backdoor.

       Keep your eyes peeled as natural dramas are taking place in your backyard every day. However, you will never see them unless you take the time to look for these special happenings.

       One final note: if you will type the words “scarlet sage” in the search engine bubble located in the upper right corner of the blog and hit return key, two other blogs I have written about wildlife use of scarlet sage will pop up.

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.

       Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.

       Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.

      The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.

       You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.

       I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.

       Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.

       In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.

       For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.

       As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.

       That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.

WHY NOT PLANT A LIVING SUNFLOWER FEEDER?

       Everyone that feeds birds is very familiar with sunflower seeds. In fact, I would venture to say it is the seed most often fed at seed feeders. Literally tons of sunflower seeds are sold specifically as birdseed. Typically, we offer sunflower seeds to our bird neighbors in variety of traditional types of feeders ranging from feeding tables to hoppers. If you want to add a new facet to your feeding regime, why not plant a living sunflower feeder?

       Last year my wife and I stumbled across this idea when she planted a strip of ornamental sunflowers in our backyard. She sowed a strip of sunflowers along the inner edge of a long meandering flowerbed that snaked its way across a small portion of our yard. The mixture she planted included five varieties of sunflowers that were purported to represent a kaleidoscope of autumn colors and sizes. The mixture lived up to its billing. Some of the plants attained a height of only two to three feet. Others grew to be seven to eight feet tall. The sunflower blooms ranged in color from pale yellow, orange, and burgundy to red. To tell you the truth, I had no idea sunflowers came in some many attractive colors.

       Our initial plan was to let the seed heads dry at they finished blooming. During the winter, we intended to offer the seed heads to the birds visiting our feeders. As it turned out, the birds had other plans for our attractive strip of sunflowers. Before the sunflower seeds (technically called fruit) had a chance to dry, birds began plucking them from form the plants’ large seed heads. This transformed the sunflower patch into a living sunflower feeder.

      

       By far American goldfinches ate more ate more seeds than any other birds. However, house finches and northern cardinals also ate their share.

       To say the least, we were not disappointed with the way things turned out. The sunflowers were simply gorgeous and the birds seemed to relish extracting unripe kernels from the seed heads.

       We particularly enjoyed watching male American goldfinches, in full breeding plumage, visiting the sunflower seed heads on a daily basis. What a treat! Like most of you, most of the American goldfinches we typically see dine at our feeders in winter. At that time of the year, they are a drab yellowish-green.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder in your backyard this summer, we suggest that you dedicate a patch of ground solely to sunflowers. The sunflowers are easy to grow, however planting them in close proximity to a variety of other much shorter plants proved to be a mistake. By the time the sunflowers were blooming the shorter plants were shrouded out by the taller sunflowers.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder, I hope it will bring you as much enjoyment as the one we planted last year brought us.

WILD POLLINATORS HAVE COLOR PREFERENCES

       It is common knowledge that wild pollinators will visit flowers displaying a kaleidoscope of colors. However, it you carefully watch the number of times they visit the flowers in your garden, you will notice wild bees, butterflies and hummingbirds seem to feed more often at flowers imbued with certain colors more often than others. This information can prove to be invaluable to anyone planning a pollinator garden.

       As we all know, hummingbirds prefer red flowers above all others. However, they are also partial to purple, orange, and pink blossoms. On the other side of the coin, they are not big fans of yellow flowers.

       Such is not the case with wild bees. Yellow flowers are favored by these insects, as are those that are white, violet, and blue.  

     Largely, butterflies are drawn to yellow, red, orange, and pink blossoms. Whereas they seem to visit green flowers least of all.

START PLANNING FOR SPRING GARDENS

      With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.

       Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.

A HARD FREEZE CHANGED THE COMPLEXION OF MY BACKYARD

       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. 

       As expected most of the insects that were out an about before the freeze also met their demise.

       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.

      

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.