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A HANDFUL OF NECTAR PLANTS LINGER ON

       As I write this column, we are well into the second week of November.  Nowadays when my wife and I walk outside and scan our gardens, it is obvious that most of the wild and ornamental nectar plants that fed untold numbers of wild pollinators this fall are no longer blooming.  Yet, in spite of this, a variety of insects is still hard at work collecting nectar and/or pollen.  Fortunately, for them, they can still find food in some plants that my wife and I have grown in containers on our deck.  These plants are now the primary source of food for a wide variety of pollinators.

       Although some of the plants we grew on our deck have been nipped by a frost a couple of weeks ago, four species of plants are still blooming and attracting most the of butterflies, carpenter bees, bumblebees and other pollinators we are now seeing.

       Globe amaranth has been blooming since last summer.  Currently their blooms seem to be favored by checkered skippers, fiery skippers, whirlabouts, dun skippers, common buckeyes, and fiery skippers.  Occasionally a cloudless sulphur or gulf fritillary we land on the plants’ colorful globe-shaped blooms.  Bumblebees also visit the plants.

       A single Mexican sunflower is still producing blooms that are being visited by bees and butterflies.  It survived the frost because it was growing close to the house.

       With each passing day, our scarlet sage plants are  producing fewer new blossoms.  Nevertheless, there are still enough red blossoms to attract their share of the cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, and gulf fritillaries pollinators that are still hanging on in our yard. 

       However, beyond a shadow of a doubt, pineapple sage is the star of the show.  Our pineapple sage plants are still blooming in profusion.  A day ago, I saw seven cloudless sulfurs and a couple of gulf fritillaries nectaring at the same time at a blossoms produced by scarlet sage plants growing in a single large container.  Bumblebees and a few carpenter bees are still feeding on the blossoms  too.

       We hope our plants continue to bloom for some time to come. However, we know eventually we will be left with lots of fond memories of the beauty and pollinators the plants have brought us this year.

       After they cease blooming, we plan on leaving the plants in place, as we know the seeds they have produced will be eaten by cardinals, American goldfinches, house finches and others well into the winter.

       We are already making plans for next year.  We want to continue expanding the number and variety of autumn bloomers.

If we are successful, I am certain our backyard pollinators and birds will benefit from our efforts.

 

NOTE:  If you would like more information regarding pineapple sage, go to the SEARCH feature on the blog and type in, Pineapple Sage Is Great For Late Season Pollinators And More. When you hit the return key, this archived blog will appear on your screen.

BACKYARD SECRET—WHEN IS IT TIME TO REMOVE DEAD ZINNIA PLANTS?

        By this time of the year the zinnias in my gardens have, in large part ceased blooming.  While there are scattered colorful blossoms here and there, most of my once beautiful flowers and plants have been nipped by an early frost. All that remains of the zinnias are brown stalks and the withered remains of the flowers they once displayed to hungry pollinators.

       When each of us is faced with this situation, we must decide if we should go ahead and cut or otherwise remove the drab remains of these garden favorites.  Many gardeners immediately remove the dead plants in an attempt to beautify their garden.  However, I am one of those backyard gardeners that leave the plants standing.

       This is done because I realize that a number of birds dine on zinnia seeds.  Here is a list of some of the birds that eat the seeds of dead zinnias:  American goldfinch, chipping sparrow, house finch, purple finch, cardinals and pine siskins.

       I keep an eye on this unorthodox food source and remove the dead plants only after the birds have extracted all of the seeds they harbor.  When this occurs varies from year to year.

DEAD ZINNIA SEED HEADS

   With that in mind, I hope you will refrain from rushing out and removing your zinnia plants as soon as they are killed by cold weather.  If you leave them, you just may catch a glimpse of a bird feeding on the seeds located in the withered remains of the past summer’s zinnia blossoms.  If you do, you might find the dead zinnias not as unattractive after all.

GEORGIA MINT MAKES A MAGICAL CHANGE

       I am sure you are familiar with the fairy tale that tells the story of how an ugly duckling magically turned into a beautiful swan. While my wife and I don’t have any swans swimming around the Johnson Homestead, each year we witness the similar transformation of a native plant known as Georgia mint from what many would call a nondescript weed into a beautiful wild flower.   Let me explain.

       If you visited our yard in early summer, you might wonder why we would find room for what some folks might think is an ugly weed to grow in our yard.  However if you returned anytime from late summer well into October you would discover the reason why we are so fond of it.

       At this time of the year, countless pale lavender-white flowers literally blanket our stand of Georgia mint.  Admittedly these blossoms are small, however, what they lack in size they more than make in delicate beauty.

       In our neck of the woods, the blooming period for Georgia mint extends for weeks.  In fact, the plants are still in full bloom as I write this blog.  In comparison, most of our most valued pollinator plants have either ceased blooming or will soon do so.  As a result, with each passing day bees (particularly small bumblebees), and butterflies are faced with an increasing shortage of flowers.  Fortunately, for them, in our yard, Georgia mint serves as a life preserver.

       Currently, our Georgia mint is in high demand.  Small bumblebees, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, a wide variety of skippers (e.g. ocolas, fierys, whirlabouts, cloudeds and duns), gulf fritillaries and buckeyes make daily trips to forage on the petite flowers.  Although In past years, monarchs have also joined the assemblage of pollinators, we have not seen any this year.

       Each year, when Georgia mint becomes the most visited pollinator plant in our yard, we are reminded that anyone that has the desire to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators should make the effort to provide a parade of plants that supplies these flying gems food throughout as much of the year as possible.  For us, Georgia mint is one of our most important late season nectar plants.

BUCKEYES—HANDSOME, SHUNNED BY WILDLIFE, AND STEEPED IN FOLKLORE

      In the fall, the seeds of countless plants are more abundant than at any other time of the year.  Some argue that none is more pleasing to the eye than the buckeye.  While it is largely shunned by wildlife, it is coveted my many Georgians.

    I have a red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) growing in my yard.  Each year this small deciduous tree produces a crop of large reddish brown seeds called buckeyes.  Each plum-sized buckeye appears to be hand-polished. The seeds get their name from the round grayish scar (hilum) found on one side of each seed.  To many, this area (where the seed connects to the husk that covers the nut while it is developing) resembles the pupil of a deer’s eye.

       When you gaze at a buckeye, it looks like it should be a great wildlife food. In truth, the vast majority of wildlife species don’t eat buckeyes.  In fact, squirrels are the only native species known to dine on buckeyes on a regular basis. White-tailed deer, for example rarely do more than nibble on them. However, feral hogs are said to eat them.

       Why isn’t it a wildlife favorite?  The answer is the buckeye contains a chemical known as glycoside; a derivative of glycoside is known to be poisonous.  For some reason, this poison does not affect gray squirrels.  However, it is poisonous to livestock and humans.  Deer will usually avoid buckeyes but will occasionally nibble on them.

       On the other hand, many people covet buckeyes.

       According to a number of folktales, buckeyes can do amazing things such as bring good luck and even cure diseases. 

      Consequently, some say that carrying a buckeye will a person good luck only if it is carried in the right pants pocket.

      According to folklore, rubbing a buckeye will cure asthma, headaches, arthritis and rheumatism. However, if you want a buckeye to cure your rheumatism, you must carry it in your left pocket of your pants.

     If you have a buckeye tree that produces a bounty of buckeyes, don’t sell them as good luck charms.  If you do, technically speaking, you might be charged with false advertising.  This is because supposedly, if you sell a one of these magical seeds, it loses its power to provide the buyer with good luck.

MOCKINGBIRDS ARE DINING ON POKEBERRIES

               I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year.  This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year.  Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.

              Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies.   Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding.  Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property.  The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries.  While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.

              The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch.  Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries.  It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.

              If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow.  If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.  In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.

SWEETSHRUB IS A FRAGRANT ADDITION TO YOUR YARD

     I am surprised that more Georgians are not familiar with the sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus).   Since it bears some of the most fragrant blossoms of any of our native woodland shrubs, you would think that most folks would want it growing in their yard.

     The sweetshrub’s blossoms are maroon in color and produce a pleasing aroma that my wife and I are convinced smells like apples. However, some describe the scent as smelling like spicy strawberries.  Others inhale the shrub’s pleasing aroma and say it reminds them of a mixture of pineapples and bananas.

     Regardless of how you interpret the pleasing odor, the vast majority of us love it.  In fact, some people think so highly of it they plant sweetshrubs near their outside doors.  This allows them to lean over and take a whiff of the flowers before heading out for the day.

     The sweetshrub is also a pollinator plant.  Although Sweetshrub blooms generate pollen used by native bees and butterflies, sap beetles are the plant’s main pollinator.  However, since sap beetles are small (1.4-inch) and nondescript we often overlook them.

 

     The way in which these beetles pollinate sweetshrub blossoms in a little strange.  The fragrant flowers draw the beetles with the scent they emit.  Once the beetles land on the blossoms, they crawl down inside the bloom and begin gathering pollen. Here is where this gets odd.  When the beetles are ready to leave, they have a difficult time exiting the flower. As such, they often remain there until the flower matures enough for its petals to fold back enough for them to depart.  Once they are on the wing, they fly off carrying granules of pollen.  When they land on another sweetshrub blossom, they inadvertently pollenate that flower.

     Sweetshrub is easy to grow from seed, transplants, and cuttings.  While there are cultivars on the market, I have never planted any of them. If you want to be sure you are planting sweetshrubs that produce beautiful maroon blooms, a pleasing apple scent, and pollen relished by pollinators; you cannot go wrong buying plants from reputable nurseries that deal in native plants.

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.

GROWING OLD NURSERY SELLS HEIRLOOM AND NATIVE PLANTS

     Recently my wife and I attended THE FLOWER FANTASY AT PINEOLA FARMS located near Fort ValleyThe flower show was sponsored by the Magnolia Garden Club.  The event was great and the most unusual and fascinating flower show I have ever attended.   If the Magnolia Garden Club stages the event next year, prior to the event, I will describe what makes the flower show  so different than any others that I have attended.  This is a flower show you don’t want to miss.

       One of the vendors selling plants at the event was Growing Old Nursery.  The relatively new nursery is located between LaGrange and Columbus.  While the owners grow and sell a wide variety of plants they specialize in heirloom flowers and vegetables, and native plants.

       My wife and I bought a number  of plants from them including native azaleas, butterfly weed, touch-me-nots and hollyhocks.  I have found it hard to find hollyhocks that produce single flowers.  Invariably when I locate hollyhock seeds or plants they are double-flowered varieties.  The ruby-throated hummingbird and other pollinators prefer feeding on hollyhocks that display single flowers.

       For more information regarding the availability of plants, contact Mary Ann Johnson  at (706) 366-6863 or growingoldplants@gmail.com.

      

 

 

NOT ALL WAX MYTLE PLANTS ARE CREATED EQUAL

       Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) is a native tree/small shrub that produces berries eaten by more than 40 species of birds as well as a number of mammals.  Wax myrtle is also a host plant for the jewel-like red-banded hairstreak.  The plant also provides birds with nesting sites and escape cover.  Unfortunately, many people that plant wax myrtles in hopes the plants will annually bear a bounty of berries are left scratching their heads trying to figure out why their shrubs never produce any berries.

       The reason why they end up with barren wax myrtles is due to the fact that wax myrtles are either male or females. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Native Plant Center, often the wax myrtles grown by wholesale nurseries are cloned.  If you buy a small wax myrtle full of berries, there is a good chance it was cloned from female plants that were pollinated by male plants growing nearby.  Consequently, in future years, unless a male plant is growing in or near your yard, your shrubs will not produce any berries.

       With that in mind, if you want to ensure that wax myrtles planted in your yard will produce berries; explain to the folks where you buy your nursery plants that you want to purchase both female and male plants.  If they cannot guarantee that you are purchasing both male female plants, shop elsewhere. 

      You can begin your search for male and female wax myrtles by checking with nurseries that specialize in native plants. If they stock wax myrtles, they are undoubtedly aware of this situation and probably offer both male and female plants.  A good place to begin this search for a native plant nursery is to check the list of native plant nurseries listed in the Archive section of this blog.

       If you cannot find a source of male wax myrtles there, see if any of your friends and neighbors grow wax myrtles.  If they do, most likely they know the sexes of their wax myrtles.  Since these shrubs send out lots of suckers, I am sure they will let you dig a few of the suckers sprouting beneath a male plant.

       Good luck! 

CEDAR WAXWINGS EAT FLORAL TREATS

     The major portion (70%) of the cedar waxwing’s diet consists of fruits, berries and other fruit-related items such as sap. In fact, the bird’s name reflects its fondness for cedar berries. However, cedar waxwings also dine on buds, flowers and young leaves. In fact, cedar waxwings seem to eat blossoms most often during their spring migration back to their breeding grounds.  In fact, spring-blooming plants are more apt to be eaten by the birds that flowers that bloom later in the year.

     Some of the flowers most often eaten by blossom- eating birds such as the cedar waxwing include pear, apple, plum, crabapple, cherry, and red maple.

     You might be wondering why in the world cedar waxwings would even want to eat buds and blossoms.  The answer is simple – They are nutritious.  In fact, some experts claim that flowers have more food value than buds.

     Another reason is, by this time of the year, birds that dine on fruits and berries have an extremely hard time finding anything to eat.

     With that in mind, should you spot a flock of cedar waxwings eating flowers and buds in your yard this spring, I hope you won’t mind sacrificing some blossoms to the cedar waxwings whose beauty adds so much to the colorful spring pageant being played out in your yard.