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THE MORNING GLORY – FRIEND OR FOE?

        People seem to either love or hate morning glories.  Although it is often planted for the beauty it brings to the backyard garden, others consider it an invasive weed and pull it out of the ground whenever they find one.

        On one hand, it can be a nuisance that sometimes blankets plants gardeners feel are more desirable.  However, it is usually easy to control in a backyard setting.

        On the other side of the coin, its seeds are often consumed by songbirds and quail. 

        Morning glories also provide food for nectar feeders such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, as well as native bees, butterflies, and moths.  Remarkably, this fact is often overlooked by gardeners and even wildlife experts.

        The morning glory is also a host plant for the morning glory prominent moth.  This grayish, brown moth is often attracted to outside lights on warm summer evenings. 

        A number of butterflies such as the clouded skipper and cloudless sulphurs nectar at morning glory blossoms.

        Late blooming morning glories can also be particularly valuable to rubythroats during the late summer and fall when they are preparing to migrate, or are already en route to their wintering grounds.  Often these long-distance migrants have a difficult time finding enough food to navigate this difficult flight.

        I suspect the morning glory is more often considered a foe rather than a friend.  As is often the case though, the more you get to know a plant you consider to be a weed, the more you realize it may possess redeeming values you never considered before.

       

 

 

BACKYARD SECRET–BIRDS CAN GET DRUNK EATING POKEBERRIES

       Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds.  Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries.  However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.

       This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented.  While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat. 

       I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them.  Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.

A SURPRISE BUTTERFLY NECTAR PLANT – ENCORE AZALEA

        As any Georgia gardener knows, when it comes to producing nectar that attracts butterflies, not all plants are created equal.  Based on my experience, one group of plants that is definitely in the group of those that produce little nectar is the traditional azaleas.  Unlike our native wild azaleas, they are rarely visited by butterflies.

       Over the years, my wife and I have planted our share of President Clay, George Taber, and Pride of Mobile Azaleas.  For years, each spring they transform our yard into a floral wonderland.  On occasion, I do see a few eastern tiger and pipevine swallowtails nectaring at their long trumpet shaped flowers.  However, so few of these gossamer-winged beauties have attempted to feed on the azaleas blossoms, I would be remiss if I was to say they are butterfly nectar plants.

       Several years ago, we set out a couple of Encore Azaleas.  We planted them because the nurseryman guaranteed us they would bloom well after spring.  To make a long story short, they have lived up to his guarantee.  Consequently, they treat us to the stunning sight of azaleas blooming well after the blooms produced by our native and traditional azaleas have fallen and created colorful collars on the ground surrounding the shrubs. 

           cloudless sulphur butterfly nectaring at an Encore Azalea blossom

A couple of weeks ago I noticed eastern tiger swallowtails and cloudless sulphurs visiting our Encore Azaleas.  When I looked more closely, I found these butterflies were not basking on the plants; they were actually nectaring.  Members of both butterfly species flew from flower to flower collecting nectar.  This was not a onetime event.  This activity has been going on for days.

       Since I made this discovery, I have gone online to see if others have also seen butterflies nectaring at Encore Azaleas.  Much to my surprise, many of the nurseries that sell Encore Azaleas tout them as butterfly magnets.

       I wish I could say I have seen butterflies using our Encore Azaleas in past years, however, either this is the first year they have done so, or I just did not notice this behavior before.

       There are scores of different varieties of this popular hybrid. However, I cannot tell which I planted in my yard.  All I can say is this year; two of the showiest butterflies that grace our yard are regular visitors to our Encore Azaleas. 

       I would be interested to know if you have seen butterflies use Encore Azaleas.  If you have, I would like to know which variety butterflies you have seen at the plants.  In addition, if you would let me know what variety of Encore Azaleas are being used by the butterflies that would be great!

SOME PLANTS HELP MIGRANTS FIND FAT-RICH FOOD

       I am fascinated by the astonishing relationships that exist between some native plants and animals.  One such association links certain plants that produce fat-rich fruits and berries to migratory songbirds.

       Long before the official arrival of fall, many birds like warblers, vireos, and thrushes, begin preparing for the epic fall migration during the heat of summer.  One way in which they ready themselves for the long flight is by switching from predominantly eating insects and other invertebrates that are packed with protein to a of diet fruits and berries laden with fats. 

       This dramatic dietary change enables these migrants to store body fat using less time and effort.  This is important, as this fat is the fuel needed to fuel their long migration.  It seems foods rich in protein and carbohydrates yield twice as little energy as fatty foods.

       Obviously, it behooves birds to quickly locate these sources of food.  One way in plants that produce fruits or berries loaded with fat facilitate this endeavor is by advertising.  The list of these plants includes blackgum, flowering dogwood, Virginia creeper, muscadine, magnolia, pokeweed, and many others.  These plants advertise by bearing fruits and berries that are have bright red in color, have fall foliage that is bright yellow, red or orange, or display their fruits or berries on red stems. POKEWEED BERRIES DISPLAYED ON RED STEMS - BLOG - 23 Aug 2020 (1)

       The plants benefit from the birds widely spreading their seeds through their droppings whereas the birds are able to quickly locate food prior to and during their migration.

       If you want to extend a helping hand to these special birds, incorporate as many of these plants as possible in your yard.

HOARY EDGE OR SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER?

       Summer is a great time to watch butterflies.  Depending on where you live, coupled with the abundance and variety of nectar plants growing in your gardens, it is possible to spot 25 or more species of butterflies in a single day.  Currently, I am finding anywhere from 12-17 species a day.  It is relaxing to watch butterflies flying from flower to flower.  However, I find it even more satisfying when I can identify what I am looking at.  With that in mind, I thought I would offer you some tips that will help you tell the difference between two similar butterflies that are likely to be seen in your backyard.

       The two butterflies I am going to focus on are the hoary edge and silver-spotted skipper.  Both are overall dark in color and display patches of white on the undersides of their rear wings.

       In my neighborhood, my wife and I see the silver-spotted skipper far more often than the hoary edge.  However, it is not uncommon to find them feeding close to one another on the same plant.   

       Both butterflies are similar in size although the silver-spotted skipper is a bit larger with a wingspan that measures 1.75-2.40 inches in width.  In comparison, the hoary edge’s wingspan is 1.4-1.75″ wide.

       The feature that you can use to most easily tell whether you are looking at is a hoary edge or silver-spotted skipper is the position of the splash of white visible when the butterflies are perched with their wings closed.  The white patch of the hoary edge extends inward from the trailing edge of the wing.  To me, this frosty patch also seems to be somewhat smeared.

       In the case of the silver-spotted skipper, its underwing patch does not extend all the way to the rear edge of the wing.  Instead, it is situated near the center of the wing.  In addition, this patch takes on a bright silvery white hue.  Also, the outer edges of the patch are more clearly defined.   

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S ABILITY TO SELECT NECTAR-RICH BLOOMS

       August is a special month for both ruby-throated hummingbirds and those of us that enjoy watching them.  Throughout the entire month, the number of hummingbirds visiting our feeder swells as they voraciously feed on the nectar provided by our feeders and flowers.  The reason for this increased activity is these flying jewels must quickly eat enough food to enable them to store the fat required to fuel their long journey to their winter home.

       In order to accomplish this task, hummingbirds make frequent feeding forays to our feeders and as many flowers as possible.  Since hummingbirds have one the highest rates of metabolism known, they expend huge amounts of energy trying to prepare for their arduous migration.  Obviously, anything that makes this task more efficient greatly benefits these flying dynamos.

       One way the birds would be able to streamline their feeding binge would be to possess the ability to avoid visiting flowers that harbor little or no nectar.  Well, as amazing as it may seem, they can do just that.  Here is how it works.

       The amount of nectar produced by each nectar plant varies considerably throughout the day.  A number of variables such as soil moisture and weather conditions affect it.  When hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, wasps, and other nectar feeders consume nectar, it takes time for it to be replenished.  This time varies considerably.  For example, some flowers do so only once a day, others every half-hour, others varying amounts of time in between.

      Ruby-throated hummingbirds have the ability to learn how long it takes a flower to rejuvenate its supply of energy-rich nectar.  Consequently, when a rubythroat visits the zinnias, salvias, lantanas, bee balms, trumpet creepers, and the like growing in our hummingbird gardens they rapidly learn how long it takes each plant to produce a new crop of nectar.  Only then will they revisit a plant it fed at earlier in the day.  This eliminates the need to revisit the plant until correct amount of time has elapsed.

       This astounding ability has been demonstrated by researchers such as a team of University of Edinburg biologists.  Their experiments involved providing hummingbirds with two groups of artificial flowers laden with nectar.  One group of flowers was refilled with nectar every ten minutes.  The second group was replenished every 20 minutes.  In short order, the hummers learned when each group of flowers provided them with a source of food.

       Keep this in mind as you watch the hummingbirds visiting various flowers about your yard.  It will help you better understand why they feed at certain nectar plants when they do.  If you are like me, you will come away being even more impressed with a bird so small, ten could be mailed for the price of a first-class letter.

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.