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.
American beautyberry is a native shrub that is gaining popularity among Georgia backyard wildlife enthusiasts. Sometimes called French mulberry, clusters of round magenta berries festoon the plant from late summer into winter. The berries are not only beautiful, but also serve as food for hungry gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, cardinals as well as other birds and mammals.
Now it seems we have another reason to admire American beautyberry. Researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture have discovered that the beautyberry’s leaves contain a chemical that repels mosquitoes.
This remarkable finding is due to a conversation Charles Bryson, a botanist that works for the Southern Weed Science Program in Stoneville, had with researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Products Utilization Unit at Oxford, Mississippi. Bryson told the researchers that his grandfather, John Rives Crumpton, related to him that back in the day farmers in Northeast Mississippi were able to keep worrisome biting insects away from mules and horses by placing crushed beautyberry leaves beneath the leather harnesses of their animals. This led folks to crumple beautyberry leaves and rub them on their own skin.
This fascinating story led chemists to attempt to isolate the chemical that seemingly had the remarkable ability to repel pesky insects. One of the chemicals they were able to isolate was callicarpenal. When the efficaciousness of the chemical was tested, it was found to be just as effective in repelling mosquitoes as the popular repellent DEET.
Indeed the American beautyberry is more than an attractive native food plant.
With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants. One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.
Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas. Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss. At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries. However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.
Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals. This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife. Let me explain.
This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak. This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe.
Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects. Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes. Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.
Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe. Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.
Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries. Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh. Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.
Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant? I am.
If you are looking for a plant that will add a touch of fall color to your yard, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) may be the perfect addition to your home landscape.
This native tree grows throughout the entire state. Typically, it reaches a height of around 20 feet. In the fall, the tree’s foliage ranges in color from scarlet and orange to gold. While all of the leaves are attractive, I personally prefer its scarlet-colored leaves.
In addition, every 2-3 years female trees also produce a crop of dark-blue, oval fruits (drupes) perched on showy scarlet pedestals.
If you look at a sassafras tree’s foliage, you will quickly notice that it is comprised of leaves shaped like mittens, eggs, as well as those displaying three lobes.
In addition, to providing a flash of fall color, this tree is also a source of food for wildlife. For example, it is a host plant for a number of butterflies and moths including the spicebush swallowtail as well as promethea and imperial moths.
For a brief time in the spring, the sassafras also supplies food for wild pollinators.
Mammals such as rabbits and squirrels consume sassafras fruits. The list of birds that dine on the fruits includes woodpeckers, eastern kingbirds, gray catbird, eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, great crested flycatcher, mockingbird, and brown thrasher.
Indeed sassafras has a lot going for it; the tree is attractive, and provides for a wide range of wildlife. It does not get much better than that!
The plant that is currently putting on the most spectacular show in the Johnson’s backyard is a pass-along plant known as swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia). As is the case with many of the pass-along plants growing in our yard, it is not a plant my wife and I had on our list of plants that we wanted to incorporate into our backyard landscape. However, now that it has established itself, we are glad that it is a member of our plant community.
This Georgia native is extremely hardy. The woman that gave me the plant simply pulled a handful plants up by their rhizomes and handed them to me. When I told her I did not have any way to keep them from drying out until I got home, she told me not to worry about it.
When I arrived home several hours later, I soaked the rhizomes in a bucket of water and placed them in the ground. Honestly, I did not think they had any chance of surviving. Much to our surprise, they did not die and now, several years later have expanded into a patch some 10-feet long.
Swamp sunflower is a perennial that reaches a height of 8-10′. This fall-bloomer produces a wealth of 2-3″ golden daisy like blooms.
One thing that has endeared it to us is the fact that, in addition of adding beauty to our yard, it feeds a wide range of wildlife. For example, swamp sunflower is a host plant for the gorgeous silvery checkerspot butterfly. In addition, it is an important source of a food for a wide range of pollinators, including honeybees and bumblebees. Although it is touted as a butterfly plant, we see far more bees and other pollinators visiting swamp sunflower’s showy yellow blossoms than butterflies. Despite the fact it has the reputation of providing monarchs with food on their fall migration, we have never seen a monarch on our plants.
Once frost ends swamp sunflower’s blooming season, its seeds are relished by waxwings and other birds that feed on seeds.
The plant requires little water and is relatively pest-free. The only thing that I do to the plants is remove their dead stalks in winter after birds have consumed all of its seeds.
Since it will spread via underground rhizomes, I suspect that sometime down the road, to keep the swamp sunflower patch from extending beyond the place we have designated for it, I am going to have to remove some of the underground rhizomes growing extending beyond the fringes of the stand.
This is one pass-along plant that might be a perfect fit for your yard. If it is, I hope a friend or neighbor will share it with you.
In our quest for native plants that are attractive and valuable to a variety of wildlife, we often overlook partridge pea. In fact, it may already be growing in an unmanicured spot in your yard.
In case you are unfamiliar with partridge pea, it is a native, annual legume that grows across the entire state of Georgia. Seven species of partridge pea grow in the Southeast.
Its attractive feathery leaves are dark green. The plant bears bright yellow flowers from May into September and beyond. After the flowers bloom, a crop of flat, pea like pods appears. Encased inside each pod are 4-20 black seeds.
Since the hard seeds persist into spring, they are a source of seeds for northern bobwhites, turkeys, songbirds, and even small mammals. One reason the seeds are so valuable is that they provide wildlife with a source of food throughout the winter, a time when seeds are often scarce.
Unfortunately, we often overlook the fact that the plant is the larval host for moths and butterflies like the io moth, gray hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, and sleepy orange.
Partridge pea also draws a host of nectar feeding insects. It is interesting to note that this hardy native’s blossoms produce pollen but not nectar. Nectar is generated in what botanists call extrafloral nectaries located at the base of its leaves.
Many pollinators are attracted to the partridge pea. It is especially important to the honeybees. In fact, beekeepers often plant partridge pea near their hives. Other insects that dine at partridge pea include a variety of native bees and wasps, ants, and even the so-called velvet ant, which is actually a wingless wasp.
It is unlikely you are going to find partridge pea plants at a nursery at this time of the year. However, if you take a walk about your yard, you just might find partridge pea plants living along the fringes of your yard. Since plant grows in a variety of soil types, you might find it in places where little else grows.
If you locate it, don’t cut it down. All you have to do help ensure that it will not disappear is leave it alone. With a little luck, it may reseed itself next spring.
If you cannot find any partridge pea plants growing in your yard, one way that you can get it started is to collect some seeds pods from plants growing along a highway. When the pods ripen, they will split open and release the seeds. Then scatter the seeds on the ground during the fall.
Keep in mind this plant will spread from where it was planted. Consequently, carefully choose the places you want to try to establish it.
Years ago, I learned that one of the best ways to attract a variety of birds to your yard is to provide them with a variety of wildlife foods. In an attempt to accomplish this goal, I now offer my feathered neighbors a variety of seeds, and suet, in addition to mix of seeds, fruits and berries produced on a number of native trees and shrubs growing about the yard. One of these shrubs is American beautyberry.
A northern mockingbird was the first bird that I saw feeding on the shrub’s bright purple berries. Since then I have kept track of the different species of birds that I have witnessed dining on these uniquely colored berries. Up until this year, the list included the gray catbird, house finch, northern cardinal and brown thrasher.
In the last few days, I have enjoyed watching cardinals hopscotching around the bird feeding area located in front of my home office my yard eating suet, sunflower seeds as well as the berries of an American beautyberry growing nearby. Meanwhile, brown thrashers have divided their time between eating suet, pieces of bread. and beautyberries.
Yesterday, I just happened to notice the bush’s foliage shaking. I stopped what I was doing and waited to see if a bird would appear. Much to my surprise, the bird causing the leaves to shudder was a female summer tanager. For several minutes, the bird moved about the bush eating a several beautyberries before moving on to the next cluster of bead-like berries. Then, just as quickly as she appeared, she flew away.
When she vanished into the foliage of a nearby oak tree, I had a new addition the list of birds I have personally seen feeding on American beautyberries in my yard. Better yet, I also now possess an unforgettable memory.
If you would like more information on American beautyberries, type American beautyberry in the Search bubble found on the right of the screen. When you press the return button, a number of former blogs dealing with beautyberries will appear.
With fall just days away, red berries by produced by plants such as Carolina moonseed, dogwood, and nandina are now beginning catch the eyes of bluebirds and other backyard favorites. Although birds are attracted to these brightly colored berries, we should discourage them from consuming the berries of the nandina plant.
This might come as a surprise to many of you since nandina has been planted as an exotic ornamental in North America since the early 1800s. The plant’s evergreen foliage and red berries that persist throughout the winter make is a favorite among home gardeners. The fact that birds also consume the berries seemed to make it an ideal addition to any yard.
However, in 2009 scientists with the University Of Georgia School Of Veterinary Medicine, Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study made a startling discovery. It seems that when birds consume too many of the berries they succumb to hydrogen cyanide poisoning.
This news sent shock waves across the wildlife community. Immediately a plant once touted as a great wildlife food plant fell from grace and wildlife experts began recommending that homeowners remove the plants from their yards. In spite of the warnings, nandina is still widely found across the state. Just this past week, I spotted a nandina laden with berries growing in the yard of an avid backyard wildlife enthusiast.
If you still have nandina growing in your yard, I suggest that you at least clip off the plants’ berries and dispose of them in the trash. This will prevent your backyard bird neighbors from succumbing to hydrogen cyanide poison. Better yet, follow up by removing the plants before the next growing season.
One of my favorite times of the year is when the mulberries begin to ripen on my backyard mulberry tree. While my wife and I enjoy eating the sweet juicy berries, what I enjoy even more is watching the parade of birds that flock to the devour every berry in sight.
Yesterday, my long wait for this special event ended when I noticed the tree is festooned with berries. Although most of the berries are not ripe, I have learned that the hungry birds begin devouring the berries well before they are fully ripe.
The birds that flock to mulberries are all card-carrying members of the bird world’s Who’s Who List. While I am not a usually a name-dropper, the list of a few of the birds that eat mulberries includes bird royalty such as the eastern bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak, great crested flycatcher, scarlet and summer tanagers, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, northern bobwhite and wild turkey.