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.
One of the many things I enjoy about blogging is fellow bloggers are often willing to share their wildlife experiences and gardening tips. Recently blogger Heather N. graciously revealed one of her wildlife gardening tips.
Heather wrote that each summer one of the plants that goldfinches are drawn to in her yard is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). She went on to say that these beautiful birds are eating anise hyssop seeds right now.
Since I am not familiar with the plant, I decided to do a little research on it. I found that it is native to the northern section of the United States and Canada. However, this perennial herb is widely planted in many parts of the country, including Georgia.
The plant produces blooms that attract a number of pollinators such as butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Its leaves produce a pleasant licorice scent. Its seeds are also consumed by a number of birds, like goldfinches.
If Heather had not taken the time to share her wildlife gardening tip, I might not have ever learned of anise hyssop’s value to wildlife. Now that I am aware of it, I hope to find a place for it in my yard.
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.