Sunday, June 18, 2017

Supporting Adult Butterflies in the Garden

I’ve written a few posts about butterfly gardening, but those posts have mostly focused on helping people to identify native host plants that help butterfly and moth larvae grow into the beautiful adult creatures that we love. Only one post has really touched on the concept of feeding adult butterflies; it is a post from 2014 entitled “Native Plants for Butterfly and PollinatorGardens.” It has 3 printable lists, by the way, so it’s still a keeper for planning a garden in Georgia across all 3 bloom seasons (spring, summer, and fall).

What I’ve noticed in my own garden lately is that different flowers support different types of insects. Now that might sound perfectly logical to you once I’ve said it, but how many of us consider this aspect when choosing plants for our gardens? I’ve been watching a silver spotted skipper love on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), its long proboscis easily sliding down the flower’s long tubes to get to the nectar.

Not every butterfly will partake of the wild bergamot, however. Only those insects with the ability to reach way in will be able to get the nectar (long-tongued bees, butterflies/moths with a long proboscis). The ones that can’t reach it won’t even try; they know better. Several feet away, a whole different set of insects are enjoying the flowers that they can reach: the blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), the black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), several kinds of Coreopsis, scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and the phlox (Phlox sp).

Pearl crescent on Coreopsis
Coreopsis flowers are good for
short-tongued insects

Another sight recently reinforced for me the concept that flower diversity is a concept for gardeners to consider even for the adult butterflies. A new neighborhood is under construction and, as you may expect, a splashy new entrance is the first thing they built. This one has a long and loud sweep of bright pink begonias. It looks great and really caught my attention! But floral-wise, it’s a big dud for insects except for few of them. (And given that the plants were probably grown with neonicotinoids, well it’s not too great for the ones that will visit it either.)

What to do, what to do? Research is the answer, of course, but where to start? Perhaps you’d like to have certain butterflies: common buckeye butterflies are really neat, let’s start with them (assuming they are naturally in your range, of course). To the Internet! I often use There you can find a section called “Adult food” and for common buckeye it says:

Buckeye on Coreopsis verticillata
Adult Food: Favorite nectar sources are composites including aster, chicory, gumweed, knapweed, and tickseed sunflower. Dogbane, peppermint, and other flowers are also visited. (You have to figure from the common names what plants they mean.)

Here you’ll see that the best flowers are “composites” which are flowers in the aster family (Asteraceae); that includes the black-eyed Susan that I already have and the coreopsis as well as a wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) just starting to flower. I might also add other daisy-like flowers like fleabane (Erigeron). My aster family flowers also support butterflies like pearl crescents, skippers, Eastern tailed-blues, some of the hairstreaks, and American ladies. 

I’d also like to attract some of the larger butterflies like spicebush and tiger swallowtails. The website gives this information for native plants that the two of them use for nectar: Adult Food: Nectar from jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, azalea, dogbane, Joe-Pye weed and sweet pepperbush.  

Pipevine butterfly on Salvia coccinea
Personal observation is that they also like bottlebrush buckeye, mountain mint, purple coneflowers, and devil’s walking stick in the summer. I was thrilled this week to discover a pipevine swallowtail visiting my blue hyssop and scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), both plants are well suited to big butterflies. By the way, a friend passed along this website as helpful with identify the large, dark-colored swallowtails.

Occasionally you might come across some startling information like this for the red-spotted purple butterfly: Adult Food: Sap flows, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, and occasionally nectar from small white flowers including Spiraea and Viburnum. A good way to support them is to put out fruit in trays; Butterflies and Blooms in the Briar Patch in Eatonton has good luck with this approach (and it attracts a number of other species). At my house, possums seem to be the ones enjoying my fruit offerings. Another good resource on adult foods is this PDF brochure available from GA DNR.

Bottom line: If you want a diversity of adult butterflies and moths to visit your garden, you need to plant a diversity of flowering plants. A sweep of begonias isn’t going to cut it no matter how big it is. Include members of the aster family (asters, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, eupatoriums, goldenrods, blazingstars, ironweed) for the small and the short-tongued critters. Add some deep flowers (salvias, azaleas, thistles, milkweeds, cardinal flower, sweet pepperbush (Clethra)) for those that have long tongues. If you can find pesticide-free plants or seeds, also grow powerful flowering annuals like zinnias and sunflowers; they seem to support a wide range of adults.

Cloudless sulphur and tiger swallowtail are long-tongued
butterflies that use thistle (this one is a native Cirsium altissimum)
You should also plant for a variety across all 3 seasons. Flowers that feed them in the spring have gone to seed come fall. If you choose native nectar plants, many of them will also be host plants - double duty for smaller spaces.

Enhance your efforts each year by observing who visits each type of flower. For example, I planted Coreopsis tinctoria (an annual that is probably not native to Georgia), but I see very few insects on it. Next year I won’t grow it on purpose (which means it will volunteer like crazy) and will plan instead on trying something more local.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Special Plants, Special Places – Coosa Valley Prairie

Echinacea simulata
I have heard about the Coosa Valley Prairie area for years; it is a rich remnant of a tallgrass prairie that once stretched into Georgia. According to experts, these are considered calcareous prairies and defined as “Open grass- and forb-dominated communities over clayey calcareous soils that inhibit growth of woody species. Groundlayer plant species diversity is high, and includes disjunct species known primarily from midwestern prairies. Includes wet and dry prairie subtypes. These habitats require periodic fire for maintenance.”

Two weeks ago, the Georgia Botanical Society held a field trip to explore a 929-acre conservation easement on industrial pinelands that was negotiated by The Nature Conservancy.

Grand Prairie and wavyleaf purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata)
More than two dozen of these so-called “remnant prairies,” collectively known as the Coosa Valley prairies, contain over 40 rare and endangered animals and plants. They include species like the Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis) and the whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus), both of which we were able to see in one of the wet prairies thanks to work by TNC. More abundant plants, especially in an area known as the Grand Prairie, included the wavyleaf purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), whorled coreopsis (Coreopsis major), and an incredible assortment of milkweeds (for more on the milkweeds, see last week’s blog here.)

Our first stop was the Grand Prairie; the sweep of coneflower across the land was a breathtaking view. To a person, the reaction was one of awe. As we stood there in stunned silence, the bird calls began. Around the open area were stands of pine and the birds called from high in the trees  – summer tanager and indigo bunting were pointed out by folks who knew birds but then there was one that we all recognized – the distinctive bob-white call of a quail.

Scaly blazingstar (Liatris squarrosa)
Mohr's Barbara's buttons
(Marshallia mohrii)

We stayed around the field for about an hour, exploring the dry areas as well as a small wet spot. Another special plant that we came to see was Mohr’s Barbara’s buttons (Marshallia mohrii) and it was blooming nicely. This is the plant that led to the discovery of this area over 25 years ago by a curious botanist. Other beautiful blooming plants included scaly blazingstar (Liatris squarrosa), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), milkweeds, verbena (Verbena simplex), snout-bean (Rhynchosia tomentosa), and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). The summer plants were lush with growth, and we found, among others, the thick leaves of ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis). As we walked back to the cars, a beautiful group of colic root (Aletris farinosa) was spotted. Properly exploring this prairie would take days!

Colic root (Aletris farinosa)
Verbena simplex

Snout-bean (Rhynchosia tomentosa) with beans forming

Clematis socialis
Our next stop was a wet prairie to check on the progress of the endangered plants that TNC was helping. While the whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) was just a healthy population of leaves, we were able to find a single flower on the Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis). Bright panicles of pink phlox (Phlox sp.) dotted the area and the large leaves of the prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) looked like tropical canna. Another plant grew thickly in the muck and our leader said it was the dense blazingstar (Liatris spicata). That area is going to be gorgeous in the summer!

From the wet prairie we walked through a woodland to get to another dry prairie. A bright blue bloom caught my eye near the ground; it was so similar to skullcap (we had already seen Scutellaria integrifolia near the Grand Prairie) that I assumed it was so but snapped a picture anyway. I later found out that it is nettleleaf sage (Salvia urticifolia). The amount of new plants that I saw in one day was delightful!

Phlox spp.
Nettleleaf sage (Salvia urticifolia)

The uniqueness of special natural habitats is amazing. Thanks to those who discover them, those who work to document them, and those who work so hard to protect them. I am proud to be a monthly contributor to TNC. To find other ‘special places’ that I’ve profiled, just search for ‘special places’ in the search box on the upper left corner of the blog page.

Note: A good resource is the 'Calcareous Prairies' section in The Natural Communities of Georgia book (pages 197-200); this section uses Coosa Prairies as the basis for the description of this unique environment. A fall visit to this place, with a whole new set of flowers, would be just as interesting as a spring one.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Milkweeds of the Coosa Valley Prairies

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
The Coosa Valley Prairies in Floyd County, GA have small patches of tallgrass prairies with species that are unique. Yesterday I participated in a Georgia Botanical Society field trip there and we explored some of the 929 acres that The Nature Conservancy has under conservation easement. I’ll cover the trip in more detail in the next blog, but one of the interesting aspects was the assortment of milkweeds found there – 6 species were observed!

Many of us have seen the bright orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) on the side of the road so we know milkweeds in general can handle tough, dry conditions. This area was an amazing display of 5 species thriving in the prairie: butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa), prairie milkweed (A. hirtella), greenhorn milkweed (A. viridis), short green milkweed (A. viridiflora), and whorled milkweed (A. verticillata). We also found white milkweed (A. variegata) in the some of the surrounding woodlands.

The first one we found was the short green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), also called green comet milkweed. Although it is very non-descript, the flowers petals and sepals remain tightly reflexed, it still serves an important ecological purpose and we were delighted to find a caterpillar on one of the plants. After I got home, I identified it as an ‘unexpected cycnia,’ a small moth (Cycnia collaris).

Asclepias viridiflora
A. viridiflora with Cycnia collaris

Next we found the prairie milkweed (Asclepias hirtella). It has flowers clustered along the stems and long, thin leaves. The flowers are so numerous that they create a ball-shaped inflorescence. We continued to find it throughout the day, including one plant with a monarch caterpillar feeding on it. This species is only found in a few locations in Georgia, so it was exciting to be able to see it.

Prairie milkweed (Asclepias hirtella)

Aslcepias hirtella, the long view

Asclepias tuberosa 
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) was in abundance throughout the site (as well as on roadsides in Floyd County). As one of my favorite native plants, it is always a pleasure to see it and to observe the many different shades of orange that it has. This area has some especially deep orange flowers.

Asclepias verticillata

The fourth milkweed we found was one of my favorites for the day: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata). The plant is small and slender with tiny leaves and flowers; it seems easy to overlook, but it is found throughout Georgia. The flower clusters are also along the stem like prairie milkweed, but the number of flowers in each cluster is much smaller. The pink buds opening up to creamy flowers is a very beautiful effect.

Greenhorn milkweed (Asclepias viridis)

It seemed we might be too late to see the greenhorn milkweed (Asclepias viridis) in flower because the first plant we found had two huge seedpods on it. Reported populations in Georgia are few and far between so I was anxious to see this large-flowered species. We finally did find one that was still flowering. It is a short, stocky plant with long, broad leaves and large flowers. It was an exciting find, and everyone gathered around for pictures of this single plant in flower.

The sixth and last milkweed that we found was long past flowering and not in the prairie. White milkweed (Asclepias variegata) enjoys shadier conditions than the prairie so it was in the rich woodland that we walked through to get from one area to another. All in all, a spectacular day for not just seeing milkweeds but unusual ones!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bumbles Nest

The blog is a way for me to share Georgia’s beautiful native plants, the insects, and the critters that depend on them, as well as my weekly discoveries and adventures in the natural world. Of all the things I write about, the stories that originate in my own garden are the most special. This week’s blog is about bumble bees in the garden.

Female bees pack pollen on their hind legs (on Monarda fistulosa)

Males bees are just looking for nectar for themselves (on Monarda fistulosa)
Bumble bees have always been a part of my garden. I see them visit many, many flowers. Right now they are squeezing into the beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) flowers and slurping up the last bit of nectar from the nearly spent wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Surely they must live nearby? 

Bumble bees are one of the few native bees that form a social nest, which is a collection of wax balls with eggs and a nectar pot. 

A bumble bee approaches Penstemon digitalis

Bees are excellent pollinators of milkweed (on Asclepias exaltata)
According to Heather Holm’s book, bumble bees nest in a variety of places: rodent holes, under plant debris, in old bird nests, and other insulated places. This spring I actually found one. In mid-April, I noticed that wrens were building a nest in the garage. Last year they had built one in an old straw hat on a shelf outside the garage. I decided to clear out that nest to encourage them to use it again. As I dumped the old nest onto the ground, an angry buzz came from it!

Puzzled – and more than a little alarmed – I poked it again and watched for any activity. Another angry buzz sounded but nothing came out. I left it for a day and pondered what to do. I reached out to Heather and she said that it could be bumble bees. She suggested trying to carefully put it back into the hat and return it to the general area. Armed with gloves and cardboard for sliding, I reassembled it that evening (also her suggestion). 

Bumble bee entering the nest
At that point, I could only wait to see if the nest would remain viable. This week, I was finally able to be around and see bumble bees entering the nest. It was still good! I’m sure there are other bumble bee nests somewhere in the garden, but I’m glad to have a confirmed discovery of one. (Maybe I can dissect it when they’re done with it.) Bumble bees are not aggressive around their nest like yellow jackets so I don't mind having it on the shelf.

Next week when I clean out the bluebird box, I’ll be sure to stash that old nest somewhere the bees might find it next spring.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Snag Down

The snag in 2016
Snags are dead trees that are still standing. I had a dead pine tree next to the driveway for 6 years. Over the years it provided food for several birds in the form of bugs that lived under the bark. I have photographed brown-headed nuthatches and pileated woodpeckers using this tree.  When it fell down this winter, I was sad to think its usefulness was done.

Brown-headed nuthatch in 2014

I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that it has one more service to render. It broke about 2 feet above the ground. The stump had several carved areas courtesy of the pileated woodpeckers. I heard the soft calls of the brown-headed nuthatch and watched as one checked out the stump. It returned day after day, and I decided that it was actively working the area, perhaps searching for bugs.

One day there were two of them and it finally occurred to me that they were enlarging the hole to make a nest! Now the pair of birds was working in earnest. It was adorable to watch them spit out mouthfuls of wood chips as they worked. As each day progressed, they went further into the hole until there was no sign of them; I could only hear the tapping inside. Sometimes the mouthfuls were big and the chips went in all directions. See my video here.

In between hollowing out their nest hole, I could see them foraging for bugs in the needles of living pine trees nearby. I also put out a few dried mealworms for them to snack on. It’s always amazing to see how hard working birds are when it comes to the business of making a family.

Nuthatch works on the second tree
Later they abandoned that nest and moved several feet over to a taller (and skinnier) snag. Once again the sounds of their gentle tapping and their squeaky conversations filled the air.

We look forward to hosting a new family of baby nuthatches. Research shows that brown-headed nuthatches have one clutch per year and that the number of eggs could be 4-7. Brown-headed nuthatches are not rare but they are not common either. They rely on southeastern pine forests so loss of habitat affects their population. 

Male pileated woodpecker excavating for grubs

Leave those trees when you can, but even if you have to drop them for safety reasons, on the ground they continue to feed other things. A tree that has been on the ground for several years was "grub city" for a pileated woodpecker pair this spring.

I don't often cheer for dead trees, but you can see that there's reason to celebrate them too.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Coreopsis in the Garden

I often describe purple coneflower as the native plant perennial poster child because it is well-liked and fairly available. When talking to people about native perennials that they might use in their garden, you can mention purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) and heads start nodding. After purple coneflower, a close second is black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.); people are usually familiar with that dependable garden staple. I think that Coreopsis should be the next big garden thing.

Coreopsis gladiata on a south Georgia field trip
This genus of flowering plants has both annual and perennial members, 18 of which are found in Georgia. They range in habitat from sunny and dry to sunny and swampy, and can be found throughout Georgia.

One species is considered more shade tolerant (Coreopsis latifolia) but they really like sun. Most of them are yellow, but several species have pink flowers. Several are noted as host plants for the moths Tornos scolopacinarius (Dimorphic Gray) and Enychlora acida (Wavy-Lined Emerald).

I have had experience with a few of them in my garden. I couldn’t live without the dependable blooms of mouse-eared coreopsis (C. auriculata) in the spring. Its spreading ways ensure that it winds its way through the garden, pairing with all sorts of spring perennials. It and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata), which I’m also growing, are usually available at most spring sales. Whorled coreopsis (C. major) is a long-blooming summer standout for the dry area of the garden. Like others, it is usually covered in small bees.

Coreopsis auriculata can make a nice groundcover
More and more I appreciate some of our native annuals, and I am thrilled that Chattahoochee Nature Center continues to grow the Plains coreopsis (C. tinctoria) for their spring sales. I first fell in love with this yellow and red flower at a workday on a TNC property in Floyd County. I’ve also seen it growing on the side of the road a couple miles from my house. It’s sometimes included in wildflower seed packets.

Coreopsis tinctoria, an annual
Coreopsis tinctoria

And I recently got some of the thread-leaf coreopsis (C. verticillata) from a friend. It’s a nice texture to add to the garden and I hope it does well here; so far all I know is that it survived the winter.

This species, as well as several others, have cultivars developed by the nursery industry. While there is some concern over using only cultivars (it reduces genetic diversity to only use one), it generally means that you have a better chance of finding it for sale when showier forms are being propagated.

Whorled coreopsis (C. major) with pollinator
Coreopsis rosea

As always, do your own research and weigh the pros and cons. Here’s a list of the 18 species in Georgia:

Coreopsis auriculata – Piedmont/upper Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow, spreading, spring bloomer

Coreopsis basalis – Coastal Plain, annual, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis delphiniifolia – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis falcata  - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis gladiata - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, fall bloomer

Coreopsis grandiflora – middle Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis integrifolia - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, late summer bloomer

Coreopsis lanceolata – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, spring bloomer

Coreopsis latifolia – one northern county, perennial, yellow, shade tolerant, summer bloomer

Coreopsis linifolia – Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, late summer bloomer

Coreopsis major – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis nudata – Coastal Plain, perennial, pink, spring bloomer

Coreopsis palustris – one southern county, perennial, yellow with dark center, fall bloomer

Coreopsis pubescens – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis rosea – northern Georgia, perennial, pink, summer bloomer

Coreopsis tinctoria – scattered distribution in Georgia, annual, yellow with red, summer bloomer

Coreopsis tripteris – scattered distribution in Georgia, perennial, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis verticillata – no specific county records but likely, perennial , yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis grandiflora
I like to check out small nurseries from time to time and about a month ago I picked up some 1 gallon-sized Coreopsis lanceolata at Plant Life Nursery in Rome.

The plants were healthy and large; I think they were 3 for $11. Visit that nursery for natives if you’re in the area; it’s a nice, local business.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hidden Pond Trail

This trip was another field trip in the Georgia Botanical Society weekend for their annual spring pilgrimage. For the Sunday trip, I decided to sign up for the Hidden Pond Trail at Carter’s Lake in Murray County, GA after reading about it in the Nourses’ Favorite Wildflower Walks in Georgia. Also, Richard Ware was the trip leader for #23 and I can’t pass up the opportunity to learn from Richard and Teresa Ware!

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Our entry into the trail was a short walk from the parking lot and then across a small bridge on the right. I immediately saw one of the reddest red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) that I’d ever seen, surrounded by a grove of blooming bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Around us were yellow trillium (Trillium luteum, smell it to be sure ….), dissected toothwort (Cardamine dissecta), and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Woody plants included winged elm (Ulmus alata) as well as both blackhaw viburnums: southern blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) and rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum).  

Frasera caroliniensis
Dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne)

Next we came to an area full of American columbo (Frasera caroliniensis), a tall member of the Gentianaceae family. Only a few of them were putting up bloom stalks this year. I might have to come back in a couple months to see the blooms. We also saw black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), fire pink (Silene virginica), dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne), and bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana).  

Prunus americana
Shooting stars

After passing across the observation deck (where I spotted a blooming American plum (Prunus americana) and hacked my way over to it to confirm it and see a tiger swallowtail butterfly on it), we came to shady area with loads of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom under a grove of buckeye hybrids (Aesculus spp.). From there we looped back towards the parking lot, passing some of the largest clumps of yellow trillium on the whole trail.

After the hike, I took a short trip up the road (less than a mile) to see a dry slope with a marvelous population of bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata). I had seen it two days earlier on my trip to Coosawattee Bluffs and knew that I wanted to get a picture of it. Of course, the picture pales in comparison to the real thing.

Bird's foot violets (Viola pedata)

Hidden Pond Trail is available to anyone, any time that the recreation area is open. The entrance to the Carter’s Lake Reregulation Dam Recreation Area is on Old 411. The sign for the trail is visible from the parking area.