Sunday, September 17, 2017

Oh, The Butterflies I've Seen!

Question mark butterfly
I enjoy seeing butterflies in the garden; I think of them as one of the fruits of my labors, along the lines of “Build it and they will come.” I lamented about the lack of them in 2014, but the numbers have rebounded a bit since. I’m still not sure that they are what they were during my childhood, but I could chalk that up to overly idyllic memories of a more carefree time.

The other factor could be that I’m really paying attention these days and so it might seem like there are more. Unlike my summary of 2014, Gulf Fritillaries have been noticeably absent this year in my garden. Other people have remarked that they seemed late to migrate up to our area from their southern winter homes. They are around, even if they aren’t much in my garden; I’ve been collecting caterpillars from the roadside down the street and will have released several dozen by the end of the season.

The interesting news this year is that I’ve seen a few butterflies (and moths) that I haven’t seen before. I attribute these discoveries to 1) paying attention, 2) serendipity (being outside at the right time), and 3) using the right host plant. A fourth reason might be having more floral resources: for example, I think the bountiful April blooms of golden ragwort (Packera aurea) helped steer two Monarch females to my yard in April (where they laid eggs!).

Question Mark butterfly
The first new-to-my-place butterfly was spotted in the third week of March. Poised against the still brown leaves of an oak tree, I almost didn’t realize the butterfly was there. A quick flash of open wings revealed the colorful upper wings of the Question Mark butterfly. It is likely that this adult hibernated around here over the winter.

The second new one showed up in May: a Gray Hairstreak. Hairstreaks are small butterflies, and the Red-banded one is very common here. Last year I also found a Coral Hairstreak. I’m sure that there are other species out there but they are small, fast, and skittish.

Pipevine Swallowtail
Gray Hairstreak

By June I was seeing plenty of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, clearwing hawkmoths, Silver-spotted skippers, American Ladies, and even a Spicebush Swallowtail. In mid-June, I was delighted when a Pipevine Swallowtail came through but alas it was either not a female or it couldn’t find my pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa). Throughout the summer I would also see similar large dark butterflies like the Red-spotted purple and the dark form of the female Tiger Swallowtail.

July brought in the Common Buckeye and finally a few Gulf Fritillaries. I finally identified a dark ‘spread-wing’ skipper as a Horace’s Duskywing.  I have plenty of oaks for that species. Speaking of oaks, at the end of the moth, a cocoon that I’d found in the oak tree finally opened and a beautiful female Polyphemus moth emerged. You can read out our experience with her here.

August brought an abundance of Carolina Satyr butterflies and I was able to chase down a pair who was too busy mating to escape my camera. This is a small, dark-colored species that prefers to hang out in the forest understory until it’s time to lay eggs on grass relatives and I often startle them just by walking by wherever they were resting.

Carolina Satyr couple
Zebra longwing

Mid-August had an exciting surprise when a Zebra Longwing showed up in the backyard. This is considered a bit of an uncommon visitor here. I was hoping it was a female who would lay eggs on my passionvines, but I don’t know if that happened. The butterfly was gone the next day.

Silvery Checkerspot butterflies joined their smaller lookalikes the Pearl Crescents in the garden while the Tiger Swallowtails increased in numbers. The backyard, which has flowers that are protected from the deer, became the hotspot. At the end of August, two more new ones showed up: a Northern Pearly Eye and a Red Admiral. The Northern Pearly Eye was only around for a few minutes; it doesn’t usually nectar on flowers, choosing instead to get nourishment from dung, fungi, carrion, and sap.

I believe the appearance of the Red Admiral is thanks to the addition of its host plant. I ordered seeds for false nettle and scattered them around in a couple places. I never saw the caterpillars but I could tell that something was feeding on the plant. The adult that I saw was so fresh that I believe it might have grown up in my yard. Sometimes you just have to plan for butterflies!

In early September, one of my roadside Fritillary collections emerged as a Variegated Fritillary; I knew it would be because the chrysalis looks different. What a beautiful one! That same day I caught a glance of something different and snapped a couple of pictures of an American Snout before it took off. I knew this species must be around because there are some large hackberries (Celtis spp.) nearby.

Variegated Fritillary
American Snout


I’ll wrap up this year’s discoveries with two new caterpillars that I found on redbud (Cercis canadensis). August is a good time for caterpillar searching. This year I found a bunch of white flannel moths and several American dagger moth caterpillars, and just this week, I found an imperial moth caterpillar in the woods on sweetgum.

Imperial moth
Want more butterflies and moths? Here are a few of my earlier posts that may be of interest:

Gardening for Butterflies (review of book by The Xerces Society)
Native Plants for Butterfly and Pollinator Gardens (including downloadable plant list files for Spring, Summer, Fall)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Praying for the Real Thing

Carolina mantis

Praying mantis is a pretty well-known insect; kids love ‘em, and they're always fun to see, right? That’s the way I used to feel until I learned that these insect predators aren’t all the same: we have both native and non-native species here in Georgia.

I was thrilled recently to find a native Carolina mantis in my yard after years of finding only the non-native ones.

Here are 3 quick identification tips to help you realize what you might find:

  • Carolina mantis is smaller overall (up to 2 inches) and has a black dot on each of the hind wings (so it looks like the back has two black dots since there are two wings). 
  • The wings on the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) do not cover the abdomen; the wings on the non-native mantis (Tenodera sinensis) completely cover it and even extend beyond it a bit. 
  • The egg case of the Carolina mantis is oval shaped and adheres closely to a flat surface. The egg case of the non-native mantis is shaped like a pyramid and usually surrounds a small stem on a plant (3-dimensional).

Carolina mantis: short wings and wing spots visible
Carolina mantis egg case

Non-native mantis with long wings
Non-native mantis egg case
Photo: Wikipedia

The larger, non-native mantis grows to 4-6 inches and is the one that occasionally kills hummingbirds. It was introduced to the US in 1896. Now that I know how to recognize their egg masses, I cut them out and put them in the trash when I find them in my yard. Every year, I usually find one or two adults in the garden; I don’t always kill them but I do relocate them to another yard.

I found the Carolina mantis on the underside of a low-hanging oak branch. I took her down so I could take pictures and then put her on a branch of a black gum tree that had a few fall webworms. It’s been two weeks now and she is still there. I say hello on my way to the mailbox every day. After I placed her, I turned around and noticed a large non-native mantis on a small persimmon tree about 6 feet away. That one went for a long walk with me (crawling up and down the branch on which she was riding).

So now you know too. Do what you will with this information, but it's better to be informed than not.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Let’s Start a Garden Revolution

A new book came out last year by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher. It is titled: Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change. I didn’t buy it when it was new, although I don't remember why. At this summer’s Cullowhee conference, Larry Weaner spoke, and his message about working with natural processes really resonated with me so I got the book recently.

Two of Larry’s key points are that 1) nothing is static in nature and 2) traditional design and maintenance efforts are constantly working against this. We can enjoy our gardens more if we anticipate and embrace nature’s changes. Change introduces a sense of discovery through the element of time: a new composition of plant arrangement or perhaps even a new plant popping up.

I am always amazed to look at pictures of my garden from several years ago and realize how much has changed. Most of the changes are the work of nature’s hand as dominant plants were out-competed by something else over time. Larry’s principles take that kind of change into account. That’s not to say that the gardener can’t also take a hand in the change: there are times when you might edit something out such as tree seedlings or true weeds.

Front corner 2014, just planted, Penstemon smallii reigns

Front corner 2016, woody seedlings edited out, herbaceous
seedlings kept (except for weeds), Penstemon is minor player

The book is divided into 3 main sections  - The Learning Process, Design, In The Field - followed by lessons from his own property and a thick resource section. All of this is accompanied by beautiful photographs of actual projects influenced by his concept of ecological gardening.

The Learning Process section has a dual purpose. First we learn about some of the things that influenced his approach: writings, mentors, experiences, jobs, and even plants. Second is a primer on the terms and concepts (ecoregion, native, plant community) that are essential to the concept of ecological gardening. Armed with our new vocabulary, we’re ready to talk design.

However, design must start with a thorough site analysis so that when it comes time to choose what’s appropriate we can do so by understanding what we already have: the underlying geology (minerals that influence the soil), light, topography, hydrology, existing vegetation, and more. Next is creating a master plan; the authors have plenty of tips and guidance to consider. Finally, there is developing a plant list. Certainly, this is a lot of fun but you’ve still got work to do in your choosing. Points to consider include: using a dense ground layer to inhibit weed growth; choosing plants with multiple reproductive strategies (part of anticipating change); and a careful assessment of what to plant next to which other plants.

Implementation is covered in the “In The Field” section but it begins with the concept that this is just the start: “Decisions are made as the garden evolves, the vision adapted as the garden adapts. Some changes will be encouraged as they occur, others discouraged.” Prepare, plant, and manage are the in-depth topics covered here, each one with experience-based tips and guidance to steer the reader towards success. Three subsections are devoted to particular types of landscapes: meadows/prairies, shrublands, and woodlands.

Columbine pops up throughout the garden

The book is a pretty good read thanks to a generous sprinkling of relevant anecdotes that really illustrate the concepts. These are drawn from years of boots on the ground experience.

I think ecological gardening is a concept that can work for a lot of people, while also reducing the pressure that a garden needs to be tightly managed with labor and chemicals in order to be a garden. I’m glad that someone has put it into print.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Leave the Weeds For Now

Even the adults benefit from the 'weeds'
August is one of the peak caterpillar months around here. Last year I had a lot of fun exploring the yard for caterpillars and I found a lot while I was looking. When I’m not looking, I rarely notice any (except the fall webworms, of course). 

I’m guessing that most people don’t notice them either. Unfortunately, not noticing them means that many get destroyed in “clean up” efforts.

This chrysalis belongs to a future Gulf Fritillary butterfly. For two weeks, it sits in this drab twist, hidden among the weeds near where it munched a wild vine as a caterpillar. 

This one is in a neighbor’s yard. I showed it to her when I asked her for cuttings from her passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) to feed my growing caterpillars. She didn’t know that the vine was there; it was twining among the weeds where her vegetable garden used to be. It grew strong and vigorous among thorny blackberries and dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

Gulf fritillary caterpillar on blackberry
near host plant
By the time I showed it to her, it had flowered numerous times, set fruit (“What are these, limes?” she said), and nurtured several caterpillars into butterflies.

Any day now, when he’s not busy, her husband will probably notice the tangle and tackle it with pruners – turning the whole butterfly factory into a heap of dead branches.

Carolina satyrs making more in my yard
Down the street, the wild roadside sprouts more butterfly factories: more passionvine, partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) for sulphur butterflies, butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana) for silver-spotted skippers, false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia) for buckeye butterflies, and numerous grasses for a number of small butterflies like the Carolina satyr and some skippers. 

A few days ago, one of the roadsides was aggressively mowed – what caterpillars and chrysalides were in that stretch?

Cloudless sulphur on partridge pea leaf

Cloudless sulphur caterpillar explores flower
on partridge pea

Like butterflies? Think you’re seeing fewer than before? Leave the weeds for now.

Let the creatures have their time.  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

One Phantastic Phlox

We all appreciate flowers that do well in our gardens so it’s my turn to jump on the bandwagon that one particular phlox has inspired: Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is a pink, small-flowered cultivar that has been around for several years but which is more recently becoming widely available. This is the second year that it has flowered in my garden.

Eastern tiger swallowtails love 'Jeana'
This selection of Phlox paniculata was discovered by Jeana Prewitt along the Harpeth River in Nashville, Tennessee so it is native to the hot and humid South. This was not a bred hybrid and, by all indications, is a naturally occurring selection of the species. It also has good mildew resistance which is a generally a concern for cultivars of this species.

I have found that this cultivar has outstanding flower production, a long bloom time and an almost insane ability to attract pollinators, especially butterflies. During the warm part of the day, my two plants get more butterfly hits than anything else in the garden. The flowers are half the size of the species but far more numerous. From large swallowtails to small skippers, everybody wants a piece of this action.

The top section of a long panicle on 'Jeana'
Regular flower size vs. 'Jeana'

There is much discussion lately about native plant cultivars (or “nativars” as some people call them). Are these plants good for pollinators? For me, there are two discussion points to consider first:

  • Is the plant a hybrid between two species?  You can recognize most hybrids by the presence of an “x” in the name or in the absence of the species name. For example, Lobelia ‘Ruby Slippers’ is a cross between the red Lobelia cardinalis and the blue Lobelia siphilitica. You will also find it documented as Lobelia x ‘Ruby Slippers’ to denote the cross.
  • Or is the plant a discovery of a chance seedling or a plant with better than average qualities? If the plant was discovered in a situation (like a nursery) where it could have crossed with another species, it should be documented as noted above (with an ‘x’ or absence of species name). If it was discovered in an area where only that species was represented then it will be used with the species name (like Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’).
By understanding this nomenclature, you can at least determine what kind of cultivar you’re getting. One of the long-term disadvantages in using cultivars is that diversity is reduced. Therefore, using a mixture of species and cultivars keeps a healthy gene pool going.

In researching 'Jeana' for this post, I came upon a master’s thesis from a student at the University of Delaware. The thesis was about evaluating cultivar vs. species in Phlox sp: "CONSIDERING A ROLE FOR NATIVE PLANT CULTIVARS IN ECOLOGICAL LANDSCAPING: AN EXPERIMENT EVALUATING INSECT PREFERENCES AND NECTAR FORAGE VALUES OF PHLOX SPECIES VS. ITS CULTIVARS." The paper is worth a deeper look (and you can find it here), but ‘Jeana’ got high marks: “In comparison to Phlox paniculata, the wild-derived cultivar ‘Jeana’ was strongly preferred by nectaring invertebrates in this experiment. Insect preference for P.  paniculata ‘Jeana’ is primarily attributable to the ease with which invertebrates are able to access nectar, through its comparative abundance of flowers and the narrowness and shallowness of its corolla tubes from opening to nectary.

Carpenter bee on 'Jeana'

I won’t be replacing all my plants with ‘Jeana,’ but I certainly might pick up another plant or two in the future. It’s nice to have such a good performer for pollinators.

By the way, one source I found noted that the plant seems to produce infertile seed so I guess we'll just have to keep buying it. 😉

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Perfect Roadside

Roadsides are a bit of an obsession with me. I love to explore them in search of native plants that might be surviving there, and I’ve been doing that for about 8-10 years now. However, they are on the decline from what I can tell; county roadsides have been sprayed and mowed almost into oblivion. Only non-native grasses, Queen Anne’s lace, non-native lespedeza, and buttercups dare to return. Recently I had the opportunity to travel the perfect roadside, and I’d like to share it with you.

As part of my trip to North Carolina for the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference, I spent some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway. About 8 miles past the Cullowhee/Sylva exits on US23/74, there is the Balsam Gap entrance to the Parkway, a 469-mile scenic drive. Here you enter the parkway around milepost 443. You can go left towards Asheville/Virginia (where the mile numbers go down) or right towards the Smoky Mountains (where they go up to 469 where the parkway ends).

I spent most of my time on the left side (towards Asheville) - one afternoon with friends and again on the last day before going home. This is an excellent time of year to see Turk’s cap lilies (Lilium superbum), perhaps best called superb lilies so one can remember how to pronounce the Latin name. These lilies get very tall in ideal conditions and can have numerous blooms; the ones we found did not disappoint! One of our favorite places is Rabb Knob Overlook at mile marker 441.9 (a half mile from Standing Rock Overlook). The floral show here is great and the butterflies are fantastic.  The only thing lacking is a dramatic mountain view but there are other stops for that.

Pipevine swallowtails on Turk's cap lilies
Pipevine on Monarda fistulosa

Why is the Blue Ridge Parkway the perfect roadside? First of all, it has fantastic native vegetation. I have found that the conference’s July schedule is peak time to see the orange Turk’s cap lilies, blue American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum, below left), pink phlox (Phlox), scarlet red monarda (Monarda didyma, below center), screaming yellow cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata, below right) and many others. The riot of color is spectacular. This year I was also able to catch a late bloom season for great laurel (Rhododendron maximum). 

Second, the management of the roadside is ideal. The area next to the road is mown short for about 3-8 feet, allowing for clearance in case of emergencies but not so wide as to cut too far into the native vegetation. There is no evidence of herbicide spraying, leaving me to believe that it is managed manually with mowers and hand-trimming. It is so beautifully done that you actually don’t realize that someone is keeping it trimmed.

Sundew at the seep (Drosera rotundifolia)
Platanthera clavellata at seep

Third, it has regular pullouts for the great views and adjacent awesome plants (see point #1). I love to get out and see things up close. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I found a marvelous seep area with sundews, orchids, and many unique plants. Several pullouts have small trails that lead to more views (and more plants). Stop, explore, take selfies (or pictures of other people) and enjoy.  On one pullout, I met some very knowledgeable plant folks and we had a great time talking.

The view seems to go on forever at some stops

Hedge-nettle (Stachys clingmanii)
and bush honeysuckle (Diervilla sessifolia)
at an overlook

As I headed home after my last trip on the parkway, I felt relaxed and happy with all the good things I’d seen. I was surprised to realize that I'd spent over 3 hours perusing the roadsides and it was long past lunch time!

It was a long ride home so I had some time to think. Finally, I realized why it made me so happy, - because the roadsides are not full of mimosa, privet, kudzu, Queen Anne ’s lace and other opportunistic invaders. What a perfect place.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Giant Moth That Grew Up Here

I have a large and less than tidy yard and garden. Most of it is “yard,” by which I mean that I haven’t altered it (which is what I do in my garden). There is a lot that goes on here that I don’t know about until I stumble upon it. Last September, I wrote about all the caterpillars that I discovered once I actually looked for them.

A side view
In mid-May of this year, I noticed a cluster of 3 dead oak leaves in an oak tree near the driveway. Thinking it was a dead twig, I reached up to pull it away. It was a moth cocoon, stuck to 3 leaves which were then stuck to some living leaves. I pulled it down and noticed that the cocoon was huge and appeared to be mud-colored. I decided to keep the cluster in my butterfly rearing cage to see what might come out of it and I paper-clipped it to a sturdy twig to keep it hanging properly.

Two months later, during National Moth Week in late-July, a huge moth emerged during the night. It was a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), a type of silk moth. I researched and found that it doesn’t feed as an adult. It mates during the evening so I decided to keep it in the cage during the day. It sat there quietly all day, showing no interest in leaving (unlike the spicebush swallowtail that emerged that day and couldn’t wait to find some flowers).

Fresh cocoon
Cocoon after moth emerged

I left the cage door open that night for her (by this time I had examined the antenna more closely and determined that it was a female). In the morning, she was still there so obviously no suitor had come by. I closed the cage again and she stayed quietly again all day.

The polyphemus moth

That evening, I pulled the twig she was on (which was stuck in a pot) just outside the cage a little. My husband checked on her around 3 am and she was still there, but when I got up at 6:45 am, she was gone. I hope she laid more eggs in my oak trees (one of their host plants). I’d sure like to have more of those surprises. I'm sure they're out there.

A rough indication of size