Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Good Week in the Native Plant Garden

Flowers are busting out all over this week. The mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata) is at peak bloom this week and the hairy-stem spiderwort (that sounds scary, doesn’t it? Tradescantia hirsuticaulis) is finishing up an outrageous display.  But it takes more than flowers to have a good week in the native plant garden!

Spiderwort (Tradescantia hirsuticaulis) in a pot

It’s important that my plants are the gateway to something more. My plants need to feed their local ecosystem in as many ways possible. This week, my garden hit a home run. Let me explain.

Early in the week three baby wrens fledged from the nest near the garage. Their parents had built a nest in a basket that I had placed in a sheltered rack of shelves just for that purpose (thrift stores are great places to get baskets for $1).  Successful nests of baby birds are proof that my garden has the kind of insect activity that sustains life!

Baby birds were remarkably camera tolerant

One of the parents waits nearby

At some point during the week I noticed a good-sized caterpillar munching on one of the dwarf hawthorns (Crataegus) by the driveway. It was an unusual looking fellow with horns and a camouflage reminiscent of bird poop. With some help from a Facebook group, I was able to confirm that it was a red-spotted purple butterfly (one of the only ‘horned, bird-poop mimics,’ you see). Insects eating my plants – wow!

Caterpillar of red spotted purple butterfly on hawthorn

The next day I noticed that my plum (sold as Prunus americana but probably Prunus angustifolia actually) is sporting tiny fruits. This is a plant that feeds wildlife in 3 ways – flowers for bees, foliage for caterpillars, and fruit for birds (and me too). I am so happy to hit the trifecta on this plant finally (it had flowers last year but no fruit).

Developing fruit on Prunus angustifolia

Now for bonus points, on Thursday I was out taking pictures when I saw a splash of orange on the ground. It turned out to be a red admiral butterfly. What a great visitor and the first time I have seen one in my yard. Later I saw it in the backyard too but it is a quick moving butterfly and was gone after that. The host plants (nettles) for it are not in my yard as far as I know, but they must be nearby.

Double bonus points: I’m always happy to see new flowers. The pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) that I planted at the front of the house is blooming for the first time. I already have another plant about 20 feet away so I’m hoping to get a little cross pollination going on so that I can get some fruit on these beauties.

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

So there you have it – a spectacular week in the native plant garden. Hope yours was great too!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hello Yellow

The flush of spring foliage is so strong this week. Trees and shrubs are leafing out, lawns are greening up and leaves are bursting out of the ground as perennials wake up. It takes a bold color to outshine all that green and I think yellow is up to the challenge.

Chrysogonum virginianum
The nickel-sized blooms of green ‘n’ gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) opened up recently, at first only a few shy blooms. Once the plant has a large number of flowers, the brightness is hard to miss. I love this handsome groundcover and the leaves stay green year-round in my garden.

Coreopsis auriculata
Shortly after green ‘n’ gold starts, mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata) chimes in with its taller and larger yellow-orange flowers. There is no missing those blooms, whether it is one bloom or half a dozen of them. This species is also a bit of a groundcover and it does well for me right next to the sidewalk.

Packera aurea
If I walk around to the side yard, another screaming yellow display awaits me: golden ragwort (Packera aurea, formerly known as Senecio aureus). I started it with a few plugs from a friend and now it is ducking under the fence and spreading left and right. I still like it and happily dig up my extras to share. The 12-inch tall blooms are so cheerful.

Zizia aurea
Across the walk is a clump of golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), a plant that I specifically bought as a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies. I consider the bright umbels of tiny yellow flowers to be a delightful bonus. I hope the butterflies will find it this year.

What welcome start to spring yellow is. It also pairs beautifully with everything.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ladies Second

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating back into the area and I saw the first one last week. Thanks to the Internet (i.e., migration details), I knew they were close so I had already put out my small nectar feeder about two weeks ago. My first clue that they were back was not by sight – they are so tiny – but the noticeable thrum-hum noise that they make when they pass you by. That got my attention and I started to look more closely.

Ruby-throated male hummingbird
The brightly colored males are the first to arrive. I’m not sure why the ladies lag behind, but it is true in both migration directions. After the males mate with the females, they will continue northward. In the fall, the males will be the first to head south again.

The males are very skittish when it comes to human observation. It takes much effort on my part to get a picture of one of them. The slightest movement sends them flying off. During the summer, the ladies stay so long that it seems they get comfortable and good pictures of them nectaring on flowers are possible.

A female ruby-throat on summer-flowering cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

If you like to support hummingbirds, having native plants is a good way to do it. Sugar water is not a perfect substitute for natural nectar although it helps to bring them closer to us for viewing. This article offers some detailed information on nectar calories.

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is ready

In the spring I have 3 native plants blooming that are in the top ten native recommendations: coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is the first to bloom, followed by red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). I also saw him visit the newly opened Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) this week.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Although I love seeing them at the nectar feeder, I’m always happiest to find them using the native plants. 

The coral honeysuckle has about 3 flushes a year and the spring one is always the fullest one. The display is amazing right now.

I hope you’re seeing hummingbirds too. These tiny birds seem like a mini miracle of life every time they come back from their winter homes.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ring in Spring with Virginia Bluebells

When it comes to spring ephemeral wildflowers, they are all pretty amazing. The fresh and vibrant appearance of their flowers after winter touches us in a special way. I’m not going to pick a favorite, but let’s just say that blue was always my favorite color.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) is the only eastern species in a genus having 19 mostly north and western species. Thank goodness – we are fortunate to have them. They naturally grow in only the northwestern counties of Georgia, and I first saw them in Walker County, on the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail.

Generally they are pretty adaptable to garden conditions as long as you meet their moisture needs. They naturally grow in moist areas and really need above average conditions in terms of moisture. I have tried them in several areas in my yard. Not only do they not bloom in drier areas, but the leaves get smaller and smaller!

Early buds on Virginia bluebells
Their soft cabbage-like leaves emerge in early March for me. When they come out of the ground, they are tinged with purple. The purple fades as the leaves expand, but a hint of it remains in the mature blue-gray-green color. I anxiously look for signs of flower buds, and they finally appear as tiny, pink raisin-like buds in drooping clusters.

These can’t be bluebells, you think; they aren’t blue! The bloom stalk continues to lengthen, growing taller while the buds also expand, gradually developing a blue color. My favorite phase is when there is a mixture of pink buds and blue blooms in the same cluster. What a combination!

Virginia bluebell flowers are in clusters

Flowers are pollinated by long-tongued bees. I’m always glad to have flowers for our native bees. Once the flowers fade, the plant is pretty non-descript.  The pollinated flowers develop dry fruit structures known as schizocarps that contain small nutlets.

Delicate flowers against a rustic board

If you’ve got the right conditions, give Virginia bluebells a try. 

If you don’t, similar blue flowers can be found in spring on scorpionweed (Phacelia bipinnatifida), woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) or Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans).