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 www.butterfliesandmoths.org 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!