Sunday, June 26, 2011

Plant One for the Pollinators

Today is the last day of the officially designated Pollinator Week.   That's right, a whole week just for bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, flies, birds, and bats!  I hope they know we're out here rooting for them, but if they don't, here's the skinny on what this week is all about, courtesy of

Five years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of the final week in June as “National Pollinator Week” marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.  Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles. The growing concern for pollinators is a sign of progress, but it is vital that we continue to maximize our collective effort.  The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture signs the proclamation every year. Pollinating animals, including bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and others, are vital to our delicate ecosystem, supporting terrestrial wildlife, providing healthy watershed, and more. Therefore, Pollinator Week is a week to get the importance of pollinators’ message out to as many people as possible.

I see at least 3 pollinators on this Passiflora incarnata

So, here I am, trying to get the message out to you.  My message is simply this: think about what you plant and how that might support pollinators.  Choose plants that have dense clusters of flowers and stamens that offer pollinators what they need: pollen and nectar.

Of course providing plants is not the only way to support pollinators – they need nest sites (open ground and dead trees for some), a source of water, shelter, host plants (for butterflies), and an environment free of pesticides if possible.  Here is an excellent regional resource to give you more of the details.  A post like mine serves only to spark your interest in learning more about these essential creatures.

Still I like to talk about plants, so let’s cover a bit more of that.  Different pollinators are attracted to different types of plants (according to color, scent, amount of pollen or nectar) so planting a wide variety is a good idea.  Planning for a succession of blooms throughout the year is also helpful.  Consider the quality of the flower itself as well.  Plants with many sterile flowers produce less pollen than those with fertile flowers.  For example, the showy blooms of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ are composed of mostly sterile flowers.  By contrast, the blooms of the species plant, Hydrangea arborescens, contain virtually all fertile flowers.

Fertile flowers of Hydrangea arborescens
Sterile flowers of 'Annabelle'

What may appear to be a single flower (like Silphium and Helianthus) is actually an "inflorescence" composed of many flowers . Ray flowers (what we think of as the petals) may be fertile or sterile; they surround many fertile “disk” flowers. That is a very brief explanation, but the point is that what you see below is not "one" flower.

Inner fertile flowers (not all yet open)
surrounded by showy ray flowers (Silphium)

Here are some the plants in my own yard that have especially floriferous blooms throughout the seasons.

Spring trees and shrubs: Viburnum, Fothergilla, native cherries and plums (Prunus spp.), shrub dogwoods (like Cornus alternifolia), blueberries (Vaccinium), Decumaria barbara (a vine), buckeyes (Aesculus spp.) – a hummingbird favorite.

Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides
Prunus serotina

Spring perennials: Galax (Galax urceolata), Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum), Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

Chrysogonum virginianum
Stellaria pubera

Late spring/Summer trees and shrubs: Hydrangea, Clethra (Summersweet), Hypericum (St. John's Wort), Elderberry (Sambucus), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Hypericum densiflorum
Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis

Late spring/summer perennials: Mountain mint (like Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), Agastache (Hyssop), Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Silphium, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Coneflower (Echinacea), Angelica, Stoke's Aster (Stokesia laevis).

Agastache foeniculum

Angelica venenosa

Georgia aster, Symphyotrichum georgianum

Fall perennials: Helianthus, Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), asters, Joe pye weed (Eupatorium spp.), Ironweed (Vernonia), White snakeroot (Ageratina), Liatris.

If you like to support birds, some of these plants to do double duty: Black cherry (Prunus serotina) can be a host plant for over 400 species of moths and butterflies plus it has berries, Sunflowers (Helianthus) and Silphiums have seeds that birds eat, and Viburnums and shrub Dogwoods (Cornus) also produce berries.

And despite the title of my post, I hope you will plant not just one thing for pollinators, but two or three or more!


Look at the guide for North Georgia (Southeast Mixed Forest) provided by

See my previous blog where I reviewed the book “Attracting Native Pollinators”.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Lilies Among Us

What do you think of when I say “Lily”?  Perhaps a large, trumpet-shaped bloom with fat, pollen-encrusted stamens that stain your nose when you try to smell them?  That traditional lily flower is a member of the scientific family Liliaceae, but there are many other members that do not have that look.  Recently I became curious what plants around me are actually part of the Lily family; here is what I found.

First I did some research to see what characteristics members of the Lily family might have in common.  I thought that surely they would all have a bulb structure … nope!  Some have bulbs and some have rhizomes or corms.  Even their seed/fruit characteristics are not the same – some have fleshy fruits that are dispersed by animals while others have capsular fruits with papery seeds that travel by wind.

Next I decided to see how many genera are found in the family Liliaceae.  A quick check on the USDA Plants database found 108 genera in the United States, but a few of them are not native.  Still it would be accurate to say approximately 100 can be found.  So I picked out the ones that I’ve found in Georgia – about 15 for sure.

The most obvious and one of the showiest is the genus Lilium.  Both Lilium superbum and Lilium michauxii are found in North Georgia and their flowers are quite beautiful.  These produce papery seeds in capsules and have the expected tear drop-shaped lily bulb.

Carolina Lily, Lilium michauxii
 Lilium canadense

Next I spotted some of my favorites that still at least have "lily" in the common name: Trout Lily, Spider Lily and Rain Lily. Trout Lily, also called Fawn Lily, is Erythronium umbilicatum. One of our earliest blooming flowers in North Georgia, the foliage disappears quickly once temperatures warm up.  Spider Lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana) is incredibly showy; it is sometimes called Shoals Spider Lily or Cahaba Lily because some species of Hymenocallis are found in river shoals such as in the Cahaba River in Alabama.  Rain lily, also called Atamasco Lily, is in the genus Zephyranthes.  The beautiful blooms can be triggered to bloom by abundant rain after a dry spell.  We find white ones (Zephyranthes atamasca), but they come in shades of yellow and pink also.

Erythronium umbilicatum

Zephyranthes atamasca

Hymenocallis caroliniana

Trillium grandiflorum

Even the familiar Trillium genus is in the Lily family and you can certainly see the resemblance.  But after that it got harder and harder to "see" the resemblance!  The next five all share the characteristic of clusters of many small flowers: Fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum), Camas (Camassia quamash), Fairy wand (Chamaelirium luteum), Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum), and Solomon's Plume (Maianthemum racemosum).

Camassia quamash
Maianthemum racemosum
Chamaelirium luteum

Amianthium muscitoxicum

The next four have bell like flowers: Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Bellwort (Uvularia), Mandarin (Prosartes maculata), and Clinton's lily (Clintonia umbellulata).

Polygonatum biflorum

Prosartes maculata
Clintonia umbellulata
Uvularia perfoliata

And finally there these two - I don't see the resemblance to lilies at all: Yellow star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) and Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana).

Medeola virginiana

Hypoxis hirsuta

Photo by Sheri George

What an interesting family!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Native Summer Perennials in Georgia

Summer flowers are not always appreciated because they come during the hot weather when many of us hide inside.  But still they bloom away, providing beauty for us and nectar for the butterflies.  Here are some of native ones that grow in my garden (and some from friends’ gardens).  These are all herbaceous perennials that die back to the ground come winter in North Georgia.  By now a few of these have finished blooming, some are blooming now and a few are yet to come (at least in my garden).

Most of the flowering summer perennials love sun, so I’ll start with those.  The few shade ones are at the end.

Penstemons are known as "Beardtongues".  Most of them are white, but I found a spectacular purple one at Home Depot (of all places) several years ago: Penstemon smallii.  Penstemon likes full sun.  A popular cultivar of Penstemon digitalis is ‘Husker Red’ which has outstanding foliage that is a deep green with purple veins and stems.

Penstemon smallii

I am learning to appreciate the various native species of Iris more and more.  I talked about the spring blooming dwarf ones in my Spring Blues post.  In the sunny border by the blueberries I have Copper Iris, Iris fulva.  I find the bloom most unusual compared to the familiar, but non-native, bearded iris.  You can find a picture of it in this post.

Bee-balm is an old-fashioned favorite.  Common names include bergamot and Oswego tea.  Monarda didyma is a popular one; cultivars like ‘Jacob Cline’ have been bred for mildew resistance.  The fragrance of even the foliage is intense.  On rescues we often find Monarda fistulosa which has a wide range of shades from white to almost purple and is a bit more shade tolerant.

Monarda didyma, Scarlet bee-balm
Monarda fistulosa

Phlox paniculata

Growing in the same sunny field as Monarda at one rescue site are several kinds of Phlox, including Phlox paniculata.  We also find Wild quinine, Parthenium integrifolium, which has a huge root structure.  The large smooth leaves are attractive even when the plant is not blooming.

Parthenium integrifolium

Some of the most well known native perennials are Spiderwort (Tradescantia), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), and Coneflower (Echinacea).   I have two species of Spiderwort that I am trying for the first time thanks to contributions from friends.  Rudbeckia and Echinacea are the backbone of many a sunny border design. I love my two Rudbeckia species: R. hirta and R. fulgida var. fulgida (the second one blooms later in the season).  I have not cultivated Echinacea much and the ones I have are in too much shade, but here is a lovely one from my friend Debbie’s garden.

Rudbeckia hirta

Echinacea purpurea

Blooming beautifully now all over gardens and roadsides is our native milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa.  Tolerant of dry roadsides thanks to a large taproot, the bright orange is a welcome addition to the garden as well.  Another bright perennial is Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum).  Mine are too young to bloom yet, but here is a gorgeous example from Debbie's garden.

Asclepias tuberosa

Lilium superbum

I’d like to sneak in an annual if I may.  This is a reseeding annual so once you have it, you are sure to have it every year, making it seem like a travelling perennial!  This is Salvia coccinea, or Scarlet sage.  Germination is late – seedlings often don’t show up until May; mine is just blooming this week for the first time this year. Of course there are several cultivars of Salvia greggii (native to Texas) that are good perennials.

Salvia coccinea

Salvia greggii

Next on my bloom chart is Stokes’ aster or Stokesia laevis.  The gorgeous and long lasting blue flowers are a favorite of pollinators.  Even the foliage is a handsome clump of strap-like leaves with a faint white line down the center.  Mine will probably bloom starting next week and continue to have blooms off and on until frost.  I have the cultivar ‘Peachie’s Pick’ which I got from Niche Gardens – very floriferous!  Another late blooming perennial is Skullcap (Scutellaria) – a strange name but a nice blue flower.  As far as I know, mine is Scutellaria incana.
Scutellaria incana

Stokesia laevis

The shade garden offers a few blooms this time of year.  Although the canopy closed in when the trees leafed out, enough filtered light makes it through to support these plants.

Galax urceolata

Galax (Galax urceolata), commonly known by the dreadful name of “beetle-weed”, is a nice evergreen groundcover that has a wand-like flower with white blossoms.  It is really far prettier than it’s name would imply!

Actaea racemosa

Black cohosh, known by many for its medicinal properties, is a substantial perennial that I think could double for a shrub.  The foliage itself grows almost 3 feet tall and the flower wand extends upward another 2-3 feet.  The multi-flowered wands are full of small flowers and it is a favorite with pollinators.  The current scientific name is Actaea racemosa, but it was known before as Cimicifuga racemosa.  This one by the front of the house grows up through an azalea - they were rescued together and have lived happily ever after here.

Aruncus dioicus

Aruncus dioicus is known as Goat’s beard (or Bride’s feathers!), and it is also a substantially sized perennial.  It blooms a little bit before Black Cohosh, and the dried bloom persists in an attractive form as the seeds mature.
Amianthium muscitoxicum

Fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum) is a member of the Lily family and offers both attractive foliage and a nice bloom.  I had never heard of it until we found it on a rescue site, and now it is one of my favorites.  One nice aspect – deer do not bother it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Natural Bird Food

Birds flit back and forth constantly this time of year – criss-crossing my yard, the roads in my neighborhood and almost every small country road that I drive these days.  Even as I marvel at their acrobatic twists and turns, I know that many of their trips are all business – they are searching for food for their baby chicks.  And what is it that baby chicks love to eat more than anything?  BUGS!

Photo courtesy of Loret T. Setters

Supporting birds is a popular activity.  Most people love birds and attracting them to their yard is a goal that many folks have.  I envision that the evolution of a bird lover might go something like this:

  • "I’d like to support birds, I’ll get a feeder and some seed."
  • Several months later: "I sure like having birds around now, I’ll get a bird bath and some bird houses to help them out."
  • Several more months later: "I should support the birds more – I’ll plant some evergreen plants for nesting and some plants that get berries."

And that’s as far as most people go.  However, there is one more step that people should know about:

  • "I’ll plant some native plants to bring the insects in so that the birds will have what they need to feed their chicks."
Caterpillars on Pine - think bird food!
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Remember all that flitting back and forth that I mentioned? Those are birds looking for insects to feed to their chicks! Yes, bugs – a GREAT source of protein. In addition to feeding their chicks insects, there are some birds such as Warblers, Thrushes, and Robins that are “insectivores” in their own diet. If you look closely you will see that they have slender bills that are adapted for grasping insects.

Other birds, like finches and sparrows, eat seeds and nuts. Some birds, like cedar waxwings, are frugivores, and they eat primarily fruits and berries.  But all birds feed insects to their young.  So how do we help these birds?  We can provide “natural” bird food by providing an environment that attracts and supports the insects that they eat!

A tasty looking beetle!
A Jewelwing

There are primarily 3 ways to attract and support insects:

Plant native plants to host insect eggs: Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on plants that support their young (caterpillars).  The Monarch butterfly is a very well known example: they lay eggs on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) plants, those eggs hatch and the larvae grow into caterpillars that eat the milkweed.  They eat no other type of plant. For many other butterflies and moths it is the same story, but a different plant.  According to research compiled by Doug Tallamy, certain plants support more species than others, but native plants support the most species of all by far.  If you follow the link by clicking on Doug Tallamy's name, you will find a list of the top 20 plants, both woody and herbaceous, that support insects in the Eastern U.S.  The top woody plant is Oak (Quercus spp.) and the top herbaceous plant is Goldenrod (Solidago spp.).

On Hawthorn
On Oak

On Sassafras

Plant floriferous plants to attract pollinators: bees, wasps, flies and beetles all have a role in plant pollination.  Plants that have large amounts of flowers, even tiny ones, provide more nectar and pollen than others.  The bloom shown below is Decumaria barbara, notice the many flowers that make up the single inflorescence.  The more insects that are attracted to the flower, the more opportunities there are for birds and other bugs to snag one for a meal.

A beetle and a fly
A nearby spider waits for some prey

Look at all the cool bugs I've found in my yard!

A bug eating another bug!

Leave leaf litter on the ground to support insects that feed on dead materials: worms, snails, beetles, “roly poly” bugs, centipedes, and things we’ve never heard of!  We all have seen pictures of robins pulling worms from the ground: "The early bird gets the worm!"  Worms can be found in rich layers of decaying leaves.  Also found there are many other critters, including small snails.  Doug Tallamy says that snails provide an important source of calcium for birds when they are laying eggs.  The Brown Thrasher, the Georgia state bird, searches for food in the dry leaves on the ground.  When it comes time to "tidy up", leave the leaves for the bugs and the birds will be very grateful.

So when you think about supporting "the birds", I hope you will think about what you can do to naturally give them what they need - plants first!  The rest will come.