Milkweed for Monarchs….and everyone else!

The recent push to plant Milkweed for Monarchs is a welcome development in the gardening community.  Monarchs are dependent on Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) for their survival, as it is the only food their caterpillars can eat.  But it’s not just for Monarchs! LOTS of pollinators visit the flowers to drink the nectar.  I took my camera out to several of our patches of Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) yesterday to document a smapling of the variety of insects I see on the flowers.

One of the common names of Asclepias tuberosa is ‘Butterflyweed’ so one would expect to see butterflies.  This female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is dipping her long proboscis into the nectar rich base of the flower in order to drink it up.  It’s like a built in straw.

A close cousin, the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) also feeds on the nectar. Much like the Monarch Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of the plants in a single genus, Asimina, or Paw Paws.

This Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) was looking a little tattered, as it was probably approaching the end of it’s ~2 week long adult life.  It was still sipping nectar as it rested on the flowers.

Bees also love the nectar from this plant.  Here a Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon spp.) perches it’s tiny body atop the flower as it sips nectar from inside. It’s just one of the hundreds of species of native bees here in Georgia.

Another Native bee, possibly a Leafcutter bee (I’m not an entomologist), feeding on nectar.

Another possible leafcutter bee: the whitish mat of hairs on the underside of it’s abdomen are used for collecting pollen.  Look closely to the right of the bee and you’ll see an ant sipping nectar as well.

Speaking of Ants, this Fire Ant also found it’s way up the 3 foot tall stalks for a sugary meal. Ants can be pollinators too, and they are responsible for dispersing the seeds of many spring blooming wildflowers such as Trillium and Bloodroot.

This Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) feeds on nectar as an adult, but like most wasps it hatched from an egg laid on another insect and fully consumed it before the metamorphosis into it’s current winged form.  Golden Digger Wasps are predators to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets.

This Yellow Jacket adult enjoys sugary nectar, but its larvae need a more protein rich diet, which the adults supply by hunting other insects (many of which are agricultural pests).  Wasps are much maligned by humans, but without their predatory behavior we would be literally drowning in bugs and our crops would be decimated.

And finally, not everyone is there for the nectar! This is one of several clever lizards I’ve seen recently near blooming flowers lying in wait for some distracted pollinator to drift too close…..

Milkweed is for Monarchs, but after they have migrated north it’s for butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, ants, beetles, aphids, and even lizards.


Podcasts for the Plant Enthusiast

Podcasts have become a bit of an obsession for me in the past 12 months.  I spend long hours alone in the greenhouse sowing seed trays, dividing crowns, and potting up plants.  I used to listen to music with an occasional audiobook to keep my sanity, but even 10,000 songs on shuffle got old eventually.  In the course of looking for something to entertain and, hopefully, enrich my mind I have stumbled upon a number of podcasts that are now a part of my daily routine.  If you are already familiar with podcasts and how to get them, feel free to skip to the bullet points for my favorites.  If you haven’t ventured into the world of podcasts just yet a short introduction follows.

First: what is a podcast?  It’s a pre-recorded audio production (‘radio show’) that you download or stream and listen to on your phone/computer/internet-connected device.  Most of the shows NPR produces are also available as podcasts, so that should give you a basic idea of the format.  Unlike NPR or radio, pretty much anyone can make a podcast, which means there is a lot a variability and people trying new things.  The upside is that increased access lends itself to a wide variety of shows about specialized and often esoteric subject matter (like native plants).  The only downside I’ve encountered is that sometimes the quality can be lacking for the more specialized subjects (like native plants), but better shows are coming out all the time. Fortunately, most podcasts are completely free to the listener, and there are ratings and reviews that can guide you to good quality productions.

Now, where to get these podcasts?  If you are into Apple products and/or use iTunes, that will be your best bet.  They did invent the podcast, so I’ll give them credit for that and say that most podcasts are available there first.  If you don’t use iTunes, then there are a few other ways to listen.  There are a number of apps, often referred to as ‘podcatchers’ available for free in whatever app store you use.  Download the app, open it up and start browsing for episodes.  I am using Podcast Republic at the moment and I would say it works quite well for me.  The advantage of installing the app is that you can download the episodes for offline listening.  This is especially great for listening in the car or in areas that have poor cell/wi-fi coverage (like the greenhouse) where streaming is not an option.  If you aren’t into the apps and downloads then you can always just listen through your regular web browser on whatever device you use to internet.

Now that the podcast basics are covered, here are the shows that I enjoy and recommend:

  • The Native Plant Podcast – This is a recent find, but has quickly become one of my favorites. I think I might have met the hosts, Mike and John, at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference back in 2013.  They are both entertaining, knowledgeable guys that run businesses growing and installing native plants in Tennessee and Virginia respectively.  They bring on a guest each week to interview and discuss various aspects of plants, ecology, horticulture, and the nursery industry.  They also end each show by telling short stories about their dogs and having a toast with their guest, usually involving dark beers.  Native plants, dogs and beers: I’m sold.   This episode with Dr. Doug Tallamy is a great introduction to him and his work, and also has some good new info for those already familiar with him.  A quote from this episode with Dale Hendricks that  made me feel better about some of my nursery failures was:“You find a professional grower and you find a person that, for better or for worse, has killed a lot of plants.” It also has a lot of more positive talk about biochar, his role in founding North Creek Nurseries, his new found interest in permaculture, and Paw paws.

 

  • Plants: From Roots to Riches was a BBC radio program, and is now available as a podcast. It’s a good overview of the history of botanical studies, the people that made went exploring all over the globe and the plants they found, collected, studied and grew.  The host, Prof. Kathy Willis is the director of science at Kew Gardens, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world and a key institution in the development of botany as a proper science.  She enlists her numerous colleagues at Kew and abroad to explain how empire, industry, and agriculture fueled the need for botanical expertise. The episodes are pretty short (about 14 min. each), so the series of 25 went pretty quickly for me.  It’s a very well produced, accessible, narrative of the past 300 years and the revolutions in scientific studies that have changed the ways we view and interact with plants.

 

 

  • In Our Time – Now, we’re getting away from strictly plant based podcasts, but this one has something for everyone.  It’s from the BBC, and the host Melvyn Bragg moderates a panel of experts on a given topic each week and they discuss the history of said topic.  It is often a work of art, a scientific theory or invention, or a social phenomenon.  This episode about Photosynthesis really helped me to visualize the inner workings of plant cells as they make their make their food and breathe.  This episode about the structure of the cell is also fascinating, as are any of the many episodes about astronomy, geology, physics and paleontology. Tons of episodes all chock full of people that have devoted their lives to studying a subject explaining it to a genial British man in fairly simple terms.  You’re bound to learn something new.

Those are all for the plant enthusiast, but others that I regularly enjoy and recommend are: This American Life,  Nerdist, WTF with Marc Maron, Talking Simpsons, You Must Remember This, Radiolab, Invisibilia, Longform, and Snap Judgement.

Happy listening, and if you know of any other good (native) plant-related podcasts recommend it in the comments!


Sweetshrub: 100 Million Years of Blooms

The flowers of Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) are in full bloom right now.   They are a deep maroon color that contrasts nicely with the bright, glossy green of the foliage.  Some plants have more fragrant blooms than others, but if you can find an aromatic one do yourself a favor and take in the smell.  Kind of like strawberries mixed with bananas and a little cinnamon or clove tossed in: there are not many fragrances like it.  The overripe fruits of Sweetshrub’s cousin, Paw paw (Asimina triloba) are the closest scent that comes to mind.  Sweetshrub flowers are unique in appearance as well with their spidery tepals wrapped around a central cluster of anthers. They look like they haven’t quite opened yet.   The color, structure and smell of these flowers differ from most of the flowers that are familiar to us today because they are the results of adaptive strategies first developed over 100 million years ago.

Fossils from Brazil that date to the Cretaceous period (115 million years ago) have shown us the form of an ancestor of Sweetshrub named Araripia.  The fossil “comprises flowers, buds, and leaves, and exhibits features that suggest that “among the Calycanthaceae, especially flowers of Calycanthus are most similar to the flower of Araripia”  The Earth was a much different place 115 MYA to say the least: Only two massive continents, Gondwana and Laurasia, existed and the climate was much warmer and humid.  Dinosaurs roamed the land and insects of all sizes occupied every niche in the dense tropical forests that covered the entire planet.  Plants and insects were just beginning to respond to one another’s adaptive strategies.  These responses were the first steps on a co-evolutionary path that would lead to very complex and specialized forms and life patterns on both sides of the aisle.  Sweetshrub is a living relic from a time before bees when plants were just “learning” that insects could be used to facilitate cross pollination if they are given a little incentive.

This cutaway picture of a Calycanthus bloom shows the minimal differentiation of flower parts as one passes from outer to inner bloom.  Instead of two separate parts, sepals and petals, there are tepals (a half-way-between-the-two structure more commonly found in monocots) surrounding and enclosing the anthers and ovary.  The pollen producing anthers are very similar in their shape and arrangement to the tepals and very simple in form.  The size is really the only variant in the form of the floral parts; There isn’t a lot of specialization.  There are no nectar bearing parts to appeal to bees and butterflies because this flower form evolved before they did.  Beetles were the most likely insects to transfer pollen between flowers as they ate it, so they are meant to appeal to beetles.

Attracting a beetle to a flower is not the same as attracting a bee or butterfly.  First, there are the visual cues.  Beetles, like moths, are attracted to bright white flowers, such as a Magnolia flower (also ancient and beetle pollinated), that reflects light well, especially at night.  Some beetles are also attracted to deep reddish-brown colors, as several other plants known to be pollinated by flies and carrion feeding beetles such as Pawpaw (Asimina spp.), Carrion Flowers (Stapelia spp.) and Pipevine (Aristilochia spp.) have adopted a similar color scheme;  Possibly to mimic wounded or rotting flesh.  Second, there are olfactory cues.  Many beetles evolved to feed upon the carcasses of other animals or their excrement.  An appealing odor to a beetle is not necessarily the sweet smells that we humans most often associate with flowers or fruits.  A spicy, earthy aroma that suggests some sort of decay is more likely to attract a bunch of beetles. Third, there is the form of the flower itself.  Very simple, no complicated pollen sacs or parts that mimic female insects like orchids; no separate disk and ray flowers like asters, just the tepals in a semi-enclosed arrangement around the pollen bearing anthers and ovary.  Beetles aren’t there for the sweet carbohydrate nectar, they just want the protein rich pollen.  In the process of eating, they get covered in pollen grains that will be transferred to the next flower they feast upon.  Mass appeal with vaguely appetizing aromas and easily accessible flowers were the beginnings of plant-pollinator relationships that grew more specific and specialized over the ensuing 115 million years to give us the biodiversity we see today.

Sweetshrub has been a popular cultivated shrub in the south since Europeans arrived, and continues to do well in the nursery trade to this day.  I don’t think that many people, even among those that plant it and enjoy it, are aware of its ancient lineage.

 

Post Script/Cultivation Note:

The seeds of Sweetshrub are large, easy to collect and fun to grow. They also demonstrate a unique and probably ancient strategy of having no energy reserves stored in the seed.  It’s just the seed leaves (cotelydons) wound tightly in a spiral inside the seed coat waiting to unfurl and capture solar energy.

The relatively huge leaves quickly make up for the lack of stored reserves and the true leaves and stem shoot up through the middle of them.


What’s not to love? Beautiful Hawthorns with Bountiful Berries

Crataegus-marshallii-DSC_0209Our native hawthorns are beautiful early bloomers, starting in late March and going through April and May. Hawthorns start blooming very soon after the early trees, when the plums and other fruit trees are putting on their show, providing much needed early bee and butterfly support with their offerings of pollen and nectar.

Dwarf Hawthorn, Crataegus uniflora

Dwarf Hawthorn, Crataegus uniflora

But the pollinator support doesn’t stop there. Hawthorns are among the top larval host plants in Doug Tallamy’s list of “Best Bets: What to Plant” to support butterflies and moths. They are number twelve out of the top twenty woody plants. The link to that list is here.

The height and cover provided by hawthorns for cup-nesting songbirds is pretty much perfect. Many songbirds nest between 5-15 feet off of the ground, and need a shrub that gives them good site with plenty of camouflage. Hawthorns are thorny, so are roses and some apple species. Does that mean you should avoid the Hawthorn in your shrub layer? No! Birds such as the Brown Thrasher will nest in thorny shrubs or greenbriar tangles, here’s a link to nest watch. Thorns would add a layer of protection from some egg and nestling predators.

Mockingbird nest in Parsley Hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii

Mockingbird nest in Parsley Hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii

The haws, or pomes, are also an important addition to your garden to support migratory birds like Cedar Waxwings. But if you’ve ever heard of Haws or Mayhaw jelly, people have been using the fruit of the hawthorn as well, from the cuisine of various Native American tribes through the traditional foods of the Deep South. One of our favorite blogs “Eat the Weeds” has an article on Hawthorns here .  Colonists used haws, both Marshallii and uniflora are species recorded as being used as food by colonists and Native Americans.

The Hawthorn is closely related to the rose and apple, the flowers of hawthorns reminiscent of plum or apple blossoms and the fruits often resembling rose hips.  The scarlet berries are so prolific on our Parsley Hawthorn that the winter resident birds can never finish the fruit during the winter, it often takes a flock of famished Cedar Waxwings to polish them off.  Flower quantity and berry set are greater if planted in the sun.

Crataegus-uniflora-berries-IMG_9758

Fruit of the Dwarf Hawthorn, Crataegus uniflora, smells like an apple.

The Hawthorn species that we grow are Crataegus marshallii and Crataegus uniflora.  Both of these species are tough, preferring well drained sites.  They can easily handle full sun to dappled or open shade.  Right now Crataegus marshallii is blooming now in front of our location in Scottdale GA.  The flowers are gorgeous; marshallii has plentiful flower clusters that hold about a dozen inch wide blooms.

We now have Crataegus uniflora germinating; hoping it will be a good size in two years.  But this species will never get beyond shrub sized. The common name for this species is Dwarf Hawthorne; its height ranges from 3-6 feet tall. The Dwarf Hawthorne has flowers that are singular, about quarter-sized, and matt white.   The fruits are nickel sized pomes that smell like apple and have the color of a really ripe golden delicious apple with a pink blush when fully ripe.


Welcome to our Sunny Beeches!

2017 BHF web poster

Learn about Native Bees, Butterflies and Native Plants at Beech Hollow Farm.  We now have presentations about bees and butterflies and how to support them in your gardens (free) on Saturday mornings.  We also have mid-day projects, classes in Nature Journaling with writing, spore prints, and art, that get you into our forest.  And if I don’t say so myself, it sure is pretty down there in the hollow.

Please take a look at our spring offerings:

2017-BHF-Spring-Classes


The Marvelous Monarch Migration (Part 1)

Female Monarch Butterfly laying egg on Asclepias tuberosa.

Female Monarch Butterfly laying egg on Asclepias tuberosa.

Why marvelous? Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) travel thousands of miles every year, following the seasons.  These amazing butterflies overwinter on large trees in the mysterious forests of the mountains of Michoacán and the State of Mexico.   With the arrival of spring, these seemingly delicate creatures fly thousands of miles northward into the southern United States.

Monarch egg on underside of Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) leaf.

Monarch egg on underside of Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) leaf.

There the female Monarch butterfly lays her eggs on Milkweed plants, ONLY on Milkweed plants. Her caterpillars feed on the Milkweed, grow, pupate, and hatch, as the second generation of butterflies to take up the generational relay.

This second generation of Monarchs flies northward into the northern United States and Southern Canada in late spring. When they arrive, the females lay the eggs of generation number three on Milkweed plants.

Very immature Monarch caterpillar on underside of Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) leaf.

Very immature Monarch caterpillar on underside of Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) leaf.

In August and September, Monarch generations three and four start flying southward, retracing their flights back to the mountains in Michoacán and the State of Mexico. When the butterflies arrive, they overwinter in large trees to wait for the return of spring.  There is more information at this Forest Service website.

How to help the Monarchs on their journey:

Feed your Monarchs (Part 2):  A Garden with Native Plants which provide nectar for the adult butterflies is important. Even MORE important for Monarch Butterflies is the availability of their larval host plant: Milkweed. Supporting their full life cycle by providing host plants for their caterpillars will ensure the return of these intriguing insects year after year.

Monarch caterpillars munching on Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed.

Monarch caterpillars munching on Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed.

Monarch Home Sweet Habitat (Part 3): everyone needs clean water, even insects. A ceramic plant saucer with large pebbles or a sand ramp in it will allow butterflies to approach the water without being drowned.

Minimize use of toxic chemicals, such as pesticides, which can sicken or kill unintended, or “non-target,” wildlife. If you must use a pesticide, be aware of your larval host plants and other pollinators, apply pesticides carefully to avoid destroying your beneficial insects.

Monarch-butterfly-chrysalis

This is a Monarch Butterfly chrysalis at Beech Hollow Farm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adult Monarch, generation three or four, southward bound to the mountain forests of Michoacan. The flower the butterfly is nectaring on is the Georgia Aster.

Adult Monarch, generation three or four, southward bound to the mountain forests of Michoacan. The flower the butterfly is nectaring on is Symphyotrichum georgianum, the Georgia Aster.


Gentle Native Bee? Or aggressive ground nesting wasp?

Spring has indeed sprung, and early this year.  And with the lovely weather, the buds are blooming, and the native bees have started buzzing.

One thing we gardeners should make ourselves more aware of is the difference between yellow jackets, an aggressive ground nesting wasp, and soil nesting bees. We want to have our gentle native bees, who are excellent pollinators, healthy and happy in our gardens.  But what is the difference between a yellow jacket wasp and a ground nesting bee?

There are many species of ground nesting bees in North America.  They are gentle, mostly solitary bees (rarely live in groups), and only sting if you smack them.  We have native ground nesting bees who specialize in squash pollination, and there are ground nesting bees who pollinate our tomatoes and blueberries more efficiently than honey bees.  All we have to do to encourage their excellent services is a.) give them a little room to nest in (they are tiny and don’t take up much space) and b.) don’t poison them! 

Here is a link to a video I took of a very large yellow jacket colony in an Atlanta Park:

Yellow jackets are predatory wasps, and an important member of the checks and balances that exists in nature’s food web. Without predatory wasps, we would be over run with devastating insect damage to every living plant on the planet.  But they are aggressive, so none of us wants a huge yellow jacket nest near our house.  More info at this wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_yellowjacket

For comparison, here are a couple of ground nesting bee nest entrances on the website Bugguide:

http://bugguide.net/node/view/668896

http://bugguide.net/node/view/178216

And here is a Wikipedia article on the ground nesting bee family:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halictinae

In the photos of the bee nests, notice how there is one teensy hole, about 3/8’s of an inch across?  With one little bee head peering out?  She is guarding her eggs, her babies.  It’s actually very touching.  The ground dwelling bee won’t come out and lance you all over with horrid stinging welts if you are mowing your grass.  She is just going to mind her own business.  Give her some respect and some space, she’ll give you tomatoes and squash in return.  Not a bad deal, eh?

 

 


Spring’s Ephemeral Flowers

Bloodroots are blooming now.

Bloodroots in bloom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is it with the spring ephemerals? Its early March and the weather is still nippy; the trees haven’t unfurled their leaves. No other self-respecting flower is blooming yet. Most plants are going to wait for warmer weather and bountiful buzzing bees and other myriad pollinators.

The trees haven’t unfurled their leaves. That’s the thing. Late winter and early spring sunlight is pouring all over the forest floor. It would be a shame to waste all that available energy. That is where spring ephemerals fit in. The Trilliums, the Bloodroots, the Jacob’s Ladder, the Troutlilies: all of them are grabbing sunrays and photosynthesizing food.

Bloodroot-blooms

Forest flowers like Bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis, are blooming now. Bloodroot flowers are with us very briefly – they only last a day or two – but the beautiful leaves will often stay up until August.   These plants have already started setting seeds.

By the end of May, the tree leaves are out and stretching for the sun, and forest canopy closes overhead. Its shady, not as much sunlight is available for photosynthesis. Spring ephemerals will be done with flowering and will have moved on to making seeds.

 


Caterpillar Host Plants: Harvesting Solar Energy for Wildlife

Plants feed wildlife. Plants feed nearly all life as we know it.  They are the base of the food web and produced much of the oxygen in the atmosphere:  Calories to consume and the fuel to burn them.  Even those creatures that consume other animals are dependent upon plants for their survival.  The solar energy that plants convert to sugars and the minerals that they mine from the soil slowly make their way up the “food chain” to even the most carnivorous apex predators via the bodies of their herbivorous prey.   The somewhat outdated concept of the “food chain” can still help to visualize the process of nutrients and energy cycling through natural communities.  These days it is most often referred to as a “food web” and the following graphic is a simplified representation of how it functions with some familiar examples.

food_web

(There should be more arrows going all over the place, a ‘web’ if you will, but like I said, this is simplified to highlight the cyclical nature of the whole process.)

The main points of this graphic I want to focus on are 1) Energy comes from the sun.  2) That energy is harnessed and stored as carbohydrates by plants.  3) The rest of the system depends upon harvesting that stored energy.  Everything else is standing on that foundation of plants

As omnivores, humans have the ability to derive our energy from many sources, and in fact need a varied diet to acquire all of the nutrients necessary for our bodies to function.  It allows us to occupy nearly any area on the planet, but other creatures are not so easily adaptable to new foods and environments.  Survival strategies are often dependent on the seasonal abundance of plant resources with periods of migration or hibernation to cope with food scarcity.  Many insects have evolved to become specialists at feeding on certain types of plants in response to the annual growth cycles in temperate climates.  Typically, an egg is laid on or in a preferred food source, a larva emerges and feeds on that food source until it consumes enough energy to pupate into a winged adult.  The adult then flies off to find a mate, locate another larval food source, lay egg(s), and repeat, if possible, until they die.  Aphids, Wasps, Bees, Moths, Butterflies, Flies, and Beetles all follow this same basic life cycle.

IMG_6108

Black Swallowtail laying eggs on Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium trifolatum)

Butterflies and Moths, collectively known as Lepidoptera, have adapted specialized strategies to feed on plants and mitigate the effects of their defenses in an evolutionary tango over the past 60-100 million years. Through the process of evolution and adaptation the insect’s fate has been inextricably tied to the fate of the plants they consume.  Lepidopteran larvae, commonly referred to as: caterpillars, grubs, tentworms, silkworms, inchworms, armyworms, etc. are a crucial first step in transferring the sun’s energy throughout the ecosystem.  A feature of their specialized feeding behavior is that they have become much more efficient at converting the plant material into proteins with which they build their bodies.  Those proteins are the main food source for many of the creatures that occupy the next trophic level up the pyramid.

Enigmogramma basigera (Pink-washed Looper Moth)

Freshly emerged Pink-Washed Looper Moth (Enigmogramma basigera) and it’s cocoon on a Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Many of it’s larval siblings were dinner for baby birds.

One of my favorite sources for information on butterflies, moths and caterpillars is BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America), a website/database operated by the Butterfly and Moth Information Network.  It has tons of information and resources for anyone looking to learn more or contribute their knowledge and sightings of Lepidopterans.  I spent a little while browsing their database of species and compiled the following list of common names for Butterflies and Moths. See if you can spot the pattern:

“Elder Shoot Borer Moth, Maple Leaftier, Small Aspen Leaftier Moth, Black-headed Birch Leaffolder Moth, Oak Leaftier Moth, Poplar Carpenterworm Moth, Birch Tubemaker Moth, Pecan Leaf Casebearer Moth, Alder Tubemaker Moth, Birch Dagger Moth, Cottonwood Dagger Moth, Tupelo Leaffolder, Fringe-Tree Sallow, Knapweed Root-borer Moth, Poison Hemlock Moth, Virginia Creeper Borer Moth, Fall Clematis Clearwing Borer, Seagrape Spanworm Moth, Walnut sphinx, Poplar Catkin Moth, Yellow Birch Leaffolder Moth, Consular oakworm moth, Oslar’s oakworm moth, Peigler’s oakworm moth, Orange-tipped oakworm moth, Spiny oakworm moth, Pink-striped oakworm moth, Orange-striped oakworm moth, Chestnut Crescent, Live Oak Antiblemma, Oblong Sedge Borer Moth, Large Boxelder Leafroller Moth, Spring Spruce Needle Moth, Fall Spruce Needle Moth, Cherry Shoot Borer, Hickory Leafroller Moth, Hackberry Emperor, Ten-spotted Honeysuckle Moth, Wavy Chestnut Moth”

(These are just a sampling of the species whose Latin names begin with the letter ‘A’!)

The pattern to which I was referring is that the plant that the larva feeds upon is right there in the adult’s name.  Many even tell you the plant part they consume: Leafroller, Shoot Borer, Root Borer, Poplar Catkin, Spruce Needle, etc.   Being a specialist at consuming such specific plants and plant parts confers the advantage of less competition for food resources, but it is a double edged sword.  If that particular plant or part of the plant is not available then the caterpillars cannot survive.   This is where you, the human, enter the picture.  Many of the native plants that were interwoven into the landscape and served their purpose as a larval food source for millennia have been marginalized or removed altogether.  First, agriculture, next urbanization and development, and then landscapers all took turns removing the native smorgasbord and replacing it with foreign, undigestible plants.  Whereas a human might view a Chinese Cherry tree ringed with a border of Monkeygrass surrounded by a freshly mown lawn as a tidy, beautiful landscape, a butterfly looking for a place to feed and nurture her young might see a desert or a wasteland devoid of food.  That same human would probably derive a very similar aesthetic pleasure from an American Cherry Tree ringed with sedges and surrounded by native bunchgrasses, and over 500 species of Lepidoptera would see food and a nursery for the next generation.

Spring is nearly upon us.  That time of year when everyone briefly turns their attention to beautifying their yards before it gets too hot.  Beware the big box stores and their clone armies of gold medal winning plants injected with systemic insecticides.  “Pest Free” is another way of saying “Useless to Wildlife.”  Resist the impulse buy in the garden center.  Do your research and find some plants that will satisfy your aesthetic wants AND wildlife nutritional needs.

blackswallowtails

Black Swallowtail caterpillars on Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum). The plants responded with lush new growth a week later.

 

Postscript:

In the course of researching moths for this article I stumbled upon an account of a moth with a truly unique larval food source: The Gopher Tortoise Moth (Ceratophaga vicinella).  Based on the naming conventions described above what would you guess that Gopher Tortoise Moth caterpillars eat?  If you guessed Gopher Tortoise Shells you would be correct!  More specifically they consume the solid keratin that binds the many plates of a gopher tortoise shell together.  Keratin is the same protein found in your hair and fingernails and other natural fibers such as wool.  The ability to digest and derive sustenance from keratin is shared by a close cousin of the Gopher Tortoise Moth: the common Clothes Moth that loves to eat (you guessed it!) wool clothing and rugs.  The amazing part of this relationship to me is that there used to be such a surplus of Gopher Tortoise shells laying around that their abundance encouraged an entire new species to branch off and specialize in consuming only tortoise shell keratin.  Sadly, this strategy has proven to be risky with the decline of Gopher Tortoises, which is a direct result of the decline of the Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass ecosystem (and its seasonal fires) on which they are dependent.   There are hundreds of other animals and insects that depend on Gopher Tortoises and their burrows in some form to survive, and none of them are doing well.  Bring back the Longleaf!

 


Summer Blooms

Despite (or because of) the heat and intense thunderstorms our plants are making some beautiful blooms:

IMG_6860

Cedarglade St. John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum) is a favorite of the bees, and you can see why: pollen for everyone!

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Widow’s Frill (Silene stellata) is indeed frilly, and as the species name suggests, star-like.

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Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is always gorgeous, and a favorite of the hummingbirds.

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Speaking of hummingbirds, this is the result of their work pollinating another plant, Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).  This is the first time I’ve ever seen a seed pod form on one of these and wouldn’t you know it’s bright red just like the flower.

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Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) providing both food and shelter from afternoon showers for this bumblebee.

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And finally, Blazing Star (Liatris spicata).  Keep these beauties in mind when planning you fall plantings.