Butterfly and Bee Magnet, Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Flower with a Monarch

If you want to grow the ultimate flower buffet for butterflies and bees, try Joe Pye Weed.  When there isn’t much else blooming, Joe Pye will surprise you with fuzzy pink umbels of flowers that flying insects clearly relish. I planted only one plant of the great late summer bloomer, Eupatorium dubium, ‘Little Joe’, which has spread to cover an area about 5 feet by 5 feet.  After 5 years of growing this plant, I have found it not to be invasive but it definitely spreads. When it goes beyond its bounds, it is easy to pull it up.

A patch of ‘Little Joe’
My poster available in my Etsy Shop includes other butterfly and bee magnets
I have a nice clump of Joe Pye right in front of my greenhouse

In late summer, my ‘Little Joe’ patch has formed a nice clump in front of my greenhouse; it has finished blooming but I keep it up for structure. It will get taller as the summer progresses.

‘Little Joe’ tops out at 4 feet tall, as opposed to the more commonly grown ‘Gateway’ which can get up to 7 feet high and can flop. I hate to stake flowers, so picked ‘Little Joe’ to avoid that fate.  Now there is another cultivar called ‘Baby Joe’ which only gets 2 to 3 feet high which I need to try next.

Joe Pye is a native wildflower which grows along streams in the wild near my house.  It gets enormous! I stayed away from it for years because of the size and difficulty in siting such a large specimen.  But I am in love with ‘Little Joe’ which has beautiful burgundy stems.

The burgundy stems of ‘Little Joe’ look fantastic against a brick wall
This is a mid-September garden border with the Joe Pye placed towards the back; shorter flowers in front keep it upright

Once the flower starts to bloom, I am sure to see at least a half-dozen different types of bees and butterflies landing, and the other day saw 5 Monarchs resting on my one plant!

Swallowtails on Joe Pye; this is the full size one that towers over me!

‘Little Joe’ comes in a ‘garden friendly’ package of a plant that is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and has sturdy stems that will support the flower heads and won’t bend or flop.  The plant is drought tolerant and fragrant with mauve purple flower heads which can reach 12 inches across!

Dried seed head of Joe Pye

The flower persists for weeks and the seed heads will last through the winter and will provide food for the birds when food is scarce. What is not to like? A tough beautiful, easy to grow plant which provides entertainment. I visit it every day to see what insects and butterflies have made a visit. For more information on planting pollinator plants, go to my posts Creating Monarch Waystation and Plant These For the Bees. Also, my Garden Plan for Pollinators is a good resource.

Available in my Etsy Shop, my plan for a pollinator garden includes Joe Pye Weed
Count the bees!

Ailanthus Webworm moth on Joe Pye
Eupatorium dubium 'Little Joe' Plant
Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Not to Kill a Hornworm

Hornworm on a pepper plant leaf

 

Tomato Hornworms are really big green caterpillars that can munch through and devastate your vegetable  garden. Giant brown moths lay pearl-like eggs on your tomato, pepper, or eggplant,  from which the big green monsters will hatch and start to eat voraciously. The juicy grass-green caterpillars can strip a plant overnight and then start demolishing the fruit.

Tomato hornworm on tomato plant

Frass & Defoliation

Most of the time I spot the signs of a hornworm before I see the actual caterpillar. The first things you will notice about a hornworms presence is denuded branches and fruits with huge sections eaten out of them. Hornworms love to eat foliage and since they are such large caterpillars, they have a big appetite which means they poop alot. Another sign is bits of frass (droppings) on the lower leaves or on the ground which are black.

Getting Rid of Hornworms

Handpicking is the best way to get rid of these nasty green monsters, but I avoid touching them. With repulsive juicy caterpillars, gloves are the best option as the caterpillars usually have a death grip on the foliage and they are difficult to pick off. Once free, I stomp on these gross pests. Or feed them to the chickens for a juicy treat!

Beneficials

Beneficials are just that: Insects that are doing their job and preying on other harmful insects that makes your job a bit easier. For example, preying mantis’s will hunt and devour lots of insects that will hurt your ornamentals and vegetables. Leave them alone to do their job!

 

So if you spot these little white worms sprouting out of the hormworm caterpillar, you do nothing as nature has taken care of it for you. These soft white growths are actually the cocoons of a special parasitoid wasp a species of braconid wasp. The adult female wasp uses her ovipositor to lay eggs just under the skin of the unlucky hornworm. As the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm’s insides, eating the hornworm alive.

You can see a tiny wasp that just hatched out of a cocoon

Larvae chew their way through the host skin when they mature and make a cocoon. which hatches into a tiny wasp. The wasps are usually dark with four transparent wings and rarely over one-half inch long. Their size and the fact that there are over 15,000 species make them difficult to notice, much less identify. So these tiny wasps are doing you a favor and killing the hornworm caterpillar by using the body as a hatching ground for their young is kind of like ‘meals on wheels’!

This is the moth which lays the eggs on foliage that will hatch into hornworms-from Wikipedia

Each cocoon will hatch a new wasp which will lay eggs in more hornworms that are eating your veggie garden, so leave them alone!

 

See this fascinating video below to see the wasps hatching out of these cocoons.

Seed Bombs

Are you the kind of person who likes to grow flowers, but doesn’t want to spend time getting on your knees, preparing the soil, and carefully spreading out your seeds in a furrow? Seed bombs are for you! And a fun project to make with kids. Thrown into neglected round-abouts, planters, flower beds and ditches, seed bombs can spread the goodness of planting flowers around.

A little preparation of creating these fun little time bombs and you are ready to go to work throwing them around in neglected areas to sprout and thrive. With our heavy constant rain in the mid-Atlantic region, many areas are ripe for germination.

Throw the balls onto bare soil, not turf
These balls germinated in about 5 days during a warm rainy spell; the clay has almost disappeared into the soil
About 6 weeks later, zinnias have sprouted up to 18″ tall already

Best flowers for seed bombs: for sunny areas, annual meadow flowers including poppies, cornflower, marigold; Californian poppies; cosmos; hollyhocks; nigella; verbena bonariensis; viper’s bugloss. For shady areas, use a woodland seed mix; foxgloves, tobacco plant, honesty.

Wildflower Seed Mix collections for various growing zones including Texas, California, Midwest, and Southeast  are $5 apiece from Urban Farmer Seeds & Plants.

Ingredients:

  • Flower seed
  • Potter’s clay powder, from any craft shop or Amazon
  • Peat-free compost or potting medium
  • Water
  • A bowl
  • A baking tray
Mix all the ingredients together and add water, just to moisten

Instructions:

Mix the seed, clay, and compost together in a bowl to a ratio of three handfuls of clay, five handfuls of compost, and one handful of seed. Then carefully add water slowly and gradually (you don’t want it too gloopy), mixing it all together until you get a consistency that you can form into truffle-sized balls. Lay them out to bake dry on a sunny windowsill for at least three hours.

Form the balls and lay out on a cookie sheet to dry

Next time that you  go hiking or a walking take a few balls with you and spread the wealth!

 

 

 

Taking Root: Delaware Botanic Garden’s Progress Report

 

Ambitious Master Plan of the Delaware Botanic Garden

 

Visiting the Delaware Botanic Garden in year two, one year later than my original visit, was an eye opener in the evolution of a major public garden. Even working as a landscape designer/installer, I was surprised at the great strides the difference of a year makes. For my first year post, go to DBG-From the Ground Up.

Just a year ago, there were large unplanted areas in the Meadow

The first thing that hits you as you enter is the wild centerpiece garden- The Meadow Garden- full of thousands of perennials that have matured with just 18 months or less of growth. Pollinators were zipping and buzzing around me as I wandered the winding pathways.

Horsemint (Monarda punctata) is a standout for structure and insect visits in the Meadow Garden

Meadow Garden

Closeup of the design of the Meadow

World renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf designed the showpiece Meadow Garden. The Master Plan describes it as  “an exuberant palette of mostly native ornamental grasses and herbaceous flowering plants that will create spectacular four-season color and textural saturations against a distant horizon”.

 

‘Matrona’ Sedum is a great late interest perennial

An old planting adage is “1st year-sleep, 2nd year-creep, and 3rd year-leap” and this second year is more than “creep”. All the perennials in the Meadow Garden have absolutely “leaped” this second year and appeared very established. Located on a sunny 2-acre area adjacent to the woodland edge, the goal was to plant sixty-five thousand herbaceous flowering plants and ornamental grasses to provide multi-season interest. The first thing that visitors will see entering DBG, the Meadow was completed this spring except for some small patches, with volunteers. It is already an undulating textural mass.

 

Close plantings discourage weed growth

The close planting will discourage weeds as the herbaceous perennials knit together as a ground cover.

‘Matrona’ Sedum edges a pathway in the Meadow Garden
Dog fennel (Eupatorium capillfolium) is a stinky feathery spiky plant that has seeded in between the perennials

Before the perennials form that weed smothering ground covering, opportunistic weeds, notably ‘dog fennel’ (Eupatorium capilifolium) have taken hold between the plants and tower over some of the new plantings. Volunteers were out in force when I visited recently and were pulling stinky dog fennel on a 95 degree humid day. Not fun for some 265 volunteers that work there throughout the year! Fortunately portable tents are set up to cast some much-needed shade and there is a camaraderie evident in everyone you speak to.

Lots of Dog Fennel to remove

 

A volunteer is mulching with pine fines; In the distance, you can see the shade tents
Volunteers can work under a canopy from the hot summer sun, photo from Janet Draper
Water hydrants are located conveniently throughout

Pollinators Abound

The native perennials are thriving and even in mid August when color is hard to find in a perennial border, texture and color abounded throughout the insect heavy plantings. Camera in hand, it was hard to keep up with all the native pollinators that were buzzing around.

Butterfly on Liatris microcephela
Monarch on Rattlesnake Master (Ernygium yuccafolium)
Dragonfly caught on Little Blue Stem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Swallowtail on Stokes Aster (Stokesia)

New Hoop Houses

Brand spanking new hoop houses were just erected with a gravel base that can be put to use this winter in growing new transplants (plugs), cutting propagation, and overwintering of young, frost susceptible plants.

Inside one of the new hoop houses

 

Pine straw and pine fines are being used as mulch

Woodland Garden

Eradicating invasive plants, installing pathways, careful tree removals, and  shade plantings have been progressing in the Woodland Garden.  With a phased implementation of DBG, the Meadow Garden is the first phase and the Woodland Garden is close behind, so intensive shade loving plantings are being installed along the newly placed pathways. Curving volunteer constructed stone walls make a nice addition as well as holding soil in place along many of the pathways.

Some areas of the Woodland Garden will showcase only native plants and others will contrast natives along with non-native plants from Asia and Europe. Plantings will be planted from the upland areas to the nearby water’s edge of Pepper Creek.

Plantings along with irrigation are being installed in the Woodland Garden
Irrigation is being installed

Trimmings and prunings are being recycled  and reused as sculptural elements in bird’s nest structures and a porcupine “tree” is a sculptural stopping point on the path.

Birds Nest of twigs that would otherwise be thrown out
Funnel spider web in bird’s nest
Porcupine Tree

Learning Garden

A wetland area will be an outdoor classroom called the “Learning Garden”. A high school class of seniors has already been hosted in a learning experience there. Interactive programs and living classrooms encouraging active involvement with nature is a major component of the DBG goals.

Organic

There have been no applications of fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides thus far.  For pathway weeds, a  20% Horticultural vinegar was used which was quite effective.

Eradication of weeds in pathway with horticultural vinegar

Whats Next

A projected opening date of September 2019 is only a year away and lots of money and volunteer hours will be needed in the meantime. A fall tree planting campaign, planting of the dune gardens, and the east woodland border are next on the agenda. Frequent fund-raising is being done  to feed the volunteer efforts and plantings. If interested in donating, go to Make a donation.  This is an exciting opportunity to get on the ground floor supporting or volunteering at  the incredible new Delaware Botanic Gardens.

A volunteer working; A temporary visitor center is in the distance
Artist rendering of projected visitor center, photo courtesy of DBG

Spinning Honey

Setting up the extractor which looks like a large metal trashcan in my potting shed

Big Event

It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth.  How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 50 pounds from one of my three hives. Two were Nucs and one was a package. Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. The other hives didn’t have enough to extract as the bees need collected honey to survive the winter.

Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter

My two nucs and one package were humming along with our wet weather bringing on a consistent supply of nectar. It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Installing a Nuc involves transferring frames from a working mini hive into a larger hive body home
A Nuc is a miniature working hive

Extracting

After removing the bees, see Robbing the Bees-A Honey of a Day to see how to do this tricky part, we are ready to spin out the honey.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

To remove the wax cappings, a heated knife is used to melt away the wax and a fork that looks like a hair pick is used to further open up the cells so that the honey can be flung out.

Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
A perfectly capped frame of honey

Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have an honey extractor.   A motor attached will turn on the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve into a mesh sieve for bee parts and then into a collection bucket.

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey  is luscious!

Wax cappings full of honey
Wax cappings full of honey

 Aftermath

After extracting the bees are very active

Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard.  I am sure to not have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees!

 

We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.

Weighing my wax harvest

Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.

Bottled honey
Bottled honey

 

 

Hardy Hibiscus- Blooming Powerhouse

 

‘Cherry Cheesecake’ hardy hibiscus

Forget the fussy tropical hibiscus houseplants for summer color…. instead plant the tough, hardy, perennial hibiscus with flowers up to 12 inches across! Especially if you live in areas where winters are freezing, the hardy hibiscus makes more sense. Hardy hibiscus starts slowly in mid-summer and then explodes with colorful crepey blooms in late summer.  In a perennial bed, in early spring you can see the dead stubs that are left over from last year mark the spot where the beautiful flowers will appear in August. Worth waiting for, the dinner plate sized flowers last only a day, but like daylilies, produce a succession of blowsy, vibrant blooms that can cover the plant.

I like to place hibiscus blooms in a floating bowl arrangement

Coming in reds, whites, pinks, and lavenders, hibiscus is part of a confusing group of plants with many common names-hibiscus, rose mallow, althea, rose of sharon, giant mallow, swamp mallow, among others. Growing as far north as Zone 4, the genus hibiscus has both tropical and non-tropical species and is the state flower of Hawaii.

Tropical

If you live in Florida or Hawaii, you can enjoy these wonderful flowers all year round with the tropical species coming in yellows, oranges, and other wild colors. Frilly, doubles, bi-colors, variegated foliage, tropicals need the full sun to bloom their best.

A great foliage plant, variegated sea hibiscus makes a statement
Fifth Dimensions Hibiscus

Tropical Hibiscus ‘Fifth Dimension’  is one of my favorites. Emerging in the morning an orange/bronze color, as the day progresses, it morphs to yellow and silver. You can see a time-lapse of this process at Longwood Gardens. 

Tropical array of blooms

Longwood Gardens is where I see the most fabulous tropical hibiscus ever. But they have the greenhouses for overwintering these beauties.

Frilly and colorful, tropical hibiscus are stunners
Another tropical beauty

The Hardy Hybrids

Lil Kim, a dwarf hibiscus hybrid is adorable

I am more interested in the hardy hybrids, which I call ‘yard shrubs’, that are winter-hardy and display their fabulous flowers all summer into fall. Deer tend to leave them alone also, which is an added bonus.

The Hibiscus syriacus or ‘Rose of Sharon’ hardy ones are very familiar to people as an old-fashioned shrub. Finding these shrubs in older homes is common, but many new cultivars are coming out with different colors, double blooms and larger ones.

‘Merlot’ hardy hibiscus
Hibiscus syriacus which many people call Rose of Sharon
Closeup of Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus
Hibiscus syriacus ‘Marina’ which is a blueish violet
Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diane’

Easy to grow in full sun or partial shade, the hibiscus clump will put on a huge show for about a month and then will pop out bunches of flowers for several succeeding weeks.

I cut the shrubs stems back in late winter or early spring and wait for the spring shoots to start appearing. Because hardy hibiscus appears so late, this is the perfect shrub to plant spring bulbs and early annuals nearby to fill in the opening. Once the early spring flowers are done and gone, the hibiscus is putting on good growth and will shoot up quickly.

A bumblebee is loving this Swamp  Hibiscus, Hibiscus coccineus
Even spent flowers are beautiful

 

Bee Catnip-Mountain Mint

Bringing bugs into the garden is the new norm, not spraying with insecticides every insect that alights on a leaf. A sea change in how gardeners operate is in motion and most gardeners are embracing it with gusto. Seeing the Monarch numbers plummet recently has brought home the importance of home gardeners taking charge and embracing this change for the better.

Mountain Mint flower
Mountain Mint flower

Wildlife Value

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

I will be profiling a series of plants in the next year that are really important to pollinators- be it honeybee, native bee, hummingbird, beetles, butterflies, or flies. Top of the list is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Got Milk…….. Weed?

Common Milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.

Colony of Milkweed

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
  • Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Milkweed pods are positioned vertically

     

  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
  • The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
Milky sap exudes down the stem
  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
  • This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata
Common Milkweed in December

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Yellow butterfly Weed "Hello Yellow"
Yellow butterfly Weed “Hello Yellow”

Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.

The pods of Hairy Balls or Balloon Plant are a conversation piece

Monarch caterpillars cover the Balloon Plant Milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.

Tropical Milkweed
Tropical Milkweed
Sign at nursery for Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed has a narrower leaf than common
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond

 

Silvery Beauty-Silver Falls Trailer

 

Silver Falls is a great trailer for containers

Silver Falls, Dichondra argentea, has been in the gardening world for a while now but I don’t find that gardeners use it very often. Too bad! This plant makes an easy to grow spiller/trailer out of containers and a great low ground cover. An annual native to northern Mexico, Arizona, and western Texas, it thrives in hot dry conditions. A Proven Winner plant, I buy at least a flat of it in the spring for my containers.

 

Here are some quick facts about this great plant:

Features

  • Vigorous, fan-shaped silver foliage on silver stems; very heat and drought tolerant
  • Cascading plant that works in containers and looks good on stone walls
  • Grows 2-6 inches high, space in the garden 18-24 inches apart
  • Needs part sun to sun
  • Hardy to 20 degrees
  • Ideal for containers, hanging baskets, and ground covers
  • Works well with Creeping Jenny trailer
  • Hardy to zone 8 or 9

    Silver Falls planted in a free standing table container with Creeping Jenny in partial shade
Dichondra, Silver Falls
Silver Falls seen at Longwood Gardens

Definitely not deer proof but deer don’t prefer it. They only eat Silver Falls if there is nothing else tastier on the menu. Also, if you get it going so it has some size to it, deer tend to leave it alone. Get it through the juvenile and tender stage, and deer will browse on something else.

Cold tolerant, Silver Falls can last through some winters; here it is seen in a container at the end of November
Because of the small scale of the trailer, Silver Falls is useful for miniature gardens

My Silver Falls dripped out of my window boxes and rooted in the ground underneath. I let it do its thing as I thought it made a great ground cover. And yes, this is a vigorous (but not invasive) plant and I welcome the speed that it drips or cascades as once really cold (below 20 degrees)weather hits, it is gone. In the mid-Atlantic region here in Maryland, that means that it lasts until January.

Ground cover Silver Falls rooted in from a window boxIn Austin, kit is hardy and forms a great, closely woven ground cover in hot sunny areas.

Ground cover in Austin Texas
Silver Falls works well trailing out of containers

 

Silver Falls seen at the Ripley Garden next to the Smithsonian in D.C.

Butterflying-Capturing the Perfect Butterfly Image

DSCN4181

Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easier than ever with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.

P1060576
Swallowtail inserting its proboscis into Phlox

More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?

Disney flower and garden 2014 156
Queen butterfly on tropical milkweed
Little Skipper butterflies are fun to watch and photograph; here you can see its proboscis extended

Flowers

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‘Black Beauty’ Lilium is the top draw for butterflies in my garden

Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, the greatest number of butterflies are active, and I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorite plant sources.

Host Plants for Larval Food

Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly? You will benefit by getting many times the number of butterflies than you had before. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants or these excellent regional guides by the Xerces Society.

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After planting milkweed in my garden, Monarch caterpillars appeared

Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.

Pipevine swallowtaill caterpillar on Pipevine
Cecropia caterpillar
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Beautiful Passion Flower is a host plant to spiky bright orange Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary caterpillars munch the plants on their way to becoming butterflies.
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Life cycle of monarch with milkweed

Other Attractants

Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and instead visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.

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Owl butterfly feeding on fruit

Moist Soil or Gravel

Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.

Corridors

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Cut-throughs for power lines are a good spot to view butterflies

Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.

Swallowtail at the end of its life

Butterfly enclosures at zoos and other attractions are a sure way to view some exotic ones.

A Doris Longwing seen at a butterfly house
A work of art-a Common Sergeant seen at a butterfly house feeding on fruit

 

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Clouded Sulphur butterfly seen in my yard
Closeup of a sulphur so you can see the segmented eyes

Warm Weather

Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia
Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera! My hand held camera is a Lumix Panasonic DMC-FZ300 which I love using. But my Iphone 7 takes excellent pictures also. I go back and forth between the two.

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

 

Butterfly Camera Tips 

  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze. Don’t rule out cloudy days though, the light is better for photography.
  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.

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  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements
  • Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless
  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon
  • When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.
Monarch basking
A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them
  • Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.
Curled proboscis
Curled proboscis
  • Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.
  • Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this.  I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.

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    A tussock moth caterpillar munches on milkweed
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
A Skipper on Lily

 

  • Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton,  thousands of tiny scales  cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.
Closeup of scales on Swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
  • Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food.  A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.
Swallowtail on Zinnia
Swallowtail on Zinnia
  • Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching. If you can only plant one type of plant, go with Zinnias-they love them!

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Skipper butterflies on Dahlia

 

Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Bee Skep poster, go to Etsy Store The Garden Diaries