Sunday, October 8, 2017

When It's Not Poop

A friend recently gave me a Dictamnus plant out of her garden.  Right on top was a very interesting stowaway.

What looked like a giant bird dropping on a leaf was no dropping at all...

It is actually the caterpillar of a  Giant Swallowtail Butterfly - one we don't commonly see this far north!  It uses its disguise of bird poop to avoid getting eaten by predators.

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar
It's not the only one that masquerades as a turd for extra protection. Several different types of Swallowtail caterpillars look somewhat like bird droppings in their early phases.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar
Similarly, I don't think any predator would find the appearance of this Hover Fly larvae appetizing...

Hover Fly larvae - ugly in appearance, but very beneficial as it eats aphids
Along these lines, I noticed a new visitor to my veggie garden this year that I called the 'poop bug' until I finally looked up its true name.

It is really called the Clavate Tortoise Beetle.  I can see why it is called that, as the dark markings really do look kind of like a miniature tortoise - but I still think it looks even more like bird poop.

Clavate Tortoise Beetle (aka Poop Bug)
These beetles like plants in the nightshade family, including tomatoes, but thankfully don't usually do a lot of damage.

I think it's really awesome how nature uses camouflage to protect caterpillars and other critters from predators.  As interesting as it is, though, I think I'm ready to see some wildlife that doesn't look like poop.

Ah, much better!
Happy gardening (and critter watching)!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Berry Strange Mystery

I've previously posted about my Winterberry Holly bushes that I have on either side of my front porch.  One of the reasons I love them is that they loose their leaves in fall, leaving their branches covered only in bright red berries.  It is a spectacular sight.

The display of berries lingers into winter, often past Christmas, until the local birds discover them and feast.

My bushes are usually completely loaded with berries.  This year was no exception - until a couple of weeks ago when my Holly branches started looking much barer than normal...

For some mysterious reason, many of the berries had gone missing!

I'm not quite sure where all of my berries could have gone.

Any ideas?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Not All Liatrises Are Created Equal

You know those lists that you see of plants that are great for pollinators and plants that attract butterflies and so on?  Liatris is one plant I always see on those lists.  I also read somewhere that they were absolutely irresistible to Monarch Butterflies, thus I decided to plant some in the garden.

I purchased a bunch of corms (bulbs) of both the purple and white varieties of the native Liatris spicata, a.k.a. Dense Blazing Star or Gayfeather, which is the Liatris that nurseries most commonly sell.  I planted them in the garden, sat back, and waited for their blooms to attract butterflies and other pollinators in droves.

I was disappointed.

Other than the occasional bee, they seemed to attract pretty much nada.  Maybe I just had too many fabulous other plants blooming at the same time (in all fairness, they had to compete with the Coneflowers and Milkweed), but this Liatris definitely was not living up to its list-making reputation.

a lone bee on Liatris spicata
So were all those lists lying about how much butterflies love Liatris?   I did a little research and realized that when people were talking about Liatris and Monarch butterflies, specifically, they usually mentioned Liatris ligulistylis, a.k.a. Meadow Blazing Star or Rocky Mountain Blazing Star, not the type I had planted.  This Liatris was a little harder to find, but I just had to get some.  Last year I found and ordered some online, and this year they bloomed for the first time.

Monarch butterflies on Liatris ligulistylis
That was more like it.

All of the Monarchs that flew into my garden were drawn to this plant.  It was true - this Liatris is a magnet for Monarch butterflies!

Other pollinators enjoyed it, too...

bee on Liatris ligulistylis
It makes me wonder why this variety of Liatris is not more commonly found.  Maybe people just like the look of the more commonly sold Liatris spicata better?  (It is often used in the cut-flower industry.)  My new Liatris ligulistylis does look a little more awkward with its more unevenly-spaced flowers.  It can also grow quite tall - mine are mostly around 5 feet.  I've found that many people are somewhat wary of growing tall flowers, and the common L. spicata is usually only around 3 or 4 feet tall, shorter and easier to fit into smaller gardens.

Liatris ligulistylis
It is a good thing I love tall flowers in my garden - one of my L. ligulistylis even grew to an impressive seven feet tall!  Even more impressively, it didn't need to be staked until a couple of severe rainstorms finally wore it down and caused it to lean sideways.  (Of course, that might just be a sign of the poorness of my soil - these plants do have a reputation for leaning in richer or moister soils.)

Liatris ligulistylis, with its 'blazing star' type flowers
Liatris ligulistylis blooms in late summer, a little later than L. spicata.  It likes full sun and medium-wet to medium-dry soil, but it also tolerates poor soil, light shade, and drought when established.  It is native to central North America and hardy in zones 3-8.

Liatris seed
Now in fall, the blooms on my L. ligulistylis are starting to fade.  However, the steady stream of visitors to this plant still continues, as the Goldfinches have now discovered the ripening seeds.

Goldfinch on Liatris ligulistylis
I have to say that, at least in my garden, not all Liatrises seem to be created equal.  

Monarch butterfly on Liatris ligulistylis
I think you can tell which one I like better.

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