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.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Balding Blue Jays

"What is that weird-looking bird at your birdfeeder?" my mom asked me, pointing out the window.  "I think it's a Blue Jay," I puzzled.
"Well if that's a Blue Jay," she replied, "then I think it's sick."

balding Blue Jay
Indeed, there were at least a couple of Blue Jays in my garden that were having some really, really bad hair days.

a face only a mother blue jay could love
But after some quick research online, I found out that the bald look is a somewhat natural, though still unusual fashion for Blue Jays this time of year.  Birds generally molt twice a year, and while most birds go through their molting slowly (and more gracefully), sometimes there are a few extra special individuals that molt all of their head feathers all at once.  These birds tend to be Jays or Cardinals, though there are sometimes other birds that will do this.

Scientists vary on their reasons why certain Blue Jays molt all of their head feathers at once.  Some say it's just particular to that individual bird, while others say that it is due to mites or due to stressors in their environment.

Thankfully there is nothing to worry about.  I was relieved to find that no matter the reason, the feathers will quickly grow back in.

I'm sure the Blue Jays are relieved by that, too!


Monday, August 21, 2017

Whorled Milkweed

I like to grow a lot of milkweed plants in my garden, as milkweed is the only larval host for Monarch Butterflies, whose famous multi-generational migration across North America is sadly in danger of going extinct.  While many are familiar with milkweeds sold in nurseries, such as Tropical Milkweed, Rose Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed, there are actually many different types of milkweed plants.  One that is a little different and blooming in my garden this year for the first time is Asclepias verticillata, aka Whorled Milkweed or Horsetail Milkweed.

Whorled Milkweed
Asclepias verticillata has thin, very narrow leaves, different than most other milkweeds.  It grows to about 1 or 2 feet high, with umbels of white flowers and leaves that are whorled around the stem, giving this plant its name ('verticillata' is Latin for 'whorled').

Whorled Milkweed is native to eastern and central North America, found in dry prairies, open grassy woodlands, and areas of disturbed soil, such as fields and roadsides.  It likes full to partial sun, grows in medium to dry soils, and is hardy from zone 3-10.  It is a good milkweed to grow on a dry, difficult site, as it is quite drought tolerant once established.

With its narrow stems and leaves, it's one of those plants that I think would work well with other low perennials and grasses.  It blooms mid-summer through fall, a little later than other milkweeds.  It is also one of the last milkweeds to go dormant, making it an important source of food for Monarch caterpillars late in the season.

Whorled Milkweed spreads by seed and by rhizomes.  I grew my plants from seeds by winter-sowing, as the seeds need a period of moist cold to germinate.  It is one of the more toxic varieties of milkweed, so it is very critter resistant (more so than my Rose Milkweed this year, which I think is being eaten by a very mischievous groundhog).  Accordingly, it should not be grown anywhere near livestock that might eat it.  The white flowers attract bees, beneficial wasps, moths, and butterflies, though they are not as fragrant as some other milkweeds.

Because of their long history of use as medicinal plants, Carl Linnaeus gave milkweeds the botanical name of 'Asclepias' after Asclepias, the Greek god of medicine.  Whorled milkweed is no different, historically used by several Native American tribes to treat snakebites, to relieve nose and throat problems, and to increase the milk of nursing mothers.

I really like the airy look of Whorled Milkweed in my garden.  It is a great alternative to the orange-flowered Butterfly Weed for a dry, sunny site - especially in my more pastel-themed front yard garden.  I look forward to watching it grow and seeing if it attracts any late-season Monarchs.

Happy gardening!

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Mid-Summer Garden

A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining,
the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing,
and the lawn mower is broken.
 ~James Dent

Ah, mid-summer, when the garden is bursting with flowers...

and humming with activity.

What would summer be without flowers in the garden and birds, bees, and butterflies to flutter about them?

This summer I am beyond excited to see a good number of Monarch butterflies in the garden - more than I've seen in the previous three years combined.

Such a hopeful thing sign!  We've also been fortunate this year to have a cooler summer with enough rain to make up for last year's bad drought.  Mid-summer has brought some big storms, but other than a few downed plants, my garden is not complaining about the extra water. 

Mid-summer has also brought new blooms to the garden.  I am in love with the color of these 'Shell Pink' Balloon Flowers, winter sowed a couple years ago and finally in bloom.

'Shell Pink' Balloon Flower
Does anyone else grow Sweet Peas?  I grew them for the first time from seed this year.  They sulked after being transplanted and I thought they might die off, but they rebounded and began blooming in July.  The smell is divine!  It's a plant I don't seem to see often in other gardens, despite being one of those 'cottage favorites'.

Some other plants blooming in my garden for the first time this year include Black Cohosh, Whorled MilkweedGray-headed Coneflower, and a pretty pass-along daylily.

Clockwise from top left:the greenhouse garden, Black Cohosh, daylily, Swamp Verbena, Gray-headed Coneflower, Whorled Milkweed
The vegetable garden is producing green beans and zucchini aplenty by mid-summer.  The garlic has already been harvested with turnips, carrots, and bok choy sown in its place for fall.  I thought I hadn't gotten many snow peas this year... until my kids informed me that they had been going out and eating them off the vines every day.  The coveted snow peas kept producing until mid-July, petering out just as the beans kicked in.  I am still eagerly waiting for that first ripe tomato, though, which should any day now.

vegetable garden
While there is always work to be done in the garden this time of year (thanks to weeds, weeds, and more weeds), one must stop and just soak in its beauty once in awhile!  In my opinion there's nothing like walking through the summer garden in the early morning, when the air is still cool and the birds are beginning to wake.  

Alas, in the early mornings I am usually stumbling to the coffee maker while mumbling incoherent things to my wide-awake children.  Thankfully summer evenings are often just as lovely, if a tad warmer!

I hope everyone is enjoying summer and all the beauty it brings.
As always, happy gardening!

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