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!

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