Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2016 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree or Shrub and the other is a Perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Be native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
  3. Provide food for wildlife.  Nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen are produced by the plant.  Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
  5. Be easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape.
  6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.  (See list at end of article.)

Our selections for the 2016 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Black Cherry, Prunus serotina                                                                         

Wildlife Value: This medium-sized deciduous tree delivers exceptional wildlife value.

When the young caterpoillars emerge, the eat the cherr leaves.  © Barb Eliot.  Click to enlarge.

When the young caterpoillars emerge, the eat the cherr leaves. © Barb Eliot. Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of Black Cherry leaves.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of Black Cherry leaves. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

According to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, it hosts 456 species of moths and butterfly caterpillars.  The foliage-eating caterpillars include Red-spotted Purple butterflies and moths such as Luna, Polyphemus, and Cecropia.  The tree is not defoliated because many migrating and breeding birds including warblers, vireos, and thrushes feed on these caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos will eat Eastern Tent Caterpillars.

Luna Moth is another of the 456 lepidoptera species caterpillars that eat Back Cherry.  Photo © Adrian Binns.  Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth is another of the 456 lepidoptera species caterpillars that eat Back Cherry. Photo © Adrian Binns. Click to enlarge.

In late summer Black Cherry produces a copious crop of berries that are enjoyed by 33 species of birds including American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, and various woodpeckers.  Native bees and flies pollinate the flowers.

Many birds eat these Black Cherry fruits in late summer. Click to enlarge.

Many birds eat these Black Cherry fruits in late summer. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions: Adaptable to a variety of situations, sun or part sun, dry to moist soil.  Seedlings can be transplanted.

Appearance: Medium to large fast-growing deciduous tree with dark, peeling bark.  White flowers bloom in May on drooping stalks called racemes.  The reddish-black fruits ripen in late summer.

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis 

Wildlife Value: If you want to entice hummingbirds to your yard, this is a must-have perennial.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are attracted to the Cardinal Flower’s brilliant red flowers and are its primary pollinators. The nectar is very sweet, twice as sweet as a soda.  A hummingbird’s bill is long enough to reach the nectar deep inside the tubular

The Ruby-throated Himmingbird is the primary pollinator for Cardinal Flower.  It's long bill and tongue can reach the nectar deep inside the blossom.   It's head feathers pick up pollen from the anther.  Photo © Barb Elliot.   Click to enlarge.

The Ruby-throated Himmingbird is the primary pollinator for Cardinal Flower. It’s long bill and tongue can reach the nectar deep inside the blossom. It’s head feathers pick up pollen from the anther. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

flower.  The feathers on the head pick up the pollen and carry it from one plant to another. Cardinal Flowers bloom for six weeks in the late summer during the hummingbirds’ southbound migration. Bees rarely visit these flowers because their proboscis is too short to access the nectar.

The Spicebush Swallowtail's long proboscis can reach the nectar, but the pollen remains untouched.  SCJack.blogspot.com photo.  Click to enlarge.

The Spicebush Swallowtail’s long proboscis can reach the nectar, but the pollen remains untouched. SCJack.blogspot.com photo. Click to enlarge.

Large swallowtail butterflies can reach the nectar with their long proboscis but are unable to pick up and transfer the pollen.

Growing Conditions:  Cardinal Flower is a trouble-free perennial that enjoys moist soil.   It will grow in average soil in a shady location. Not a true perennial, the plant and roots die after the growing season. However, the next spring it produces off-sets that will flower or can be transplanted to new locations.  The parent plant also produces seedlings that can be transplanted.  In the late fall, lay the flower stalk on the ground where you want seedlings to sprout in the spring. Appearance:  The striking red flowers are arranged along 8” spikes called racemes.   The plant grows 2 ½ -3 feet high.  The flowers are attractive additions to flower arrangements.

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Complete List of Backyards for Nature’s Prime Plants for Nature

Trees            

Betula nigra, River Birch

Juniperus virginiana, Eastern Red Cedar

Prunus serotina, Black Cherry

Quercus alba, White Oak

Perennials            

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed

Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower

Monarda fistulosa, Wild Bergamot

Pycnanthemum muticum, Short-toothed Mountainmint

For information about each plant, see Previous Posts

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Sources of Native Plants

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or collinsnursery.com.

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or davidbrothers.com

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or edgeofthewoodsnursery.com.

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin DE19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or gatewaygardens.com.

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610647-8870 or jenkinsarboretum.org. Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 643 West Baltimore Ave., Media, PA.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or redbudnativeplantnursery.com.

Russell Gardens Wholesale, 600 New Road, Southampton, PA 18966. Wholesale perennials, many native, sold to public. Pre-order for convenient pick-up. 215-322-4799 or russellwholesale.com.

Sugarbush Nursery, 4272 Morgantown Road, Mohnton, PA 19540. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-856-0998 or sugarbushnursery.com.

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or yellowspringsfarm.com.

Native Plant Sales

Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-729-5281 or bartramsgarden.org. Spring and fall sales.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd. New Hope, PA 18938.  215-862-2924 or bhwp.org. Spring and fall plant sales.

Brandywine Conservancy, Routes 1 and 100, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. 610-388-2700 or brandywine.org/conservancy.  Mother’s Day weekend.  Seeds also available.

Delaware Nature Society, Cloverdale Farm Preserve, 543 Way Road, Greenville, DE 19807.  302-239-2334 or delawarenaturesociety.org.  First weekend in May.

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, 2955 Edge Hill Road, Huntington Valley, PA 19006. 215-657-0830 or pennypacktrust.org. Spring and fall plant sales.

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd., Philadelphia 19128. 215-482-7300 or schuylkillcenter.org.  Spring and fall plant sales.

The Allure of Backyard Birds

By Edie Parnum

Learn your backyard birds.  No, not another onerous duty.  Your birds will add joy to your life.

You probably already recognize the birds at your feeder. To get to know them really well, look intently at them for a few minutes each day.  The side view, the one portrayed in your bird guide, is probably familiar.  Look, too, when the bird faces you.  Stare at its back. Gradually, you’ll distinguish not only the colors and plumage pattern, but also the size and the shape of each species. All those details make up the bird’s uniqueness.

Each time we can identify a bird, we experience a pleasant spark of pleasure.  After all, the name is the beginning of familiarity. Next, we see the bird behaving in its unique way. We find ourselves thinking about it and even talking about it. We might remark, “The jays are bullies.  All the other birds are intimidated.” Observing them, we feel more connected to the birds’ world.

An Americn Robin always looks around for predators before probing for worms.  Wikimedia photo.

An Americn Robin always looks around for predators before probing for worms. Wikimedia photo.

Don’t just watch through your windows.  Go outside.  American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird aren’t interested in your feeders. These and other common backyard birds eat insects and berries. Get to know them, too.

How well do you know a robin? Of course, you know it by its “red” breast, but sometimes you get only a partial view.  What color is its bill? The legs? Have you noticed the dark tail with white corner tips? Do you know male and female robins are different?  Try recognizing robins flying overhead. The flight is direct, but the wingbeats are uneven, rather erratic.  The white of the lower belly and undertail coverts is usually visible.  Then notice how it lands on the ground. With its head held high and bill angled up, a robin looks purposeful, even haughty. Next it tips down to probe for worms.  I could go on with my impressions.  And, so could you.

During the winter we may find only 15 or so species.  Even then, something unusual could show up—a Baltimore Oriole visited me one December 25th.  In spring or fall we’ll probably see 25 species of birds, perhaps even more during a fall cold front or spring warm front.  Some of the migrants may linger for a day or more in your yard.  After all, yours is likely the best habitat in the neighborhood—undoubtedly so, if you’ve been growing native plants for a few years.  Aren’t the nearby properties with their grass and non-native plants an impoverished landscape?

We don't always get the best view.  It's a Pine Siskin, the same size and shape as American Goldfinch, but streaky.  Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

We don’t always get the best view. It’s a Pine Siskin, the same size and shape as American Goldfinch, but streaky. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Occasionally something “really good” will show up.  Yes, a special bird like a Blackburnian Warbler could stop and feed in the native trees your yard. (Look it up.  This spectacular bird breeds in the northern forests.)  Oaks, especially, will attract additional eye-catching warblers, among them American Redstart, Black and White Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler—yes, these and many others have come to my yard.   So, too, have Pileated Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, and so on.  With each I wondered where it’s been and where it’s going.  I look it up. Each new bird enlarges my understanding of the natural world.

Mostly we see the regular birds. We see them leading their lives.  We see them eating—goldfinches picking seeds out of sweet gum balls, for instance.  We might glimpse them mating—yes, you have to be quick to spot it.  However, we’ll certainly hear the male

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers waiting to be fed.  Photo © Holly Barrett 2015

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers waiting to be fed. Photo © Holly Barrett 2015. Click to enlarge.

singing to attract a mate and defend his territory.  Sometimes we’ll see birds building their nests.  For instance, I watched a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers excavate a nest hole and then bring insects to the nestlings.  At first the baby birds remained deep inside the nest hole peeping quietly.  Later the ravenous youngsters appeared at the nest opening begging loudly.

If we’re observant, we can observe other birds feed their nestlings.  I’ve watched House Wrens bring caterpillars and other insects to their young 30 times an hour.  They work consistently from dawn to dusk.  That’s hard work, and they have to feed themselves, too.  We are lucky, our birds carry on their activities of daily life right in our yard.

Look overhead, too. Watch and learn your birds in flight. Smaller birds fly faster, bigger birds are slower.  Think crow (slow, but powerful) versus chickadee (quick and bouncy).  You’ll recognize the swift, direct flight of a Cooper’s Hawk coming in for a kill.

What about hawks?   They’re alluring birds, too.  I always thrill to see a hawk in my yard.  Usually it’s a Cooper’s Hawk sitting prominently in a tree or shrub. Hungry for its next

A Red-tailed Hawk eating its prey, a backyard squirrel.  Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A Red-tailed Hawk eating its prey, a backyard squirrel. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

meal, it scans the entire yard for any unwary bird.  Alert to its presence, most birds have escaped into the thick shrubbery. Perhaps a Blue Jay sounded the alarm. The other less vigilant birds sit exposed but perfectly still, terrified of being spotted.  True, I like living birds more than dead ones. However, in defense of hawks, I know that starvation, severe weather, and disease kill more birds.  Hawks are not “bad”.  Nature is amoral; death and killing play a healthy role.  Unsentimentally, I appreciate hawks for their contribution to the web of life.

Recognizing and watching our familiar birds, we see everyday loveliness. They connect us to the natural world.  After all, we planted the native plants that lured them here.  Admittedly birds don’t recognize our beneficence. They’re quite indifferent to us. Nevertheless, spending time with them, we acknowledge them as our fellow creatures.  The web of life includes us.  Shakespeare expressed it well.  “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

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Get a decent pair of binoculars. For watching birds you’ll need good image quality, wide field of view, brightness, light weight, and waterproofness, but not necessarily high magnification. Do some research:

  • allaboutbirds.org/finding-the-best-binoculars-for-birding/
  • audubon.org/news/the-2014-audubon-guide-binoculars

References are Useful

  • The Sibley Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Allen Sibley
  • Sibley Birds of North America, app for your smartphone (bird vocalizations included)
  • Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion
  • allaboutbirds.org/

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Remembering Nature Discovery Day

By Edie Parnum

For eight years I have been gardening for nature on my ¾-acre suburban property. My yard with its abundance of native plants teems with birds, butterflies, bees, beetles, moths, and other creatures both big and small.  On August 29 my property abounded with people, too.  I had invited nature-loving friends to enjoy my native plants and discover the creatures they support.

Edie explaining the wonders of pollination.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Edie explaining the wonders of pollination. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Grass-leaved Goldenrod.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Grass-leaved Goldenrod. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Some people came for just an hour, others stayed all day.  Most participated in one of the three guided yard tours.  The insect and pollinator walks were popular, too.  Kids enjoyed their own nature and insect events.  A sizable group drove to Barb Elliot’s nearby property and saw her pond and thriving native plant habitat.  Some truly nature-crazed individuals stayed after dark for moth night.

Unquestionably, the native plants were a hit. All the species were labeled for easy identification. Many of my favorite plants (Short-toothed Mountainmint, Grass-leafed Goldenrod, Upland Ironweed, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, Garden Phlox, Trumpet Vine, Trumpet Honeysuckle, Large-leafed Aster, and Sneezeweed) were in bloom. Berries on woody plants (Nannyberry and Blackhaw Viburnums, Flowering and Silky Dogwoods, Winterberry Holly, Black Chokeberry) and a vine (Virginia Creeper) were ripe and ready for the fall migrants.   (Click here for my complete yard plant list.)

Insects attracted notice and won new converts.  Many admired the Monarch and Black Swallowtail caterpillars.  The pollinators were active on the flowers.  We saw native bees (European Honey bees, too), wasps, flies, beetles, day-flying moths, as well as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spreading pollen while feeding on the nectar.   Our entomologist, Dan Duran, PhD, identified a large blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia) nectaring on mountainmint.  This wasp, a parasite on the larvae of Japanese Beetles, is now a favorite of mine.

The kids admire a slug with Debbie Beer.  Photo @ Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

The kids admire a slug with Debbie Beer. Photo @ Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

The sharp-eyed kids on Debbie Beer’s nature walk saw a migrant American Redstart.  By turning over rocks and logs, they discovered slugs and other creepy-crawlies. They also found spiders (the wolf spider was popular), beetles, and a cicada shell—goodies the adults missed.

Vince Smith gave us a geology lesson.  My property is composed of Precambrian gneiss and schist, one of the oldest soils on the planet.  Because it’s well-drained, the Tulip Poplar, Black Gum, and various oaks I’ve planted will develop deep roots.   They should become massive trees and provide wildlife value for decades, perhaps centuries.

Hummiongbird Clearwing, a day-flying sphinx moth, on Garden Phlox. Photo © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing, a day-flying sphinx moth, on Garden Phlox. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Usually I merely write about my yard’s plants and animals and post photos on the Backyards for Nature blog.  However, neither words nor pictures are enough.  Seeing the natural beauty of my yard and discovering the creatures living there is more powerful.

Many people told me they were inspired to create their own backyard ecosystems.  Others vowed a renewed commitment to enhance their developing habitats.

They said Nature Discovery Day was fun. I could see it on their smiling faces.

************************************ Special Note ********************************************** I will be selling my house in the spring of 2016. If you or anyone you know is interested in a property that’s alive with nature, contact me at edie@backyardsfornature.org

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See additional Nature Discovery Day photos below.
The Double-banded Scoliid Wasp, Scloia bicincta, parasitizes beetle larvae.  Photo @ Link Davis.

The Double-banded Scoliid Wasp, Scolia bicincta, parasitizes beetle larvae. Photo @ Link Davis.  Click to enlarge.

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Debbie Beer and the kids explore nature in the yard.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Debbie Beer and the kids explore nature in the yard. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Dan Duran shows a Monarch caterpillar.  © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Dan Duran shows a Monarch caterpillar. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Edie's shade garden. © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s shade garden. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee on Garden Phlox.  © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee on Garden Phlox. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Barb Elliot describes her pond to visitors.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Barb Elliot describes her pond to visitors. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Redbud seed pods.  © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Redbud seed pods. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Edie talks to guests attending Nature Discovery Day.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Edie talks to guests attending Nature Discovery Day. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.  Photo © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Vince Smith explains the geology of the property.   Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Vince Smith explains the geology of the property. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm, a day-flying moth.  © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm, a day-flying moth. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

He's found something interesting.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  click to enlarge.

He’s found something interesting. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Bee carrying the white pollen of Upland Ironweed.  Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Bee carrying the white pollen of Upland Ironweed. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Peck's Skipper.  Phitii © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Peck’s Skipper. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Early instar of Black Swallowtail caterpillar.  Photo © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Early instar of Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Watching birds in the yard.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarg.

Watching birds in the yard. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Edie’s Garden—A Place to Discover Nature

By Barb Elliot

Wildlife is abundant in Edie’s yard.  She finds birds, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bugs,

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

beetles, bees, wasps, flies, and more – creatures she loves – living among her native plants.

It wasn’t always this way.  I saw the yard when Edie moved to this ¾-acre property in 2007. It was mostly turf grass. Except for a few native trees (Black Cherry, Red Maple, White Pine), no native plants grew here. Consequently, we observed few birds—just an occasional robin or starling—no other wildlife.  She knew she could transform her lifeless property into a healthy habitat for wildlife by reducing the lawn and planting native plants. It could become a place where she could discover, learn, and enjoy nature.

To create a healthy ecosystem on her property she wanted to:

  • Plant a diversity and multitude of native plants
  • Offer conditions for birds and other creatures to thrive and reproduce
  • Provide year-round food sources, water, cover, and places to raise young for wildlife
  • Welcome lots of birds—certainly hummingbirds
  • Create a place of beauty where she could be immersed in nature
  • Learn the species of flora and fauna and how they interact and depend on each other
  • Leave a legacy of nature for future generations with long-lived trees and shrubs

Gradually, year by year, she has succeeded in creating this haven for wildlife.  Eight years later I see thousands of native plants.  They include perennials, grasses, vines, ferns, and woody plants, i.e. shrubs and trees.  She planted densely, letting the plants touch each other as they do in the wild.  Her canopy trees are young, but the oaks and others will be massively productive for wildlife for decades.  Eastern Redbud, Flowering Dogwood, and Shadbush are already filling the understory.  The mature shrubs like Spicebush, Elderberry, and several viburnum species are now luxuriant.  At the ground

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family.  The beetles are protected by the milkweed's toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum.  click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family. The beetles are protected by the milkweed’s toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum. click to enlarge.

level perennials, vines, ferns, sedges, and grasses, are profuse. This diversity of plants offer nuts, seeds, berries, nectar, and pollen.  Even the foliage of the native plants is indirectly a source of food.  Insects eat the leaves and become food for birds and other creatures.

Birds now find what they need to live and thrive. They eat the fruits, nuts, seeds, and nectar produced by the yard’s native plants.  Resident and migrating birds eat the insects hosted by her native plants. For example, Carolina

 

Chickadees can locate the 6, 000-plus caterpillars required to feed their young.  Of course, no pesticides are ever used.

Edie has added other features for birds.  She installed nest boxes for cavity-nesting House Wrens and Tree Swallows.  She allows fallen leaves to lie in many places. Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers rummage in this leaf litter to find insects. Carolina Wrens

 Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

often locate their insect delicacies in the brush pile. On a snag (dead tree) woodpeckers, including a Pileated Woodpecker, forage for insects in the decaying wood. A Trumpet Vine grows on this snag and attracts hummingbirds seeking nectar from its flowers. A bird bath and small pond offer birds water. The bird feeders supply a small proportion of food needed by some of the birds. Many, many birds (106 species) love this yard.

Her meadow, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of her property.  It is chock full of colorful perennials and grasses.  Birds forage for seeds in late summer, fall, and winter. Numerous butterflies (30 species so far), bees, beetles, and other pollinators are active on flowers

Edie’s Meadow in late summer.  Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s Meadow in late summer. Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

blooming from April through October.  Even at night the meadow is alive with moths, beetles, and other insects and spiders.  Aiming a flashlight into the dense meadow plants, she can see the tiny, shining eyes of moths and other insects.  Bumble bees, too, sleep on the flower heads, resting for the next day’s work.

Edie has created a paradise for herself as well as the creatures that call her yard home. With binoculars and camera, she frequently takes nature walks around the yard.  The birds, whether eating, preening, feeding young, are always interesting.  Mating foxes are less expected.  Mating Garter Snakes, too. Even

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

better, she loves to discover a caterpillar eating leaves. When she locates other tiny creatures—bees, beetles, wasps, and others—she takes their photos.  At night she uses lights to attract moths.  She photographs these creatures, too.

Using the photos of insects, she can usually make identifications and then figure out their role in this ecosystem. What plants do they depend on?  What plants depend on them? What do they eat?  Who eats them?  Are they parasites?  Predators?

The possibilities for discovery are endless.  Mostly, she revels in success of the healthy ecosystem she has created.

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Nature Discovery Day, August 29, 2015

Edie enjoys showing her garden with its native plants, birds, butterflies, moths and other creatures to nature-loving friends. On August 29th she will host Nature Discovery Day.  Throughout the day you can explore her yard, discover nature in action, and learn about habitat gardening. Guided walks for children and adults will be offered, too.  In the evening it’ll be Moth Night.

This event will be for a limited audience by invitation only. She’s inviting Backyards for Nature blog readers and their interested family and friends.  Save the date and watch for an invitation coming to you in late July or early August.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2015 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Each year we select two native plant species with exceptional ability to support wildlife.  These plants will contribute significantly to the web of life in your yard.  They host insects, offer nectar and pollen, and produce fruits, seeds, or nuts.  Birds, butterflies, and other insects and animals will feed and prosper.  The Prime Plants will provide shelter and nesting places, too.  Our selections, all native to southeastern Pennsylvania, are easy to grow and will make attractive additions to your landscape.  They are readily available at native plant nurseries or native plant sales. We offer awards in two categories: Trees and Shrubs and Perennials.

Our selections for the 2015 Prime Plants for Nature Awards are:

River Birch, Betula nigra                                                                                     

River Birch (Betula nigra) is an attractive medium-sized tree.   Wikimedia image - Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

River Birch (Betula nigra) is an attractive medium-sized tree. Wikimedia image – Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: This medium-sized deciduous tree has exceptional wildlife value.  According to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, it hosts 411 species of moths and butterflies whose caterpillars eat the foliage. The caterpillars include butterflies such as Mourning Cloak and moths including Luna, Io, Polyphemus, and Cecropia.

River Birch host caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

River Birch host caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.  Click to enlarge.

Birds in turn feed on these caterpillars, especially during spring migration and the summer breeding season.  In the fall and winter, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and other birds eat the birch seeds.  Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, and others search the loose bark for insects and

Luna Moth caterpillars eat the foliage of River Birch.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth caterpillars eat the foliage of River Birch. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

spiders.  The tree offers shelter and nesting places for birds as well.

Growing Conditions: River Birch is a long-lived tree that grows in a variety of conditions. It thrives in moist soil but will tolerate moderately dry soil, too.  Plant it in light shade to sun.

Birches host Polyphemus Moth caterpillars.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Birches host Polyphemus Moth caterpillars. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: This deciduous tree is an attractive and graceful medium-sized tree.  It grows quickly (1.5 to 3 feet per year) and reaches 75 feet at maturity.  The exfoliating bark offers visual interest in all seasons.

River Birch tree trunks have attractive exfoliating bark.  Click to enlarge.

River Birch tree trunks have attractive exfoliating bark. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa

Wildlife Value: This lovely perennial is a magnet for pollinators. The flowers produce

Wild Bergamot is an attractive summer-blooming perennial.   © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot is an attractive summer-blooming perennial. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

copious nectar and pollen, so butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, and even hummingbirds love it.  Because it blooms for many weeks with new flowers emerging continuously, it can host thousands of visits by pollinators each season.  By growing Wild

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Wild Bergamot.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Wild Bergamot. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Bergamot in your yard, you can introduce children to pollination and teach them not to be afraid of bees and wasps.

Wild Bergamot attracts a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot attracts a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Wild Bergamot is a trouble-free perennial that grows in sun or part shade in soil that ranges from moist to dry. It spreads underground by root-like rhizomes.  If the plant gets oversized, the rhizomes are easy to pull up.  Or, you can dig out clumpsand plant them elsewhere in your garden or give them to

Bumblebees use nectar and pollen of Wild Bergamot.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Bumblebees use nectar and pollen of Wild Bergamot. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

other gardeners.  If mildew is troublesome, give it extra room for air circulation. A member of the mint family, it is highly deer resistant.

Appearance:  The summer flowers range from lavender to pink.  The plant grows 3-4 feet high and spreads to 24-36 inches wide.

The closely related Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma) attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators, too.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

The closely related Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma) attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators, too. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

 

Bats in Peril

By Barb Elliot

OK.  I’ll confess.  I love bats!  Fifteen years ago my father and I built a bat house for them.  Each spring, I watch expectantly for “my” bats to return to their bat house.  And, every spring they have come back.  I always breathe a sigh of relief.

Barb's pole-mounted rocket-style bat box awaits the spring return of "her" bats.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Barb’s pole-mounted rocket-style bat box awaits the spring return of “her” bats. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Through summer and early fall I watch them at dusk.  I thrill to see two or three flying in large circles over my yard.  Watching them swerve and swoop, I marvel as they deftly capture night-flying insects.  Using echolocation — emitting sound waves that bounce off objects and echo back to them — they successfully locate, catch and consume mosquitoes, moths, and beetles that fly in the dark.  Each night they eat half their body weight (lactating females eat 100% their body weight) in insects– as many as 1,000 insects an hour!  Mosquitoes are not a problem in my yard.  By eating insect pests, bats offer their services to farmers, too. Farmers can use fewer pesticides and save money. Consequently, our food costs are lower, and an added benefit, pesticides are kept off our food and out of the environment.

Cluster_of_little_brown_bats_myotis_lucifugus Wikimedia Commons photo by Tim Krynak USFWS

Cluster of hibernating Little Brown Bats. Wikimedia Commons image by Tim Krynak, USFWS.

Nine species of bats, all insect-eaters, live in Pennsylvania.  Three species (Hoary, Red, and Silver-haired) migrate south in the fall, to find insects. The other six species, including “my” Big Brown Bats, head to caves or mines (known as hibernacula) where they hibernate until insects become plentiful again in the spring. In the cold, constant temperature of a hibernaculum the bats roost huddled together in groups.  They enter a state of torpor, lowering their body temperatures (from 108 degrees to 39 – 59 degrees F). Their heart rates slow (from 1000 beats per minute to 10 bpm) to conserve energy and they live off their fat stores.  Every three weeks, the bats rouse themselves.  Their body temperatures and heart rates rise briefly to normal summer rates before returning to their state of torpor.

Hibernating bats are dying in droves.  In 2006, a cold-loving fungus from Europe

Little Brown Bat displaying White-nose Syndrome.  Wikimedia Commons.  Image by Marvin Moriarty USFWS.

Little Brown Bat displaying White-nose Syndrome. Wikimedia Commons. Image by Marvin Moriarty USFWS.

(Pseudogymnoascus destructans) was found in bats in four caverns in upstate New York. This fungus, which thrives in the cold of caves and mines, causes a disease in bats known as White-nose Syndrome (WNS).  WNS is fatal and has decimated bat populations.  It damages bats’ muscles, connective tissues, and skin, and causes them to rouse more frequently (every 5 days vs. every 3 weeks).   Their fat stores are depleted during the winter, Death occurs well before spring.

White-nose syndrome has spread rapidly.  Confirmed in PA in winter 2008-2009, it is now in 25 states and 5 Canadian provinces.  The disease has killed over 95% of bats at every wintering site.  (See chart for the heartbreaking declines of our PA bats.)  PA has lost

Losses at 34 hibernacula are representative of PA statewide bat species declines.  Click to enlarge.

Losses at 34 hibernacula are representative of PA statewide bat species losses.  Click to enlarge.

more bats than any other state.  Hibernacula that previously held tens of thousands of bats now hold just a few hundred or fewer.  Overall, PA has lost over 99% of its total bat population because the largest die-off has been in Little Brown Bats, formerly the most populous PA species.

WNS has killed over 5.7 million bats — the worst disease to affect North American wildlife

March, 2015 map from White-noseSyndrome.org

March, 2015 map from White-noseSyndrome.org showing spread of WNS to states and provinces.  Click to open in separate window.

in centuries.  It continues its deadly march.  Scientists at many laboratories and federal and state agencies are investigating ways to control WNS and protect bats.  If a solution is found, it could still take hundreds of years for some bat species to return to pre-WNS levels. After all, most bat species have just one or two pups a year.

Red Bat with 3 pups, though most bat species have just 1 or 2 pups a year.  Wikimedia Commons image by Josh Henderson.

Red Bat with 3 pups, though most bat species have just 1 or 2 pups a year. Wikimedia Commons image by Josh Henderson.  Click to enlarge.

WNS is a daunting disease, but there are things you can do to help bats:

  • Build a bat house for roosting bats.  Bats are particular about their roosts, so do a little research to understand their housing needs and location preferences.  See Install a Bat House  for detailed guidelines.
  • Contribute toward WNS research by donating to Bat Conservation International (BCI) and consider becoming a member of BCI.
  • Participate in the Appalachian Bat Count project in PA by counting bats at a maternity colony in the summer.  These counts are especially important because of WNS.
  • If a bat strays into your home, don’t harm or try to catch it.  Simply open a door or windows. After it gets its bearings, the bat should leave within 10 or 15 minutes.
  • If a colony of bats moves into your attic, take measures to exclude the bats only after mid-July when pups are able to fly.  If possible, provide an alternate roost as a new home for the colony.   See Bats in Buildings:  A Guide to Safe and Humane Exclusions or Penn State Extension’s bat exclusion and alternate roost information.
  • Learn more about bats and White-nose Syndrome and share your knowledge with family, friends, and neighbors.

This spring, I’ll be waiting and watching for “my bats” to return to my bat house.  I hope they’ll have survived White-nose Syndrome once again.  Look for bats in your

A healthy hibernating Big Brown Bat., Wikimedia Commons Image by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.  Click to enlarge.

A healthy hibernating Big Brown Bat., Wikimedia Commons Image by Ann Froschauer, USFWS. Click to enlarge.

neighborhood, too.  Please join me as an advocate for these often misunderstood, but extremely valuable creatures.

Resources:

Bat Conservation International 

White-NoseSyndrome.org

White-nose syndrome in Pa. bats could lead to endangered status, affect jobs.  Rick Wills, Pittsburgh TribLive, December 15, 2012

Special thanks to Dan Mummert, Wildlife Diversity Biologist, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Southeast Region, for sharing his expertise and WNS data

 

 

Chickadees in Winter

By Edie Parnum

On cold winter days, watching perky Carolina Chickadees lifts my spirits. Nasty wind, snow, and ice do not deter them.  At the window of my warm kitchen with its well-stocked pantry, I wonder how they survive the frigid weather. Weighing only as much as four pennies, they are the smallest birds that visit my feeders. They must be vulnerable to starvation and hypothermia.

Imagining they depend on my beneficence, I diligently keep my feeders filled. My

Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat.  Photo  Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat. Photo © Howard Eskin.

Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat.  Photo © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

chickadees land on the feeder with a jaunty bounce.  They never stay on the feeder perches to eat speedily like the House Finches.  The finches have large, strong beaks to break open seeds and can quickly chow down multiple seeds. Instead, chickadees use their tiny beaks to pick out an individual seed and carry it to a nearby branch. Holding it with their feet, they pound with their bills to break open the shell and access the meat.  They repeat this again and again.  Being a chickadee is hard work.

I enjoy watching chickadees in the wild, too.  Yes, I do go outside in winter—my down jacket keeps me warm.  Walking through the woods, I often hear their “chickadee-dee-dee” call before spying them.  Sometimes merely a soft “sit-sit” sound alerts me.  In winter chickadees, along with Tufted Titmice, are leaders of a mixed flock of birds. These little sounds help the birds stay in touch as they roam a mile-wide circle.    The flock usually includes White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers.  Sometimes Hairy Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, kinglets (both Golden-Crowned and Ruby-Crowned), and others tag along, too.  The chickadees and titmice have this following because they are exceptionally alert to predators and adept at finding food.

Chickadees search for food all the time. Using their beaks they continuously probe the crevices of bark, branches, and buds.  Little acrobats, they use their strong claws to hang upside down and investigate the undersides of branches and other vegetation.

Chickadees feed their nestlings exclusively insects and spiders gleaned from foliage and tree bark.  Photo courtesy of and @ Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer.

Chickadees feed their nestlings exclusively insects and spiders gleaned from foliage and tree bark. Photo courtesy of and @ Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer.  Click to enlarge.

Even with my binoculars, I can’t see what the chickadees are eating.  Their eyesight is keener than humans’.  With twice as many receptors in their eyes and the ability to see ultra violet light, they locate their prey: tiny, camouflaged eggs, larvae, and other hibernating insects and spiders.

Scientists tell me fifty per cent of Carolina Chickadees’ winter diet comes from these dormant creatures.  Insect food is proportionately higher in fat and calories than plants. Nevertheless, they relish the sunflower and safflower seeds at my feeders.  Sometimes they eat suet and peanuts, too.  In the wild they consume seeds, berries, and cones.  Frequently I observe them devouring seeds while dangling from the balls of a Sweet Gum tree next to my house.  Native plants like Eastern Red Cedar, Poison Ivy, Eastern White Pine, Tulip Poplar, and various birches and goldenrods are favorite foods in my yard and beyond. They cache some food items, remembering the location to retrieve when needed.

Chickadees possess special adaptations to withstand the cold.  Before the winter season starts, they grow 50% more feathers.  To minimize heat loss they fluff up their feathers to

A Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep warm. Chickadees and other birds will use a heated bird bath for drinking and bathing when other water is frozen.  Photo © Edie Parnum.

A Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep warm. Chickadees and other birds will use a heated bird bath for drinking and bathing when other water is frozen. Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

create air pockets—I think of my down jacket.  Researchers say, however, shivering is the primary way chickadees maintain their body temperature.

Carolina Chickadees’ most difficult challenge is to survive the long, cold winter nights.  I spend my nights in a heated house covered with layers of blankets—oblivious to the possibility of freezing to death. At night a chickadee will roost singly in a cavity or dense vegetation—seemingly an inadequate strategy for retaining body heat through the night.  It can, however, lower its body temperature by 10 degrees to minimize loss of calories. Remarkably, chickadees can endure temperatures as low as -35 degrees.

I wonder if feeding the chickadees and other birds helps them survive the winter.  They obviously like my well-stocked feeding station.  Before, during, and after snowstorms, birds flock to my feeders in especially large numbers. They can’t access their natural food items when covered with snow, especially when coated by ice.  Nevertheless, chickadees using feeders do not become addicted to “bird” seed. They rely on insects and plant food in the wild as well. In fact, chickadees living in remote areas depend completely on natural food.  Their survival rate is almost as high as for birds whose diets are supplemented at feeders. Chickadees probably do not require my assistance.

A pair of chickadees survived the winter in Barb’s yard and laid seven eggs.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

A pair of chickadees survived the winter in Barb’s yard and laid seven eggs. Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Alas, many chickadees do die during the winter. Despite their impressive adaptions to the cold, 50% don’t survive.  We shouldn’t worry, however. The healthiest, best adapted will live to breed in the spring and lay 3-10 eggs.

Now in late January, chickadees still have weeks of freezing winter ahead.  Nevertheless, the chickadees know the daylight hours are getting longer and spring is coming.  Already, I’ve heard them sing “see-bee, see-bay,” their mating song. They are practicing for the breeding season when they will attract a mate, defend a territory, build a nest, lay eggs, and feed their young.  I take heart, chickadees will survive and thrive for years to come.

Carolina Chickadee identification, life history, and sounds: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/carolina_chickadee/id

Recommended native plants for Carolina Chickadees (note especially Trees and Shrubs): http://www.valleyforgeaudubon.org/bfn/pdf/recommendedPlants031410FINAL.pdf

Want More Native Plants? Learn to Transplant

By Edie Parnum

You read it repeatedly on this blog—plant more native plants. Plant lots of them. Too expensive, you say.  That’s true when you purchase them at nurseries or native plant sales.  I know where you can get native plants for free—yes, really! They are already in your own backyard.

Local native plants are adapted to our soil and climate, so they reproduce abundantly.  Look carefully at the young plants in your garden.  You’ll find multiples of many of your favorite native plants. Resist pulling out these volunteers and throwing them away. They are not weeds.  Keep them growing by transplanting them to new locations.

A 5" Witch Hazel is flagged and ready to transplant.  © Edie Parnum

A 5″ Witch Hazel is flagged and ready to transplant. © Edie Parnum

Take a tour around your yard.  Locate the native plants that have popped up voluntarily, but haphazardly.  These young woody saplings and perennials are smaller versions of plants you already know and love.  Many, you recall, are particularly favored by birds, butterflies, and other creatures. Others are your personal favorites—they are so beautiful!    You already know their ultimate size, shape, and color and their needs for sun, shade, dry, or moist conditions.  These native plant treasures can be saved by moving them to new locations.

Now look for places where you can incorporate these volunteer trees, shrubs, perennials, ferns, vines, and groundcovers into your landscape.  Where can you grow another tree? How about several trees?  Shrubs can be added around the base of isolated trees. Can you install or expand a garden bed?  What about removing some non-native plants or invasives?  Keep in mind native plants prefer to touch each other, not be isolated.  Spots of bare ground should be filled in with native groundcovers. And, surely, your lawn can be reduced.   Aim to cover virtually all open areas with native plants.

Be brave.  Dare to transplant—even if you’ve never done it before.  Native plants are resilient and determined to grow.  Spring or fall, here’s how to transplant.

Directions for transplanting tree or shrub saplings

  1.  Locate a small sapling, preferably shorter than 15”, to transplant.  If the soil is dry around the plant, water it well.
  2. Before you dig out this woody plant, select the location where you want it to grow and dig a hole there.  This hole should be no deeper than the expected depth of the transplant’s roots and about twice as wide.
  3. To dig out the transplant, estimate the size of the root system (usually as wide as the sapling’s canopy).  Dig deeply around the plant and avoid severing the tap root.  When you lift the sapling out of the ground, it should have plenty of roots and soil attached.
  4. Carefully lay the sapling with its root system on a piece of newspaper or plastic and carry it to the new location.
  5.  Place the plant into the pre-dug hole.  Hold the plant upright with the top of the root system ½” above the height of the ground.  Fill in around the roots with the soil that was removed from the hole.  Do not add fertilizer, topsoil, or other amendments.  Press the soil down with your hands, but do not stomp with your feet.
  6. Spread compost and leaf litter on top.

    The sapling of this 10-foot White Pine was 6 inches tall when transplanted five years ago.

    The sapling of this 10-foot White Pine was 6 inches tall when transplanted five years ago.

  7. Water well.  Unless it rains, water the transplant every week for several months—longer if the season is dry.  In fall, water until the ground freezes.
  8. Some established shrubs such as viburnums send out horizontal roots where new plants can emerge.  These baby shrubs can be transplanted, too.  Follow the directions for free-standing saplings.  However, before digging the plant out of the ground, find and sever the lateral root growing out from the mother plant.
  9. Small woody transplants, once established, grow quickly.  After a few years they will be as big as much larger nursery-grown trees and shrubs.

Personally, I have successfully transplanted Red Maple, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Redbud, Eastern Red Cedar, Tulip Tree, Eastern White Pine, Black Cherry, Tulip Tree, and Sassafras.  I’ve also moved several native species of dogwoods, hollies, oaks, and viburnums.   Most other native woody plants will transplant well, too.  You can also relocate woody vines like Virginia Creeper, Trumpet Vine, and Virgin’s Bower.

Directions for transplanting perennials

  1. Perennials and other non-woody plants often produce volunteer seedlings.  These young plants resemble their parents and can be readily differentiated from your yard’s common weeds. Frequently I see Nodding Onion, Anise Hyssop, Amsonia, Wild Columbine, Wild Geranium, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, False Sunflower, Golden Ragwort, New York Ironweed, Golden Alexander—all valuable plants begging to be saved. I often find my cherished native asters, goldenrods, and phloxes as seedlings, too.
  2. You can dig out these and many other seedlings and transplant them elsewhere.  Follow the above directions for transplanting shrubs and trees.

    Lance-leafed Goldenrod and other goldenrods are easy to tansplant and attract many pollinators, including Ailanthus Webworm Moth.  © Edie Parnum

    Lance-leafed Goldenrod and other goldenrods are easy to transplant and attract many pollinators, including Ailanthus Webworm Moth. © Edie Parnum

  3. Some perennials spread by underground runners.  The lateral roots of Mountain Mint, Bee Balm, Monarda, Wild Bergamot, Obedient Plant, Ostrich Fern, and Mistflower produce growth to dig out for new plants.
  4. Divide older perennials.  Look for plants that are oversized and have lost vigor. These can and should be divided.  Push your spade deeply into the ground at several places around the perimeter of the large plant.  Lift it up out of the ground with most of the root system intact.  Thrust your shovel into the middle of the plant and separate it into two clumps. If the root system is dense, you can use two back-to-back garden forks to pry it apart. Further subdivide these clumps to yield four or more plants.
  5. As with woody plants, plant perennials and ferns ½ inch higher than the ground. Be sure to keep them watered until they are established.  If planting late in the fall, mulch the plants to prevent them from heaving out of the ground during light frosts.

With the right transplanting tool, the work is not hard nor especially time consuming. You

Tools for transplanting:  watering can, pruners, bulb trowel (extra leverage for digging seedlings) and transplant shovel (see text).  © Edie Parnum

Tools for transplanting: watering can, pruners, bulb trowel (extra leverage for digging seedlings) and transplant shovel (see text). © Edie Parnum

certainly can dig out a plant satisfactorily with an ordinary shovel.  However, I prefer using my transplant shovel.  With its narrow blade I can make precise cuts around my target plant but avoid injuring desirable plants nearby.  It has a wide ledge for stomping with my foot and good leverage.  Thus, I’m able to do most of my transplant operations standing up.  No need to kneel or squat uncomfortably.

You can’t create the landscape of your dreams all at once.  Each spring and fall, transplant as many young plants as you can.  Ever increasingly, your property will include all the layers found in nature: groundcovers, perennials and ferns, shrubs, understory trees, and canopy trees.  This dense, layered landscape will develop into a rich habitat alive with insect and animal biodiversity.

A layered landscape,including Virginia Creeper as a ground cover, asters, Fringe Tree (an understory tree), and a large Common Hackberry tree.

A layered landscape in fall, including Virginia Creeper and violets as ground covers, asters, amsonia hubrectii, Solomon’s Seal in its fall yellow color in the background, Fringe Tree (understory tree on right), and a large Common Hackberry tree (on left).

Revel in the fecundity of your garden.  Each of your native plants is a gift to nature.  Each with its leaves, flowers, seeds—in fact every part of the plant—contributes exuberantly to the web of life. Save them one by one to plant elsewhere in your yard.  Give them away, too.  Your garden will be a native plant nursery.

New Books on Gardening for Nature

Reviews by Edie Parnum

Want to become a better steward of nature on your land? These two books will inspire and guide you.  Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, taught us to love native plants for the leaf-eating insects they host.  Tallamy has now teamed up with landscape architect Rick Darke on a new book that helps us create aesthetically pleasing landscapes for our native creatures.  Heather Holm’s book teaches us to garden for insect pollinators and appreciate the ecosystem roles they play.  We can help the environment by what we plant in our yards.  These books tell us how.

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke and Doug TallamyLiving Landscape Book Cover

  1. This book is beautiful—so beautiful you can display it on your coffee table.   The photographs show landscapes, combinations of native plants, and the creatures who live there.  These images inspire us to create esthetically pleasing wildlife habitats that are alive with biodiversity.
  2. The pictures and text explain how to design for beauty using native plants.  Instead of planting them haphazardly, we learn to position and combine natives to create an alluring garden.
  3. The authors teach us to imitate natural habitats by planting in layers:  ground, herbaceous, shrub, understory, and canopy.
  4. Instead of photos of individual plants, the book illustrates native plants as part of the landscape and showcases the birds, butterflies, and other creatures living there.

    Edie's meadow landscape, September, 2014.  © Edie Parnum.

    Edie’s meadow landscape, September, 2014.         © Edie Parnum.

  5. A practical book, low maintenance gardening is emphasized.  It recommends pleasing combinations of plants that don’t out-compete each other or require excessive weeding. We learn to anticipate changes in our landscapes over time, especially when planting trees and shrubs.
  6. The plant lists, organized by geographical area, are superbly designed to help us make plant selections.  Symbols concisely indicate the ecological functions for each plant, e.g., nest sites, pollen, nectar, seasonal foods for birds, and food for caterpillars.  Other symbols represent landscape functions such as seasonal flowering, fall foliage, fragrance, or groundcover.
  7. The plant lists also specify the ecological benefits to humans.  Not normally emphasized, these paybacks include carbon sequestration, shading and cooling, watershed protection, moderation of extreme weather, and air filtration.

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Preserve and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants by Heather HolmPollinator Book Cover

  1. Like flowers?  You surely love pollinators, too!  You can’t have one without the other.  Plus, flowers and their pollinators create seeds, fruits, and nuts—actually a third of the food we eat.  Of course, animals of all kinds require these food products, too.
  2. Butterflies, the most charismatic of the insects attracted to flowers, already have fans.  Now, with this book, we also learn to value pollinating bees, wasps, moths, flies, and beetles—really!
  3. The bulk of the book describes the best pollinator-attracting plants and the interactions between their flowers and the pollinating insects.

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothedd Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothed Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant. © Edie Parnum

  4. Insect pollinators are fascinating.  We can easily observe and identify them by watching the book’s featured flowers and examining their insect visitors. The excellent photographs in the book help us identify these bees, flies, and other insects.  Then we can observe each insect’s strategy as it probes for nectar and/or collects pollen.  We may see insect interactions like predation, copulation, and parasitization, too.

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant. © Edie Parnum

  5.  Using this book we home gardeners can select pollinator-attracting plants for the various growing conditions on our properties.
  6. By planting Holm’s recommended pollinator plants and observing pollination in action, we will revel in the flourishing ecosystem we’ve created.

I highly recommend both of these books.  They will help you beautify your garden and increase its ecological value for all the creatures who inhabit it.

National Moth Week: Why? What Good are Moths?

By Barb Elliot

Moths, really? Yes, we’ll celebrate moths this coming week, July 19 – 27. During National Moth Week public and private moth-watching events will occur. Mothing, the practice of attracting, viewing, and photographing moths is growing immensely in popularity. But some are puzzled and ask, “What good are moths?” Butterflies are great, but moths are nasty.  After all, moth caterpillars eat tomato plants, make holes in wool clothes, eat flour and cereal in our kitchens, and can be agricultural pests. This is all true, but harmful moths are but a small fraction of moth species. Most are actually very important and beneficial to the environment.

The Cecropia Moth has a 6 inch wingspan.  Creative Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

The Cecropia Moth.  Creative Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

In fact, moths are closely related to our much-loved butterflies. Both are in the scientific order Lepidoptera, meaning “scaly wings”. All butterflies and moths have four wings covered with colored scales. Both groups go through four life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis/cocoon), and adult (butterfly/moth). Adult butterflies and moths also have a proboscis – a thin, straw-like tube for sipping nectar. However, all butterflies fly during the day, but most moths fly at night.  The tips of butterfly antennae are club-like, while moth antennae are

Butterflies antennae tips are club-like.  Photo from National Moth Week presentation.

Butterflies antennae tips are club-like. Photo from National Moth Week. Click to enlarge.

Moth antennae come in three forms.  Photo from National Moth Week.

Moth antennae come in three forms. Photo from National Moth Week. Click to enlarge.

more varied in structure. . Some moths have hairy-looking elongated scales on their bodies. These may provide greater protection from the environment and help them maintain their temperature – useful on cool nights.

But what good are moths?  Widespread and numerous (nearly 13,000 species in the U.S. vs. just 1,000 butterfly species) they play key roles in ecosystems. As pollinators of night-blooming plants, they are very important.  Unlike bees, moths do not eat or gather pollen.  However, their hairy bodies collect and spread pollen as they move from plant to plant.

Dark-banded Owlet moth sipping nectar from Common Milkweed in Barb's yard.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Dark-banded Owlet moth sipping nectar from Common Milkweed in Barb’s yard. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Many plants depend on this nocturnal pollination to maximize seed production.  A few cannot reproduce at all without moth pollination.  The proboscis of some moths can be many inches long, enabling the moth to reach nectar at the end of elongated flower tubes that are too long for bees.

Moths, both adults and caterpillars, are key food sources for many animals. Other insects, spiders, birds, bats, frogs, toads, lizards, rodents, foxes, and even bears consume moths. As indicators of biodiversity and the health of our environment, they function as “canaries in the coalmine.” Almost all moth caterpillars require specific plants as food.  Less diversity in native plants means less food for moth caterpillars and therefore, fewer species and numbers of moths. The result — less food to power the web of life.

Luna Moth.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Many moths are beautiful, like the lovely Luna Moth.  Less impressive moths are often  masters of mimicry or camouflage.  Some mimic scary-looking animals such as snakes. Others, such as the Io Moth, have huge “eyes” to startle predators.  Some look like bark, dead leaves, lichens, or even bird droppings– making it almost impossible to spot them.

IO Moth revealing its"eyes" for startling predators.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

IO Moth revealing its”eyes” for startling predators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

Copper Underwing Moth camouflaged on tree bark.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Copper Underwing Moth camouflaged on tree bark. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I find moths to be downright interesting creatures.  For instance, the beautiful and large adults of the Giant Silk Moth family have captivating life histories. These moths, such as the Luna, Tulip-tree, Cecropia, or Polyphemus, live for only a week or two — just long enough to attract or search out mates and for females to lay eggs.  With reduced mouthparts, these moths are unable to eat.  Females emit chemical scents called pheromones to attract males.  Males in this family have large, feathery antennae to detect pheromones from as far as seven miles away. They want to make a beeline to the female!

Moths come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Some are as tiny as the tip of a pencil.  The Cecropia Moth (shown above), our largest moth, has a 6” wingspan.  Some rest with their wings flat. Many hold them vertically like some butterflies. Others fold them like tents over their bodies.

Yellow-collared Slug Moth with its abdomen curled up.   © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Yellow-collared Slug Moth with its abdomen curled up. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A few curl their abdomens up above their wings, an odd posture that is likely part of their mimicry or camouflage.  Sphinx or Hawk moths display outstanding flight dynamics. They can fly very quickly, hover, and move rapidly from side-to-side.  In fact, the flight aerodynamics of some Micro-aerial Vehicles’ (MAVs) are being designed by the military to emulate Sphinx moth flight.

Both Edie, my Backyards for Nature colleague, and I now consider ourselves to be “moth-ers”.  We frequently have “moth nights” in our yards. We attract the moths by shining special lights onto a white sheet, a place where they can land. By painting fermented bait onto tree trunk, we can attract moths that don’t come to lights. We follow Moths of the Eastern United States on Facebook and note what moths are being seen by other enthusiasts.  In June, Edie and I attended Mothapalooza, a weekend moth conference in Ohio.  With 150 participants, it sold out within two weeks of being announced – a testament to the burgeoning popularity of mothing. We visited five mothing stations that hosted thousands of moths.  We were up until the wee hours, but had great fun.

Try mothing yourself.  At first keep it simple. Leave your porch light on for the evening. Go out periodically to see what moths have flown in.  With a flashlight, look for moths nectaring on your flowers.  Fragrant, white, and pink flowers are particularly alluring.  Look closely,

Ultronia Underwing sipping juices from rotting fruit. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ultronia Underwing sipping juices from rotting fruit. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

and you’ll see each moth using its proboscis to suck up nectar.  Or, put out a plate of rotting fruit and check for moths that stop by for a sugary drink.

Invite family and friends for a moth night in your yard.  See Edie’s Moth Night  blog post from last year for moth night ideas, a bait recipe, and host plants for moth caterpillars.  Check the National Moth Week website for public events in your area and tips on finding moths.  All across the United States and in many countries of the world, moth-ers will be celebrating moths.

Moths are good!  They play key roles in the web of life.  Plus, they are fascinating creatures.  These gems are outside your door at night.  Try mothing, but I warn you that it can become addictive.  Like a treasure hunt, you never know what may fly in.  Become a moth-er and … welcome to the dark side!

Resources

Beadle, David & Leckie, Seabrooke.  Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Himmelman, John.  Discovering Moths:  Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard.  Down East Books, 2002.