Pollinators Come to a Tiny Urban Yard

By Edie Parnum

A 130-square foot cement-covered backyard —who would expect such a yard could be a haven for wildlife?  The property is on a narrow street of rowhouses in Philadelphia.  The nearest park is several miles away. Nonetheless, this garden is teeming with  butterflies, bees, wasps, moths, and a host of other pollinating insects.

A view of Navin’s small backyard. Photo by N. Sasikumar. Click to enlarge.

Navin, an avid amateur naturalist, moved to this property last fall.  He saw the potential to attract pollinators with native plants in raised beds and containers.   In early spring, he invited me for a Backyards for Nature consultation.  Together we made a list of short and mid-sized perennials that bloom from early spring to late fall and are known to attract a variety of pollinators.

He purchased good quality plants from Good Host Plants, a native plant nursery in Philadelphia. He planted perennials in two raised beds that sit atop the cement.  Others he planted in large, deep containers. He installed two trellises for growing vines.

Pecks Skipper butterfly nectaring on Wild Bergamot. Photo by N. Sasikumar

It worked.  In the spring bees and other insects found the Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadense), Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). and Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata).  The summer blossoms of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Butterfly Weed (A.tuberosa), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), and Orange Coneflower

Female Monarch nectaring on Swamp Milkweed Photo by N Sasikumar. Cllick to enlarge.

(Rudbeckia fulgida) host many butterflies and other pollinators.  The show continues this fall with Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), New England Aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), and other asters.  Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquifolia) will bloom on the trellises.

On weekends Navin observes and photographs the wildlife in his

Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo by N Sasikumar. click to enlarge.

garden.  He discovered Monarchs laying eggs on his Swamp Milkweed.  An insatiable predator, a Carolina Mantis (our native mantid species) lurked nearby, so he decided to bring the Monarch eggs and caterpillars inside to raise them in safety.  So far, he’s raised and released 34 adult Monarchs.  An additional 47 are either chrysalises or caterpillars and will be released soon for their journey to Mexico.  He’s also rearing BlackSwallowtail eggs and caterpillars that grow on parsley.  According to Navin, nighttime is the best time for spotting the small eggs and caterpillars.

So far, he’s recognized ten additional butterfly species including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red Admiral, and Eastern Tailed Blue.  The biggest surprise was a Giant Swallowtail, a southern species rarely seen in

Giant Swallowtail. Photo by Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

the Philadelphia area. Other insects are finding his garden, too.  Navin observed a Snowberry Clearwing, a large day-flying moth, nectaring on blossoms like a hummingbird. A variety of bees, wasps, flies and moths feed on nectar and pollen.  With so many insects, predators such as the Carolina mantis as well as spiders,lacewings, and parasitic wasps have located his yard, too.  One day he spotted a lacewing eating aphids.

Tiger Bee Fly, a parasite of carpenter bees. Photo by N Sasikumar. Click to enlarge.

Navin offers advice to other wildlife gardeners with limited space.   A great many plants can be crowded into small garden plots, raised beds, and large, deep containers.  Prune the plants periodically to keep them short and use stakes before tall plants get floppy. Water frequently in hot weather.

Navin submits his wildlife sightings to iNaturalist, a nature record-keeping app.  He photographs the butterflies and moths (both adults and caterpillars), bees, wasps, flies, beetles—in fact, any creature using his plants.  He uploads these photos and the species names to iNaturalist. The dates and location are automatically included.  When the species is unknown, iNaturalist experts can usually provide the identification.  Scientists and other amateur naturalists can view and study Navin’s sightings and those of the other 137,000 iNaturalist users.

How do so many creatures find this yard?  Certainly, adult butterflies and moths can fly.  They’re wired to find nectar and pollen for their survival.  With their chemical sensors, they can also locate the specific plants they require to lay their eggs.  Other insects have powerful search mechanisms, too.

Navin will keep searching.  He’ll find more creatures.  After all, this garden is only 6 months old.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2017 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, Shrub, or Vine and the other is a Perennial. Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or       pollen. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
5. Easy to grow and make attractive additions to your landscape.
6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2017 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens

Wildlife Value: Red tubular flowers on this woody vine produce nectar that attracts and

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds on Trumpet Honeysuckle nectar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

nourishes our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Butterflies and bumblebees use the nectar and pollen. As with other native plants, the foliage is food for native caterpillars, including Spring Azure butterflies and moths such as Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), Harris’ Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata), and Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja). These caterpillars in turn are food for birds and their nestlings. Songbirds occasionally eat the red berries.

Trumpet Honeysuckle vine in full bloom. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions: Trumpet Honeysuckle is adaptable to a variety of situations, sun or part sun, dry to moist soil. This twining vine is best supported by a trellis, fence, or arbor. The plant is long-lived and usually not bothered by pests or disease. Fertilizer is not recommended.

Harris’ Three Spot moth caterpillars eat honeysuckle leaves. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

 

 

Appearance: This honeysuckle is a rapidly growing multi-stemmed vine but isn’t invasive. The attractive, clustered 2” tubular flowers are red with a yellow throat. They bloom, sometimes profusely, from May through late summer.

 

 

New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Wildlife Value: Many bees and butterflies use the pollen and nectar of New England

New England Aster produces a profusion of attractive flowers. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Aster flowers. Sweat bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, mining bees, and bumble bees are attracted to the blooms’ bold, contrasting colors. The flowers are an important nectar source for Monarch butterflies during their fall migration. The foliage hosts 109 species of caterpillars (per Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, 2007) including the Pearl Crescent butterfly. Moth species include Saddleback caterpillar, several geometers, and Brown-hooded Owlet.

Asters are host plants for Pearl Crescent butterflies. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge

Growing Conditions: This trouble-free perennial grows in moist to average soil with sun or part sun. The parent plant produces seedlings that can be easily transplanted. Mature plants can be divided and transplanted, too. Mildew can develop with high humidity and poor circulation.

Appearance: New England Aster is one of our prettiest native perennials. A profusion

Sweat Bee (Augochlorell sp.) collects pollen. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

of brightly colored blossoms, each 1 ½” across, appears in late summer and persists until fall. The flower rays are bright pink or purple, the central florets yellow-orange. The plant grows 3-6 feet high and may require staking. In a small garden, keep the plant from getting too tall by pinching back the top growth in early June and then again in early July. The flowers are attractive additions to flower arrangements. Cultivars are available in a variety of colors and heights.

Summer Magic in Barb’s Yard

By Barb Elliot

When I leave my house to explore my backyard, whether by day or after dark, I enter another world.  Transported from daily cares, I anticipate experiencing the wonders of nature. What’s happening at this season? What creatures will I encounter?  What mysteries will unfold?  I am rarely disappointed. Life is abundant in my yard because the numerous native plants I’ve planted meet the food and shelter needs of many animals.

This summer I photographed some of what I observed.  Here are highlights.  Enlarge any photo by clicking on it. 

Early Summer

Interesting pollinators gather nectar and/or pollen from my Highbush Blueberry flowers, including a Flower Longhorn Beetle  and an unknown flower fly – a good Yellow Jacket wasp mimic.  A native Green Sweat Bee on a Black-eyed Susan is covered with yellow pollen grains.

Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalia luteicornis) .  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalia luteicornis) . Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unknown flower fly.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown flower fly. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.) on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida).  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Green sweat bee on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In my pond, a Northern Green Frog  awaits its next meal. Near the pond edge an Orchard Orbweaver spider is ready to pounce on prey caught in its web.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) spider . © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) spider . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Cooper’s Hawk, unsuccessful at catching a songbird, watches for birds to return but eventually leaves without a meal.  A male Northern Cardinal, which is starting to molt, returns warily to the feeders.

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot flowers attract a day-flying Hummingbird Clearwing Moth as well as many bumble bees.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) . © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) sips nectar from Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unknown bumble bee on  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).   © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown bumble bee on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

One night, I find mating Red Milkweed Beetles on a milkweed plant and a Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillar on a Virginia Creeper vine.  On another night, an adult Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth comes to my lights.

Red Milkweed Beetles mating.  (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) mating. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginis Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron). caterpillar. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron) caterpillar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth (Darapsa myron).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth (Darapsa myron). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Tent Caterpillar Moth, which I find attractive, also flies in.  Yes — this is the adult moth that comes from the Tent Caterpillars that make webs in my Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trees.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma americana).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma americana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Midsummer

In July, I find a variety of beetles.  My favorite, the Dogbane Beetle, is on a Dogbane plant.  A tiny (less than 1/4 inch) colorful beetle, the Mottled Tortoise Beetle  appears during the day (wearing its little translucent skirt!).  A longhorn Ivory-marked Beetle, comes to night lighting.

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Ivory-marked Beetle (Eburia quadrigeminata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ivory-marked Beetle (Eburia quadrigeminata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The right side of the patio area sports both Cardinal Flower  and Great Blue Lobelia . Pickerel Rush grows in the pond on the left. The tall plants with yellow flowers in the background are Cup Plant. Cardinal Flower nectar is enjoyed by a Spicebush Swallowtail that lost part of its left hindwing.  Probably a hungry bird tried unsuccessfully to capture this butterfly.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) on right,  blue Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) flowers in pond on left.  Yellow flowers of Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in right background.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) on right, blue Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) flowers in pond on left. Yellow flowers of the tall Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in background. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) missing part of left hindwing on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Cup Plant attracts many pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and moths.  At night I find a Grape Leaffolder Moth sipping nectar.  One of many bumble bees that worked hard gathering nectar and pollen during the day sleeps on a Cup Plant flower.  At night, I often find bumble bees sound asleep on flowers in my garden.

Grape Leaffolder Moth (Desmia funeralis)  on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Grape Leaffolder Moth (Desmia funeralis) on Cup Plant at night. (Silphium perfoliatum). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee sleeping on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at night.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee sleeping on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at night. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

After raising one successful brood, the House Wrens have a second set of nestlings that will soon leave the nest box.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nestlings in nest box>  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nestlings in nest box. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Bumble Bee on Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata).   © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble Bee on Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several types of native bees are busy pollinating my flowers.  Of special interest, bumble bees are performing buzz pollination on my Flowering Raspberry flowers.  Bumble bees vibrate their wings at specific frequencies to get some species of flowers to release their pollen.  Note that bumble bees are used for buzz pollination of a number of crops, including tomatoes, blueberries, eggplants, and cranberries.  The non-native honeybee is not able to buzz pollinate.

To watch and hear bumble bees performing buzz pollination in my yard, click here for the video.

 

I find a small green Nessus Sphinx moth caterpillar on native Enchanted Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) and decide to raise it in a small enclosure with several inches of loose soil.  I feed it fresh leaves and within a week or so, it grows to over two inches long, molts into a brown caterpillar, and later burrows into the soil to pupate.  I have to wait until next spring to see it emerge as a beautiful day-flying hummingbird-like moth.

Nessus Sphinx Moth caterpillar - early instar.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) caterpillar – early instar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis)  caterpillar - last instar before pupating.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) caterpillar – last instar before pupation. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

One night a strange-looking treehopper, possibly a Buffalo Treehopper, appears near my porch light.  Even more strange and ominous-looking, a very large robber fly the size of a large wasp hunts from a perch above my pond. These flies prey on large insects such as bees and wasps and will hang from one foot while devouring a victim.

Treehopper (possibly Buffalo Treehopper (Ceresa alta) .  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Possible Buffalo Treehopper (Ceresa alta) . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Robber Fly (likely Diogmites sp.).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Robber Fly (likely Diogmites sp.) hunts over the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Late Summer

A Shadow Darner dragonfly dries and expands its wings after emerging from the pond where it spent its nymphal stage.  The nymph recently crawled out of the pond and shed its exoskeleton. Because I find numerous shed skins (exuvia) during the summer, I know that my pond produces a good number of dragonflies.

Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) dragonfly.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Newly emerged Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) dragonfly dries and expands its wings. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The shed skin (exuvia) from which a dragonfly emerged still hangs from a stem in the pond. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

The shed skin (exuvia) from which a dragonfly emerged still hangs from a stem in the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Native bees continue to actively collect pollen.  This one deposits the white pollen of Upland Ironweed into large pollen baskets on its hind legs.

Unknown native bee on Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown native bee on Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Skippers are frequent visitors at my Garden Phlox.  I am happy to find a Monarch, too, but regret that this is the only one I’ve seen in my yard all summer.  It’s a female, so hopefully she laid eggs on my milkweed.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Skipper drawing nectar from Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Skipper (probably Zabulon Skipper – Poanes zabulon) sipping nectar from Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Monarch Butterfly (female) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch butterfly (female) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two ants in the grass struggle to drag a grub to their nest.  The grub must weigh many times more than they do.

Ants dragging a grub to their nest.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ants dragging a grub to their nest. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

My Virgin’s Bower vine begins to bloom in late August and hosts a myriad of pollinators twenty-four hours a day.

Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) vine in bloom.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) vine in bloom.

At night, this vine is a moth magnet, attracting beauties like the multi-colored Ailanthus Webworm moth and Tobacco Budworm moth.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth  (Atteva punctella) at night on Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm (Atteva punctella) moth sips nectar at night from Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Tobacco Budworm (Heliothis virescens) moth at night on Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  Note very small caterpillar on flower in background.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Tobacco Budworm (Heliothis virescens) moth sips nectar at night from Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). Note very small u-shaped caterpillar on flower to the right of the moth’s antennae. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Predators such as harvestmen (“daddy longlegs”) and centipedes linger around the Virgin’s Bower vine to catch unsuspecting victims.  As I watch, a Spotted Orb Weaver spider quickly paralyzes the moth that flies into its web and then wraps it in silk.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider quickly paralyzes a moth that flew into its web.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider quickly paralyzes a moth that flies into its web. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider with moth wrapped in silk.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider with moth wrapped in silk. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By mid-September, I see some fall migrating birds in the yard, including a Northern Parula and Common Yellowthroat.  Both find insects on my native plants that will fuel their journeys to the tropics.

Northern Parula (Setophaga Americana)  in River Birch (Betula nigra) tree.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

a migrating Northern Parula (Setophaga Americana) in River Birch (Betula nigra) tree. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) preens by the pond.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

A migrating Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) hunts insects by the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Red-spotted Purple caterpillar has eaten the tip of a Black Cherry leaf in a pattern characteristic of this species.  I watch it grow for almost a week.  Then one night I make a gruesome discovery.  A spider has found my caterpillar and is in the process of sucking its life fluids.  However, I find another small Red-spotted Purple caterpillar a few feet away.  I’m hopeful this one will successfully overwinter and make it to adulthood.  If so, next summer it will grace my yard as another beautiful Red-spotted Purple butterfly.

An early instar Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) .  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

An early instar Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spider sucking the life fluids of "my" Red-spotted Purple caterpillar.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spider sucking the life fluids of “my” Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis)  butterfly in Barb's yard.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) butterfly on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) in Barb’s yard. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

I look forward to next summer and discovering nature’s mysteries anew.

References

  • Beadle, David & Leckie, Seabrooke.  Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. New York, NY:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace Publishing Company, 2012
  • Bug Guide.Net:  http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740
  • Evans, Arthur V. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Evans, Arthur V. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
  • Moth Photographer’s Group: http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/
  • Switzer, Callin, “Getting Buzzed at the Arnold Arboretum”, Arnoldia; April, 2014.

Native Groundcovers

By Edie Parnum

A friend enjoys weeding. A peaceful, blissful occupation, she claims. And, the weed-free results please her.  Another friend likes mowing his lawn for reasons I can’t possibly imagine.  Most of us dislike these onerous, time-consuming chores.  We want weed-suppressing, mow-free groundcovers.

Don’t plant Japanese Pachysandra, English Ivy, or Periwinkle. They are popular because they spread aggressively.  In truth, they are non-native invasives that choke out native plants.  They can escape from where you’ve planted them and degrade the wildlife-friendly gardens you’re establishing and even nearby healthy natural areas. If you already have these garden thugs, get rid of them.

Good native plant groundcovers are available. These plants are hardy and shade the ground sufficiently to prevent most weeds from germinating. Selections are available for a variety of conditions including sun or shade and moist or dry soils.  Here are some of my favorites.

Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is a dependable, deer-resistant

Allegheny Pachysandra's foliage remains attractive throughout the warm months and mild winters. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Allegheny Pachysandra’s foliage remains attractive throughout the warm months and mild winters. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

groundcover. The evergreen, mottled leaves are handsome. Each plant forms a clump that gradually expands. You can form new plants by dividing and transplanting older plants.  Or, you can pull on a stem to unearth a piece of root with its rhizome; this root cutting can be planted elsewhere. In the early spring this native pachysandra sports white bottlebrush-like flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.

A bed of Foamflowers has pretty blossoms and handsome foliage. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

A bed of Foamflowers has pretty blossoms and handsome foliage. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

Another favorite, Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), grows easily in part sun or shade. The variegated, semi-evergreen leaves hug the ground just as you want in a groundcover. The plant spreads by sending out runners (stolons). These can be transplanted to extend your bed or start a new one. A bed of Foamflowers produces a cloud of pretty white blossoms in spring.  Think of them as fairy wands, if you like.  And, deer don’t usually bother them.

 

Wild Ginger's foliage is handsome and effectively thwarts emerging weeds. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Ginger’s foliage is handsome and effectively thwarts emerging weeds. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an ideal groundcover for a shady spot. The handsome flat, shiny leaves cover the ground, so most weeds can’t penetrate.  This vigorous plant spreads at a moderate pace and is unattractive to deer. A member of the Pipevine family, Wild Ginger is a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.

 

Golden Ragwort has spectacular yellow flowers. The dense foliage is attractive during summer and fall. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Golden Ragwort has spectacular yellow flowers. The dense foliage is attractive during summer and fall. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) grows well in a sunny area but can handle part-shade, too. In spring a mass of these plants will create a drift of appealing yellow flowers that attract pollinators.  After the flowering season, you can cut back the unsightly dead flower heads.  The plants will continue to shade out weeds. Deer don’t usually bother eating it.

Early spring flowers of Golden Ragwort are important for pollinators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Early spring flowers of Golden Ragwort are important for pollinators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Cluster Seersucker Sedge plants for a handsome groundcover. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Cluster Seersucker Sedge plants for a handsome groundcover. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea) is named for the crinkled texture of the leaves. These attractive strap-like leaves are arranged in a ground-hugging rosette. Although it doesn’t creep, you can plant them close together to create a groundcover. This sedge is good for edging, too.

 

 

By listing Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) here, I’m stretching the definition of a groundcover. This plant doesn’t hug the ground;  it’s 3-5 feet tall.  However, a clump of this

Obedient Plant's lavender flowers are a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Obedient Plant’s lavender flowers are a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. Photo by Kevin Wagner. Click to enlarge.

plant will spread and cover as much area as you like.  In summer it has spikes of beautiful pink or lavender flowers with nectar that hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators relish.  Don’t worry about its aggressiveness; it’s easy to cut out the edges to keep it a manageable.  .

These and other groundcovers (see list below) can fill in anywhere you have patch of bare ground. If the space isn’t suitable for a tree or two, shrubs,or a perennial bed, plant native groundcovers. You can use them instead of turf grass, too.

Establishing a bed of groundcovers can be done gradually and relatively cheaply. Start with a few plants in a small area. After a year or so, divide these plants to form new colonies. To create an attractive combination of multiple species, consider height, color, texture, and bloom time.  The plants will soon touch each other as they do in nature.

.With native groundcovers you’ll have an easy-care garden that’s pretty and appealing to wildlife. As always, with more native plants you’ll observe more birds, butterflies, and other native insects. Also, groundcovers will give these creatures more places to seek shelter. You’ll be pleased to see the vitality of nature in your yard.

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Native Groundcovers

Name                                                               Soil, Light                                           Height

Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger)                    Moist/Average, Shade                           6”

Carex plantaginea (Seersucker Sedge)           Moist/Average, Sun/Part Shade           8” Chrysogonum virginianum(Green and Gold)   Moist/Average, Sun/Part Shade            8”

Eupatorium coelestinum (Hardy Ageratum)     Average, Sun/ Part Shade                   1-3’

Iris cristata (Crested Iris)                                Moist/Average, Sun/ Part Shade           6-8”

Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny            Moist/Average, Part Sun/ Shade          8-12”

Pachysandra)

Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)                   Moist/Average, Sun/ Part Shade           1-2’

Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox)                  Moist/Average, Part Shade/ Shade       6-8”

Physostegia virginiana (False Dragonhead)   Average/Moist, Sun/ Part Shade           2-3’

Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower)                        Moist, Part Shade/ Shade                     6-12”

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Retail 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.

 

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 Hummingbird 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.

x

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.

 

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