Fall: Time for Planting Trees and Shrubs

By Edie Parnum

I thrust my spade into a patch of my lawn.  It’s fall, and I’m planting a 4-foot Chestnut Oak.  As I dig, I imagine this young tree next spring with its new green leaves.  Even as a young sapling, it will host insects and birds.  Looking into the future, I imagine this stately native tree a century from now.  It has given life to thousands of birds and other animals.

Edie planting a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) sapling. Photo © Barb Elliot

My neighbors, I’ve noticed, aren’t thinking about spring.  They are clearing their yards of leaves and the dead vegetation from last year’s ornamental plants.  They are putting this unwanted garden debris out on the curb along with the cocoons and eggs of next year’s insects. They are getting ready for winter. Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs, any time before the ground freezes. During the autumn rains, the new plants aren’t asleep. They’re putting energy into their roots for a spurt of growth next spring.This fall, as usual, I will plant several trees and shrubs.  When I bought this ¾-acre property five years ago, it was mostly grass with just a few trees, mostly non-natives.  Since then I’ve planted 39 native trees and 45 native shrubs. It’s still not enough.

I keep planting native woody plants because they support wildlife.  Certainly non-native woodies offer fruits birds will eat—witness the bird-spread proliferation of invasives like Multiflora Rose, Burning Bush, and Japanese Barberry.  Natives, however, offer fruits of optimum size and superior nutrition. The fruits of the dogwoods, blueberries, winterberries, viburnums, spicebush, and sassafras I’ve planted ripen just in time to nourish hungry migrating birds in fall. Now in late October most of the berries are gone—consumed by thrushes, catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and warblers.

The main reason I plant native woodies, however, is for the caterpillars and other insects these plants support.  I’m inspired by Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.  His research shows

The caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly uses Spicebush or Sassafras as its host plant. USFWS Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

that native plants host 29 times more of the native insects essential for our birds. After all, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young exclusively insect food.

This year to augment what I’m already growing, I’ll plant ten small trees and shrubs.  I’m planting the Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus (according to Tallamy, oaks host 534 species of caterpillars); American Elm, Ulmus Americana (hosts 213); and Pawpaw, Asimina triloba (host plant for Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a species I covet for my yard butterfly list).

Planting a tree or shrub is easy.  For my Chestnut Oak and the other trees and shrubs, I don’t need to dig a huge hole.  I make my hole only as deep as the soil in the plant container and twice as wide.  After putting the plant into the hole, I make sure the soil line of the plant is level with the ground. Then I use the soil that was removed from the hole to fill in around the plant.  Because my oak is a local native adapted to our soil, I am not tempted to add special topsoil, fertilizer, or any other enrichment.  That would stimulate fast but weak growth.   A hole filled with artificially enriched soil encourages the roots to stay confined rather than to reach into the ground below for nourishment.  Next, I push down on the loose dirt with my hands, but avoid stomping on it with my feet.   I spread a one-inch layer of my compost (last year’s leaves and garden debris) on top to provide some extra humus not available in the turf grass.  Then I give my oak a good watering.  That’s it for this tree.  I’m ready to plant more.

Three-year-old Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) with cage to prevent deer browse. Photo © Edie Parnum

Newly planted trees and shrubs may need extra water.  During any week without significant rain, I put a leaky watering can next to each plant and let the water drip slowly into the soil.  A 1-2” layer of mulch will help retain the moisture, but I never let the mulch touch the trunk.  Once established, these woody plants, situated appropriately for light and moisture, should thrive without any additional help from me.

The trees and shrubs I plant are usually small.  They are cheaper and suffer less transplant shock than a big tree or shrub.  These smaller saplings start to grow more quickly and in a few years usually out-compete larger nursery stock.  To save money, I also frequently transplant volunteer trees and shrubs in my yard to more appropriate locations.  Some of my shrubs—virburnums, for instance—send out shoots that I dig up and plant elsewhere.  I also accept gifts from my native plant gardening friends.  As I say, there’s always room for more.  Anyway, I’m not growing ornamental specimens.  The plants can touch each other and offer extra shelter, just as they do in the wild.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) – flagged shoots are ready to transplant. Photo © Barb Elliot

My trees and shrubs are still small, but they already support birds and other wildlife.   Next spring I’ll see warblers and other hungry migrants eating caterpillars on the leaves of my native woody plants.  The remaining areas of grass are begging to be planted with additional native trees and shrubs.  Next fall I won’t resist planting more.

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For Doug Tallamy’s list of woody plants supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars, click here.

 Trees and Shrubs on  Edie’s Property
Botanical Name Common Name Wildlife Value
Trees
Acer rubrum Red Maple L, F
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye L, N
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry/ Juneberry L. F
Asimina triloba Pawpaw L, F
Betula lenta, B. nigra Sweet Birch, River Birch L, F
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry L, F
Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud L, N
Cornus alternifolia, C.florida Pagoda Dogwood, Flowering Dogwood L, F
Ilex opaca American Holly L, F
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar L, F
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar L, N, F
Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia L
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo L, F
Pinus strobus Eastern White Pine L, F
Prunus serotina Black Cherry L, F
Quercus   alba,Q. coccinea, Q. pinus, Q. rubra White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak L, F
Sassafras albidum Sassafras L, F
Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock L,F
Shrubs
Aronia melanocarpa. Black Chokeberry L, F
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush N
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood L, N, F
Hydrangea arborescens, H.   quercifolia Wild Hydrangea, Oakleaf   Hydrangea N
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly F
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry L, F
Rosa virginiana Wild or Pasture Rose L, F
Sambucus canadensis American Elder L, F, N
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry L, F, N
Viburnum   dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Arrowwood Viburnum, Nannyberry,   Possumhaw,  Black Haw L, F
L   = Leaves support moth and butterfly caterpillars and other leaf-eating   insects that are eaten by birds
N   = Nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
F   = Food products such as berries, seeds, nuts, buds, and pollen for birds,   mammals, and pollinators

Places to buy native plants:

 

Raising Monarchs

By Barb Elliot

In mid July, I discovered Monarch eggs on my Swamp Milkweed.

Monarch egg on Swamp Milkweed. (Photo © Barb Elliot)

A few days later I found three 1/8-inch caterpillars, probably a day or so old.  I took them inside to raise them.  Over the course of a month, I watched the amazing transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly.  Watching the life stages of a Monarch rejuvenates my awe at the wonders of nature.

Once inside the aquarium container, two of the caterpillars ate Swamp Milkweed and eliminated “frass”, signs that they were healthy.  The third

Click on photo to find the one-day-old Monarch caterpillars (Photo © Barb Elliot)

caterpillar, however, never moved and soon died.   I was reminded that caterpillars’ lives are fragile and often very short.  Very few caterpillars of any species, perhaps less than one in a hundred, survive to become butterflies.  The threats are legion:  bacterial and fungal infections, predatory insects, spiders, birds, or other creatures looking to gulp down a neatly wrapped package of protein, plus parasites such as wasps that deposit eggs on a caterpillar so their larvae can eat the caterpillar from within.Though my yard is a certified Monarch Waystation providing optimal conditions for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies, life is tough for these creatures.  By rearing some indoors, I can give them a measure of safety.

Shed skin (above) and head capsule (below) (Photo © Barb Elliot)

A week later, at day eight of their lives, the caterpillars stopped eating temporarily, left the milkweed for the side of the container and remained motionless for a number of hours.  They were ready to shed their skin, which becomes too tight as they grow.  Each shed its tiny head capsule separately and then wiggled out of its skin.  This was one of five molts.  Then, it was back to eating more milkweed.  After all, most Monarch caterpillars increase their weight about 2,700 times from egg to chrysalis!

 

Caterpillar escapee (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Two days later, I noticed only one caterpillar in the container.  Alarmed, I searched and found the escapee a few feet away on my upright camera lens.  I quickly returned it to the container. It moved to the top and wove a silk “button” on the screen cover.  Soon it hung with its body in a “J” formation, its hind end suspended from the button. A couple of hours later, the second caterpillar was also hanging in this J shape.

Click highlighted text to see video

In the morning I watched closely for signs that the 11-day old caterpillars were about to metamorphose into the chrysalis or pupa.  Just before the transformation, each began rocking and straightening out slightly.The antenna-like tentacles drooped and looked almost segmented. Then, the skin began to split at the head end. Each caterpillar wriggled furiously as the skin split up its full length and then fell away.

Pupating caterpillar movie (Video © Barb Elliot)

At first, each pupa was yellowish green and wider at the bottom than the top.  Gradually the color changed to emerald green, the shape became wider at the top and the distinctive, jewel-like gold and black markings appeared on the surface of each chrysalis.  It is while in the chrysalis or pupal stage that a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis and changes into a butterfly.

Bejeweled Monarch chrysalis (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Chrysalis the night before Monarch emerged (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Nine days later, I noticed a few dark marks on the chrysalises, and by the tenth evening, the orange and black of forming wings were visible through the clear shell of each pupa.  While I was asleep both butterflies emerged from their chrysalises.  Early the next morning I saw two beautiful, fresh butterflies – one male and one female.

Newly emerged from chrysalis (Photo © Barb Elliot)

They were hanging from their former homes, drying and occasionally pumping their wings.   I waited a few hours so they would be completely dry before I took the container outside.  With a little nudging, each climbed on my finger and quickly flew off to the top of a tree where I lost sight of them.

I like to think that they stayed in my yard to nectar on flowers I grow for butterflies.  Hopefully, they found mates and the female laid eggs. This next generation of Monarch butterflies, the last of this summer, will go through the same marvelous transformations and then fly 2,000 miles to their over-wintering grounds in central Mexico.  That same generation will fly north into Texas in the spring of 2013 and begin the annual succession of Monarch generations that re-populate central and eastern North America each spring and summer.  I hope to host Monarchs in my yard next year, raise some more caterpillars indoors, and once again experience the thrill of watching one of the true wonders of nature.

Female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Photo © Barb Elliot)

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For information on how you can help Monarchs and/or get your yard certified, click here: Monarch Waystation

Stay tuned for a future blog with more info on Monarchs and a national effort to help them.

Below is a list of the native milkweed plants that Barb grows in her yard.

Locally Native Milkweed Plants**

Botanical Name Common Name Bloom Color & Period Light  & Soil Conditions
Asclepias incarnata Swamp   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Part to full sun, moist soil
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly   Milkweed Orange flowers; June to August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias  verticillata Whorled   Milkweed White flowers; July & August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias purpurascens Purple   Milkweed Dark pink/purple flowers; June & July Part to full sun, dry/ average/moist soil
Asclepias syriaca* Common   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Sun, dry soil
  *Spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes;  best for large areas with other flowers and grasses
  **All are deer resistant

 

A Magnificent Moth

by Barb Elliot

When I was a ten year old kid I “saved” a Polyphemus moth my father had almost accidentally killed while pruning our hedge.  Actually, I didn’t save it—in truth, quite the opposite.  I captured it and put it into a collecting jar.  After it died I mounted and framed it.  Enamored with butterflies and moths, I then hung it in my bedroom along with the rest of my collection. Over the years I have displayed this beautiful, six-inch moth in my various homes.  However, I never saw one in the wild again until this spring – more than 50 years later.

Male Polyphemus Moth (Dan Mackinnon @ fcps.edu)

On May 20th, a spectacular male Polyphemus moth just like that first one emerged from a cocoon in my yard.  I had discovered the large cocoon hanging from a Spicebush twig in early March. I couldn’t tell what type of moth might be overwintering in the cocoon, but I checked it often, hoping to see what would emerge.

Cocoon in my yard, 3/7/2012

When the time came, I almost missed it because it hung several inches from the cocoon, which appeared to be intact except for a small hole in the top.  As the moth hung among the leaves, only the under wings, which look like dead leaves, were visible. I would have liked to see the more striking upper sides of the wings, but did not disturb it for a better look.   This moth was to remain completely free — and in fact it was gone by the next day.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth in my yard, 5/20/12

It likely flew off that night in hot pursuit of a female, using its large, feathery antenna to detect the powerful sex hormone scents (pheromones) a female emits to attract a mate.  Polyphemus males can detect and fly to females that are miles away.  The moths survive for about a week, living only to mate and lay eggs. In fact, the adults don’t have mouthparts and can’t eat or drink.

 

A Polyphemus caterpillar, however, is an eating machine.

Polyphemus moth late stage caterpillar (buglifecycle.com)

In the five to six weeks it takes until it is ready to pupate and spin its cocoon, it increases its weight by more than 10,000 times and grows to three inches long and ¾ inch in diameter. The caterpillar then wraps itself in a leaf and encases itself in silk thread spun from its mouth or it may crawl down and spin its cocoon on the ground.  A cocoon wrapped in a leaf may stay on the tree or shrub all winter as “mine” did, or it may fall to the ground in the autumn.  This is an important reason not to rake up the leaves that fall under your trees and shrubs.

As a result of their nocturnal habits and since so few make it to adulthood, not many of us ever get to see these beautiful creatures. Birds and mammals search out the protein-rich caterpillars, and few caterpillars escape the many parasites that prey on them.  If you provide host plants that the caterpillars eat, you can increase your chances of seeing one and help to increase their chances of survival.  Polyphemus moth caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of native trees, including Oaks (Quercus), Maple (Acer), Birches (Betula), Hickories (Carya), Walnut (Juglans), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), and  American Elm (Ulmus americana).  I’m not sure which of these plants “my” caterpillar ate, as I have five of these species in my yard.

The Polyphemus moth is in the family of large showy silk moths native to southeastern Pennsylvania.  Others species include the Cecropia (the largest moth in North America), Luna, Io, Imperial, Promethea, Tuliptree, Rosy Maple, and Royal Walnut Moth.  These moths also eat a variety of native trees and shrubs that would make great additions to a yard.

One last thing you can do to help the Polyphemus and other moths survive and reproduce successfully is to keep outdoor lights turned off as much as possible.  Any lights at night can “capture” moths, interrupt their search for mates, exhaust them, and make them easy targets for predators.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth with cocoon, 5/20/12

I hope you too may have the exciting experience of seeing a Polyphemus or one of the other showy silk moths in your yard!