Fabulous Friday: Who’s Welcome to Dine?

White butterfly ginger lily produces abundant nectar loved by hummingbirds and other pollinators. It perfumes the garden, making it one of our favorites, too. Deer never touch it.

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When planning your garden and buying plants, is your first consideration who, or what, might eat them?

If you’re planting fruit trees, tomato vines, or salad greens you’re likely planning to share the fruits of your labor and investment with family and friends.  Some friends of mine garden in a community garden, where much of the produce raised is donated to our local FISH organization.

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Begonia ‘Gryphon’ sometimes gives up leaves to deer, or even squirrels. Begonia ‘Pewterware’ has holes on its leaves from nibbling insects . These are plants I grow for the beauty of their leaves, and I hope to enjoy them without wildlife feeding on them.

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But food crops aside, when planting ornamental plants, do you expect them to get nibbled down to next to nothing?

That is an interesting conundrum that many of my gardening friends grapple with each season.  We’re inconsistent in our views here, too.  I’m irritated with the deer who sneak into our garden and then nibble at our shrubs and flowers.  I’ve been struggling to keep rabbits away from ornamental sweet potato vines planted in some pots, spraying Repels All with determination on a regular basis so the vines might grow.

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And yet, many, many gardeners plant perennials and herbs specifically to feed the butterflies and their larvae.  We sold hundreds of pots of milkweed at the recent Butterfly Festival plant sale at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  I can’t tell you how many gardeners happily bought plants and considered it a bonus to have a resident Monarch cat already munching away on their leaves.

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Monarch cats already munching on our milkweed plants, for sale.

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I checked in with a friend the following week.  “How is your milkweed doing?”  I asked.

“Not so well,” she replied, “All of its leaves are gone.”  She thought she had done something wrong in caring for her new plant, to make it lose its leaves.  I explained that the reason to grow milkweed is for it to feed and support Monarch larvae.  The cats had eaten her plant’s leaves, and the roots were still alive.  She should be patient and watch for new growth.

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Asclepias, milkweed left over from the Butterfly Festival plant sale at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been nibbled down to nubs. But the roots are alive, and new top growth will appear soon.  The fencing will help keep out bunnies, but Monarchs can still reach the plants to lay their eggs.

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How many of us are willing to buy plants, expecting their foliage to be eaten away by insects?

One of my butterfly loving friends visited yesterday afternoon, and as I was walking her back to her car, we detoured into the upper garden.  We were watching the hummers, bees and butterflies go about their always hungry business when she spotted a clearwing moth.  That was the first I’ve seen in that part of the garden in several weeks, and we were both happily watching it feed on the black-eyed Susans when I suddenly noticed a cat covered fennel plant beside us.

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Fennel plant covered in nearly two dozen cats.

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The fennel plants had been an afterthought.  I bought them on clearance in early June, and planted three or four in a sunny spot where I thought they would grow well, but not necessarily where I thought they would add much aesthetically to the garden scene.

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We could barely see the plant, most of its leaves already stripped away.  It was something like an odd-ball Christmas tree almost completely covered with crawling cats.  We counted nearly two dozen.

We were both excited to see so many Black Swallowtail larvae at once, and found more on a nearby plant.  This is my friend who released three emerging Black Swallowtail butterflies into our garden this spring, and she was clearly ready to adopt these cats.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly cats make short work of our fennel plants.

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Since the food source was nearly all gone, I was happy for her to take them.  I know she will patiently feed them parsley until they pupate, and then I know she’ll bring at least some of them back to release here, when they are ready to emerge from their chrysalis and fly. What a magical experience to watch a butterfly emerge from the husk of what was once a caterpillar!

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In mid-April, Judith released three emerging butterflies that she had collected as cats late last November; the day before a hard freeze.  She raised these on parsley for several weeks until they were ready to pupate.  I had originally spotted them at the WBG, and so she brought them to our garden when they emerged.

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We still have time this year for another generation of eggs to hatch and their larvae to mature and pupate.   Eastern Black Swallowtails don’t migrate like Monarchs, but a generation will overwinter here in their chrysalides, ready to emerge next spring.

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More and more, my plant choices aren’t so much about form and color to please myself, but rather plants to support various birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, wasps, and other pollinators.  We love watching them feed and go about their life cycles.

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A male, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Lantana. The flowers are long lived, continually producing fresh nectar over several days.

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I used to make the distinction that pollinators suck nectar, but leave the plant intact.  That is how I shaped my thinking to support pollinators, while trying to keep the deer away.  Rabbits are always welcome to graze our front lawn, eating whatever grass or other plants may grow there, but the voles who eat the roots of things, are not.  I confuse myself sometimes making these distinctions about who is welcome to dine, and who is not.

And now my mind and heart have opened to include the caterpillars happily munching away on herbs and other host plants.  They are welcome, and I happily plan for their sustenance, too.

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Fennel and parsley support many Swallowtail butterflies. Monarchs need Asclepias. Many native trees, vines and shrubs also support particular butterfly larvae as host plants.  The darker caterpillar here is younger than its mates, but is the same species.

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I’ve spent a happy Friday observing caterpillars and asking those smarter than me to teach me about them.

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None of us have yet been able to identify these cats covering a hybrid Angelonia. There are more than a dozen on this plant, growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  It is unusual to find native butterfly larvae on non-native plants, and so we wonder whether this may be some sort of moth…?

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I’ve taken pleasure in the flight of hummingbirds and butterflies.  This afternoon, I thought I saw a yellow leaf, gently falling to the ground.  Only the leaf landed on the Lantana and fluttered there, revealing itself to be a beautiful male Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, in the midst of his feeding rounds around the garden.

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I read yesterday that researchers have determined that quietly listening to birds singing is more relaxing than most medications people take to cope with the stresses and disappointments of modern life.  I would add watching butterflies feed, and listening for hummers, as simple pleasures that bring us great happiness and contentment.

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Our upper garden, looking a little bedraggled after storms and heavy rains last night, still supports many different species of pollinators and birds, rabbits, turtles, lizards, squirrels, and who knows what else?

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As with so many other things we might do, when we open our hearts to generously provide for others beyond ourselves; I would suggest that planting a wildlife garden is a good antidote to the stresses and sorrows of life.

Perhaps we can offset some of our other environmental transgressions a bit, by creating a safe space to nurture wildlife.  A safe and beautiful place, to find joy and peace of mind for ourselves, too.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Walk in kindness toward the Earth and every living being.
Without kindness and compassion for all of Mother Nature’s creatures,
there can be no true joy; no internal peace, no happiness.
Happiness flows from caring for all sentient beings
as if they were your own family,
because in essence they are.
We are all connected to each other and to the Earth.”
.
Sylvia Dolson

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Newly emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly dries its wings in our garden late last summer.

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

2 responses to “Fabulous Friday: Who’s Welcome to Dine?

  1. We get all sorts of wildlife eating the plants here, but the worst were the neighbors ‘gardeners’ who kept stealing my fruit and vegetables!

  2. Such a happy post – seeing so many cats on your fennel brought a smile. I grew dill for the first time this year and had a few on it. I’ll plant more next year. The monarchs numbers have been encouraging this year – yay! Lots were migrating through today, stopping at my zinnias, which I plant just for them to fuel their journey south.

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