Wildlife Wednesday: Eastern Black Swallowtail Cats

Eastern Black Swallowtail larvae feast on our bronze fennel.

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Hummingbirds are much smarter than we want to consider.  They would have to be.  How else would they know to buzz in for a sip of nectar when my camera is out of reach?

The first of the morning zoomed by to visit a basket Verbena and Lantana flowers warmed by early morning sunshine on our deck.  I’d gone out with the cat to water first thing, before the day’s heat had a chance to build.

Even had I brought the camera out with me, the little guys would have likely buzzed away again before I could even turn it on.  They are independent minded like that!

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I heard their comings and goings a bit later in the garden.  My attention was focused on some late season planting and mixing up snacks of fish emulsion for the pots, and I was too busy to fumble off my gloves and pull the camera from my pocket.

The hummers could care less; they were systematically sampling the morning’s offerings of nectar.

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It was early afternoon when I realized they weren’t as innocent as I’d assumed.  My partner and I were headed out on errands.  Two hummers lingered at the top of the drive, as though to wave us ‘Good-bye.’

One lit on a branch to watch the car pull away while the other made a dash for the Lantana patch that grows by the street.  Their message was clear: they would watch over the place while we were away.

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A female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly enjoyed nectar from Lantana last Sunday afternoon.

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A new friend asked me over the weekend whether I photograph many birds.  Questions like this leave me a bit on the defensive.  I’m not much good with birds, especially with hummingbirds.

I’ve taken maybe five good photos of hummingbirds over the past several years.  They always seem to take off before I can get my camera out and on and focused on them.  They seem to have a sixth sense about when I’m paying attention to them, and quickly lift up and away.

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A tiny blue dragonfly paused long enough for a capture

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Maybe I should set an intention to capture more bird photos in the weeks ahead.  The big ones, like eagles and herons are slow and patient enough for me.  I’m always happy to snap their portraits.  It’s the fast little ones that I’ve not yet learned to charm into posing.

So now you know the real reason why I’m thinking and writing about hummingbirds, while sharing photographs today of caterpillars.

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Caterpillars make easy targets for a novice wildlife photographer.  They are so entirely focused on stripping the vegetation from the fennel that they pay me and my curious camera no mind.

These beauties are Eastern Black Swallowtail larvae, and they enjoy a variety of host plants related to herbs in the carrot family.  They love parsley and dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, and wild parsnip.  I counted four individuals on a single fennel plant this afternoon, after finding only a single cat munching away yesterday.

Eastern Black Swallowtails may produce three generations over our long summer.  Depending on the weather and the host plants, an individual may develop from egg to adult in 40-60 days.  The final generation of the summer may overwinter here as a pupae.  This beautiful butterfly may be found in Eastern and Central North America from Southern Canada south to Northern Mexico.

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We don’t mind them munching the herbs.  We plant the herbs in hopes of attracting them and keeping them returning to our garden.  Besides, the herbs are tough, and will send out new growth so long as we keep them hydrated.

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How many cats can you spot on the fennel?  They blend in very well.

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That may sound like a strange thing for a gardener to say.  But as much as I admire the beautiful plants in our garden, it feels very lonely and empty without the hum and buzz and movement of the many animals who share it with us.   The garden is like a living stage; and it’s the animals, even the insects, who bring the drama to life.

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“The future of wildlife and the habitat
that they depend on is being destroyed.
It is time to make nature and all the beauty living within it
our priority
.
Paul Oxton

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Our hummers love this Salvia ‘Black and Blue.’  Goldfinches love the black eyed Susans.

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We’re willing to sacrifice the herbs in hopes of enjoying the butterfly adults!  We plant lots of nectar plants to occupy the butterflies (and hummingbirds) while we enjoy them.

That said, I couldn’t find a single butterfly when I was out with the camera in late afternoon.  My partner said he saw a big yellow Tiger Swallowtail, that I missed.

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A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoying the Joe Pye Weed last week.

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The best I could capture on this Wild Life Wednesday was a tiny dragonfly, a large bumblebee, some unknown bugs on an Iris seedpod, and this family of swallowtail cats.

That’s OK.  I know they’re out there, and that means the garden is a refuge and delight for many amazing species.

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Native Hibiscus will open to welcome all hungry pollinators tomorrow morning!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“If you are not filled with overflowing love,
compassion and goodwill for all creatures living wild in nature,
You will never know true happiness.”
 .
Paul Oxton
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Re-Weaving the Web

Viola papilionacea

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Our ‘lawn’ hosts many wildflowers, including the always beautiful violet, Viola papilionacea.  I’m happy to see these lovely wildflowers bloom each spring.  They are so common, and so elegant.  And I’ve always assumed that their nectar is a welcome source of nourishment for bees and other pollinators in early spring.

But I was surprised to learn, when browsing recently on the National Wildlife Federation’s website, that the common, native violet is a larval host to 30 different species of moth and butterfly.   By simply allowing these pretty spring wildflowers, rather than stopping their growth with a ‘broadleaf weed’ herbicide, I’ve been helping to support moths and butterflies.

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Monarch butterfly on hybrid Lantana, an excellent source of nectar.

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Once we begin to understand our own lawns and gardens as part of an intricate web of life; the daily decisions we make, and the actions we do, or don’t take assume an entirely new and more meaningful context.

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Spiders often weave large webs in our autumn garden.

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I certified our garden as a wildlife habitat some years ago.  Ever since, I get regular mailings and emails from the National Wildlife Federation offering me things if I’ll only send a bit more money to them.  I respect their work and detest the constant fundraising.  But an email last week somehow caught my attention, and in a spare moment I began clicking through to find a personalized list of native plants that thrive in our zip code and also support wildlife.

Imagine that!  A personalized plant list just for me and my neighbors to assist us in preserving habitat!

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Our native redbud tree, Cercis canadensis, supports 25 species of butterfly and moth larvae.  Our dogwood tree supports 110 larval species.

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Also on my list: Fragaria, Solidago, Aster, Geranium, Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Achillea and good old Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium.  It’s the first plant on this list, Fragaria, that nudges that guilty sense that maybe I’m not as good as I want to be.

Common (weedy) ground strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, thrive in our garden.  They thrive and spread themselves over and around every bed I start and every other thing I plant.  Along with the ubiquitous Vinca minor vines, Fragaria are the plants I find myself pulling up and throwing away the most.  And to think that this common and enthusiastic plant; which feeds pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and reptiles; also supports 73 different species of larval moths and butterflies.  How did I ever miss that?

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Wild strawberries, Fragaria, mix with other wildflowers as ground cover at the base of this stand of Narcissus. Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens, Gloucester VA.

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You may have read Dr. Doug Tallamy’s revolutionary manual, Bringing Nature Home.   Dr. Tallamy makes a clear argument for why including native plants in our home landscape matters, and offers simple advise about how to do this in the most practical and easy to understand terms possible.

The National Wildlife Federation has based their Native Plant Finder on his work, and will give anyone an individualized list of native plants that form the basis of the ecosystem in their particular area, down to their zip code.

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The American Sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis, supports 43 species of larvae, including the beautiful Luna moth..

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The change in my sensibility came when I realized that I don’t really have to do anything special to grow a garden of native plants.  Rather, I need to allow it to happen, by understanding and respecting the natural processes already at work in our garden.

We modern American gardeners are often conditioned to feel like we need to go and buy something in order to be gardening.  Dr. Tallamy helps us to understand that going to our local garden center or nursery may not be the best way to heal our local ecosystem.

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How many of us already have an oak tree (or two or three) growing in our garden?  They are handsome shade trees, and I’ve always admired oaks.  Did you know that in addition to producing acorns, oak leaves support over 500 species of larval butterflies and moths?  A birch tree supports over 320 species.  That is a lot of mileage from a single tree, when it comes to supporting the insect world!

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Virginia Creeper, a native vine which crops up in many areas of our garden, provides nectar, berries, and it also supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

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Keep in mind that this is only a counting of butterflies and moths, and doesn’t even consider the hundreds of other insect species which live on our native trees.  Even a pine tree supports over 200 species, and the simple mistletoe already growing in several trees around our yard will support 3 species of moth larvae.

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 Zebra Swallowtail feeding on Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ at Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester .

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I keep returning to this conundrum about native vs. ‘exotic’ plants. I listen closely when experts, like the erudite speakers at our local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, speak on this matter.  I have also been doing a bit of reading about the balance between natives and non-native plants in our home gardens.

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Hibiscus syriacus is not our native Hibiscus… but our bees and butterflies love it anyway.  It has naturalized in our area.

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Some landscape designers suggest planting exotic plants near our house and native plants towards the edges of our property.  This assumes, I think, that the native plants may not be beautiful enough or refined enough to plant along our daily paths.  Somehow, I know there must be a better way….

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Purists try to demonstrate to us that ‘native’ means the plants that have grown in our particular location for centuries, maybe even millennia.  It is the particularly adapted sub-species that have grown in symbiotic relationships with the local fauna and geo-forms which matter most.  They are adapted to our soil, climate and may not be truly ‘native’ 30 miles down the road.

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Asclepias incarnata, July 2017

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The problem with this analysis comes from understanding that there was a lot of movement of people and spreading of plants in North America before the earliest recorded European inhabitants.  It doesn’t matter whether you take that back to the Vikings, Sir Henry Sinclair, The Templar fleets or Captain Chris; the truth is that many different groups of native Americans carried plants around from place to place and established agriculture long before there was a European around to observe and record their activities.

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Muscadines are a native North American grape.  Vitis species support 69 larval species, and were cultivated long before the European migration to our continent.

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Many of us mail order an Asclepias or two and know we have done a good thing for the Monarchs.  But Asclepias only supports twelve larval species, while the Rudbeckia systematically colonizing our entire front garden support 20!

But Rudbeckia don’t feed Monarch larvae.  And neither do many of the Asclepias I’ve planted in recent years.  Their leaves remain pristine.  It is not just what we plant, but many factors in the environment that determine whether or not a butterfly will choose a particular plant to lay their eggs.

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I am happiest when I realize that the plants I want to grow anyway also qualify as ‘native’ and benefit wildlife.

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Native Hibiscus moscheutos grows in our garden, and has naturalized in many wetlands in our area.  Sadly, non-native Japanese Beetles feasted on its leaves.  Hibiscus supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

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I am content when the ‘exotic’ plants I want growing in our garden also offer some benefit to wildlife, whether it is their nectar or their seeds.  And I still stubbornly assert my rights as The Gardener, when I commandeer real-estate for those non-natives that I passionately want to grow, like our beloved Caladiums. 

As long as I find hummingbirds buzzing around our canna lilies and ginger lilies each summer, and find the garden filled with song birds and butterflies, I feel like we are doing our small part to support wildlife.

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Many of us enjoy watching pollinators gather nectar and pollen from the flowers in our garden.  We enjoy a variety of birds attracted to seeds, berries, and insect life in our gardens, too.  But how many of us relish watching caterpillars nibble the leaves of our garden plants?

We see nibbled leaves as damaged leaves, without taking into consideration that before we have butterflies flitting from flower to flower, we must shelter and support their larvae.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Assuming that you have read Doug Tallamy’s work, let me invite you to take the next step by reading Larry Weaner’s thought provoking new book,    Garden Revolution:  How Our Landscapes Can Be A Source of Environmental Change.  Where Doug Tallamy writes about plant choice, Larry Weaner is all about ecological landscape design.  He teaches how to begin with a tract of land and restore an ecosystem.  Weaner teaches us how to work with the processes of nature to have plants present their best selves, with minimum inputs from us.

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Restoring our environment, preserving our ecosystem, are holistic, systemic endeavors worthy of our energy and attention.  As we develop a deeper understanding and sympathy for these matters, our aesthetic, and our understanding of our own role in the garden’s evolution, also evolve.

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The Devil’s Walkingstick, Aralia spinosa provides nectar when in bloom, and thousands of tasty berries in the autumn.  It also supports 7 larval species. A volunteer in our garden, it is one of the most spectacular trees we grow.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“The wild is where you find it,
not in some distant world
relegated to a nostalgic past or an idealized future;
its presence is not black or white,
bad or good, corrupted or innocent…
We are of that nature, not apart from it.
We survive because of it,
not instead of it.”
.
Renee Askins
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Hummingbird moth on a hybrid butterfly bush growing among native Rudbeckia. 

Sunday Dinner: Grow

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Patience is not the ability to wait.
Patience is to be calm no matter what happens,
constantly take action to turn it
to positive growth opportunities,
and have faith to believe
that it will all work out in the end
while you are waiting.”
.
Roy T. Bennett
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Fennel

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“When life is sweet,
say thank you and celebrate.
And when life is bitter,
say thank you and grow.”
.
Shauna Niequist
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“I have no right to call myself one who knows.
I was one who seeks, and I still am,
but I no longer seek in the stars or in books;
I’m beginning to hear the teachings
of my blood pulsing within me.
My story isn’t pleasant,
it’s not sweet and harmonious
like the invented stories;
it tastes of folly and bewilderment,
of madness and dream,
like the life of all people
who no longer want to lie to themselves.”
.
Hermann Hesse
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“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression,
it must come completely undone.
The shell cracks, its insides come out
and everything changes.
To someone who doesn’t understand growth,
it would look like complete destruction.”
.
Cynthia Occelli
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
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“There is no beauty in sadness.
No honor in suffering.
No growth in fear. No relief in hate.
It’s just a waste of perfectly good happiness.”
.
Katerina Stoykova Klemer
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