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.”
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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

Cats on Monday

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It was a foodie weekend for many celebrating Father’s Day with cookouts, picnics and fine dining.

It’s been a ‘foodie weekend’ for many creatures in our garden, too.  From deer munching a favorite blooming Hydrangea and goldfinches grabbing a few ripening Basil seeds, to finding rabbits had eaten some vines out of pots at the Botanical Garden; I’ve been coming across many signs of hungry animals picnicking in the garden.

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I found several very well-fed rabbits picnicking in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden yesterday.

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Our fennel is hosting these beautiful black swallowtail cats this week.  It won’t be long before they retire to their chrysalides, only to emerge later in July as beautiful butterflies.  We can hope to host three generations of swallowtails a year here in coastal Virginia.

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I think of the butterflies, birds, and other creatures as our garden ‘guests,’ and plant the garden with a thought to their comfort and feeding.  I’m so delighted to spot a hummingbird on a blossom, hear the bees in the shrubs, watch a dragonfly sparkling in the sunshine, or hear the birds call to one another in the trees.

Ours is a wildlife garden, which is what it needs to be here in our wooded neighborhood.

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One of our cats noshing the fennel on Friday evening.  He certainly has grown over the weekend!

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We are glad to provide host plants, nectar plants, water and shelter for the many creatures that share the garden with us.  The fennel and parsley will soon grow new leaves to replace those grazed by the cats.

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Our butterfly species are dwindling. We can all lend a hand to help protect them and increase their chances of survival, so that our children and grandchildren will still enjoy the magic of watching them in their own future gardens, too.

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There are many butterflies and moths native to Virginia and all of them are currently in decline. We have a network of dedicated butterfly enthusiasts in our area who rescue and raise cats, releasing the butterflies into the wild as they emerge. By protecting the butterfly larvae, they help insure that more individuals make it to the adult butterfly stage, mate, and increase the population.  This black swallowtail was released in our garden by a friend in mid-April. We hope to host many, many generations of its young.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Wildlife Wednesday: Eastern Black Swallowtail

Novembr 27, 2018, I spotted two tough little Eastern Black Swallowtail cats munching on a lone fennel plant, left in a cleared out bed at the Williamsburg Botanical garden.

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Eastern Black swallowtails lay their eggs and their larvae feed on parsley and fennel. This bed was filled with Lantana, Salvia, and with fennel all summer, and hosted many butterflies from May until November.

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Butterflies covered this planting of Lantana at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden in August.

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When I told my friend Judith about the caterpillars, she came and rescued them the afternoon before a hard freeze, at the very end of November.

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Judith cared for the caterpillars until each formed its chrysalis, feeding them organic parsley in little habitats indoors; then she added them to her collection of living chrysalides. She cared for the sleeping caterpillars all winter and brought them over to our garden yesterday morning,  just as they were ready to leave their chrysalides as butterflies.

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She named the two caterpillars rescued from the fennel at the botanical garden ‘Rough’ and ‘Tough’. They spent the winter pinned to this Styrofoam in her butterfly habitat.

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A total of three Black Swallowtail butterflies emerged during her visit yesterday morning. She generously set all three free in our garden. There were two males and a female. The amount of blue on the hindwings is the main way to distinguish gender in these swallowtail butterflies.

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Here Judith is releasing the first of the butterflies, a female. Then she invited us to help release the other two butterflies into the garden.

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The butterflies need some time for their wings to fully stretch, dry and toughen before they are ready to fly. We were able to hold and observe them as they prepared for their first flight.

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Would you like to attract butterflies to your garden?

The first step is to plant a variety of both nectar plants and host plants.  Nectar plants attract butterflies, and host plants allow them to lay their eggs and will feed the larvae as they grow.

If you attract butterflies and host their larvae, it is important to commit to not using insecticides in your garden.  Yes, the larvae will eat some leaves on their chosen host plant.  The plants will survive.

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Fennel and parsley host several types of swallowtail caterpillars.  Other easy to grow host plants include oak trees; spicebush, Lindera benzoin;  paw paw trees, Dutchman’s pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla; passionfruit vine, Passiflora lutea; and even common wood violets.

Most butterflies prefer very specific host plants and may only use one or two.  For example, Monarch butterflies want Asclepias, or milkweed.  There are several different species of Asclepias available, and most all of them will support Monarchs.

It is useful to do a little research on common butterflies that live in your own region, and then plant their host plants, if you don’t have them growing on your property already.

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This was the last of the three butterflies to emerge from chrysalis, and the last to be released. He wasn’t ready to fly, and so we gently placed him on this red bud tree, where he rested while his wings hardened. Finally, he also flew away into the garden.

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Butterflies need safe places to shelter out of the wind at night and during storms.  Trees and dense shrubs serve them well.  They also need places where they can ‘puddle,’ landing on the ground to drink water from mudpuddles, moist earth, or even shallow saucers filled with gravel and water.  Butterflies need the minerals they absorb this way.

Butterflies will feed from a variety of nectar plants, including trees, vines, and flowering plants you may plant in baskets, pots or beds.  Lantana is an absolute favorite source of nectar.  Agastache, anise hyssop, attracts even more butterflies than Lantana!  All Verbenas attract butterflies and are very easy to grow.  The more flowers your garden offers, at a variety of heights, the more butterflies will likely stop by to visit your garden.

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We have seen a variety of butterflies in our garden already this spring, including Black Swallowtails. In fact, an hour or so after the release, we saw another Black Swallowtail laying eggs on an emerging fennel plant in the upper garden. This is one of the butterflies we released, resting before its first flight,

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There are many butterflies and moths native in Virginia and all of them are currently in decline. We have a network of dedicated butterfly enthusiasts in our area who rescue and raise cats, releasing the butterflies into the wild as they emerge. By protecting the butterfly larvae, they help insure that more individuals make it to the adult butterfly stage, mate, and increase the population.

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One of the greatest problems faced by butterflies is loss of habitat.  The native plants they depend on to raise their next generation are often the ones removed for development, but not replanted by landscapers.

Gardeners can make a significant difference by providing a small bit of habitat in their own yard.  Like a patch in a quilt, our own bit of habitat may be small.  But, when many of us are all working together, we can provide safe places for butterflies to rest and refuel along their migration routes, and can provide safe and welcoming places for them to lay their eggs.

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Butterflies feed on Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’

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By working together, each of us providing a bit of habitat and safety for butterflies, we can help support the next generations of butterflies; making sure that our own grandchildren can enjoy these beautiful insects and share their magic with their own children, far into the future.

Will you join us?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’.

Happy Birthday? Eastern Black Swallowtail

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What a treat to discover a newly emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly while working in our garden today.   I was a little surprised to notice that this butterfly was clinging to a stem and not a flower, and didn’t move as I trimmed the grass nearby.  It took a moment to register that it was still clinging beside its now empty chrysalis and just beginning to stretch and dry its wings.

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Our newly emerged butterfly clung to a stalk of chives, a ready food source once he or she is able to climb up to the flowers.  Right across the path, lots more cats were still happily munching the bronze fennel!

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We plant the fennel hoping to witness this beautiful display each year.  A perennial, it will put out some new growth within a few weeks.

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Eastern Black Swallowtail larvae

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I’m not sure whether this butterfly is a male or female, as I didn’t get a photo of its wings spread from its dorsal side.  It was still seeing the world anew and adjusting to life with wings!  I’ll hope to spot and photograph is individual again in the coming days.

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If you intend to attract butterflies to your own garden, please remember to abstain from using any insecticides and follow organic gardening principles.  Provide host plants for the species you hope to attract, and offer plentiful nectar plants, wet earth where the butterflies can ‘puddle’ to drink, and trees where they can seek shelter.

Many folks these days want to plant lots of milkweed to attract butterflies.  Please keep in mind that the only common butterfly species in our area to use milkweed, Asclepias species, as a larval host is the Monarch.  Other popular host plants, especially for swallowtails, include dill, parsley, fennel, spicebush, rue, Queen Ann’s lace, wild cherry, poplar, apple, ash, and Dutchman’s pipe.

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Happy butterfly gardening!

Woodland Gnome 2018

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
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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.”
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Paul Oxton

Home For Some Swallowtails

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We are a lot like little kids when we head out to the garden.  We get such a kick out of watching the butterflies, and their beautiful psychedelic ‘teenaged’ caterpillar families.

The family portrait here shows you a female Black Swallowtail butterfly feeding on fennel flowers.  I believe the caterpillars are also Black Swallowtail larvae.

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While the adult butterflies float around from flower to flower, the caterpillars largely stay put as they slowly move along the branches of our fennel, eating as they go.  Not to worry… the fennel grows back very quickly, shooting out lots of new stems, leaves and flowers.

I was fortunate to find four beautiful pots of bronze fennel on a clearance sale today at The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.  I’ll be adding these new fennel plants to the garden in the morning, knowing they will come back even bigger and stronger in the spring.

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These caterpillars may seem a little brazen in their conspicuous gnoshing.  They love fennel, carrots, parsley and parsnips.  Whatever substances they ingest from these leaves, it leaves them tasting foul.  The birds show little interest in them.

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Black eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, attract many different butterflies.  Goldenrod, Solidago, (top right corner) will soon bloom, attracting many hungry pollinators.

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There are plenty of wildly safe places in our garden for them to withdraw when ready to form their chrysalis.  We rarely notice one, anyway.  But oh, the gorgeous butterflies which fill our garden in late summer!

“Feed them, and they will come.”  No need to run to Pet Smart for a big expensive bag of something.  No, just plant nectar rich flowers.  If you fill your garden with the flowers they love, and have a few herbs around to receive their eggs and feed their larvae, then you, too can create a haven and home for the swallowtails.

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Garlic chives and Rudbeckia have both naturalized in our garden. These clumps seeded themselves as neighbors, forming a little  ‘food court’ for pollinators.

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But if you choose to attract and support pollinators, please do so consciously and responsibly.  What do I mean?

Find a way to garden without using herbicides or insecticides which will poison these fragile, and often endangered creatures.  Yes, you will have some leaves chewed by insects.  Yes, you will have to weed by hand.

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Why is the Columbine blooming in August??? We are grateful for the blessing. The nibbled leaves hardly detract from the lovely flowers.

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Yes, you may have some unsightly foliage here and there. 

But it is well worth it to enjoy a garden filled with life.  Not only do we enjoy the spectacle of summer butterflies, but we also have many pairs of nesting birds, sustained by the rich insect life in our garden.

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Basil is a one of my favorite annuals in our garden. Not only is it beautiful and up to our muggy climate, it also attracts many pollinators. Goldfinches love its seeds. It works beautifully in flower arrangements, and can still be harvested for summer cooking.

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Every garden has a purpose.  Every gardener has to have a purpose in mind when building her garden.

Ultimately, we expect the garden to bring us pleasure as it entertains us, gives us purpose each day, helps us stay fit, and gives us another reason to go shopping.

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Echinacea and Basil have proven a stunning combination this summer.  The Echinacea’s seeds will feed lots of happy birds this autumn.

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We decided early on that this garden would do all of those things, but also provide a home for pollinators and birds.

Home means safety and food; a place to rest; a place to lay eggs and raise young; clean water to drink.  A puddle, birdbath, or even a wet dish of sand will suffice.

Little did we know that the birds would help us plant.  We never expected the lizards, turtles and birds to help control the insects.  We have bees to pollinate the fruit, and butterflies to watch on summer afternoons.

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Tiger swallowtail feasting on Aralia spinosa, a tree brought to us by the birds.  This is its first season of bloom in our garden; but oh, what a show!

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And little did we realize how much happiness flows from creating a home for some swallowtails.

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Crape myrtle

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Woodland Gnome 2017

 

 

 

Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpilliars- Revisited

The first chrysalis turned up a few days ago. Perhaps you saw my post on the caterpillars?  So far we found one chrysalis on the bronze fennel the caterpillars were munching, and another on a nearby tomato cage. The others must be close, but I haven’t found them yet.  Originally there were nine caterpillars on … Continue reading

Hungry Caterpillars; What’s For Lunch?

Bronze Fennel is a favorite of Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars I counted nine caterpillars on just one fennel plant this morning Hungry as the caterpillars might be, fennel grows quickly and will survive their munching.  This Osmanthus goshiki shrub doesn’t look like a good host plant, but is on the menu for this gigantic beast. … Continue reading

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