Wild Life Wednesday: A Feast for Butterflies

A Silver Spotted Skipper enjoys Verbena bonariensis in our garden.

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This time of year I spend a lot of time hanging out with butterflies.  Once I spot one, I want to get as close as I dare, camera in hand, and just watch what it does and where it goes.  It’s funny how they are clearly aware of me, too.  Some are camera shy and fly up and off as soon as I begin to focus my lens on them.

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A Zebra Swallowtail takes flight as the female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys her Agastache nectar at the Heath’s Bulb Shop garden in Gloucester today.

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I have more than a few empty frames where a butterfly has flown away right as I click the photo.  Other butterflies appear to enjoy their modeling session, or at least tolerate my presence with the clicking, chiming camera.

I get almost giddy in a garden where a cloud of butterflies is busily feeding.  These lovely creatures seem quite content to share their nectar wealth, and light near one another companionably.

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My partner and I were visiting the display gardens at the Heath family’s Bulb Shop in Gloucester this morning.  We went outside and had just begun to look around when my partner called me over to the butterflies.  Perhaps six individuals were all feeding around the clear blue flowering spires of one large Agastache ‘Blue Fortune.’  We were spellbound.

We counted three different types of swallowtails, a Monarch and a sweet little hummingbird moth.

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A hummingbird moth shares the nectar with the Zebra Swallowtail butterflies.

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Now, in a place as nectar rich as a multi-acre display garden filled with perennials and flowering bulbs, wouldn’t you expect that the butterflies would be all spread out across the garden?  Would you really expect to see six individuals on a single plant, with lots of other flowering plants neglected?

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys Agastache ‘Rosey Posey’ at the Heath family gardens at their Bulb Shop.

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Eventually, we wandered a bit further into the garden to see what we could see on this sunshiny August morning.  The next butterfly activity was around the water feature which just happened to be ringed on one side with pots brimming with more Agastache.  This time I believe it was A. ‘Rosey Posey.’ 

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A water feature at Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop in Gloucester, VA.

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And yes, I spotted another little hummingbird moth and an assortment of swallowtails. The many beds and pots and meadows and borders nearby didn’t have nearly the winged traffic as these pots of anise hyssop.  If you’ve grown it yourself, you know this is a tough perennial mint relative with fragrant leaves and non-stop flowers.  The nice thing about this perennial herb is its polite manners.  Even though it clumps and grows larger each year, it doesn’t run like most mints will do.

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We had a lovely clump, started from a plug, that perished sometime between November and April.  I was so disappointed that it didn’t return this summer and we have missed it.  I likely cut it back too early in the spring and it got zapped by a cold spell.  I waited too long this spring, giving it a chance to return, and didn’t admit until May that it was a goner.  And we have missed it!

If you are a butterfly enthusiast, you likely spend a good bit of time watching to see which plants the butterflies prefer.  Given a garden filled with flowers, where do they prefer to feed?

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This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on Buddleia in our garden.

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What will attract the most butterflies?  If you are hoping to attract a good variety of butterflies, as we do, you likely want to plant lots of butterfly magnet plants to feed them over the longest season possible.

Another clear butterfly favorite is Lantana.  A friend and I were plant shopping together last month and headed for the gallon pots of Lantana.  We needed a number of them for a special event, and were astounded to see the entire display covered in beautiful butterflies.  We actually had to chase the bumblebees and butterflies off of the plants, once they were loaded into her car, so that we could close the back hatch.

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The female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly is dimorphic.  It can be either yellow or black. Watch when the sun shines through the wings of the black form. She can be identified because the tiger stripes are still visible with the wing illuminated from behind.  Females always have blue on their hindwings, and the males are solidly yellow with black markings.  This female feeds on Lantana in our garden.

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Buddleia, known as butterfly bush, earns its name, too.  Its panicles of richly colored sweet flowers are irresistible.  A bit rangy in its growth, it more than makes up for its habit with its spectacular flowers that keep blooming until frost.

The surprise butterfly magnet is perennial Verbena.  You likely have lots of butterflies on your annual Verbena in pots and baskets.  But the V. bonariensis in our garden attracts them even more than the Buddleia! 

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A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on V. bonariensis in our garden.  Do you see the darker stripes on her upper wings?

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It is great fun to watch huge swallowtails land on these fragile looking little flowers seemingly floating in space, bobbing in the wind as they feed.  I expect the V. hastata that I planted last month will attract many butterflies, too, as it establishes and produces more blooms.

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It is a given that butterflies love herbs.  Beyond the Agastache, they seem to enjoy other mints, Monardas, basils, fennel, dill,  Salvias, and even chives!  I am delighted to see how happy the butterflies are to feed on the chives, blooming now, because they make for beautiful photos.  There are many, many plants where butterflies will feed:  Hibiscus and Echinacea, Aralia and crape myrtles, petunias and zinnias, cosmos and Rudbeckia.

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Chives

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We never tire of watching them.  We make a point to have pots and baskets of their favorites around the house where we can observe them from inside, and often pause near the windows to enjoy them for a few moments.  Butterflies speak to wild beauty and the inevitable cycles of nature.

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It is one of those koans of nature to realize both their fragility and their enormous strength.  They travel on incredibly long annual migrations and  survive in the face of perilous odds.

I appreciate them as a manifestation of living wabi-sabi– a fragile, fleeting beauty that we must appreciate in the eternal now, knowing full well that in an instant, they will fly away.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“To Taoism that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect is absolutely dead,
for without the possibility of growth and change
there can be no Tao.
In reality there is nothing in the universe
which is completely perfect or completely still;
it is only in the minds of men
that such concepts exist.”
.
Alan W. Watts
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Fabulous Friday: Appreciating Small Successes

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Every smitten gardener learns these two life lessons:  patience and appreciation.  Patience  helps one bide one’s time while nature’s processes unfold.  Sometimes the greatest skill in gardening is to simply wait and see what will happen.

I’ve been writing about the Alocasia plants that I saved over winter in the basement.  I didn’t have space to overwinter these huge plants indoors, and so allowed them to die back to just their tuber and roots in a paper grocery bag in our frost free basement.

When I brought them back outdoors and repotted them in May, it took quite a while for them to show new growth.  But, they finally  both awakened from winter dormancy and are back in gorgeous leaf again.

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Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ grew beside our front porch last summer, and moved into this pretty new pot a few weeks ago. The little one beside it was also slow to return this summer, even though it overwintered in its pot in the garage. I was ready to dump out the contents and re-plant its pot with something new, when I noticed the Alocasia leaves beginning to emerge in mid-June.  Alocasia are jungle plants and need summer’s heat and humidity to thrive.

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I had potted them, this spring,  in black plastic nursery pots.  And then I found a great deal on a beautiful blue ceramic pot a few weeks back, and potted up the slower, smaller of the two plants in the pot and brought it out where we would enjoy it and it would be encouraged to take off.  Now it’s growing so fast, we can notice daily changes as it enjoys our Virginia summer heat and humidity.

I left the larger, more developed Alocasia in its nursery pot, tucked back into a stand of Canna lilies.  And my patience paid off on Saturday when I discovered the ‘scratch and dent’ pots at one of my favorite Richmond area nurseries.  The perfect blue pot sat there waiting for me, shining in the sunlight, with only a little chip out of its rim.

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Checking the fit, to make sure Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ root ball will fit into its new pot.

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It is a good thing that I finally found the right pot and took care of re-potting our larger Alocasia, as its roots were already growing out of the drainage holes of its nursery pot.  Funny how quickly they grow, once they get started and have moisture and heat!

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I always like to line my pots before planting them up.  I’ll use anything from coffee filters to paper towels, plastic mesh, fine wire screens, or burlap.  Lining the pot keeps fresh soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can fill in to hold it.

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A scrap of burlap lines the pot to prevent loose soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can grow in.

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The lining also serves as a barrier against the small creatures who might want to crawl up into the pot and make their home among the roots.  How often have you unpotted a plant and found the soil rife with pill bugs, ants, or even earthworms?  All sorts of creatures can find shelter in a pot, given the chance.

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The soil in the bottom of the pot is important. I like to mix some gravel or perlite into the bottom inch or so for drainage, and mix fertilizer into all of the extra soil added to the pot around the root ball, to empower new growth.

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Burlap lasts longer than paper. And it also absorbs excess water, holding it, and then releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.  It is especially useful in a pot that doesn’t have drainage, as it helps to keep the whole pot evenly hydrated.  I’ll often cover the burlap with a shallow layer of perlite or gravel, to make a little reservoir in the bottom of a solid bottomed container.

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Remember to finish a pot with a mulch of pea gravel.  This helps keep the plant clean on rainy days, reflects the sunlight up into the plant and holds moisture in the soil.  I transplanted cuttings of Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ to add a little graceful ‘spiller’ around the edges of the pot.

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Eventually, even the burlap will break down.  Use the plastic mesh or metal screen to hold roots in and creatures out on a more lasting basis.  This is a good way to recycle those mesh bags our bulbs come packaged in each fall.

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Patience nearly always pays off in the garden.  We watch and wait as our plants grow and the creatures come and go among them.  And that is where we also learn appreciation.  I’ve come to notice that the more we slow down, the more appreciation we can savor.

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I was ready for the butterflies and hummingbirds this morning, camera in hand, and stood waiting in the front garden near the Lantana patch to see who might visit.

I noticed a friendly little Silver Spotted Skipper watching me from the highest point of the Lantana, and she let me take her photo.

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We played for a while, with her flying around a bit before coming back to rest on the Lantana, a little closer each time.  She paused while I snapped, and then took to the air once again.

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I heard the buzzing beside me even before turning my head to see the female hummingbird hovering near my shoulder, watching us.  She was very interested in our play, and waited until I began to turn my camera her way, before looping up and away, back to the comfort of a large Rose of Sharon.

Again, no photo of a hummingbird!

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Hibiscus coccineus

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But she and her partner have been hovering nearby most of the day.  They came to play in the spray of my hose this morning, and have been making the rounds of our garden’s Hibiscus offerings.  She paused to sip from the Salvia while I was working nearby.  Perhaps she and her partner can feel how much I delight in seeing them nearby.

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Our hummingbirds visit these blue Salvia flowers regularly. Conventional wisdom tells us that hummingbirds prefer red flowers, but that isn’t always the case.

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Why else would we expend such effort to tend a garden, if not for an August morning such as this, to stand in the midst of it all and appreciate its beauty?  We can savor the fragrances of herb and flowers, listen for the birds and watch the progress of each plant’s unfolding.

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It is when we slow down to appreciate such rare beauty, that we may notice the  creatures who share it observing us, in return.  The skinks skitter away as we approach, watching us from beneath and behind their shelter.  Later, we may notice them peering in through the glass doors to the deck.

The birds follow us around from shrub to tree to see what tasty bit we may dig up and leave behind for them.  And now even the butterflies want to play, posing for the camera, and waiting patiently for us to see them.

Woodland Gnome 2018

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