Non-Native Shrubs for Wildlife

This may look like an out of control mess (more about what’s actually gone on here in a moment) but this wild hedge of hibiscus syriacus actually serves a wonderful purpose. As you might actually be able to tell from this photo, the land approaching this garden–which is not mine–in a slope. You can see the hibiscus flowers lying on it.

My neighbor mows it with a riding mower. For years I struggled with this garden and with painfully hand pulling the grass that his riding mower threw into the garden (actually it was the grass seeds, which then germinated–but I digress). Now that I have the Great Wall of Hibiscus, it fairly impenetrable.

Ironically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. (And in another digression, isn’t this what gardening is all about? Happy accidents–and some not so happy ones?) That huge white hibiscus you see is one that was sent to me as a test shrub. It is called Lil’ Kim and was supposed to be 3-4 feet tall.

So, as I always say, plants can’t read–but in this case, Lil’ Kim apparently reverted to her parentage, whatever that was.

Here’s the true Lil’ Kim. You can probably tell that her foliage is more delicate and her flowers are smaller than anything in that gargantuan hedge.

By comparison, here is her “reverted” sister, parentage unknown. Same color scheme, same type of flower, just much larger.

So why do I let this behemoth stay? Simple–the wildlife love it. Bees and hummingbirds adore it. The fact that it has created a hedge from the grass clippings is an unintentional bonus.

And you might have noticed some purple hibiscus in my photo too. Both these plants, when they self-sow, occasionally throw off purple seedlings. I let them stay on the idea that purple is a desired wild life color.

Here’s a close-up of the the “purple” one. I guess it’s more lavender. Anyway, I like it. Coming up in the kolkwitzia, it makes it look as if it’s blooming a second time–almost.

The Summer of Fireflies

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Forgive the filthy glass door. I can’t bear down hard enough to wash it yet (after my surgery). Besides the fireflies sure don’t seem to mind. This is one of their favorite daytime resting places.

This summer they are so abundant, however, that they seem to have a lot of favorite resting places, so long as there’s shade.

One morning, I actually drove with one on my driver’s door window all the way to work! Luckily, I don’t have a long drive, it’s local roads, and I sure drove as near to the lower end of the speed limit as I could (you realize that many folks take speed limits and stop signs–and even traffic lights–as mere suggestions here. Or they’re for “other” people. )

Anyway, no fireflies were harmed. And I am getting quite a show in my yard this year!

Disorder

Since my Friday post was about the possible insect apocalypse, I thought I might post about this disruption that happened to some of my bumblebees on July 4th.

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I had been out in the yard doing something and I noticed my edging disturbed. Since it was the middle of the day, that alone was peculiar enough. So I took a closer look.

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This doesn’t look like much (the pink is rose petals from a shrub rose nearby). But of course I didn’t want to get too close to a bunch of very disturbed bumblebees that had been–what?

Normally the only animal that will go near a stinging insects nest is a skunk. I have had skunks dig whole underground hornets colonies out for me. Gotta love a creature that will do that!

So that’s what I am presuming did this. But boy, the remaining bees were mad as hornets. So I watched–and photoed–from a distance.

Nothing worse than getting on the wrong side of angry bees!

Monarch Musings, Part 2

Okay, if we’ve gotten through the tropical versus native asclepias issue without killing one another, here’s another issue that seems to be dividing folks: the home rearing or raising indoors or monarch chrysalises for later outdoor release.

At first glance, you think, how could anything about this be controversial? And indeed, one of Connecticut’s oldest and most respected organic nurseries not only does this but encourages others to do this.

But very recently–in the last week or so–it has come to light that monarchs that are hand-raised or home raised have difficulty migrating. There was a long article in the Atlantic that discussed various problems with the home raised butterfiles.

Here’s an article from late last year that both thoughtfully summarized the debate, the issues (including the tropical versus native milkweed issue from last Friday’s post) and even has some comments attached that shows how heated the discussion can get.

I don’t raise monarchs indoors. I have had them in my outdoor garden where I grow my native milkweed, asclepias incarnata (which goes by the lovely common name swamp milkweed. Is it a wonder more folks don’t grow this stuff?) I’ve watched the caterpillars crawl around on it–I even did a post last summer on it where I compared watching them to a form of “garden bathing” (like “forest bathing.”)

But I do have friends who raise monarchs. They love the hobby–and yes, they have lost some to disease. It’s been heartbreaking for them. Amazing how fast you get attached to little crawling caterpillars, I guess, particularly ones that you have watched hatch.

What’s the takeaway? I am not sure. I wish I thought we were helping nature. Perhaps someday we’ll learn how to get better at it. Until then, does that mean we shouldn’t try?

Monarch Musings, Part 1

When we talk about “pollinators” or “wildlife,” honeybees and monarch butterflies are two species that people seem to have heard the most about. Even people who don’t garden know that both species are in trouble and that efforts are being made to help each.

In the last couple of months, however, a couple of interesting things about the monarch and the ways people try to help them have come out. Today and Monday I will look at each one–trying not to get controversial about it–so that people can be informed.

Today I want to look at ascelepias–milkweed. We know that monarch butterflies need to lay their eggs on the milkweed plant and their caterpillars need to eat milkweed in order to live.

So in order to help the monarchs, gardeners have been encouraged to plant milkweed, and here’s where the problem begins.

As you might already know, there are many different varieties of milkweed. They are all asclepias, but depending on the variety, they can be “native” or “tropical.” And that’s where the problem began.

In some parts of the country, the tropical variety, asclepias curassavica, is more “common,”–or at least more readily available–than native varieties so gardeners planted those. (It didn’t help that a. curassavica is really pretty.)

Unfortunately caterpillars that feed on tropical milkweed are also eating fungal spores. They pass these on to migratory butterflies on their way up from Mexico and the population is weakened in the process.

It’s a lot more complicated than I have made it seem here. To read an in-depth study by the Xerxes Society, go here.

The takeaway from this: when it comes to asclepias, native really is best.

A Buggy Time of Year

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What on earth are you looking at? Good question. I spent all weekend trying to photograph the garden spider in its web (and its web).

It’s a lovely black, yellow and green spider that is hanging in its web by the black pot. You’re a better person than I am if you can spot it in the photo.

As I was scouring my 15 photos, trying to decide which one might look like something at least, I did see something that I completely overlooked IRL, as the kids say.

I knew that my parsley was getting eaten but we have had so many rabbits this year I just assumed it was rabbits. Silly me.

In the photo, I saw the real culprit and I was thrilled: there are swallowtail butterfly caterpillars on the parsley. Yay! I guess they feel safe nestled in there in among the other herbs. But wow, who would have expected the butterflies to find the parsley there?