A Sunflower Summer

It’s been a bright and sunny sunflower summer. I always have sunflowers in my summer garden, presumably gifts from the digestive systems of a variety of birds and their fuzzy-tailed sunflower seed-loving friends, the squirrels. These urban dwelling critters disperse the remains of black-oiled sunflower seeds taken from feeders, dropped unceremoniously to the soil, which then fulfills its role in nurturing growth. This year, the numbers and sizes of sunflowers are over-the-top–literally. Each stalk is huge and there are scads of them. I pulled out quite a few, some when were very small and others as they grew taller, but my pruning shears were no match for the sunflowers determination to define my summer garden.

I kept most of the sunflowers at the center and back of my gardens so they wouldn’t interfere too much with beloved seasonal perennials like creamy Yarrow, Achillea millefolium and cheery Zexmenia, Wedelia acapulucensis var. hispida.

My home sits on the curve of the street and has no sidewalk. Toward my sister-in-law’s (SIL) home (right side of photo), I allowed the sunflowers to reach their sunny faces to the sky and form a floral barrier to the end of the garden.

From the other side, you can see that my SIL also took a pruning shears-off attitude toward the sunflowers in her garden (again, right side of photo). If anything, she may have more of these yellow monsters than we do!

A head-on photo of our two gardens gives you some idea of the statements these sunflowers make!

Also, you’ll notice that the trees look like it’s still we’re still in winter. Arizona Ash trees are the signature trees in both our front gardens and these two trees were badly damaged by February’s winter storm. They will never recover and will never again be fully foliaged trees. The green that you see, along the trunks and the lower branches, is all the trees will ever produce. We’ll be removing our trees later in in autumn. My once shady, west-facing front garden will become a full sun garden and changes are required. Some of the current garden inhabitants won’t like the Texas sun beating down everyday and will be removed; sun-lovers like native grasses and sun-worshipping perennials and shrubs will thrive in the heat and blossom with the blasts of daily sun. I’m sure whatever sunflowers show up next year will be perfectly happy in the new conditions. The end of a tree is a sad, sad thing and the end of two adjacent trees doubly so. I’ll miss their cooling effects, sweet movement of foliage in the wind, and the activities and songs of birds taking refuge in their canopies.

The pollinators have worked the sunflower since opening day in April or May. Honeybees are especially fond of sunflowers and are often covered with pollen after they’ve spent some time nuzzled in the flowers.

As blossoms fade, seeds develop and a new set of feeders show up for that bounty. This male Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria, is one of many birds who’ve enlivened the fading stalks with their busy munching. Feeding alongside the goldfinches are doves (both White-winged and Mourning), House Finches, House Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens. Often when I step outside, there’s a whoosh of wings and scatter of birds as all the eaters take flight.

As the Lesser Goldfinch perches prettily, his belly is yellow; when he bends to eat seeds, his back sports cool white racing stripes!

The sunflowers are definitely the stars of the garden show, but it hasn’t been all sunshine with the sunflowers. For about 18 months, I’ve experienced random outbreaks of itchy, angry red rashes, typically on my legs and arms. I couldn’t figure out what was triggering the annoying and very uncomfortable rashes–until this summer. In conversations with my SIL and other sunflower-growing neighbors, I learned that they were experiencing reactions to the sunflowers, resulting in itchy rashes. I realized that it was the sunflowers that were causing my itchy-scratchies, but it couldn’t only be the sunflowers. The rashes have occurred in autumn and late summer, too, when these particular sunflowers (that come from bird feeder black-oiled sunflower seeds), are done for the year and pulled from the garden. With observation, I then recognized that the native Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata that I grow and which blooms in late summer and fall, also was resulting in my rashes. Both plants are in the Aster, or Asteraceae, family of plants, and I grow quite a few other Aster plants: Purple coneflower, Zexmenia, Gregg’s mistflower, Blue mistflower to name a few. So far, I think I’m safe with most of the Aster family plants, as long as my contact is limited; just brushing against most of them (not the two main culprits) doesn’t to end with me scratching for days and looking for relief. When I have experience outbreaks, I’ve taken Allegra and I have a prescription hydrocortisone cream; both are helpful. Even so, it takes a week or more for the rashes to clear up.

I’ve always been a t-shirt and shorts girl-in-the-garden, but I’m now covering up when I have work to do: long linen pants, some shirts from The Hub, and equestrian gloves which cover my arms to the elbows. And, when it’s hot and sunny, a hat. In the new gardening get-up I’m avoiding new rash outbreaks and it’s good to know that I can still garden, even if I look ridiculous.

Picking Peanuts

Recently I’ve removed the safflower and sunflower feeders, as the finch eye disease has appeared in our neighborhood in several House Finches and I don’t want to assist in its spread. Poor little finches. House Finch eye disease, a conjunctivitis which eventually causes blindness, is caused by Mycoplasma gallisepticum and is a known problem for some kinds of birds who feed at feeders, primarily types of finches. (Check out the highlighted link above for more information about this disease.) Because the House Finches rarely eat peanuts, I’m leaving my two peanut feeders up and filled for the backyard bird visitors’ eating pleasure. For what it’s worth, my garden has scads of giant sunflowers and there’s no shortage of seeds for those who partake. I’ve observed House Finches, House Sparrows, Carolina Wrens, doves–and squirrels–hanging out amongst the sunflowers, nibbling this and noshing that. I’m sorry that the disease is spreading in my neighborhood, but with the sunflowers in bloom for the pollinators and seeding out for the birds and beasts, it’s a good time to remove the feeders and let birds feed like they’re supposed to–on plants which provide nourishment.

While I’m missing the cute House Finches close-up at the feeders, other resident birds are active and worth the watching. Downy Woodpeckers like this mature female, are always ready for peanuts. They are often the first to show up most mornings.

Her back and tail feathers show a beautiful pattern.

The local male (mate of the above female?) is darling with a bit of peanut in his beak and topped by his red hat.

The Downy Woodpeckers aren’t the only woodpeckers who love peanuts. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are also fond of the legume. This female is stunning with her bright red head and her stripey black-n-white wings.

The most vocal of the neighborhood songbirds are Carolina Wrens. After singing, this one captured its treasure and dashed to a secluded spot for a quick snack.

Carolina Chickadees come and go in my garden. Right now, a male and female and their offspring are regulars at the peanut feeders.

Always, there are Blue Jays. These guys and gals enjoy all the feeder offerings, but like so many birds, snarf peanuts with glee. This juvenile got a chance at one of the feeders without any pushy adults bullying him.

I have two feeders for shelled peanuts and a ceramic pot (which was supposed to be for a plant) for unshelled peanuts. Mostly the jays and the squirrels snatch these treats, but sometimes I see a Great-tailed Grackle or a Red-bellied Woodpecker snatching a prize. I put the unshelled peanuts out first thing in the mornings; once the peanuts are gone, the birds have to wait until the next day for more of these yummies.

Like the Carolina Wrens, the Black-crested Titmice come and go at the feeders, with the summer months being a big time for feeding. This is a parent and a fledgling sharing a meal.

As summer progresses and the bird families are grown up and mostly out of the nest, eating at the feeders slows a bit. For the next six weeks or so, it’s mostly the usual suspects in the garden. By late August, there will be whispers of migratory bird activity and after flights south, the winter warblers will settle in. During those times, peanuts will remain the flavor of the months.

Left by Leafhoppers

I’m a tolerant sort towards insects in the garden. Insects get a bad rap, but many are good guys-n-gals and fulfill important roles in the ecosystem. Other insects are meh–not necessarily anyone’s favorites, but not problematic, either. A very few insects are monsters and no gardener wants to see the beasts messing up their slice of paradise. I’ll squish aphids if they’re covering foliage but I don’t use insecticides at all. When I garden for vegetables (a rare thing these days), I’ll spray water on plants to knock off aphids or other sucking insects, but most of my veggie garden problems come from birds and squirrels; they like their veggies, too, one bite at a time.

Because I prefer native perennials and shrubs, as well as non-native plants who’ve proven their worth in the challenging conditions of Central Texas, I don’t have many malevolent insects wreaking havoc on beloved plants. That is until this spring.

Along with all the other weird things that 2021 has delivered to my garden, it’s finally also experienced damage due to some naughty bugs and the bad germs they carry and spread.

I love Purple Coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea. I don’t grow quite as many as I once did, due to shady conditions because these cheery aster plants are sun lovers! But I still have some and enjoy the beauty they bring to the garden.

Coneflowers are a favorite among the pollinators and frequently have one in attendance.

Grey Hairstreak, Strymon melinus nectaring on a Purple Coneflower

My native coneflowers bloom from April until July, turning crispy and dropping seed during the hot summer months. Once they’re tired and worn out, I prune the plants to their base foliage and await the fall bloom, which is less dramatic, but very welcome.

Recently, I was observing some pollinator action and taking photos of this charming group of coneflowers, when I noticed an oddity.

Some of my coneflower sported leafy green hats!

Other mini-leaves covered the whole of the central globe, hiding the bracts where coneflower seeds develop. Also, the lavender rays were weird, short and misshapen.

As I looked at groups of coneflowers in other parts of the garden, I found more crazy coneflowers. Some had no purple or pink to them, they were all green: green centers, green rays, and a few green, strangely shaped leaves. The diseased plants were all shorter than the healthy coneflowers.

This discovery of individual bizarre coneflowers rang a botanical bell for me, though I’d never seen this kind of growth before in my garden. I recognized (from some reading, sometime in the past) that the deformed coneflowers were victims of a disease process and recalled that it is one brought on by an insect.

As I researched the problem, I came across the term Aster Yellows, and remembered reading other gardeners who’d removed their aster plants (not necessarily coneflowers) because of this disease. Removing the diseased plant is the only recourse and those plants shouldn’t be placed in compost, but disguarded from the garden completely.

Leafhoppers are common in my garden and I would normally place them in the meh category of insects; they’re around, but don’t present much of a problem. It seems that leafhoppers survived our February snowpocalypse and in early spring, at least a few of those leafhoppers carrying a mycoplasma engaged in some munching on the emerging coneflower plants. The mycoplasma which causes the unusual growth is spread by the leafhoppers feeding on the plants. Fortunately, only a few individual plants were impacted. You can see one in this photo at the base of a gloriously healthy plant.

Coneflowers are in the Asteraceae or Aster family, but many kinds of plants are affected by this mycoplasma disease process. According to Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Texas Plant Disease Handbook, Aster Yellows impacts 300 different species of plants, from over 40 different families of plants.

I haven’t seen any more obvious problems with my remaining coneflowers (or any other plants), but it’s likely that next spring this issue may appear again. I’ll be quicker at diagnosing and removing the sick plants now that I’m aware that my garden could be hosting the insects and their germs.

Because of the devastating February freeze, a large shade tree died in my front garden and it will be removed in late fall. As well, my Red Oak trees in the back garden have also suffered some freeze damage; less foliage means more sun in my back garden. I’m sorry about the trees–trees are life giving entities–but more sun will mean more coneflowers in the garden. I just hope they’re all healthy next year and will continue to provide for food pollinators and joy for the gardener.

Coyote Cloudywing, Achalarus toxeus, resting on the rays of a Coneflower