Foeniculum Funeral

My Fabulous Foeniculum is no more.

In June 2014, I wrote this post about a single Fennel plant, Foeniculum vulgare,  which was a couple of years old at that time. In addition to  its cloud-like, airy beauty in the garden,

…it was the nursery and all-you-can-eat cafe for scores of Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

This particular fennel plant was apparently very happy situated in this mostly morning sun spot.

It not only withstood at least two full Central Texas summers and most of a third, but grew quite tall at  points during its life.

I named it Mega-Fennel. This past summer Mega-Fennel started off just fine: lush  and full of life and ready for the summer onslaught of butterfly larvae. But during July and August I began noticing fennel foliage die-off.

I hoped, rather than believed, that if I pruned the dead and dying foliage, that somehow, miraculously,  Mega-fennel would rally and survive.

Alas, it did not rally.   In September, Mega-Fennel was good and dead.  I dug it up and unceremoniously tossed the long-lived and butterfly life-giving fennel into my compost bin.

I held no funeral for the fab Foeniculum.

Once the temperatures cooled, local nurseries began carrying fennel again–they suspend selling the cool-season herb during our long summers–I purchased several.   I’ve replaced Mega-Fennel,

… from bronze to green, and have added others to my garden.   I prefer bronze fennel;

I think it’s hardier than the more weak-stemmed green fennel.  Butterflies like both and lay their eggs equally on fennel, regardless of slight differences in foliage hue.

Only a few of the other fennel that I’ve grown have lasted more than one season and none as long as Mega-Fennel.   I’ve planted some fennel in full sun and they thrive in the cool months of October-May, but once the calendar flips over to June and summer heat settles in, full-sun fennel suffers under the death rays of the Texas sun.  I think Mega-Fennel’s grand success was due to its morning sun position. Going forward,  fennel planted in my garden will be placed in dappled light or morning sun.

I plant fennel to attract and feed butterflies, specifically the larval form of the  Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.  If you look at information about this gorgeous butterfly of the Americas, there’s no specific mention of fennel as a host plant.  Most insects prefer “host” plants that their larval forms feed on and usually, host plants and their insects evolved together. Native plants are intrinsic to the insects of a given region–they are partners in the wider food chain.  Historically, the  Black Swallowtail larvae wouldn’t have dined on fennel because it’s not a native plant to North America, but instead, an introduced Mediterranean herb. The Black Swallowtail larvae feed on plants from the Apiaceae, or Carrot Family. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s plant database, there are about 100 native North American plants in the Apiaceae family and just over half of those grow  here in Texas.  Some of these are perennials, some are annuals; most sport umbel inflorescence.  A few are water plants and many look like they’d be quite delicious added to a salad.  I have to assume (though I didn’t find specific information confirming this) that in unadulterated habitats, Black Swallowtails would use at least some of these plant hosts for their larvae.  Considering that wild space is now at a minimum and disappearing rapidly, what’s a Black Swallowtail to do?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen native Texas Apiaceae plants for sale, though I’ll  bet seeds are available at Wildseed Farms or Native American Seeds. Because the native Apiaceae plants are not the commercially appealing landscape plants common in the retail nursery trade, the next best thing for the wildlife gardener is to plant an introduced  species which is a member of  the Apiaceae Family, that is regularly available for purchase, and that butterflies can adapt to.  And that’s exactly what has happened–in my garden and many others.

I’d rather grow native plants, but will make-do with appropriate non-natives if  necessary.  As long as the butterflies are happy, eating well and laying eggs, this gardener is happy.

Other introduced host plants of the Black Swallowtail are dill, carrot, and celery.  But for my garden and in hopes of hosting another Mega-Fennel, I’ll stick with fennel for my visiting swallowtails and their progeny.


Caterpillar Happenings

This is one of my fennel plants.

These are the cause of why my fennel plant looks like it looks.

And these,

…and these.

Actually, they’re all the same caterpillars. They ate fennel and they grew; caterpillars are like that. There were ten Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, butterfly larvae dining on this fennel over the past week or so.

Eating and eating, until there’s nothing left,

…except defoliated stems and hiding caterpillars,

…ready for metamorphosis in their cozy chrysalides. I guess I should make that singular,

…because from all those caterpillars, this is the only chrysalis that I’ve found.

I’m sure the others are nearby, safe from munching predators. I’ll keep an open eye for the emerging butterflies during this next week.

Foliage Follow-up, May 2014

We’ve received a little rain here in Austin, Texas and so continue our verdant spring before the summer heat fries everything in the garden.  I particularly like this lush threesome of the glossy, dark green-leafed Star Jasmine vine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, fronted by the soft, graceful Inland Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, further fronted by an arching American BeautyberryCallicarpa americana.

I’ll remove the Inland Sea Oats next year to give the Beautyberry room to grow. For now, I  like the array of foliage these three plants provide in this shady spot.

Sedum, Sedum potosinum, is delightful in the garden; its delicate, fleshy foliage hugs the ground and rocks as it spreads.  It is attractive before it blooms,

and during bloom time.

All of the Fennel plants in my gardens are still gorgeous this May.

I’ve seen a few butterfly caterpillars chomp, chomp, chomping, but apparently not enough to eat the Fennel to the ground.

This Pale-leaf Yucca, Yucca pallida,  

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echoes the yellow of its home with stripes along the edges of its leaves.

I fell in love with the Corkscrew Rush, Juncus effusus, when I visited another garden.

It requires more watering than I typically tolerate from my plants (twice/week during our summers), but I don’t consider that onerous and this sedge plant is a fun addition to my gardens.

I enjoy the play of late afternoon light on this Soft-leaf Yucca, Yucca recurvifolia.

I have several of these non-native yuccas in my gardens and appreciate their tolerance of my somewhat heavy soil.

The pairing of the bright green, tropical foliage of the not-yet-in-bloom Turk’ s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus, with the gray-green, fuzzy Heartleaf Skullcap, Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata, was a gardening serendipity that I’ve encouraged.

Finally, there’s little but foliage going on here–and such a nice variety of shape and form, if not color.

At the far left is the soft, silvery Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuisima, with spiky  Iris flanking its right.  A tiny-leafed, ground-hugging Thyme completes the trio.  Two plants from the Malvaceae family, Lemon Rose MallowHibiscus calyphyllus, and Turk’s Cap fill the center/right section of the photo.  The foliage of those two are similar–wide and heart-shaped.  To the right and front of the photo, Fall Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium and Texas Craglily, Echeandia texensis, both sport foliage which contrasts with the tropical looking Malvaceae plants: the Craglily’s slender grass-like lily leaves and the perennial aster’s narrow leaves.

Actually, if you look closely, you can see some blooms–at the top-center of the plant group is a cluster of Heartleaf Skullcap–its blue/purple flowers and fuzzy, gray-green foliage in total contradiction to everything else.

Thanks to Pam at Digging for hosting the May salute to foliage.