Baskets of Blooms

It’s hard to say farewell to a species of plant whose end has come, especially one that produced such an abundance of flowers. Alas, my American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana, are done for the year. This is a sad sight:

The stalks of these spent lanky lovelies, tidily tucked in to bins, are on the way to the city of Austin’s composting facility.

I grow these annual native wildflowers, with thanks to Linda of Lagniappe and The Task at Hand, who several years ago graciously mailed to me seeds she’d collected. It’s taken a couple of years, but these regal annuals are now an integral part of my garden family, offering stature and elegance to my summer garden. This year, the basket flower stalks grew especially tall, some reaching to 9 and 10 feet. Most stalks were so tall that I couldn’t enjoy observing many of the blooms that opened atop the stalks. Pollinators filled the air above the garden, zooming from bloom to bloom for pollen and nectar. The lofty flowers certainly earned their keep, even if I was out of the loop. That said, the stalks are multi-branched, so while many flowers were too high for me to observe, there were plenty at human eye level–and their presence was welcome by those wishing only to admire.

A basket bud tops a tall stalk. It waits for maturity, to open, and for multitudes of pollinators to visit.

The common name, Basket flower, comes from the bracts below the flower head which is reminiscent of a woven basket.

As the flower develops, fringed bracts push upwards

…and outwards.

The beginnings of a bloom.

Once the flower fully opens, it’s about 4-5 inches across, a sweet purply-pink, and a pollinator magnet.

A wide variety of pollinators worked these flowers from May through early July. Pollinators like native bees, honeybees, small skippers, larger butterflies, hummingbirds, and flies were at the Basket flowers from sunrise to sunset. A couple of examples of these:

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor
American Bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus

All things die of course, and once the Basket flowers ended their bloom time, seeds developed and the stalks turned from rich green to toasty brown.

During seed development, the pretty pinky blooms morphed to a warm beige; I think the spent flowers are quite attractive. Several of these beauties now reside in a dried flower arrangement in my house.

During winter and early spring, the Basket flower seedlings emerged and grew in the garden, I transplanted some and removed many. As they matured, the stalks grew taller than nearly every other plant in this garden. There was one group of about a dozen that I called ‘the grove’ that I left where they seeded out. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a specific photo of the grove in its prime, but this photo from my last post shows the grove in May at the top right of the garden.

As the flowers of the grove ended their bloom cycle and began to spread their seeds, this is how the group looked.

Small, oval seeds are buried in the fuzzy center of the flower, released with a strong breeze or by working their way out of the center and falling to the ground. There were plenty of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, House Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens who enjoyed these seeds. The birds were skittish and I wasn’t particularly patient at getting photos, so I never managed a decent shot of any Basket seed-munching birds, but they will spread the Basket goodness. Besides in my own garden, I expect these seeds will produce plants throughout and beyond the neighborhood.

I’ve collected a few small bags of seeds that I’m donating to our local library for their seed bank.

I suspect if this summer wasn’t so hellishly hot and dry that the pollinators and I would still be enjoying the Basket flowers. Last year, many of my Basket flowers lasted well into fall and were done only after our first freeze of the year. Even though their bloom and seed cycle was shortened this season compared to last, I appreciate what these natives bring to my garden–and look forward to meeting them again next year.

If You Plant Them, They Will Come

Them in the equation are native plants, they, the pollinators. Pollinators and native plants share a long evolutionary history, having developed mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships: plants rely on pollinators for procreation and genetic diversity; pollinators rely on plants for sustenance and protection. Additionally, both plants and pollinators are gorgeous, admirably intricate and visually appealing, especially when working together, creating biodiversity magic.

Most people casually acquainted with the idea of pollination view bees and butterflies as front and center in the pollination world. But a huge variety of other insects also pollinate and they are important contributors to the health of plants in particular, and of ecosystems in general. For example, flies are key pollinators in most environments. In spring, I spied this Long-bodied syrphid fly, Fazia micrura, nectared on a cluster of spring blooms of Roughleaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii. No doubt, the fly carried some pollen to other dogwood trees, and to plants beyond.

Wasps comprise a huge group of insects and are often maligned because they sting. But like this Euodynerus megaera on Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, they are common flower visitors and important pollinators.

On a different cluster of Yarrow florets nectars a different kind of wasp, a Mexican Honey wasp, Brachygastra mellifica.

While most blooming plants will attract some pollinators, native plants are particularly important sources of food for variety of pollinators. This Henry Duelberg Sage, Salvia farinacea ‘Henry Duelberg’, hosts a native Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.

And here, a related native bee, a Southern Carpenter bee, Xylocopa micans, zooms in for a sip on the same plant, though a different flower stalk.

Both of these bees are native, or wild bees. There are about 20,000 native bee species in the world, about 350 of those are here in Texas. Most are solitary, unlike the better known honeybee. They come in an array of colors and sizes. Some, like the two carpenter bees above and most bumble bees, are large; many are tiny, like this Ceratina bee (probably?) who is crawling along the pollen offerings on the diminutive bloom of White Avens, Geum canadense.

The White Avens flower is about one-half inch in diameter. The bee is…itty bitty.

Like bees, butterflies partner with flowers and add beauty, movement, and life to gardens and natural areas. This Little Yellow, Pyrisitia lisa, pairs nicely with its pink provider, the open bloom of a Rock Rose, Pavonia lasiopetala.

For most of us, it’s the big, bodacious butterflies that we notice in a garden. And why not? They’re stunning as they waft through the garden, a pleasure to observe! I was pleased to capture the underside of this Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor, as it sipped from a Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii.

Wings-up is another Pipevine enjoying the bounty of an American Basket-flower, Centaurea americana. Non-native sunflowers look on with envy, though they have plenty of visitors of their own.

One of the reasons that Pipevine Swallowtails regularly visit my garden is that I grow a host plant called Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia fimbriata. Though I extol the virtues of native plants and choose them when I can, the Aristolochia fimbriata is not a native-to-Texas plant. Unfortunately, the native Aristolochia in Texas aren’t easily available commercially, so a non-native is a good substitute. This pretty ground cover of green leaves decorated with spidery white veins loves shade and spreads nicely–that is until the Pipevine caterpillars munch it to oblivion. That said, after the caterpillars lay waste to the plant, it pops back vigorously, rapidly unfolding its foliage for the next generation of hungry, hungry caterpillars.

The sweet blue flowers belong to a different ground-cover, Leadwort Plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. Dutchman’s Pipe blooms, but the flowers are often hidden under leaves.

In addition to providing both nectar and host plants for butterflies, it’s good to have limb and branch piles in the garden for insects, including many native bees, to create nests for their young. It’s important to leave the leaves in your garden after autumn’s drop, so that over-wintering insects–and there are many–have a safe haven in cold, wet weather conditions. Allowing some bare soil is important for ground nesters, as there’s so much land dressed with impervious cover or sterile, mono-culture turf. Providing water is always a must and pesticides should never be used in a pollinator garden. Insects aren’t pests, but instead are vital components to a healthy, vibrant ecosystem and that’s what a garden should aspire to.

Some plants seem to attract every pollinator around. Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, is one of the flowers that all kinds of pollinators flock to, like this Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus,

…and this American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis.

The big butterflies are easy to spot, hard to miss, and lovely to behold, but there are scads of little butterflies that also contribute to the pollination party. This Green Skipper, Hesperia viridis, matches its small flower’s size. The skippers are often tricky to identify, as there are many with similar coloring and markings, and they’re typically fast fliers. They’re fun to watch, challenging to identify, and important in the fabric of the ecosystem.

Some pollinators are specifically aligned with certain plants, much like some animals only eat certain plants. When my Barbados Cherry, Malpighia glabra, blooms its ruffly pink flowers, several individuals of this fuzzy golden and black bee arrive, buzzing all over the shrub. I don’t know what the bee is, I’ve never definitively identified it. I’m now thinking that it may be a Foothill Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniflormis ssp. orpifex–but I’m far from certain that’s correct. It could also be some kind of bumble bee, or perhaps, a long horned bee. I’ve never seen this species of bee at any other time or on any other plant except for the Barbados Cherry. Could these two organisms–plant and insect–exist in a mutually exclusive relationship? I don’t know the answer to that, but will continue to observe and with some additional reading, learn more.

I love native plants and I always encourage their use in the garden. But sometimes, they aren’t so readily available and gardeners must rely on non-natives for their pollinator party needs. I also love hardy non-natives, especially when they provide for wildlife and aren’t invasive. In my own garden, two summer favorites are annual sunflowers, common in urban settings thanks to commercial black-oiled sunflower seeds,

…and the perennial, blooming shrub, Mexican Honeysuckle, Justicia spicigera.

As long as flowers provide, Monarch butterflies partake!

This week is Pollinator Week celebrating the importance of pollinators in our environment. It’s not hard to encourage pollinators to live in your garden. Decide on a patch (or more!) in which to remove turf, research plants which grow well where you live–and get planting! Always add some host plants for butterfly larvae, some wood piles for other insects, some bare soil for the ground nesters, and water for everyone; don’t use pesticides and you’ll be in pollinator business. Installing a pollinator garden is less work than toiling over high-maintenance turf and it’s more interesting, full-of-life and lovely. You’ll be amazed at who will show up to be part of the garden experience. Bees, butterflies, bugs, birds–they all have a part in a pollinator garden.

A garden isn’t a garden without the wings of life that give it purpose.

Honeybee on Plateau Goldeneye, Viguiera dentata

Wings

Wings are things year-round in my garden. Even in winter, there are, minimally, honeybees and Red Admiral butterflies zooming and flitting during those shorter days. But late summer and into autumn, winged insects are a constant source of activity, adding an “experientially rich” dynamic that is always present in a garden, but heightened in the latter months of the growing season.

As the days grow noticeably shorter (though not cooler) I’ve been out and about in the garden, and some of those times, remembered to bring the camera along.

The Southern Pink Moths are familiar in the garden, very often resting on plants in the salvia genus like this White Tropical sage, Salvia coccinea.

Southern Pink Moth, Pyrausta inornatalis

It’s nearly always sometime in July that I spy my first Bumble bees in the garden. They zoom in, buzzing like miniature planes, intent on working a set of blooms before departing for new territory and fresh flowers. This one worked the blue blooms of Henry Duelberg sage, Salvia farinacea ‘Henry Duelberg’ for several minutes. The bee was never still enough for me to capture a good shot, but it did its pollination duty, its proboscis stuck deep in the bloom for maximum slurping.

American Bumble Bee, Bombus pennsylvanicus

Zexmenia, Wedelia texana, is a pollinator magnet and attracts a wide variety of native flies and bees. This bee is probably a bee in the “hairy legged” category like a minor or digger bee. My best guess is that it’s a longhorn bee, but in this photo that’s hard to confirm, as its antennae are hidden, bee head buried deep in the bloom.

Native Apidae bee

There’s a whole crew of yellow and white butterflies that become very active in July and downright ubiquitous in the following months and they are all fast flyers. This Little Yellow cooperated with me while dining on another Zexmenia bloom. Have I mentioned that Zexmenia flowers are pollinator favorites?

Little Yellow, Pyrisitia lisa

Late summer is also when the hummingbirds are most active. Males, females, and juveniles are ramping up for migration southward and feeding on the abundance of flowering plants. This cutey fussed at me as I bumbled around, initially unaware that she was feeding nearby. She dashed to a branch and scolded me; I snapped a few shots. After moving to a more remote spot, I waited until she’d rested and felt comfortable enough to return to the Turk’s cap that she’d been feeding on before I rudely disturbed her.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

The Monarchs are coming through! It seems like the migration is early, but I welcome visits from these iconic butterflies. Gregg’s mistflower, Conoclinium greggii, is a preferred source of nectar for many butterflies and bloom in time for the autumn Monarch migration.

Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus

Not pollinators, but predators, damsel and dragon flies got a late start this year, probably due to the winter storm in February. They’re everywhere now! A number of species visit my garden, mostly, though not exclusively, hanging around the pond. Their flight patterns are similar to those of bees rather than butterflies: less flitting, more zooming. They also rest for periods, like this one perched on a leaf of Pickerel Rush, Pontederia cordata.

Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

And this one, sitting pretty atop unopened blooms of Texas craglily, Echeandia texensis.

A Queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus, nectars on a Gregg’s mistflower–just like its cousin the Monarch. I have Queens in my gardens on and off throughout the year. Smaller and more polka-dotty than Monarch, they do look similar enough that they’re often confused with Monarchs.

Queen Butterfly, Danaus gilippus

Another winged summer thing is the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae. A colorful butterfly–cheery orange with white and black spots–this is a bright adornment in the garden. These feed on a variety of flowers, though I think this one had hatched from its chrysalis shortly before I found it on the spent blooms of a Lyre-leaf sage. The green in the background of this photo is the host plant for Gulf Fritillaries, passionflower vine, specifically Passiflora incarnata. This particular vine grows messily in a pebbled negative space with a surrounding garden. I leave the “weeds” in the space because…butterflies!!

Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae

I do have one “official” passionflower vine, purposely planted and growing on a trellis–a set of three seedling Passiflora caerulea which I transplanted a few weeks before the snow/ice storm in February. The seedlings weathered the storm, grew, and have produced several generations of fritillaries. Currently, those three vines are nought but stems, the foliage having been eaten away by ravenous caterpillars. I’m not worried about losing the plants; the vines should survive and with some autumn rain, flush out fully for further fritillaries.

While I was photographing the first fritillary, a butterfly buddy (also newly hatched?) joined in the fun, wings spread wide to dry–and maybe show off?

The Mexican orchid tree, Bauhinia mexicana, attracts lots of bees and big swallowtail butterflies. As I watched, this Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, fed at the flowers, lumbered off, came back to the tree, flew off again–but returned to the luscious offering of the blooms.

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio cresphontes

I grow White-veined pipevine, Aristilochia fimbriata, a lovely shade tolerant ground cover and a host plant for Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies, Battus philenor. This year, there has been a bumper crop of butterflies, chrysalises seemingly attached everywhere in the back garden. I’ve been fortunate to observe a couple of these beauties as they emerged from their cocoon and entered the world as winged adults. Pipevine Swallowtails are fast flyers and, while I observe their nectaring everyday, I’ve been missing to opportunity for a photograph until I found this one enjoying a Basket flower, Centaurea americana, and had my camera ready to shoot.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Battus philenor

I’m fortunate to live in a place with a long growing season, so watching winged wonders is almost a year-round adventure. I hope you have some winged things in your garden, too! If not, maybe it’s time to get cracking and plant some nectar and host plants for butterflies and moths and a variety of blooming things for bees and hummingbirds.