An Incomplete Cycle: Wildlife Wednesday, September 2019

I’m a proud and punctilious pollinator gardener. Even so, sometimes gardening goals are thwarted by circumstances well beyond pollinators’ needs and gardeners’ plans.

For years, I’ve grown passion vine in my garden.  Early on, I grew a Purple passion flowerPassiflora incarnata, that my mother gave me.  The original vine happily draped itself along a wooden fence, regularly attempting to clamber over perennial shrubs standing in its way.  Over time and with increasing shade, the passion vine declined, but to this day and in their best imitation of unwanted weeds, strands of the plant continue to pop up underneath the shade of the large oak tree .  The Gulf Fritillary butterfliesAgraulis vanillae and I know that these are not obnoxious weeds, but that the vine serves as a nursery and food source for the juvenile stages of the butterflies.

Some years ago, I planted another variety of passion vine, the Blue passion flowerPassiflora caerulea.  It grew along a trellis which separates the back garden from the compost bin and garden work space.   I enjoyed observing the blooms when they happened, but even more, I was entertained by the ebb and flow of a vine full of foliage, which hosted busy, hungry caterpillars who gobbled the vine to its skeleton state.  I knew that the vine nurtured the development of a new generation of Gulf Fritillary butterflies and that knowledge more than compensated for the stripped, and let’s be honest here–temporarily unattractive–vine.

P.  caerulea is evergreen during our milder winters, but dies to its roots when temperatures dip below 25°F for extended periods.  The vine didn’t return after a couple of very hard freezes during the winter of 2016.

I purchased a new P. caerulea two years ago and planted in a different spot so my garden would continue to host Gulf Fritillary butterflies.  Last year was the vine’s first year of growth and didn’t see many fritillaries around.  I wasn’t particularly fussed about the lack of flying orange beauties because each year is different: some years there are scads of a particular insect, other years that insect might be scarce, but something else is plentiful.  So nature goes.

Recently, this well-worn Gulf Fritillary flitted around the passion vine over the course of a couple of days.

She stopped at various points along the vine, curling her abdomen to oviposit,  doing her bit to continue the species.

Do you see her lovely golden egg on the left side, toward the bottom left of the right side leaf?

I’ve seen a few caterpillars on the vine, good sized ones at that, but not many, and certainly not in numbers representative of the adult fritillary action around the vine.

Additionally, while there’s some foliage damage, there aren’t the number of munched leaves I would expect with a healthy crew of baby fritillaries feeding on the foliage.

So, what gives?

For a while, I was concerned that maybe I’d purchased a plant treated with the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are pesticides toxic to insects and used in the agriculture industry to control insects considered pests.   The neonicotinoid downside for pollinators is that butterfly and moth host plants with insecticide-fused foliage and flowers kill the insects reliant upon those host plants.  Caterpillars (larvae) eat the foliage, ingest the poisons, and before the caterpillars morph to their adult stage, they die.  The peril for pollinators becomes obvious when a landscape plant, promoted and sold to support the life cycle of a pollinator (egg, caterpillar, adult), carries an insecticide and delivers that insecticide to larvae. The larvae will never morph to adult pollinators.

I purchased the passion vine at a nursery whose products I trust and I recall asking whether the plant was grown with neonics; the answer was a firm ‘no’.  As an aside, when I’ve purchased milkweed plants for monarchs, I always look for aphids on the leaves–and buy the plants with aphids.  Aphids are fond of milkweed and while rendering the plant somewhat unattractive, their presence indicates a pesticide-free plant.  Neonicotinoids are especially effective pesticides against aphids, so aphids serve as a good canary in the coal mine indicator of whether there is a deadly insecticide in the plant. When I see a milkweed plant with perfect foliage–no aphid in sight–I’m suspicious about the possibility of a neonicotinoid tainted milkweed and I don’t purchase it for my garden.  Until fairly recently, the nursery trade used neonics in growing some plants, but with evidence of how the damaging the pesticides are to pollinators, many growers have ceased, or soon will, using these chemicals.

Even if–and it’s a big if–the passion vine I purchased was originally grown with neonics, the chemicals are probably depleted by now, or in such small quantities, that there is no real impact on the larval stage of fritillaries.

As I’ve observed the eggs laid by the adult fritillaries, I’ve also kept an eye on the rogue Purple passion vine “weeds” in my back garden. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any eggs or larvae on those passion vine bits either.

The plot thickens.

What also thickens is the caterpillar goo that I’ve seen on a couple of occasions on the passion vine.  This glop of slime is all that remains of a good sized Gulf fritillary caterpillar.  Clearly, this larva will never be an adult butterfly.

I haven’t found any fritillary chrysalises this summer, though they’re very good at camouflage and I’m not necessarily a keen cocoon sleuth.

Why am I observing so few late stage (larger) caterpillars and why are the fritillary larvae not evolving to chrysalis stage? Is there something–parasite or disease–preventing the full life cycle of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies in my garden?  I’ve noticed lots of wasp activity, especially around the passion vine, and there are other insects which also parasitize and kill caterpillars, as well as a variety of viral diseases which kill butterfly larvae.  Could it be that the early stages of caterpillar development are thwarted and others are nipped in later stages?

The truth is that I don’t know why there are adult Gulf Fritillaries in my garden, seemingly healthy and regularly laying eggs, but with few caterpillars developing, and so far, no observable chrysalises.  In reading about Gulf Fritillary butterflies, I haven’t found anything similar to what I’m witnessing this summer with my vine and its butterfly buddies.  The adult fritillaries I’ve seen are hatching and maturing somewhere, and then flitting to my garden.  The cycle appears to glitch once they’re here.

In life–and in the garden–answers are not always clear and solutions sometime elusive.  I’ll continue observing the Gulf Fritillary activity as time trundles on. I hope that I’m able to witness the Gulf Fritillaries return to their full cycle of life:  mated adults, laid eggs, offspring nurtured and matured with consumed foliage, and a new generation of valuable pollinators in place.

For more information about neonicotinoids, check out these links:

Buying Bee-Friendly Plants: Neonicotinoid-Free Nurseries, Growers, and Seed Sources

Neonicotinoids and Bees, Xerces Society

EPA Cancels Registrations for 12 Neonicotinoid Pesticides, The Scientist

Do you have unsolved critter mysteries in your garden?  Please share your wildlife happenings and remember to leave a link when you post here and happy wildlife gardening!

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): A Seasonal Look

The joy of summer green and beauty of cool white are accurate descriptors of the Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, in my garden.   Gifted to me as a passalong plant some 20 odd years ago, it is a plant that is lovely to view and easy to grow.

A member of the Asteraceae (Aster) family, common Yarrow grows throughout a large area of continental North America.  According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (LBJWC) plant data base, the plant is classified as both a single species with varieties and as multiple distinct species. 

My guess is that mine is the true native variety, considering how long I’ve had the plant (hybrids and cultivars are now more readily available than when I was given my Yarrow starts) and that the blooms are a natural snowy white, rather than hybrid pink or yellow.  Yarrow’s fine foliage is 5-6  inches tall and acts as a lacy ground cover for most of the year.   In early spring, the graceful low-growing foliage grows anew and also sends bloom stalks upward to meet the spring sky.  In time, buds appear at the terminal ends of multiple branches.

Depending upon sun amounts received, Yarrow bloom stalks can reach upwards to three feet.  Mine all grow with some shade, which is ideal for Yarrow. While Yarrow is a great plant for shade or part shade, in my experience, deep shade will render the plant a full-time, evergreen ground cover, but it abandons all attempts at blooming.

But with some sun, the garden benefits from both beautiful foliage and flowers.

By May and throughout June, the disk flowers open for pollinator business and gardener admiration.

Most of the pollinators I see on Yarrow are of a diminutive sort; these include many types of flies, tiny native bees, and the smaller butterflies.

This Horsefly-like Carpenter bee is one of the larger pollinators to visit my Yarrow blooms.

 

I grow Yarrow in several areas of my garden and it’s complementary to other members of a perennial garden.

Additionally, Yarrow adds a prairie quality to the summer garden.   The prime bloom time lasts about 6-8 weeks, but even when the flowers fade, Yarrow remains handsome.

 

Into July, a toasty quality appears on Yarrow as the pure white flowers go to seed. As summer settles in with its heat and glaring sun, the flowers decline, seeds develops and Yarrow’s pure white tops turn tan and toasty.

The white Yarrow blooms are hard to improve upon, but as the plant undergoes its seasonal evolution, I don’t mind the transition from blooms to seed.  It’s a gradual transition and the plant remains attractive for most of summer.

I’ve seen House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches nibbling at the Yarrow seeds, so along with it acting as a good pollinator plant, other wildlife benefit from this perennial as its growing season advances.

Yarrow’s flower-to-seed heads beauty doesn’t last forever, though. Typically, by the time the flowers are long done and the seed heads are crumbling, the bloom stalks are also bent with age and environmental impacts.  After all, they’ve held aloft sweet blooms and nutty seeds for many to enjoy through spring thunder and wind storms and searing summer sun.   Bottom line:  Yarrow is messy by late summer.

Sometimes, parts of the foliage turns brown in sympathy with the beige seed heads.

Once the bloom stalks have flopped for good, I cut them back.   There’s no real art or skill with this pruning, it’s just about cutting the now-brown stalks at or near the ground, which usually reveals new ground cover growth settling in place for the coming seasons:  autumn, winter, spring.

In the above photo, the remains of pruned stalks lie disguarded outside of the garden’s limestone border; you can see new Yarrow foliage emerged on the other side of the limestone.  This foliage will be the basis of the ground cover which will flush out during autumn and remain evergreen in winter.

In especially dry summers and/or if I haven’t irrigated, the new ground cover foliage endures a breaking-in period where it’s sparse and ratty looking; Yarrow down-time usually occurs in August.  Fortunately, the ugly duckling phase doesn’t last long,  because the foliage quickly greens up and fills in with help from the shorter days and regular rainfall that September normally brings.

 

While Yarrow flowers produce seeds (those finches are eating something!), the only spread I’ve observed is with the roots of established plants.  In this shot, the foliage has crept out of the border of the garden and into a walkway.  I’m tolerant of this creeping action–to a point.  When I’ve had enough of Yarrow’s teen-like testing of boundaries, I simply dig out the offenders and toss them into the compost bin or give to another gardener.  With healthy attached roots and a smidge of extra watering, Yarrow transplants easily.

 

By autumn, brilliant green, ferny foliage returns and the groundcover is set for the upcoming cool seasons.

I’ve experienced no insect or disease problems with Yarrow and it’s a drought tolerant plant.   Another plus with planting Yarrow is that it is deer resistant.  Its foliage and flowers are fragrant and has been used for medicinal purposes.  I’m not big on cut flowers, but Yarrow is a nice addition to a vase.

Because it’s somewhat statuesque from April to August and low-to-the ground for the rest of the year, care should be exercised when considering placement of Yarrow:  it works in the back of a bed during its peak blooming time, but will be unseen for the remainder of the year. My solution has been to plant all my Yarrow along pathways and pair it with similar sized plants.

Whether you purchase Yarrow or it’s given to you as a passalong plant, treasure it!  Yarrow is easy to grow and lovely to look at.

In Spring:

 

Summer:

My sweet old dog, Asher, enjoying the garden one afternoon, several years ago.  Asher died late last summer.

 

Late Summer:

Yarrow in its ground cover mode planted with Chili pequin (top right) and a container plant (left).

 

Autumn and Winter:

 

 

Moss Rocks: Wildlife Wednesday, June 2019


We recently realized that our pond was leaking–not too much, just enough.  The pond leak isn’t a first, it’s happened before.  The most likely place for a pond to spring a leak is at, near, or around the waterfall, so unplugging the pump and dismantling the rocks which make up the waterfall are steps one and two for diagnosing a disappearing water act.

A slight slippage of pond liner, coupled with inappropriate rock placement, allowed for some (well, more than some) water diversion into the bordering soil and away from the pond.  We repaired the liner, re-stacked the rocks, and the pond is back in action and holding a constant level of water.  The fish are happy and swimming, the pond flowers are lovely and blooming, and the pond is no longer wasting water.

After we turned off the pump and removed the rock around the waterfall to watch for  water level change, I observed this Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, hopping around the disassembled rocks, pulling up bits of moss from those that had been in water.

That the jay was interested in the moss is a curiosity.  Blue Jays are omnivores and eat a variety of things:  seeds, nuts, grains, insects are all on their favorite foods list, but they sometimes steal nestling birds and dine on small animals (mammals and invertebrates).  As well, they’re known to occasionally scavenge dead birds and animals.  I don’t know that Blue Jays like salads, but this jay wasn’t eating the moss, nor can I find information that Blue Jays partake of this particular green in their diets.

Blue Jays do use grass for nesting, though;  might they also use moss?  Males are typically the gatherers of nesting material, while females are the builders of the nests.  Could the jay be in the process of gathering nesting material?  Yes, that’s certainly a possibility, though it seems a bit late in the season for family planning and house building.  Blue Jays only produce one brood per year and when I’ve observed Blue Jays and their nests, the babies fledge in May, or early June at the latest.  That said, Jays will abandon nests if a predator attacks or if some other calamity befalls the eggs or nestlings.  This spring has seen some spectacular thunderstorms with high winds and driving rains, perfect for dislodging nests–and nestlings–from trees.  Additionally, owls and hawks live and hunt in our neighborhood, so it’s reasonable to think that this bird’s first brood didn’t fledge successfully and he and his partner are in the family way again.

Mr. Jay was choosy about his moss.   He plucked moss from a rock, then dropped some of it. He bounded around to other moss rocks, snagging more in his beak, dropping that, then gathering other bits.  He acted as if he was looking for just the right sort of moss.

After a time and done with the moss-work, he flew away.

My best guess is that he was helping his mate build a nest–maybe their first, probably their second. There are no occupied Blue Jay homes in my trees, so I’ll never know for certain if the plucked moss is destined to feather a nest.  Maybe in a month or two I’ll see a fledgling Blue Jay, nearly as big as her parents, ruffling her feathers, squawking impatiently, and begging for food.

How is your wildlife?  Are they foraging in your foliage or feasting at your feeders?  Are the wild things in your garden chasing competitors, wooing mates, or raising families?  Please share your wildlife garden stories and remember to leave a link when you comment here–happy wildlife gardening!