Thursday, January 26, 2012

Butterfly garden

     It was actually nice today, both sunny and unseasonably warm, a little preview of spring.  And I was stuck at my desk or in meetings all day.  Bummer.
Red admiral, Mexican bush sage
     But the winter gray and innumerable meetings can't stop me from daydreaming about butterflies.  I'm thinking I need to renovate my butterfly garden, so I'm daydreaming about what new plants to buy.  The "butterfly garden" is a bit of a misnomer, at least right now.  It was the first garden I put in.  Less than a year after we moved into this house, hurricane Isabelle took out several fruit trees (and many other trees) and left a big hole in the landscape.  I had almost zero previous gardening experience and my husband didn't have any more than me.  If we were going to learn by doing, we were not going to waste our efforts on figuring out how to install boring lawn.  So we decided on a butterfly garden, and all through that winter I made ridiculously intricate and overwrought plans for every square inch of it.  Since I knew nothing at all, none of it was practical.  For a few years it was the only big bed of our own making and so ended up being the place to put all the experiments, butterfly related or not. What's there now is the result of natural selection.  I'll keep everything that's doing well, but there are some times when not much is in bloom, so it's time to start scheming.
Gray hairstreak on Abelia grandiflora
     Meanwhile, we've put in another garden in full sun that has lots of flowers that do attract butterflies.  I chose a Glossy Abelia for this spot specifically because I read that it's a host plant for Tiger Swallowtails.  I don't recall seeing too many Tigers, but its blossoms attract plenty of butterflies.  This year, that included Gray Hairstreaks like this one and our yard's first Pipevine Swallowtail.  I don't grow any pipevines, so I guess it was just a passing visitor.  Hmm, maybe I should grow a pipevine in the renovated butterfly garden....
     Lots of butterflies don't really come for nectar but have other less pretty tastes.  We did get great looks of a Tiger Swallowtail lingering for a long time on a pile of raccoon droppings.  I will spare you the pictures.  Isabel spared a pear tree which produces more than enough pears for us every year, so I leave some on the tree.  A stroll under the pear tree in August or September can produce an explosion of Red-spotted purples, Question Marks, Tawny Emperors and Hackberry Emperors that are imbibing on fermenting fruit.
Hackberry Emperor

     We have hackberry trees in our yard and I would not want to be without them.  Perhaps they are not the most attractive tree to a gardener's eye, but for the butterflies and birds there's almost nothing better.  
     The next photo is a butterfly that was not only a first for my garden, but the first I've ever seen, a Juniper hairstreak.  The host plant is the Eastern Redcedar, which I do have, but I've read they are usually found around "stands" of redcedar.  I don't think there's anything on my property I would characterize as a stand, but there are lots of redcedars in the area.
Juniper hairstreak

Checkered skipper on Verbena bonariensis
     Here's a before-and-after if I've identified the caterpillar correctly.  I think this is the caterpillar of the Checkered Skipper. As you can see, they like to eat mallows, including Seashore Mallow (Kosteletskya virginica).  
Kosteletskya virginica
I think these fuzzy skippers are pretty cute and I always look for them once the wild mistflower blooms (Eupatorium coelestinum is what I think it is) in late August or early September.  Right up until I was composing this post I was thinking there was some link between the Checkered Skipper and the Mistflower, but I think I'm a little dim.  The host plant is enough to explain the timing.  The Checkered Skipper caterpillar eats the blossoms -- not the leaves -- of the mallow, as you can see in the photo.  I first see a large number of adults in my yard about a month after the Seashore Mallow is in peak bloom.  I'm not sure if these eat other mallows in my yard as well, but the other mallows I have also are late-blooming perennials. 

     This last butterfly even knows garden design.  See the color echo?  If only I could ask her for help in redesigning my garden.

Common Buckeye on "Sheffield Pink" mums