Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Friday, September 4, 2015

Pollinator of the Week!

 Our pollinator of the week goes by several names~Pennsylvania soldier beetle, Goldenrod soldier beetle or Pennsylvania leatherwing. They're a common beetle in the eastern US and they're found in a staggering number on wildflowers in late summer/early fall, where they feed on pollen and meet a mate. Because of their frequent contact with flowers, soldier beetles are important pollinators. (above:Verbesina)
Feeding on Wild garlic
In my garden the adults are commonly seen on my favorite fall blooming  rough and tumble wildflowers~ Solidago, Verbesina, Stokesia, Heleniums and even alliums. They're harmless to humans and the flowers they visit, but, the number of visitors per flower may worry new or inexperienced gardeners. Please leave them be, they're beneficial garden critters.
'Peachie's Pick' Stokesia with Soldier Beetle
Pollination is incidental, soldier beetles are there to feed and mate. It's their larvae that do the most "beneficial" work for our garden systems, feeding on soft bodied critters in the soil. We're unlikely to see the larvae, which have been described as looking like tiny alligators, they're hidden in the leaf litter munching on grasshopper eggs and other soft bodied insects that might harm our garden plants. (Please note, here's another good reason to leave the leaves in place, many beneficial insects over winter in fallen leaves.)
Feeding on Helenium
If your goal is to have a pesticide free garden then you want to attract as many beneficial insects as possible to your garden. If you want soldier beetles, then plant pollen rich wildflowers like goldenrods, Verbesinas and other asteraceas that bloom in the late summer or early fall.

Happy pollinator gardening.

Name:    Chauliognathus pensylvanicus
Family:  Cantharidae
Size:       5/8-inch long
Color:     orange beetles, with two prominent brown-black spots on the elytra
Seen:       August and September in the middle south, July in the upper midwest
Roll:        Beneficial insect: Adult pollinates flowers and the larvae predates on grasshopper eggs and soft 
                bodied bugs

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: A Cool, Cool Season Native Grass Lesson

Poverty Oat Grass early summer 2013
 I love my cool season grasses. They're the first grasses to green up and by the time the warm season grasses are knee high they've begun to set seed! It's a puzzle to me why they're still overlooked, underestimated, unappreciated and in some cases still unknown. On the whole they're easy peasy plants that would grow well in many of our garden settings.
Poverty Oat Grass behind the chair frames late spring 2015
Most cool season grasses don't make as big a show as our handsome warm season native grasses, but, they play an important ecological role in plant communities by providing food (forage and seed) and cover early in the growing season when most other plants are just waking up! That's a lot of coolness!
It was easy for me to be open to its charms,  I never wanted to mow grass when I could have wildflowers
Poverty Oat Grass/Danthonia spicata is a particular favorite of mine. It's a wispy, slender bladed bunch grass that starts growing in the cooler weather of Spring, then flowers and sets seed in the early summer. I find the name is perfect for a grass that grows in the most inhospitable of spaces: dry upland woods and forests, upland prairies, glades, tops of bluffs, old fields, eroded pastures, roadsides and dry disturbed areas. Anywhere the soil is dry and sterile.

Of course, you won't be surprised if I tell you it's naturally occurring in my garden! Parts of this garden are indeed dry and inhospitable, with shallow soil that sits on top of limestone boulders and bedrock. An especially inhospitable spot is sited right next to the Blue Bottle Tree! I can't recall exactly what had been there before, possibly remnants of the previous owner's lawn, some very lovely Lyre Leaf sages and in the shade, beneath the Burr Oak were patches of Danthonia spicata. Traditionally, it was mowed to create a negative space to help balance the exuberance of my wildflowers. I knew that something more could be done with such a charming little grass so I transplanted a dozen small clumps late one fall to that inhospitable, shallow soil! The fall rains arrived and they settled in nicely.
The following spring the grass began to grow. It was wispy and delicate, really quite lovely. In June it began setting seed and the following month there was a sea of silvered foliage as the plant went dormant.

 It was stunning and a success.

Fast forward to summer 2015! Not so good. After a year of neglect (I was out for surgeries) the lawnette was crowded with Susans, Fleabane, Vernonia seedlings, non-native clover and real weeds! It was lovely where the wildflowers hadn't encroached on the Danthonia spicata, but, the large expanse of silvery lawn was absent.

I wondered if the Danthonia experiment was a failure and if not what could be done? After a lot of thought and studying the lawnette, here's what I concluded.

When wildflower experts say "This grass does not tolerate competition from taller growing vegetation." they mean it! Keep out trespassing wildflowers!

When experts say this "grass prefers  dry-mesic to dry conditions" they mean it!  We can't control the weather, but, we can control watering.

There's no such thing as a maintenance free lawnette! Weeding is necessary, since there can be too many Susans; Vernonia and other colonizers will seed every where (seedlings can be transplanted); and clover is too aggressive and just needs to go!

There are plenty of lessons and do overs in a garden!

It's all so much fun!

What makes this experiment a success for me?

It's relatively low maintenance: (no watering, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no mowing, just occasional weeding.

It's sustainable.

Increased biodiversity~natives grasses in general are host plants for many butterflies and skippers.

It's charming.

It's lovely.

The seed is viable in the soil for decades~it will replenish itself.

It was fun.

Isn't learning new information, having fun and creating a garden that feeds one's soul while taking care of wildlife what wildflower gardening is all about?

Happy wildflower gardening my friends.

The Particulars:

Poverty oat grass is a cool season, bunch grass (no stolens or rhizomes) that is best suited for poor, dry, rocky soils where it forms dense clumps of curly basal growth. It does not tolerate competition from taller  plants. Remove fallen leaves in a woodland setting. Easily grown from seed, germinates quickly.

Range:  Native to Middle Tennessee, it can be found almost everywhere in the US and Canada. (Zone 3 to 8)

Exposure: Full Sun/Shade/Partial Shade

Soil: Dry and poor

Flowering: June, sets seed and then goes dormant. The inflorescence is small and delicate

Wildlife value: Food, shelter, host plant for several skippers, moths and some grasshoppers

Plants are available locally from GroWild Nursery and you can order seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery.

Thank you for stopping by and welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not; and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Is it a hummingbird? Is it a bee? No, it's a moth!

The first time I saw a Snowberry Clearwing Moth in the garden I wasn't entirely sure what it was. It had several hummingbird characteristics, it was fast moving (they can reach speeds of 35 mph), it had fast beating wings that hummed, and, it hovered over blossoms while it sipped nectar, but, its coloring, antennae, six legs and long, butterfly-like proboscis clearly said "this is an insect in the butterfly/moth family"! It didn't take long to identify it as Hemaris diffinis, a day-flying moth in the sphinx family.
These moths hover and stabilize their flight by resting their front legs on the flower blossom
The Snowberry Clearwing Moth is a mid to late summer visitor to my garden. They're really quite interesting looking moths and have the same yellow and black coloration as bumblebees. They have large eyes and a long tongue/proboscis perfectly adapted for reaching deep down in tubular flowers like summer phloxes, verbena and monarda for hidden nectar. They're good pollinators and like bees, pollen sticks to their hairy bodies and is transferred to other flowers as they move about the plant community.

Now, that I've just typed that paragraph, I'm not sure why I thought it was a hummer when it clearly resembles a bumblebee! Hemaris diffinis's bee mimicry worked on me and it probably does a pretty good job insuring it isn't an easy meal for a fast moving bird! Oh isn't nature amazing and oh so clever!

while the photo isn't the best, you can see the clear wings!
Now that summer is sort of winding down here in the Mid-South, I've been checking the Arrowwood viburnums, Southern bush honeysuckles and the Loniceras (host plants) for any of its emerald green eggs. So far I haven't found any, but,  I'll continue to keep a look out for them and any green hornworms as they search for the right spot in the leaf litter to pupate and wait the winter out. Maybe, I'll get lucky and see the moth emerge in the Spring!
bumble bee mimicry reduces predation
Until then, I'll enjoy them on warm summer days as they hover and dart about the garden.


Some Snowberry Clearwing Moth particulars:

Caterpillar Hosts: Snowberry/Symphoricarpos, honeysuckle/Lonicera, dogbane/Apocynum, Viburnum, hawthorn, cherry, plum and dwarf bush honeysuckle/Diervilla lonicera

Adult Food: Nectar from flowers including phlox, monarda, coreopsis, lantana, dwarf bush honeysuckle, snowberry, orange hawkweed, thistles, lilac, and Canada violet...Any good nectar source.
Habitat: A wide variety of open habitats, streamsides, fields, gardens, and suburbs....with plenty of leaf litter to hide in all winter!

Distribution map of Hemaris diffinis source

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


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