Monday, January 25, 2016

Gardening Goals and Achievements

When I first started gardening my initial goal was to provide nectar sources for my honeybees. Early attempts were an abysmal failure as I relied upon plants that simply looked pretty from a local nursery. The issue of course being that most nurseries sell cultivars with looking pretty in mind, instead of plants that are pretty useful. They do sell some useful plants but not as many as they should.

Realizing I would have to do some research, I started to set goals of what I wanted to get out of the garden. Along the way my focus changed from simply providing nectar fro my bees towards seeing what ecological effects my garden could have. I wanted to see how much biodiversity I could fit into one acre of land. Nothing was measured scientifically (I'd likely need at least 30 yards to make any conclusions,) but my achievements are as follows.

Probably the simplest achievement with gardening came in the form of a simple pack of sunflower seeds. They're the favorite food of the Eastern Goldfinch (The state bird of NJ) and their beaks are actually the ideal size and shape to dislodge a sunflower seed from the flower disk. Planting $5 worth of seeds not only brings in the pollinators but also a very attractive bird as well.

The next major milestone for my garden really had all the stars aligning perfectly. I met a fellow beekeeper who was really into native plant gardening but also advocated nonnatives like Catmint and Salvia. One of the plants that really caught my eye was his clump of Butterfly Weed which he grew along side an impressive clump of Lavender. I wanted to copy his garden as much as I could but chose a different species, Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, or Fragrant Milkweed as I like to call it. I had no idea at the time, but Monarchs favor laying their eggs on the plant. The leaves are less tough than Common and Butterfly Weed, and because it tends to grow in moist soil the humidity in the air is more favorable to insects in flight. What's more the first chrysalis I found was on the host plant, which is uncommon. Normally the caterpillars abandon the host plant to get out of the way of the next generation. And again 10 days to the hour I first found the chrysalis I watched as it hatched into a beautiful butterfly.

Over the past several years now I've started to go after some of the more obscure natives that not a lot of people grow. For example, I'm the only person I know who has a Button Bush, and I'd love to grow more of them but I just don't have the space.

Purple Milkweed, while commercially available, doesn't seem to be grown by a lot of people. As I've discovered though, that's probably a good thing. Unlike Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and Common Milkweed, this species requires cross pollination in order to produce viable seed. Individual plants don't produce as many flowers as other species. And tragically, the wildlife people grow milkweeds to attract target the flowers and seed heads first! You basically need to remove Monarch caterpillars, Milkweed Beetles, Milkweed Seed Bugs, Four-eyed Beetles, and keep the stems completely free of Oleander Aphids for this plant to do well! Of course it doesn't help that when it does successfully flower ants come and steal the nectar!

Purple Milkweed still grows in my yard but I've not been able to get it to flower again because pests keep eating it!

Rarer Still, I tried growing the true Red Milkweed, Asclepias rubra. I call it the true Red Milkweed because one of the major mail order nurseries has started calling Asclepias incarnata, Red Milkweed. They're wrong of course as is whoever came up with the common name for this species. The flowers are clearly a shade of pink! The plants I bought (and suspect were dug out of the wild) grew well the first year and flowered but have yet to emerge again. The roots are still in the soil, still slightly green or white if you cut into them, still fleshy like an ordinary rhizome but for some reason they don't produce any shoots or green growth of any kind. Very odd. If I locate them again I'll move them to an even wetter spot of the garden. I'm pretty sure they're a bog species.

This is an achievement for me in that I got to photograph it flowering. I have no plans of trying to grow it again as all the sources for plants at this time I suspect might be from plant poachers.

Aquatic Milkweed, Asclepias perennis. This is you can buy on the internet easy enough but it didn't do well in my yard because all the wet bog-like places are already have lots of weeds and plants growing in them. It's a small species with some of the smallest flowers in the genus too. I was hopeful that it would be successful in my garden but it wasn't. I may try planting more of this again in a true bog garden some day, but for right now, I'm just glad I was able to photograph it flowering.

Discovered Flame Azaleas are semi-carnivorous. Actually they're not carnivorous at all but to protect their flowers from nectar thieves, their stems have hairs on them that dispense a type of glue to stop ants dead in their tracks. Now when the hummingbirds come to feed at the flowers they can find an added tasty treat clinging to the stem.

Red Flowering Raspberry. This plant was a huge surprise. The flowers are as pretty as our native roses, though they're also a poor replacement for a rose. You can't really use them for a cut flower, and they're short lived. The stems lack any prickers and instead have a sticky feel to them. They have yet to produce fruit but I believe that's a cross pollination issue I'm hopefully fixing in the coming year. I've planted three more specimens that should flower. If they don't produce fruit then I'll likely move them some place else so I can plant things that are more productive. But man, look how pretty that flower is!

Companula americana. This is a biannual I decided to try one year and it's easily my new favorite plant for dry shade. It grows in bone dry soil, in full shade conditions! The first one I got growing grew 7' tall and flowered robustly from June to frost. It got to the point where it was making bloom and buds on existing seed pods because the stem had become so overcrowded with flowers. I've never seen anything like it. The following year's plants weren't as great, but they're biannuals so they take an added year. Then on the year past we had new windows installed, and one of the workers took a rake to the garden and got rid of all my plants while cleaning up! Good to know they're easy to control if they get out of hand but I was hoping for a whole backdrop in the garden of 5 to 7' tall spires of blue flowers. Hopefully I'll get to see that happen this year because I emptied a pound of seed or two in the spot.

A lot of the ephemeral plants I grow disperse their seeds with the aid of ants. I'm overjoyed that I was able to not only grow a few species of Trilliums and other plants that have elaiosome on their seeds but also able to witness the behavior in my own backyard. And I've also realized I'm probably the only person in North America who's bothering to photograph this behavior!

Very recently I was approached by a museum about using one of my photos for an exhibit. Unfortunately I'm not a professional photographer (Yet!) and don't normally save images in as high a resolution as their project required. Still, to have been asked was an honor!

Roughly 40% of our native ephemeral wildflowers disperse their seeds this way and most gardening books treat the topic like a cliff note... There isn't a whole lot to tell, but I've found certain species of ants favor certain plant species and some are better about dispersing them a greater distance than other.  

Getting Wildflower to reproduce, and ephemerals at that! This is huge because some of these plants I buy cost $25 each, and they're not always successful! Knowing that the plant is happy enough to do what it would normally be doing in nature, in my yard, it the best compliment a plant can give you. (Or the worst if it's invasive.) Now if my rare Trilliums would just stop reseeding in the lawn I'd be in business.

Getting my Paw Paw tree to flower. For years I'd been planting saplings of this species all over my yard and for one reason or another they just couldn't survive the winter. It's annoying! Finally I found a spot where they get enough water in the summer and don't burn up in the heat, and are sheltered in the winter enough to survive. And I immediately planted a second one right next to it. So one tree is of a flowering age, now I just need the second one so they can cross pollinate and maybe I'll get some fruit.

Dutchmen's Pipe. I've had this vine growing for a good 7 years at least and it finally decided to start flowering... Not the prettiest things but I had a theory that the seeds to this plant have elaiosome on the seeds so I'm eager to see if that's true. Unfortunately they seem to require cross pollination, so I won't know that until several years later when the vine's counterpart I planted finally reaches of age.

I planted this as a host plant for the Pipe Vine Swallowtail and I'm still waiting for them to find it. :( though this seems a common problem among butterfly gardeners.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, is another species I'm proud to say I grow. Unfortunately it seems I don't grow enough of it. This is a plant they tell you to grow in the shade and let it grow up the stems and branches of another plant. There's nothing wrong with that, but the absolutely charming leaves, flowers, and fruit get completely lost in the foliage. I have a vine of this in my garden still, I think. But now that I've seen it growing at the Mt. Cuba Center, clearly I'm growing it wrong. It still gets lost, but they have it growing right on a fence in full sun where it thickly covers the fence almost like an ivy. It's a great little vine that doesn't get out of hand, and I'm curious to see if Fritillary Butterflies use it as a host.

Georgia Aster, probably the last plant in temperate North America to stat blooming aside from Witch Hazel and Heathers. This is a plant I look forward to every year now. I've only been growing it for three years, it's flowered the past two. This year I collected seeds and hopefully I'll get a lot more of it to grow. The flowers are nice and large, and the purple is a great contrast of the leaves from fallen trees, which are shades of yellow, red, or brown.  

Discovering that Black Swallowtails do use Golden Alexander as a host plant was sort of a happy accident. I planted these as a host plant but later learned they rarely use it! Seems they heavily favor Parsley. But I've noticed that Golden Alexander has more foliage to offer early in the year before Parsley really gets going, so it's likely used as one of the earliest hosts then they switch over to Parsley with subsequent generations.

Adding all these native plants of course had an effect on the insect life. More herbivore insects means more sources of nectar, protein, and seeds. The increase in resources caused the colonies of Formica incerta and Formica pallidefulva to expand and get even larger than before. That got the attention of a slave making member of the genus, Formica pergandei. Seen above a colony of F. pergandei (bicolored) has invaded a colony of F. pallidefulva (copper tone).

Formica pergandei, is one of many slave making and parasitic species in the Formica genus, the largest ant genus in North America. They are completely devoted to maintaining their Formica hosts to maintain their own colony. F. pergandei workers don't forage at all. They spend their time raiding other colonies of Formica for brood and often do a complete invasion where the whole F. pergandei colony moves in and kills the host queen(s) and reproductives. They take over the current work force, and all the new workers born into their nest become part of their colony. The host species do all the foraging and nest building but eventually die off, so the F. pergandei workers are always looking to invade the next nest.

It's hard to say that F. pergandei wouldn't have found the colonies in my yard eventually. But in all the years I've lived here never noticed the species. They may have eventually come and moved on, as they did, but I believe the increase in resources made the F. pallidefulva and F. incerta colonies a bigger target. 

New Jersey Tea. This is one of those plants they're always touting for all its benefits but no one ever grows. Part of the problem is it seems to only ever be sold in plugs.... Why? It's a shrub. It should be a large or medium sized pot at least. I planted dozens of these over the years and ran over all but one of them with the lawn mower. Well I'm happy to say that after several years, it's now flowering robust enough to get honeybee attention.

As an added bonus it's a host plant to Spring and Summer Azures. And.....

I found that Sourwood trees are also a great honeybee plant. Which....

Is also a host plant for Spring and Summer Azures. And the caterpillars to this group of Butterflies are tended by ants for protection.

And I raised the caterpillar in captivity to see what it would become. Sure enough it's an Azure.

Early on in gardening I had dreams of sweeping meadows full of Lupins to see this behavior of ants, plants, and butterflies. I'm happy I already have plants doing this for me. As I've found out Lupins require full sun and basically want to grow in 80% sand.

Lastly, my yard is becoming something of a hummingbird hot spot. Not year round though, we usually get one or two of them flying about intermittently over the summer, and then several of them consistently for a full week... presumably fledgling birds following their parents around.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ants of the Southwest Now Accepting Applications

Ants of the Southwest is now accepting applications for their 10 day course over the summer of 2016!

I attended this course in 2013 and had a blast. It's all the fun parts of the anting hobby in the most biologically diverse part of the US! Pheidole rhea (Big-headed ants with super majors), Trachymyrmex (leaf cutter ants), Neivamyrmex (army ants), Crematogaster smithi, Acropyga, Odontomachus (Trap-jaw ants), Myrmecocystus (Honey-pot ants), and Cerapachys to name a few of the awesome ants I got to see that year.

The Southwestern Research Station does "Science Tourism" very well. I wish more places existed like it in the world. First off you're in the middle of nowhere but also you're not roughing it that bad. The only two issues I really had with the place are as follows. One, it's a little hard to find. This wouldn't usually be an issue but it's in a place where the "roads" are just graded dirt and rain can wash boulders onto the path pretty easily and it's never comfortable fording a small river in a rental car (and not recommended!). Also a wrong turn can put you a half hour in the wrong direction, even though your GPS says it's a five minute drive... the "roads" around the place are that bad. Drive there during the day time! And Two, you need to bring your own supply of drinking water. They sell it at a shop in the station but it's only open 4 days of the week. There's another shop at a road stop down the road from the station but it's not always well stocked with so many folks using it as a resource.

Beyond that, you'll likely be staying in a very reasonably sized dorm. You have access to full showers. The meals are great and a salad and dessert is almost always available if you don't like what they're serving. The place has an in ground pool on site. The view from your room and looking around in general is often fantastic to behold. Because they're part way up in the mountain the average temp is only in the high 70's (at least from when I was there.) For being in the middle of nowhere you could do a lot worse! 

When I went two years ago I was shocked at how few students there were. I think in total there were 11 of us, 3 of whom were instructors. I gathered that there would have been more instructors had there been more students. But as it was, there were only 8 and 3 of those were hobbyists. Take a moment to compare that to Ant Course which has a four year waiting list to get in and focuses more on the lab work side if studying and identifying ants. Ants of the Southwest is all the fun parts of the hobby; field work, specimen gathering, pinning ants, collecting data, I don't understand why Ants of the Southwest is the less popular of the two. If anything I found it a lot easier to get accepted into as a hobbyist.

$1300 for tuition
Coming from NJ it cost me about $500 for a plane ticket (return trip included.)
$150 for course supplies (not all of which are needed.)
and maybe $200 to rent a car. (your price will vary)

In total that's about $2,150 which sounds like a lot. But it's really easy to budget that. Get a credit card that has 0% APR for the first year or so. Even if it's one of the ones that charges you 25% interest you don't get charged that until the term is up. So every week you can just put $100 or so towards paying it off and you're good. At that rate it will take you 5 to 6 months and you can then apply for a better card that has a better interest rate.

Another great reason to go is you never know what you'll find. At the time that I took this photograph I thought it was just a butterfly with black spots on the wings. As it turns out they're actually midges, which are small parasitic flies that feed on the blood or haemolymph of animals or insects. They're considered one of the "no-sees" of the insect world. Meaning they're absurdly abundant but really you don't ever notice them unless they're already attached to something else. There are thousands of different species, many of which look identical, but mostly specialize on one or two groups of hosts. In this particular case, I believe I'm the first person to ever photograph them feeding on a butterflies wings, and not just one or two but at least 8 all at once following the vanes in the wings!   

So there are plenty of reasons to go to this course, and I say if the grad students aren't going to fill those places, then let the hobbyists fill it up! 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Attention All Coffee Drinkers!

Keep an eye you for this symbol when buying coffee.

There are two species of Coffee plants in the world that are farmed. One grows in the shade of tropical rain forest trees and the amazing diversity that entails. Roughly 700 tree species in one square mile! The other grows in Sun and requires the rain forest be cleared and any sort of mountainous terrain to be bulldozed into a flatter slope. This is devastating stuff!

You can plant all the native plants you want to save the birds, but if they can't get their food when they migrate south it's all for nothing. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, right behind oil! For some countries it makes up 40% of their exports! This is an issue!

One problem pointed out by the symbol though is that certification only requires "trees" be grown in the coffee field, but doesn't specify what type. So farmers are free to do a more Permaculture approach with their farms. Permaculture is great but not on such a large scale where, if the plants still don't provide food for wildlife. Sadly it's currently not know what species of trees should be planted in these types of farm conditions. Anything native would certainly be better than nonnative but we don't have a detailed list of plants to say which genera and species are most beneficial to that part of the world.

So the symbol has some kinks to work out, but it's my understanding that they will update their standards when the research comes out. Until then, some trees are better than no trees. And Shade Coffee is better than Sun Coffee.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Georgia Aster

Symphyotrichum georgianum, is easily one of the latest flowering perennials in the temperate US. Both a failing and a highlight of this species is that they start blooming right after the trees have dropped a lot of their leaves. Goldenrod and other Asters are all usually past the half way mark in their bloom by the time this species even starts to flower. So a lot of the plant be beneath a pile of leaves leaving mostly just the flowers poking up among the fall color.

This is also an endangered species in the wild but nurseries are easily able to propagate it by seeds and cuttings, as I intend to do with the few plants I have in my yard.

The flowers themselves are a bit on the scraggly side but the overall size as well as the individually long florets in each flower disk makes them quite attractive.

As far as ecological benefits go, you're probably not missing much by having this species in your garden. While they are restricted to a few populations in the state of Georgia, the species is hardy from zones 5 to 9. The plants in my yard are really just prolonging the the lives of a few male bumblebees another week or two.

Older specimens can be quite floriferous, turning more bush-like, similar to but not quite like Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. If you're going for a low bushy boarder of flowers though you should probably just plant S. oblongifolium, and really unless you have a nice population of New England Asters going, there isn't much reason to plant Georgia Aster. Everything that is going to over winter is pretty well fed already. But if you're still looking for something that flowers this late in the year then by all means give S. georgianum a try.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red Spotted Purple Emerges

Well the Red Spotted Purple emerged, Limenitis arthemis. And it's bizarrely small, maybe 3 inches wide at most. I've heard of small generations of other Lepidoptera being born but it was always attributed to poor leaf quality, occasionally species having to eat leaves that had already fallen off of trees. I don't think that's what happened here. In the last two instars I was picking leaves fresh off the tree in groups of four to seven and the caterpillar consumed them all in one sitting. My only thought on this is either it's somehow beneficial to be smaller than typical during the winter months (when these dwarf versions tend to occur) and must be somehow triggered by either chemicals in the tree leaves it consumed and/or hours in the day. 

I did notice the White Snowdrift Crabapple retained its leaves, and still has them on the tree even now, where as the native American Plum, Beach Plum and Black Cherry have all already dropped their leaves. It also had ripening fruit on it, so maybe it's just a result of hosting on Apples instead of Plums at this time of year. (They can use both).

I'm going to try and keep this one in captivity. We're well past the time to let them go for the year, and outside the only thing blooming is Goldenrod and Georgia Asters. The species does not migrate south and they do not over winter as adults, so there's zero chance of it surviving beyond a week. My intent is to keep this one as a specimen.