Birds and Blooms Blog

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Spring Butterfly Gardening Reminders

Jill Staake

Some people watch for robins patrolling the lawn. Others wait for the first sign of cherry blossoms. But for some people, spring hasn’t arrived until they see their first butterfly, colorful wings flashing in the sun. Perhaps you’ve already seen your first butterfly this year, or maybe you’re still anxiously awaiting its arrival. Here are a few things to remember about springtime butterflies and butterfly gardening.

Butterfly Gardening

Jill Staake Don’t forget the small ones! Spring Azures are roughly the size of your thumbnail.

What happens to butterflies in winter?
The answer to this question varies by species. A few species migrate or move further south, like the famous Monarch migration. But most butterflies overwinter in the same area where they spend the summer, in various forms. Some butterflies, like the Mourning Cloak, overwinter as butterflies without migrating (though some populations will head south for the winter). These butterflies seek out dry cracks in the rocks or warm tree hollows and hunker down for winter. Other butterflies, like Great Spangled Fritillaries, overwinter as caterpillars buried in the earth. And some, like Cabbage White butterflies, overwinter in chrysalis (pupa). In all cases, these creatures enter a state known as “diapause“, which is much like hibernation, in which all of their bodily functions stop until the weather warms up again. (Learn more about butterflies in winter here.)

How warm must it be for butterflies to fly?
Butterflies are “poikilotherms”, which is essentially like being cold-blooded; their body temperatures reflect the temperatures outdoors. Most butterflies need a body temperature of about 80 degrees F to fly, but it doesn’t need to be nearly that warm outside. Butterflies use solar energy to pump up their body temperature by as much as 20 degrees above the temperatures outside. So when outdoor temperatures consistently start reaching 60 degrees F or so, butterflies will begin flying, at least on sunny days.

Which butterflies appear first in spring?
This of course varies by region, but here are a few to look for as soon as days hit the 60s and 70s in your area:

  • Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) overwinter as butterflies, and will emerge as soon as the days warm up, probably looking a little tattered and worn. They can be seen across most of the country.
  • Eastern Commas (Polygonia comma) also overwinter as adult butterflies, emerging in early spring and laying eggs on the first new growth of nettles and elm trees. As the name suggests, they’re found in the eastern half of the country, except the Deep South.
  • Cabbage Whites (Pieris rapae) and other members of this genus overwinter in chrysalis, making their appearance in early spring as newly-emerged butterflies. They’re seen around the country, and their caterpillars are often considered pests by vegetable farmers. (Learn more here.)
  • Spring Azures (Celstrina ladon) are another butterfly species that overwinter in chrysalis and appear in early spring as newly-emerged adults. This tiny blue butterfly is found throughout the country, except in the Deep South.

What if butterflies emerge before there any plants for them to nectar on?
The “first” butterfly of spring, the Mourning Cloak, has this problem solved. It actually rarely nectars on flowers, instead preferring tree sap, which by now has been running for weeks in most places. In other cases, the earliest wildflowers of spring coincide with the first butterflies, and some of the best early nectar plants are actually flowering trees like redbuds and dogwood.

Butterfly Gardening

Jill Staake Cabbage Whites and other early butterflies lay eggs on early spring flowers and plants.

How do I attract early butterflies to my yard?
The earliest butterflies may not visit flowers as often, but they’ll still need the right host plants to lay their eggs. Find out which butterflies visit your area in early spring, and make their host plants a part of your butterfly gardening efforts. Provide a few large flat rocks in your butterfly garden, too, for butterflies to bask in the sun on cooler days, and some native ornamental grasses or shrubs for them to seek shelter when spring rains pop up. Get good nectar plants started early, so your garden will be full and inviting when more butterflies arrive. It’s also not uncommon for some butterfly species to visit hummingbird feeders when plant nectar is scarce, so fill your hummingbird feeders when butterflies start to appear to see if you can lure in a few extra visitors.

Have  more questions about butterflies? Drop by our Community forums to send me your questions. Have you seen your first butterfly yet? Share your sightings with others here!

Gardening Ideas: Do You Have a Life List for Plants?

Have you heard the term ‘life list’?  It is a term that birdwatchers use to describe the list of birds that they want to see during their lifetime.

I confess that I don’t have a life list for birds, but as a horticulturist, I have a long list of plants that I hope to see.  During my travels, I have been able to cross off a few plants off of my life list.

Life List of Flowers: Gardening Basics

Top Left: Flowering Agave desmettiana, Baja Fairy Duster, Hedgehog Cactus.
Bottom Left: Flowering Ocotillo, Parry’s Penstemon and Argentine Giant Cactus.

What would you include on your life list for plants that you hope to see?  If you travel through the Southwest, maybe the flower of an agave 0r the vermillion-colored flowers of ocotillo would be on your list?

Pink & Purple Flowering Plants

Top Left: Double-flowering hollyhock, pink hibiscus, radiation lantana.
Bottom Left: Ornamental allium, prairie fire and lupine.

Are you a lover of cool-colored blooms such as pink and purple?  How about the multi-colored blooms of bush lantana or would the tall stalks or ornamental allium topped with purple balls be a must-have for your list?


Top Left: Red bird-of-paradise, purple lilac vine and queen’s wreath vine.
Bottom Left: ‘Lipstick’ Salvia, tropical bird-of-paradise and silk tree blossom.

Do you like to search for different-colored varieties of your favorite plant(s)?  How about ‘Lipstick’ salvia?  If tropical flowers are more your thing, there is nothing to compare with the beauty of tropical bird-of-paradise.

Whenever I am traveling, I’m always on the lookout for flowering plants that I have not seen before.  Even when exploring around my hometown, I’m sometimes surprised by different flowers not often seen here.

Creating a ‘life list’ for flowering plants isn’t hard to do.  If you are crazy about roses, then create one for different rose varieties.  Maybe you love succulents and/or cacti – then create one for these types of plants.  The list is uniquely yours and you can put whatever kinds of plants you like.  As you search out plants to cross off of you list, you may find yourself inspired to use them in your own garden – you never know where gardening ideas will come from.

I must admit that I have a long list of plants on my life list that I have taken pictures of – BUT there was always one missing.  The flower of this plant is almost impossible to see up close much less photograph without a tall ladder as it is usually very high up.  However, last week I finally came within inches of this glorious flower.  I invite you to visit my gardening blog, where you can see what flower I was able to cross of my life list.

How about you?  Would you ever create a life list for flowers and/or plants?  What plants would be on your list?

Picking a Finch Feeder for Your Backyard Bird Feeding Needs

Rob Ripma

As the American Goldfinches near my home start to molt into their breeding colors, it’s definitely the time of year when I commonly get asked about which feeder is best for attracting these cheery birds to people’s backyards. Since feeding this species is so popular, there are many different feeders to choose from when considering your backyard bird feeding needs.

These are some of the many options that you can choose from when buying a finch feeder to meet your backyard bird feeding needs.

These are some of the many options that you can choose from when buying a finch feeder to meet your backyard bird feeding needs. Each of these feeders is available at Wild Birds Unlimited stores.

Most people that feed finches have had a tube feeder with traditional ports such as the green feeder in the photo above. The finches seem to like eating from these tube feeders, but they are prone to get moisture inside of them that can cause mold. You have to be sure to keep those feeders very clean. To help with easy cleaning, be sure to buy a feeder with a removable bottom.

Sock feeders, such as the white sock above, have also been around for a long time. They are very popular with finches, but they do wear out quickly. Since they are inexpensive, it’s not a problem to replace them frequently.

If your finches love sock feeders but you would like something that won’t wear out so quickly, metal mesh finch feeders are right for you. These are my favorite way to feed finches, and I have two of them outside my window right now with many finches on them. These feeders allow for more finches to be on them at the same time (since there isn’t a limited number of ports like the tube feeders), and they tend to have less of a molding problem than the traditional tube feeders. Since the air moves through these feeders, even if the seed gets wet, it dries out quickly.

For those that are having trouble with species other than goldfinches eating all your seed, such as House Sparrows, you might want to consider an upside-down finch feeder. In order to keep some species from eating out of this feeder, the ports are below the perch, making the goldfinches have to flip upside-down in order to feed. This is very hard for birds like the House Sparrow, so they tend to leave the feeder alone.

If you have questions on finch feeders, visit your local backyard bird feeding store such as Wild Birds Unlimited or submit a question in the comment box below.  What is your favorite type of finch feeder?

Everglades Tomato for Backyard Vegetable Gardens

Jill Staake

While planning an Early Florida Settlers’ Garden for the museum where I work, we came across something called Everglades Tomato (Solanum pimpinellifolium) that we’d never heard of before. A friend gave us a few of these small grape-sized tomatoes with the instructions: “Squish them up and bury them in a little soil. That’s all you have to do.” Boy, was she right – it was that easy!

Backyard Vegetable Gardens

Jill Staake Wild Everglades Tomato

These little tomato seeds sprouted in days. We divided them into small pots to give them a little more time to establish, then transplanted them to the garden in about 2 weeks. From there, with water a few times a week and plenty of sunshine, these quickly grew into sprawling plants covered in yellow blooms, followed by small tomatoes perfect for snacking on right from the vine.

Backyard Vegetable Gardens

These plants grew from two small tomatoes’ worth of seeds.

Everglades Tomato is a bit of a mystery. Some people believe it is native to the Florida Everglades. Others say it escaped cultivation early in the days of Florida’s Spanish settlement, or that Native Americans brought it here from other locations. Regardless of the origins, there’s no doubt this tomato grows happily in Florida’s toughest conditions, all year round. If it can survive and thrive in both winter and summer here, I know it will grow in backyard vegetable gardens just about anywhere. Though some sites list it as zones 8 – 11, these start growing and producing fruit so quickly that you should be able to grow it every year as an annual tomato plant up north.

Backyard Vegetable Gardens

Everglades Tomato flowers are familiar to anyone who grows tomatoes.

This is truly the tomato for people who think they can’t grow tomatoes. (Trust me… I am one of those people!) Some folks caution that this plant can get out of hand, so you may want to try it in a raised bed. We’re growing ours in compost mixed with potting soil, and it could not be happier. You can find seeds for sale on the internet, or if you happen to know someone who’s growing it, ask for a tomato or two to drop in some potting soil. You can also start it from cuttings – it’s said to be as easy as “cut a branch, stick in the ground, and keep it watered”. You can let it sprawl far and wide if you have the space, or train it up a trellis or tomato cage support.

Backyard Vegetable Gardens

The fruits grow in dense clusters, but there’s no need to thin them.

Do you have any experience with this plant? Tell us about it in the comments. Want to talk about backyard vegetable gardens with other gardeners? Visit our Community and join in the conversation!

Friday Funny Photography: American Goldfinches

Lorie Enjoy some funny photography and caption this photo!

Friday Funny Photography: American Goldfinches

Birds & Blooms’ Friday Fun Photography snapshot for April 11, 2014: American Goldfinches by Nancy Tully of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Nancy writes, “I always enjoy watching birds at the feeders, especially the American goldfinch. They seem to be showing off all the time. Here, one goldfinch seems to be showing how far it could stretch its wing, but the other one didn’t seem to be impressed.”

Do you have a clever caption for this fun photo? We’d love to hear it!

Garden Basics: How to Dig a Hole

Did you know that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to dig a hole? Learn what size your hole should be before planting to ensure a happy plant.

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