Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Butterflies are Evil Creatures

Aha! I bet I got your interest with the headline.

Do I really think butterflies are evil? Of course not! Like many of you, I've dedicated a sizable chunk of my landscape to encouraging them to visit, sip a while, and lay eggs. I have larval host plants for monarch butterflies, sulfur butterflies, black swallowtails, zebra longwings and Gulf fritillaries. 

But that's where the conundrum lies. I love, love, love these flying gems, but the gardener in me is horrified by the destruction they leave in their wake.

Exhibit Number One:
A lush, robust and garishly blooming red passionvine that looked spectacular on my fence in early March due to our warm winter.

And, here it is below, two days ago. Agent Orange could not have done a better job of defoliating it than the army of Gulf fritillaries that has stripped it over the last month. At peak munch, we counted 32 caterpillars on it at one time -- and I know we missed some!

The culprit: a Gulf fritillary caterpillar,
one of dozens
Yesterday, one lone caterpillar remained, relegated to chewing on bare stems.

I know red passionvine can be horribly invasive -- I've heard horror tales of it taking over pool enclosures and even climbing over roofs -- but in my yard it never gets the chance to outgrow its allotted space. The fritillaries see to that.

The sulfurs have arrived too, and their babies have already given the cassia tree a severe pruning.
I bought more milkweed to tide over the monarchs till the remnants of the last group gluttony recover. 

And I expect the parsley I scattered in pots around the yard will soon attract the interest of the black swallowtails. I saw one feeding on angelonia blooms recently, so I know the parsley's days are short-lived.
One of last year's crop of black swallowtails on parsley. Dill and fennel are also good host plants for this species, but parsley is easiest for me to grow in our hot summers.
It's always hard for me to bear the plant mutilation. I take great pride in caring for my garden and having it look good. But I wouldn't trade the result -- the fluttering, dipping and swooping splashes of color that grace my garden when the caterpillars finally turn into perfect winged jewels that always lift my spirits.
The reward: A Gulf fritillary butterfly
Besides, the plants will recover. They always do, and pretty quickly too. And then we'll be counting caterpillars again. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Subtle Beauty of Spiderwort

It pops up like a weed every Spring, and many people treat it like one, trampling it, ripping it out or mowing it down. Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) deserves better.

Spiderwort is not too picky about its home. It grows everywhere from the rich, mucky edges of ponds to pure sand. It takes blazing sun to part shade, and it doesn't ask for much water. It spreads by rhizomes, so a single plant will, in fairly short order, give you an entire bed.

Most importantly, they produce lovely little blue flowers. Who doesn't love blue in the garden, as a contrast to all that pink and red and yellow? A bonus? Bees, which apparently have a great affinity for blue, like it too!

Also called Dayflower because its blossoms open in the morning and close by midday, Spiderwort is a true Florida native found along roadsides, ponds, the understory of shrubs and trees, and anywhere it can get a toehold in a residential landscape, including cracks in sidewalks and driveways! I admit that I too viewed it as an unsightly weed until a few years ago, when a friend gave me a huge bag of them harvested from her garden.

Spiderwort blooms from spring to early summer. If you cut it back close to the ground in mid-summer, it will rejuvenate and bloom again in the fall. It makes a nice groundcover or addition to a wildflower bed. It only grows to 1-2 feet in height and will be happy in whatever space you give it.

I have grown to love it for its easygoing nature, extreme drought tolerance and its subtle beauty. Not big, not flashy, just steady, reliable and no trouble at all.  

That's my kind of plant.