Monday, April 20, 2015

First Black Swallowtail

The first of the Black Swallowtails I stored last autumn have finally started emerging. Just one so far, but I have a cage with somewhere close to 18 chrysalises. It's a female judging by the strong patch of blue on the wings. Males tend to have a more strongly defined row of yellow spots.


I like handling them at this stage because they're easy to pose on plants and flowers. I didn't quite do a good job here though. It's a little unrealistic that they'd be on a native plum but I suppose anything's possible.

Her wings weren't quite stiff enough to fly off so she took to being placed in the sun real well. You can get in nice and close, at least as much as my camera would allow.

I know some photographers have lenses that let you zoom in on the eyes.

More to come, though there's a possibility some might hatch out as parasitic wasps.

This year I kept them stored outside in the green house for shelter. It was left open so the temperatures didn't fool them into emerging too early as it did last year, (had them emerging in February). This year I think the timing is more correct. I'm seeing Mourning Cloaks flying about and the host plants Golden Alexander has plenty of foliage for caterpillars, (though they sure love parsley and fennel more).

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Native Garden Growing Old


One of the absolute joys of having grown native plants for close what has to be ten years now is finding some of the more finicky plants reproducing in the yard.

It's nice when nurseries tell you the lighting conditions and how much moisture a plant loved but there's so much more to plants than that. What's the moisture supposed to be like over the winter? Do they like sandy soil, rocks, clay, loam? If so, is it just that they're tolerant of it, or is this a soil type they would naturally like to grow in? It's things like this that often leave gardeners wondering why certain plants never establish or do well in some locations.

I've found a lot of native plants are drought tolerant, but sometimes that's at the cost of them flowering and or going on to produce viable seed. 

One of the first natives I planted was a Hepatica acutiloba. Just one. This is a little seedling of that plant that's come up adjacent to that original plant. While I've since moved the parent, I still occasionally find seedlings sprouting up in that location.

When I found this species in the wild it was several plants nestled in a rocky slope on the shady bank of a river, just above the flood line. The seeds do have packets of elaiosome on them indicating that ants are the ideal method for planting them, however I've never been able to see this in action even after handing the seeds to the ants! The ants mostly ignore them, except for the invasive pavement ant, Tetramorium caespitum, but I'm 99% certain they'd eat the seeds instead of discard them in the nest for planting. This can happen even with native ant species too, it's just odd I haven't found a species that takes interest in the seeds to this plant. Maybe I'm using the wrong Hepatica species?

Something else I find odd is that the plant would produce a hairy stem this early on. I've read that the hair on the stem are to prevent ants from stealing nectar from the flower.... so why is it on a fresh stem, to a leaf, on a first year seedling, that's no where near a flowering age? The flowers on adult plants are produced higher early in the spring before any new leaves are pushed out.

And speaking of adult plants, the new ones I installed are finishing up their bloom phase. Soon they'll be pushing up new leaves. These flowering stems will lose their petals and slowly lean outward as the star-like cluster of seeds develops. When they're ready, the star of seeds basically falls apart. (I wonder if the seeds have to be wet for ants to take interest in them as the elaiosome isn't stored in a pod.) Another theory as to why the ant seed dispersal hasn't worked is the lack of cross pollination. Well this year I've seen mason bees working the flowers on sunny mornings so I might be able to rule that out, assuming they don't require a specialized pollinator.

Another page in the joys of seeds walking away from me comes in the form of Trilliums. Here a new Trillium seedling has pushed up its first leaf right in the lawn. (Either that or its a Pikmin) Thankfully it's a shady spot that never needs mowing, and also they're pretty easy to transplant. I've been growing Trilliums for years now so it's great to finally see this occurring.

Many of the Trilliums I've been growing have either diminished in root size or otherwise fluctuated between good and bad years but never really expanded. I believe this was because the soil wasn't healthy enough for them to really establish well thus their population stayed steady. Something that I started doing was allowing the leaf litter to stay on the flower beds I had Trilliums planted in. It's taken forever but finally the leaf litter has mulched itself in and I'm starting to see the established plants doing a lot better. Some of the smaller plants that never flowered before are dividing like crazy this year. I've got at least two plants that are pushing up a dozen stems, and even some of those have blooms on them. They're still pushing through the soil so I don't have an exact count but I'm impressed with the progress.

Another issue I was having was, some species weren't getting enough moisture over the summer months. So they'd come up and flower pretty but they couldn't maintain a seed pod once the summer heat set in, and watering them didn't seem to be helping much either. The leaves looked like they were cooking in the sun almost, despite the full shade conditions. I've since transplanted these to a different garden bed and they seem to do okay, though I won't know for sure until I see them flower and seed this year. At any rate they're getting more shade and are closer to the hose now.

Jeffersonia diphylla, Twinleaf is the other gardening triumph this year. I started with three plants, only one of which would flower. I was having the same issue where some years I'd lose the seed pod to lack of watering over the summer so I decided to move the one that flowered into a wetter flower bed and it died! The other two I basically ignored until last year when I noticed one flowering. It had a single bloom on it if I recall and this year it's produced eight!

This is one of the hardest wildflower to find flowering in the wild. From the time the blooms open you have roughly 8 hours to 2 days to see them and get your pictures in. Something as simple as a windy day will make them drop their petals and that will be it for the year! Because of this, pollination, and especially cross pollination isn't that common. I'm not sure that cross pollination is necessary to produce seed but I've heard it does help the plant make larger packets of elaiosome to entice more ants to transplant the seeds. My fingers are crossed that the seed pods develop because I'd rather not risk transplanting them again.

I've since found a wholesaler for Twinleaf, and Trilliums, and I'm reasonably happy with the product they sent me this year. It's just great seeing plants I've established are also trying to save me money.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Insects Take Flight

I went to the local woods last week.

Winters Ants were flying though I didn't notice any queens. It was nothing but males (pictured here caught in a spider web). The species is Prenolepis imparis and in general they produce around 200 males for every new queen. In years past I was able to find them in abundance but not so much this year. Queens arrive and are quickly taken by a few dozen males. It's unclear if more than one gets to mate with her but they certainly try.

Workers to established colonies were also out foraging. Whole lines of these ants were streaming up and down trees, collecting the earliest bits of sap pushed out by newly forming buds.

The Mourning Cloaks were also fluttering about occasionally landing to sunbath. I believe they over winter in the adult stage and mate around this time of year, just before their host plants push out the first flush of flowers and leaves. They host on Willows, Birch, Elm, Cottonwood, a few others too; generally trees you find in a mature forest.

Despite their color here, they turn almost invisible when laying among the leaves. The rich rosy copper tone seen here is more like a black when viewed from afar. The spots along the edge of the wing change from blue, to white, to pink depending on the angle they're viewed. Often the wings are closed up when resting, making them blend in with the leaves perfectly. 

This one was sun bathing and didn't seem to mind me getting up close. It did flutter away when I blocked the sun though.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hepatica in Bloom

And so begins another year of Wildflower watching. The plants of Hepatica acutiloba (or Liver Leaf as they're never called,) I acquired from Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Nursery are doing well. I believe most of these are from Prairie Nursery which were slightly larger than the plugs I got from Prairie Moon. But they've also had an additional year to establish. Likewise I'm not entirely certain I've planted them in the correct type of soil. A lot of our ephemeral plants do best where the leaf litter has naturally mulched into good soil. Decades of raking out the gardens probably isn't doing them any favors. (I've also planted ~80 Trilliums this year, so we'll see how those do.)


Up close this is one of the most charming wildflowers you'll meet. Six nice little petals glistening in the sun. And on occasion you'll find a mason bee working one. Honeybees do work these but only in mass plantings that can take years to establish. Flowers only produce pollen so they're not a big hit with Honeybees. Blooming seems to happen just after the earliest Crocuses have faded but by then the Willows are out and other types of trees like Maple, non-native Magnolias which may be offering up nectar as well. 

Hepatica comes in a variety of colors, though white is certainly the most common. By luck I've been given a few pink ones but I don't find these to be as pretty. Many of them have a big green stigma in the middle and I find the color combination unappealing. Darker shades of lavender and even a solid blue look a little better. Actually the solid blue ones I treasure above all else but none seem to have flowered and I won't even know if they survived the winter until they produce new leaves for the year.

One of the white ones appears to be a double flowering type. Instead of the standard 6 petals I count 10.

Others have 11 so it would seem to vary somewhat.

My goal with this plant is to finally get some plants that produce viable seed so I can see what ants like dispersing the seeds. In past years I've had plants make seed but the ants never bothered with them. I suspect poor pollination had lead to inadequate eliasome production; that is, the packet of ant food on the seed wasn't of a quality to the ants liking. Probably due to poor pollination.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Ants in Space


And here's a link to BioEd Online for more information; mainly a pdf and a presentation teachers can show to students.