Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Prairie Plant Profile #1 - Big Red Sage

This is the first of a monthly (hopefully) feature where I profile a plant in my prairie. Each month I will photograph and describe a plant from my garden that is of particular interest at the time. For the sake of alliteration and the opportunity to show I know and can even spell a five syllable word, I will call the post Prairie Plant Profile.

Big red sage, Salvia penstemonoides, is the subject of my first profile. This Texas native perennial was once thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now regularly available at native plant sales and nurseries that specialize in natives.

Big red sage has simple, elongated, glossy leaves that look similar to the leaves of a penstemon, which is how it gets its botanical name and the alternate common name, penstemon sage. The plant grows about three feet tall, with most of that height being from the flower stalk. The flowers are purplish red and very attractive to hummingbirds, as are most other salvias. Big red sage grows in full sun or with some afternoon shade. My plants are drought tolerant, but appreciate an occasional soaking. The lower leaves of my plants sometimes turn yellow and die—maybe from getting too dry. My plants start blooming in June and continue blooming into November. You can cut the flower stalks back to the rosette after the plant stops blooming, but I leave the stalks on mine long enough to set some seeds. I usually find a couple of volunteer seedlings each spring, so it is not an aggressive re-seeder.

Plant some big red sage in your garden. It is a great tall accent flower and attracts hummingbirds.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Royal Visit to the Prairie

One day after my post on monarch butterflies, another member of the royal family made its presence known on the prairie. When I arrived home from work, there were seven queen butterflies roaming around the prairie and sipping nectar from the Gregg’s Mistflower, Conoclinium greggii or Eupatorium greggi. The queens were joined by a few skippers.
At first glance, monarch and queen butterflies may look the same, but once they open their wings, it is easy to tell the difference. Monarchs have a black veining pattern on their open wings and queen butterflies do not.

This photo from 2008 shows a monarch on Eryngo, Eryngium leavenworthii .

This photo shows a queen butterfly in the prairie today.

Plant some Gregg’s mistflower and you are guaranteed to attract monarch, queen and many other butterflies and bees to your garden. You just don’t get that with impatiens and begonias.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monarch Waystation Certification

In a previous post, I wrote about obtaining Wildlife Habitat certifications from the National Wildlife Federation and Texas Parks and Wildlife. I recently submitted my prairie for certification as a Monarch Waystation.

As a Monarch Waystation, my prairie provides food and shelter for monarch butterflies as they make their annual migration through Texas and North America. I have several varieties of blooming flowers that provide nectar for the butterflies as they pass through. I also have increasing numbers of milkweed plants that will provide food for monarch caterpillars if the butterflies ever decide to lay eggs on my plants.
The migration of monarch butterflies is truly amazing. Unfortunately, land development and the use of herbicides are reducing the availability of food for adult butterflies and their caterpillars. Additionally, the monarchs are losing their overwintering grounds in Mexico to deforestation. 

CBS News did an interesting piece on the plight of monarch butterflies. There is some amazing footage in this video.
Now I have to figure out where and how to post my signs. I want to put them near the sidewalk so passersby can see them and have a better understanding of what I am doing with my yard, aka my prairie. I bought an 8 foot cedar post to attach the signs to, but I am rethinking that idea because I do not want the sign post to be a distraction in my prairie. Any ideas?

Top photo - Monarchs on Gregg's Mistflower, Eupatorium greggi in 2008.
Middle photo - Flowers of Green Milkweed, Asclepias Viridis.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Sometimes, things are not always as they appear. The glob on this twig looks like a bird dropping. It is not. It is the camouflaged caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly. This particular caterpillar is about 2 inches long and will soon pupate. Within a few of weeks, I should have a giant swallowtail butterfly soaring around the prairie and sipping on nectar from the prairie flowers.

The caterpillar has been feeding on the leaves of my Hercules Club sapling, Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, for a couple of weeks. In the photo below, the caterpillar is on the main stem just below the lower branches. 
Hercules Club is a medium sized tree with spiny branches. I also have the closely related Toothache Tree, Zanthoxylum hirsutum. Both trees look the same to me. I assume I have both varieties, but it is always possible that one or both of the plants were mislabeled at the native plant sales. Both trees are hosts to the giant swallowtail butterfly larva and both trees will numb your mouth if you chew on the leaves are bark, hence the name Toothache tree.
It's true that sometimes, things are not always as they appear. Other times, things are exactly as they appear. This glob in my bird bath looks like a bird dropping. It is.

06-10-10 UPDATE: The caterpillar is gone. I hope it found a safe place to pupate and transform into a butterfly. Wasps get many of my caterpillars once they are plump and juicy.