Horticulture Supervisor, Kyle Cheesborough
Wandering through the garden, the passer-by finds delight in the colors, textures, and smells of flowering plants. Often overlooked are the garden’s many visitors, whether those be in the form of a small lime-green sulphur butterfly or the brilliant-yellow American goldfinch that shouldn’t go unnoticed. In developing a diverse, fruitful, and long-lasting landscape, we inevitably attract an entire world of insects, birds, bats, mammals, and other wildlife. As we consider the flamboyant blooms and intriguing fragrances to add to our gardens, it is best to remember that a buzzing bumblebee, a flighty hummingbird, or a fluttering butterfly can be just as stimulating.
Bumblebees are best attracted to native plants, and with the great variety of species native to Missouri, you are bound to have a flock around a collection of native flowering perennials. Bumblebees are also attracted to plants in the deadly nightshade family, which includes tomatoes. In fact, tomatoes are much more efficiently pollinated by bumblebees, who use their powerful wings to vibrate the tomato flower, releasing copious amounts of pollen. The myriad other native bees are best attracted by planting native trees, shrubs, and perennials. In addition to proper plant selection, many of our smaller native bee species nest inside of hollow stems, in bare dirt, or in bundles of sticks and debris. Keeping small areas of bare dirt – especially in full sun – can provide vital habitat to ground-nesting bees; leaving the dead stems of tall perennials into mid-spring will afford tunnel-nesting bees a place to call home. Many of the smaller bee species are very colorful – bright greens, metallic blues, and yellows, like the hard to see but beautiful yellow-masked bee.
Yellow faced bee and carpenter bee
Butterflies are some of the most interesting visitors to the landscape, and their slow, meandering flight pattern gives the observer the chance to appreciate the range of colors from one species to the next. Butterflies lay their eggs on specific plant species – called a ‘host plant’ – so their larvae can have immediate access to food (leaves). With the extensive research done on the relationship of butterfly species to host plants, one can easily find lists of native plants that will attract banded hairstreaks, common buckeyes, great fritillary, American ladies, zebra swallowtails, and so many other dazzling butterflies native to Missouri.
Don’t forget about moths! Moths are just as stunning as their butterfly cousins, and not all are nocturnal. The giant Polyphemus moth finds its home in witch hazel and hazelnut shrubs, and sometimes feeds on river birch. Never to be outdone, the nearly fluorescent green luna moth uses persimmon, walnut, sweetgum and sumac as its host plants. The diurnal hawk moth mimics the flight of a hummingbird, but often has the markings of a large bumblebee; hawk moth caterpillars feed on the leaves of hawthorns and viburnum.
With the convivial introduction of the insects comes the invitation to insectivorous birds and other wildlife – like foxes – whose diets depend on a steady supply of insect meals. Planting shrubs that provide cover for small songbirds, or those that produce delectable berries, will entice the flocks of cedar waxwing, or the black-capped chickadee, or Baltimore oriole. Even larger birds like the Mississippi kite find most of their sustenance coming from an insect diet. The majestic American kestrel, a bird-of-prey with an amazing array of colors in its plumage, will find a garden filled with songbirds a delight. In our efforts to improve upon the landscape, attempts to appreciate and provide for the wildlife are essential. Treating our wild visitors as we do our most delicate flowers will serve to foster a healthier ecosystem, and recognizing that this layer of life in the garden is just as tantalizing and stupendous as the most colorful blooming plants will allow the gardener to truly enjoy their work.
compiled by Cara L. Crocker