Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hydrangeas are for butterflies, too

I hadn't really thought of hydrangeas as a butterfly shrub, and I don't recall noticing any butterflies on or around the Annabelle hydrangea that grew at our last house. However, it had only been planted just before we moved in there and it didn't really start blooming in its characteristic profusion until last summer, when we moved out.

Still, I was genuinely surprised when I was going for a bike ride about a week or so ago and spotted a tiger swallowtail happily sipping from a panicle hydrangea in an alleyside garden just a block away. The same shrub played host to a small blue butterfly (like the one I had spotted in my yard only a few days before and wrote about here) and several bees. I really like most hydrangeas, but because I believed that they didn't have much wildlife value, I've tried to temper my enthusiasm for them somewhat, wanting to emphasize wildlife-friendly plants in my garden as much as possible. Now I feel like I've just been given the go-ahead (by a butterfly, no less), to add a hydrangea or two to my landscape plans.

But the one kind of hydrangea I have not so much cared for are the Endless Summer macrophyllas and their mophead kin. They were introduced by Minnesota's own Bailey nurseries several years ago and received with great enthusiasm because they were the first mopheads that can survive our zone 4 winters. I'll admit that my tendency to be suspicious of anything that's too trendy may have somewhat influenced my tepid response to these popular flowers. But it's more than that. Try as I did to appreciate them, I just found them to be a bit too artificial looking for my taste; and I don't like the extra fussiness of tinkering with the soil pH through the use of various additives (most commonly aluminum sulphate) required to get the intense blue color that makes them so popular.

I don't know whether Endless Summer appeals to butterflies, but I do know that the more showy flowers are the ones that are not fertile, so they have no reason to offer nectar to entice pollinators. The kind of hydrangeas that have both the showy flowers and the nonshowy fertile ones (which tend to look like little buds, either clustered in the center, like in the lacecap above, or mixed among the nonfertile blooms, as in the panicle at top), are more likely to offer something for the butterflies. (I admit, I'm speculating here, but it stands to reason, doesn't it?)

I photographed the blue lacecap, above, at a bed and breakfast in Ludington, Michigan, last week when we took a road trip up and around the top of Lake Michigan after bringing our daughter, Nora, to college in Albion. I love the pale blue of the outer florets paired with the deep indigo blue of the small fertile flowers in the center, and was thinking that it would sure be nice if I could grow a hydrangea like that at home. But most of Michigan is in a much milder climate zone than Minneapolis. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that one of the newer introductions in the Endless Summer series, called Twist and Shout, looks just like that!

I'm still considering the different panicle hydrangeas and haven't decided which one I'll plant, or where. But now it looks like I may end up with an Endless Summer hydrangea as well, once I find out whether their soil pH preferences match up with my front yard, where two overgrown fir trees (slated to be removed this winter) have been dropping their needles for a few decades (which may have acidified the soil).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Baby Blues

I was out in the backyard today when tiny pale blue wings fluttered by. I had my camera handy, so I grabbed it and took some shots as the lilliputian butterfly flitted about among the white clover in my lawn. I know there are a few types of blue butterflies in Minnesota, all of them with a wingspan no bigger than about an inch, and so easy to miss unless you're keyed in to spotting pretty little things. Maybe I'm even a little obsessed with them; I think they're adorable and will make a point of planting their favorite flowers to encourage them to stick around.

All the blues are small; in fact, the tiniest butterfly in the world is the pygmy blue, native to the American Southwest, according to Stokes Butterfly Book. Its wingspan is less than a half inch.

The upper side of the wings is the blue part, a pale almost lavender color that you only glimpse as it flutters about.  This guy would not spread his wings when he perched on the clover, so all I could get is a shot of the underside of the folded wings, which is more silver, with distinctive spots. But that's how you identify them, so he was actually being helpful. See the hint of orange in the two splotchy spots near the base of the wings (you should be able to click on the second photo to get a larger view; it doesn't look as orange in these photos as it did in real life), and the two rows of black spots with white margins, and (this is really hard to spot) the really tiny threadlike "tail" by the not-quite-orange spots? All those markings identify this guy as a male Eastern tailed blue. (And you thought I was being sexist, didn't you?) The females don't have the orange spots and aren't as blue.

It won't be hard to provide both nectar and larval plants for these and the other blues—silvery blue and spring and summer azures are also found in Minnesota (and far beyond, of course). They all like legumes, such as clover, vetch and alfalfa, for both caterpillar food and nectar. The silvery blue also likes lupine and dandelions, and the spring azure goes for dogwood, wild cherry, and meadowsweet. (I believe that's the wild spirea, S. alba, although some sites that came up on a quick search say it's filipendula; that's why I often find common plant names a bit annoying, even if they are more poetic than their scientific counterparts).

Eastern tailed blues also like to take nectar from goldenrod, asters, fleabane, white sweetclover (that's our native clover) as well as the Dutch white clover often growing in lawns and pictured here. Did you notice how many of those plants are common weeds that many people work very hard to get rid of?

It's good timing on the butterfly's part, since I am in the process of planning the gardens; a delicate reminder to remember all the butterflies that may find their way to my yard, and not just the big showy ones (I already have a few species of native liatris planted to please the monarchs).