Last blooms of fall offer needed nectar
RAYMOND, Miss. -- As fall quickly winds down, gardening experts urge Mississippians not to throw in the trowel just yet.
Some pollinators are still active and need nectar for energy to reproduce or migrate to their overwintering locations.
"Some gardeners might want to begin pruning plants that may have started to fizzle out for the year, like butterfly bush or butterfly weed," said Gary Bachman, Mississippi State University Extension Service horticulture specialist and host of Southern Gardening. "But I encourage them to not prune those plants just yet. We still have butterflies and bees out and about, so keep that food source available for them a little longer."
Mississippi's severe drought can make it hard for pollinators to find water and ample nectar.
Butterflies prefer very shallow water, which may be especially hard to find right now.
“Butterflies like puddles, but they don’t want to be submerged in the water,” said Bachman, who is also an Extension and researcher professor based at the MSU Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. “What I’ve seen other people do is take bowls and saucers and put rocks in them, then fill the dishes with water so that the rock is only one-third or halfway covered by the water.”
Nectar sources could be scarce in most areas of the state after weeks with little to no rain. Bachman suggests people replace summer annuals with leafy green plants, such as kale and cabbage. When allowed to go to flower, these plants will offer nectar sources on warm winter days and into early spring. Leaving hummingbird feeders up can also provide some energy for butterflies and bees.
Gardeners who want pollinator-friendly landscapes also can begin planning for spring. Incorporating native milkweed will help support dwindling populations of monarch butterflies, which have lost breeding and overwintering habitat.
Pat Drackett, director of the Mississippi State University Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, began a seed trial of nine native milkweed species in 2016 to help Mississippi gardeners identify and plant native milkweed. The plant is the only food source for monarch caterpillars and provides a place for them to lay eggs.
“In the spring of 2015, we had a lot of questions from gardeners about what kind of milkweed they should plant to help support monarchs and where to get it,” Drackett said. “What I found after consulting with field botanists was that there are about 15 native species found throughout the state, and about six of them appear to have promise for wider use in home gardens. But it can difficult to find them in the trade. The most commonly available Asclepias species -- tropical milkweed -- is sometimes mislabeled as a native species.”
Gardeners who want to plant native milkweed species should educate themselves about milkweed and monarch conservation. The best and most economical way to acquire native species is to grow the plants from seed at home and share plants with other gardeners, Drackett said.
“Native milkweed is a critical component for monarch conservation, but it is also a great nectar producer in general,” she said. “It is a good source of nectar for bees, wasps and other pollinators, as well.”
From her 2016 research, Drackett developed a poster and table including the native Asclepias species included in the trial, along with each plant’s preferred habitat. The poster can be viewed on the Monarch Joint Venture website at http://www.monarchjointventure.org/resources/downloads-and-links by clicking on “Milkweed Resources” on the left. An Extension publication expanding on this information is planned in the coming months.
Three native species stood out in the 2016 garden trials: butterfly weed, or A. tuberosa; whorled milkweed, or A. verticillata; and aquatic milkweed, or A. perennis. Seed for these plants are easy to find in the trade. They have a robust growth habit and are abundant bloomers. Hello Yellow and Gay Butterflies, both A. tuberosa varieties, flowered a bit later than the noncultivated species, Drackett said.
“Monarch caterpillars preferred A. verticillata and A. perennis varieties over A. tuberosa, which has hairy leaves and is not as palatable,” she said. “However, the prolific blooms of A. tuberosa make it an excellent addition for pollinators. Bumblebees found it to be irresistible in the arboretum’s pollinator garden.”
A second trial is planned for 2017 with seed obtained from milkweed species growing at the Crosby Arboretum and in other areas of Mississippi.