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Notes from the Garden - May, June, July 2014

Sunshine and warm temperatures surely will make a gardener’s heart sing - especially after the long, cold winter we have experienced this year. As the warm days of May turn into hot, humid days of July, many plants respond to this time of light and warmth by flowering, surrounding us with beauty. Moreover, these flowers produce nectar that is food for our pollinator friends such as butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Over the last few years we have seen an increase in awareness about these pollinators, especially the importance of bees to our food supply by moving pollen from flower to flower, fertilizing the plant and allowing fruit (and seeds) to form. Without pollination more than 1/3 of our food supply would disappear. There are numerous reasons for the problem of "pollinator decline," but lack of adequate habitat and flowering plants is one issue, an issue that we can address in our gardening practices at the Garden and in your own home landscapes. As you walk through the Garden this summer, take special note of these plants, paying particular attention not just to their beauty, but also to the number of bees, butterflies and other insects they attract.

May: Pentas
Pentas (Pentas lanceolata) is a wonderful, heat-loving annual from tropical Africa that blooms throughout the summer, attracting flocks of butterflies and bees to enjoy the nectar. Pentas has long been a staple in the Purdy Butterfly House, but we have also used it throughout the Garden in color beds, due to its long bloom season and garden performance. The color range includes shades of red, pink, purple, lavender and, of course, white. Dwarf selections make a wonderful mass of vibrant color growing twelve inches tall and are magnets for pollinating insects. Pentas is one the best annual plants for full sun and has received numerous awards from trial gardens throughout the country.

June: Coneflowers
I used to talk about how much I like purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), southeastern native perennials, and the way they bloom much of the summer and attract so many pollinating insects, especially butterflies. Well I still love coneflowers but I can’t just call them ‘purple’ anymore, since plant breeders have gone overboard and released selections in colors of white, yellow, orange, mahogany, fuschia, magenta, mauve, pink, and, of course, purple. When we opened the Purdy Butterfly House in 2006, we planted several beds of the Big Sky Series that had just been released, especially ‘Sunrise’ (a yellow form) and ‘Sunset’ (an orange selection). These plants have done well in the Garden and it seems that new coneflowers are being introduced each year. Two improvements I really like in the breeding efforts are smaller, more compact plants and many, many more flowering stems. Some cultivars (‘Mistral,’ ‘Kim’s Knee High,’ and ‘Crazy Pink’) may have up to 30 flowers on one plant ... now that is a great garden performer. You will find plantings of coneflowers throughout the Garden, for it is wonderful to mix with other flowering perennials such as lantana, black-eyed Susan, and pincushion flower, as well as many of the ornamental grasses. Come out and find your favorite color of purple coneflower to plant in your garden and watch the bees and butterflies flock to your plants.

July: Butterfly Weed
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower native to the southeastern United States. It flowers in the most vivid shades of orange and occasionally red. It is a very important plant in our Garden for it serves two purposes - one as a nectar plant for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies but more importantly it functions as the host plant for Monarch butterflies. As a host plant, butterfly weed is a place for adult female monarchs to lay their eggs for the next generation of butterflies. The eggs hatch and caterpillars begin feeding on the foliage, often stripping a whole plant in just a few days. When the Garden received certification from the Monarch Watch organization as a Monarch Butterfly Way Station, extensive plantings of butterfly friendly plants, especially butterfly weed were added throughout the site. Not only has the Garden planted butterfly weed but also swamp milkweed (A. incarnata, pink flowers), Mexican milkweed (A. curassavica, orange-yellow flowers), and common milkweed (A. syriaca, pale pink flowers) throughout the Garden to offer many locations for monarchs to lay their eggs. Moreover, these flowering plants are magnets for honey bees and other native bees, thus helping to foster the care of these important pollinators.