Posts Tagged Spicebush Swallowtail
Does your yard include a bit of shade, perhaps at the edge of a stand of taller trees, with soil that remains relatively moist — even wet — for most of the year? Or maybe your yard includes a low spot, where rainwater pools during prolonged downpours — another spot ideally suited for this native woodland shrub, which can be found in every state east of the Mississippi River, naturally occurring near streams, swamps or moist forest slopes.
When the berries on the female plants are ripe, they turn a deep scarlet, which contrasts beautifully with the bush’s deep green leaves. In my yard, the berries rarely last more than a month; the local birds must find them especially tasty.
The shrub gets its name from the sweet-spicy fragrance of its leaves, which also serves to deter browsing by deer. Some people make a tea from the leaves and twigs, and the dried, powdered fruits can be used as a nutmeg substitute.
Our local Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies use the shrub as a primary food source for their caterpillars. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars will also dine on the leaves, as will the big, beautiful Promethea Silkmoth.
I realized immediately that this favorite native understory shrub would do well on our floodplain, so we planted several. The birds took it from there. Now we have spicebushes growing in places that I didn’t think would be good habitat. The birds “planted” them all over my cool, shady north-facing slope, even at the top of the hill, where the soil gets quite dry during most summers. But the shrubs have had no trouble adapting to those growing conditions.
Thus, I conclude that this shrub can handle a wider range of growing conditions than you might expect, based on where they naturally occur. I think the key is shade from hot afternoon sun. If you ensure that this shrub is always sheltered from the worst of our summer heat, you will be rewarded with glossy-leaved shrubs in summer adorned by bright red berries (until the birds find them), followed by warm golden yellow autumn color that lingers until the first hard freeze.
You will find a fine array of healthy spicebush plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. Because you can’t tell the sex of a seedling that hasn’t yet bloomed, I recommend that you buy at least three of these wonderful native shrubs, increasing the likelihood that you get at least one male and one female plant. After they are established in your landscape and the female shrubs begin producing bright red berries, your local birds will “plant” a few more for you.
I’m seeing a variety of reds in my landscape these days, most of it not attributable to leaf color — that will come later. Red flowers and fruits — and related colors in that family — are visible in nearly every corner of my yard. I think of them as stop signals; they alert me to slow down and linger with the lovelies in my landscape before all that beauty fades.
Ripening seeds are also sporting red colors, signaling wildlife that fruits are ready for consumption.
Vermillion spires of Cardinal Flowers set fire to shady spots on my floodplain and random, self-sowed corners of perennial beds.
Magenta heads of a cluster of late-blooming Joe Pye Weed glow in a spotlight beam of sun that managed to pierce the dense canopy.
Green frogs float on my green pond, their bulging eyes watching summer’s waning as they seek unwary winged meals.
In this year of few butterflies, Spicebush Swallowtails are the most common large butterfly in my landscape, possibly due to the abundance of native spicebushes tucked under the towering canopy trees.
An occasional Eastern Tiger Swallowtail floats through the humid late-summer heat, unable to resist the potent perfume of the Chinese Abelia bushes dotting the sunnier parts of my landscape.
The native Umbrella Magnolia that thrives beside the creek produced quite a few seed cones this year. Even tucked into deep shade, the ripe cones stop my forward progress, demanding admiration.
Native to the Sandhills region of NC, my Scarlet Wild Basil continues to produce abundant orange-red blossoms, drawing daily visits from hummingbirds, and admiring questions from visitors.
Like hummingbirds, Spicebush Swallowtails often hover as they feed, blurring my photographs as they rush to drink all they can before summer’s flowers disappear.
As soon as they are fully ripe, the reddened berries on native Mapleleaf Viburnum are devoured by wildlife.
Slowly and methodically, the Praying Mantises in my landscape grow fat on the insect bounty attracted to summer’s blooms. This one hunted from a large lantana beside my front door for three days, then moved on to new territory.
Everywhere I look, Nature’s signals are clear. Animals fatten, seeds ripen, blooms explode in late-summer splendor. All feel the changing angle of the sun as it makes its daily trek across the sky. Soon, too soon, cold air will descend from the North, browning flora, scattering fauna.
But every gardener knows that winter sleeps are essential rhythms in Nature’s dance. The pauses make the crescendos that much more powerful.
Record amounts of rainfall this growing season continue to create ripple effects throughout my landscape and gardens. For the first time I can remember, I harvested two zucchinis today. Normally by this point in the summer, heat, drought, and insect pests have exterminated my squash crop. Not this year. Zucchini spice bread, anyone?
Likewise, the Fortex pole beans seem to be ramping up for another surge in bean production. The vines have already climbed their six-foot trellis, grown down the other side, and now I’m trying to persuade them to climb back up again.
Tomatoes? Oh yes, we’ve got tomatoes. The plants are fighting fungal diseases, but the fruits are coming in bigtime. Ornamental flowers, which have often surrendered to the heat by now, continue to bloom with abandon. I’ve got sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos among the annuals. Perennials like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias, verbenas, daylilies, and now cardinal flowers have never been happier.
The rain has also produced a bumper crop of biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, among the aerial pests. But that’s not all bad, because the record abundance of flying insects has also brought record numbers of predators to prey on them. Insect eaters like Eastern Bluebirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Carolina Wrens, and Eastern Phoebes patrol the skies from dawn to dusk. Numerous bats take care of night patrol. And during the heat of the day, when the birds relax in the shade, the sky dragons take over.
I have not yet spent the time needed to learn the names of our local dragonflies, but I can tell you our landscape is blessed by quite a number of species, some small, some as large as the hummingbirds with whom they share the sky. Wonder Spouse was so struck by the diversity of dragonflies in our yard last weekend that he spent some time capturing them with his camera. In fact, all the photos in this post were taken by Wonder Spouse.
Dragonflies are efficient hunters, and yes, they do grab and devour an occasional butterfly on the wing. But they glitter like jewels; their wings appear to be made from delicate lace, yet are strong enough for aerial maneuvers any stunt pilot must envy.
As much as I love the butterflies, this year we can lose a few to the dragonflies. My Chinese Abelia, a massive shrub about 10 feet tall and equally wide, has been blooming since June — and continues to do so. All day long, it is visited simultaneously by at least a hundred butterflies. I’ve never seen so many!
Between the drifting flight of butterflies and the zooming quick starts and stops of the dragonflies, I get bumped into on a regular basis as I walk around my yard.
Patterns on the wings of the dragonflies are likely diagnostic. I really must learn the names of these hunters.
Butterflies, of course, are silent creatures. If I stand right next to the blooming abelia, I can sometimes hear a gentle fluttering of wings by the Spicebush Swallowtails, which never seem to remain motionless for more than a few seconds. Dragonflies make a bit of a buzzing noise as they zip erratically through the air, snagging snacks on the wing.
But for aerial maneuvers with sound effects, you can’t beat the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. This season has brought a bumper crop of them to the front feeder. The bejeweled beauties visit it from dawn to full dark. It seems to be a pit stop for them when they tire of dashing from coral honeysuckle to cardinal flower to salvia to abelia, all the while chittering as they argue over the rights to a particularly tasty nectar source.
After an early morning harvest session in the vegetable garden, I spend probably too much time sitting in the shade and watching the aerial show. I’m not the only one. I often spy a Green Anole perched on a shrub or vine within grabbing distance of unwary butterflies. And a large Green Frog usually meditates in one of the pots of sedges and pitcher plants sitting in our front water feature. The cicadas thrum, the hummingbirds swoop and squeal; in the distance, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls from the treetops, predicting more rain.
Pesky bugs and all, it’s the best summer we’ve had in years. I reckon I’m not going to feel to guilty for enjoying it as much as possible.
Few people probably love the native plants of the southeastern Piedmont more than I do, but as much as I enjoy their nearly infinite diversity and adaptability, I think I would have long grown bored with them without being able to observe their interactions and interdependencies with native wildlife. For example, the native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’) is beautiful on its own, but that corner of my landscape truly lights up when the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds stop by for drinks.
From birds to insects to reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — all the wildlife inhabitants and visitors animate what would otherwise be a basically static landscape — no matter how much the trees and flowers sway in winds and rain. The animals generate many of the most interesting stories in my landscape as they go about their daily lives.
Yesterday morning as the sun rose, I spotted this cranefly on my garage door as it admired its shadow:
On an early morning trip to my compost pile, I discovered that my laziness in failing to cover a recent donation had attracted an unexpected visitor. A Spicebush Swallowtail was dining on a bit of beet leaf. I knew that Eastern Tiger Swallowtails like to collect at mud puddles to drink up trace elements they don’t get from nectar, and I knew that Red-spotted Purple Butterflies were notorious for their appreciation of unsavory items. But I have never seen a Spicebush Swallowtail dine on anything but flowers.
The recent increase in humidity has brought out most of the bugs, including ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies. But along with these pests come the sky hunters — dragonflies — in every color and design imaginable. I caught these two taking a break from sky patrol:
I think the sky dragons are attracted to our little water feature in the front garden. They aren’t the only ones. I caught this Cope’s Gray Treefrog waiting for an evening chorus session on the side of my house near our little pond:
The treefrogs and the Eastern Narrowmouth Toads have been singing lustily around our little pond for over a month now. At first, it was just the toads chorusing, then the treefrogs joined them for a couple of weeks. Now, the nightly serenade sounds to be all treefrog all the time.
The calls of both amphibians are quite distinctive. I had never seen a Narrowmouth Toad until this year when I was digging a vegetable bed about six weeks ago. I accidentally unearthed two of them, and I wasn’t sure what they were until I did a little research. Then I was glad I had been wearing my gloves when I handled them, because their slimy skin secretions are toxic, designed to repel the ants that they eat. Given the enormous number of ant species that live in my yard, I say bring on the Narrowmouth Toads!
These amphibians have been doing more than singing around my pond. It is now teeming with tadpoles. I can’t tell if they are all toad tadpoles, or if the treefrog tads are in there too. In this shot, I think toad tadpoles may be dining on a treefrog egg mass, but I’m not certain.
The water isn’t as green as it looks here, I promise. But it is definitely not as clear as it was during pre-tadpole days.
My final picture today is not of the landscape animators themselves, but of their nest. About a week ago as I walked to the compost pile, a bird flew past me in a blur, seeming to want to distract me. I assumed I had merely startled it — I often unintentionally surprise wildlife — and continued. But as I approached one of our huge mature dogwoods, another bird flew past me. It seemed to come right from the tree, so I turned and looked.
The dogwood is double-boled, with the split beginning not more than two or so feet from the ground. In that low crotch, I discovered a distinctive nest — Ovenbirds! We’ve spotted these ground-nesters often during the growing season, but we had intentionally never looked for a nest. I have never read of these birds building in a tree, but this wasn’t far off the ground, and perhaps it looked a tad more secure to them. My yard is inhabited by many black rat snakes, so I can well imagine that a tree might look like a safer bet to the Ovenbirds.
They’re called Ovenbirds, because their nests resemble Dutch ovens, with little holes where the birds go in and out. I think you can make out the structure in this photo that I took some distance away from the nest, so as to minimize their disturbance.
I think the entry hole is near the bottom, but it’s hard to be sure. Alas, less than a week later, I discovered that the nest had been torn apart. Whether it was the work of a snake, raccoon, possum, or greedy squirrel, I’ll never know, but the nest is gone, and I haven’t seen or heard the Ovenbirds since.
That’s the way of life with my landscape animators. Sometimes Death wins, but Life triumphs more often. And the dances between them are always captivating.
When I wrote about Sweet Bay here, I mentioned that it is one of three so-called bay species native to southeastern coastal plains. Redbay (Persea borbonia) is another of those bay species. Like Sweet Bay, Redbay’s leaves are evergreen and it is a usually a smaller tree (20-30 feet), although it can grow taller. Also like Sweet Bay, the leaves of this member of the laurel family are pleasantly fragrant — actually more than those of Sweet Bay. It was consequently used as a bay leaf herb substitute by European settlers of the region.
Unlike Sweet Bay, the flowers of Redbay are relatively inconspicuous. Its fruits are purple berry-like drupes that many native birds find tasty. The birds, of course, eat many kinds of berries, but there’s a lovely butterfly whose larvae rely nearly exclusively on this tree: the Palamedes Swallowtail. Its caterpillars may also dine a bit on sassafras (Sassafras albidum), another member of the laurel family, but this small tree is much less abundant on the coastal plain than Redbay. The Palamedes Swallowtail is occasionally seen further inland, but Redbays are vastly more common on the coastal plain, so that’s where it tends to stay.
These two laurel-family-dependent butterflies are some of our larger, more dramatic summer garden visitors, and I fear their days may be numbered, because their larval food source is imperiled. An alien insect is marching up the southeastern coast of the United States, leaving dead stands of Redbay in its wake: the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle. This alien insect carries a deadly fungus that kills infected Redbays usually within a month of infection. The fungus invades the trees when female Redbay Ambrosia Beetles bore into stems to lay their eggs. As they chew, their infected mouth parts introduce the fungus. One month later, the tree dies. One month!
Last week, the NC Forest Service released a news bulletin warning that this beetle has now reached the southeastern-most counties of North Carolina. Scientists have not found any weapons against this invader. They expect the beetle to continue its northward march until it runs out of Redbays.
After that, they can only guess what may happen. One possible scenario is that the beetle may move to other laurel family species — sassafras and spicebush. This might well spell doom for the Spicebush Swallowtail if its larval food source is killed by the invading beetle and its fungus.
And, more important to Florida orchard growers, they fear it may jump to another member of the Persea genus — avocado. The USDA Forest Service has a big section on their Web site that describes all the issues relating to this invading insect and its killer fungus hitchhiker. Read all about it here.
One strategy suggested to preserve mature Redbays is to plant them outside their native range. The southeastern Piedmont has proven to be an excellent home for this species. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr notes that this native of coastal swamps is actually quite adaptable to drier upland soils, and in his opinion, the trees often look healthier than wild ones growing on the coastal plain.
My tree is about 25 feet tall, and it leans a bit, never having fully straightened after an intense, prolonged ice storm — but that can happen to any evergreen species. Mine has remained reliably evergreen even during cold winters, and our severe droughts have not hurt it. It provides a nice bit of green in my winter landscape, as well as shelter and food for birds.
After reading about the impending obliteration of coastal Redbays, I’ve decided to plant two more trees near the one I’ve already got. I am hoping that perhaps by growing three, they might have a better chance of perpetuating themselves in the landscape over the long haul. And I’m hoping that their isolation in the middle of a Piedmont forest with no other Redbays around will prevent the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle from finding them.
Perhaps if more Piedmont gardeners added this lovely, durable evergreen to their home landscapes, Redbays would have a better chance of surviving this invader and its killer fungus. I’ve decided it’s worth a try. Perhaps you might consider joining me?
You won’t find Redbays for sale in your average nursery. I’ve ordered mine from my favorite mail-order supplier of native species.
When choosing plants for the landscape, most folks understandably focus on a plant’s appearance. I do that too. However, I also use my nose. Of course, I like flowers that smell good, but I love leaves that smell good too, especially spicy leaves.
A number of our native plant species have spicy fragrances, probably because the chemicals responsible also repel predators by making the leaves taste less appealing. One example is an understory shrub common to moist forests of the piedmont — Lindera benzoin, or Spicebush.
This shrub isn’t particularly showy, although small yellow flowers that open before the leaves do brighten an early spring landscape if a few plants are grouped together. And their warm gold leaves light up the understory every autumn. The species is dioecious, which means male and female flowers are found on separate plants; the female plants produce bright red berries beloved by the feathered crowd.
I introduced this shrub to my floodplain for its spicy leaves. I’ve read that you can make a tasty tea from them, but I’ve never tried. I planted these bushes so that I can walk by during the growing season, grab and crush a leaf, and inhale its sweet-spicy goodness. I also added this species because it’s a key food plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. These lovely butterflies have definitely increased their visits to my summer flowers since I added the food plant their caterpillar stage requires.
Details about this shrub are readily available on the Web. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s site is always a good one to visit for information on natives. You can read what they say about Spicebush here.
I count adding this native beauty a win on multiple levels: early spring flowers, berries for birds, spicy goodness for me, and more butterflies to add beauty and movement to my landscape.
Here’s a photo that Wonder Spouse took of a Spicebush Swallowtail visiting one of our Swamp Milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) — another native I’m crazy about and will describe another time.