The Giant, the Monarch, and the Fairy: my garden fable

As I add native plants to our garden and attract more wildlife, it increasingly feels like a magical place. In the past week, I saw a Giant, a Monarch, and even a fairy. A magical place, indeed! Okay, so I didn’t really see a fairy — it was a hummingbird, which was such a surprise visitor that it might as well have been a mythical fairy. (The only thing my fable is missing is a talking animal; while I do talk to our dog, he doesn’t talk to me.)

The Giant

One day as I worked in the back garden, I looked up and saw a spectacular butterfly — a Giant Swallowtail was flitting from one patch of red valerian to another. What a big, beautiful butterfly! It frantically flapped its wings while it drank nectar, as you can see in my Youtube video. With the constant wing-flapping and moving between plants, it was very difficult to photograph.

A Giant Swallowtail butterfly drinking nectar from non-native red valerian.

Then, the butterfly circled one of the hop trees in our hedgerow ‘fence’. Hop trees and prickly ash are its northern host plants, both of which are in the citrus family. Non-native rue (the herb) and gas plant also serve as host plants. I bought my hop trees from Beaux Arbres Native Plants, and from Fuller Native Plants (sadly, now closed). Since then, I’ve been checking the hop tree for caterpillars, but I haven’t seen any. Their caterpillars are camouflaged to look like bird poop.

Giant Swallowtails have only been seen in Ottawa since around 2012. Experts believe climate change is the main reason these butterflies are now showing up north of New York state and Point Pelee Provincial Park, their previous northern limit. For more information, you can read The giants have arrived: Giant Swallowtails spotted locally (written in 2013), and Giant Swallowtails and Climate Change (from 2011).

The Monarch

While I’ve already seen a couple of Monarch butterflies quickly passing through the garden, they didn’t stop to drink nectar or lay eggs. However, now that the common milkweed in our front yard is in full bloom, we finally had a Monarch stick around for a while. Since that day, July 12th, we’ve seen Monarchs daily.

In this brief video, you can see that the Monarch is much calmer while she sips nectar than the Giant Swallowtail. And yes, I pulled the photo-bombing dog-strangling vine!

Our first lingering Monarch visitor of 2019. (July 12, 2019)

This Monarch, and others, have been laying eggs on the common milkweed patch. My son and I have found numerous eggs. We didn’t find any caterpillars. Only a small percentage of butterfly and moth caterpillars make it to adulthood; they are frequently victims of the spiders, wasps and ants.

We decided to collect 3 eggs to increase their chances of survival, and to watch their growth and transformation into butterflies. It does seem like a big commitment raising Monarch caterpillars. I wouldn’t want to take this on at a larger scale. Instead, I will keep planting more milkweed for Monarch caterpillars and nectar plants for adult Monarchs. Mother Nature can do the rest.

The Fairy

On July 15th, I spotted a hummingbird visiting several different flowers in our back garden. What a treat! In this video, you can see the hummingbird at the red bee balm, and a pink cultivar of Culver’s root (that I bought by mistake). Oddly, it really liked the Culver’s root because it visited twice. The flowers are probably chock-full of nectar because I have no bumblebees. I hope this early hummingbird visitor sticks around.

I have been trying to tempt hummingbirds to our yard for years. For most of that time, I just had a sugar syrup feeder. What a pain they are to keep clean! If the syrup spoils, it is very dangerous for hummingbirds. Every year, once the weather gets too hot, I end up just taking the feeder down.

A few years ago, I finally got serious about attracting hummingbirds. I planted red and orange tubular flowers, both native plants and annuals. The native plants I grow for them, and that hummingbirds visit, are red bee balm, royal catchfly, cardinal flower, fireweed (purple), and jewelweed. I also grow some early flowering native plants to help hummingbirds during spring migration: Canada columbine, limber honeysuckle, fly honeysuckle, and clove currant. We have also seen them visiting annual cardinal climber, petunia excerta, and Mexican torch sunflower.

I have also added plants that will attract small insects. I already knew that hummingbirds eat their weight in a day, but I was surprised to learn that as much as 80% of their diet consists of insects and spiders. Baby hummingbirds eat only insects and spiders. I frequently see New Jersey tea recommended to attract small insects, so I bought a few this spring from Ontario Native Plants. A lot of native perennials that I already have in my garden, such as goldenrods and asters, attract small insects too. For more information, see How to Feed a Hummingbird, Part 1: Insects and Protein, and How to create a hummingbird-friendly yard.

The moral of this story

Fables always teach a lesson. So, what is the moral of my fable? “Don’t go inside because you might miss something interesting in the garden?” That doesn’t sound right, even though I do feel this way sometimes. “Plant it and they will come.” Yes, I think that’s it — predictable, but true.

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