These pollinators aren’t winning any beauty contests

Recognized as the beauty queens of bugs, bees and butterflies have reached celebrity status in the world of pollination. But, while they get the limelight when it comes to pollination, they’re only a small portion of the over 200,000 species that help produce our crops.  Many of these less adorable species include beetles, ants, moths, wasps and even flies.  Combined, pollinators service over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops, impacting nearly 1 out of every 3 bites of food and more than $20 billion worth of products annually in the U.S.

Awareness of the decline of the monarch butterfly and the honeybee has spurred communities across the country into action to ensure their survival.  But what about the less celebrated?  Let’s take a look at some of the underrated pollinators in our gardens.


Hover Flies

Hover Flies, also known as Syrphid Flies, are a large group of medium to large flies with black or brown bodies, yellow banded abdomens and two wings.  Resembling a bee or wasp, adults can be seen hovering above flowers, feeding on their nectar.  They can’t bite or sting but may try to steal some of your salty sweat from time to time.  The larvae play a beneficial role in gardens, consuming up to 30 aphids per day – a great natural pest control.  Hover flies feed on the same flowers preferred by bees, such as purple coneflowers, blanketflowers and sunflowers.

Black and yellow stripes don’t always belong to bees. Hover flies can easily be mistaken for bees but these petite pollinators don’t have stingers.

Hawk Moths

Experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers at night, hawk moths have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly  – some up to 14” long!  These acrobatic fliers include sphinx and hummingbird moths, built with stout bullet-shaped bodies and long, narrow wings.  See them mostly at night hovering in place enjoying nectar from heavily fragranced flowers. While many tomato gardeners, admittedly, fear the larvae of the hawk moth (a.k.a. green hornworms), the adults are excellent  pollinators for your garden.

Hawk moths, including this Hummingbird Moth, have long tongues, or proboscis, to suck nectar from flowers, similar to a straw.

Soldier Beetles

Beetles present the greatest diversity of insects and pollinators, with more than 450,000 known species.  Regular flower visitors like the soldier beetle feed on pollen and even chew on flowers.  Solider beetles are one type of “mess and soil” pollinators, as they will defecate within flowers in the process of carrying pollen from one flower to another.  Soldier Beetles are commonly seen on flowers that are strongly fruity and open during the day such as marigolds, magnolias and many flowering herbs.    

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years.  Based on fossil records, they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 150 million years ago.

Ten Things You Can Do In Your Yard To Encourage Pollinators

1. Plant a pollinator garden—provide nectar and feeding plants (flowers and herbs).  Visit our website for more information on planting a pollinator garden or register your existing garden.

2. Provide a water source—place shallow dishes of water in sunny areas or create a muddy spot.

 3. Provide shelter and overwintering habitat (bee boxes, undisturbed soil areas, and piles of woody debris).

4. Stop using insecticides and reduce other pesticides.

5. Provide sunny areas out of the wind.

6. Use native plant species whenever possible—mimic local natural areas.

7. Grow flowers throughout season. Provide a variety of colors and shapes.

 8. Plant in clumps and layers. Use trees, shrub layers, with some low growing perennials and vines—intermix with flowering annuals.

9. Use compost instead of commercial fertilizers.  The Woodlands Township offers free compost classes October – March.  For more information, view this page.

 10. Look but do not touch.

Join Us In Celebrating National Pollinator Week

Beat the heat with Bluebells

 

Native Plant Focus: Texas Bluebell

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. Russellianum

Copy of Texas Bluebell

Try to think of one thing that wildflowers and ice cream have in common.  Not so easy, is it?

Texas’ native wildflowers need the summer heat to survive just as many of us depend on a scoop of cold, delicious ice cream to get us through a summer afternoon.  But there’s only one wildflower that has influenced a nation of ice cream lovers more than any other.  An enchanting specimen that at one time was so abundant across the Texas prairie that a large creamery located near Brenham decided to adopt its name in 1930.  This native beauty is the Texas Bluebell.

Where to find it

Ranging southward from Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota to new Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, the Texas Bluebell (known also as Showy Prairie Gentian or Prairie Gentian), is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Texas wildflowers.   Sadly, in Texas, the plant’s range has decreased dramatically over the past century.  The upright, showy blue to purple bell-shaped flowers are so attractive in cut flower arrangements that admirers have over-picked it, drastically reducing the number left in nature to produce seed capsules.  Today, locating Texas Bluebells in the wild requires a focused effort.  In our local area, some of the isolated prairies within Sam Houston National Forest provide limited viewing opportunities.

Easy care & adaptable

With blue blooms emitting a natural iridescence and a velvety texture, the two-inch bell-shaped flowers stand upright on deep blue-green stems and leaves covered with a waxy bloom.  Texas Bluebells thrive in moist sandy or sandy loam soils and are most likely to be found along the edges of creeks, streams, or drainage areas.  This perennial plant develops a long taproot to access the required moisture from deep within the soil.  While it prefers full sun, the Texas bluebell will grow in part shade.  During periods of rain, the beautiful blue blossoms will close and will re-open when the sun emerges.  The plant is heat tolerant and continues to produce blooms during the summer when other wildflowers are past their prime.

In the home landscape, Texas Bluebells are perfect for the edges of water or rain gardens, in ornamental beds, borders or cutting gardens.  They’re easy to maintain and have no known serious insect or disease problems.  If you’re incorporating Texas Bluebells, consider beginning with young rosettes; starting from seed can be challenging. 

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Attract pollinators

As a native plant, the Texas Bluebell offers a number of benefits for the environment.  Birds are attracted by its tiny black seeds while hummingbirds, butterflies and bees enjoy the nectar and pollen.  Since bees are attracted to blue flowers, the major pollinator for this plant is the metallic green sweat bee, whose long tongue is able to reach the nectar deep within the large flower.  Metallic green sweat bees are one of the most prolific native bees in local yards and gardens.

Providing habitat for native bees is an important role for homeowners.  The University of Texas offers some excellent tips for improving native bee habitat.

Growing native Texas Bluebells and creating enhanced native bee habitat in your own landscape will support restoration of this stunningly beautiful blue flower.  Bluebells will begin their bloom cycle in June and continue blooming throughout the heat of the Texas summer.  Visit a local native plant retailer now to establish these rewarding plants in your own garden. 

of bright lisanthus flowers on white background

Approximately 80 years ago, the Japanese imported Texas bluebell seeds, as the flower is considered by the Japanese people to be extremely beautiful. Commonly called ‘lisianthus”, the Japanese hybrids vary in color to include white, pink, lavender and yellow.

Spiderwort is stunning color for shade

Native Plant Focus: Spiderwort

Tradescantia virginiana

 

Spiderwort (1)

An easy to grow clump-forming perennial, spiderwort is a Texas native which thrives in nearly any growing conditions—including shade. This plant’s deep blue to violet purple flowers with their contrasting yellow stamens bloom continuously for several months beginning in March in southeast Texas. Although each blossom lasts only about one half day, the numerous buds contained in each flower cluster provide new flowers each day. Spiderwort is a member of the iris family with long narrow bright green leaves that offset the unusual, slightly fragrant blue flowers.

Spiderwort’s scientific name, Tradescantia virginiana, is in honor of John Tradescant who served as the gardener to King Charles I of England. The plant’s common name, Spiderwort, has its origin in the angular arrangement of the leaves which suggest the shape of a squatting spider.

Easy care & adaptable

This highly adaptable plant will thrive in nearly any conditions although it prefers slightly moist soil in an area of dappled shade. When planted in drier areas, the plant adapts. Included in spiderwort’s many assets are its ability to grow in any soil as well as in light conditions ranging from shade to full sun.  In addition, Spiderwort has no known disease or pest issues.

Attract pollinators

In the home landscape, Spiderwort is a beautiful addition to a native plant garden, pollinator garden, shade garden or natural area. Spiderwort also adapts to containers. Many types of bees are attracted to the deep blue color of the spiderwort blossoms.  Bumble bees are the plant’s major pollinator although honeybees, small carpenter bees and halictine bees also provide pollination. Butterflies enjoy the nectar of this plant while syrphid flies feed on the pollen.

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The distinctive and beautiful flower of Spiderwort adds color to shady spots in the landscape through spring and into summer.

Missouri Plants has some wonderful close-up photographs of this wide-ranging native.

For those interested in foraging, both spiderwort leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are useful in salads, soups or teas while the flowers can also be used in salads or can be candied.

Where to find it

Obtaining spiderwort is easy since many on-line retailers offer both the seeds and the plants. Spring is a perfect time for shipping these plants before the Texas heat arrives. April is an ideal planting time for either Spiderwort transplants or seeds. Since Spiderwort grows quickly, planting it now will provide for pollinators in only a few short weeks.

 

More Texas Wildflowers

To learn about more native Texas wildflowers, join Anita Tiller from Mercer Arboretum on April 4 at HARC. Anita will lead an exploration of HARC’s grounds, which is bursting with spring color and will explain many of the sustainable landscape practices HARC has put in place. The walk is followed by an indoor presentation on wildflowers native to our region. Space is limited register here – walk-ups welcome as space permits.

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Grow a native American vegetable and treat your landscape and palate alike

Helianthus tuberosus

Cultivated for centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers, our country’s only native vegetable is also a Texas native sunflower. The “jerusalem artichoke” or “sunchoke” is the enlarged underground stem of helianthus tuberosus, a type of sunflower in the aster family with edible tuberous roots. While commonly regarded as native vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers all originated either in Central or South America.

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Today, we take the food on our plate for granted, but the History of Vegetables  is a fascinating study.

The common name “Jerusalem artichoke” is likely a corruption of the Italian girasole (turning toward the sun) which is a trait shared by all sunflowers. In more recent years, the edible tubers of helianthus tuberosus have become known as “sunchokes”.

Sunchokes have a delicious, sweet nutty taste.  As an extra bonus, these tubers are nutritious and an excellent source of iron, potassium and fiber.

The original distribution of this native Texas sunflower is unclear because the plant was transported to many different geographic locations for cultivation by Native Americans.  Today, helianthus tuberosus can be found along the edges of wooded areas, in former fields and along roadsides.

Helianthus tuberosus

This showy sunflower is also sometimes grown simply for its bright yellow blooms and tall, fast growing stems. Broad, thick leaves and rough hairy stems add to the visual attractiveness of this native plant.

Blooming in late summer and early fall, helianthus tuberosus requires full sun to part shade. A tough and versatile plant, this sunflower will grow in moist or dry soil and tolerates drought, heat and frigid temperatures. Because of these qualities, it’s very easy to grow. Helianthus tuberosus is extremely useful in the garden where it can quickly become a temporary summer screen, a stunning background for a native plant border or the sunny edge of a natural wooded area.

Nectar source for butterflies

This particular sunflower is beneficial for both insects and wildlife. The large yellow flowers offer nectar for butterflies, pollen for bees while also supporting many predatory and parasitoid wasps, flies and beetles. In fall, the seed heads attract birds while the large plants offer cover for small wildlife.

Beekeepers have noted that helianthus tuberosus  is an excellent honey plant resulting in a clear amber product when harvested.

Very little is known about pests or diseases which damage this plant. It appears to be quite resistant, which contributes to its easy to grow nature. In the southeast Texas climate, the optimum planting time is early spring with the main harvest in fall. Since helianthus tuberosus is a perennial plant, once started in the garden, it’ll return each spring from tubers left in the soil.

Growing helianthus tuberosus in your garden or landscape offers new opportunities for applying culinary skills as well as providing beauty, food for pollinators and cover for wildlife.

The edible tubers or sunchokes can be harvested beginning within two or three weeks after the flowers fade. Harvesting can continue after the first freeze damages the stems and leaves of the plant. Each plant will produce approximately 2-5 pounds of sunchokes. When left in the ground after the first frost, the tubers become sweeter and crispier. To preserve the freshness, store sunchokes in a zip top plastic bag in the refrigerator. This strategy preserves the tuber’s natural moisture.

While sunchokes are frequently used in cooking as a potato substitute, unlike potatoes, they can be used raw and add a nutritious crunch to salads. Sunchokes are also an excellent vegetable for pickling.

If you like to get even more creative in the kitchen, try Pan-Roasted Sunchokes and Artichoke Hearts with Lemon-Herb Butter.

Looks and sounds delish.

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For more information on the nutritional value of various foods, check out this nutrition guide, by the USDA.

 

Add Height and Habitat with Oxeye Sunflower

Native Plant Focus: Oxeye Sunflower

Heliopsis helianthoides

Oxeye Sunflower (1)

[By Ann Hall, Environmental Education Specialist, enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov]

With showy yellow daisy-like flowers attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, beneficial wasps, flies and native bees, the oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) blooms all summer and into fall.  Since this plant is not a true sunflower, it is known by several common names including ‘false sunflower’, ‘oxeye daisy’ and ‘smooth oxeye’.   This upright clump-forming Texas native perennial is very effective when used in a garden border, native plant garden, or as an addition to a pollinator garden.

Oxeye sunflower is easy to grow and maintain

It thrives in full sun but will tolerate part shade.  The low watering requirement and tolerance to all soil types make it a perfect plant for our hot Texas climate.  At maturity, oxeye sunflower will reach a height of 3-6 feet and spreads into 2-4 foot clumps.  Dead head (remove spent flowers) to keep this long-blooming perennial covered with blooms.  No known pests or diseases affect this extremely resistant plant.

Ground Bee on Oxeye Sunflower

Nature is enhanced by the oxeye sunflower since it is pollinated by a specific ground-nesting bee.  Birds use the seeds as a winter food source while the plant’s stems provide cover for beneficial insects.  Starting the oxeye sunflower from seed is easily accomplished in the cooler fall and winter months.  Although it is possible to divide the mature clumps, this strategy is less successful than growing from seed.

Seeds of oxeye sunflower are readily available from online retailers who focus on seeds of Texas native plants. Watch for local plants sales offering starts of oxeye sunflower or check local native plant retailers.  Enjoy not only the summer to fall color this plant provides, but also the hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other fascinating pollinators it will attract to your garden.

Plant for Pollinators and Water Savings at Free Workshop this Sat!

 

Landscape Workshop (2).jpg

Plant with a Purpose!

Join us for this free workshop and learn how to create habitat in your landscape while saving water at the same time.

We’ll delve into:

  • Importance of keeping invasive species at bay – 8:15 a.m.
  • Wonders of pollinators and how to attract them – 9:45 a.m.
  • Many benefits of native plants including water conservation – 10:45 a.m.
  • Best methods for seed collecting and propagation of the plants you love – 12:45 a.m.

Attend one or more FREE sessions – click here to save your spot.

Experts from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Texas Master Naturalists will lead each session.

HARC Building (1)

DETAILS:

  • Saturday, June 23 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    • Join us for all or part of the program
    • Lunch provided
  • HARC Building, 8801 Gosling Rd, The Woodlands
  • Free but registration is required – click here to save your spot 

 

Thank you to our sponsors:

Houston Advanced Research Center, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas Master Naturalists, Woodlands Joint Powers Agency

 

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Attract Hummingbirds All Summer with Texas Red Yucca

Native Plant Focus:  Texas Red Yucca

Hesperaloe parviflora

More effective at attracting hummingbirds than a feeder, the Texas Red Yucca is also a nectar source for butterflies and native bees.  Actually a member of the Century Plant family, the Texas Red Yucca thrives in our hot Texas summer although it is cold tolerant enough to survive freezing temperatures.

With low watering requirements after establishment, this striking perennial evergreen shrub produces dramatic 3-4 foot spikes of pink to coral to red tubular flowers.   These beautiful flower spikes provide focal interest in landscape beds, large containers, rock gardens or as a single specimen plant.  Each bloom produces a seed capsule which dries to offer winter interest in the landscape.  The evergreen leaves turn a deep shade of purple in cold weather, further enhancing the garden.

Thriving in full sun to part shade and needing only natural rainfall, this plant is adaptable to any soil. Maintenance is minimal – removing the dried flower spike before spring begins is optional.  Planting this succulent in your landscape or a large container will provide beautiful blooms from May through October.  Texas Red Yucca is readily available in most local retail outlets offering bedding plants as well as those specializing in Texas natives.  Enjoy this easy to grow plant along with the hummingbirds and insect pollinators it will draw into your garden.

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