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Earlier this year, on a nice May afternoon, my husband and I were sitting on the front porch watching the swallowtail butterflies enjoying the spring flowers. There were so many of them and we discussed how exciting it was that our maturing perennial garden was turning into a nurturing habitat for so many different kinds of insects. It looked like we were heading toward a summer with even more butterflies than we had last year - and last year was pretty amazing!
A week later we sat on the porch and noticed that there was not a single butterfly to be seen. The absence of insect life was startling and quite disturbing. We realized that the drenching rains and flash flood that had disrupted our lives had done something far more terrible to the lives of our little garden friends.
The butterfly population has not recovered yet and the garden that had been filled last June with swallowtail butterflies, monarchs, skippers of many kinds, and little crescent butterflies looks lonely without out our familiar summer insect visitors.
Somehow the Giant Spangled Fritillary butterflies (Latin name: Speyeria cybele) managed to avoid the devastation. In June they were crowded around the milkweed and as we go into July they are happily feeding on coneflower nectar. They are at least as abundant as they were last year.
This video contains several clips of one individual butterfly. Fritillaries are fairly sociable and don't shy away from the camera like swallowtail butterflies often do. (I think that swallowtails are much more sensitive to the infrared signal from my camera's autofocus mechanism - or maybe they are just more easily annoyed by it. Fritillaries usually don't fly away when I focus.)
Even among social species some individuals are more friendly than others. I first spotted this guy as I was looking at the purple coneflowers (Latin name: Echinacea purpurea). When I noticed him he was only about 8 inches away and he didn't fuss as I lined up a camera shot. You can see how calm Mr. Fritillary is, and that is with me using the infrared focus and moving the camera to within 4 inches of him.
After I got my video clips I sat and watched as Mr. Fritillary went about his work - and I thought about butterflies. I wondered how long it will be until the swallowtails and other butterfly species recover. Since we've seen so few after the flood I assume that the heavy rains and racing floods killed both adults and caterpillars, and destroyed cocoons and eggs too. I thought about this year's Fritillary population. Will they thrive now that there is far less competition for garden resources? I was filled with unanswerable questions and a lingering sadness for the loss of so many swallowtails.
I've never been a first hand witness to this sort of species die-off before. We keep hearing people say that "the weather's not usually like this", and I certainly hope they are right.
There's fireworks in the sky this weekend, and in the garden the bright red bee balm (Latin name: Monarda didyma) is in full bloom. I thought it was an appropriate flower for July 4th, since its petals point out in all directions like miniature fireworks or colored sparklers.
Monarda is not a great plant for close up flower photography. It is so intense in color that it can be hard to see the petal details in photos. The Dr. Seuss inspired flower shapes are more whimsical than the classic shapes you find in roses and daisies.
Monarda is special in the garden for its abundance of bright colored blooms, easy care, and for its value as a nectar source for many garden pollinators. In this video you can see that the hummingbird moths find it irresistible. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are also frequent visitors. Bee balm is a very fragrant plant and the leaves and petals can be brewed to make a lovely herbal tea.
Monarda is one of the plants that was difficult for me to start from seed until I started using the Winter Sowing method of seed starting. I've had fantastic germination when I've Winter Sown the seeds, but when I've started them under "perfect" gentle germination conditions I've had lousy germination and very weak little seedlings. Monarda (bee balm) is a member of the mint family, a plant family that seems to thrive best in harsher growing condions and fizzle when babied too much.
Monarda seeds in all kinds of bright colors can be found at Swallowtail Seeds.
Harvesting dianthus seeds is very similar to harvesting columbine seeds. Seeds are formed and mature in an elongated seed pod, and when they are ripe the brown, crispy pods opens up on the uppermost end - ready for Mother Nature or a passing gardener to sprinkle the seeds.
Single flowered dianthus species (carnations, cottage pinks, maiden pinks, etc.) form single seed pods. Cluster headed species like Sweet Williams form a pod for every flower in the cluster. In this video you can see a cluster of ripe Sweet William seed pods as I gently shake the seeds into my hand.
I usually wait until most of the seed pods on the Sweet Williams are ripe before I harvest. I just find it easier to cut off full clusters all at once rather than going back repeatedly to hand pick each day's fully ripened pods.
Since I end up cutting flower stalks that contain pods in varying stages of ripeness it is usually the case that some of the pods have already self sowed, and others are not ready for harvest. As long as a lot of them are exactly right I don't worry about the others. Dianthus usually give me 30 - 50 ripe seeds per pod, and Sweet Williams have such a generous number of pods per stem that the harvest is always abundant.
After I harvest the seeds I cut the crunchy stems off the plants so that the ones who still have the strength will work on leaf and root growth and come back next year. A lot of them will die off, though, from the strain of producing so many seeds. I'll toss some of my seed harvest in any bare spots I see - and by late fall the area will fill in with a mix of surviving adult plants and new seedlings.