Virginia Creeper is for the Birds!

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is at its showiest in autumn.  The leaves of this native vine turn bright scarlet, a perfect offset for its ripening fruit. It’s especially striking where it has found a platform to climb.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Virginia Creeper is typically found in woodlands, wood’s edges and fields. It grows as a ground cover,

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) in center forefront. It is a welcome addition to the groundcover in my shade garden, and seems to work and play well with other plants.

but can also climb trees

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

and fences or arbors.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on a fence

It climbs in a gentle way, using its tendrils.  the tips of the tendrils form a suction cup-like pad at their tips that can cling to bark, fences and arbors.

Where Virginia Creeper gets enough sun it will flower, typically in mid-summer.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) in bloom

The flowers offer nectar and pollen that are attractive to many bee species.  If the bees are successful in assisting Virginia Creeper with pollination, berries develop and ripen in late summer and fall.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) fruit

At the same time that Virginia Creeper’s leaves are changing color, its fruit stems (petioles) also turn scarlet, a striking contrast to the fruit that ripens to a deep blue.  This colorful display is an advertisement that attracts birds to feast on the luscious fruit.  Virginia Creeper has evolved to attract animals to eat its fruit and subsequently disperse its seeds.   The seeds go through the animal’s digestive tract, and are eventually deposited complete with natural fertilizer in another location.

Birds including Woodpeckers, Titmice, Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Thrushes, Robins, Catbirds and more flock to this autumn food source.  On a recent fall day, I watched Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and several sparrows taking advantage of Virginia Creeper’s bounty.

Eastern Bluebirds foraging for fruit from Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

A Cedar Waxwing and an Eastern Bluebird eating Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) fruit

Because of its habitat, habit of climbing, and color, Virginia Creeper is sometimes mistaken for Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but they are easy to tell apart.  Poison Ivy has compound leaves with three leaflets, while Virginia Creeper’s compound leaves have five leaflets, reflected in its scientific name, ‘quinquefolia’, which means five-leaved.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has compound leaves, usually with five leaflets

Mature Poison Ivy vines have very hairy stems, while Virginia Creeper’s bark is not hairy.  Virginia Creeper has exfoliating bark typical of other members of its family, the Grape (Vitaceae) family.  The bark may be used by birds for nesting material.

Virginia Creeper has other characteristics in common with its family members.  For example, its fruit clusters may resemble a bunch of grapes.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) fruit clusters may resemble those of other Grape family members.

Virginia Creeper is also a food plant for the caterpillars of several moth species that specialize on grape family members.  Among them are the regal-looking Eight-spotted Forester,

Eight-Spotted Forrester on Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

and the Grape-leaf Skeletonizer.

Grapeleaf Skeletonizer on New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus). This moth drinks nectar from many plants, but its caterpillars can only eat the leaves of Grape family members.

The caterpillars may successfully complete metamorphosis, or they may become food for resident birds or other wildlife.  Insects, especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds.

Tufted Titmice are just one of the many species of birds that may benefit by eating the caterpillars found on Virginia Creeper.

Virginia Creeper is also known by the common name Woodbine.  It is native in the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada.

At different times of the year Virginia Creeper provides fruit, caterpillars, and nesting material.  Its dense leafy cover can also be a good place to take shelter.  What more could a bird ask for?

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) with Eastern Bluebird

Resources

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Audubon – 10 Plants for a Bird-friendly Yard

Illinois Wildflowers

 

University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

 

A Thistle Banquet

On a recent walk through a local meadow I spotted a bank of Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

It was eye-catching for two reasons.  The sight of the plant itself is arresting, with its tall candelabra-like shape topped with purple pompoms of flowers instead of candle flames.  But it was the sight of so many visitors to the flowers, often several on a single flower head, that was really breath-taking.  Bumble Bees, Honey Bees, Clearwing Moths and so many different butterflies moved quickly from flower to flower, pausing briefly to dine.  Field Thistle presents a sumptuous feast for potential pollinators!

At one ‘banquet table’, a Honey Bee, a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) and a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth all dined amiably together.

A Honey Bee, a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) and a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth all drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

At another, several Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and Thistle Long-horned Bees shared a meal.

Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and a Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) feeding from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

How is it that one flower head can accommodate so many visitors simultaneously?  Field Thistle is a member of the Aster or Composite (Asteraceae) family.  Each of the purple pompoms consists of a cluster of many long narrow tubular disk flowers.  You can see the individual flowers in the head in the lower part of the photo below.

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). Note the individual narrow, trumpet-like disk flowers shown below the bee.

The Long-horned Thistle Bee in the photo below is actively eating both pollen and nectar, and harvesting more to provision her nest for her larvae.  You can see the pollen she has collected packed onto hairs, called scopae, on her hind legs. We know this is a female, because only female bees harvest food for their offspring.  This bee species specializes on pollen from Field Thistle and a few other closely related plants (all of the genus Cirsium) for her larvae.  This makes her an excellent pollinator for Field Thistle, since she won’t be visiting other flowers.  It also means that without these thistles, this bee species would not survive.  It’s the same concept as the Monarch butterfly’s dependency on Milkweeds (Asclepias species) for survival, because Milkweeds are the only food their caterpillars can eat.

Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) feeding on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). She’ll bring the pollen on her hind legs to her nest. Note the pollen grains all over her body! Some will help with pollination.

Although it appears in the photos above that the various visitors to these flowers are happy to share the wealth of the Field Thistle banquet, I’m sorry to have to report that the Honey Bees actually indulged in bullying behavior.  They were especially hostile to the Thistle Long-horned Bees, trying to chase them away by bumping them.

Honey Bee bullying Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Fortunately, the Thistle Long-horned Bees were undeterred.  They were also respectful of other diners, even those smaller than themselves.

The small bee (possible Eucera species) in the upper left is harvesting pollen. With Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsus) on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

I visited this meadow several times within a few weeks, and each time there were at least a half dozen Hummingbird Clearwing Moths at the thistle.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moths on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Their close relative, a Snowberry Clearwing Moth, also stopped by for a drink.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

One of the Hummingbird Clearwing Moths shared a thistle banquet table with a female Zabulon Skipper, while a male Zabulon Skipper and Peck’s Skipper dined together at another.

Female Zabulon Skipper and Hummingbird Clearwing Moth drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Male Zabulon Skipper (left) and Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

These skippers are small butterflies who specialize on various grass species as food for their caterpillars.  Many of these grasses can be found nearby in the meadow.

Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Peck’s Skippers were ubiquitous, sipping nectar alone and in the company of others, including Spicebush Swallowtails and Great-spangled Fritillaries.

Spicebush Swallowtail and Peck’s Skipper drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Two courting Great-spangled Fritillaries and Peck’s Skipper on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails also visited the flowers for nectar.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

All of these large butterflies specialize on plants found in the adjacent woodlands as food for their caterpillars.  Spicebush Swallowtails require Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), their namesake plant, or Sassafras (Sassafras albidum);  Great-spangled Fritillaries need violets; and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails use various tree species, including Ash (Fraxinus species), Tuliptrees (Liriodendrun tulipifera), and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina).

It was very encouraging to see that there were many Monarch butterflies partaking of the thistle feast.  Both Common (Asclepias syriaca) and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) were available in the meadow for egg-laying.

Monarch butterfly drinking nectar from Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Even Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visited the thistles for nectar, but they didn’t stay long enough for a photo op.

Field Thistle’s strategy to protect itself from being eaten is to have very spiny leaves and branches.  This works well in deterring mammals from munching the plant; Field Thistle is not a species that deer are likely to browse.  But caterpillars are a different story.  Painted Lady butterflies as well as Common Loopers and some other moth species use this plant as food for their caterpillars.

Painted Lady on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) is one of the plant species that Painted Lady butterflies can use as food for their caterpillars.

Common Looper Moth on New England Aster ( Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Common Looper Moths caterpillars also eat the leaves of Field thistle (Cirsium discolor).

After all of this help with pollination, Field Thistle produces seed-like fruits called achenes.  They have a light, white fluff (called pappus) attached, enabling their dispersal by the wind. But these fruits are also desirable food and nesting material for Goldfinches and other birds.

Eastern Goldflinches harvesting seeds from Field thistle (Cirsium discolor)

Field Thistle is native from Saskatchewan to Quebec provinces in Canada and in much of the eastern half of the United States, although it is less common in the southeastern states and absent from Florida.  The flower color can vary from purple to pinkish, and is occasionally white.  Field Thistle is a biennial or short-lived perennial, replacing itself by producing seeds.  It can grow to a height of five to seven feet (1.5 – 2.1 meters).  Unlike some non-native thistles, Field Thistle is not invasive.

There is a non-native thistle, Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), that closely resembles the native Field Thistle.  Some differences in their characteristics that can help tell them apart include:  Field Thistle leaves have consistently white felt-like or woolly undersides, Bull Thistle leaves are green to greenish-white below;  Bull Thistle has winged stems where the leaves meet them, Field Thistle does not;  Field Thistle usually has a ring of leaves pointing upward hugging the base of the inflorescence (flower head), like a very pointy stand-up collar, Bull Thistle may have one or two leaves below the inflorescence.

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) with great-spangled Fritillary butterfly. Note the stand-up leaf collar hugging the base of the flower head.

Field Thistle isn’t traditionally used in gardens, but in the right location in a sunny garden, it could really make a statement, and bring so many visitors!

Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

 

Related Posts

A Butterfly garden that Embraces the Shade

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove

Black Cherry – for Wildlife and People, Too!

For Great-spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter

Spicebush or Forsythia?

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Clemants, Steven; Gracie, Carol. Wildflowers in the Field and Forest. 2006.

Newcomb, Lawrence.  Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.  1977.

Peterson, Roger Tory; McKenny, Margaret.  A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America. 1968.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Illinois Wildflowers

Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Bull Thistle

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet

 

 

 

Encounter with a Bluebird Family

As I approached a place where a meadow meets a narrow strip of woods, I noticed some movement in the shadows cast by a Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).  The light was low, so I had to use binoculars to be able to see that the bird flying from the ground to a low branch was an immature Eastern Bluebird.

Immature Eastern Bluebird

This is just the kind of habitat Eastern Bluebirds prefer, open meadows or even lawns with trees nearby for perching and nesting.  Bluebirds nest in cavities, using natural cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes in trees. This kind of real estate is in high demand, so Bluebirds also use nesting boxes.  The male brings materials to the nesting site, including grasses, spent plant stems and pine needles for the outside of the nest, finer grasses and sometimes animal hair for the inside.  The female is in charge of construction, building the nest inside their chosen cavity.

This youngster was apparently already learning and practicing a common Bluebird food foraging behavior, that of sitting on a low branch and flying down to capture an insect meal.  As is the case with most birds, insects and spiders are an important part of a Bluebird’s diet. Bluebirds eat quite a variety, including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and caterpillars.

Grasshopper – A good meal for a hungry Bluebird!

Tulip Tree Beauty – Nothing beats a caterpillar as a tasty treat!

In fall and winter fruit is added to this insect diet.

In fall and winter, Bluebirds add fruit like that offered by this Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) to their diet.

While I focused on this young bird, someone else entered my line of sight.  It was a vividly colorful mature male Bluebird.  He landed in a low bare branch of the Tuliptree, the remnants of last year’s fruit only slightly obscuring my view of him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

This dazzling male seemed intent on mesmerizing me with his beauty so that I would forget about his offspring in the shadows behind him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

His strategy was pretty effective.  While I didn’t forget about the young bird, I couldn’t take my eyes off its father.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

But eventually my peripheral vision picked up some movement behind this stunning male.

A female Eastern Bluebird was flying from a nesting box in the meadow, to the far edge of the tree line.  She flew back and forth, until the young bluebird finally followed her and they disappeared together through the trees.  When I looked again for the male, he had also taken off.

I walked to the lawn on other side of the wood line toward the place where the Bluebirds had escaped from my view and found lots of activity.  The female, now with two immature Bluebirds, flew back and forth from the lawn to the trees.  Practice flights?  One of the youngsters decided to stay in the grass, poking at the ground in search of insect food.  Mom stayed for a while, coaching her young student.

Female Eastern Bluebird (left) with tutoring her young offspring

Eventually Mom flew back to the shelter of the trees.  After a moment, the young bird followed the rest of its family, disappearing into the trees.

Young Eastern Bluebird

 

Resources

Eastman, John.  Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket.  1997.

Harrison, Hal H.  Eastern Birds’ Nests.  1975

Sibley, David Allen.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

 

A Winter Show-off

My first encounter with Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata) was in late fall when the warm brown seed heads caught my eye.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Throughout fall through winter, this plant is at its most dramatic, easily compelling attention away from nearby vegetation.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

When in bloom, Round-headed Bush Clover’s appearance is much more subtle, blending in with the grasses, Mountain Mints, asters, goldenrods and other plants that may share its territory.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Round-headed Bush Clover has dense clusters, or heads, of small white flowers.  ‘Capitata’ in the scientific name means ‘growing in a dense head’, reflecting this arrangement.  The upper petal of each flower has a bit of an art deco vibe – they’re smudged with pink at the throat with ray-like veins radiating above.  This display may look delicately pretty to us, but to the many bees that visit the flowers it’s a beacon advertising food availability.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

The flower petals are protected by hairy sepals, green when the flowers are in bloom, then turning deep brown for fall and winter.  It’s these brown sepals that provide the eye-catching winter display.   If Round-headed Bush Clover’s strategy for enticing pollinators to visit is successful, dry (not fleshy) fruits will be tucked inside the dried sepals.

Hairs on plants are often an adaptation to protect the plant from being eaten, or too discourage free-loaders from stealing nectar when the flowers are blooming.  For example, ants visit flowers for nectar but rarely help with pollination because they are not a good anatomical match for the flowers’ reproductive structures, nor do the ants have the type of surface to which pollen might adhere.  The hairy sepals surrounding the flowers are likely to discourage ants from foraging the flowers, preserving the nectar for more effective flower visitors.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Round-headed Bush Clover has three-part compound leaves, an arrangement that is common with clovers. It grows to a height of two to five feet (.6 – 1.5 meters).  Although the plant is somewhat shrubby-looking, it is herbaceous, that is, its above ground parts die back in the winter, and new shoots emerge from its roots for the next growing season.

In addition to offering food for pollinators, Round-headed Bush Clover is a food plant for the caterpillars of several butterflies, including the Silver-spotted Skipper,

Silver-spotted Skipper ovipositing (laying an egg) on Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Silver-spotted Skippers have the unusual habit of laying their eggs on plants near their caterpillar food plants.

Eastern-tailed Blue,

Eastern-tailed Blue on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Gray Hairstreak,

Gray Hairstreak on White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Southern Cloudywing, Northern Cloudywing, Confused Cloudywing, Hoary Edge, and the Io Moth.

Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Bobwhites and Wild Turkeys are among the birds that may eat the seeds when they are available.

Dark-eyed Junco

Round-headed Bush Clover is native in most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and in Ontario and New Brunswick in Canada.  Searching for it in a meadow near you gives you a reason to go out for a winter walk!

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Resources

Beadle, David; Leckie, Seabrooke. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. 2012.

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Illinois Wildflowers

Natural History Museum Hosts Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database