When Choosing Plants, Think Food Chain

Some years ago when I began writing for a national wildlife gardening blog, I wrote from the standpoint of my personal observations and over the years I have learned and evolved in my way of gardening based on those observations. Below is the very first article I wrote and one of which I am most proud.

It still holds true today as evidenced in the “featured photo” above taken in 2016 which shows the larva of a ladybug eating the pupa of a leaf eating beetle that had dined on the Florida native Goldenrod plant shown. Years ago I may have tossed the beetles in their active leaf-eating stage into soapy water, thinking they were ruining my plants. As I observe the food chain in action, I have learned the importance of leaving them to feed others higher up since if you break the chain at any point someone further up suffers.

Dateline:  October 8, 2010*

Caterpillars of Automeris io moth

I do outreach events for the local chapter of The Florida Native Plant Society. This is our busiest time of year as the weather turns cooler and delightfully breezy.

This past weekend we were at the local Home Depot, sharing our space with Audubon as we often do. I always bring a few live bugs or small garden critters to serve as a conversation starter in how to go about creating a beautiful wildlife garden. It gets kids interested in plants and keeps their attention while I talk to the parents about biodiversity.

I only had about five minutes to locate my “friends” in the early morning hours when things are wet and critters aren’t as plentiful, but I managed to gather a treefrog, a lynx spider and a white peacock butterfly, who was just emerging. Into their display cases they went with proper moisture and plant materials.

When things slowed down at the event, Larry, the president of the Kissimmee Audubon who is also a Native Plant Society member and I got to talking. He said that he was amazed at what I find in my yard to get the conversation flowing. He remarked that not many people could do as I did the week before and bring seven different species to an event without struggling to find them.

That hunt on a single area of Bidens Alba and some native mallow species took me about 15 minutes resulting in finding a praying mantis, two different butterflies, soldier beetles, a spider, and a treefrog. I added a grasshopper which I found on a citrus tree and I only stopped because I ran out of display containers.

Afternoon events are always easier to supply because the bugs are enjoying the sun and are plentiful. Our discussion continued in how planting for butterflies is good but having a lot of different plants in a garden to support all types of native insects is critical in being sustainable and providing for a more diverse array of wildlife.

Birds like all caterpillars, not just those of the butterflies. Consider planting some native plants that support moth caterpillars. You’ll feel less upset about the caterpillars being devoured. I don’t want to give the moths a complex by pointing out that some are not as pretty as a butterfly, but if I see a bird near my Cowbane (Tiedemannia filiformis), I get a little uneasy feeling that perhaps he is eating a potential Black Swallowtail Butterfly. Alternately, if I see a bird on a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) I enjoy the encounter without much concern that a possible looper moth is being digested. Ok, so I’m a little shallow.  😉

I guess the point is that not every critter is going to be something that you want to hug or photograph but they may be the food for something that you want to hug, photograph or observe in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Clearly an onslaught of stinging caterpillars (Automeris io (shown above)) on an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) can be a frightening encounter. But if you wait a day or two to see a fattened anole playfully running up and down the branches of the tree you’ll have expanded your wildlife viewing experience. And you’ll be relieved to observe that the majority of the leaves may still be intact. In the world of native plants, nature tends to keep a balance.

Loret is a retired, transplanted New Yorker. She resides on an acre of land in a rural central Florida community called Holopaw with her three sporting dogs. She is a member of The Pine Lily Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society which encourages others to plant native plants in order to reap the benefits of a beautiful wildlife garden and avoid spreading invasive exotics into our natural areas. 

*This is tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 8, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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