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The return of our late summer perennials

Published 2:25pm Wednesday, October 3, 2012

BY Patricia Drackett, Director/The Crosby Arboretum/ MSU Extension Service

Last week, driving along Highway 90 between Stennis Space Center and Bay St. Louis, I was pleasantly surprised to pass several areas along the road that I hadn’t noticed before which were loaded with the awesome purple spikes of Liatris in full bloom. Some of you might recall seeing this perennial in the Crosby Arboretum’s Savanna Exhibit. Liatris grows in its densest numbers at the south end of our site, near the boardwalk in the Pitcher Plant Bog. This plant is a favorite late summer subject to photograph, as it is often seen surrounded by butterflies attracted to the sweet nectar of the blooms.

Our Liatris at the Arboretum has really been on the increase. A few weeks ago, I was happy to see that we’ve gained some nice-sized clusters of the purple blooms on the west side of Ridge Road. Since our plants are now well past their peak bloom period, it was a treat to find some local plants that were still going strong.

As I drove further east along on Highway 90, through Bay St. Louis, and around the curve on Henderson Point, I was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of butterflies, including what appeared to be monarchs, gulf fritillaries, yellow sulphurs and common buckeyes. In the next second, I found myself imagining what it would be like to be one of these paper-thin creatures, either sipping nectar from flowers and preparing for a long journey across the Gulf of Mexico, or perhaps arriving in Mississippi after my long flight across the Gulf, ravenous with hunger. Would you rather find an expanse of nicely trimmed lawn, or a lot full of “weedy” blooms? I recall that the late summer and fall of 2006 was a banner year for our coastal butterflie. Journeys along this same stretch of highway often involved passing through what at times seemed to be “butterfly snow”. Anything of beauty appearing after Katrina was well-appreciated, and those weedy blooms covering the newly-vacant lots must have looked pretty yummy to traveling butterflies that year.

Gaillardia pulchella, called blanketflower or Indian blanket, is prevalent along the coastline in areas such as Pass Christian and Long Beach. Also found in our Children’s Butterfly Garden, this is one of the easiest wildflowers to grow. Although commonly classified as an annual, the plant is perennial in the warmer coastal areas. Take a hint from what you see along our roadsides. Why struggle with establishing tender flowering plants in a new landscape? Choose a tough, drought-tolerant plant such as blanketflower known to thrive under harsh conditions. Look up Gaillardia on a website such as www.wildflower.org. You’ll learn that it is a good addition to your butterfly garden, and find additional information on its propagation and cultivation.  

At the Arboretum’s recent Bugfest celebration, visitors had the opportunity to observe monarch butterfly chrysalises. They could see the difference between a chrysalis when it was an opaque mint green, adorned with sparkling gold dots, and its later stage when it becomes translucent. Close by, they could see an even earlier stage – that of a very hungry caterpillar chomping on some milkweed, another dependable roadside perennial.

An unbelievable amount of energy is spilling forth from the soil over the last week or two. Grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium) are seemingly bolting overnight. Swamp sunflower (Helianthus) is unfurling, and Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium) are waving at passing butterflies, joining in the symphony our roadsides are now playing.

Swamp sunflower is one of those perennials that seems to grow a foot overnight. It is common in our Savanna Exhibit, and several are planted in the raised beds of our Children’s Garden. Although it is found growing in moist, boggy areas, it also does fine in regular garden soil. Swamp sunflower is particularly attractive to birds and native bees. But it is tough as well as drop-dead gorgeous. In the downtown urban neighborhood only a few blocks from my house, a large cluster of this dependable perennial is a stunning sight to those who pass by. Removing this plant from its roadside home and locating it in a cultivated landscape really gives it a stage on which it can shine. It looks exotic in the garden, but those who wonder about the identity of this plant would probably be surprised to learn it is so incredibly undemanding.

As I’ve often wondered where Joe-Pye weed got its name, I went online to search for the answer. Many sources offer a version of the same story, and I obtained the following from the lovely daily blog of the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee (http://ijamsnature.blogspot.com), because I occasionally pine for my hometown, and once lived next door to this wonderful site. Blog writer tephen Lyn Bales says this plant can attain heights of eight feet. The ones growing in the ditches along Kiln-Delisle Road north of Diamondhead look to be about this height. Stephen reports that Joe Pye is believed to have a Native American medicine man who lived in New England in the 1700’s and used extracts from the plant to treat typhoid fever. If you search for the keywords Joe-Pye weed along with the nature center you’ll find a nice photo of this plant. It is a popular wildflower often recommended for the rear of a perennial border.  For more information, please call the Crosby Arboretum office at 601-799-231 or see our program schedule on our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu. Social media links can be found on our homepage. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

 

For further exploration:  

Have you spotted a monarch butterfly? Find a site on the Internet where you can report your siting. There are also “apps” that you can download to your phone and report observations directly from the field.

Read about monarch migrations on the Web, or in a book such as Robert Michael Pyle’s “Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage.”

Find a video on the Internet that shows the monarchs arriving in Mexico. How far do they migrate? Learn and tell a friend.

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