by Jennifer Bridgforth
When the pandemic gave us more time at home than most of us would have liked, I went a little nuts with an app called iNaturalist. Every year at the end of April, the app hosts a competition called the City Nature Challenge. As far as I can tell, there are no prizes beyond bragging rights, but the goal is for the residents of every metropolitan area to post the most sightings of urban wildlife in an effort to document biodiversity. As a gardener sticking close to home, I’d assumed I’d be taking pictures of my flowers, but I quickly realized that the app was intended to document wild organisms, so my carefully cultivated flowers, no, any insects sitting on them, yes. That small shift in focus led me to engage with my garden in a completely different way last year.
I’d heard of wildlife gardening, of course, but now instead of simply buying the occasional “butterfly plant,” I was actively hunting for every creeping, crawling, or fluttering thing that called my garden home. And when I actually looked, I found the most amazing sights. Honey bees clustered under the canopy of my little Japanese maple, where the inflorescences hung down like tiny chandeliers, invisible to the casual passerby. A mottled pink and green caterpillar not much bigger than a loose piece of yarn that was so perfectly camouflaged on my dusty rose yarrow I might never have seen it if I hadn’t been looking. A tiny katydid that looked exquisitely emerald green against a backdrop of royal blue salvia. Four hundred pictures or so later, my thoughts turned to what else I should plant to draw more wildlife to my little lot.
One obvious oversight in my Dallas garden was the lack of purple coneflower. When a friend posted pictures of showy Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and American Ladies and Red Admirals all over her coneflowers, garden envy set in. Luckily, a good friend is willing to share. Established coneflowers reseed readily, and my friend brought me a tray full of seedlings, which I planted immediately. Unfortunately, garden envy is not patient. After watching the seedlings for a week or two, it quickly became evident that they would not get big enough to flower anytime soon, maybe not even that year–especially when my resident rabbits would not leave them to grow tall in peace. So off to the garden center I went.
Full-grown coneflowers are a bit pricey, so I bought just one that day and plopped it front and center near my patio chair. Every afternoon, just before sunset, I sat in that patio chair and watched as a parade of pollinating insects gathered for what looked to me like happy hour at the watering hole that was my new coneflower. I never did get the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails or the American Ladies, but I became much more acquainted with a variety of comical grass
skippers that at first glance might be mistaken for drab moths but entertained me for days on end. And I became enamored of the common Gray Hairstreaks that don’t look like much from far away but are exquisitely beautiful when you zoom in. I started to learn the difference between Western honey bees and the native Megachile bees with their fuzzy yellow undersides. And if I was very lucky on a given afternoon, I might observe a tiny metallic green bee not much bigger than a fire ant.
So, the garden goal for this year? More coneflowers, of course.
For more information about the City Nature Challenge 2022, visit https://citynaturechallenge.org/.
Coneflower blooms attract a range of species, from diminutive furrow bees and sweat bees (Halictus spp.) to the larger leaf-cutter bees (Megachile spp.) and the more recognizable Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera). In our home gardens and here at Bird’s Fort Trail, we’ve observed a variety of butterfly species visiting the purple coneflowers:
American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
Common Checkered Skipper (Burnsius communis)
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
Sachem (Atalopedes campestris)