OUTDOOR LEARNING: Wildlife Supermarket
By DIANE STRAUSER ALVAREZ, Master Naturalist and Camp Bayou Supporter
If you want to bring wildlife close, then plant a firebush (Hamelia patens) near a window. I still have a landline, so I can watch the activity outside an eight-paned window while on the phone. Firebush is a great addition to a butterfly garden because it also brings in the birds. In fact, the firebush is a wildlife supermarket. It blooms most of the year and produces berries at the same time. Plant it sometime after the last frost in our area, since it will die back to the roots during a several hour freeze; and then it takes until the summer to be back with blooms and berries. In this mild winter, it is now close to its summer glory. Firebush is a favorite with the butterflies and birds, particularly the hummingbirds. June to September is the best time to watch for the ruby-throated hummingbird, though I did see one briefly this year in January.
I regularly see butterflies, skippers, bumble bees, and other insects at the orange tubular firebush flowers. One year I saw five zebra longwing butterflies at once on the firebush with fritillaries and yellow sulphurs at other plants in the garden. What a spectacle of color! Once it appeared that a zebra longwing was chasing another longwing and two sulphurs away from the firebush. I have seen the hummingbird moth, also called sphinx moth, competing with the hummingbirds by diving toward the flowers. I have watched the wooly bear caterpillar, the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth, eating the leaves. Mockingbirds and cardinals eat the black berries; blue-gray gnatcatchers, grey catbirds, Carolina wrens, and mourning doves also check out the firebush. Lizards and little frogs hide in the leaves and stems. Every yard in Central and South Florida should have a firebush. What are you seeing in your yard?
This column is sponsored by Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center located in Ruskin at 4140 24th Street SE, 3 miles south of S.R. 674 off exit 240 W. on I-75. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (813) 641-8545 for more information.