Lynn Foster

Three small wafer ash trees grew in a yard, planted to be host plants for butterflies. This year, in mid-August, a giant swallowtail butterfly mother laid eggs on the leaves over a period of days. Caterpillars soon hatched and began munching on the leaves.

The Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest flowers—more than a foot across—and the largest entire leaves—up to three feet long—of any Arkansas native tree. It is listed as endangered in Arkansas.

Bigleaf Magnolias are understory trees that do well in part shade and in locations sheltered from wind. They are host plants for 15 species of Lepidoptera, including the Tuliptree Silkmoth and the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

Their flowers are pollinated by beetles, and not by bees. This is because magnolias evolved twenty or thirty million years before bees.

Nature needs our help; most species of wildlife are rapidly declining in numbers because we are destroying their habitat. Native perennials can be food for wildlife.

Are you wondering what kind of native perennial to plant? Try goldenrod. The Goldenrod or Solidago genus supports more caterpillars—that birds eat—than any other flowering plant genus in Pulaski County.

Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod pollen does not cause hay fever, because it doesn’t travel far from the plant.

This month, we are sharing our own personal experiences in nature.

I witnessed the following in April. A female hummingbird perched on the small feeder above my deck. Suddenly a male sporting his glittering ruby gorget or throat swooped in and hovered in front of her. Instead of chasing him away, she remained motionless. He began to make U-shaped dives in front of her, flying down then up, in a wide arc at top speed.

In late March and early April ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to Arkansas.

Do you feed hummingbirds? They are attracted to the color red, but dying their sugar water can harm them, so instead provide a feeder with a red cap or base.

Their food should be one part sugar to four parts water. Less sugar, and it will not be as nutritious and won’t attract them. More sugar, and the birds will have problems drinking it because it will be too thick.

Spring officially begins in March, and blooming shrubs and trees are a welcome sight!

As much as we love to see forsythia, blooming quince, and azaleas, it’s worth noting that none of them are native to Arkansas, and so will attract fewer pollinators and host few if at all caterpillars that our birds need to raise their young.

We live in Arkansas, the Natural State, but what is nature?

A native plant is one that is part of the food web around it. This isn't true of manicured lawns, Bradford pear trees or burning bushes just to name a few plants in the typical landscaped yard.

Plants are the center of nature's food web, but most plant-eating insects only eat a few types of plants; those they have evolved with over thousands of years. A yard with Kentucky bluegrass, Japanese maples and Chinese privet is not much better for Arkansas birds and butterflies than a yard paved over with concrete.

Many of us feed birds in the wintertime by putting out seed and suet. But you can also feed birds more naturally by planting native habitat they can eat throughout the winter. This native habitat will also serve as food for caterpillars in the spring and summer, which in turn will feed other animals up the foodchain.

The American beautyberry, Callicarpa Americana, is a native shrub that produces brilliant purple berries. Possumhaw, Ilex decidua, another native, has bright red berries.

Did you notice a large number of acorns on the ground this fall? That’s because this year was what naturalists call a mast year.

Mast is the fruit of forest trees and shrubs. Hard mast is nuts, like acorns, hickory nuts, and beechnuts. Mast seeding is the production of above average numbers of seeds by an entire of population of plants. Mast years are good for the wildlife that feed on the nuts, and also good for the trees themselves, because the larger than usual crop of nuts means the potential for nuts that will escape being eaten and will go on to sprout.

November is one of the best months to plant milkweed seeds in the ground. They must be “cold stratified” to sprout, meaning they must experience cold for at least several weeks. Plant seeds a quarter inch deep in wet soil. White swamp milkweed, Asclepias perennis likes moist soil, the beautiful orange-flowered Asclepias tuberosa likes well-drained soil, and Four-leaf milkweed, Asclepias quadrifolia, likes dry soil. They all like the sun and are all native to Arkansas.

As the days of fall grow shorter, we prepare our yards and gardens for winter.

What do you do with your leaf litter and yard waste? Do you remove it from the ground and burn it, or rake it off for your city to pick up?

If so, do you know what else you’re throwing away?

Are you concerned about climate change? One action to take in response is to plant an oak tree, preferably quercus alba, the white oak.

Why an oak? The white oak supports more moths and butterflies than any other tree species—over 500, according to the latest research. These insects are essential for nature’s food web, on which we all depend, to function.

Who doesn’t love hummingbirds? The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backwards and even upside down, and they have a larger brain to body ratio than any other animal, including us. The ruby throat-ed hummingbird is the only species native to Arkansas. They arrive in March, raise two broods, and leave in September.