The Hero Part of Habitat Hero

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

… Is You!

Water-saving front stoop gardens full of flowers for pollinators and songbirds.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Water-saving front stoop gardens provide food and cover for pollinators and songbirds. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

We’ve talked before about what the “habitat” part of Habitat Hero means. But who are these heroes?

They’re you, your neighbors, the people who planted the pollinator garden at the community garden or CSA farm, the designer of the wildscape at the nearby park, the volunteers who replaced the unused lawn or overgrown shrubs at the community building with hummingbird plants….

Jim Ray in his garden with his watering cans, well-spigot, and hose for filling the cans.

Jim Ray in his Habitat Hero garden, which is entirely watered by hand.

Habitat Heroes are all around, and most of them are ordinary folks like all of us, gardeners who have a vision of making their bit of earth not just more beautiful, but also healthier.

We hope you’ll help us find more Habitat Heroes. Please encourage the habitat-gardeners you know in the Rocky Mountain region to apply for the Habitat Hero Award so we can recognize and thank them.

Unsung Heroes

Here’s an example of a group of volunteers who are transforming the landscaping at their townhouse complex in southeast Denver to save a lot of water, improve property values by beautifying their neighborhood, and add habitat for pollinators and songbirds.

The Cherry Creek 3 heroes in the community garden they started as part of their landscape improvement work. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The Cherry Creek 3 volunteers in the community garden they started as part of their landscape improvement work. (Don Ireland, Julie Barnes, Lynn Ireland, Mary Paschal, Brian Barnes) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

These aren’t experts: The group includes a couple who relocated from Pittsburgh and found that gardening in the Rockies is well, challenging. So they started taking classes at Tagawa Gardens.

Lynn's demonstration garden five years ago.

Lynn’s demonstration garden five years ago. Courtesy photo

It started with water-saving….

A series on water-saving landscaping that introduced them to Plant Select®’s line of regionally adapted plants, and the encouragement of an HOA board member inspired Don and Lynn to plant an experimental garden at the end of their building using shrubs and flowers that were adapted to the clay soil and difficult climate.

The demonstration garden five years later. (The wood edging of the original garden area is visible in left center.) Courtesy photo

Lynn’s demonstration garden this July. (The wood edging of the original garden area is visible in left center.) Courtesy photo

One thing led to another, as happens with gardening, and eventually the Homeowner’s Association entered into a five-year water conservation agreement with Denver Water that paid for new landscaping throughout the complex using rebates based on annual savings on water use.

It didn’t all happen at once

Poodle bush and lava rock landscaping, ala 1965.... Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Poodle bush and lava rock landscaping, ala 1965…. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Fast-forward five years, and volunteers at the town-home complex have replaced 200 of the 250 front-stoop gardens in front of each unit, removing “poodle bushes” (1960s-style junipers pruned into bulbous shapes) and lava rock, and replacing that with a variety of perennial ground covers, flowers, grasses, and shrubs.

A row of water-saving and beautiful habitat gardens. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A row of water-saving and beautiful habitat gardens. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Habitat right at home

The effect is not only lovely, it provides rows of front-stoop habitat for hummingbirds, native bees, and seed-eating songbirds. (The group also attended our Wildscape 101 workshop sponsored by Denver Water this summer, and came away further inspired.)

Habitat in the hell-strip between a parking lot and a building. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Habitat in the hell-strip between a parking lot and a building. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The group has also renovated hell-strips between the parking lots and buildings, replaced unused sod areas with water-saving habitat areas, and set up a community edible garden with individual and group plots on what was underused lawn.

These unsung heroes’ creative vision and hard work has not only beautified the complex, their water use has dropped from 36 million gallons a year to 22 million, and their property values are at an all-time high.

A Hunt's bumblebee feeding on Caryopteris on a breezy afternoon. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A Hunt’s bumblebee feeding on Caryopteris on a breezy afternoon. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

It’s made some hummingbirds, butterflies and bumblebees pretty happy too.

That’s what heroes do: create habitat right at home, save water, and make their neighborhood–and our world–a healthier and more beautiful place.

Apply for the Habitat Hero Award….

That’s why we at the Habitat Hero project want to recognize the work of these dedicated habitat gardeners. For all you heroes out there: apply today!

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Container Garden Hummingbird Habitat

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

A Few Pots on a Balcony Can Provide Habitat….

Just a few pots on a deck planted with nectar-bearing plants. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Pots on a deck planted with nectar-bearing plants. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Here at the Habitat Hero project, we often say that just a few pots with the right plants on a deck or porch can provide significant habitat for insect pollinators or hummingbirds. Still, we sometimes forget just how little it takes to make a difference.

A violent thunderstorm one recent August evening showed our Communications Director the power of those few pots. As she tells the story:

It was a dark and stormy night….

Rain pounded down, water overflowed the gutters, and gusts whipped the trees around. When the storm passed, the temperature had dropped from 82 degrees to 50 degrees F.

Before the rain even quit, the air around my hummingbird feeder vibrated with zooming bodies, accompanied by a cacophony of trilling and chattering as the hovering dynamos jockeyed for the nectar.

A very wet hummer drinks from Agastache flowers in the deck containers.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A wet hummingbird drinks from Agastache flowers in the deck containers. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

While a gorgeous cinnamon male Rufous Hummingbird and a brilliant emerald-green male Broad-tailed Hummingbird (they of the trilling wings) battled over the feeder, I noticed two hummingbirds quietly hovering near the pollinator container garden—two large pots planted with Agastache, Salvia and other nectar-bearing flowers—just steps from the feeder.

The two birds worked their way from flower to flower, sucking nectar from the blossoms.

The little hummingbird perches to feed.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The little hummingbird perches to feed. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

When the larger of the two birds zoomed away, the smaller one quit hovering and simply perched on the wire grid railing right next to the Agastache flowers, sticking its short, slender beak right into the nearest flower to sip nectar.

For the next ten minutes the little one fed while perched, checking out each flower within reach, while about five male hummingbirds competed for the feeder.

Watching the aerial dogfights....

Watching the aerial dogfights….  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The little one watched them, and moved from perch to perch around the flower spikes, but didn’t leave its easy nectar source, the high-calorie fuel it needed to survive the night.

The bird looked like a young of the year, lacking distinctive markings. Still, its diminutive size, short bill, squared-off tail and its behavior—perching while feeding—is a clue to its species.

I know there's more nectar in there!

I know there’s more nectar in there!  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

It was likely Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest of the four hummingbird species that pass through the south-central Rockies in summer. Calliopes stretch just over three inches long, weigh a single ounce, and fly all the way to Central Mexico for the winter!

Agastache nectar: good to the last drop....  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Agastache nectar: good to the last drop…. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The tiny hummingbird reminded me of why I plant a variety of nectar-bearing plants: when there’s a crowd, not everyone can compete for the feeder.

The bird also reminded me of how little it takes to provide hummingbird habitat: two pots on my deck gave the little one sufficient food to survive the storm.

_______

2014 Habitat Hero Awards Are Open!

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Does your garden, landscape or park provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators? And is it located in the Rocky Mountain region?

If so, it may qualify for the Habitat Hero Award. The award is open to gardeners, landscape designers and managers of public parks, landscapes and working lands in the Audubon Rockies region.

Habitat Hero awardees receive the beautiful all-weather garden sign above, a gift certificate for High Country Gardens, a copy of our Colorado Wildscapes book; and are featured in our programs, blog and website, and in our newsletter. The top five gardens will receive a Habitat Hero Birdwatcher’s Pre-Planned Garden designed by Lauren Springer Ogden.

How Do You Apply?

Read the guidelines in the Habitat Hero Application, answer the two questions and supply up to five photos of your garden. Send your application to us via email to: habheroes@gmail.com

You’ve got until October 15th, but don’t wait! Apply today.

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Bridges’ Penstemon: Scarlet Summer Surprise

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Our monthly Plant Profiles from Plant Select® feature plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for wildlife.

Ideal for Hummingbird Gardens–a Summer-Blooming Penstemon

Bridges' penstemon (P. rostrifolius) Photo: D. Winger for Plant Select®

Bridges’ penstemon (P. rostriflorus) Photo: D. Winger for Plant Select®

Penstemons or beardtongues are staples in most western wildscapes – their tubular flowers come in a wide range of colors with specialized parts to attract many different kinds of pollinators. (Read more about penstemons).

Nearly all plants in this group bloom in the earlier part of summer – usually May and June. For hummingbirds, this is important timing because the plants supply high-energy nectar as the birds arrive from their spring migration and begin courting and nesting activities.

(A note about flower nectar versus feeders: Unlike the sugar-water in hummingbird feeders, sucking nectar from flowers such as penstemons provides complete nutrition, including the fat and vitamins from the pollen in the floral tube, and protein from any small insects hummingbirds swab up with each slurp of their brush-tipped tongues.)

Bridges’ Penstemon: Late-Bloomer, Long-Lived

Bridges' penstemon with appleblossom grass in the Gardens at Kendrick Lake  Photo: Plant Select™

Bridges’ penstemon with appleblossom grass in the Gardens at Kendrick Lake Photo: Plant Select™

Most penstemons finish blooming before the heat of summer really kicks in. But one species, Bridges’ penstemon, thrives in the heat and blooms late July through August in most areas. It’s also a woodier plant – almost shrublike, with a bushier base topped with wiry, wispy stems. It tends to be quite long-lived as well.

As a “late bloomer,” Bridges’ penstemon flowers provide an important food source –both to Rufous hummingbirds heading back midsummer, and to all hummingbird species still in residence preparing for their migration southbound later on.

The scarlet-orange flowers are similar to scarlet bugler penstemon (P. barbatus) which blooms much earlier, though the plants are quite different in habit. Interestingly, the stems and flowers of Bridges’ penstemon are covered with fine, sticky glandular hairs that trap small insects – another source of protein for these high-energy birds.

Close-up of Bridges' Penstemon flowers with glandular hairs. Photo: Perennial Favorites Nursery

Close-up of Bridges’ Penstemon flowers with glandular hairs. Photo: Perennial Favorites Nursery

A Southwest Native

Native to the Southwestern U.S., Bridges’ penstemon is found in the foothills, canyons and shrublands of southern California, Nevada, Utah, southwestern Colorado, western New Mexico and northern Arizona. In gardens, it thrives in hot climates needing little moisture (once established) and preferring well-drained, mineral soils.

(Nomenclature note: The common name comes from this plant’s former botanical name, P. bridgesii. Once it was discovered that the same plant had been officially described and named by two different individuals in two separate locations, the name was switched to earliest description, which takes precedence in taxonomy.)

Wildlife benefits: Provides nectar, pollen and small insects to foraging hummingbirds. Also feeds butterflies and orioles. Functions as hiding cover for ground-nesting birds and other small wildlife.

Growing tips: For best results, try to imitate the natural conditions of the Southwest – hot and dry with sandy or gravelly, well-drained soils. South and west-facing slopes are ideal in Zones 5 and 4b, and at higher elevations. Using gravel for mulch encourages re-seeding.

Bridges' penstemon in the garden with ornamental alliums. Photo: D. Winter for Plant Select®

Bridges’ penstemon in the garden with ornamental alliums. Photo: D. Winter for Plant Select®

At a glance: Bridges’ penstemon (Penstemon rostriflorus)

  • Height: 24”-36”
  • Width: 20”-30”
  • Growth habit: spreading at base with upright flower stems
  • USDA Hardiness Zones 4b-8
  • How to Use: In dryland plantings, dry meadows, with cacti and succulents, or use as a colorful, wispy accent.
  • Culture: Full sun; prefers well-drained soils, but will tolerate a wide range of soil-types  if allowed to completely dry between waterings (once established).

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Are You a Habitat Hero?

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

2014 Habitat Hero Awards Are Open!

Does your garden, landscape or park provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators? And is it located in the Rocky Mountain region, Colorado and Wyoming plus the adjacent states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Montana?

If so, it may qualify for the Habitat Hero Award. The award is open to gardeners, landscape designers and managers of public parks, landscapes and working lands in the Audubon Rockies region.

Habitat Hero awardees receive the beautiful all-weather garden sign above, a gift certificate for High Country Gardens, a copy of our Colorado Wildscapes book; and are featured in our programs, blog and website, and in our newsletter. The top five gardens will receive a Habitat Hero Birdwatcher’s Pre-Planned Garden designed by Lauren Springer Ogden.

Lauren Springer Ogden's meadow-style Fort Collins garden with formal accents.

Lauren Springer Ogden’s meadow-style Fort Collins garden with formal accents.

What is a Habitat Hero Garden?

It’s a diverse landscape based on plants native to our area or adapted to our region, rich in nectar, seeds and berries. It’s healthy, water-wise and alive with songbirds and pollinators.

The perennial borders at Legacy Ridge Golf Course, Westminster, Colorado, a Habitat Hero landscape. Photo: Shalene Hiller

The perennial borders at Legacy Ridge Golf Course, Westminster, Colorado, a Habitat Hero landscape. Photo: Shalene Hiller

More specifically, a Habitat Hero garden:

  • Includes diverse layers, shelter and nesting opportunities for wildlife.
  • Provides natural food (a Habitat Hero garden is based in plants that provide food for wildlife in different seasons, especially those native to your area).
  • Offers water for drinking and bathing.
  • Does not spread invasive species.
  • Is water-wise, energy-saving, and does not rely on regular use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

How Do you Apply for The Habitat Hero Award?

Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany hedge at Centennial Gardens, Denver  Photo: Panayoti Kelaidis

Formal gardens can provide habitat too! Photo: Panayoti Kelaidis

It’s not hard. Answer two questions and supply up to five photos of your garden according to the guidelines below. Send your application to us via email to: habheroes@gmail.com

Narrative: Answer these two questions (short answers are fine!):

  1. What motivated you to create a wildscape garden?
  2. What makes your wildscape special? For example, the story of creating it? The plants you use? Birds and other pollinators it attracts?

(Please send the answers in a Word document as an attachment. Include your contact info—name, address, email and a contact phone number in the document, as well as whether you are a member of National Audubon, and if so, which chapter.)

Painted lady butterflies feeding on a rabbitbrush in the butterfly garden at the City of Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. Photo: City of Aurora

Painted lady butterflies feeding on a rabbitbrush in the butterfly garden at the City of Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. Photo: City of Aurora

Photos: submit up to five low-resolution photos in jpg format showing how your garden meets the Habitat Hero objectives. Include brief captions, and a written acknowledgement that you give the Habitat Hero program permission to use your photos for educational purposes. (Note that contributed photos will not have any monetary value.)

We love to see favorite native and regionally adapted plants; birds, butterflies and other pollinators on plants; water features; and before/after garden shots. Please do not send photos of people.

Habitat Hero garden in Beulah, Colorado, watered by hand! Photo: Jim Ray

Habitat Hero garden in Beulah, Colorado, watered by hand! Photo: Jim Ray

Selection Criteria: 

  • Wildscapes that show the greatest habitat diversity in providing food, shelter and water for wildlife.
  • Wildscapes that reflect creative solutions in saving water and using a variety of regionally appropriate plants.

DEADLINE: Entries accepted from April 15 through October 15, 2014.  Habitat Hero finalists will be announced in November, 2014.

A hardy Wyoming public garden that provides habitat between a parking lot and public garden.

A hardy Wyoming public garden that provides habitat between a parking lot and public garden.

Submit narrative & photos via email to: habheroes@gmail.com.

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Hummingbird Habitat

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

#PollinatorSummer: Hummingbirds Need More Than Food

It’s four pm on a hot July afternoon. The chatter and trill of hummingbirds feeding and (in the case of the males) defending their floral territories echoes through your garden, as these aerial dynamos zip from flower to flower, sipping nectar.

Thunder rumbles. The sky goes dark. The clouds open up and rain pours down, flooding the soil. The air temperature drops 15 degrees in ten minutes, and suddenly your yard is silent but for the pounding of the rain.

Where are your hummingbirds now?

Habitat: Shelter from Sun and Storm

Tucked away in the densest tree, shrub or climbing vine they can find, sheltering under a branch or even a thick cluster of leaves.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeds at Salvia darci 'Vermillion Bluffs' Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeds at Salvia darcyi ‘Vermillion Bluffs’ Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

For these jewels of the air, whose metabolic rates in flight are the highest of all animals except insects, shelter is critical when they cannot feed. In order to hover, beating their wings as fast as 50 or more times a second, hummingbirds burn plant sugars (glucose or fructose) almost as quickly as they can take the in the high-octane fuels.

A hummingbird in flight, say scientists from the University of Toronto, uses energy so quickly that if it were the size of a human, the hummer would need to drink more than one can of high-fructose corn-syrup–sweetened soda every minute to power its hovering flight.

Feed or Starve

Juvenile male rufous hummingbird fluffed up to stay warm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Juvenile male rufous hummingbird fluffed up to stay warm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

With their super-charged metabolisms, hummers need to stay dry and as warm as possible when bad weather hits to keep from starving to death before they can feed again. They can save energy by dropping their core temperature dramatically to that of the air temperature, but even that won’t help if they get wet.

Hummers can survive much lower core temperatures than humans: Anna’s Hummingbirds have been measured dropping their body temperature as much as 50 degreesF from their normal of 104 degrees!

Hummingbird Shelter Plants

Look around your yard. When it rains or hails, where would the hummers go?

Kintzley's Ghost® Honeysuckle from Plant Select®

Kintzley’s Ghost® Honeysuckle from Plant Select®

Into that dense honeysuckle, clematis, or Virgina creeper vine climbing up your porch or arbor? Yes, or any vine that has enough canopy that the leaves will keep them dry, and branches where they can perch—above the level that wandering cats might reach them.

(When a hummer has to drop its temperature to stay alive, it takes it about twenty minutes to “awaken.” It can’t react fast enough to evade a predator like a house cat.)

Into the Cheyenne mock-orange, sand cherry, three-leaf sumac, or lilac? Yes, or any shrub with a dense canopy where it can stay dry and safe from terrestrial predators.

Close-up view of white spruce 'pendula' cones and needles  Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Close-up view of white spruce ‘pendula’ cones and needles Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Is there a shade tree you stand under to get out of the rain or spring snow? If so, it’s probably a good shelter for hummingbirds too. Mature conifers, including white spruce and Colorado blue spruce, offer some of the best thermal habitat.

Habitat: To Dwell There

Habitat is so much more than hanging a feeder or planting flowers that provide nectar and pollen. The word comes from the Latin root meaning “they dwell there,” a clue to how important shelter is, whether from summer thunderstorms or winter snows.

Broad-tailed hummingbird on the stalk of a common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on a formerly industrial property. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Broad-tailed hummingbird on the stalk of a common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on a formerly industrial property. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Habitat is about plants, the structures that shelter—and feed—hummingbirds and other pollinators. Give your yard habitat a check-up today and make sure it provides shelter from the storm.

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Hungry Caterpillars

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Caterpillars: “Pests” That Turn into Pollinators

A black swallowtail caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A black swallowtail caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

You’re out in your garden on a summer day, enjoying the butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, the drone of the bees and the bird song, when suddenly you notice something missing.

Weren’t there flowers on the dill plant the last time you looked? And didn’t that apple blossom grass (Guara lindheimeri) have a lot more blooms yesterday?

Who is Eating My Plants?

You bend down for a closer look. Aha! There is the culprit. A fat caterpillar clings to the stem, munching relentlessly at the plant you loved.

Your hand reaches out, ready to pluck the hungry pest and dispose of it.

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Wait!

Before you reach for caterpillar or killing tool, think about why these eating machines exist.

To grow fat enough that they can spin a chrysalis around themselves and within its shelter, go through metamorphosis, emerging as a winged butterfly or moth.

(Caterpillars also serve as fat- and protein-rich summer meals for nearly every kind of songbird in our region.)

The black swallowtail caterpillar in the photo at the beginning of the post, newly emerged from its chrysalis. It's wings are still expanding. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The black swallowtail caterpillar in the photo at the beginning of the post, newly emerged from its chrysalis—wings still expanding. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

No Caterpillars, No Butterflies and Moths

Rather than get rid of the caterpillar eating your favorite plant, let it be. Shoot a photo—caterpillars come in amazing colors and patterns.

A boldly patterned owlet moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A boldly patterned owlet moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Look it up to identify what kind of butterfly or moth it will to transform into. (Bug Guide is one good source. Another is Butterflies and Moths of North America.)

Plant a Hungry Caterpillar Garden

And next year, plant extra food for these voracious eaters. In fact, consider making a garden area just for the caterpillar stage of your favorite pollinators.

Remember: Caterpillars are picky eaters—some, like Monarchs, only eat one kind of plant (milkweed, in the case of monarchs). So before you plant, learn what foods your hungry caterpillar will eat.

And then enjoy the bounty of fluttering and hovering beauties in your garden.

White-lined sphinx moth hovers as it sips nectar from a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus).

White-lined sphinx moth, the winged, pollinating form of the fat caterpillar in the second photo above. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Are You a Habitat Hero?

If your garden, park, golf course or working landscape provides habitat for caterpillars, butterflies and other pollinators, and songbirds, apply to be recognized as a Habitat Hero!

If you’re chosen, you’ll receive an all-weather garden sign, a copy of our Colorado Wildscapes guide to inspire you, and a special Habitat Hero Birdwatcher’s Garden of plants, chosen and designed by Lauren Springer OgdenApply here.

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Summer Pollinator Plants

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

All-You-Can-Eat Buffets for Pollinators

White-lined sphinx moth hovers as it sips nectar from a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus).

White-lined sphinx moth hovers as it sips nectar from a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

In keeping with our #pollinatorsummer campaign, this week we’re featuring two of our favorite groups of plants native to the Rocky Mountain region that serve as always-open buffets for pollinators in early summer.

These plants are not only striking in the garden, their nectar and pollen-laden blossoms provide an ever-changing pollinator show, attracting and feeding many kinds native bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, and hummingbirds, as well as honeybees.

Penstemons–A Shape and Color for (most) Everyone

The larger and more diverse group of pollinator-buffet plants are the Penstemons or beardtongues, a genus of plants unique to North America. These plants with the tubular flowers in blues, purples, red, yellow, orange, pink and white have specialized to attract many different kinds of pollinators.

Western Tiger Swallowtail nectars at a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (P. strictus). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Western Tiger Swallowtail nectars at a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (P. strictus). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Of the 273 species of penstemons in North America, around 60 are native to Colorado and Wyoming. There are also horticultural varieties, like the Mexicali hybrids developed by Plant Select®.

Different kinds of penstemons appeal to butterflies, moths (like the sphinx moth in the photo at the top of the post), bumble bees and parasitic wasps, and hummingbirds.

Sidebells penstemon (P. secundus) pollinated by a parasitic wasp.

Sidebells penstemon (P. secundus) pollinated by a parasitic wasp. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

In general, the blue-purple-pink-white sorts with wide floral tubes attract insects, while the red-orange-yellow penstemons with narrow tubes are hummingbird-pollinated.

Scarlet bugler penstemon (P. barbatus), bright as its name, attracts hummingbirds. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Scarlet bugler penstemon (P. barbatus), bright as its name, attracts hummingbirds. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Many Kinds for Many Tastes
Snapdragon penstemon (P. palmeri) can grow up to three feet tall. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Snapdragon penstemon (P. palmeri) can grow up to three feet tall. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Penstemons may be tall plants with big flowers like the snapdragon penstemon above, small shrubs, shorter plants with tall flower spikes like scarlet bugler, or spreading mats with dainty flowers, like pine-leafed penstemon.

Bumble bee comes in for a meal at a penstemon flower.

Bumble bee comes in for a meal at a penstemon flower. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Whatever the kind of penstemon, these food-rich, beautiful flowers each have their pollinator “fans.”

Milkweeds–Every Pollinator Loves ‘em

Skipper Butterfly feeds from a Showy Milkweed flower. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Skipper Butterfly feeds from a Showy Milkweed flower. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

There aren’t nearly as many different kinds of milkweeds as there are penstemons, or as many colors, but these plants with the architectural flowers attract a broader array of pollinators to each plant.

Milkweeds, named for the “milky” sap that contains natural latex compounds, are the host-plant for caterpillars of Monarch Butterflies (meaning they are the sole food for the caterpillars, without which, of course, there can be no adult butterflies).

A Leaf-cutter Bee feeds on the same Showy Milkweed as the skipper in the photo above. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A male Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile) feeds on the same Showy Milkweed as the skipper in the photo above. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Two species of milkweed are widely adapted to the Rocky Mountain region, Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Showy or Common Milkweed (A. speciosa). Flower clusters of both attract pollinators including butterflies, beetles, native bees and honeybees, and beneficial wasps.

A clump of Showy Milkweed buzzing with bees, beetles and this gorgeous Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A clump of Showy Milkweed buzzing with bees, beetles and this gorgeous Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

In half an hour of watching a clump of Showy Milkweed, our Communications Director counted at least six species of native bees, three species of butterflies (including monarchs), one kind of beetle, two kinds of beneficial wasps, and honeybees. A veritable pollinator parade!

Butterfly Weed with two different species of native bees feeding on it. (Look closely at the upper left and center.) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Butterfly Weed with two different species of native bees feeding on it. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

For those who can’t plant the larger Showy Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, its smaller and more sedentary cousin, also provides great habitat for monarch caterpillars and nectar and pollen for the whole gamut of insect pollinators.

A Pollinator Feast

Make room for penstemons and milkweeds in your garden and give your pollinators a summer feast!

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Bring on the Butterflies with [the correct] Buddleia

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Our monthly Plant Profiles from Plant Select® feature plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for wildlife.

Butterfly Bushes–Popular and Controversial

Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush Photo: Dave Winger for Plant Select®

Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush Photo: Dave Winger for Plant Select®

Butterfly bushes (Buddleia daviddii selections) have been extremely popular and successful plants for pollinator gardens in many parts of the country. Unfortunately, this popularity, ease-of-growth, and their abundant seed-set have also caused them become a menace, particularly in wetlands in warmer climates. In fact, few garden plants have caused so much controversy in recent years as B. daviddii. 

Get the Right Buddleia

Fortunately, a related species of butterfly bush,  B. alternifolia, is much more “polite”: decades of American horticulture experience shows it stays contained and doesn’t self-seed.

Also Adapted to  Our Region

Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush, a silver-leaved and more cold-hardy selection of B. alternifolia was selected as Plant Select® winner in 1998 for its adaptability to western gardens, gracefully arching branches, immense lavender flower clusters and beautiful silvery leaves.

Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush Photo: Bob Nold for Plant Select®

Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush Photo: Bob Nold for Plant Select®

Silver Fountain is a large shrub so needs plenty of space to really show off its cascading form. Blooming in late spring, the sweetly fragrant flowers are most attractive to butterflies in the heat of midday. When the blooms have faded, the plant remains attractive because of the interesting grey-green-silvery foliage.

Wildlife benefits:  Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush attracts bees, butterflies, wasps, hornets, lady beetles, lacewings and moths. Nectar-feeding birds like orioles and bushtits sip on the flowers during the growing season; seed-eaters chow down on the seeds in winter. Buddleia act as both nectaring and food plants to many butterflies, including some that normally feed on other plants.

Mourning Cloak butterfly on hollyhock Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Mourning Cloak butterfly on hollyhock Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Some butterfly species attracted to Buddleia (list adapted from Plant Delights Nursery):

  • American Snout
  • Anise Swallowtail
  • Black Swallowtail
  • Common Buckeye
  • Common Checkered-Skipper
  • Compton Tortoiseshell
  • Eastern Comma
  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
  • Monarch
  • Mourning Cloak
  • Painted Lady
  • Pearl Crescent
  • Pipevine Swallowtail
  • Sagebrush Checkerspot
  • Two-tailed Tiger Swallowtail
  • Western Tiger Swallowtail
Tiger Swallowtail on Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush Photo: Jodi Torpey,  Western Gardeners (used by permission)

Tiger Swallowtail on Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush Photo: Jodi Torpey, Western Gardeners (used by permission)

Growing tips: Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush blooms on old wood, so prune immediately after blooming for shape. It’s okay to prune out dead branches at any time.

At a glance:

  • Silver Fountain Butterly Bush (Buddleia alternifolia ‘Argentea’)
  • Height: 12-15’
  • Width: 10-12’
  • Growth habit: Large shrub with arching branches
  • USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8
  • How to Use:  Use in a large shrub border, as an informal hedge, as a specimen in a mixed border and to attract butterflies.
  • Culture:  Sunny spots with moderate to dry conditions in most soils–very adaptable. Does not tolerate wet feet so be sure to provide good drainage, especially in winter.
  • Endemic to Kansu, China. (The Buddleia native to North America is B. americana.)
  • Reported to be deer and rabbit resistant

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Join the Buzz! It’s National Pollinator Week…

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

National Pollinator Week

Long-tongued bee flying to a milkvetch flower. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Long-tongued bee flying to a milkvetch flower. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

It’s National Pollinator Week. Our gardens are buzzing with native bees, honeybees and other pollinators, while our social media accounts are buzzing with ideas for how to support these hard-working insects critical to our food supply and the health of our planet.

Why Care About Pollinators?

Eastern black swallowtail nectaring at Spiderflower (Cleome serrulata) in an edible garden.

Eastern black swallowtail nectaring at Spiderflower (Cleome serrulata) in an edible garden.

Watch this video from The Nature Conservancy to learn more about pollinators, especially the funny–and informative–pollinator lunch exercise. What food on your table hasn’t needed a pollinator at some point in its life cycle? (Hint: Not much.)

Food for Thought: Colorado has 946 species of native bees. How many of them have you seen in your garden?

Sunflower bee gathers pollen (look at those pollen baskets on her back legs!) from an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Sunflower bee gathers pollen (look at those pollen baskets on her back legs!) from an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

(Tip: Native bees, unlike European Honeybees, are largely inoffensive insects that go about their business–pollinating our food plants and wildflowers–without bothering you. Watch this short video to see how charming they are!)

Busy Bees

We’re out tending our wildscapes and admiring pollinators like this bee busy collecting pollen from a Limonium blossom in the Plant Select® Trial Gardens. (Thanks to Pat Hayward of Plant Select® for sharing the video.)

What Can you Do?

Native bee on Gaillardia (blanketflower) along an urban walking trail. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Native bee on Gaillardia (blanketflower) along an urban walking trail. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Join us on Facebook and Twitter to catch the buzz about pollinators and National Pollinator Week.

Visit these websites for more information about bees and other pollinators (this is just a few of the sites out there):

Bumblebee feeding on a Salvia. Photo: Rhonda Thompson Leonard

Bumblebee feeding on a Salvia. Photo: Rhonda Thompson Leonard

Plant for pollinator habitat in your garden and neighborhood. Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero!

Buy Local: Plants, Seeds & Materials

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

“Buy Local” For Habitat

Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

“Buy Local” is a popular retail buzz-phrase. But does buying locally really matter? And what does it mean for wildscape gardeners?

The answer to both questions is generally yes, but it’s complicated.

What Does “Buy Local” Mean For GArdeners?

Buying local means searching out nurseries that sell locally grown plants, using local landscaping materials (especially soil and mulch), and buying seeds grown and harvested locally wherever possible.

It’s not easy. And the definition of local needs to be somewhat elastic, because not everyone can buy everything in their town or watershed or however you want to define “local.” The buy local idea makes sense for a lot of reasons, including:

Scarlet Bugler Penstemon (P. barbatus) and Fringed Sage (Artemisia frigida) from a local nursery.

Scarlet Bugler Penstemon (P. barbatus) and Fringed Sage (Artemisia frigida) from a local nursery. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Better-adapted Plants and Seeds: Plants grown locally are often already attuned to the local climate and soils, and thus have a better chance of thriving. Same for seeds—their genes “know” the local conditions.

How do you know what’s “local”? One way is to look for the Plant Select® label, identifying plants developed specifically for our region. Another is to ask the nursery where their plants are grown.

“Local” applies even more strongly to native plants. Plants may be labeled “native” if they grow anywhere on the North American continent. That’s fine, but imagine trying to grow a native Florida saw palmetto in a Colorado or Wyoming garden–bad idea! So look for what region a native plant comes from.

Recognize too, that even within regions, growing conditions vary widely, as say, the difference between an alpine penstemon and a penstemon native to the plains. Which one is more likely to grow well in your garden? That depends on where your garden is, including elevation, exposure and soil. Knowing your conditions helps you define “local” for your own site.

Fewer Hitchhikers: Plants, seeds and landscape materials imported from elsewhere—especially distant regions or other continents—often come with unwanted and destructive hitchhikers.

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) invades Prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) invades Prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana).

Tumbleweed (AKA Russian Thistle) and cheatgrass, for instance, hitched to this continent from Central Asia in agricultural seed. The devastating emerald ash borer, recently found in Colorado, most likely traveled to North America in the wood of shipping pallets. Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus, came to this continent in diseased logs from Europe in the 1930s, but it probably originated in Asia. 

Bark mulch is another great example of the importance of buying local: Bark is home dozens or hundreds of kinds of critters, from microscopic bacteria and fungi to visible insects. These organisms can hitch rides as eggs, spores, larvae or adults. Importing bark mulch from another region may bring that region’s bark-dwellers, not all of which may be “friendly” to your garden. (Imagine finding a live bark scorpion in your bag of mulch.)

Avoiding Pesticides: Buying local means knowing the source for your plants and seeds, and being able to choose those not grown with persistent noxious chemicals. While your local plant-supplier may not grow all of their plants, they know who does and can ask about their growing practices.

Bumblebee dives head-first into a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (P. strictus) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Bumblebee dives head-first into a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (P. strictus) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

This is especially important with the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are taken up by the plant and integrated in its tissues, and thus can poison pollinators who visit the flowers. (Neonicotinoids are also used on seeds, with the same persistent deadly affects. Ask seed-suppliers how their seeds are treated.)

Define “Local” Flexibly

What if you don’t have a local nursery or other plant-supplier, or if your best source for native or regionally adapted plants is a nursery not in your area? Local can refer more to the plants’ adaptability to your conditions than to where it was grown.

'Poncha Pass Red' Sulphur-flowered Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

‘Poncha Pass Red’ Sulphur-flowered Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Our Communications Director was thrilled when High Country Gardens released ‘Poncha Pass Red’ Sulphur-Flowered Buckwheat as one of its 2014 Plants of the Year. (Native buckwheats are prime bee- and butterfly-flowers, but hard to find in the nursery trade.) Not only is ‘Poncha Pass Red’ native to Tweit’s region, it’s truly local. HCG founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman collected the buckwheat in Tweit’s own valley, on Poncha Pass, about 20 miles from her house.

Those ‘Poncha Pass Red’ sulphur-flowered buckwheat were the first wildflowers to bloom in Tweit’s garden this spring. No sooner had their tiny chrome yellow flowers opened then a small and speedy native bee declared them its territory, zipping around the plants as if protecting an invisible perimeter.

So yes, “buy local” does matter for habitat gardening and wildscaping!

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero!