Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Moon Garden for Moths

When You Don't Want a Bee Garden

There are people who are very allergic to bees and may not want to attract them to their garden. You could make your backyard into a prairie-inspired garden with the textures of many interesting grasses. Last year I grew some blue tinge wheat in a neglected spot in my garden just so I could have a few stalks for my fall flower arrangements. Grasses are very satisfying in the way they catch the sunlight and rustle in the breeze. Or if you are a night owl, you may want to try a moon garden to attract mysterious moths.

So how would a garden look like if you didn't want to attract bees? Well, the first thing would be to avoid colours bees are attracted to. I know that magazines tell you bees are attracted to certain colours like blue, mauve and yellow, but as long as flowers have nectar guides (visible to bees who see ultra violet light) they generally see flowers as neon signs saying "good eats" with an arrow pointing to the flower's nectary. I've noticed that bumble bees in particular are not choosy when it comes to flower colour and if their tongues aren't long enough to harvest nectar from plants evolved for hummingbird pollination they will cheat by biting a hole in the back of the blossom which leads other nectar-robbing insects to come in through the back door as well.

A garden designed with wind pollinated plants and plants without brightly coloured flowers might not attract as many bees. Flowers that evolved to attract moths are often white, lilac or pale pink so they can be seen at night and they have a heavier perfume that carries in the cooler air. Jasmine-scented nicotiana is a good example of this kind of flower. You may want to make a corner or your garden into a moon garden, so that if you invite a bee-phobic friend to tea, she can sit in a special spot next to the night garden. If you're looking for plants for a moon garden, a sensible place to start is with plants with night or evening in their name, evening primrose, night phlox, evening Lychnis, night stock, and night-blooming jasmine. There is also a variety of fragrant white flowers to choose from such as Aquilegia fragrans, mock orange, white lavender, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica Halliana), Madame Alfred Carrière and Darlows Enigma roses as well as white bleeding hearts.

The black/grey/silver/white pallet could make for an elegant moon garden. You could go totally gothic and add gargoyles and dragons. The advantage to using grey-leafed herbs which reflect the moonlight is that they are often resistant to drought. You could choose artemisias, lavender cotton (santolina), wooly lamb's ear, sages (white salvias) and "moonshine" yarrow. I like the idea to plant white veggies and herbs: In a publication called Habichat, Marilyn Mause says you can plant herbs like silver thyme, white, basil, and oregano alongside white pumpkins and eggplants. Check out her articles for ideas on plants moths rely on for larval food. (Spring 2005 Habichat, Vol 11 No. 1) Finally, I turn to one of my favorite gardening books of all time: The Natural Gardener: The Way We All Want to Garden by Val Bourne. Her list of moth plants includes Phlox, Sweet Rocket, Lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis), Dianthus, Verbanas, and Soapwart. Trees such as willow, ash, poplar, land lime are important food sources for caterpillars.

Apparently there is a scientific reason that flowers with brighter colours tend to have less scent. In The Garden by Moonlight by Kim Smith notes:

"With a few notable exceptions, the most intensely fragrant roses are usually in shades of rose-pink to white. Pure white flowers release the strongest perfume, followed by creamy white, pale pink, pale yellow, yellow, purple-pink and purple. Plants with blue, orange, and red flowers have a high degree of pigmentation and usually generate little or no scent. The greater the amount of essential oil produced, the lesser degree of pigmentation in a flower. The oil is the result of the transformation of chlorophyll into tannoid compounds (or pigments), which is in inverse ratio to the amount of pigment in a flower. Scent is the oxidation of essential oils of flowers and leaves." She also says that the more fragrant flowers also have thick petals that prevent the essential oils from evaporating. This is certainly true of the Tuberose I bought from a flower shop last summer. The petals are very thick and extremely fragrant.

How does that affect the way we design a bee garden? You might want to choose white versions of plants and choose another part of your garden that will feature brightly coloured version of the same flower, a kind of a mirror image of each other. cleome, lavender, penstemon, and aquilegia would be good varieties to choose the white version and the coloured variety. It would be fun to compare the moon flowers (Ipomoea alba) with a bright blue morning glory, for instance.

You can do experiments in your garden: will the bees visit the more fragrant white lavender, or the lavender with the more desirable purple colour? Would white alyssum work just as well attracting bees as a pink variety? But then, we're not supposed to be attracting bees with our moon garden are we? I think what we'll learn that it's harder to keep bees away from flowers than deciding which flowers attract bees. Whether or not you're giving them a good source of nectar and pollen is another matter.

One of my favorite essays about pollination and ecology is on the website of the Smithsonian National Zoo. I think it's fascinating that the gilia can actually change its pollination adaptation strategy over the course of a summer.

"Plants and pollinators have been evolving together since at least the early Cretaceous period—that’s 144 million years and more than a billion bee generations—and their relationships have become increasingly specialized. Flower color, shape, fragrance, and position attract specific pollinators. For some flowers, timing is everything. Yellow lantana flowers turn red—a shade that is invisible to butterflies—once they are pollinated in order to concentrate butterfly activity on unpollinated yellow flowers. Scarlet gilia flowers attract hummingbirds with red flowers in early summer and switch to white during late summer in order to attract nocturnal hawkmoths. Pollinators, in turn, sometimes seek very specific commodities from plants. Males of one butterfly species visit flowers to collect certain alkaloids, a butterfly aphrodisiac of sorts that sends females of the species into a narcotic swoon. When the butterflies mate, the male transfers the chemical to the female’s reproductive tract and she coats her eggs with it to protect them from ant attacks, according to Adrian Forsyth, an entomologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History." ("Saving Pollinators" by Alison Emblidge and Emily Schuster)

In her lovely whimsical book called Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots: Activities To Do in the Garden, Sharon Lovejoy devotes a chapter on creating a moon garden for kids. She has a plan for setting up a moonflower-covered teepee in front of a crescent moon-shaped garden. She suggests making "Moth Broth" out of mushed up fruit, brown sugar and water to ferment for two days and then paint onto the truck of a tree for a moth-watching spot. What a great spot for a camp-out!

1 comment:

  1. OH WHAT A TREAT to be doing pollinator research and to find that you have mentioned my book Roots Shoots Buckets & Boots. What an honor.

    Your blog is magnificent and brimming with good information.

    Please check out my blog to see a Farming Magazine I highly recommend. They have a column about bees that is fascinating

    Keep up your wonderful work.

    Green blessings,

    Sharon Lovejoy (