plants

Balconies for butterflies: a guide for the urban gardener

There are few creatures quite as charming as our native butterflies. Unfortunately, urbanisation has pushed many of these once-common insects from our cities and some local butterflies are now threatened with extinction. Increasingly, though, city dwellers are looking to welcome wildlife back into their urban gardens, no matter how small the available space may be. This is incredibly easy thanks to a widely available range of attractive indigenous plants suitable for any balcony. Most importantly, they’re both inexpensive and easy to grow.

Although easy enough, creating a balcony for butterflies does require some forethought. Both adult butterflies and caterpillars need to be catered for with appropriate food plants. The plants themselves must also be carefully chosen to guarantee that they will survive and thrive under the particular conditions of your balcony.

The Common Brown.  Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Brown. Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Start your butterfly balcony off by planting Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) and Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardieri). Both these species tolerate harsh sun and dry conditions, although by no means does that mean you should go easy on the water when it comes time to give them a drink. These two species are food plants for the Common Brown (Heteronympha merope), a showy butterfly now rarely seen in Melbourne probably due to a decline of these two native grasses within the city.

To add a little height and colour, include a Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata) which flowers profusely for long periods with beautiful yellow blooms. This little shrub is an incredibly hardy, drought-resistant species and can be pruned to whatever size you desire. It is a food plant for the Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) and its larvae.

Kangaroo Grass, Common Tussock Grass and Hop Goodenia like some sun but they all tolerate a range of conditions from shade to direct sun.

The Golden Everlasting (Xerochrysum bracteatum) is another must-have for any Melburnian butterfly balcony due to its drought tolerance. These showy flowers attract the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi) which feeds on both the leaves, as a caterpillar, and the flowers, as an adult butterfly. This golden daisy is also one of very few indigenous species to bloom throughout the hot summer months. It does require a sunny position though, so place it where it will get plenty of direct light.

The Meadow Argus.  Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meadow Argus. Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre (Trapezites symmomus) is perhaps Melbourne’s most audible butterfly species. Its rapid wingbeats sound more like a small bird than a butterfly, and it can be attracted by Mat Rushes (Lomandra longifolia). These provide year-round green, even when your native grasses have turned brown in the summer heat. They tolerate a range of light levels from full sun to shade.

Another fabulous plant to include on your butterfly balcony is the Finger Lime (Citrus australasica). Although native, it is not indigenous to the Melbourne region but is from the lowland subtropical rainforest and rainforest of the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales. Not only does it provide delicious zesty fruits for you, but it attracts the Dingy Swallowtail (Papilio anactus), Melbourne’s largest butterfly. Its caterpillars begin life camouflaged as little bird droppings but grow to a gargantuan size over the course of a month or two. This will allow you to observe their life cycle from the comfort of your own home.

The Splendid Ochre.  Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre. Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Melburnian balconies suffer from a distinct lack of direct sunlight. Fortunately, there is a perfect plant for such places, the Scrub Nettle (Urtica incisa). This delicate little native is the favoured food plant of the Australian Admiral (Vanessa itea) which constructs a little tent to shelter in during the day by folding the leaves of its host plant. The Scrub Nettle is a lover of damp and shady places so find a nice sheltered spot for it and don’t skimp on the water.

Finally, for your adult butterflies you need a source of nectar. Although many introduced flowers will suffice, there is one native genus of plant that numerous butterfly species love during the hot summer months: tea tree (Leptospermum). The nectar-filled white blooms of these plants provide a rich meal for your butterflies to fuel their busy period of mating and egg-laying. One common indigenous species with particular drought tolerance is the Prickly Tea Tree (Leptospermum continentale) which can handle partial shade to full sun.

Now that you know some of our common Melburnian butterflies and their favourite food plants, go forth and build a butterfly oasis on your balcony. Not only will you create a wonderful little garden full of butterflies to enjoy, but you will also provide a habitat which helps our six-legged friends traverse the often perilous and resource-poor concrete jungle. All it takes is one person, a few plants, and the better half of an afternoon to set up a habitat garden which will serve hundreds of butterflies for years to come.


Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice.


Banner image of an Australian Painted Lady courtesy of fir0002 | Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 + Canon MT 24-EX [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.

Wetland plants: Providing indigenous food for arthropods in the heart of summer

To keep ecosystems functioning well, it is important to provide indigenous food sources for beneficial insects throughout the entire year.

As a result, insects that thrive in late summer will have enough energy to continue their daily routines. These routines often include providing helpful services to your backyard garden by assisting with pollination, composting and aphid control.

The challenge is finding indigenous plants that can cope with the arduous and dry conditions of the Australian summer. Soaring temperatures from early summer, starting in November, can put pressure on plants to survive. Thankfully, Victorian plants have evolved traits to help them cope in the month of November. Red Box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), for example, possess leaves with a silvery shine. This colour allows the leaves to reflect more of the sun’s photon spectrum than a darker leaf colour does. In combination with a large leaf surface area, which helps maximise transpiration (the evaporation of water from plant leaves), trees such as Red Box can control their internal temperature range. Some Acacias such as Early Wattle (Acacia genistifolia) and Prickly Moses (Acacia verticillata) have waxy nodes (they don't have leaves), which help reduce water loss when opening their pores to photosynthesise.

From December onwards it becomes increasingly difficult to supply food sources in your garden for insects that provide valuable services such as pollination. Most indigenous wildflowers, shrubs, Acacias and eucalypt trees, which supply the bulk of indigenous nectar and pollen during late spring and early summer, have finished flowering by this time.  

So the burning question is: what plants flower and provide sustenance for insects from December to February? During the last two summers, I've been paying particular attention to this question. It is an important question, because this is the period when butterflies and native bees thrive. My observations have drawn me to the importance of wetlands and ephemeral water bodies in Victoria.

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

Plants in these ecosystems often have an abundance of water. The water they suck up through their roots eventually makes its way to the leaves. The water pumps up the leaves, making them vigorous and strong. Healthy leaves mean that there is more surface area to photosynthesise, and as a result, more energy to produce flowers. So while plants in dry forests have resorted to dying or hiding underground, wetland plants can flower en masse.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Slender Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens) are both easy to grow, and provide a lot of nectar and pollen for butterflies, day-flying moths, and bees. These species include the Common Blue Butterfly, the Ochre Skipper Butterfly and moths from the Agaristinae family. Additionally, Purple Loosestrife is a haven for Blue-banded, Resin, Chequered Cuckoo and Leafcutter Bees. These bees not only pollinate wetland plants, but will also pollinate other plants in the vicinity. In my backyard, Blue-banded Bees are visiting my wetland, herb garden (Catnip, Lemon-balm, Mint), and tomato plants - pollinating as they go.

A rather interesting observation I've noted is the amount of white flowering plants you see in wetlands - examples include Water Plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), Australian Gypsywort (Lycopus australis) and Willow Herb (Epilobium billardierianum). Some studies have shown that white and yellow flowers tend to be visited by a larger range of insects. Having white flowers in high summer, when flowering diversity is low, makes sense for an insect-plant relationship because many insects will happily feed from these plants.

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

With so much insect diversity around wetlands, it is no wonder predatory arthropods feel at home around these water bodies. St Andrews Cross Spiders make their webs between Carex leaves, waiting for insects to become trapped, while dragonflies and robber flies search the wetland zone for small insects, such as mosquitoes, to feast on.  

If you're interested in creating a wetland in your garden, there are many good examples online and in council booklets. Wetlands can be made from baths or depressions with a lining. If you're looking for a terrestrial plant that can handle dry soil in summer, then Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) is of great value. Their long, deep roots allow them to locate water in places other plants cannot reach. At times I've seen these trees teaming with bees, flies, butterflies and beetles. It comes as no surprise that this plant also has white flowers.


Michael Smith is a trained ecologist who currently works in bush regeneration, habitat engineering and environmental education. He is passionate about community engagement and teaching the importance of biodiversity.


Banner image of Alisma plantago-aquatica courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Vibrant flowering wattles mark the beginning of spring

This is a guest article by Wendy Cook. 

It’s cold, the middle of winter. On some mornings the ground is white, puddles are frozen with patterns of angular lines and leaves have a covering of tiny icicles. On other days it feels as if the wind is coming straight off the Southern Ocean, but in the bush, the hakeas have opened their curly white flowers. On the roadside, the first clematis blooms have appeared with long pale green petals and a tuft of stamens in the centre of each flower. The tree violets have branches laden with lime-green buds, waiting until it is time to open their tiny, creamy-yellow, bell-shaped flowers and release their perfume. By the creek, the silver wattles are preparing. Their grey branches end in white twigs with feathery grey-green leaves and stalks of tiny yellow balls; not open yet, but they will be soon. For me, wattle flowers are a sign that spring is coming.

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ) growing with a love creeper ( Comesperma volubile ).  Image: Owen Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia) growing with a love creeper (Comesperma volubile). Image: Owen Cook

Golden wattle ( Acacia pycnantha ).  Image: Kristen Cook

Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha). Image: Kristen Cook

Living close to the Brisbane Ranges, there are plenty of wattle species to be seen flowering here at this time of year. Some of the species found in the Ranges are widespread around Victoria, whilst a couple are less common in other areas of the state. One wattle already beginning to flower is the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha). With its bright gold clusters against green leaves, it is Australia’s floral emblem. However, wattle leaves and flowers aren’t always what they seem.

The feathery leaves of trees such as the silver and black wattles are true leaves. Young wattle seedlings have small feathery leaves, but soon begin to grow very different looking leaves. These later leaves are not truly leaves. They are flattened stems called phyllodes. They can be shaped like gum leaves, as in golden wattle, or be more sickle-shaped, round, triangular, needle-like or thorns. They still fulfil a leaf’s purpose of making food from sunlight, but they are tougher, allowing wattles to live in arid places. Having very small phyllodes or just thorns means the plant loses less water, but it also makes less food, so it will grow slowly. As well as phyllodes, some wattles have thorns to deter browsing animals, or contain chemicals which taste bitter. Wattle leaves and phyllodes have glands which secrete sugary compounds to attract ants. The ants protect the wattle from other insects, some ringbarking branches of neighbouring trees to stop them competing with their home tree.

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ).  Image: Wendy Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia). Image: Wendy Cook

Thin-leaf wattle ( Acacia aculeatissima ).  Image: Owen Cook

Thin-leaf wattle (Acacia aculeatissima). Image: Owen Cook

Most wattles are bushes or trees. One of our more unusual locals is the thin-leaf wattle (Acacia aculeatissima). It grows as a mat of tough stalks and short needle leaves, rarely reaching more than a few centimetres high. When it flowers in spring, it looks like someone has sprinkled a handful of tiny yellow pom-poms on the ground.

The flowers of wattles are also not quite what they seem. Each round yellow ball is made up of many tiny flowers. The fluff that we see is the stamens, tipped with anthers laden with pollen. The petals are so small that we don’t notice them. Some wattles have their flowers arranged in a cylindrical spike and their colours vary from pale creamy yellow to almost orange. The flowers are strongly scented, but do not produce nectar. Instead, insects eat some pollen, become covered in more, and spread it to other flowers. Birds chasing the insects may also act as pollinators. Wattle seeds with tough outer coats grow in pods. The pods split down the side to release the seeds, but may remain, brown and curly, on the plant long after they are empty.

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ).  Image: Owen Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia). Image: Owen Cook

Golden wattle ( Acacia pycnantha ).  Image: Kristen Cook

Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha). Image: Kristen Cook

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ).  Image: Owen Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia). Image: Owen Cook

Wattles can grow in poor soils and are often among the first plants to grow in a disturbed area. They are assisted by bacteria called Rhizobium which invade their roots. The infection causes a lump or nodule on the root, in which the bacteria live. The bacteria can take nitrogen, which is necessary for plant growth, from pockets of air in the soil. The wattle uses the nitrogen and in return, provides the bacteria with sugars to make energy.

In the Brisbane Ranges, we have over 15 species of wattle, flowering at different times of the year. The latest is Mitchell’s wattle, a small bush displaying pale yellow flowers in the heat of summer. For now, while it’s still cold, you can go outside and enjoy the wattles and other flowers announcing the beginning of spring.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.


Banner image courtesy of Owen Cook.

Wattleseed: A Taste of the Outback

This is a guest article by Priya Mohandoss.

Wattle week is an opportunity for us to celebrate and reflect on all things wattle. While this striking native plant, with its gleam of green and gold, fittingly represents Australia as our national floral emblem, it is the wattleseed, in ground and extract form, that is more familiar to those in the world of Australian cuisine.

Although there is a plethora of acacia shrubs and trees spread throughout Australia, most species contain toxic compounds too potent for human intake. However, there are still a number of them that can be used in our diet. Among these species are elegant wattle (Acacia victoriae, also known as prickly acacia), coastal wattle (A. sophorae), wirilda (A. retinodes), dogwood (A. coriacea), colony wattle (A. murrayana) and mulga (A. aneura). Elegant wattle is the most popular derivative that is currently being grown, and is considered the benchmark for commercial wattleseed in the food industry.

All species of wattle, whether edible or not, have pods with a hardened outer coating that hang from the branches of the plant. The length of each pod can vary, but on average they are approximately 7.5cm long and appear in shades of brown or yellow. Each is comprised of 10-12 granules of wattleseed that are about 2-5mm in diameter. These granules can be sourced in either raw or ripened form. Furthermore, whether still dangling or left unopened on the ground, the pods can last for more than two decades and so can survive climatic conditions such as drought or heavy rainfall. It is only the severity of fire that causes them to open, allowing the wattleseeds to whirl into the air for further propagation once rainfall has swept past the area.

Wattleseed from a number of wattle species, such as elegant wattle, can be used in various recipes.  Image: CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wattleseed from a number of wattle species, such as elegant wattle, can be used in various recipes. Image: CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For thousands of years, wattleseed, found in abundance in the arid regions of Australia, has been proclaimed a primary ingredient in traditional food preparation for some Indigenous groups. While the process of extracting wattleseed from the pods of the acacia branches was an arduous task, those that had to provide meals for others would collect, clean and mill the wattleseed until it formed flour. Once this had been achieved, the powdery substance would be combined with water to make dough. The dough was then formed into a bun-like shape and baked in the amber coals of the fire to make damper or seed cakes. However, in its raw and green form, wattleseed could also be conveniently carried and eaten as a snack.

Wattleseed, being high in sustenance and with a low glycemic index due to the unsaturated fat-rich content found in the aril (the element that joins the seed to the pod), and its high amounts of protein and carbohydrates, is highly valued as a food source. It is versatile enough for both sweet and savoury dishes. In its roasted ground form, it can be used as a rub for fish and meat, such as in wattleseed crusted kangaroo fillets or combined with other spices to make blends of dukkah. As an extract, it can be used instead of other essences, such as vanilla, to add flavour into ice creams or cakes for that distinct nutty aroma. Wattleseed tiramisu and wattleseed chocolate cookies are some tasty examples. It has also been hailed as a caffeine-free alternative due to its intense mocha-like and hazelnut undertones, yet without having the bitterness that crushed coffee beans can sometimes produce. It can therefore be used to create wattlecinos

Despite this, wattleseed is still seen in the market as a specialty condiment. It can therefore be hard to find and is sold at a somewhat expensive price. However, with so much to offer, there is a need for wattleseed to pave its way into more of our dishes and see more regular use from professional chefs and amateurs alike.


 Priya Mohandoss is a Masters of Media and Communications student at Monash University. She currently reports for the Royal Society of Victoria and writes a column called “Environment Matters” for the Kinglake Ranges community news magazine, Mountain Monthly. She is an avid explorer of all aspects of nature.


Banner image courtesy of Ian Sutton - Flickr: Elegant Wattle, Prickly Wattle, Gundabluie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19601476