Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013

Southern Wax Myrtle: Perfect choice for birds and butterflies

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For the last few weeks the large southern wax myrtle outside my office has come alive with a feeding frenzy of birds. I have always told gardeners it was among the best for feeding birds, mostly based on what I was taught. Now I am actually paying attention, if for no other reason than because the feeding has been incredible.

On a scale of native plants for the nature, it scores a perfect 10. As a landscape screen, give it another 10, as it is just simply unbeatable. In the wildlife world, the small blue berries feed about 40 species of birds. The ones feasting as I write this are the yellow-rumped warblers. At one time they were known as myrtle warblers and I can definitely see why.

The southern wax myrtle is also the host plant for the red-banded hairstreak butterfly. This is one of the most beautiful butterflies in the garden, but as I quiz gardeners in my seminars most admit to having never seen a hairstreak. In other words, swallowtails and monarchs get all of the glory. I challenge you to watch your garden this year and identify some of the native hairstreak butterflies. Hairstreaks, like the red-banded, slowly move their hind wings up and down while feeding and even at rest. The tails give the appearance of a set of moving antennae with an eye. This draws any predator’s attention away from the real head, allowing the butterfly to escape.

In the landscape you could not ask for a better small tree to act as a privacy screen around a porch, patio, deck or garden bath or to soften harsh walls. It can grow over 30-feet tall, but I most commonly see them in the 15 to 20 feet range. The foliage is evergreen, and the white to grey multiple trunk structure is a landscape asset. The southern wax myrtle is almost always unisexual or dioecious. In other words, there are male and female plants. So if bird feeding is your goal, make sure you have a female.

Though we have purchased fine nursery grown specimen for the landscape at the Columbus Botanical Garden, our 25-acre forest is full of them, creating a real haven of nature. Though I love the berries for the birds, the waxy fruit was once boiled and used to make bayberry candles.

Come to the Columbus Botanical Garden Stage at the Home and Garden Show, March 2 and 3 at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center to learn more about gardening.

Editor’s note: Norman Winter is the executive director of the Columbus Botanical Garden and the author of Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South and Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.

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