Grow wild

You don’t need to venture deep into the forest to encounter fascinating wildlife. Even an ordinary urban garden can attract birds, butterflies, and more, if you know how. Sharon Millar tells you how

A colourful Tufted Cocquette poised for a sip of vervine nectar. Photo by Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.comHow to attract monarch butterflies to your home garden? Plant milkweed. Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock.com

The bee is completely absorbed. There are several of his compatriots circling, but he is the lucky suitor. I am fortunate to witness this display of tropical symbiosis. It is but one example of the daily interactions between plants and wildlife that reveal the presence of a highly sophisticated ecosystem.

The bee in question is a member of the Euglossine family, and he has discovered the open throat of the epiphytic orchid Catasetum expansum, commonly known as the monkey throat. Found in the Amazon Basin of South America and also indigenous to Trinidad, the plant produces scented waxy male flowers that lure the bees. A powerful antenna is triggered when touched by the amorous attentions of the insect. The rest is the business of birds and bees. Once drenched in the pollen, the bee will go on to pollinate nearby female flowers.

It is a dance that has been perfected by nature, and one that takes places almost continuously between plants and wildlife. And it isn’t necessary to trek to the heart of the rainforest to witness such little miracles of birds, bees, and plants in the tropics. A small urban garden can easily be transformed into a welcoming space for all manner of wildlife.

Some of the most charming visitors to my garden are the hummingbirds. In Trinidad and Tobago, we are lucky to have eighteen hummingbird species, including a recently recorded newcomer, the Amethyst Woodstar (Calliphlox amethystina). All eighteen have been sighted in Trinidad, and seven in Tobago (including the very rare White-tailed Sabrewing). But the most common visitor to urban and rural gardens is the Copper-rumped Hummingbird. Don’t be fooled by his diminutive size and gorgeous coloring. He is an experienced combat specialist, ready to defend his territory. The best way to ensure he does not dominate the garden is to plant a variety of flowering plants suited to many species of hummingbird.

You begin identifying a hummingbird by its bill. Size and shape will provide clues as to each species’ flower of choice. The match between bill shapes and the plants visited suggests a crucial symbiosis. Hummingbird bills are designed to gather nectar at the base of tubular-shaped flowers. A short, straight bill, such as that found on the Tufted Coquette, suggests the bird will feed from flowers where the nectar is easily accessible. Tufted Coquettes favour orange milkweed (Asclepias curasavica), vervine (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and wild sage (Lantana camara), among others. But even among the birds with the shorter bills, there is considerable variety as to their favourite watering holes. The Ruby-Topaz, another short-billed species, likes the blooms of large trees, such as the pink “powderpuff” flowers of the samaan tree (Samanea saman). It is also fond of the firecracker plant (Russellia equisetiformis).

Compare this to the Little Hermit, who is tiny with a slightly decurved bill, but is a lover of small shrub flowers such as the yellow shrimp plant (Pachystachy lutea) and Costus. The larger Green Hermit, with his striking white central tail tips, is the heliconia lover, and is often found near the arresting red Heliconia bihai. A sure way to bring the Green Hermit to your garden is to plant a variety of gingers and heliconias. They are also very fond of red torch lilies (Etlingera elatior).

 

There are simple things you can do to attract wildlife to your garden. Minimise toxic chemical spraying, for instance. Neem-based insecticides are considerably less harmful than mainstream products. The introduction of ladybugs to treat mealybug has been very effective. Opt for a first line of defense against common lawn pests (mole crickets, army worm, cinch bug) with a solid drenching of washing detergent and water. Encourage lizards (they eat mosquitoes, thrips, aphids, and other pests) and spiders (some hummingbirds use spider webs in the construction of their nests), and try to kill venomous snakes only (snakes can contribute to a healthy space by keeping rat populations under control). Introduce indigenous plants, as they have longstanding symbiotic relationships with native bats, bees, and butterflies. A single bat can pollinate a multitude of plants each night, while consuming hundreds of mosquitoes.

To attract butterflies, milkweed is an excellent addition to the garden. Monarch butterflies lay exclusively on milkweed, and the plant will send out a siren call to any monarchs in the area. Variety in colour and height are important considerations as well. As in any standard landscaping guidelines, stagger heights with the larger, taller plants at the back of beds, medium shrubs in the middle, and ground covers at the front of beds. Larger trees provide epiphytic environments for bromeliads, orchids, and vines. And water is an important addition to any garden. Birds love water. Hummingbirds, in particular, will be at their most spectacular after a rain shower.

A well-balanced garden will provide hours of quiet observation and contentment. Set up bird feeders from hanging trees and settle in for an afternoon show. A simple afternoon treat of overripe bananas will attract Silver-Beaked Tanagers, Palm Tanagers, Banaquits, and Yellow Orioles, to name a few. Hummingbird feeders are also certain to draw a crowd. I prefer the glass varieties. Mix a solution of one part white sugar to four parts boiled water. Keep your feeders scrupulously clean and change the mix every two to three days. The birds will come.

Any garden is a dynamic space, with constant decomposition and regeneration. But most exciting is the organic development of a unique space created by your personal choice of plants and trees.

 

Plants to attract hummingbirds and butterflies

Small shrubs and ground covers

Justicia carnea (Jacobinia)
Pachystachys lutea (yellow shrimp plant)
Pentas, all colours
Lantana camara (wild sage)
Ixoras, all colours
Stachytarpheta urifolia (vervine)
Russelia equisetiformis (coral plant, firecracker plant)
Calliandra (powderpuff)
Tecomaria capensis (Cape honeysuckle)
Cuphea ignea (cigar plant)
Milkweed
Episcia cupreata
Cosmos bipinnatus 

Heliconias, torch lilies, bananas

Heliconia bihai
Heliconia rostrata
Etlingera elatior (red torch ginger)
Musa ornata (purple banana)

Trees

Jacaranda mimosifolia
Bauhinia (orchid tree)
Callistemon (bottlebrush tree)
Erythrina fusca (coral tree)
Tabebuia rosea (pink poui)
Samanea saman (samaan tree)