Partridge Pea, a native annual
I’m not sure when I added Partridge Pea to my wildlife garden, but I’ve enjoyed it in the wild in southern New Jersey for many years. Partridge Pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, occurs from Massachusetts and southern New York south to Florida and west to eastern Texas, Kansas, and South Dakota.
Partridge Pea, a native annual, readily self-seeds. The foliage resembles a Mimosa tree. The sensitive leaves fold up in the evening and sometimes when touched. It is dainty in appearance but robust in growth, sometimes growing four feet high and in thick patches, bushing out over the garden path. By late August it offers great garden cover for the frogs as they explore beyond our ponds.
I was keen to have Partridge Pea in my wildlife garden for several reasons. It is a native plant that is favored by native bees and honey bees, plus Cloudless Sulphurs lay their eggs on it. I’ve added many caterpillar plants to my wildlife habitat over the years.
The Cloudless Sulphur is a southern butterfly found year-round in Florida and north to North Carolina during warm years. This huge bright lime-yellow sulphur readily nectars on salvias, Cannas, Cardinal Flower, and many other plants.
Southern Vagrant Butterflies
Fall 2012 has been very memorable in southern New Jersey for a number of southern vagrants, butterflies that wander north in late summer and fall: Long-tailed Skipper, Ocola Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Painted Lady, Little Yellow (which also lays eggs on Partridge Pea), and Cloudless Sulphur have all been seen in good numbers. No matter where you are one or several or a handful of Cloudless Sulphurs can be seen dashing across the landscape, slipping into gardens and wildflower-rich natural areas.
We saw our first Cloudless Sulphur in the garden this year on June 23, far earlier than normal. In late June and early July several laid eggs on our Partridge Pea. We saw very few more until late July. Since July 24 they’ve been daily visitors to the garden. Even now, September 18, some are still mating and laying eggs on our Partridge Pea.
Their caterpillars are wonderfully camouflaged, in fact so camouflaged that when I went to point them out during a tour of my wildlife garden I couldn’t find a single one. Lucky for me, one keen observer spotted one and then the group, with the search image now intact, found fifteen more.
I’ve wanted to see the jewel-like Cloudless Sulphur chrysalis for years, but no amount of keenly prowling the garden with naked eye and trained binocular paid off.
So I placed a well fed caterpillar in an empty aquarium with a fresh supple of Partridge Pea. Almost immediately the caterpillar began working on its silken saddle. The next day it metamorphosed into a greenish yellow chrysalis. By that evening the chrysalis had turned a beautiful pink. It’s been 12 days since the chrysalis formed. Each morning my day begins by checking this chrysalis. Naturally I hope to watch and photograph the butterfly’s emergence.
If you don’t have Partridge Pea in your garden, seriously consider adding it. The seeds are readily available since it is used in seed mixes for honey production (bees can’t resist it), erosion control, roadside beautification, and wildlife food plots (Bobwhite Quail favor the seeds). Of course, if you have a wildlife gardening buddy who already has it, maybe they can share some seeds.
With the help of my photo and your search image now intact (it is a little bigger than a quarter), may you find one of these jewels in your wildlife garden.
Pat Sutton, of Cape May NJ, is an author and naturalist who has taught gardening for wildlife workshops and tours, for over 30 years, and is available to speak to your group or organization.
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