Monday, 13 April 2015

The Birds and the Bees (and butterflies too)

Sometimes the hens surprise me.
They pounce on old or damaged red tomatoes with glee so I thought I was about to give them a huge treat when I pulled out a large tomato plant laden with ripe yellow cherry tomatoes (so I could use the bed to plant peas and bok choy seedlings and sow seeds of broad beans, ruby chard and various kale, thank you for asking) and flung the vine into their run. But not so. No interest. Nothing. Zip.
Well, I thought, the colour yellow, here at times verging on yolk-amber, is very different to red; didn’t we all think so when these tomatoes first appeared on the market, what, 2 decades ago?
And birds, evolved from the same ancestor as the lizard cohort, are of course, extremely different to us.
What (and how) do they see?
Birds see red tomatoes sharply, that’s for sure! And it seems that red flowers are the ones they often pollinate (although honeyeaters come to salvias in all colours (and lemon-coloured Phygelius, still!) in my garden).
By contrast, butterfly-pollinated flowers tend to be large and showy, pink or lavender, often with a `landing pad’; and frequently scented. A plant I love for its extraordinarily high ability to attract butterflies is Pratia which I’ve seen escape a garden bed and completely infest a wet lawn over horrid clay in the Dandenong’s. Spring brings tiny starry flowers of pale blue sprinkling the sward and above them an astonishing cloud of orange butterflies – an unforgettable sight. (The soil was naturally moist at flowering time – spring; the owners said they never irrigated the lawn in summer.)
But it seems that in Australia, as elsewhere, native bees have determined the colour of our native flowers (The Age, 12/6/12) with more influence than other pollinators like birds and butterflies.
So what do bees see?
Two colours it’s claimed. Bee-pollinated flowers have variable shapes and sizes but their colours tend to be yellow or blue, often with ultraviolet (which we don’t see) nectar guides. Rewards for these pollinators may be nectar or pollen.
Bumble bees, I read, `sonicate’ so they can shake pollen from those flowers which have anthers releasing pollen internally. No wonder they are such effective pollinators.
If flower pollination is a guide, then birds see red and infrared (we don’t see the latter) although some flowers they visit are colourful; the flowers generally have a lot of nectar.
It seems that red and orange – the very 2 colours I least like, and place, if at all, at the furthest reach of the garden – should be near the house where I can see the avian visitors – which delight so - most.
So is the garden for visual beauty, or for birds and wildlife; is it for vegetables and herbs (herbs currently taking over my pink patch); is it to recreate nature; is it art (yes!); is it just a plant collection (no!)? (Fortunately honeyeaters visit the pink, blue and purple salvias near the windows constantly.) I love playing with colour – floral colour – but a delightful bonus is the birds which also come through with about 10 (10!) red-browed finches at my bird bath yesterday in the afternoon sunshine.
I am reading `What are Gardens For?’ by Rory Stuart who cites Dean Hole (author of various gardening books circa 1900) who asked that very question to receive varied answers: `strawberries’, `tennis’, `botanical research’ and `for the soul of the poet’.
I always wanted beauty as the overriding criterion for my garden but now it’s getting complex.  
Since hearing Professor Louisa Jones speak about Mediterranean-style gardens (year-round interest for the 5 senses, see post 6/ 10/ 2013) I’ve looked at my garden very differently.
Certainly I am enjoying changing the garden – slightly! – into a Mediterranean-style garden which is experienced, not just looked at: scent, touch, taste, the feeling of enclosure here and there, then opening to our outlook across the valley, the sound (and sight) of birdsong. (My newest David Austin roses are heavily scented: deep burgundy `Munstead Wood’ and sublimely-perfumed soft yellow `Teasing Georgia’. Providing shade, too, is a new element for our garden.)
It’s still a journey of creation.
And after 40 years - I was looking after the family’s chooks when I was 10 – I am still learning about hens, too.

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (

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