Ask the Experts
Our pros identify mystery blooms, offer a DIY suet recipe and more.
I often see comments from people who are surprised to see pileated woodpeckers. Are they rare? I have three that visit my suet feeder daily. Kenn and Kimberly: Pileated woodpeckers had become rare in many areas during past centuries when forests were being cut down on a large scale. In recent decades they have made a good comeback. However, they still require some kind of forest cover with big trees, so they don’t appear in most people’s yards. Even when they live close to people, it seems to take a while for pileated woodpeckers to become accustomed to bird feeders. You are lucky to have them as regular visitors!
Q I planted three perennial hibiscus shrubs, and I’ve read conflicting stories about pruning and winterizing. What is the right way to care for them? Kathryn Small SIMPSONVILLE, KENTUCKY
Melinda: I assume you are speaking of Hibiscus syriacus, commonly called rose of Sharon or shrub althea. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 8 or 9, although it may suffer severe injury or death when temperatures dip to 20 degrees below zero. Proper siting and care should be sufficient to prepare these plants for your winter. Prune young plants to encourage balanced growth and branching if needed. Once established, these plants need minimal pruning. Just remove any winter dieback. Because this plant blooms on new growth, it can be pruned anytime during the dormant season. I prefer late winter or early spring before growth begins. That way you can remove any winter injury while managing the size and shape of the plant.
Q What happens to birds during hurricanes or heavy storms? Do they know bad weather is approaching? Lori Reiser ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA
Kenn and Kimberly: Birds recognize changes in air pressure, which are often signs that weather is about to change. If they sense an approaching storm, they tend to forage more, often coming to feeders for the easiest source of food. When bad weather hits, birds generally seek shelter from wind and rain in dense shrubs or thickets, next to heavy tree trunks, and on the downwind side of woods and forests. Cavity-nesting birds hunker down in nest boxes and natural cavities to ride out storms.
Q I have a large old cherry tree that produces leaves in the spring but drops them in July. The leaves are gone by September. And then in October, beautiful white blooms and new leaves appear until the first frost. Is it common for a cherry tree to bloom but have no fruit? Dorina Devaughn LENOIR CITY, TENNESSEE
Melinda: Stressful weather, leaf spot diseases and insect infestations cause trees to drop their leaves prematurely. Often the plant is tricked into a false dormancy, blooming off-season as it recovers from the stress. A lack of a compatible pollinator, poor bee activity or frost can prevent the pollination a fruit tree needs for fruit to form. Take a look at the fallen leaves for clues to the cause. Consult your local extension office or nursery for solutions.
Q Two young downy woodpeckers visited my sugar-water feeder several times a day. Small hummingbirds had a tough time chasing them away. Is it common for woodpeckers to sip sugar water? Bernard Dudek DOWNERS GROVE, ILLINOIS
Kenn and Kimberly: Hummingbirds and orioles aren’t the only birds with a hankering for nectar or sugar water. Some woodpeckers like it, too. This is especially true for red-bellied, golden-fronted and Gila woodpeckers, which have quite varied diets. Downy woodpeckers also partake of the sweet stuff, so it’s no surprise that they’ll take advantage of an easy source like a hummingbird feeder when they find one. We suggest that you invest in another feeder for the woodpeckers if they’re discouraging your other birds from feeding.
Q This flower bloomed in October outside of a Taos, New Mexico, restaurant. What is it? Christie Winter LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA
Melinda: This climbing beauty, Lonicera sempervirens, has several common names, including coral honeysuckle, trumpet honeysuckle and woodbine. It is hardy in Zones 4 to 9, flowers throughout the summer and grows best in full sun to partial shade. A native, it tolerates clay soil and black walnut toxicity, and the deer tend to leave it be. The blooms are a favorite nectar source of bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Late summer red berries attract robins, purple finches, goldfinches, quail and hermit thrushes.
Q My indoor hoya plant used to bloom all the time, but when I moved, I had to cut 3 feet off the bottom. It seems happy in its new location, and yet it hasn’t bloomed. Why? Mary Ann Fecteau WOODSTOWN, NEW JERSEY
Melinda: Congratulations on growing a hoya that bloomed not once but several times throughout the year. You obviously had a great location and provided proper care. Severe pruning of any plant, including your hoya, stimulates vegetative growth (leaves and stems) and delays flowering. Provide the same care and be patient. It may take a few years for your plant to adjust to its new home and switch back into a reproductive, or flowering, mode.
Prune hibiscus, like this new Pollypetite, in late winter or early spring.
A thirsty downy woodpecker sneaks a sip from a sugarwater feeder.