Posts Tagged Asclepias incarnata

Staying Connected

Raindrops adorn an opening bud of Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars.’

I am a self-described crazy old plant lady. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not proud of it. It is simply who I am.

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ has been blooming for several weeks.

My connection to the Green World began when I was very small. That world has been my through-line, the ever-present song in my heart and story in my head that prevented me from tumbling down the dark well of despair more times than I can count or remember.

Male catkins of native hazelnut (Corylus Americana). The female flowers are not quite open yet.

I am grateful beyond words for the privilege of being able to live on the same piece of land for over 30 years. This is my forever happy place. Years ago when I worked a desk job in an airless office building, I stayed sane by mentally walking around my yard, admiring a current bloomer, or reminding myself that the tomatoes would need picking when I got home. Every bit of effort I have expended on my land has been returned in beauty and story a million-fold.

Leaves of Abelia chinensis are emerging six weeks ahead of their “normal” schedule.

I start most week days standing outside after Wonder Spouse drives off to his airless office. I listen and smell and watch for the current stories unfolding around me as an ever-increasing parade of vehicles zooms down our once-quiet country road. That traffic noise today was not enough to prevent me from hearing frogs chorusing in the adjacent wetland. Spring peeper songs have grown loud of late, thanks to absurdly warm nighttime and daytime temperatures. A small flock of cedar waxwings, their distinctive whistling calls revealing their presence in a large southern magnolia, flew off when I greeted them; their tight flock formations always remind me of schooling fish.

As I stood watching the waxwings, thousands upon thousands of seagulls that winter on a nearby reservoir flew overhead in ragged vee formations for over five minutes. They scavenge county dumps for food by day and shelter on the lake at night until their internal clocks tell them it is time to return to their coastal summer homes. Today, low clouds that will bring rain by noon – I can smell it in the air – caused the seagulls to fly low enough that I could actually hear them calling to each other, conjuring a memory of the smell and taste of the sea.

Nest holes of pileated woodpeckers.

The pair of pileated woodpeckers nesting in a sycamore just on the other side of my creek called to each other loudly. They are mostly quiet these days, but when it is time to trade places on the nest, the returning parent calls to the other; the nesting parent replies immediately, sounding to my story-prone mind impatient to go off duty. Woodpecker species are early nesters. They, like the pair of barred owls calling to each other every late afternoon, are supposed to be in reproductive mode in late winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk with chicks from a previous year.

Red-shouldered hawks are also early-season nesters. I’ve lately spotted the pair that shares our land with us often sitting in a tall walnut beside my house, and today I was showed why. I stayed out so long watching seagulls and listening to frogs that they grew impatient with me. One flew right over my head calling, I think perhaps as a diversion, because shortly thereafter its mate flew soundlessly overhead beyond the walnut to a small group of towering loblolly pines, a long thin branch dangling from its sharp beak – nesting material! Not long after, the hawk that spoke to me also flew overhead. It stopped briefly in the walnut, I think to see if I was watching. When I pretended to be interested in something else, it joined its mate.

This location will be a tough one to observe – lots of camouflage to obscure their activities. But once over a decade ago, a pair nested just across the creek in a winter-bare sweet gum. Our elevated back deck gave us a perfect vantage point until the trees leafed out, and Wonder Spouse got some lovely photos of still-fuzzy nestlings as they began to move about and stretch their wings.

Strong, possibly dangerous storms are predicted for tomorrow, along with multiple inches of heavy rain. I thus decided to take advantage of this last bit of quiet before the storms to walk around the yard this morning with my camera. As is true for all of my region, many flowers are blooming weeks ahead of schedule. This early in February, a killing freeze is almost inevitable.

So today I walk, inhaling moisture-laden air perfumed by the fragrance of precocious flowers, grateful for my connection to this land and the time I have to appreciate it.

The rains begin…

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Milkweeds = Monarchs

Butterflies add moving color to otherwise static gardens. During peak butterfly season in my yard, dozens upon dozens of winged beauties drift from flower to flower, sometimes even bumping into me as I admire them. Planting flowers that attract these mobile garden ornaments is one sure way to bring them to your yard. But if you really want them to stick around, they need to be fruitful and multiply. And for that, they need caterpillar food plants.

In the case of Monarch butterflies, we’re in luck, because a number of their caterpillar food plants — members of the milkweed family — also produce lovely long-lasting flowers. One of my favorite milkweeds is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). As its common name implies, it thrives in moist soil, but you can keep it happy in a well-mulched garden bed. For lots of flowers, give it a minimum of fours hours of sun. If it gets hot afternoon sun, it will need more water.  In return for meeting its minimum requirements, you’ll be rewarded with lovely pink flowers like this:

Swamp Milkweed

Group a few of these beauties together for more visual impact — and to make it easier for the Monarch butterflies to find them. Every late summer, I watch female Monarchs lay individual eggs on my Swamp Milkweeds. Soon the hungry larvae emerge and pretty much devour the entire plant before they create their emerald cocoons.

By the time the Monarch caterpillars are decimating my milkweeds, the flowers have finished for the season, leaving long seed pods to ripen by fall. The caterpillars don’t eat the seed pods, so I get new plants from seed, and because milkweeds are perennial, the devoured plants resprout every spring.

Personally, I don’t think you can ever have too many Monarchs, and I think the caterpillars have almost as much visual impact as their adult winged forms. See what I mean:

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed

And if you’ve got children in your household, planting milkweeds will provide you with an instant outdoor laboratory to teach them about the Monarch life cycle.

Last year, I managed to grow fourteen new Swamp Milkweeds from seeds I collected from pods on older plants in my yard. I planted them on three sides of my yard to ensure that I’ll have enough food for all the Monarchs that I hope will stop by.

To learn more about Monarch butterflies, try this site.

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