Posts Tagged Monarch butterfly


“Caterpillars are really just walking leaves, for that is all they eat.”

–Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks

I am reminded of this sentence in Tallamy’s latest book every time I encounter a caterpillar in my yard. It feels to me to be a deep and important truth, one that is easily overlooked by many, I fear.

He notes in another paragraph that he wants people to stop thinking of caterpillars and other insects as bugs. Instead, he asks us to remember that every stink bug, caterpillar, wasp, and ant is potential food for an animal, perhaps another insect or spider, perhaps a bird, perhaps a mammal. Wildlife needs those bugs to keep the cycle of life operational.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native and non-native flowers, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

Now, instead of caterpillars, I see leaves with legs. And although, Tallamy didn’t write it, I now see the butterflies and moths that these caterpillars become as leaves that fly — farther than an autumnal tumble from branch to earth on a chilly north wind. Flying lepidopterans allow leaves, albeit transformed ones, to travel much farther. I am hoping that some of the transformed leaves of swamp milkweed in my garden make it all the way to Central America in the form of a Monarch butterfly migrational journey.

It has been a tough year for the leaves-with-legs in my yard. Predatory wasps and birds got most of the early rounds of Monarch butterfly caterpillars that appeared on my common and swamp milkweeds. One moment, the tiny hatchlings would be happily chomping away. The next — nothing, save a few bits of frass (caterpillar poop) adorning leaves below those on which they were feeding.

Monarch caterpillars on Sept. 20.

Two weeks ago, I was elated when I spotted eleven small Monarch caterpillars dining on swamp milkweed near my front water feature. Wasps were no longer patrolling the plants, their life cycles completed for the season. I thought these leggy leaves had a real chance to make it to their next transformation. For nine days, they grew fatter. I felt certain they were close to their time to become bejeweled emerald chrysalises.

One by one, they began to vanish. Caterpillars wander when they are preparing to pupate. They deliberately leave their food plants and search for another place to build their magic metamorphic enclosures. I searched carefully all around for signs, seeking walking leaves dangling from stems of other nearby plants in the classic J position they assume before they melt into the gilded jewel boxes from which they emerge as winged leaves ready to fly south.

Finally one afternoon, I spotted a fat caterpillar walking on the ground around the water feature. I feel certain it was seeking a plant upon which it would metamorphose. Just as I excitedly pointed out this caterpillar on its transformational journey to Wonder Spouse, one of the Green Frogs spending the summer in our water feature jumped down from the rim of the pool, and before we could blink, we watched the amphibian grab the caterpillar, swallowing it in two big gulps. We were stunned. And horrified.

Green Frog sunning on rim of water feature

Of course, I know that frogs eat insects, but it never occurred to me that they would eat caterpillars as they descended the milkweeds to metamorphose. Later that day, I spotted perhaps the same frog staked out beneath a milkweed that still had two caterpillars dining on it. It was very clearly waiting for them to descend and become its next meal. I confess, I chased the frog back into the water feature, scolding it.

After scouring the area for signs of transforming Monarch caterpillars, I found only one dangling from a spent scape of a daylily. It was in the J position that afternoon, safely beyond the reach of greedy frogs. By the next morning, the leaf with legs had become a jade green chrysalis. I have moved it to what I hope is the safety of my greenhouse before predicted rains could potentially enhance opportunities for fungal contamination or predatory wasps/flies could harm it.

I visit it several times a day to encourage it on its metamorphic journey. October seems to be planning to stay warmer than “normal,” but one never knows when a cold front might blow in with the first frost. It’s not unusual for Monarchs to migrate in late October, so there’s every reason to hope for a positive outcome for this little emerald jewel box.

Still, my heart will lighten when metamorphic magic transforms the chrysalis into a leaf with wings that will carry it safely to warmer winter climes.

Safe travels, flying leaves…


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Worth the Wait: Milkweed Magic

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

In the southeastern US piedmont region where I live, I am happy to report that more and more homeowners are adding native pollinator gardens to their landscapes. By providing sources of pollen, nectar, and leaves of plants that native bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, etc. rely on, we are all helping to replace at least some of the native ecosystems obliterated by urbanization that once fed these insects. As Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, Bringing Nature Home, if we lose our native pollinators and other insects, we also lose the native wildlife that eats these insects — birds, bats, frogs, etc.

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

One of the poster-insects for the plight of our native pollinators is the Monarch Butterfly. Reports seem to vary every year recently regarding the status of this beautiful species, but it seems clear that we should all continue to add to our landscapes the native food plants that this butterfly relies on: milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Milkweeds are a test of patience for gardeners. New transplants don’t usually bloom prolifically the first year after planting. These plants spend that first year establishing healthy root systems. But by their third year in your garden, you will agree that milkweeds are worth the wait — for the beauty of their prolonged flowering, for their fat, brown pods from which seeds escape on silken parachutes, and for the diversity of pollinators that dine on their flowers, and the Monarch Butterfly caterpillars that devour the plants.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

For gardeners wondering which species of milkweed to try in their gardens, I recommend three options. These are the easiest to grow, and also the most readily available in the trade.

  • Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is native to moist areas and can handle some shade. However, it thrives in standard garden beds, as long as you water it during droughts, and perhaps a bit extra during its first year as it is establishing. In return, you will get three-foot-tall plants covered in clusters of pink flowers. There’s also a white-blooming variety of this species, but I think the pink forms are much lovelier. A well-established plant will bloom for at least a month, and will be visited dawn to dusk by happy pollinators. If you’re lucky, these visitors will include some Monarch butterflies.
Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

  • Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) is native to hot, sunny hillsides. It’s not unusual to see it growing on unmowed road banks in my region. The trick to this species that produces bright orange flowers is excellent drainage. If it sits for long in too-moist soil, it will forsake you. The plants I’ve added grow bigger every year, producing more and more flowering branches literally abuzz with happy pollinators.
Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

  • Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) thrives in moist, sunny places. It is not as showy as the first two species above, but it seems to be the favorite food plant of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, perhaps because it is the most commonly occurring milkweed species on patches of undeveloped land. I tucked mine toward the back of a flower bed, where they can grow tall while waiting for Monarchs to find them. I planted mine in my boulder bed, and they haven’t bloomed for me, possibly because they don’t get quite enough sun. But they grow well, producing tall, green plants, and last year Monarch caterpillars ate them literally to the ground. However, the plants returned in greater numbers this year, which is when I realized that this species spreads via running rhizomes. As Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manger at the North Carolina Botanical Garden told me, you plant this species once, and you will never need to plant it again, because of its ability to spread itself via rhizomes.

Milkweed Pests

Milkweeds are slow to emerge in spring, far later than many other native perennials. But once they appear, they grow quickly, and soon the pollinator visits begin. Two pests will also eventually show up.

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Bright orange Oleander aphids inevitably appear on every milkweed species I grow, but they seem to favor Common Milkweed. So-called because they also feed on oleanders, these aphids are orange to warn potential predators that they are poisonous, having ingested the toxins in milkweed that cause deer, rabbits, and other plant-eaters to pass them by. These aphid infestations can get pretty ugly. I control mine by donning garden gloves and simultaneously spraying the stems with a strong jet of water while rubbing off the aphids with my fingers. Aphids are poor climbers; once knocked down by the water, they have trouble getting back up the stems.

A Milkweed bug

A Milkweed bug

Milkweed bugs usually show up eventually on some of my milkweeds. These can be destructive to developing seed pods, because they suck out the nutrients in the pods, thereby stunting them. If they get out of hand on my plants, with my gloves on, I pick them off and drop them in a jar of soapy water, where they quickly die. Most years, I never see very many of these insects, which makes me wonder if some bird eats them despite their possible toxicity.

A Few Other Milkweed Species

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Being a somewhat obsessive gardener, if I like a genus of native plants, I’ll often try to grow as many different species as I can. Thus, I grow a few additional species of milkweed.  This is the second year for my Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata). Until it blooms, you wouldn’t even believe it’s a milkweed. That’s how un-milkweed-like its leaves look, at least to me. But its small white clusters of flowers are unmistakably milkweed blooms, and this year the plant has formed a lovely small shrubby plant that continues to produce flowers popular with an array of pollinators.

Without the flowers, I'd never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Without the flowers, I’d never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

The flowers of Red Milkweed are similar to those of Swamp Milkweed, and they share a preference for the same growing conditions. I grow mine in a pot that sits in my summer water feature. It blooms in early spring, but doesn’t re-bloom.

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed is native to swampy parts of the coastal plain region up and down the eastern coast of the US. I planted this in one of my summer water feature pots last year, but it didn’t bloom. But this year, beginning about two weeks ago and still going strong, the plant began to produce clusters of peachy-orange flowers. The color is not as in-your-face as that of Butterfly Weed flowers, but as the common name implies, each flower cluster contains a relatively small number of flowers. They are as popular with pollinators as the other milkweed species, but probably not a practical choice for most piedmont gardeners.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

I think native milkweeds should be on every gardener’s list of must-have perennials. For an investment of some patience on your part, you will be rewarded with prolonged, colorful blooms visited by swarms of bees and butterflies. And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you’ll get the chance to watch a Monarch caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, as I did last year.

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Fall is a great time to plant milkweeds in your garden, and you can get the three species I suggested — plus perhaps a few more — at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale next month. I’ll be there on Member’s Night to get first crack at all the wonderful plants that will be offered. I hope I’ll see you there!


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Grateful for Time

exit_side view

When I was ten, my parents sent me to the best place I had ever been in my life: summer camp. We rose early, ate well, and played outdoors all day – hiking, swimming, archery – I would have happily stayed until school started again. While there, I met the most amazing adult I had ever known. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his job title: Camp Naturalist. He knew the name of every plant or animal I asked about. Not only did he know their names, he knew stories about them – how they lived, where to find them, why they were important. I followed him around the way kids chase teen idols. Before the end of the week, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – a naturalist. I wanted to know everything he knew – and more.

Tulip Poplar Flower and Bud

Time flew. I studied the natural sciences in college and graduate school, but somewhere along the way, it became clear to me that while my enthusiasm for the natural world remained, my knack with the written word was more valuable in the “real” world. I became a professional writer with an abiding love of the natural world, and an obsession with the art and science of gardening.

Coneflowers galore

That’s why on this day when we Americans count our blessings, I find I am deeply grateful for the gift of time. Often in previous decades when I spotted an interesting flower or animal, I wasn’t able to stop and study it, or even take a picture of it. No time. But now I am blessed with that irreplaceable gift of time, which is why a month or so ago, I was able to be a midwife to metamorphosis.

That’s overstating things a bit. I didn’t actually help, but I did watch for hours on several days for several weeks, as the Monarch caterpillars that decimated the milkweeds I’d planted for them transformed themselves into chrysalises. And one emerald chrysalis successfully transformed herself into a perfect butterfly. I named her Mona.

Today I want to share with you the journey I shared with a pair of Monarch caterpillars. Both became bejewled jade chrysalises, but only one succeeded in the final transformation to butterfly.

September 27

Two caterpillars on my Common Milkweed had eaten it to a stub of its former self. On this day, one of the caterpillars transformed into a chrysalis. I had been checking on it regularly, but I missed the magic moment of metamorphosis. I was determined not to miss that moment when the second caterpillar changed.

The first caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis when I stopped watching it for a few minutes.

The first caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis when I stopped watching it for a few minutes.

September 28

The second caterpillar attached itself to a stem and hung down just as the other one had, forming what looked like a letter J. I began checking on it every half hour, knowing from my research – and from watching the first one the previous day — that it would likely take several hours.

Late that day, after over 1000 photos (ah, the double-edged gift of time) just as a soft rain began to fall, the caterpillar began swinging back and forth to force the outer skin of its former self up to its anchor point. More swinging freed the skin, which fell to the damp ground, revealing another perfect emerald chrysalis, twin to the one created the day before. (Note: You can click on any image in the gallery to see a larger image and any caption I’ve added.)

October 7 (Day 9)

I read that the change from chrysalis to butterfly usually takes 10-14 days, but I checked on them daily – just to be sure. A friend warned me that his Monarch chrysalises had been the victims of predatory wasps that bored inside and killed them. He suggested I cover mine to prevent a similar fate. I loosely wrapped the milkweed plants where the chrysalises dangled in the light-weight garden fabric I use to protect young squash plants from pest insects. The fabric allowed light and water to pass through, not directly touching them, but enclosing them within a predator-proof shield.

first chrysalis-10-13

October 13 (Day 15)

I could detect no change in my emerald charges. The day after the second caterpillar became a chrysalis, my area saw two weeks of clouds and record rainfall. I wondered if perhaps they were waiting for the sun to return.


October 16 (Day 18)

The color of the younger chrysalis now looked wrong, especially compared to the one formed a day earlier. That older one was showing wing color. The time must finally be drawing near!

The first hard freeze of the season was predicted for the following two nights. I worried that the chrysalis showing wing color would freeze before it could transform, so I decided to cut off the stem to which it was attached and move it to my cool greenhouse. By this time, it was clear to me that something was wrong with the younger chrysalis. My research suggested its appearance pointed to a fatal fungal infection.

October 19 (Day 21 – Emergence)


For two days after I moved the chrysalis into the greenhouse, it dangled from its stem while I scrutinized it often, trying to discern any changes in its appearance. But my first visit on this day revealed a distinctive darkening of the chrysalis; brighter orange wing colors glowed deeper within. I knew from my research that transformation was near.

I spent about three hours photographing and staring at it, willing it to metamorphose. Then I got hungry and thirsty, so I decided to run into the house for a quick refueling. In the twenty minutes I was gone, I missed the actual moment the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis! I concluded that real naturalists probably bring snacks to the field.

There she was, dangling from the remnants of her now-abandoned transformation chamber. Determined not to miss another second, I took a zillion or so photos as Mona slowly stretched out her wings and began to dry off. I knew I had a female butterfly from my research. Markings of the two sexes are quite distinctive. Mona the Monarch was definitely female.

Mona didn’t emerge until the sun was about to set. I was worried she wouldn’t dry off before another cold night gripped the area, so I left her in the greenhouse, instructing her to wait for me to come get her after the sun had warmed the air the next day.

October 20 (Day 22 – Independence Day)

It looked to me as if Mona had barely moved overnight. She still clung to the remnants of her birth chamber attached to the milkweed stem I had anchored in a vase too heavy to tip over easily.

Mona had barely moved overnight.

Mona had barely moved overnight.

My greenhouse in the early morning is shaded and cool, and I was growing impatient. The day was autumnal perfection – cloudless deep-azure skies and a bright warm-but-not-hot sun. I decided to carry the vase holding Mona on her perch outside to the sunny south side of my garage – a favorite basking spot of my local lizard population.

Mona responded almost instantly to the kiss of warm autumn sun on her wings. Slowly she opened them wide to catch the full benefit of the sun. Then she closed her wings, meditated a moment, then opened them again. She repeated this process over and over for about twenty minutes, reminding me of fledgling Red-shouldered Hawks I had watched a few springs earlier as they took turns standing on the edge of their nest flapping their wings, testing the air, wakening flight muscles.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks before they were quite big enough to begin flexing their wings.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks before they were big enough to begin flexing their wings.

I was constantly taking pictures during this time, but her decision to take flight was so sudden and powerful that I was unable to focus my camera in time for a parting photograph. Mona shot straight up, heading directly into the sun, reaching the top of nearby canopy trees in mere seconds. She made a decisive turn to the southeast and disappeared from my sight before I could breathe.

Acting like the crazy woman some folks probably think I am, I found myself waving enthusiastically and wishing her a safe journey. Her flight direction would take her to the coast a couple of hundred miles away. Many migrating Monarchs follow the Atlantic coastline south in the fall. Mona seemed to know exactly where she needed to be.

exit_open wings2

Bon voyage, Mona!

Thanks to the gift of time, I was able to fulfill a ten-year-old girl’s dream of watching and learning from the natural world. How blessed am I, I thought to myself as I squinted into the sun trying to follow Mona’s flight path, to have the better part of three weeks to follow a caterpillar through its metamorphic journey?

Since Mona left, I had another occasion to deeply appreciate the gift of time. Wonder Spouse developed a sudden, entirely unanticipated health issue that required surgery serious enough to merit two nights in the hospital. I am delighted to report that he is back to his energetic self, working his usual jam-packed schedule. But there is nothing like sitting in a hospital waiting room while the love of your life is in surgery to make you give thanks for the precious gift of time.

Already back to full speed, Wonder Spouse has resumed his normal activities.

Already back to full speed, Wonder Spouse has resumed his normal activities.

Recent events in the world have probably led most of us to appreciate the gift of time. Even during our happiest days, lives can change in the space of a heartbeat. It seems to me to be an excellent moment to be sure I am using my blessing of time wisely, to share my gift of time with others as well as with that ten-year-old girl who wanted to know the name of every tree and bird she met in the forests she loved.

That summer camp I loved was an Episcopal Church camp. My father was an Episcopal priest, so it was the obvious choice for his children. My feelings about organized religion are — shall we say — mixed, but when I think about the blessing of time, my mind inevitably turns to a benediction my father always recited at the end of every service he led.

He was a trained actor, so the cadences of that short prayer rolled over the congregation like ocean waves, weaving a spell of peace over all. I cannot read the words without hearing his baritone behind each syllable:

Support us, Lord, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.

This year, I send all my readers prayers for peace – and the precious gift of time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Milkweeds: Building my Monarch Butterfly Nursery

My recent wetland plant acquisitions

My recent wetland plant acquisitions

Those of you who have read my blog for a while may have noticed that when I fall in love with a native genus of plants, I tend to want to grow at least several different species in that genus, usually because I think the plants are beautiful, and because I like to see how many of these natives I can site well enough to flourish in my yard. Basically, I like to experiment. I’ve done this with southeastern US native deciduous Magnolia species, and with southeastern native deciduous azalea species. In both of these cases, the plants are beautiful and provide three or four seasons of visual interest.

Not so for my latest experiment. At this year’s plant sale at the NC Botanical Garden, I took advantage of their offerings of native milkweed species, because I’m eager to try to help the Monarch butterfly population. As I wrote here, Monarch butterfly populations appear to be declining precipitously, probably mostly due to habitat destruction, although other factors are also relevant. Monarchs only lay their eggs on species of native milkweeds. These plants contain toxins that Monarch caterpillars can process, but avian predators find the toxins make the caterpillars inedible, even when they metamorphose into winged adults.

Milkweed newbies that require excellent drainage.

Milkweed newbies that require excellent drainage.

A few of our native milkweeds produce flowers worthy of any garden. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)  and Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) can be found in many plant nurseries. With proper siting, both will thrive in most Piedmont gardens. The flowers attract numerous pollinators, and in my yard, the Monarch butterflies usually show up in early autumn to lay eggs on the plants, usually after the flowers have morphed into the long seed pods characteristic of the genus. The caterpillars usually strip almost every leaf off the plants, then turn into emerald chrysalises attached to nearby vegetation.

A newly planted Butterfly Weed in my boulder bed.

A newly planted Butterfly Weed in my boulder bed.

As a gardener, I routinely assess plants not only for their visual impact in my landscape, but also for their growing requirements. In the case of native milkweeds, I soon realized that they fall roughly into two groups, based on growing conditions. Butterfly Weed represents one group — the milkweeds that require excellent drainage and lots of sun. Swamp Milkweed represents the moisture-loving milkweeds. Some of these can tolerate a bit more shade, but not much; all of them need a constant supply of moisture.

I have a wonderful sunny flower bed built around a stand of diabase boulders beside my driveway. The soil is sandy and full of rocks, bits of boulder slowly breaking down. Drainage is excellent, and I’ve had good success there with plants that need these conditions. This is where I planted my new native milkweeds that need good drainage and hot sun:

All of these milkweeds produce similar flower clusters, and they’re all pretty, mostly in an understated way. Some of them — Poke and Common Milkweeds — grow quite tall, and likely will look a bit unkempt as they mature, which is why I put them toward the back of my bed, where they won’t be particularly conspicuous. Poke Milkweed may need a bit more moisture, so I sited it on a downslope, where it should receive more water.

Clasping Milkweed newly planted.

Clasping Milkweed newly planted.

Even the less showy flowers will attract numerous pollinators, and I’m hoping Monarch caterpillars will appear to devour them next summer/fall. My newly planted good-drainage-loving milkweeds are not mulched. I put small rocks around their bases to help me remember where they are after these perennials die back later this fall. I planted two Butterfly Weeds toward the front of my boulder bed. They are smaller plants at maturity, and their showy, bright orange flowers will look lovely against the boulders.

Newly transplanted wetland additions.

Newly transplanted wetland additions.

You may notice a flowering plant amidst all the greenery in one of the pots in the above photo. That was my one impulse buy at the plant sale. I had gone there fully intending to buy only milkweeds, but this lovely native orchid caught my eye. I have always loved the Nodding Ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) that bloom in the NC Botanical Garden’s carnivorous plant display this time of year. So when I spotted this healthy specimen — actually two blooming plants in one pot — I had to have it.

I’ve had great success growing other wetland plants, including carnivorous pitcher plants, in pots that I then place inside my shallow water feature during the growing season. These plants overwinter in their pots inside my little greenhouse, where they sit in saucers of water that I refill as needed to maintain the constant moisture levels they require.

See how the flowers wind around the bloom stalk? So lovely!

See how the flowers wind around the bloom stalk? So lovely!

I decided to plant my newly acquired wetland-loving milkweeds in pots that I will treat like the ones currently still sitting in my water feature. Because I’ll be draining that little pond soon, I decided to simply put the new pots in water-filled saucers for now. Next spring after frosts are gone, they will go into the little pond with the other moisture-loving plant pots.

As with the showy Butterfly Weeds, I acquired two Swamp Milkweed plants. Their bright pink flowers will look great amidst the other water plants next growing season. The moisture-loving milkweeds in my new pots are:

These, plus the Nodding Ladies’-tresses, left a bit of room in the pots, so I popped in a few Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) that I had in pots elsewhere. Cardinal Flowers can tolerate drier soils, but they planted themselves in my wetland pots some time ago, and the bloom stalks on those wetter plants are always the tallest in my yard.

I am hopeful that my milkweed experiment will add visual interest to my landscape, attract copious pollinators, and most of all, be utilized by hungry Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Nurturing Beauty in all her guises will always be the greatest reward for this gardener.

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When beauty dies …

3 Monarch on Lantana

Humanity world-wide loses a piece of itself every time we lose more of the natural world that nurtures and protects us. When we destroy the natural world, we lose pieces of our soul, the part of us that thrives on the beauty of a cool mountain breeze kissing our faces, the melodic chatter of a clear-running stream, and the exquisite call of a Wood Thrush echoing through a healthy forest. Our hearts are so much smaller without our connection to the beauty of the natural world.

In the southeastern Piedmont region of NC where I live, the natural world is under assault every hour of every day. The population of my region is soaring, mostly due to the arrival of many new residents from other parts of the US and the world. As people move in, the forests I grew up with are disappearing. The dwindling patches left are degrading rapidly, due in large part to the invasion of an increasing number of non-native invasive exotic species of plants, animals — especially devastatingly damaging insects — and diseases.

Almost everyone knows the name of this beauty.

Almost everyone knows the name of this beauty.

One casualty of this urbanizing landscape — throughout the US — is the Monarch butterfly. My generation grew up knowing this beautiful creature — one of the most recognizable species of butterflies in North America. In school, we learned about their life cycle, admired their emerald green chrysalises, and marveled at their annual migrations to Mexico. Every gardener who plants with butterflies in mind knows that species of milkweed are the only plants that Monarch caterpillars will eat, so we tuck them into our yards to ensure Monarch visits.

However, in recent years — and most especially this year — our milkweeds have been uneaten by the colorful Monarch caterpillars. In my yard, I’ve only seen two adult Monarch butterflies during the entire growing season. Wonder Spouse took the photos of the one in this post last week. We were so excited when we spotted it in our front garden that we dropped what we were doing and ran for our cameras.

Many experts believe that Monarch butterflies are in serious trouble. Much of the reason is probably habitat destruction, both in North America and in their winter homes in Mexico. You can read an article about their decline here.

Monarch butterflies are well known and loved, and still they are in trouble. Multiply their peril a thousand-fold for a delicately exquisite, extremely rare wildflower: Oconee Bells.

Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla

Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla

Oconee Bells live in just a couple of spots along a geographic region known as the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. This part of the Blue Ridge Mountains rises abruptly up from the piedmont regions of South and North Carolina, creating a remarkable rise in land elevation over a short distance. The region is also characterized by very narrow gorges; at their bottoms, sunlight never penetrates, and temperature and moisture levels remain remarkably steady.

Such areas possess unique microclimates that an astonishing array of species of plants and animals have exploited. So much so, in fact, that this region holds more than three times the number of plant and animal species than undisturbed rainforests in Central and South America. The diversity of life is astounding, and tightly adapted to the unique geography and microclimates of this region.

The Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment is beginning to be degraded by the intrusion of concrete and asphalt, consequently destroying the delicate ecology of gorge bottoms, where Oconee Bells live. Deforestation on the ridge tops leads to massive erosion down the sides of the steep gorges. In some cases, the Oconee Bells living at the bottom have been scoured from their homes by water cascading down eroded ridge tops.

Oconee Bells were never plentiful, and now their increasing rarity makes them coveted by gardeners who want to possess every rare and beautiful plant they can. Oconee Bells are almost impossible to propagate; growing conditions cannot vary for them at all. Thus, plants sell for very high prices, making them a target of plant poachers.

In North Carolina, we have plant poacher problems at both ends of our state. On the coast, they steal into our preserves at night to dig up Venus Fly Traps. This species, native only to a 75-mile area around Wilmington, NC, is successfully propagated in the horticulture trade. Even so, plant poachers steal thousands, degrading their habitats at the same time.

In our mountains, plant poaching is worse. Folks illegally collect our native ginseng, goldenseal, and other wildflowers known for their medicinal properties. They steal Oconee Bells for covetous gardeners. They do not care that they may eliminate a plant population from a site. They see dollar signs, not irreplaceable beauty.

In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a group in our government with an important mission:

The Mission of the Plant Conservation Program is to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.

Three individuals comprise this department. They are working to identify and protect the rarest and most threatened plant species in the state. They’ve identified plant populations all over the state. That’s a big job for three people. Fortunately, they have help.

The Friends of Plant Conservation is a non-profit organization founded explicitly to support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program. Members volunteer to help manage and protect the preserves created by the Plant Conservation Program by participating in activities such as work days devoted to clearing out competing vegetation. They also provide essential financial support, since, like every governmental department in NC, the Plant Conservation Program’s budget does not begin to pay for the work that needs doing.

Right now, the Friends of Plant Conservation are frantically trying to raise enough money to pay for the purchase of land holding the last healthy population of Oconee Bells in North Carolina — the last natural population of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla in the world. The owners of this property love and appreciate this unique wildflower, and they’ve agreed to sell it, at cost, to NC to create a preserve. The owner who has protected this population from poachers and who cherished his land recently died after a long illness. His heirs wish to honor his memory by fulfilling his dream of creating this preserve for Oconee Bells. Time is critical. Funds are short.

An anonymous lover of natural beauty has recently stepped forward and is offering to match all donations — four dollars for every dollar donated. Imagine — a donation of $100 will become $500. For once, perhaps beauty can be saved.

To learn more about this wildflower and how to send your donation to save beauty, please go here. Even small donations will make a difference, thanks to the anonymous matching donor.

Of course, saving rare species like Oconee Bells, and suddenly declining species, like the Monarch Butterfly, is about much more than saving beauty. Scientists compare these imperiled species to canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors, miners carried caged canaries. The canaries were more sensitive to drops in oxygen levels than humans. When the canaries keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to escape the same fate.

No animal or plant exists in a vacuum. They are parts of ecosystems, intricate groupings of species that evolved together and depend on each other in ways that are still not fully understood. Scientists do know that every time another species disappears from the delicate dance of an ecosystem, remaining species are also imperiled. No one knows how many species can disappear before the dance stops.

The natural world feeds us, body and soul. Please follow the link provided above, and if you can help save this uniquely special place, know that you will become an invaluable contributor to saving Oconee Bells, and a piece of our souls as well.

Please help protect a piece of our souls if you can.

Please help protect a piece of our souls if you can.

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Recently Sighted Fauna and Flora

Northern Cricket Frog?

In the last two weeks, a new species of frog has been hanging out on the edge of our little front yard water feature. Yesterday, two were sitting on opposite sides of the pond. Both are about three inches long, and this zoomed-in photo I took makes me think they are Northern Cricket Frogs.

This species is common in my wetland, but I’ve never seen them sitting on the edge of my little front pond before this year. I think perhaps they were born in the pond and recently emerged. They’re probably waiting for a rain event to disperse to less exposed areas. I was surprised by the lumpy texture on such petite amphibians.

A couple of new butterfly species have flitted through in the last couple of weeks. They didn’t stay long in one place, so my pictures are not optimal. But I think I have identified them correctly.

Monarch butterfly

I almost walked into this Monarch butterfly as it was sipping from my row of lantanas. Of course, it flew away before I could take its picture. It then briefly landed on the Chinese Abelia, which is where I managed to snap a very quick shot before it dashed off. I haven’t seen one since then. My Swamp Milkweed didn’t fare well this year. The July heat wave and drought made it surrender without blooming. I’m hoping to add at least one more species of milkweed to another area — a species that’s more heat- and drought-tolerant.

Another brief visitor to the vegetable garden was this battered specimen:

Great Spangled Fritillary?

A few of this species have visited my yard off and on throughout the summer. This one stopped to sip from a bean flower just long enough for me to snap its photo. I think it’s a Great Spangled Fritillary, but I confess the fritillaries look very much alike to me. I’m mostly basing my guess on my location.

The most interesting recent faunal encounter was a love story, well, perhaps more of a lust story. I spotted a male Writing Spider dancing at the edge of a female’s web. I saw him there two days in a row before he vanished. My research tells me that if he successfully courted the female, he either died soon after or was devoured by his lover.

The male is always much smaller. He’s the spider in the upper right corner of this photo.

The plants have been busy too. Most are finalizing fruit production. The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) set an unusually large number of gorgeous red berries this year. I think the fruit-loving birds will be pleased when they notice, if they haven’t already.

The berries in this shot are on a 12′ x 6′ shrub full of crimson-berry-laden branches.

As is always the case, the branches of my Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) are adorned by zillions of the large “two-winged” fruits from which its common name arises. When they are fully ripe, they turn brown, and soon after, squirrels devour every fruit.

When the squirrels tire of dining on acorns, they turn to the fruits of Two-winged Silverbell.

Flowers still abound also. I’ve come to expect Jewelweed’s (Impatiens capensis) arrival in late summer/early fall. Sure enough, it’s popping up in abundance right on schedule. Especially dense thickets line our side of the creek. In deep drought years, the water-rich stems of this wildflower are irresistible to thirsty deer. This year, we either have fewer deer, or they’re not as thirsty, because the Jewelweed is blooming enthusiastically from one end of the floodplain to the other.

The plants in this patch were about an inch shorter than me.

One recent bout of flowering was a surprise. My two white-blooming Florida Anise-trees (Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’) reside beneath dense shade that protects them from western and southern sunshine. I think that location, combined with off-and-on measurable rainfall for most of August, triggered a second round of blooming in these evergreen shrubs. Interestingly, I planted one of their red-blooming cousins (Halley’s Comet) in the same location, but it did not rebloom.

Sometimes when you see a second round of blooms from a shrub in the fall, its spring blooms are less impressive, because the plant spent much of its energy on autumn flowers. It will be interesting to observe how many flowers my albas produce next spring. For now, we are enjoying the unexpected bonus of glowing white star-like flowers against deep green leaves.

August blooms of Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’

As I observe my landscape transitioning from summer to fall, my prayers go out to the folks enduring a visit from what was Hurricane Isaac until quite recently. Hurricane Fran was the beast folks in my region still talk about; forests still show clear signs of the damage caused by her winds and water. Mother Nature is indeed capricious, simultaneously bestowing unexpected flowers and unforeseen chaos in different parts of our country.

Here’s hoping Isaac is the last hurricane to make landfall in the United States this year.

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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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