Butterfly Garden Plant Profile: Milkweeds

I thought I would try something new, and start profiling each of the plants (or plant groups) in my butterfly garden as a complement to some of the more macro-level discussions I started with. There seems to be no better place to start than with the milkweeds (Asclepias sp.) Plants of this genus are the only hosts for North America’s most iconic butterfly, the monarch. They also attract a wide variety of other insects, for a variety of reasons. Several species are native to the mid-Atlantic, and a few others grow well here. I haven’t found any of these on lists of invasives, so I have chosen to include a sampling of both native and non-native species in my garden. I can confirm anecdotally that monarchs will readily use all as host plants and that many species will take nectar from the natives and non-natives alike.

common milkweed

Common milkweed (A. syriaca) is a native plant with lovely spheroid clusters of white-and-pink flowers. It can grow 5-6 feet (or more?) tall in good conditions. This is one of the first plants I started in my garden for perhaps obvious reasons. I have seen it in action hosting monarchs, milkweed tiger moths, swamp milkweed leaf beetles, small and large milkweed bugs, red milkweed beetles, and more. Seemingly every pollinator will make a stop at the flowers. It is fairly easy to grow from seed, especially if cold-stratified first. It seems to handle relocation well. This plant will thrive in moist but well-drained soils, but in my experience it will tolerate most conditions. I am always nervous about cutting back plants mid-season, but because monarchs prefer young leaves and breed in Maryland later than milkweeds emerge it is good practice to do so. The milkweeds can handle it.

swamp milkweed (amid some partridge pea)

Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is quite similar. As its name suggests, it does prefer things a little bit wetter. Mine hasn’t taken off quite as well as the common milkweed, but it does return each year. Its flower clusters are smaller and not the same near-spherical shape, but do tend to a brighter pink. The leaves and seed pods are narrower. Other than the wetness, the same plant care notes apply to swamp milkweed. I know it hosts monarchs and the swamp milkweed leaf beetle and I suspect the other insects mentioned above can eat it as well. It’s a great alternative to common milkweed for a wetter space.

Asclepias tuberosa
butterfly weed (with oleander aphid infestation)

I am still trying to establish some butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). I had read that this species can take a little longer than the others to get going, and this is proving true. Butterfly weed has bright orange flowers and clear (as opposed to milky) sap. So far none of my seedlings from previous years has survived – I don’t know if I have been choosing the wrong location, experiencing a run of bad luck, or something else, but I will keep trying. The orange would really be a nice accent to the rest of my garden’s color pallette. It’s also reportedly a great nectar plant for many pollinators, and since biodiversity is my ultimate goal any native plant that fits the host/nectar profile is a plant I want.

The Maryland Biodiversity Project lists nine additional species (plus two subspecies of swamp milkweed) as Maryland natives. Some appear to be quite rare, and others are limited to the coastal plain. The remaining few species are on my list of potentials for future plantings – clasping milkweed (A. amplexicaulis) looks particularly attractive. I’ll have to balance diversifying the milkweeds with filling other niches, though, so they may have to wait in queue for a few years.

I did mention non-natives, and thus far I have tried two of these. Last year I added some bloodflower (A. curassavica), a more southern species that nonetheless grows well here.  I couldn’t resist the striking red-and-yellow flowers or the glossier green of the stems and leaves. I have observed monarch caterpillars munching on this plant and many insects taking its nectar, so I feel vindicated in sneaking in this non-native plant for variety’s sake. This year I am similarly experimenting with “showy” milkweed (A. speciosa), which is from the western half of the continent. I’m not sure if the seedlings survived the deluge we got earlier this month, but if they did I look forward to seeing if these perform as well as the bloodflower.


I haven’t had too many problems keeping milkweeds healthy once they’re established. One exception is the occasional infestation of oleander aphids. Perhaps coincidentally they have attacked my swamp milkweed most voraciously. The point of my garden is of course exploitation by animal life, but this non-native aphid does not contribute positively to the ecosystem so I don’t tolerate them. Fortunately they seem fairly easy to control. I have found manual removal to be very effective. I simply squish them by grasping the plant stems and rubbing, then rinse the gross yellow goo with a hose.


All in all, milkweeds are low-maintenance flowers that add a lot of visual interest to a garden. They check a lot of boxes in terms of ecological niches as well, even excluding their well-documented relationship with monarch butterflies. There’s very little not to like.

Speaking of “Mistaken”

If you’re reading this, odds are you know a butterfly garden has been a passion project of mine for several years now. It has gone well, and increasingly so each season. I have obsessed over every plant (or other feature) included, constantly asking questions like “can I get away with this non-native?” and “Do I have room for more of this, or do I need to diversify?” Each species has been meticulously chosen and cared for. I have stood among the blooms in midsummer, certain in my hubris that everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.

Then one day this summer I discovered it wasn’t. Hadn’t. Didn’t – whatever.

In one small spot beside the garden bench grow several plants with feathery leaves and clusters of white flowers. They have spread well and stayed green through the last two winters. I grew them from seeds marked “pearly everlasting.” When I bought these seeds, I searched by the scientific name Anaphalis margaritacea, because a common name is notoriously slippery thing. I marked the pots as pearly everlasting, treated the plants as pearly everlasting for garden planning and plant maintenance purposes, referred to them as pearly everlasting in this blog, offered pearly everlasting seeds to fellow gardeners, identified wild specimens of this plant as pearly everlasting… you can see where this is going.

The “pearly everlasting” in all its glory.

Is there a worse feeling then finding out you have been confidently, defiantly wrong about a verifiable fact, and acted to perpetuate that wrongness? I’m sure there is, but this sensation always guts me when it happens. I try very hard to either be correct or admit uncertainty. It’s humbling when I am reminded that sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

So how did I come to discover this error? There is a second flower that has been on my to-plant list for the past couple years: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium). This spring, a couple of different factors led me to realize I already have this plant! First, I was scrolling through some local observations on iNaturalist. I came across a plant with the suggested ID “yarrow.” I thought “gee, that really looks a lot like pearly everlasting.” I was tempted to suggest this, but a quick Something image search of the scientific name made me hesitate. I left this incident believing these two plants look awfully similar. They don’t, if I’m being honest. A few days later I was researching yarrow in preparation for adding it to my garden. This finally brought me to reality. Every photo of the white-flowered variety looked exactly like my familiar plants. This time I decided to also image search pearly everlasting and compare. Nooooooooooooope!


Thinking back, it’s stunning just how much information a pre-conceived notion can brush aside. Those seeds were labelled “Pearly Everlasting – Anaphalis margaritacea,” and plants grew from them. From that starting point, my brain steeled itself against assault from any evidence to the contrary. I remember thinking the seedlings didn’t look quite like what I’d expected, and ignoring that. I remember thinking the flowers didn’t look quite right when they bloomed, and dismissing that. I remember seeing yarrow plants for sale and wondering why they looked so much like my “pearly everlasting.” I remember squinting at photos of pearly everlasting in field guides and gardening books until they looked close enough to satisfy me.

Blooms of a colorful variety of yarrow I added this year.

What the hell, human brain? The tricks our brains can play on us in confirming our own biases are well-known, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of catching them in the act. It invites one to surrender to radical skepticism and cease trying. That’s not particularly productive, though. Instead I will try to re-instill some basic lessons of identifying organisms.

  1. Consider as many field marks or features as are discernible.
  2. Do not reject any details, whether or not they conform to expectations.
  3. Do not make assumptions about field marks or features you can’t see.
  4. Seek additional opinions if there is any doubt – and preferably if there is no doubt.
  5. Using dichotomous keys never hurts, even if it is especially tedious for familiar species.


I could keep going, but it boils down to keeping an open mind and replacing assumption with observation. I suppose I could call it a scientific approach. I don’t think matching observations to existing literature is properly “science.” However, the process (question, research, hypothesize, test, analyze/conclude, communicate) can and should loosely be followed. It is also not bad advice to be skeptical of one’s own conclusions.

I did end up purchasing some colorful varieties of yarrow to complement the white-flowered crop. Now I find myself in need of a plant I thought I’d had almost from the beginning. I did name my blog “Wildly Mistaken” for a reason, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it when I find out I am exactly that.

Butterfly Garden Progress Report Part 2 of 2

I shared Part 1 of this piece back in August. To recap, by “progress” I mean “how much wildlife has my habitat garden brought to my yard?” Last time I covered the most obvious category – butterflies and moths – and today I will focus on everything else. This all comes with the same caveat as before: I have no baseline wildlife survey to compare this to. I’m really just making a self-congratulatory list of wildlife sightings in my yard. Somehow, I am OK with that!

Before I move on, I do want to briefly mention four additional lepidopterans since August: the eastern comma (Polygonia comma), tobacco hornworm, aka Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta), raspberry pyrausta moth (Pyrausta signatalis), and giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).

An eastern comma dining on some persimmons with yellowjackets.

Insects, Non-Lepidopteran

Insects are an overwhelmingly diverse Class of animal life. I will never be able to identify to species every insect I find in my yard. There are plenty I can, though (especially with help). I’m able to put many more into the appropriate Family or Genus. Based on that, I am able to confidently list 90 insect species for my yard, including the butterflies and moths from the last post. That number doesn’t precisely represent individual insects confidently identified to species, although there is only a little fluff. “Fluff” in this case just means an insect I am very confident is a different species from any of the others included. For example, my garden was visited by a juvenile praying mantis for about a week last year. I can’t tell the difference between a Carolina and a Chinese mantis at that stage, but I can certainly say it wasn’t an ant or a caterpillar. Bees and wasps I can treat similarly: I can spot the difference between a yellowjacket and a bumblebee but am not well-versed in recognizing the individual species of each.


Spiders are tough. When I get a photo to review, I am often confronted with notes like “identification to species requires dissection,” or find that I need to be able to see a very specific detail very clearly. Consequently, despite encountering certainly thousands of spiders I only have 16 species on my life list. Of those, only six have I found in my yard. They are: marbled orbweaver, basilica orbweaver, orchard orbweaver, woodlouse hunter, broad-faced sac spider, and Pholcus manueli. I can add at least four “fluff” species (a green crab spider, a jumping spider, a grass spider, and a brownish orbweaver) for a total of ten.

Mecynogea lemniscata (3)
A basilica orbweaver tending its distinctive egg sacs

Other Invertebrates

Isn’t that specific? As much as I hate to lump all this together it’s so much more convenient than typing up categories for each individual kind of invertebrate. I am not enough of an expert to ID many of the included creatures precisely anyway. So what do I have here? The wood tick and house centipede are present for sure. I’ve found earthworms, pill bugs, harvestmen, centipedes, and millipedes of an unknown number of species each. At least three species of slug round out the list. That’s another ten animals in total, under the most conservative of estimates.


Thanks to eBird, I have very good data on the bird species I have spotted in my yard. It comes to forty-three species, and while none of these is particularly uncommon and five or so are merely flyovers, that feels like a pretty good number. And yet… just a few blocks away in Wheaton Regional Park birders have collectively tallied over 170 species. I’ve found more than sixty there myself. I won’t likely be attracting any, say, spotted sandpipers to my yard… but there is some room for improvement.

Zenaida macroura (6)
A mourning dove, an eastern towhee, and some white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders.

Cardinalis cardinalis (21)


This is a short and boring list (but try telling my dogs that!) Eastern gray squirrel, eastern fox squirrel, southern flying squirrel, eastern chipmunk, eastern cottontail, Norway rat, white-footed mouse, white-tailed deer, human, dog. Add some unidentified species of mice and bats, and it’s an even dozen. I do think the dogs somewhat cut down on the mammal population I might otherwise see here… I have after all come across groundhogs and foxes in the neighborhood and I know raccoons, possums, and skunks are about. As irritating as the rat population is, at least they’ve never made it inside.


An even shorter, but hopefully less boring, list:

Northern green frog


gray (or possibly Cope’s gray) treefrog


American toad (no one needs a picture of one of these, right?

And that’s the list! So to recap, that’s a grand total of: 90 insects, 10 spiders, 10 other invertebrates, 43 birds, 12 mammals, and 3 amphibians – 168 total animal species cataloged in my yard. All my instincts say that 168 is a big number, yet as I mentioned above more species of birds alone have been recorded in our neighborhood park.

Butterfly Garden Winter Prep: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

Greetings from all one of us here at Wildly Mistaken! I’ve got a lot of content to catch up on, so apologies in advance for blowing up your feeds. Forthcoming topics include: the monarch life cycle, a trip to the Rockies, a (brief) trip to China, and more. I will be postponing the remaining “12 Months of Nature” to 2018.

Today, though, I will be talking some more about my butterfly garden. Even through the end of fall there’s a lot that can be done to move the whole thing along. When I look out the window I still see beauty there, albeit a quieter, more somber beauty.


Weeding and Perennial Upkeep

Fall is, for one thing, a great time to redouble weed control efforts. The retreating foliage tends to expose a lot of unwanted plants I’ve missed through the spring and summer  months. A lot of the more agressive (and often invasive) weeds make a last effort to reestablish themselves. So step one in fall butterfly gardening is to go all scorched-earth (figuratively) on the honeysuckle, ground ivy, and garlic mustard that would like to own the yard. I mostly let the clovers, violets, and sorrel go, but remove them from anywhere they might make trouble for my other plants.

My next move is to cut back the perennials which require it and tidy up any remaining dead or dying annuals. Many of the perennials, however, require little-to-no attention. I leave the stalks of milkweeds and joe-pye weed for the bugs (and hence the birds). Alfalfa can be allowed to die back on its own and mixed in with next spring’s soil. Sunflower stalks can serve the same purpose as the milkweeds, and partridge pea has a tendency to take care of itself and can be largely left alone. I do cut back my asters, coneflowers, and bee balm. Last year my chives, pearly everlasting, and sage never went dormant through a mild winter, but I am not sure how common that is for this region. I tend to wait for spring to prune my butterfly bush, but fall pruning is also reportedly effective. Really this all mostly boils down to Googling each species and doing what more experienced gardeners tell me I should.

The stalks left behind add something to the fall ambiance, I think.

Expanding the Footprint

I’ve been annually expanding the garden to fill the available space, and late fall is an excellent time for this part of the process. It’s least disruptive to the existing plants, and the ground is usually damp and soft – not to mention not yet frozen. As of a couple weekends ago, all sod inside my garden fence is a thing of the past! I plopped the removed sod, grass-side down, in various other spots around the yard where I’d prefer grass and weeds not grow. I scratched in some compost until I ran out of supply, then covered with a thick layer of leaves.

Clearing Leaves

Speaking of which… everyone’s favorite fall passtime is raking leaves, right? Or at least jumping in the piles like some kind of gleeful suburban stereotype? Well – preachy environmentalist alert – I’m here to tell you that the best thing you can do with dead leaves (for nature, anyway) is nothing! There have been plenty of pieces written about the environmental benefits of dead leaves and alternatives to the rake and burn approach. Frankly, I have found many of them to be ham-fisted, judgy attempts to guilt folks into what they “should” be doing. I get it. Decaying leaves return nutrients to the soil, provide breeding habitat for many insects and spiders, and offer winter shelter for amphibians as well as cover for small mammals. Burning leaves releases carbon into the atmosphere much more rapidly than natural processes. Yet, no one is here for those holier-than-thou lectures and I’m not here to provide one. I’d just like to lay out the alternatives as I understand them and describe how I manage the leaves in my own yard.

I will say this for the environmentally-friendliest approach: it is also the laziest! That’s right, doing exactly zero things to the leaves in your yard actually does the most things to support the natural environment. Who among us, though, doesn’t have at least the tiniest aesthetic preference for a leaf-free lawn? Our brains like neatness and order, and a bunch of scattered leaves is certainly not the surest way to satisfy that sense.

I don’t really know the relative environmental impacts of the other options I am about to discuss, except that they are all better than burning big piles of leaves but not as good as the do-nothing approach. I do think all are worth considering as happy mediums between the greatest offenses to either our conservationist or aesthetic sensibilities.


A popular method of dealing with leaf litter these days is to mulch them into one’s lawn with a mower. It’s not quite as lazy as doing nothing, but since most of us will be mowing our lawns anyway it isn’t too far behind. This does return some of he nutrients from the leaves to the soil and doesn’t release a ton of carbon rapidly into the atmosphere. One drawback for the perfect lawn crowd is that it can be all but impossible to really grind up all the leaves small enough that they aren’t noticeable.

Montgomery County has a leaf collection program. I am not sure how common these are, but they can be a good alternative to burning one’s own leaves. Here, the county sends vacuum trucks around to collect the leaves. All residents must do is pile them close to the street. The collected leaves become compost which is sold back to residents through retailers. I don’t know how the fuel use of the trucks compares to the carbon emissions from leaf burning, or how much more efficient the resulting compost is at returning nutrients to the soil as compared to a mulching mower. Of course, once you pile your leaves at the curb they are prone to blowing back into the yard while waiting for collection, so this alone is probably not the solution for meticulous yard freaks.

Another option is to gather your leaves for use as natural mulch. Commercial mulch, after all, is designed specifically to replicate what is accomplished by fallen leaves in wooded areas. It keeps roots of desired plants insulated during the winter, helps retain water, and prevents massive explosions of spring weeds. This approach retains most of the benefits of letting leaves sit (and arguably concentrates those benefits into a desired space). It can be a lot more labor-intensive than the other options, and of course one can’t ensure that 100% of the leaves will stay in the exact places intended. After a couple of rains, though, they do become more stationary than one might think.

I’m sure there are other possibilities I’ve not considered, some probably novel and brilliant. Because I am me, I use a combination of all the approaches I have listed. Two or three times a season I collect many of the leaves into lawn bags. Then I use them as mulch, primarily in the butterfly garden. I mulch the leaves left behind into my lawn, but since many leaves collect near the road anyway I tighten up those piles for the county to collect. The result is a yard that is mostly pretty tidy in most places, with mostly healthy grass. The butterfly garden itself, in my estimation, satisfies the aesthetic side by replicating a woodland floor.


That’s an awful lot of words to get to the point: there’s no one “right” thing we should all be doing to manage leaf litter, but it’s well worth the time to consider all these options before burning piles of dead leaves. Each approach comes with its own subset of considerations. Raking is harder work but “greener” than blowing. Various mowers use different amounts and types of fuel. Local laws or HOAs may ban or limit burning or otherwise specify standards of lawn-keeping.  Whatever method you choose, as always: happy gardening!