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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Featured Species #6: Gray Catbird

CatbirdThe gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) may seem like an odd choice as a first bird to profile. Its plumage is drab gray except for a splash of rusty orange under the tail. It isn’t one of the handful of most widely recognized backyard birds. It is not nearly as notorious as its kin, the northern mockingbird. It is, nonetheless, quite common in our area from late spring through early fall, and quite distinctive in appearance and sound.

These birds start to show up in my yard sometime around late April or early May. I instantly know they’re back from the call: a loud, nasal whine that somehow always seems directed right at me. I know I am irresponsibly anthropomorphizing here, but the “Nyaaaaaaah! Nyaaaaaaah!” seems interpretable variously as “fill up your feeder already, lazy human!” “Go away!” and “I’m here, stop ignoring me.” I mean… just listen to this nonsense. It’s an irritating sound, but I think it’s what draws me to this bird. That harsh, insistent call makes gray catbirds somehow seem more intentional in their actions than most birds. A bogus impression, to be sure, but there it is.

Dumatella carolinensis (7)One small encounter not long ago served to endear me further to the species. I happened upon one trapped in netting and was able to free it. The bird relaxed when I held it, allowing me to easily free its legs and wing. I don’t know if this is typical behavior for a bird in distress, or if it represented intelligence, intense fear, or something else, but it was a nice feeling of connection to nature.

Like other mimids (around here, that’s the northern mockingbird) the gray catbirds song is a jazz odyssey of cobbled together sounds. Both species get a bad rap for “ugly” songs, but I honestly find them quite lovely most of the time. They do tend to go on and on, though, so much so that it can be frustrating to identify birdsong with a mimid in the mix. I’m still a bit of a neophyte at this, but I can’t count the number of times an unfamiliar song has turned out to belong to a mockingbird or catbird.

Gray catbirds are ground foragers and nest in shrubs. I often find them at my feeders or taking mulberries and other small fruits. I see them anywhere there are patches of shaded understory plants, and they are often fairly abundant in neighborhood parks. I think they go overlooked because they occupy an in-between space. They don’t appear very high on trendy “most common” lists, but neither are they uncommon. So to a birder a gray catbird sighting (in range and in season, anyway) is not noteworthy, but a casual observer may not even be aware of the species at all.

Gray Catbird Links:

Wikipedia
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Cat Predation Study

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Finding Spring

This year’s transition from winter to spring has felt decidedly odd in the Washington, DC area. We’ve had eighty degree February weather, a windstorm that literally blew away the Potomac River, and alternating bouts of warmth and snow. Last Saturday I took a walk and was sleeted upon; Sunday I hiked for hours in temperatures approaching sixty degrees. Tuesday brought more sleet, which transitioned into several inches of snow on Wednesday almost all of which melted on Thursday. I’m paraphrasing my wife in saying that this March came in like a lion and went out like a second, bigger lion that ate the first lion.

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The weather, and some other obligations, have kept me from spending as much time exploring nature as I’d like in 2018. So, I made an effort last weekend to hunt spring deep into all the darkest corners where it might be hiding. Good news! Despite the weird weather patterns, it’s not really in hiding. I just needed to go outside and pay attention.

IMG_6003What did I find in my search for spring? Mostly the expected. Spring migratory birds haven’t really returned yet (although some of the earliest arrivals, like eastern bluebirds and tree swallows, are starting to pop up). I haven’t noticed any amphibian eggs. So, the signs of spring are mostly relegated to plants. The perennials in my own yard are starting to come back. Red maples are blooming abundantly now, making an odd cranberry accent to the snowfall. Skunk cabbage is up; daffodils and crocuses are emerging. Lesser celandine is blanketing the streamside woods and choking out native plants. Snowdrops are a lovely non-native that is also in bloom. Perhaps the most exciting are the nascent Virginia bluebells I found along the Northwest Branch Trail. I didn’t recognize them at this early stage, but a passing jogger remarked on them as I was lining up a photo.

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I was less than thrilled to find just how many of these early-blooming flowers and other plants are non-native. I already mentioned the lesser celandine and snowdrops, but the daffodils and crocuses are also escaped ornamentals. I also came across lenten roses (Helleborus sp.), Japanese spurge, garlic mustard, and ground ivy. I know the mile-a-minute and porcelainberry explosion is well on its way. Oh, and English ivy is a whole thing, too. It’s enough to make me want to sign up for every single invasive plant removal event, or maybe even start my own vigilante effort.

A gimmick I used to get myself going is the iNaturalist smartphone app. I had downloaded it some time ago but never really used it. It allows one to upload photographs and crowd-source the identification. You can suggest your own ID (or not) and other naturalists will weigh in. You can also explore existing photos in a given area for guidance and help others firm up their IDs. Various citizen-science (and some just-for-fun) projects are available to join. Virtually all of my observations so far have received corroboration or clarification the same day, so the community is definitely active enough to make it worthwhile.

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A patch of Japanese spurge – a plant helpfully identified by iNaturalist.

I suspect this will be a tremendous tool for expanding life lists, especially plants, as it can effectively serve as a hyper-localized field guide. It has already helped me identify species from more than twenty old photos that had been bugging me, and resulted in quicker and easier identification of some new photos. I think I have already helped others with a few, too. If naturalism is your bag, I highly recommend using this app. That recommendation is partly motivated by self interest, to be sure. The more data points I can talk others into providing, the better tool it will become for all its users.

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A nickernut tree (Guilandina bonduc) in the Everglades. iNaturalist made this identification possible for me years later.
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drooping star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum nutans), another retro-ID

In other spring news, this year’s crop of seedlings is well on its way. This process always feels a little like grabbing spring by the scruff of its neck and dragging it into place. This year I’ve got heirloom tomatoes (a line Laurel’s grandfather started in Maine), morning glories, and sunflowers. I’m also trying to start a few more perennials – various milkweeds, bee balm, goldenrod, and New York ironweed – for the butterfly garden. I cleared quite a bit more space in the fall so I am looking to fill much of it this year. I also bought a butterfly feeder (basically a stand with a bowl and a sponge for nectar). I think this year’s garden is going to be very close to the full vision I had several years ago.