The Summer of Milkweed and Butterflies


swamp

When I shot this image in June, this was a mystery flower–it’s swamp Milkweed.

It began in spring. I have for years planted Milkweed seeds in my gardens, with almost no results. Last year, I purchased some “Butterfly Flower” Milkweed plants at a local nursery, and at least those plants did grow. Also last year, for the first time, a few baby plants that maybe could be Milkweed were spotted in the garden, but didn’t grow much.

This winter was a bit mixed. We had some cold. It was not a particularly harsh winter, but it lingered and the spring that followed felt very truncated before hot weather suddenly appeared.

And somehow that odd combination—a chilly winter and quick spring, followed by Iowa hot—seemed to be what Milkweed had been waiting for. While in past years, results had been limited, suddenly in the front garden last year’s baby Milkweed sprang up like, well, weeds.

milkweedgirl

Final day of RAGBRAI, West Liberty, I stop to get some Milkweed seed balls to toss in ditches.

The Butterfly Flowers didn’t all come back, but the plants that did grew robustly and bloomed with pretty orange flowers. The common Milkweed didn’t bloom yet this year—but several of the plants grew to several feet in height.

And in the side garden, a tall spiky stranger appeared, an impressive, 3-foot plant with pink flowers. I didn’t know what it was until we attended the Monarch Fest at the Indian Creek Nature Center, where there were pictures of Swamp Milkweed.

And not only was Milkweed suddenly present in the gardens, but Monarch butterflies on whose behalf these plants were installed didn’t waste much time in finding my Milkweed patch. Suddenly, this year, there were those distinctive black, yellow and white caterpillars. Indeed, the identity of the Swamp Milkweed was confirmed by the presence of baby Monarchs.

caterpillar

Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed this week.

Well, it’s August and the press of school work is starting. I have syllabi to prepared, a newspaper staff to help organize and a bike club to encourage. The end of RAGBRAI, in my universe, is sort of the unofficial end of summer.

And this summer, we adopted a caterpillar from the Nature Center, fed it and had the pleasure of watching it fly off.

My gardens had a few losses from the winter that have not been restored—my two Rose of Sharon bushes both died, for example. I like that kind of flower and eventually will replace them, although I didn’t find them this year. No butterfly bushes are growing in my gardens this year despite the welcome presences of many butterflies—that perennial is dicey in my region of Iowa and is really almost an annual.

But this was the first year the dogwood tree in back bloomed, and the first year in which Milkweed firmly took hold in my gardens. All in all, I’ll list it as a successful growing season.

And now summer is psychologically, if not physically, over, the fall bulb catalogs are arriving, and the year is marching onward.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Weather

An Unexpected Nature Show


gc

Grandchildren at the Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. We thought they would all prefer the Natural History Museum, but several said this historic building was their favorite thing to visit during our day out.

We were hosting four grandchildren this week on an overnight stay, and had most of a day until late afternoon that we would spend with them.

So we planned to make a day of it—french toast for breakfast, a trip to the Natural History Museum and Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, lunch out, some park play, finishing it off with afternoon ice cream.

As it turned out, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes work at as well as you could possibly expect. These four young grandchildren are old enough to enjoy the museums, liked playing in a city park in Coralville, and appreciated the ice cream. It was a good day, according to plan.

And it was also unexpectedly much better. I was glad the museums don’t open until 10, because packing up four young children takes a bit of time. And as we were slowly accumulating all the stuff we needed, encouraging children to take restroom breaks and don shoes, something wonderful that was not on the agenda took place.

As I was carrying a bag with sunscreen and bug repellent out to our minivan, I noticed a Monarch butterfly nervously flitting about. I have tried to grow Milkweed in my gardens for years, with little results, but for some reason things are different this year—“Butterfly Flower” purchased from a local nursery came back strong this year, and Common Milkweed seeds chose this spring of all springs to finally germinate and strongly grow.

And it did not take much time this year for butterflies to find this new habitat. I have not been able to locate pupae, and so I’m not sure if any butterflies have resulted from my efforts, but clearly butterflies have been laying eggs on my plants, based on the caterpillars.

It is funny, I think, that most of the time gardeners are not thrilled to have caterpillars consuming their work, except when Milkweed is planted. Then, the larval stage of this pretty insect is most welcome.

Anyway, back to our museum day adventure. Monarchs are not particularly skittish, as butterflies go. They live their lives knowing that their caterpillar diet has made them nasty to eat, so they are fairly bold. What was wrong with this skittish, spastic specimen of a usually serene insect species?

butter1

Butterfly in front garden.

cat and butt

Pausing on Milkweed (with the same caterpillar I made images of before).

I paused and watched. And then I figure out what she was doing. She would land quickly on a leaf, hanging on to the edge, and loop her body under the leaf, then flit to another leaf and repeat.

This female insect was bursting with eggs and was depositing said eggs in my garden.

I called out to the grandchildren. They responded to my urgent calls as grandchildren usually do—slowly, one at a time. The mother butterfly flitted off and I was worried they had missed the show.

laying

Laying egg.

But no—as I encouraged grandchildren to exit the house and get settled in the van for the trip to Iowa City, she kept coming back. She laid eggs on the Common Milkweed while one granddaughter watched. Another saw her as she focused on nearby Butterfly Flower.

And once all the kids were in the van, she provided her best show. There is a tall, spiky flower in my side garden that showed up for the first time this year and bloomed in small pink flowers in a broccoli shape. Common Milkweed blooms pink in pom-pom shapes—and none of my young plants of that sort have bloomed yet, anyway. But, I suspected that this tall plant was Swamp Milkweed, which is just a another variety of the butterfly –friendly family of plants.

Confirmation came this morning. For the first time, we spotted caterpillars munching on that side garden plant—Monarchs don’t make many mistakes. Milkweed is what this plant is.

drink

What is this tall plant that mama butterfly is pausing for a snack at? It is Milkweed, too, as was proven by caterpillar presence.

swamp

Strong evidence–this is the same plant with the pink flowers. Young monarch doing it’s best to eat it.

And, as if she thought it was her duty to teach young children one last nature lesson, as the doors of the van were still hanging open but the children seated within, the butterfly came back again, landing on the side of the swamp plant that was just feet away from the nearest grandchild sitting in a van.

She hung at the end of the leaf, curled her bottom side over, which seemed like she was posing for the best egg laying photo I managed to get, and then took off.

egg

Egg that was placed there while children watched.

lay2

Monarch on mystery plant that we can now call Milkweed with confidence. In this egg laying festival, she hit all three varieties of Milkweed I have planted.

There, on the bottom side of leaf, was the egg.

That was cool.

We adopted a caterpillar at the recent Monarch Fest held at the Indian Creek Nature Center, and it formed its cocoon last week. I am still hoping it will emerge before I leave for a week of riding a bicycle across Iowa, but there is no sign of change from it yet.

Still, it felt like we were exposed to the full range of Monarch life cycle Wednesday—several caterpillars, a busy laying adult, a clear view of an egg and the cocoon in my kitchen.

Thank you, butterflies, for making a good day a great day. The day seemed like it had potential to be a good one anyway—and it was. Luckily, the thousand things that could have gone wrong (sick child, serious meltdown, big fight) did not take place. The children enjoyed themselves, which meant the grandparents enjoyed themselves.

And beyond the museums, there was the impromptu lesson provided by a skittish insect. So often in life, spontaneous pleasures are the best.

If you haven’t, find some Butterfly Flowers and plant them in your garden. And Monarchs aren’t the only pollinator in trouble, but plants that help them, including native flowers like cone flowers, aren’t hard to plant, either. Recall that fall is the time to sew Common Milkweed seeds. It may take a few years, the plants grow when they want to and not on your time schedule, but there are rewards for the effort.

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Grandchildren

Peonies, Roses and Daddy Longlegs


dlg01

Earlier this month, Daddy Longlegs on flower in side garden.

The odd, ever changing summer in Iowa continues.

On Tuesday, dodging rain, my wife and I had gone shopping, and we picked up a few of the season’s last plants on clearance. We got two small rose bushes and two pink peonies.

My plan was to plant them under a birch tree in our front yard. I think my back yard is just getting too shady for these kinds of flowers.

Anyway, when I went out to garden Wednesday, I started by taking my good camera and making a few images of the fine morning. It had rained Tuesday and was very damp, but fine and nice on Wednesday—usually this summer, we’ve been either very humid and warm or downright wet, so Wednesday was one of the precious in-between days. No rain and no extreme heat—it was just Iowa pleasant.

I was impressed by the number and variety of Daddy Longlegs I found this morning, crawling at the edge of plants, on patrol for food to scavenge. I learned via a PBS article and a DNR web site that these non-spider arachnids basically don’t hunt—they are walking around looking for dead insects or decaying leaf to eat.

dlg02

Pair of Daddy Longlegs on Hosta. They shed legs as a defense, and according to a PBS article, if a male wants to mate and the female is not in the mood, she may rip one of his legs off.

dlg04

On Milkweed.

And, if attacked, they shed a leg and move on. More than half of Daddy Longlegs will lose at least one leg in escaping a predator (or potential mate) during their life.

Well. It was not the only interesting nature note of the morning.

As I planted my roses and peonies, a bit of a disturbance broke out in a nearby ash tree. A small bird was being chased about by a tiny bird—a hummingbird was swooping at another bird, which was complaining about the harassment.

I’ve seen hummingbirds several times this summer, but never caught an image of one. I pointed the good camera up in the ash tree, hoping to be lucky. And I was, because it appeared the hummingbird actually roosted, waiting for its next opportunity to be macho or birdo or dino—whatever we should call it.

And when, on the computer, I looked at the image, I realized the tiny bird was not sitting on the branch—it has a tiny nest in the ash tree.

dlg03

Hummingbird on guard in nest.

The city is cutting out ashes, and this is a city tree, so at some point it will be removed. I hope it’s after the fall migration.

And I hope to see some pretty pink peonies next spring!

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Science, Weather

Lilies of Summer, May You Lift My Mood


b02

Lily in bloom today.

The flowers of summer arrived just in time. I noticed and photographed some lilies today in my gardens.

Now, I know that lilies have been blooming elsewhere in town already, and my own gardens tend to be a little behind, but somehow, on June 21, longest day of the year, it seemed like a good day for lilies to arrive.

Maybe they can lift my mood, a bit. It’s been a hard summer. Not that anything is wrong personally in my life, but I’ve grown increasingly distressed watching our democracy unravel. The border-child thing, which is not really over, was harsh and horrible, but it was just one more point of pain.

Bad ideas seems to be taking off all the time: Militarizing space. Fighting Canada and praising North Korea. Saying one thing one day and countermanding it the next. Claiming the media are the greatest enemies of the American people while also praising North Korean state TV for treating the ruthless dictator of that country well.

b03

OK, internet, what is this flower? The plant is thin and about 2-feet tall.

It’s not just the lunatic in the White House. Here in Iowa we have rain. And rain. Rain and more rain. We’ve gone from some dry, hot weeks to cool wet weather that almost feels more depressing. Who knows what will come next from Mother Nature or President Crazy.

Well, seasons and presidents change—shame on America and the electorate if there is not a blue wave this fall.

And in the meantime, at least there are lilies.

a05

And there is Milkweed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

June is Busting Out in Peonies


May 28 peony 2

Peony in my front garden. I shot this image on May 28.

I grew up in various places in the United States—I was born in Tennessee, although I was so young when we moved from there that I don’t have any memories of that place. I have a few dim snatches of memory from Schenectady, New York, although we moved to California just before I turned 4.

From ages 4 to 8, we lived in several towns in California. I have numerous California memories, but honestly, they tend to be a rather confusing knot that doesn’t specify time or place all that well. My son lives in San Francisco, and I know I visited that place in the 1960s, but when I took a trip out there to see him, absolutely nothing at all looked familiar (my main memories of 1960s California were that we toured a Canadian destroyer which had steep stairs, seemed huge and was a dull grey; and a minor earthquake had occurred and some storefronts had broken glass. As an adult visiting the city by the bay I saw zero Canadian destroyers and no broken shop windows.)

My more organized narrative memory, which honestly is not all that great, really starts in Clinton, Iowa. For a short time, we lived in an old rented house on Third Avenue South, but then we moved to a house on Seventh Avenue South after, I think, about a year, which means we lived there from about 1967 to 1972.

In my mind, that house in Clinton is probably the one I think of as my boyhood home. I learned to mow grass and appreciate girls while I lived in that house (the two are unrelated). There was a huge hedge in back, and while I sort of liked it sometimes, I’ve never been tempted to plant a hedge in any of my houses. They get big and get out of control.

My father planted numerous trees while we lived on Seventh Avenue, and the tree-planting bug clearly took root in me. I am glad to say that I have three live redbud trees in Iowa in a place where the climate is pretty much the same as Clinton—we tried planting that kind of tree in Clinton and they always died. I don’t know why.

The house in Clinton had a large front porch with a porch swing (whose chain my sisters and I occasionally broke through rather rambunctious swinging). That porch served as lookout post, pirate ship and thunderstorm hangout. The house also had a lip on the wooden siding that the brave or foolhardy could use to travel all the way around the house, toes on the lip, fingers braced on the underside of the siding, sidling across a 10-foot chasm over a driveway cut into the basement.

It was in this house that my father grew a small garden that for some reason yielded plenty of tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers and other garden treats for a large family. My father’s ability to grow food for the family is something I have always envied—and never been able to emulate.

And there were a few flowers at the Clinton house. In the back by the alley, at a corner gap in the hedge, there was a big lilac bush, and its blooms always smelled sweet and heralded the coming of spring and the ending of another school year. I disliked school and learned to love lilacs.

On the east and west sides (the house faced north) of the back yard, beyond the hedge on the west (there was no hedge on the east) were lines of peony plants. And perhaps because they also heralded the end of tedium and boredom known as a term at Sacred Heart School, I have kept a lifelong appreciation for the peony.

And this year, June 1 is just past the peak of peony season in Iowa. These pretty flowers mean the transition away from spring to early summer—the prevalence of ants, the appearance of fireflies, the freedom from school (as a professor, my attitude towards school has grown a bit more positive, but I will also freely admit that my favorite months of the year still are any that start with J and don’t end in anuary).

Peonies! You fresh pom-poms of color. I plant more than I ever get to grow and bloom, but I do have some that bloom, and I like that. They are pretty and smell nice—they have a subtler fragrance than a lilac, you have to lean close to experience it, and it you do, be careful of the ants or bees when you sniff.

They are the flowers that announce the best time of the year is here in Iowa. Hip-hip hooray!

Campus May 29 2

May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

Campus May 29

Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Memories, Weather

A Few Minutes After Grades Are In


And in the post-semester, I’ve-just-posted-grades posted point, I’ll admit, just for one self-indulgent minute, my mood about grades briefly matched a pop song from the 1980s:

I’m better now. Back to caring. Let another semester commence—in three months, or so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Honoring student editors


connor

Connor Mahan, Outstanding Journalism Student, Mount Mercy University, 2018. Also editor-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times.

Honors Convocation was today at the university where I teach. And two students who served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during their time at Mount Mercy graduated. It made me think about learning from students, as I wrote the speech honoring one of them as Student Journalist of the Year, while also mentioning the other. Several people told me they liked my remarks, so I present them here—text of my presentation at the MMU Honors Convocation:

Each year, it’s a bittersweet moment when you have to say goodbye to your graduating students. For me, as the journalism professor and faculty advisor to the Mount Mercy Times, I’m often saying farewell to students who have worked hard in their classes, and also put in countless hours to serve this university as editors of student media.

It’s both my joy and pain to have that experience twice this year. Two great editors-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times are in the class of 2018.

Graduating nursing student Madison Coates led the newspaper in her sophomore year, and has continued writing for the paper. When something happened in the newsroom that she liked, Maddie’s response was to say “perrrfect,” with a drawn out R. Maddie, to me, you were darn near perrrfect to work with as a student and an editor.

Maddie

Maddie Coates, former Times editor-in-chief, won this year’s award from the nursing program. She receives it from nursing chair Dr. Mary Tarbox.

But today I’m here to honor the second editor-in-chief who is also graduating in the class of 2018.

As a transfer student from Kirkwood Community College, Connor Mahan began excelling early at MMU. In the fall of 2015, when our faculty series was about the legacy of the Vietnam War, Connor was one of five photographers and reporters from the Mount Mercy Times who covered the visit of the Moving Wall, a replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, to campus. During the wall’s visit, Connor made a poignant image of a young boy, holding his ears as he looked at the wall, seeking the name of a relative among the dead.

It wasn’t just any news image—Connor’s photograph was judged the best news photograph in an Iowa college news medium for the year 2015 by the Iowa College Media Association.

Anybody who has worked with Connor quickly recognizes his drive, intelligence and good humor. Life hasn’t given him all the advantages that chance doles out to others, and when he has to go somewhere to cover a story, the structure of his body dictates that it may take him a bit longer than others to get there. But that’s never held Connor back. He’s always willing to take on a new task, he is always pushing himself.

And when you compliment Connor on this hard work, his almost perrrfect answer is: “I do what I can.”

In 2016, the second potentially devastating flood in 8 years threatened Cedar Rapids, and the Mount Mercy Community joined the city in an emergency effort to erect barriers against the rising Cedar River. During that mostly successful, epic battle with rising water, Connor went to Ellis Park to cover the story. There, Connor made some news photographs of people from Mount Mercy who were filling sandbags. One of Connor’s images showed our own Father Tony Adawu handing a sandbag to an MMU student.

You probably can guess, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. In 2017, the best news photograph in Iowa, as judged by the Iowa College Media Association, was that picture of Father Tony made by Connor Mahan. Furthermore, Connor co-wrote the Times’ news story about the flood. That story was judged by the I-C-M-A as the best news story that year.

Connor had done what he could.

In fall of 2017, the Mount Mercy Times faced a leadership crisis when the previous editor could not continue. In the paper’s hour of need, two students stepped in—one, Madelyn Orton, was a sophomore English major who served as Managing Editor.

And the new editor-in-chief, who stepped into the role because he could and because he wanted to serve the newspaper, was Connor Mahan.

I like to think that I teach some lessons to my students, but there is a flip side. One of the joys of being a professor is that I can try to live out what we say about becoming a lifelong learner. And I find that I often learn lessons from my students.

I learned something about faith and joy, the power of a positive attitude and the warmth of a perrrfect smile from Madison Coates.

And I learned that the main challenge of each day that I am blessed with is to take what I have, whatever that is, and simply to get on with it. I need to do the work I am able to do. And I think we all agree that the world would be a better place, and we would lead better lives, if we all could simply say, at the end of each day, the words of Connor Mahan: “I do what I can.”

It’s my sincere pleasure to recognized Connor Mahan as the Mount Mercy University 2018 Outstanding Student Journalist.

Me and Maddie

Maddie with me after the ceremony.

Mahi

Mahder Habtemariam Serekberhan is also in the class of 2018–she was opinion editor of the student newspaper.

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, Mount Mercy, Writing