Tag Archives: milkweed

Friday Floral Feature: The Maybe Milkweed Week


maybemilkweed

What do you think? Is it Milkweed?

Hope springs eternal in the spring. This week saw Dwarf Lilac in full bloom, a second Clematis with giant flowers take center stage in my front garden, and something else. Or so I hope.

Maybe Milkweed?

We’ll see. My gardening heart has been broken many times by this tough but hard to get started Iowa perennial flower. Of course I want Milkweed in my garden. It’s the only kind of plant that a Monarch Butterfly will lay eggs on, and the decline of the Monarch is at least associated with the decline of Milkweed in the Iowa countryside.

So, I try to do my part. Year after year, I sow the seeds. And year after year, nothing.

Last year, I purchased some “Butterfly Flowers” at a nursery. It’s a variety of Milkweed, and two of the purchased plants are coming up again this spring, which is nice.

yesmilkweed

Yes, Milkweed–plant I bought last year is coming back.

But the common wild Milkweed plant grows larger and is preferred by the butterfly. It is a bit odd, I suppose, for a flower gardener to try to raise plants hoping that caterpillars will devour them, but that’s the way it is.

And the “weed” in Milkweed’s name is simply a mistake. It’s a pretty native perennial flowers, and all of us who grow anything to look at in our gardens ought to plant it, especially now. MMU, I’m looking at you.

Anyway, back to my garden this week. Something is coming up in front—something that popped up suddenly this May, just when Milkweed should appear.

peony

Peony after Wednesday night storm. Many in town are in bloom, but not in my gardens yet.

Sadly, there are lots of plants that look like this when they are young, but at least Milkweed is among them. After years of frustration, is this the spring when Mother Nature took pity on me?

I vote “yes,” although my vote means nothing. We shall see. At least I know that the store-bought variety of Milkweed has appeared this week, and that makes it a good week in the gardens.

clematis

A second Clematis–with dramatically large flowers–bloomed this week.

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden

Update on Project Milkweed


b03

Common milkweed seeds, gathered from a ditch in Ames Iowa next to the apartment building where my son lives there. I separated these out Friday and also planted them.

I haven’t coordinated a planting effort on the Mount Mercy campus, so I’m not sure there will be many milkweed planted there this year—although I do have an envelope of seeds saved, and may inquire about at least planting those in a few established garden spots.

The final three workdays of this week were fall break at Mount Mercy, and they flew by. On Friday, we invited four grandchildren over for a sleepover party—they spent all day Friday with us and will go home midday Saturday.

I want to describe part of our Friday—but first, a minor word of caution. This post will end with some fall photos, and my cohort in crime for the garden milkweed planting did point out an arachnid, which I did photograph. So the very end of the post is not spider safe. If you are averse to spiders, go ahead and read the post, just don’t scroll to the end of the photos.

Our busy grandchildren day included trip to Half-Price Books followed by Thomas Park, lunch at McDonald’s and them home to pack up bicycles, which we took down to Cedar Lake for a ride (it was warming by then, I’m happy to say). After that, some of the grandkids walked up to HyVee Drugstore with grandma to get bread sticks to go with pasta for supper, while I stayed home with the others.

Amelia, a 5-year-old granddaughter, wanted to help me plant after she saw me separating out milkweed seeds from the bag Audrey and I had collected near our son’s apartment in Ames, Iowa.

b02

Amelia, ready to plant seeds.

I had two sets of milkweed to plant—an envelope with a generous supply of seeds (I kept a second one for possible MMU use) and a bowl of all the white fluff and leftover pods, which also had many seeds left in it.

b04

“Extra” seeds and pods. I did not try to be very efficient gathering seeds–I knew I was going to scatter all the rest behind my fence anyway, in the hope that Mother Nature’s way of planting milkweed will yield some results.

First stop was the woods behind our fence, where I scattered the “extra” seeds and pods, mostly at the edge of the tree line, hoping that sunny spot will promote milkweed growth.

b05

Seeds in the air, edge of the woods behind my house.

After that, Amelia brought the seed envelop down to me so we could plant in the gardens. But when I opened the envelope, only about 1/3 of the seeds where there.

Amelia looked a little sad. “Some of them blew out,” she said. I interpreted that to mean she spilled some, because the seeds in the envelope didn’t have their white silky wind catchers attached, and it wasn’t especially windy.

No matter—1/3 of the seeds was still quite a few, and in the back of my mind was the thought that I did not have to save my second envelope. So, we planted—basically we used a trowel to scape soil in several small areas, scattered some seeds there, and then covered them with a very thin layer.

Milkweed seeds don’t go deep into the soil, and are best planted in fall. The seeds want to overwinter before germinating, or so I’ve read on the internet. Honestly, I’m not the person to consult on this—although I’ve tried for several years to get milkweed going, I don’t have much success.

Anyway, after we got done I didn’t bother to get the second envelope right away. Instead, Amelia and her brother and I simply enjoyed the later afternoon in the backyard, playing various games. When it was starting to cool and I thought it was going to be time to go in soon, I have them the usual 5-minute warning.

Amelia went off by herself and sat on some stone steps that lead from the upper to lower yard. “Grandpa,” she called. “Come here!”

I ambled over, and asked what she wanted. “This is where the seeds spilled,” she said. I moved some leaves on the steps—and sure enough, hundreds of milkweed seeds were just laying on the steps.

So I swept them into my hand and we did planting, round two. And I didn’t feel the need anymore to break into my second envelop. Maybe a small-scale planting at MMU can still happen this fall.

To finish the story, here are some random fall photos taken while Amelia and I were planting, with the caveat that this is where the spider sensitive need to leave this web page:

b01

Fall mum in bloom in garden (and Amelia and I planted some milkweed next to it).

b07

Vine creeping over fence is turning colors (above). Oaks (below) starting to look like fall (maples and tulip tree don’t have the memo yet, crab apples are taking on fall hues).

b08

b06

“There is a big spider,” Amelia said. I looked, and sure enough, right on the gate handle, this big spider was sitting. The board it is on is the one I just slid to lock the gate. I was a bit startled at first–but it’s kind of a pretty looking hunter. And I always figure spiders outdoors are good news–anything that eats mosquitoes and flies is welcome in my gardens!

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Mount Mercy

Hoping Monticello & MMU Learn to Love Milkweed


b01

Swallow-tail butterfly on shore of Cedar Lake.

When they sell a variety of Milkweed at a flower shop, they rename it “Butterfly Flower.” It’s a better name for PR than a plant name that has “weed” in it.

But Milkweed is not really a weed, in that a weed is an unattractive, unwanted plant. Milkweed is a very tall, robust native flower, pretty when it’s blooming, and very much wanted because it’s the only kind of plant the Monarch butterfly will lay eggs on.

I read in The Gazette this morning, in an article by our excellent local environmental writer Orlan Love, that the city of Monticello is sending warning letters to a resident due to the Milkweed plants on his property.

I made me think again of a project I would like to get started at Mount Mercy University where I teach. The U planted a community vegetable patch this summer. Why not an MMU butterfly garden? It would feature Milkweed, but also other plants that benefit pollinators.

MMU already has plenty of Coneflowers, which Monarchs love, but no place for baby Monarchs. Maybe the planters near Basile Hall would be a good spot?

Anyway, I need to find a group at MMU that’s interested in such an idea—possibly the Bike Club or Science Club or an alliance of the Bike and Science clubs? What do you think, MMUers?

Anyway, the Gazette story made me a bit sad. My heart is with you Michael Felton. May Monticello wake up and smell the nectar. Cities need to encourage Milkweed planting, not demand its removal. Just say “Butterfly Flower.” It sounds nicer, and is pretty accurate.

This afternoon, on my way home, I bicycled down to Cedar Lake. I was in the mood to see a Monarch butterfly, and knew from previous rides that the lake is a local hot spot for the orange flyer. There is a fair amount of Milkweed on the lake shore, and all I can say is, hooray for Milkweed.

I didn’t find what I was looking for. A pretty Goldfinch darted ahead of me on the trail, way too fast for me to unlimber my point-and-shoot camera. On the lake, a large white egret was looking quite fetching. And I did take some pictures of a pretty butterfly by the lake–a Swallowtail.

b02

Egret or heron on Cedar Lake.

I didn’t feel too bad about my failure. Despite the muggy heat, it felt good just to waste some time by the pretty waters. So I turned my bike north to pedal home, but just after I had crossed the bridge at the north end of the lake, I noticed flashes of orange in some white flowers west of the trail.

Yup. Monarchs. Not one, but several were flitting about—and not just Monarchs, either, as some pictures I took are clearly of Viceroy butterflies.

b03

A Monarch, above, and Viceroy, below, on same clump of flowers on trail north of Cedar Lake. Viceroys are smaller (despite the appearance, the insect below is only about 2/3 size of one above) and feature a dividing line on hind wing that Monarchs lack. Species didn’t seem to mind hanging together this afternoon.

b04

Well, cool. Monarchs are not as common as they once were, which is why Monticello’s war on Milkweed is misguided. I was glad to see some near Cedar Lake. More of my photos are on this Facebook gallery.

So this fall, I am going to try again to sew some native Milkweed seeds in my gardens. You don’t plant Milkweed in spring like many other flowers, because the seeds have to experience winter cold before they will sprout.

I doubt the city of Cedar Rapids will object if I succeed and get some plants going next year. And maybe I can be part of getting some Milkweed planted at MMU, too?

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden

The Summer I Planted Milkweed


milkweedbombs

Milkweed “bombs” on my bike during RAGBRAI–each contains about 3 seeds of various Milkweed varieties in clay for bikers to toss in Iowa ditches. Yes, I thought of saving a few, but they were meant to be distributed along our RAGBRAI route, so that is what I did.

Well, that title is a little deceiving—I’ve planted milkweed for several summers in a row, but with no success.

First, I saved some seeds from wild plants at a daughter’s house, and sewed those in the spring. Then, I read more about milkweed, and realized the seed have to overwinter in order to germinate, so last fall, I planted the seeds I gathered right away to let them experience the Iowa winter as they ought to experience it.

But, no—I have seen some evidence that a seed I spread maybe sprouted in the woods behind my house, although, to be fair, one may have just blown there, too. In my gardens, there are lots of weeds that take root, but none of them tasty to Monarch butterflies.

This year, a professor at Mount Mercy gave me a plant from her garden, which I put in my garden and watered for weeks. After a month or so, it had not grown but also not faded, and I was starting to think “success,” when one morning, it was dead.

Milkweed is like that, gardeners.

Noelridge Park greenhouses have a Mother’s Day open house, and they gave out free Milkweed plants. I got one, as did numerous grandchildren, and I planted those. They are doing fine, but are also only annual plants—the greenhouse did not give out perennial Milkweed.

I transplanted some Milkweed from my daughter’s yard—four plants. Two did the “I will hold on for weeks and suddenly die” trick, but two have actually not just stayed alive, but have also grown. I don’t want to jinx it, but of the five native Milkweed plants I put in the ground this year, it’s possible two might survive.

And I bought “butterfly flower” plants, a type of Milkweed, both at HyVee Drug Store and a local flower shop. I went a little overboard, I suppose. There are at least four plants in back and four more in front—so eight store-purchased plants. None of those have died, but some have not yet grown and may yet be in the “failure to thrive” category.

But about half have grown—one has even bloomed.

milkweed1

Perennial Milkweed in front of house, above, in bloom. Annual Milkweed (below) getting ready to bloom.

milkweed2

I won’t know the results until spring, when I see what comes back, but I do finally seem to have Milkweed in my garden. Even with all of the other plants I purchased and put in and failed to hear from—where are you, other colors of Coneflower or any Toad Lilies at all?—that would make 2016 a good year in my gardens.

In past years, I have seen Monarchs in my garden enjoying the Coneflowers. None so far this year—but if the Monarchs ever return, I am hoping they also have plants to lay eggs on.

Now, if I can just persuade the Mount Mercy University Bike Club and the powers-that-be on the facilities staff—maybe I can get a Milkweed-butterfly garden going at MMU …

bee

Bee on a Coneflower in my garden a few days ago. Sadly, I have not seen any Monarch butterflies visiting them this summer, but this kind of flower is one that they like. They can’t lay their eggs on it, though–for baby Monarch butterflies, you need Milkweed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden

The Importance of Surprise Flowers


milkweed2

Milkweed growing in my garden. Sadly, it’s tropical milkweed–an annual plant, not a perennial. Still, it is milkweed.

I’ve had a rough week–it seems like homework in all the classes I teach got together and beat me up all at once. Each day I ask myself the question: “What did you grade today?” The answer is never enough.

Well, I know that in a bit over a week, the busiest time of my year will come to it’s inevitable end, and I look forward to breathing free again.

In the meantime, one reason I like gardening–it directs one’s attention to seasons, to ups and downs, to what might come next, to possibilities.

I noticed this pretty little flower growing in a crack in the pavement by the building my office is in. I am sure it wasn’t planted there, but it’s cheery to see.

flower

Pretty little wild flower coming up in the crack between the parking lot and building at Warde Hall, MMU.

And when I got to work, an English professor came to my office to kindly give me a young Milkweed plant.

I planted some annual milkweed on Mother’s Day because they were giving it away at the Noelridge Park city greenhouse. But this is the real deal–Iowa native perennial Milkweed. If it survives transplanting, there is hope it may support generations of future Monarch Butterfly caterpillars.

No guarantees–that’s the other lesson of gardening. Just because you plant it doesn’t mean it will thrive and live, and while I’m doing my bit to try to help, there’s no guarantee of future Monarch generations, either.

Still, there is hope. And that’s a lot.

milkweed1

Thank you, Professor Carol Tyx! From her garden down south–Milkweed! Not sure how I will get it home–I ride a bicycle to work–but I’ll get it there somehow.

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Mount Mercy

Milkweed Dreams as Fall Turns Brown


Milkweed seeds in a small metal pail. Planted these in several spots in my gardens.

Milkweed seeds in a small metal pail. Planted these in several spots in my gardens.

A few trees are clinging to their leaves—one of my maples, a small one, still has most of its dying foliage despite high winds this week, and the pear trees retain their leaves until winter. But, for the most part, we’re in the post pretty, brown part of autumn.

As I already noted, I’ve planted a number of bulbs, so I have special reasons to look forward to when the weather again turns sunny and warm in 2016.

And another thing—while out on a bike ride a couple of weeks ago, I noticed some seeds spilling out of drying pods on a milkweed plant that had poked its way through some evergreen landscaping at the edge of a parking lot I was passing by.

So I took some pods and put them in an envelope in my garage.

Last weekend, I took the pods inside and took some seeds off of the fluff. Not all of them, as you can see—I did not find an easy way to get the seeds. But I got a fair number.

The "fluff." In water so it would not blow away in my house. I also put this on the ground, but in the wild behind my fence.

The “fluff.” In water so it would not blow away in my house. I also put this on the ground, but in the wild behind my fence.

The seeds were planted in my gardens. You either have to go through a special damping—refrigeration process with milkweed seeds, or plant them in the fall. They need the winter cold to germinate in spring.

Or so the internet tells me. I can’t really say for certain, because I’ve planted milkweed in the past with no results to show.

Well I’m trying again, darn it. I put the seeds in the gardens, and then scattered the fluff (which had lots of seeds still in it) behind my back fence.

I hope some of the seeds take root. It would be nice if the spring plans include not just tulips and daffodils, but also some Monarch Butterfly chow!

I also raked. I think my yard needed it.

I also raked. I think my yard needed it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Weather

What I Planted for Moms and Dads


We biked over to our daughter's house. And I've just loaded my front basket for the ride back.

We biked over to our daughter’s house. And I’ve just loaded my front basket for the ride back.

One of those seismic transitions in life—when the world seems suddenly to be a different place—is when your daughters become mothers.

It’s a happier transition then when your parents and their generation pass along, and suddenly, despite still feeling inside like a barely adult person, you realize you’re among the “elders.” But, I have found the role of “grandpa” to be very satisfying—most of the rewards of loving contact with young kids, less of the stress.

Or, as I like to say, “sugar them up and send them home.” You can quote me on that.

Anyway, so today is another Mother’s Day. To my daughters and beautiful wife, to mothers who are and are to be, to my mother in the great beyond—it’s a day to celebrate you, to celebrate the gift of life and love that you have passed on to the world.

So is seems like a great weekend to plant things.

Due to the harsh winter of 2014, we had three trees that died in our yard. Two of them struggled for life last year, so we waited until this spring to use Dr. McCoy’s Star Trek language on these trees, to paraphrase: “They’re dead, Jim.”

So the day before Mother’s Day, we went tree shopping. Given the cost of what we ended up finding, I suggested the trees were also for Father’s Day. Anyway, I was lobbying for one crab apple, because one crab apple died in a garden in a perfect “crab apple” spot. We’re not shy on this kind of tree—we have seven other crab apple trees—but Audrey agreed. Our other rule is that we wanted “something different.” A cherry tree and a red bud had died—but we have a weeping cherry and three living red buds, so our main shopping was for “other.”

We went to a local greenhouse and a local home supply chain store. We ended up with a bush and a tree from the greenhouse and two other trees from the chain store.

All in all, on this weekend of life celebration, this is what I dug holes for in my yard and gardens:

  • A pretty pink-purple Asian lily, a gift from two of our mom daughters to their mother.
  • Butterfly bush.

    Butterfly bush.

    A butterfly bush. In our climate, sometimes butterfly bush roots make it through winter, sometimes not. Since the butterfly bush blooms in its first year, it’s worth planting again when one dies out, and one in our garden had died.

  • Four milkweed plants. We went to a daughter’s house in Marion for a day-before-Mother’s Day party, and I noted the plants growing in her back garden and backyard. She has active young kids, and although you do want to plant as much milkweed as you can (save the Monarch Butterfly), you don’t want to plant this pretty native flower where young kids roam. The butterflies lay their eggs on it because its volatile sap makes them bad food—while the sticky white sap doesn’t usually do much to human skin, if a kid gets said sap on his or her finger and touches his or her face, apparently the results can be dramatically bad (some potential for great pain and possible temporary blindness). So I dug out the plants and planted them in out-of-the-play-path areas of my garden. There, they will probably die—milkweed notoriously do not transplant well due to their deep roots. But we’ll see if I was lucky enough to get enough root fragments on any of these plants.
  • And the three trees: A ginkgo, a magnolia and a crab apple. Ginkgo is clearly new to our yard, and should give us pretty foliage in the fall. We do already have a magnolia bush, but the new magnolia we planted is a species that should grow in a more tree-like pattern and is also a different color (lemon yellow) than our existing pink bush. The crab apple, while seriously redundant, is a pretty pink color we don’t have, and is a weeping tree, which again makes it a bit different.

Right now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, crab apples are well past their prime. Our two shy apple trees are again not blooming—maybe next year. Lilacs are still going strong—the first wave has bloomed and passed, but the smaller, dwarf pink varieties are just budding out. Early peonies are in full flower, traditional varieties are just starting to bloom.

And bluebells! Many new ones planted last year bloomed this spring in my gardens.

And bluebells! Many new ones planted last year bloomed this spring in my gardens.

It’s going to rain today, but nonetheless has been a pretty late spring day, with nice flowers to recognize moms with.

On this Mother’s Day, best wishes to all you moms out there, in my family and in anybody else’s. May our shared scary experience of procreation bring us more joy than pain, may we pass on a love of God’s earth and its flowers, trees and butterflies to a new generation, and may all of you enjoy this day and every day.

But most especially, to my wife and daughters: Audrey and I know that, although children grow and become their own people, you never stop being a worried parent. And it’s a lesson that now the next generation is getting engaged in.

And so life goes on. It’s messy, but it’s also beautiful thing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized