Honeyvine, Milkweed and Monarchs

honeyvine-and-monarch

I pull bindweed with a vengeance. I don’t attempt to get the roots because I know it will be in vain. The roots can go 20 feet down or more. With mosquitoes massacring me, I crouch in crazy, awkward positions under an elderberry to pull one vine. But the other day I noticed a monarch landing on one of these vines. The next day I saw another land on the same vine. I inspected it more closely and realized it had clusters of tiny white flowers, like so many other insect attracting weeds in my garden. The other similar vine that also likes my garden is hedge bindweed but it has large, white, morning glory like flowers.

honeyvine-moth
Silver-spotted Skipper on honeyvine flowers

After doing some research, I found out the plant with the tiny white flowers is known as honeyvine or sand vine. It’s in the milkweed family which would explain why the monarch was landing on it. It is also, like common milkweed, considered a noxious weed  due to its aggressive attributes and toxicity if ingested by farm animals.

As one thing leads to another, which happens so often in gardening, my discovery of honeyvine led me to wondering about monarchs. I knew their numbers were down (by around 80%) and I wanted to know if this honeyvine might help them. As if my one little, opportunistic vine could actually help the monarch plight. Well, it turns out, as with so much these days, the monarch plight is indeed grim and very complicated. The monarch has evolved to lead a very finicky life. It not only relies on plants in the milkweed family to lay its eggs but its life cycle or cycles seem to include one trip to one tiny spot in Mexico before returning north in the spring to lay eggs on milkweed again. After reading about ten articles on the subject, I confess, still being completely confused. If interested in the life cycle of monarchs, monarch-butterfly.com explains it much better than I can.

Anyhow, monarchs also rely on milkweed for nectar which it needs throughout the season and is especially important during its migration period. It can drink nectar from other flowers besides milkweed but milkweed flowers seems to be the preference. So, as the prairies have turned into crop lands and pesticides have been effective at killing milkweed, the pesky plant is not so pesky, or much less abundant at least, for now. And there is also something going on in Mexico. I’m not really sure of the details but it involves destruction of trees in the one tiny spot where the monarchs congregate during winter. Simply put, it’s very bad for monarchs. Ellen Sharp, an environmental non-profit director living at the entry of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve wrote a good article describing how bad it is.

The real reason I wanted to know all this was because I was wondering how long during a season do monarchs rely on milkweed. Is it just spring, or is it all summer and fall? Honeyvine milkweed as well as common milkweed can look a bit on the “wild” side. Common milkweed also begins to look unsightly as it awkwardly pops up in strange areas like the middle of the front walk. If you want to grow common milkweed, one plant is all it takes for a colony to create itself. When it dies, it turns an ugly yellow color and often flops over. So, do I need to keep all this unsightly stuff around all season and everywhere?

In my last post, I mentioned my excitement at witnessing a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant. That was September so I’m guessing it probably is best to leave the milkweed alone as much as I can stand it and as ugly as it is. Common milkweed doesn’t look too bad when it’s mixed with other plants and grasses. I place whatever milkweed I have to cut in an inconspicuous spot in my garden and don’t throw it in the trash. I mow over anything coming up in a path or lawn before it can grow. Honeyvine doesn’t grow all that fast and I’ll let a few vines grow. I’ll throw out any seed pods so it doesn’t get out of control. Also, there are many other varieties of less aggressive milkweed available, the most popular being butterfly weed and swamp milkweed.

Maybe my garden isn’t the most tidy place. I hope no one minds if a few awkward looking plants stick out, look ugly or flop across borders. More and more, gardening for me is not so much about beauty or maybe I just need to look closer to see it. After all, what could be more beautiful than a monarch?

White Snakeroot

white snake root

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

I stand corrected. White snakeroot surpasses the Grape as the ultimate double edged sword of plants. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, it killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother and about half of the population of early settlers in the U.S. who died from drinking milk from cows who ate this toxic plant. I guess there’s plenty good reason to call this plant a weed. But since I don’t have cows or children, I consider it an asset. When I first noticed the seedling of this plant I thought it might be a coneflower or something of the sort, so I let it grow. By the end of the summer it became a thick, five foot wall, completely blocking my view of the neighbors driveway. The air above this wall shimmered with bees, hundreds of them, going for the tiny white flowers. This plant transfers its toxins to tiger moth caterpillars, who eat it and become not so delectable to predators. Now, when I find a seedling, I let it grow into a great wall of life.

young white snakeroot
Young white snakeroot plant

Grape

summer grape

Grape (Vitis)

I have such fond memories of grape, or grapevine, as I always knew it. As a kid, I used to swing from a thick old vine off a forested hillside. My parents diligently spent entire summers cutting the base of these vines to save young trees. I was never quite sure if I liked the sweet Muscadine grapes my Grandfather and Aunts grew but now when I eat them they the take me back to long summer days, running around barefoot without a care in the world.

Grape can be aggressive but in a mature forest it is much less intimidating. I’m not sure how the thick old vines find their way up these old trees but somehow they manage, loosely wrapping themselves around branches in a harmonious way. In a young forest or field they will overtake trees and shrubs, eventually killing them. Since mature forests are rare these days, the wild grape has gotten a bad rap as an aggressive tree killer.

I had to rewrite this post after realizing I’m not sure what kind of grape or grapes are growing in my garden. It turns out there are many varieties native to my area as well as an invasive known as the Porcelain-berry. Identifying them is tricky enough without adding an invasive grape from Asia to the mix. This site about plants native to Georgia and the Carolinas has some excellent images and info to help with identification. The Delaware Department of Agriculture has an excellent source for deciphering invasives from natives in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region.

It never really occurred to me that this intimidating plant might have other values besides recreation. Who would have thought Concord grape, the one used to make jelly and juice, is derived from the native Fox grape.

Native grapes are a critical food source for many birds and animals. In my own garden, as I write this, what must be thousands of pollinators are swarming around a mound of this vine. They must be attracted to the tiny white flowers, so delicate for such an obtrusive plant. Nevertheless, the Grape should win first prize as the ultimate double edged sword of plants.

Violet

violets

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) or Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata)

I’m not sure just when I discovered the value of this plant but somewhere along the line it went from most annoying to one of my most valuable assets. Let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to join forces than fight it. Violets love my garden. I used to work up quite a sweat trying to unearth their bulbous roots from my vegetable beds but once I discovered their value, I started doing a lot less weeding. It turned out that if I allied myself with these plants, they did most of the weeding for me, competing with tough weeds like ground ivy and bermudagrass.

Violets distract foragers like deer and rabbits who prefer them to my vegetables. They provide the first pretty blue flowers of spring and protect and build the soil. They are basically indestructible, edible and highly valuable to insects, birds, rabbits, deer and squirrels.

The opportunistic violet spreads by underground rhizomes and seed. It spreads its seeds in several creative ways. One is through flowers that grow close to the ground but never fully open. These flowers shoot seeds out like a cannon. Another way is by ants who find the seed coating delicious. After eating the coating they plant the seed.

I sure am glad I joined forces with the violet. Without it, I and many others would be in a bad way.

A few notes about violets. They transplant well. I’ve found the best way to dig them up is with a garden fork when the soil is moist. To learn more about violets the PennState Extension has some good information on this undervalued plant.

White Avens

 

There’s a lot of information out there about native plants, like why they are important, how to select them, how to grow them and where to buy them but I never find much or really anything about native plants that come up on their own, naturally. That is without help from humans. I did hear it mentioned somewhere but I thought, “nah, that can’t be possible.” I guess I was thinking about the more showy ones like wild bergamot, false indigo or butterfly weed. Like that would ever happen. Really.

The first time it actually occurred that it might be possible was when I noticed a unique plant, one that wasn’t like all the weeds I’d come to know. It came up on the side of a drainage ditch I’d made and it really wasn’t anything that special. I’m not even sure what made me notice it in the first place. After doing some research, I concluded it was a native shrub called ninebark but the next year it didn’t seem to be growing into a shrub. With so much more to do, I gave up trying to identify it but it was a turning point for me. I think it was the point I began stand back and watch instead of always just doing. It was a realization that nature could and should play a role in the development of my garden. And I could kind of help it along.

As the years went by I began to notice other unique plants. I allowed them to grow, identifying them when I got around to it. Now there are many native plants in my garden. Or at least I’m pretty sure they’re native. Plants that were planted by birds or animals or the wind. I feel like they are the plants that belong most in my garden. They may not be the most exotic or rare things. Some of them are stately, others may be considered weeds, but they are all tough, ecologically useful plants.

In the coming posts, categorized as What Comes Up, I’ll talk about these plants and what makes them special. As it turns out, I finally identified that plant that opened my eyes. It was white avens and that’s where I’ll start.

White Avens (Geum canadense)

After spending too much time searching the internet for this plant, I finally sent a few pictures to my local gardening extension and I had my answer within days. This is an interesting plant. It starts growing in winter with a bouquet of pretty leaves that spread out very close to the ground called basal leaves. In spring, a new set of bright green leaves grow on stems. Then come these tiny white flowers in late spring and finally, little burs by late summer. The Arkansas Native Plant Society has some great pictures and information about this plant. Bees, wasps, flies and aphids enjoy its flowers. I enjoy just knowing what it is.

white avens

 

Bringing Nature Home

preying mantis4-bw

I’m back. Since I’ve been not writing I’ve learned a heck of a lot, been confused even more but one thing’s for certain, I’m absolutely obsessed with this gardening thing or landscape conservation or urban farming or whatever it is I do while I’m puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis.

One thing I have done was read Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. I’m not sure what made it great but it was great. Was it a simplified version of ecology? His warm, down to earth tone? Was it the fact that he’s an actual scientist with a PhD? Or was it a story about his neighbor and the beaver? Whatever it was, somehow it changed my view of the world and gave me a new hope that maybe, just maybe humanity can not just survive but realize and live as a piece of the puzzle instead of as maker of the puzzle and ruler of all its pieces. Not sure I got that metaphor exactly right but I think you get the idea.

It also gave me the feeling that what I do with my garden is important. Like it’s not just about puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis. For once, it seems that maybe instead of making a negative environmental footprint, I might be doing something good. According to Tallamy, native plants are not only good but they are a crucial link to the survival of many species including possibly, ourselves.

Tallamy is not even a plant scientist. His specialty is bugs. He began his discovery in his own backyard in Pennsylvania when he discovered certain plants weren’t touched by insects yet other plants were. Then he realized the plants that weren’t getting eaten were from other places like Asia. Upon further study he realized certain insects picked certain native plants and certain birds ate those certain insects. It’s from these realizations that made him think maybe there’s something to the term, coevolution. Species that evolve together over millions of years may form complex relationships.

But the key to the issue here is my use of the word “certain” insects. “Plants from other places” are often called exotics or aliens or if really bad, invasives. It’s not that an exotic plant can’t be useful to some insects or animals, it just may not be useful to animals Tallamy calls specialized animals, or those animals that have come to be directly or indirectly dependent over millions of years on one particular species of plant. Monarchs, for example, will only lay eggs on the milkweed species and pandas rely almost entirely on bamboo for food. Due to things such as western colonization, the industrial age and human population explosion, vast amounts of landscape have been dramatically changed and mass populations of native plants have been either destroyed or drastically moved around due to human love of the exotic. In other words, these days, plants that evolved in one place for millions of years are either gone or somewhere far, far away.

While somewhat of a simple concept it gets cloudy real fast in the horticultural and gardening community. For one thing, there’s no way to really define what’s native and what’s not to a certain area. Nor is it easy to define how native a plant should be. For example, I live in Maryland and I buy seeds of plant species known to be native to my area but the seeds are harvested from plants in Minnesota. So does that make my plants true native plants? Then there was this question my husband had about how long does it take for a plant to become native to a certain area. There’s no answer for that other than to say that until that plant becomes a useful part to the ecological system of that area, it’s not a native. But what defines that? And I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to invasive species or cultivars. As I understand, invasive species include plants that have become a nuisance because not only are they not useful to an ecological system but they are thought to be harmful to that system. Cultivars are bred from natives to adapt to certain conditions and are often criticized for not being true natives and therefore not doing their native plant job of being useful.

So, the whole subject is about as confusing and complex as the many other environmental problems of the world and I find myself wondering what it is, exactly, I’m supposed to do. And that is most definitely a problem for a busy world who has about zero free time to analyze this issue let alone go out and make a pollinator garden. In other words, it’s hard for someone to do good when they can’t just run out to the local garden center, pick up some plants, put them in the ground and be done with it. Tallamy does his best to be diplomatic about his cause and I think that’s why his book succeeds. He understands the human need for order especially with community pressures to “fit in” as well as associations of landscaping with class. A well kept yard is often high priority. Especially a well kept lawn. Do what we can, seems to be his only demand. He drives home the possibility that native plants can be orderly and beautiful additions to the garden. He doesn’t pound the reader to eradicate exotic plants in their own yards, at least not all at once. He suggests replacing them with natives when they die. He also doesn’t condemn the lawn, saying there’s nothing wrong with a bit of it as long as there’s some room for natives. He doesn’t make the reader feel that if their plants aren’t the truest form of native they may as well get something from the farthest reaches of the planet.

Other questions he doesn’t address is how agriculture fits into the scheme or the practicality of growing native plants. I grow exotic vegetables. Is that bad? We probably can’t survive eating only native plants. Native plants aren’t easy to find and when they are they are often expensive or not really all that local. Growing from seed can be tricky and getting local seed is a whole other issue. But I think Tallamy’s point was to introduce readers to the simple concept that native plants are actually more important to the big picture than we may realize. They are in decline and if we have land we can do something about it. Lawns are lifeless areas. Adding even one native tree would be a huge improvement. He understands you can’t force this concept down people’s throats.

As for my own proof, I can only say that I have witnessed a major increase in biological diversity in my own yard since adding native plants, or as close to being native as I can manage. When I moved to this property six years ago it was a lawn surrounded by a border of tangled, exotic, invasive and native plants. There was life before, probably lots of it but that was most likely due to the tangled border, not the lawn. Since then I’ve added many native plants and now I’ve witnessed not just more life but what seems to be a system of life, more species than I can name, including some of the more specialized species such as warblers and monarchs. Is it because of the native plants or would any plant other than lawn due? Or, am I just noticing more? We may never know the complete truth of the matter but I’m willing to bet this is no accident and I’m also willing to bet it can’t hurt. For me, it’s proof enough. The more I notice, with all five senses, the intensity of life in my garden, the more I want to be a part of it in a useful way. And I realize how much I need it, not just for my own enjoyment but for the survival of my species.

And instead of spending so much time analyzing how to do it exactly right, maybe the native plant movement should focus more on just making it easier and more enticing for the average gardener to just do something. After all, how much worse can the situation get? Species are going extinct at an astounding rate. The climate is changing. The human population keeps growing and depending on fossil fuel. Most people I know can’t or don’t garden anyway. Maybe a cultivar or a few exotics are better than a lawn? Maybe invasive species will always be a problem. But does that mean native or close to native or even ecologically useful plants can’t be around too? Maybe we just need to work on doing the best we can with what we have? I think Tallamy understands this conflict within the gardening and scientific community and handles it well. After all, the scientists and movement leaders aren’t the ones with the big, lifeless lawns.

The way I see it, like humans, native plants are just pieces of a big puzzle or as Tallamy explains, like pieces from the game, Jenga. Except with native plants, the pieces are at the bottom. If you take them out the whole tower might collapse.