Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming.

We placed the milkweed next to a drift of Joe-Pye weed and sat back to see what would happen.

Things aren’t looking up for the monarch butterfly

With a wing-span of over 4 inches, monarch butterflies are considered by many to be the ‘king’ of butterflies. According to the National Wildlife Federation, however, their populations in North America are in steep decline. Over the past twenty years, monarch numbers have plummeted by an astonishing 90 percent, prompting scientists to question what’s happening. They suspect the answer is tied up with milkweed.

Close-up of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Why milkweed you might ask? Because milkweed is the host plant for monarchs whose caterpillars will only eat plants in the family. And unfortunately, it has been disappearing, too. Over the last couple decades, large-scale clearing of meadows and prairies for development coupled with heavy pesticide use has resulted in milkweed becoming increasingly scarce, placing in jeopardy the tiny species that depends on it for survival.

The problem is so big that according to one National Public Radio (npr) report, monarch populations overwintering in Mexico that averaged around nine hectares from 1995 to 2002, in 2014 took up less than one.*

A migratory insect

Every spring, thousands of Eastern monarchs begin their annual migration from Mexico to Canada, a journey of roughly 3,000 miles. And every fall, they do the same trip in reverse. The insects stop three times to breed along the way, each time going through four stages of development: egg, larvae (caterpillar), chrysalis and butterfly.

Once they emerge from their chrysalises, the butterflies live for just four to eight weeks, long enough to fly hundreds of miles further north to lay their eggs. Then the stages of development are repeated and the next generation of butterflies continues the journey.

Millions of monarch butterflies flying in Mexico

In all, it takes three generations of butterflies to make it to Canada.

Incredibly, the fourth generation butterfly (born in Canada) lives a bit longer. This is the monarch that migrates back to warmer climates like Mexico. This butterfly lives for six to eight months, long enough for it to start the whole process over again in the spring. (To read more about the monarch butterfly cycle, click here.

Monarchs and milkweeds

The milkweed family, Asclepias, owes its common name to the milky latex that oozes when a stem is snapped. It is composed of more than 100 varieties. Tall and leafy, it bears large balls of vanilla-scented mauve-pink flowers and is commonly found growing in large groups along roadsides, ponds, stream beds and even ditches.

In the fall, the plant’s follicles split open to disperse fluffy white seeds that are carried away by the wind.

Milkweed pod and air-borne seeds

Starting in March, monarch butterflies emerge from their hibernation to find a mate and begin the journey north to find milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. It takes about 4 days for the eggs to hatch. Once the baby caterpillars emerge, they spend about two weeks eating as many of the plants’ leaves as they can until fully grown. Then they find a place to attach themselves to a stem and begin the process of metamorphosis.

It can take an additional two weeks for the adult butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis.

Monarch caterpillar chrysalis

Aside from habitat and nutrition, the milkweed provides another key benefit to the monarch. As the caterpillars undergo transformation in chrysalis, they ingest toxic chemicals secreted in the plants’ sticky sap. These chemicals, called cardenolides, provide them with a defense against would-be predators such as birds and mice.

Monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed

Specifically, cardenolides are so toxic and bitter tasting to other vertebrate species that many have learned to associate bad taste with the butterflies’ distinctive orange and black markings. Although as adults, monarchs no longer eat milkweed, they are able to sequester the toxins that they ingested as larvae, providing them with protection against many predators during the remainder of their lifespan.

Monarchs’ distinctive colors help ward of predators

Monarch butterflies only lay one egg per leaf, but they lay eggs on lots of leaves and always on more than one plant. They are mini eating machines. Three days after the milkweed arrived to the fair, the caterpillars had devoured the plant they rode in on and in their place hung rows of tiny chrysalises.

Milkweed varieties for your garden

Nowadays there are a number of milkweed and butterfly weed varieties that have been developed specifically for the garden. Available in different colors and flower forms, they add a natural beauty to the garden. Planting a few cultivars will help save the monarchs, too.

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Ready to save the monarchs with milkweed? Here are some great new varieties to try, available at many local nurseries.

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bright orange beauty blooms from May to September. It won Perennial of the Year 2017 for its brilliant flowers, hardy, upright stems and good drought-tolerance. It looks great combined with yellow daylilies or fresh white daisies. And, it especially shines against purple-leaved plants like smoke bush.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Orange not your thing? Then try ‘Hello Yellow’, available through White Flower Farm.

Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’

Or try a hot-color mix of yellow, gold, orange and scarlet, Asclepias tuberosa ‘Gay Butterflies’ available at White Flower Farm.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mixture

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Similar in shape to roadside milkweed, Swamp milkweed ‘Cinderella’s’ deep pink flowers with white centers make it a standout in the garden. And its vanilla-scented flowers are a treat for the senses. Growing 3′ to 4′ tall, it blooms all summer with regular deadheading.

Swamp milkweed ‘Cinderella’ available at Perennials.com

Milkweed generally blooms from June to August. All varieties need full sun and well-drained soil. If you observe caterpillars or chrysalises on your plant, wait until the butterflies have flown away, then simply cut the plant to the ground.

* Monarch populations are measured in hectares, which roughly equal 2 1/2 acres.

 

Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time, in a clear demonstration of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices. Continue reading

Five Reasons Your Trees Are Failing: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading

Bees, Wasps and Hornets: Here’s How To Tell The Difference

Four common bees and wasps

What’s the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? This is a question I tend to ask myself, especially when surrounded by swarms of buzzing yellow jackets while eating outside. I, for one, know from experience that fuzzy honeybees can make excellent garden companions. But, what’s up with their pesky yellow and black striped brethren? Do they have any purpose? They only seem interested in stinging me. Continue reading

Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN

Lack of water is becoming an increasing concern both for human and plant life throughout the world. Now comes the news that scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer under drought conditions. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for that bottle of white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.

The Study

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study that showed huge promise for thirsty plants of the future. Researchers revealed that they had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in certain species that sprang into action in times of water stress. By studying the pathway and the chain of chemical reactions within it, the scientists made the surprising discovery that they could induce greater drought tolerance in certain plants simply by growing them in vinegar.

We all know vinegar’s miraculous properties for cleaning windows and removing stains from carpets, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 

The study began with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis (thale cress.) A relative of cabbage and mustard, this genus of small flowering plants was the first species to have its entire genome sequenced and is considered a model organism for studying plant biology. Arabidopsis is known for its strong drought tolerance due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6 (histone desacetylase6). This allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress

Initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, which is the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway is active. While normal plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, the Arabidopsis plants switch to the acetate-producing pathway.

To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, 70 percent of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living. And all of the other plants had died.

Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata

By measuring the amounts of acetate in the Arabidopsis, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate the plants produced and how well they performed under drought conditions. And even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and found that these species’ tolerance increased as well when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

The implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to genetic engineering. I’m not sure if it will help my hydrangeas battle another scorching Maryland summer, but I’ll let you know.

 

 

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden.

About Antoine Jacobsohn

So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from the United States, from New Jersey, to be exact. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles where in 2008 he became director of the vegetable and fruit gardens at the palace known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)

Jacobsohn’s garden is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. Noting the “urban desert” that surrounds it, he finds this worrisome for the future as city dwellers have increasingly less access to food. He believes we need to rethink how we shape our gardens by putting more emphasis on incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.

“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.

In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are focusing on innovation and experimentation, all while respecting the time-honored techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.

About the King’s Kitchen Garden

The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project. His task? To take a swamp on the property and turn it into a working garden.

Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie

To accomplish this, Quintinie drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he then enriched with horse manure from the King’s stables. Versailles’ architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart created the layout for the garden. The formal plan called for 29 terraced garden squares arranged around a central fountain.

Original plan for le Potager du Roi

La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.

In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees and today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.

The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.

Today’s garden is rooted in discovery

‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)

From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.

Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?

To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.

The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden

Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.

“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”

Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française

Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.

Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française

Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.

For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.

“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”

Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.

 

Trade In Your Lawn For A Low-Maintenance Meadow Garden

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A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work

These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The suburban meadow offers a beautiful solution to this problem. Continue reading

5 Ways You Can Honor Our Planet on Earth Day

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It’s been a while now since Earth Day first made its debut on April 22, 1970. I vaguely remember the strangeness of being let out of school early to pick up trash in the nearby woods. The idea seemed entirely foreign to us at the time, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our garbage on the ground. Hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading

Now There’s Proof: Bumblebees Make Bigger Plants

Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better. Continue reading

Is the Self-Healing House the Garden of the Future?

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Image via Edwin Indira Waskita

There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading