Milkweed Chronicles

Common Milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.

Colony of Milkweed
Showy Milkweed

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.

Showy Milkweed

My favorite Milkweed and the one that I consider the best suited for a perennial border is “Showy Milkweed”, or Aslepias speciosa.  This species is closely related to the Common milkweed,  A. syriaca, with which it sometimes hybridizes. Ultimately reaching about 2-3 feet high, the foliage is velvety and grey green and very “garden worthy”. Here is great information about this plant from the USDA: Showy Milkweed.

Showy Milkweed
A nice blooming clump of Showy Milkweed

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
  • Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Milkweed pods are positioned vertically

     

  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
  • The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
Milky sap exudes down the stem
  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
  • This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata
Common Milkweed in December

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Yellow butterfly Weed "Hello Yellow"
Yellow butterfly Weed “Hello Yellow”

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ther milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.

The pods of Hairy Balls or Balloon Plant are a conversation piece

Monarch caterpillars cover the Balloon Plant Milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.

Tropical Milkweed
Tropical Milkweed
Sign at nursery for Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed has a narrower leaf than common
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond

 

Plant Three Pollinator Plants for National Pollinator Week 2019

Twelve years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week”, marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

The NPGN’s Million Pollinator Garden Challenge registered over one million new pollinator gardens in just the last three years. They salute Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area for being a Top Pollinator City with 13,493 registered gardens. The NPGN is encouraging everyone to plant three new pollinator-friendly plants, one plant for each season to ensure a consistent food supply for pollinators.

To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has  regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.

Here are my three top picks that span the seasons:

Jeana Phlox

Possessing outstanding mildew resistance of shades of lavender-pink flower clusters, this native phlox is a star in my garden and always draws a lot of interest from visitors. Pollinators cluster around the heads constantly, providing a show for weeks in the mid-summer, and giving me lots of photography opportunities. Ranking at the top in ecological and horticultural trials, this plant should be in many more gardens.

Just listen to this rave review from Mt Cuba Center in Delaware who has trial gardens testing for usefulness, beauty, and pollinator visits.

“Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is, without a doubt, the best-performing phlox from the trial. This cultivar was discovered growing along the Harpeth River near Nashville, Tennessee and named after its discoverer, Jeana Prewitt. Although there were many plants of Phlox paniculata in the area, ‘Jeana’ in particular stood out for its exceptionally mildew-free foliage. This trait carries through to the garden and is one of the main reasons ‘Jeana’ performed so well in the trial. This 5′ tall beauty also produces an impressive floral display from mid-July through early September. Interestingly, the individual flowers, or pips, are much smaller than any other garden phlox. However, that does not deter the butterflies that feed on its nectar. In fact, we found ‘Jeana’ attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. With a top rank in both horticultural and ecological evaluations, Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is hard to beat.”

The trial gardens at Mt Cuba with ‘Jeana’ Phlox ready to bloom, photo courtesy of Mt Cuba

A taller flower topping out at 4′ to 5′, I love grouping these plants for a big show of flowers plus pollinators. Sometimes staking or some kind of support is necessary, like helpful supporting plants surrounding your clump. One of the only phlox paniculatas that I know tolerating deer browsing, it is a useful landscape plant for the perennial border. The lavender pink shade goes well with many other colors and the plant behaves and doesn’t spread aggressively.

Photo courtesy of Mt Cuba

Facts

Common Name: garden phlox
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Zone: 4 to 8
Height: 2 to 5 feet
Spread: 1.50 to 3.00 feet
Bloom Time: July to September
Bloom Description: Lavender-pink
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Attracts: Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Tolerate: Deer, Clay Soil, Black Walnut
Where to purchase ‘Jeana’ Phlox? At Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries, and more than likely, the plant will have an American Beauties hang tag identifying it as a native plant choice. For local people in Baltimore County, Maryland, go to Valley View Farms. You know you are making a good environmental choice for your garden.
American Beauties Native Plants is a great resource for home gardeners with a Native Plant Library on-line. Native perennials, grasses, vines, trees and shrubs which attract wildlife and pollinators especially are listed in an easy to use resource guide. Listed by common name or botanical name, you can scroll through the many possibilities available for planting. I find the Plant Search, where you can plug in your state and specify what kind of plant that you are looking for, is most useful to me. The web site even has landscape design plans using natives for every area  of the U.S. for sun or shade.
Red Bodied Swallowtail on ‘Jeana’ Phlox

 

Photo courtesy of Mt Cuba
Monarchs flock to ‘Jeana’ Phlox

Mountain Mint

Another top choice is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

 

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Bee Balm

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Attractive to both hummingbirds and bees as well as humans, Bee Balm is one of my favorites as an early summer bloomer and easy to grow perennial. Commonly known as Bee Balm or Monarda, Bee Balm is “balm” to all flying insects and enjoyed by humans in teas and potpourri. Each flower head rests on a whorl of showy, pinkish, leafy bracts. Flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies.

P1050591
‘Jacob Cline’ Monarda, a good tall variety

One of the 21 superstar pollinator plants that I designed my poster with, and available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop, Bee Balm is a pollinator superstar and always has many insect visitors on a sunny day.

Plant These For The Bees
Plant These For The Bees

Other common names include horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, the latter inspired by the fragrance of the leaves, which is reminiscent of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia). Bergamot orange is the flavor that gives the unique taste of Earl Grey tea.

A bee diving in!
A bee diving in!

From the roots, up to the flower, the entire plant has a spicy minty fragrance which quality repels deer and other browsing critters.

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Even rabbits shy away from Monarda

A valuable plant for landscaping because of this repellent attribute, Bee Balms now come in petite and dwarf sizes to fit into smaller gardens. Even though the entire dwarf plant is smaller, the flowers are the same size or larger than some of the taller varieties.

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Closeup of ‘Leading Lady Plum’

Although bee balm appears to have thin narrow petals, close up they are really little hollow tubes perfect for thin beaks like hummingbirds. “Leading Lady Plum’ has a scattering of dark plum spots on the tips of the petals, adding another color dimension to this standout variety.

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‘Leading Lady Plum’ Monarda next to ‘Heart Atttack’ Dianthus

The “flower quotient”, a term I use for the relative size of the flower to the size of the foliage, is greater than most flowers. When a Bee Balm blooms, it is stunning, unusual, and one that stops visitors in their tracks.

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Nymph Grasshopper hanging out on a Bee Balm Flower

The red variety is commonly known as Oswego Tea. Used by colonists in place of English tea after the Boston Tea Party, when they threw the English tea in the harbor to protest high taxes. Bee Balm continued for years as a medicinal and enjoyable tea and was frequently planted next to colonists homes for ease of gathering. To make your own tea, just air dry some leaves and steep them in hot water.

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Red Bee Balm or Monarda makes Oswego Tea

Coming in an array of colors and sizes, you can find a Bee Balm for any size garden now, some even fitting nicely into containers. Hybridizers have been busy with this plant and every time I go to the nursery, I see another small variety pop up. “Small” is the key word here; Most plants being developed now have a shorter stature and larger more colorful flowers to appeal to gardeners with limited space gardens or containers.

DSCN2013
‘Pardon My Pink’ Bee Balm

Because of the diminutive size of the new varieties, I tuck them in when I have a bare spot in the garden. Enjoying some shade in the afternoon in hot climates, these workhorses will bloom their little hearts out-usually lasting for 2 months or more if you dead head. The larger varieties can spread aggressively and should be controlled before they encroach and overtake other perennials.

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‘Balmy Pink’ Monarda fits in small spaces

Prone to downy mildew which can mottle the leaves, the newer varieties are more resistant to this disfiguring but not fatal disease.

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Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, isn’t as showy but still a great plant for pollinators
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An old-fashioned variety ‘Prairie Night’

Mexican Sunflower-Butterfly Favorite

If anyone ever asks me what flower draws the most butterflies to my garden, I don’t hesitate to say- Mexican Sunflower. Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’,  attracts beneficial insects such as hover flies and minute pirate bugs, and of course- butterflies. This coarse textured plant grows up to seven feet high in my veggie garden and meadow and is sure to draw all the butterflies around, especially Monarchs. Better than sunflowers which flowers for a short period, Tithonia bears dozens of flowers at a time and lasts all summer.

A battered skipper butterfly hanging on visits my Tithonia

If you are Monarch watching, you must plant at least one of these handsome plants. Hoards of monarchs will visit while it is blooming for at least 3 months solid.

Butterfly on tithonia

Easily grown from seed sown outside after frost stops, the plants shoot up quickly to tower over everything surrounding it, so I make sure to place a rebar stake next to it when it gets a few feet high. Rebar or another sturdy stake is needed as the plant can be quite heavy, laden with all those beautiful flowers. Loving heat and sun, be sure to plant them in full sun or just a little bit of shade,  or the plant will not bloom as well and will get rangy looking.

The felted leaves are ruffled on the edges

Drought tolerant, even hating too much water, these plants are so easily grown, that I am always surprised more people don’t grow them. Yes, they can get quite tall (7 feet), but there is a new variety, called ‘Goldfinger’ that only gets four feet tall and I am growing it this summer for the first time to see if I like it as much. I am wondering if it blossoms so profusely as the tall one? Descriptions say it will, but I hold judgement until I grow and experience it.

The blossoms are about 4 inches across 

The flowers are held high above the foliage with the center quite open and accessible for butterflies, and that is why they flock to it. Bees and other pollinators love it also, but especially the butterflies. Check out my post on ‘Butterflying‘  or ‘Plant These For Bees’ for more information on attracting these beautiful pollinators to your garden.

The dried flower centers are also attractive and Goldfinches pick out the seeds

Since the plants grow so tall, be sure to stake it. If you don’t, the first wind storm you have, the plant will break and fall to the ground.

Since one plant can take up a good bit of room, I plant it in my veggie garden

Why You should Grow Tithonia

  • Long bloom period
  • Tall plants make it easy to see and photograph
  • Attracts flocks of migrating Monarchs
  • Easy to start from seed
  • No serious pest or disease issues
  • Attracts a wide variety of pollinators
  • Tolerates low water conditions
  • Mixes well with other lower growing plants, like Cosmos and Zinnias
  • Good for flower arranging
  • Spent seed heads attract birds
Cosmos surrounds this Tithonia
Swallowtail drinks from a tithonia

Available at Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Hairy Balls Milkweed

I love arranging with “Hairy Balls” for a unique centerpiece
Hairy Balls starting to form tennis ball size  pods

Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keep it in check.

Hairy Balls in full glory

Here are some facts about this amazing plant:

  • Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
  • Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
  • Nectar source for monarch butterflies
  • Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
  • Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
  • Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
  • Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
  • Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
  • Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
  • Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
  • The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
  • I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
The single flowers are pendulous instead of a large ball of flowers in the common Milkweed

Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.

You can see the white substance on the pod at the bottom which is why these plants are called Milkweed

When all of my common Milkweeds are done,  Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars.

The ripe balls turn tan and burst open with seeds

Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers.

The flowers are not showy
The nondescript flowers start forming pods in September
Split a hairy Ball open and you will find hundreds of seeds

For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweeds are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs. 

Common Milkweed has very different flowers and pods
Common Milkweed have long narrow pods

Starting From Seed

I start my Hairy Balls from seed inside around mid-March to get a head start. The plants take a long time to form their wonderful seed capsules and I usually harvest from August on as they form.

To plant, I separate the brown seeds from the fuzzy fibers

Plant the seeds in good potting medium and cover about 1/4″ deep and the plants emerge in about 10 days. I keep them in the greenhouse until they reach about 4-5 inches high and the weather is warm enough- about the same time as tomatoes.

Hairy Ball seedlings about a month old: they need a few more weeks before setting out

Once they are growing well in the garden, I usually pinch them to make them a little bit fuller and bushier. But if you don’t do this step, they still will grow fine.

The plants of Hairy Balls Milkweed get about 4-5 feet tall

Winter Aconite-The Bulb That Keeps Giving

Winter aconites pushing up through the snow

 

Sunny yellow blooms fringed with a green ruff green poking through snow is my first sign that spring has sprung. Eranthis hyamalis, in the buttercup family, is a spring ephemeral, which means that it is a short-lived plant above ground with a burst of blooms, then disappears, remaining under ground until next winter.

From a few corms, I have many
From a few corms, I have many

Beaming a golden light in the cloudy winter days, I welcome the appearance of this charming little bulbs that appear in the slightest bit of warmth in winter. Popping up when it is warm(above 40 degrees) with a little bit of sunshine, they retract back in the ground, if cold wintry weather returns, and wait. When everything else surrounding the bulbs looks dead and lifeless, these cheerful little splashes of sunshine appear.

They have lovely frilled foliage surrounding the golden flower
They have lovely frilled foliage surrounding the golden flower; here the flower is finished and the foliage remains for several weeks, before disappearing

Easily Grown in Shade or Sun

The plant takes advantage of the deciduous woodland canopy, flowering at the time of maximum sunlight reaching the forest floor, then completely dying back to its underground tuber after flowering. So, for about eight weeks starting in late February, I see the plant above ground, celebrate its arrival and the bees devour it! Flowering when little else is in bloom, the blossom is a very important nectar and pollen source for my honeybees. On a nice sunny day above 45 degrees in late winter, the bees are darting in and out of the blossoms, quickly taking advantage of the brief show of color.

Winter Aconites have a pretty green ruff surrounding the flower
Winter Aconites have a pretty green ruff surrounding the flower

 

Bees flock to the early offerings of nectar and pollen
Bees flock to the early offerings of nectar and pollen

Starting/Transplanting 

I started my Winter Aconites with tubers which resemble a dried pea by planting them one to two inches deep and waiting to see how many emerged. Only about 25% of the corms sprouted but that was enough to start my stock going for years to come as they will seed in. I have read that the little flowers can become invasive by reseeding in odd places, but I welcome all comers! I also transplant the clumps when in flower or “in green” and separate them and scatter them in my planting beds to make future blankets of yellow.

Easily transplanted while green is done in early March to increase my stock
Easily transplanted while green is done in early March to increase my stock
Bees bathe in the pollen
Bees bathe in the pollen

Pollinator Friendly

Such a cheerful little flower that is attractive to all pollinators is welcome in my garden anytime. A good companion to Snowdrops, Winter Aconites will live for years without any disturbance. The flowers push up through a stand of Germander and other thick ground covers and stick around for weeks, opening when the sun comes out, and closing when nightfall comes. Even successful under large shade trees, like Sycamores, these little bulbs are tough and resilient once they get going.

Aconites are good companions to snowdrops, photo by Patricia Reynolds

 

Butterfly and Bee Magnet, Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Flower with a Monarch

If you want to grow the ultimate flower buffet for butterflies and bees, try Joe Pye Weed.  When there isn’t much else blooming, Joe Pye will surprise you with fuzzy pink umbels of flowers that flying insects clearly relish. I planted only one plant of the great late summer bloomer, Eupatorium dubium, ‘Little Joe’, which has spread to cover an area about 5 feet by 5 feet.  After 5 years of growing this plant, I have found it not to be invasive but it definitely spreads. When it goes beyond its bounds, it is easy to pull it up.

A patch of ‘Little Joe’
My poster available in my Etsy Shop includes other butterfly and bee magnets
I have a nice clump of Joe Pye right in front of my greenhouse

In late summer, my ‘Little Joe’ patch has formed a nice clump in front of my greenhouse; it has finished blooming but I keep it up for structure. It will get taller as the summer progresses.

‘Little Joe’ tops out at 4 feet tall, as opposed to the more commonly grown ‘Gateway’ which can get up to 7 feet high and can flop. I hate to stake flowers, so picked ‘Little Joe’ to avoid that fate.  Now there is another cultivar called ‘Baby Joe’ which only gets 2 to 3 feet high which I need to try next.

Joe Pye is a native wildflower which grows along streams in the wild near my house.  It gets enormous! I stayed away from it for years because of the size and difficulty in siting such a large specimen.  But I am in love with ‘Little Joe’ which has beautiful burgundy stems.

The burgundy stems of ‘Little Joe’ look fantastic against a brick wall
This is a mid-September garden border with the Joe Pye placed towards the back; shorter flowers in front keep it upright

Once the flower starts to bloom, I am sure to see at least a half-dozen different types of bees and butterflies landing, and the other day saw 5 Monarchs resting on my one plant!

Swallowtails on Joe Pye; this is the full size one that towers over me!

‘Little Joe’ comes in a ‘garden friendly’ package of a plant that is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and has sturdy stems that will support the flower heads and won’t bend or flop.  The plant is drought tolerant and fragrant with mauve purple flower heads which can reach 12 inches across!

Dried seed head of Joe Pye

The flower persists for weeks and the seed heads will last through the winter and will provide food for the birds when food is scarce. What is not to like? A tough beautiful, easy to grow plant which provides entertainment. I visit it every day to see what insects and butterflies have made a visit. For more information on planting pollinator plants, go to my posts Creating Monarch Waystation and Plant These For the Bees. Also, my Garden Plan for Pollinators is a good resource.

Available in my Etsy Shop, my plan for a pollinator garden includes Joe Pye Weed
Count the bees!

Ailanthus Webworm moth on Joe Pye
Eupatorium dubium 'Little Joe' Plant
Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bee Catnip-Mountain Mint

Bringing bugs into the garden is the new norm, not spraying with insecticides every insect that alights on a leaf. A sea change in how gardeners operate is in motion and most gardeners are embracing it with gusto. Seeing the Monarch numbers plummet recently has brought home the importance of home gardeners taking charge and embracing this change for the better.

Mountain Mint flower
Mountain Mint flower

Wildlife Value

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

I will be profiling a series of plants in the next year that are really important to pollinators- be it honeybee, native bee, hummingbird, beetles, butterflies, or flies. Top of the list is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Got Milk…….. Weed?

Common Milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.

Colony of Milkweed

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
  • Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Milkweed pods are positioned vertically

     

  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
  • The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
Milky sap exudes down the stem
  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
  • This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata
Common Milkweed in December

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Yellow butterfly Weed "Hello Yellow"
Yellow butterfly Weed “Hello Yellow”

Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.

The pods of Hairy Balls or Balloon Plant are a conversation piece

Monarch caterpillars cover the Balloon Plant Milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.

Tropical Milkweed
Tropical Milkweed
Sign at nursery for Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed has a narrower leaf than common
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond

 

Butterflying-Capturing the Perfect Butterfly Image

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Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easier than ever with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.

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Swallowtail inserting its proboscis into Phlox

More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?

Disney flower and garden 2014 156
Queen butterfly on tropical milkweed
Little Skipper butterflies are fun to watch and photograph; here you can see its proboscis extended

Flowers

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‘Black Beauty’ Lilium is the top draw for butterflies in my garden

Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, the greatest number of butterflies are active, and I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorite plant sources.

Host Plants for Larval Food

Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly? You will benefit by getting many times the number of butterflies than you had before. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants or these excellent regional guides by the Xerces Society.

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After planting milkweed in my garden, Monarch caterpillars appeared

Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.

Pipevine swallowtaill caterpillar on Pipevine
Cecropia caterpillar
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Beautiful Passion Flower is a host plant to spiky bright orange Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary caterpillars munch the plants on their way to becoming butterflies.
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Life cycle of monarch with milkweed

Other Attractants

Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and instead visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.

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Owl butterfly feeding on fruit

Moist Soil or Gravel

Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.

Corridors

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Cut-throughs for power lines are a good spot to view butterflies

Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.

Swallowtail at the end of its life

Butterfly enclosures at zoos and other attractions are a sure way to view some exotic ones.

A Doris Longwing seen at a butterfly house
A work of art-a Common Sergeant seen at a butterfly house feeding on fruit

 

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Clouded Sulphur butterfly seen in my yard
Closeup of a sulphur so you can see the segmented eyes

Warm Weather

Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia
Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera! My hand held camera is a Lumix Panasonic DMC-FZ300 which I love using. But my Iphone 7 takes excellent pictures also. I go back and forth between the two.

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

 

Butterfly Camera Tips 

  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze. Don’t rule out cloudy days though, the light is better for photography.
  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.

butterfly

  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements
  • Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless
  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon
  • When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.
Monarch basking
A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them
  • Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.
Curled proboscis
Curled proboscis
  • Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.
  • Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this.  I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.

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    A tussock moth caterpillar munches on milkweed
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
A Skipper on Lily

 

  • Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton,  thousands of tiny scales  cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.
Closeup of scales on Swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
  • Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food.  A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.
Swallowtail on Zinnia
Swallowtail on Zinnia
  • Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching. If you can only plant one type of plant, go with Zinnias-they love them!

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Skipper butterflies on Dahlia

 

Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Bee Skep poster, go to Etsy Store The Garden Diaries

Grow These For the Bees Garden Plan

Pollinator Garden landscape plan

Many pollinator species have suffered serious declines in recent years. Unfortunately, most of our landscapes offer little in the way of appropriate habitat, forage, and housing. Even the most beautiful gardens are not always healthy ecosystems. Design choices, plant selections, and maintenance practices can make a huge difference in creating your own healthy ecosystem, filled with life. As a garden designer, I use variations of this landscape plan for many gardens to attract the greatest varieties of pollinators.

Bradford Pears are typically planted in new developments which have very little value for pollinators

Native Bee Habitats

Mason bee habitats attract pollinators to your garden also. Simple strategies, such as providing bee habitats and gardening with an ecological community approach, contributes to species diversity, attracting and supporting more birds, butterflies, pollinators, and beneficial insects.

Mason Bee Houses for sale at a local garden center

Paper tubes or straws provide nesting areas for mason bees which are pollinator powerhouses, much more efficient than honeybees. Tubes of any kind can be used, like bamboo or hollow stems of sunflowers or other thick stemmed plants.

Bamboo makes a good tube for a mason bee house

A pollinator garden can be beautiful as well as useful. Strategies such as planting in groups of at least 3 to 5 plants is very important. A single plant won’t attract pollinators, but groups of same plants stand out and pollinators use less energy flying to a compact group of flowers.

Think of planting in blocks of color-border seen at Stirling Castle, Scotland

My planting plan for pollinators includes an array of plants that span the early spring-time starting with Aconites, Snowdrops, Willows, Crocus, and Scillas, ending with the late bloomers of Aster, Tithonia, and Agastache. Mid-summer is not an issue  to have blooming flowers in your garden; it is the shoulder season of early spring and late summer/fall that keeps pollinators going.

Early spring bloomers, like Winter Aconite, are very important early nectar sources
Agastache, Anise Hyssop, is a late blooming perennial that is very beneficial to all pollinators
Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum, is a butterfly magnet
Flies are an important pollinator; this is an early blooming Willow

Mixing shrubs and trees with perennials, annuals, and bulbs creates an all-season show of blooms for foraging bees for both pollen and nectar. Many of the plants are also host plants for caterpillars that produce butterflies. And caterpillars are the protein rich food that keeps our songbirds going as it is the primary food that many birds feed their young. For example in my plan, willows are known to shelter tiny overwintering Viceroy Butterfly larvae rolled up in a leaf. You could also plant an Oak nearby as according to Doug Tallamy of ‘Bringing Nature Home’, oak trees are top of the list for providing a host to hundreds of caterpillar species, critical for providing essential food source for birds and their young.

It is important to include both herbaceous and woody plants in your pollinator garden. Trees and shrubs not only provide pollinators with food but also offer protected areas from the wind and predators. Also, remember to plan for a sequence of blooms, staggering the flowering time of nectar sources so that butterflies will frequent your garden throughout the season. Water is an essential for attracting pollinators, and something as simple as a birdbath will work. Mud is the other ingredient that pollinators are seeking when they lay their eggs into the paper tubes that you put out for their use. So, don’t mulch every garden bed.

Side view of mason bee tubes reveals mud plugs placed between each egg
I created a meadow around my beehives

Meadow Creation

Meadow creation is an option if you have a large wide open area in full sun. Using a newspaper layer on top of the grass to smother it, you add compost on top and scatter wildflower seed.

A layer of newspaper is laid down first, then compost and seeds on top
Mix together seeds from various varieties to sprinkle on top
Tamp the seeds into the soil and sprinkle with water to jump start the seed germination
Mid spring, the plants are growing vigorously
High summer meadow

You need a sunny spot in your yard for a pollinator garden to be at its best. If your garden is shady but you have a sunny patio, plant containers full of annuals and perennials instead.

For recipes on planting pollinator-friendly containers, go to Nectar in a Pot-Movable Feast. 

An assortment of pollinator plants fill this container

Don’t excessively manicure your yard. Leaf litter, tall grass, stumps, and peeling bark provide pollinators ideal places to spend the night or to overwinter.

Don’t cut back all your perennials to allow insects places to overwinter
Poster available in my Etsy Shop

For more information on what plants to plant specific to pollinators, go to Plant These For Bees.