Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Marvelous Milkweeds to Help Save our Monarchs

With a focus on Pollinators and especially monarch butterflies our group is trying several different varieties of milkweed plants that should grow in our area. 

One of the best sources for information is The Xerces Society. There is a wealth of information listed as well as how to find seeds for your zone.  Take some time and investigate the entire site!

One very important fact located on the link part way down their home page titled Finding Milkweed Seed for you State is about using milkweeds that are native to your area.  They state: We encourage you to only plant milkweed species that are native to your area. The Biota of North America Program’s (BONAP) web-based North American Plant Atlas provides county-level distribution information for all Asclepias species in the lower 48 states (milkweeds are not native to Alaska and Hawaii). Please refer to BONAP’s map color key for detailed information, and note that dark green indicates that the species is present within the state, while bright green shows that the species is documented to occur in that specific county. However, these maps do not convey the abundance of the species within each county.  Three Asclepias species have been introduced to the United States: tropical milkweed (A. curassavica), African milkweed (A. fruticosa), and swan or balloon plant (A. physocarpa). Of these, tropical milkweed (also called blood flower or scarlet milkweed) is the most widely available from commercial sources. However, there is preliminary evidence that where tropical milkweed has been introduced, its presence may cause monarchs to reproduce outside of their regular breeding season, disrupt monarchs’ migratory cycle, and increase transmission and virulence of the protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Thus, some monarch scientists are concerned that the planting of tropical milkweed may lead to negative impacts on monarch health. For more information on this topic, please download this fact sheet by the Monarch Joint Venture or read this Q&A, also from the Monarch Joint Venture, about research related to tropical milkweed and monarch parasites

Native milkweed grows very large and can tend to be invasive.  This is a problem for some of us with smaller, urban yards.  We investigated the descriptions and came up with several seed choices that we wanted to try.  One of these, Prairie Milkweed, is not listed in WV, but it is present in OH and KY.  We are only 60 miles from those borders and felt safe trying this one.  Our best source for seeds from the links listed was Prairie Moon Nursery.  There is one additional plant we wanted to try  - Asclepias purpurascens, but seeds are scarce.  Purple milkweed is a shorter, less invasive variety of Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed).  We signed up for a waitlist on two suppliers and finally found some this week on Everwilde Farms.

Below are the varieties that we are trying and the descriptions are from Prairie Moon Nursery.

Asclepias incarnata  Rose Milkweed, is also commonly called Red Milkweed, Marsh Milkweed, or Swamp Milkweed.  That lovely vanilla fragrance you detect coming from large rosy pink flowers possibly hosting several Monarch or Swallowtail butterflies is Swamp Milkweed.  This deer-resistant plant grows in moist to average soils, and blooms in July and August.  Later, large pods form which will break open to reveal seeds that will float away in the wind. If growing Rose Milkweed from seed, try fall planting - or if planting in spring be sure to first moist-cold stratify the seeds for a month.  Large numbers of Rose Milkweed can often be seen growing in wetland settings.

Asclepias verticillata  Whorled Milkweed has very skinny, "whorled" leaves. There are clusters of approximately 20 flowers near the top of each plant. Whorled Milkweed can bloom anytime between July and September, which is later in the year than many other Milkweeds.  The white flowers can be a greenish-white on some plants. When the Whorled Milkweed is mature it reaches a height around 2'.  The nectar of the flowers attracts many kinds of insects, including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, skippers and beetles.  Whorled Milkweed is deer and rabbit-resistant.

Asclepias viridis  Spider Milkweed  shares with other Asclepias species its milky, irritating sap and strong attractiveness to Monarch butterflies and a host of other insects. Very tolerant of dry conditions, it is also called Green Antelopehorn. Spider Milkweed features rose-white flowers surrounded by green that form in showy umbellated clusters, often one per plant.  Its beauty and tendency to spread slightly make it a good garden choice.

Asclepias sullivanti   Prairie Milkweed is the winner of the 2015 Green Thumb Award for best New Product.  Also called Sullivant's Milkweed, named for William Starling Sullivant, an American Botanist of the mid-1800's.  This Milkweed appears generally similar to Common Milkweed but is less aggressive, has slightly smaller flowers, and an overall smooth appearance on the stem, leaves and seed pods.  Visited by hummingbirds and a wide variety of bees and butterflies (including, of course, Monarchs), Prairie Milkweed is one of the plants favored by the larvae of the Milkweed Leaf-Miner fly, which bore holes in the leaves.  Easily grown from seed and bearing a very fragrant flower, Prairie Milkweed makes a nice addition to any sunny medium to medium-moist garden.  After just a few years the taproot will extend very deep, protecting the plant in times of drought, but also making it difficult to move so choose your spot wisely.

And, from Everwilde we found the Asclepias Purpurascens.  This excerpt from Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens: An Unsung Asclepias  (guest post by Barbara Pintozzi) says it beautifully:
Asclepias purpurascens makes an excellent garden plant, as it is not aggressive like swamp milkweed. It prefers partial sun, but it will grow in full sun or light shade. It will grow in average garden soil and actually does best in clayish soil. It is distributed from Ontario south to Texas and Georgia, but is endangered in Wisconsin and Massachusetts (USDA). It blooms in mid-to-late June in my Zone 5, Chicago-area garden. It reaches 2 to 3 feet in height.Why purple milkweed is so hard to find and isn’t better known is beyond me. This plant should be made more wildly available to gardeners east of the Rockies as a tough, beautiful, reliable workhorse.

Some propagation notes:
The GCA Seed Share Vice-Chairman, noted that this can be another difficult plant to propagate.  Other sites, too, suggest that some asclepias need to be babied and may not bloom until the second year.  Asclepias have tap roots and transplanting can be difficult.  A call made to Prairie Moon helped and they were extremely helpful in germination suggestions.  All of our seeds need to go through 30 days of cold stratification.  Although the literature from Prairie Moon suggests stratification and germination in sand, they also told me that their propagation staff uses a coffee filter method.  A little research turned up 'The Baggie Method.'  Always up for a challenge this is the direction we took.  Read the link above carefully.  This is what we did:

  • Used cone shaped coffee filters, moistened in a pan of water.  (If too moist, set briefly on a clean dish towel to absorb some of the water).
  • Opened the coffee filters.
  • Put 4-6 seeds inside the coffee filter.
  • Folded the sides and top of the coffee filter over to insure that the seeds don't slip out (which happened on my first effort).
  • Stapled the top of the filter closed,
  • Inserted the coffee filter in a sandwich size zip topped baggie.
  • Close the baggie almost all the way.
  • Inserted a straw into the small opening and blew air into the opening and quickly finished zipping up.
  • Marked each baggie with the variety and date.
  • Put on the refrigerator shelf for 30 days.
  • Do not use tweezers to handle seeds or when transplanting.  Use toothpicks to aid in transplanting.  Tweezers are too sharp for delicate roots and will cut the root in half.  Gently pick up with two toothpicks.

"The Baggie Method"
Notice putting air into the baggie!

As she suggests, we will check our baggies regularly to insure they stay moist.  If germination starts then we will pull the baggies out and pot up.

Instead of going into 4-6" pots, we will follow the suggestion from another source that says plant several seedlings in 1 gallon plastic containers.  Place in a protected place and grow as you would other seedlings - keeping adequate moisture, diluted fertilizer.  You will need to judge when your plants are ready to go into the ground.  The advantage of the larger pots is that you can cut the bottom out and place in the garden where you want them placed - you could even sink the pots into the ground with the bottom removed and the tap root will go straight down into the soil and no moving necessary.  The sides of the plastic pot can then be lifted when the plants are mature enough to leave on their own.  We will again use our water jugs for this as the plants can be planted pretty deep in those and the jugs will serve the same purpose as the plastic garden pots.

Supplies laid out on the counter.  Coffee filters,
pan of water, seeds, baggies.

Seeds placed inside the filter.

Baggies are ready to go in the fridge.

Each type of Asclepias has a separate page with details on germination through potting up.  Our ongoing journal will continue here starting with 2-3 year plants.

May 2017  Our plants are now entering their third year.  Several members have had great success and plants are still coming up.  The aging of the plants as well as climate change is definitely affecting the time that they break dormancy.  Last year my plants were slow to break, waiting until May.  This year with a very mild winter they showing their tips in late April.  Kathy has hers located in a planter on her driveway as it is the one area in her yard that gets enough full sun to support milkweeds. 


May 14 and blooms appearing already on her Asclepias incarnata




Hyacinth Bean Second Year Efforts - Or Being Beany

"Being Beany" - this title is dedicated to our wonderful Hort Chair, Kitty Sprout, who had an unfortunate fall at Christmas and shattered her femur.  She has been in a wheelchair since then and still a couple of months to go.  Her spirit is indefatigable and we hope she will be up and around soon.  So, she participates by email and photographs and contributes names to our projects.

Several sprouts did have late success with their vines from last year.  You can read about our problems below and what we have decided to try instead this year.  We were able to save seeds; sending some to Shirley Meniece as well as saving some for our group.  Our goal is to have enough nice plants to take to the membership at the June picnic.

Purple hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurea) is a vigorous (take that word seriously!) ornamental vine.  It is not a native, but comes from Africa.  Purple-pink blossoms turn into lovely reddish purple pods in the fall growing about the size of lima beans with 3-4 smaller pea-sized seeds inside.  The vine adds great color to any garden and can serve as a pollinator plant for bees.  The vines take lots of summer heat and are drought tolerant.  In our climate (Zone 6b) the vines die back and only occasionally does a seed self sow.  Most of us save the seeds and they can be started now indoors or sowed direct after the last frost date. Some sources say that Thomas Jefferson’s favorite nurseryman Bernard McMahon sold hyacinth bean vine plants to Jefferson in 1804. Because of this, the hyacinth bean is also known as Jefferson bean.

The vine can grow to 10' and requires staking.  Note: The mature seeds contain toxins and should not be eaten raw!

Last year's vine growing up a
no-longer used basketball hoop in my driveway

Last year we were a very anxious group - our seeds sprouted quickly and of course took off quickly (remember - vigorous grower!).  The seeds were started in small 6 pack cells.  We were very anxious to transplant into the 4" pots - but many had difficulties with their vines after the initial potting up.  The stems were thin and crimped easily in transplanting and so we lost a lot.  There was also very little root growth early.   Afterwards we read that this plant, although easy to grow, likes little disturbance. 

This year we decided to continue to recycle our milk/water jugs.  Many people here are still using bottled water after our water crisis last year, so lots of jugs are available.  But this is not winter sowing, so we approached it differently. After transplanting in May or June the jugs can still be recycled in our city recycling. 

Dried seeds collected last fall
March 2, 2015:  Taking one gallon, opaque water jugs, we cut the front and sides about 2/3 of the way up.  We cut the front and then curved up around the back leaving a wide opening with handle intact to give the bottle strength and allowing us to be able to carry the jugs.   The jugs were filled almost to the top of the cut with a soilless, moistened mix; about 4-5" as you can see in the photo below.
Our jugs - notice how they are cut with the
handle intact in the back to provide strength
in carrying and for the weight of the soil.
Plant the seeds 1 1/2" deep.  Our jugs are now put indoors in indirect light.  The temperature should be fairly warm.  These seeds do not need stratification.  We want them to germinate and start growing.  Water lightly if the soil dries out as the seeds need moisture to germinate and we have not put in baggies or anything else to mimic a greenhouse.  Drainage holes can be added in the bottom of the jugs.   Trellises will be added - either bamboo stakes or even clippings from things in the yard to provide strength until ready.  When ready to plant outdoors, the side and bottom of the jugs can just be cut away and the plant set directly in the planting hole.  This way there will hopefully be lots of strong root growth and the plants will thrive.

WV Sprout has 3 appearing!

March 11, 2015:  WV Sprout reports first signs of germination.  3 visible and one more making a large bump in the soil - by morning it will be at least 2"!  Anyone else?

Kam Sprout has one up, too. 
Two others look they will be
out tomorrow. 
March 12, 2015:  Forgetful Sprout reports that hers must like where they are - in an indirect east window.  She used an arrow to point out the second sprout; saying it looks like vermiculite.  She switched the two milk jugs around and put the smaller sprout where it will get more sun.  These were sent this morning so they are probably 2" taller by now. 

 Forgetful Sprout says the arrow points
to one just breaking through the soil.
March 15, 2015:  75% germination rate on the plants I started.  8 out of 12 pots have sprouted.  I decided to go ahead and put the stakes in so as not to disturb the root.  I started by cutting the 4' long green bamboo stakes available at garden centers in half.  I put three in the water jug making a triangle and used a twist tie to hold together.  Then deciding that wasn't going to be tall enough to keep the vines upright until after our frost date and warm enough to put outside, I added one 4' tall on in the center. 
This plant is the best one
so far.  Smaller ones in the
March 16, 2015:  escwvsprout, new to the blog this year, sent this message today- when I left for the weekend no sprouts, on my return this is what I found: (remember patience is needed, some seeds are slower than others!)
Look what happened over the weekend!

May 18, 2015  Two photos from Kitty Sprout's yard.  One of her plants is in the ground and growing well.  Already flowering.
Kitty Spouts bean
on May 18, 2015.

Another photo of Kitty Sprout's plant
May 20, 2015  Our club's monthly general meeting.  Approximately 18 lovely hyacinth bean plants were taken and distributed to the membership.  All have found new homes.   Hope they all do well and congratulations to our Hort Committee for a fun project!
June 12, 2015
A visit to Kitty Sprout's house and look how much her bean has grown!  Almost to the roofline already.  Happy Hyacinth. Already 3 pods and many more flowers coming. 
Reaching to the roof.

Same plant from other side.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March Madness - Pollinator Projects and Our First Hort Workshop of 2015

In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours. ~Mark Twain

Mark Twain hit the nail on the head with that description!  

Our weather has fluctuated from snow and ice to 55 degree temp to -8 to flash flooding and more snow predicted for tomorrow.  Certainly sounds like spring to me.

Our committee is anxious to start again.   It is too early to report on the progress of our December "Winter Sowing Workshop" with milk jugs.  All the jugs have been having a nice, long stratification period and no signs of any germination. 

One change in the way we will write the blog this year - instead of browsing individual 'sprout's' journals, we will post by type of plant and each blogger will journal their experience under that post.  This should make it easier to share the experiences of all without having to flip back and forth.

We met Monday at noon (March 2).  A fun get together with lots of catching up, snacks and of course, planting.

As part of GCA's focus on pollinators as well as a global focus on monarch butterflies (Monarch Monitoring Project), our club will tackle a couple of small projects to help in our community. 

Four types of milkweed seeds were ordered from Prairie Moon Nursery.   Our propagation efforts will be discussed on a separate post starting in the next day or so.

Additionally hyacinth beans are being started, also to be discussed in another soon-to-be started post.  These are from hyacinth beans saved from last year's seed share projects.  Success was easy with the hyacinth beans and we sent some back to the Shirley Menice Conference last fall as well as saved some for our members.  A different approach in this year's planting workshop.

A photograph taken by Blondie Sprout
last fall in Old Town Alexandria, VA of
hyacinth bean vines growing on a shop front.
Our intent this year is to have enough milkweed and hyacinth bean plants to give to our entire membership at our June picnic.   Great optimism for the milkweeds even though we have been advised they are somewhat difficult to propagate and may take until the second year to bloom.

We will also be sharing milkweed seeds with a local group, SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurs), a "farmer-training-program that teaches participants how to grow large amounts of sustainable produce in urban spaces and how to sell this produce as a stream of household income."

And, we will contribute many of the seeds left over from both members who collected from their gardens and from seed share at Shirley Meniece last year to the CMS Edible Schoolyard project - a team project involving a local Montessori school and students from Marshall University's Physical Therapy Program.

In the meantime, we've discovered another great source for seeds: The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, not too far from Charlottesville, VA.   In addition to their web site they write a wonderful blog titled simply enough The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Blog.   So, while the weather still keeps us indoors there is plenty of reading material to make us dream of sunny days and digging in our gardens!