More On White: Milkweed

Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_on_Milkweed_Hybrid_2800pxThis photograph from Wikipedia speaks volumes to the importance of the milkweed.  Asclepias tuberosa is a favored nesting site for the Monarch butterfly.  At summers end, the wild plants we have growing at the shop will be covered with their larvae. The Monarch larvae feed on these leaves. The butterfly weed is a favored host in my area.  They will spin cocoons; the mature butterflies will emerge some four weeks, give or take.  Only once have I witnessed a mature butterfly emerging from its chrysalis-it happens that fast.

milkweeed-pods.jpgAsclepias has much to recommend.  The plants are long lived, utterly drought resistant, and carefree.  The flower heads of asclepias tuberosa are orange and gorgeous.  Asclepias incarnata has flower heads that are a quiet shade of dusky rose.  But my main interest in them is the seed pods.  The pods are large, ovate, and a compelling shade of bluish green.  In late summer, this green phase dominates the plants.

milkweed-pods.jpgOnce the seeds begin to ripen, the pods will split along their length.

milkweeds.jpgOur local fields and meadows are full of the remains of the milkweed pods come November.  They have an elegantly spare and ruggedly persistent shape.

asclepias-tuberosa.jpgBut the white fluff inside is what interests me the most.  Each butterfly weed seed is firmly affixed to its own white silky and fluffy airplane.  These white silky hairs catch the wind, and aid in the dispersal of the seed.

milkweed-seed-pod.jpgHow plants set seed is an event any gardener would appreciate.  How the milkweeds insure the survival of their seed is nothing short of miraculous.

milkweed-pod.jpgFrom Wikipedia: The milkweed filaments from the follicles are hollow and coated with wax, and have good insulation qualities.  As of 2007, milkweed is grown commercially as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows. This commercial use does not interest me as much as how the butterfly weed seeds itself.  A milkweed seed with its virtually weightless attendant white fluff is a little and subtle miracle I never tire of.  Every year, the marvel of it enchants me.

milkweed-pods ripening.jpgOnce those seeds emerge, that fluff is everywhere.  It will stick to your hands, your clothes, your shoes, your trowel, and your wheelbarrow.  An individual seed is large, and relatively speaking, heavy.  How this plant has evolved to insure that these big seeds get dispersed is but one of countless stories engineered by nature.  I have had occasion to design and install fairly complex landscapes, but this design and execution is beyond compare.

ripe-milkweed-seeds.jpgAny landscape designers best ally is what comes from the natural world.  All it takes is a lot of observation, and then some serious thought.  As my friend and colleague Susan Cohan says, art does not necessarily have to work.  No artwork needs a white silky airplane to be.  A work of art lives independent of time,conditions, and circumstance.  Good landscape design is a craft, in that every moment needs to assess the conditions, fire up,and fly.

milkweeds 004The milkweed seeds about to fly is a day in the gardening season I look forward to.  I would hope these plants would find a foothold in many places.  I like that the Monarch butterfly feeds and reproduces on a plant that has a plan to not only enable these beautiful creatures, but reproduce.

milkweeds 005Much of gardening is about the physical issues.  The dirt, the water, the drainage, the weather, the maintenance, the beginning, and the ending.  But there are those singular moments that float.

setting-free-the-milkweeds.jpgThere is a day every gardening season when I make the effort to launch the asclepias seeds. It feels good to think I am doing my part.

milkweed-seeds-airborne.jpgDo these seeds need me?  No.  Nature saw to this efficient dispersal long before I ever took up a trowel. But I do it anyway.  This white fluff I put in the air makes me feel good.


At A Glance: Milkweeds Seeding, Fleeing


Walking The Field

I would bet that if I organized and offered a shopping trip with Rob, it would fill up in an instant.  There would be a waiting list.  He has an eye for where to go, what to see, and what to commit to that interesting and beautiful.  His less obvious searches includes sifting through the debris and dried materials that tends to accumulate in vacant land.  This abandoned tangle of wire fencing and rotted posts may not upon first glance seem like much seem like much. But I would say the chances are excellent I will see this found object, or this combination of colors and textures and materials, or some semblance of this idea somewhere soon.   

Vacant land has a story to tell.  This grass likes the watery ground.  Other species only come so close, before conditions are no longer optimal.  Plants are very specific about what they want-this picture makes that clear. Given this picture, it is no wonder that lawn saturated with water from automatic irrigation thrives.  Other plants are not so crazy about it-they stay away, if they can.  I know him well enough to know this wild grass laying over is appealing.  Some spot or another in the shop will have this look.            

Wild asters have small and insignificant individual flowers, but large colonies of them can be very beautiful.  Weedy and wonderful, this.  Rob’s pictures are a harbinger of what is to come from him.   The other day Rob nailed a  twig bird feeder to a chestnut fence post, and set the post in a tall limestone cylinder.  Wedged into the cylinder around the fence post, a few wisps of weedy plastic grass.  The idea of plastic grass appeals to no gardener, but should you come in, take a look.  There is an utterly natural and believable look to the entire assembly.      

This vacant land is littered with giant logs, the remnants of their roots intact.  The goldenrod and asters have grown up around them.  The story that lies behind this picture is unclear.  They do not look cut, they look rotted off at the very base.  They look like they were dumped here. But perhaps this land was inadvertently flooded long enough to kill all of the trees.  I am just waiting for Rob to ask if I can send a truck and trailer after them.  They would be the perfect material for a stumpery. 

 I have no clue what thesese shrubby trees might be.  They have been dead long enough that the bark is peeling away from the wood from a long standing sun burn.  Spooky branches, he calls them.  Would they not be perfect for a Halloween vignette?  Rob is just as likely to find inspiration from spooky branches in a tract of vacant land as the library.  To put it mildly, he has an active imagination.  A genuinely original imagination.    

He and I both love asclepias tuberosa-milkweed.  Few wild and weedy plants have big luscious leaves like these.  The story of how milkweed seeds mature, and are sent aloft is one of the most delightful stories that nature has to tell.  When the pods mature, and crack open, the seeds are packed tight in that pod with the unopened parachutes attached, just waiting for a stiff breeze to send them all aloft. An afternoon sky full of milkweed seeds is one of the best visual pleasures of fall.   

Thistles are a pernicious weed in cultivated gardens.  They are almost impossible to eradicate; the roots go very deep, and are very strong.  Who would want to touch one?  But the seed pods are beautiful.  The seeds nourish many a goldfinch.  They look great in fall arrangements. If you know of any tract of vacant land in zone 4-5, there will likely be a thistle patch.        

There is a fall party going on here-undisturbed.  No one has had a mind to refurbish, zone, or organize this space for residential use.   Vacant land in no means implies a vacant space.  There are plenty of plant species thriving with no need for any supervision.  It may be that the most beautiful places on earth are places that are solely supervised by nature.   Every gardener appreciates this.  

Rob took all of these photographs-of course he spotted this giant thickly growing clump of asparagus.  Did it grow from a seed?  Was there a farmhouse here decades ago?  The mystery that is nature is alive and well on this vacant land.  A shopping trip with Rob to a vast tract of vacant land?  It might be better than you think.