April 22, 2015

Plant of the Month: Butterfly Weed

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How can a gardener dislike Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)? In my mind, "weed" doesn't even belong in the name (of course, that can be said of many plants, under various conditions).

As I considered which plant to highlight this month, and as an entry in Gail's Wildflower Wednesday meme, I chose this one--even though it's not blooming in my garden currently. In fact, it hasn't even emerged from the soil yet. (Smart plant: We'll have three nights with freezing temperatures this week, after two full weeks without a freeze.)

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I chose this plant for its merit as a lovely garden focus and because it's a Milkweed (Asclepias)--the grouping, or genus, of plants that serve as host plants (food) for Monarch caterpillars. As you consider which new perennials to add to your garden this spring, consider Butterfly Weed.

This plant can take time to establish, but once it does, I think you'll be pleased.

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It's stunning planted among other garden blooms, as shown here with Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis). I also enjoy it alongside purple and blue flowers and foliage--complementary colors to its bright orange.

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Even the seed pods that form in the fall are graceful, soft, and colorful.

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I started my own patch with seedlings purchased from a local garden center.

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They bloomed the first year. If you start this plant from seed, expect blooms after a few years. Butterfly Weed has a long taproot, so it doesn't like to be moved. Also, consider planting several seedlings together, so the caterpillars have plenty to eat.

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Don't be surprised if your plants look a little ratty at first. That can mean the Monarch caterpillars are eating them (yay!) and/or that the plants are settling into your garden, which can take a little time.

Here are a few basic characteristics, as described by the North American Butterfly Association and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center:

  • USDA hardiness zones: 3 to 9
  • Bloom period: mid- to late summer
  • Height: 12 to 36 inches
  • Spread: 24 to 36 inches
  • Light exposure: sun
  • Soil moisture: average to dry
  • Native range: much of North America (see links for specifics)
  • Attracts: butterflies, hummingbirds, other pollinators
  • Resistant to: deer, rabbits
  • Larval host to: Grey Hairstreak, Monarch, and Queen butterflies

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Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica)

Butterfly Weed tends to be orange in color, but ranges from bright yellow to deep orange. It can be confused with Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica), which has similar coloring, but isn't native in the U.S. and Canada.

Much discussion has centered around the pros and cons of planting Tropical Milkweed: To read about it, click here. Tropical Milkweed isn't a problem in northern gardens. But Butterfly Weed is just as beautiful, and its native range extends through much of North America. Plus, it survives drought and severe winters. In my northern climate, Tropical Milkweed dies back and must be repurchased each year, while Butterfly Weed simply goes dormant and re-emerges year after year. To me, it's a no-brainer to go with the native species. (Here's a link to find other native Milkweeds for North American gardens.)

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Oh, and the name is right: It does attract butterflies--Monarchs, and many others (including Great-Spangled Fritillaries).

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(Congratulations to Ricki at Sprig to Twig for winning the drawing for the homemade oriole feeder!)

April 17, 2015

Inspiration Among the Magnolias

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I stopped over at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum the other day to see the Magnolias in bloom. The 75 Magnolia varieties are on display in the Longenecker Gardens, near the visitor center. Bloom time varies from year to year, but I was surprised at how many are blooming synchronously this year. It's really quite spectacular.

Here are a few highlights in no particular order:

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If you miss the show this year, there's always next year. Or, you can plan to visit when the 175 varieties of Crabapples are blooming in a couple of weeks.

April 13, 2015

Orange With Anticipation...and a Giveaway

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One of the first Baltimore Orioles in my garden last year in early May.

As I write this, the oriole feeder is up and I'm just about to set out the hummingbird feeders.

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What an exciting time!

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Last year, the first orioles appeared in my garden on May 6, and the first hummingbirds on May 7.

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I know this because of date labels on my photos, and because I reported the sightings to the Journey North citizen science website on those dates. (Anyone can help track the migrations; you don't have to be a teacher, a naturalist, or a scientist.)

Do you think I'm too early with my preparations this year? I'd say "yes," except people elsewhere in northern states have sighted orioles. And hummingbirds have made their way to the Upper Midwest. Don't believe me? Check out the reports here, here, and here.

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Indigo Bunting that showed up on the same day last year as the Orioles.

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Tawny Emperor butterfly on oriole feeder.

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One of last year's first hummingbirds.

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The oriole feeder I use is a versatile little tool for attracting, feeding, and observing not just orioles, but also butterflies, chickadees, hummingbirds, and other birds. I wasn't fast enough last year to photograph the hummingbirds checking out the feeder, so it will be a fun challenge for this year.

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Handmade oriole/butterfly/hummingbird feeder. Just add oranges! (Oreo kitty not included.)

Want to attract orioles, chickadees, hummingbirds, and butterflies to your garden? This type of feeder is one way to do it. To celebrate the new season of wildlife support and observation, I'm giving away an oriole feeder to a random commenter. This feeder was made by my father, a talented woodworker. (Thanks, Dad!) I'll draw a name on Friday, April 17. Simply leave a comment on this post, or on the PlantPostings Facebook page. (U.S. shipping only. Outside the U.S.: Send me an email if you'd like construction instructions.)

Good luck! And enjoy the unfolding season!

(I'm linking this post to Michelle's Nature Notes at Rambling Woods.)

April 07, 2015

Highlights From the Orchid Show

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It's always a thrill to see orchids in bloom, but especially after a cold, dark winter. During my visit to Florida, Mom and I attended the local orchid society's annual show and sale. Even the Floridians seemed exuberant about it. I overheard one attendee saying something like, "Oh, I'm so excited about this, I can hardly stand it!"

While I wasn't quite that hyped myself, I'll admit, it was fun.

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One of the first plants that greeted us was this colorful Phalaenopsis announcing its attributes. Unfortunately, because it was placed near the entrance, I moved fast and didn't dawdle. Consequently, I don't remember the scent to describe it to you now.

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Some of the displays were artistically arranged and intermingled with exquisite foliage plants and design elements. We enjoyed observing the combinations and the prize-winners.

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I noticed an abundance of Phalaenopsis, including the one above and those shown at the beginning and the end of this post. I suppose it's because  Phals are popular and easy to grow.

As part of my research after the show, I checked out the native ranges of these orchids. (Sources: Encyclopedia of Life and Wikipedia.) While most are hybrids, I was curious about where the genera and species originated. Phals are native to parts of Asia and Australia.

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This orchid, Rlc. 'Alma Lee' is a cross (Rhyncholaeliocattleya and Cattleya). It's an intergeneric hybrid, with ancestors in the Americas.

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This one, Jade Slipper (Paphiopedilum malipoense), is found in Vietnam and Southern China. It's a member of the same subfamily (Cypripedioideae) as the Lady Slipper orchids found in my region of North America.

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The bright, warm colors of many orchids were hard to ignore, like this Lc. hybrid (Laeliocattleya) of 'Aussie Sunset' and 'Tokyo Magic.' Its ancestors are from Mexico, and Central and South America.

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While I didn't record the name of this plant, I believe it's a straight species Nun's Orchid (Phaius tankervilleae). Unlike epiphytic orchids that grow on other plants and trees, the Phaius is a terrestrial orchid, which grows in soil. Nun's Orchid is native to parts of Asia, Australia, and some Pacific islands. I think it was my favorite of the lot, for many reasons--its stature, colors, bloom form, and so on.

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I'm not a big collector of indoor plants, but I can see how orchid-growing could become an addictive hobby. For now, I'll be content attending the occasional orchid show and purchasing the occasional orchid.