March 27, 2017

Plant of the Month: Winter Aconite

Eranthus hyemalis

Did I miss the Winter Aconites? Did they bloom under the snow?

Around this time last year, they were up and open and brightening my garden.

eranthis bee

The first pollinators of the season were swimming in their goodness.

eranthis oak leaves

Maybe there's still hope for this year? If not, I won't give up because I love them so. Do you grow Winter Aconites? If not, you should try them.

eranthis new

They take the cold and snow and late freezes in stride.

eranthis 3

Plus, they're so joyful, you can't help but smile when you see them.

eranthis 2

Winter Aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) are native to Europe, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. and they're among the first flowers to bloom in the late winter and early spring. In addition, they:

  • Are hardy in zones 3 to 7;
  • Thrive in full sun to partial shade;
  • Resist deer and rabbit damage (but maybe not voles?); and
  • Prefer organically rich, well-draining soil.

I hope I'll still see them yet this year, but if not I will try again--maybe in pots to resist the voles.

eranthis & c. tommasinianus

Plus, they're so beautiful as companions to Tommies (Crocus tommasinianus).

eranthis & c. tommasinianus 2

Happy spring!

March 19, 2017

A Mild Winter Walk-Off

wet path

Winter and spring have been fighting it out for weeks now--even here in the north, this year. People were golfing without jackets in February, and then winter made a repeat visit last week. Plants are popping up early and trees are pregnant with heavy buds, but everything is on pause until the next warm spell.

I'm sneaking by with this post for Les's Winter Walk-Off meme over at A Tidewater Gardener. This year, the lake is open and some of the birds are nesting early. In the past, I've walked down to the lake for this meme. This year, I decided to head over to a little park near home that's adjacent to a fenced community dog park. For various reasons, I used my iPhone as my camera this time, and for the most part I was pleased with the results.

dog park

The dog park area is fenced in.


A pleasant suburban neighborhood borders the park.

cornus sericea landscape

The day of my walk, the sky was partly cloudy, the temperature was about 45F/7C, and the wind was light. Not ideal for a day at the beach, but not bad for a brisk walk.

snow melt

After the recent snow melt, much of the trail was a bit muddy, but I was able to skirt around the puddles.


Heading up the hill ...

oak opening

The Red-Twig Dogwoods (Cornus sericea) and the remaining Oak leaves (Quercus spp.) were vibrant in the bright landscape.


I noticed a gall that appeared to be chewed (by a bird?).

chickadee nest

Any ideas who built this nest? Later, I saw a Black-Capped Chickadee here, but I'm thinking maybe she was "borrowing" materials for her own nest in a hidden cavity somewhere. (I've read chickadees are likely to use more secretive locations.)


This stream appeared to be a furrow--perhaps created by the farmer who donated this land for the park.

oak forest

The park included several little adjacent ecosystems, including Oak forest, Oak opening, meadow, and prairie--natural habitats of this area of Wisconsin, even before Europeans settled here.

open forest

While thick and dark during the growing season, the Oak forest canopy on the day of my walk was open and sunny.


It was encouraging to see snags of branches that welcome wildlife, mosses, fungi, insects, other life forms, and natural decomposition.

moss 2

moss 1

moss 3

It was the perfect setting to find marvelous mosses.


And luscious lichens.

quercus macrocarp

It was hard to capture the full effect of this grand Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa), but it made quite a statement in its little patch of land.

open canopy

The cathedral of the forest canopy was pleasant.


And then I came to a meadow. It had me wondering several things--including whether this was natural or man-made. I've been here before, but only in the fall, and the meadow wasn't as apparent.


Near the meadow was a lake, swelling over its banks during this wet time of year.

carex pennsylvanica

And then I noticed a few plants preparing to expand and grow, including Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica).

geum canadense

And White Avens (Geum canadense).


This fungus had an interesting shape, too.

leaf litter

It was a pleasant walk across the spongy, warm carpeting of Oak leaves. Nature walks are the best, aren't they?

For more Winter Walk-Off posts, head on over to A Tidewater Gardener. Thanks to Les for hosting.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It's not too late to join in the Garden Lessons Learned meme. To participate, simply write a post or share one you've already written about your "Lessons Learned" during the past season. Then share your link or simple observations. The link will be available always under the "Lessons Learned" tab at the top of this blog.

March 13, 2017

Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries

el rosario
Kylee and me, posing just before we reached our first visit to a Monarch butterfly sanctuary.

If you guessed the location of my last post was Mexico, you were correct! My friend, Kylee Baumle, hosted our trip to the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico, about 75 miles west of Mexico City. If you're unfamiliar with the Monarch migration, check out this brief description from Annenberg Learner's Journey North.

book cover

Better yet, consider ordering Kylee's new book: The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, available in April. The book will include information about Monarchs, amazing photographs, and tips on how to help save the Monarch migration, which has been described as facing a "quasi-extinction."

I felt so fortunate to experience the trip.


The Monarch migration is a big part of the local identity and culture in the Mexican state of Michoacan. There were many highlights of our trip, but I'll start with a few photos from the butterfly sanctuaries--our primary purpose.

monarchs 1

The two sanctuaries we visited were El Rosario and Sierra Chincua. One day was sunny and warm, and the butterflies were actively flying all around us. The other day was cloudy and cooler, so we were able to see big clusters of Monarchs huddling together to stay warm.


On both days, we took advantage of horseback rides partway up the mountain. That was fun!


It was a joy to see Monarch butterflies in early March--flying free across the bright blue sky. It was also interesting to see their winter habitat.

habitat 2

Every year, they migrate to these Oyamel Fir (Abies religiosa) forests. Science can explain part of the story, but mysteries still remain about much of the Monarch migration story.

This next series of photos shows clusters of Monarchs--from a distance and then at closer range. It's hard to explain the feeling of seeing this great number of butterflies in one small area. The clusters look like leaves growing on the trees.

clusters 4

clusters 5

clusters 3

clusters 2

clusters 1

The butterflies we saw appeared to be in good shape--especially considering most of them had migrated from northern North America months ago.


Some Monarchs were puddling--consuming water and minerals from the mud.

monarchs 4


Others were nectaring on local wildflowers, including ironweeds, ragworts, salvias, bonesets, and many others.

monarchs 5


Still others were sunning. Notice the spent wing on the rock: While some Monarchs mate and lay eggs as they travel north along the spring migration route, as many as 50% to 75% die in the Oyamel forests, depending on the conditions from year to year. The live Monarchs completely migrate out of Mexico every spring, and their descendants migrate back in the fall.

habitat 1

In March 2016, a late freezing winter storm hit the sanctuaries, killing millions of Monarchs and damaging many of the forest trees.


This year, the weather has been a little more forgiving, but there are still many dead butterflies on the forest floor. Some people who raise Monarchs tag them for tracking and research. Here you see Kylee searching for tags that can provide valuable data, including information on where the butterflies originated.

monarchs 3

monarchs 2

It still seems like a dream. Tourism is important to supporting the migration, so if you're in good shape and you have a chance to make the trip in the future, go for it! For more information on the Monarch migration, visit Monarch Watch or Journey North.

Here's a quick video, showing what it was like to have butterflies flying all around us and above us: