Poke Milkweed

Following on the heel of last week’s story, “Seeds in Silk” about milkweed plants for monarchs, fellow blogger Gloria Schoenholtz posted “Poke Milkweed” on the Virginia Wildflowers website. She has graciously granted me permission to repost here as a guest blog.


Poke Milkweed


Asclepias exaltata

There are several species of milkweed in our area; the flowers might be pink, red, orange, green or white. Pictured above is a white species called poke milkweed or tall milkweed. It grows 3 to 6 feet in height and bears large, smooth leaves that are opposite and broadly elliptic in shape. When the plant is in bloom, drooping umbels of white flowers emerge from the upper leaf axils. The flowers may be shaded purplish or green.


milkweed flower
Milkweed flower. Note the 5 petals that are bent backwards and the crown of 5 white hoods, each bearing a single white, curved “horn” that is longer than the hood.



All milkweed flowers have a unique structure: there are 5 petals that bend backwards around a central crown of 5 incurved “hoods” that sometimes bear a single “horn”. Poke milkweed flowers follow this pattern, and in this case, the horns are longer than the hoods.

Milkweeds are probably best known for the white “milk” or latex that is exuded from the plant when a leaf or stem is broken. The milk can be toxic if ingested, although some people say that milkweed can be eaten if the plants are young and the cook who prepares them uses special precautions. As for me, I think I’ll pass on the eating part! I can enjoy them just the way they are!

Originally posted on
NEXT WEEK: Jekyll & Hyde: The American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Seeds in Silk

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When my husband and I first moved to Washington state four decades ago, I used to take our little boy on summer morning walks along what was still a country lane, down by a creek. Back then, no traffic disturbed the mallards padding about on mud flats or catching chunks of bread I tossed. Thoroughbred horses nibbled in a nearby pasture. Grey husks of milkweed pods grew along the ditch. I gathered them to add to my dried flower arrangements with the sea oats I had smuggled from a Florida beach. Gathering sea oats is now against the law as they help protect the sand dunes from shifting and slipping into the sea during storms.

I was surprised when my milkweed pods dried and popped open, spilling a froth of spun silk embedded with brown seeds. In my naivete, I pulled out the fiber puffs and tossed them into the kitchen garbage, seeds and all. I ran a finger over the pearlescent interior of the husks, smooth as — well — silk hidden inside a rough exterior. It reminded me of the insides of Florida oyster shells I used to collect.

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Little did I know that I should have scattered those milkweed seeds in my garden. I thought the plant was just another wild weed to add texture to a wild flower arrangement inside my house. That silky stuff was just messy. It was one of my neighbors who taught me the purpose of milkweed.

Milkweed varieties serve as host plants for caterpillars and a nectar source for the adult butterflies. Over 100 species of the genus Asclepias in North America are known for the milky latex-based sap contained in their leaves. When the butterfly larvae ingest this toxic milkweed sap, they are making both themselves and the adult butterflies smell and taste yucky to potential predators. Yet the plants themselves smell and taste sweet to egg-laying female monarchs. 

Milkweed used to be quite plentiful along country lanes and in ditches alongside farmers’ fields. And so were monarch butterflies. Modern agricultural practices and commercial developments have rendered much of the farm belt an unwelcome place for monarch habitats. Home gardeners,  on the other hand, can make a difference in reconstituting butterfly habitats, garden by garden.

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Here are seven high-quality nectar producers and their growing regions:

  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a popular nectar plant bearing dark orange blossoms and rough, sapless leaves that egg-laying females bypass. Native to Southeast Region.
  • Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) used to be the ubiquitous roadside weed, especially in farming communities. It’s an aggressive spreader by underground rhizomes and grows six feet tall. Native to Northeast Region.
  • Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) extends thick erect stems bearing long pointed narrow leaves whorled at their base. It blooms in clusters of lavender or lavender-tinted white flowers. Also: Asclepias verticillata which bears clusters of white flowers that look like narcissus growing in open prairies. Native to California.
  • Sandhill/Pinewoods milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) grows in dry sandy areas, as its name suggests. The word “humistrata” means low growing or sprawling. Native to some regions of Florida, it bears pale flower clusters.
  • Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) bears deep purplish-pink fragrant flower clusters with white star-shaped centers. With three-foot tall stems covered in grey five-inch leaves, the plant grows from a deep tap root in savannahs and prairies. This is the variety I have seen here in the Yakima Valley, Central Washington state.
  • Swamp milkweed (Asclapias incarnata) bears pink blooms and exudes a vanilla scent. This pretty, bushy plant is native in marshy areas across most of the United States and parts of Canada.
  • Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is the most popular egg-laying species, as well as a late season nectar source for third-generation monarchs. Native to the northern region, its flower clusters flame yellow and orange.


In your garden area you’ve dedicated to butterfly habitat, grow as many varieties as you can that are suitable to your region. On a late fall or early winter day, scatter the seeds wherever you’d like them to grow, especially among your perennials, but not near bird baths or feeders. Birds are the primary predators of both caterpillars and the young adult butterfly.

Next step: Press them against the soil without covering them. They need exposure to light and cold air of the winter months for spring germination.

Final step: Walk away! That’s right. They’ll do their thing the natural way.

Come spring, enjoy the blooms, then in March or April watch for tiny white eggs on the underside of the leaves — but don’t disturb them! They’ll look like a single white dot on each leaf.

After four days, check for hatching caterpillars. Don’t be alarmed when you discovered they’ve nibbled holes in your prized leaves; try not to squawk as I did the first time that happened to me. Those caterpillars are hungry.

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After two weeks, watch for the chrysalis to form and curl up like a silk bag hanging by a thread.

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After ten days, you can discern orange and black colors showing through the silk bag. Invite your children to join you in a butterfly watch party. The first generation of butterflies to is about to emerge, stretch orange and black wings, and flutter away. 

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It’s really like watching little miracles in your garden, don’t you think?

Milkweed Seed Collection (6 Individual Seed Packets) Open Pollinated Seeds
available from Amazon.com

Free Shipping for Prime Members

Quality Milkweed seeds packaged by Seed Needs. Packets are 3.25″ wide by 4.50″ tall and come with a full colored illustration on the front side, as well as detailed sowing instructions on the reverse.

This Milkweed Seed Assortment will include 6 individual packages of seed. Each packet contains 100+ seeds, totaling up to 600+ seeds collectively.

The following Milkweed varieties are included: Swamp Milkweed, Showy Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Butterfly Milkweed, Autumn Blaze Mixed Milkweed and Mexican Milkweed (AKA Bloodflower).

Milkweed typically grows between 12 inches and 48 inches tall, depending on the variety grown. They will attract an array of beneficial insects to the garden, and act as the Monarch Butterflies main food source.

All Milkweed seeds sold by Seed Needs are Non-GMO based seed products and are intended for the current & the following growing season. All seeds are produced from open pollinated plants, stored in a temperature controlled facility and constantly moved out due to popularity.

Build a Backyard Butterfly Garden

Invitation to the Garden

How can you help save the diminishing population of Monarch butterflies? Grow herbs! Plant milkweed! Scatter seeds of summer annuals! The plants will grow, the flowers bloom, and butterflies will show up and do their thing.

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But first, before  you even purchase one flat of summer annuals or buy a packet of seeds, do your research. What kind of butterfly species appear in your region? Where do they live? When are they usually sighted? Check out a global distribution map online to determine the answers to those questions. Consult a plant hardiness zone map for flowers appropriate to your region.

Your next step is to consider soil, light, and air flow. Butterfly plants prefer soil that’s well-drained but rich in organic matter such as compost. At least six hours of sunshine and partial shade is best for most annuals and perennials that attract butterflies. Make sure your yard is not…

View original post 650 more words

Build a Backyard Butterfly Garden

How can you help save the diminishing population of Monarch butterflies? Grow herbs! Plant milkweed! Scatter seeds of summer annuals! The plants will grow, the flowers bloom, and butterflies will show up and do their thing.

Related image

But first, before  you even purchase one flat of summer annuals or buy a packet of seeds, do your research. What kind of butterfly species appear in your region? Where do they live? When are they usually sighted? Check out a global distribution map online to determine the answers to those questions. Consult a plant hardiness zone map for flowers appropriate to your region.

Your next step is to consider soil, light, and air flow. Butterfly plants prefer soil that’s well-drained but rich in organic matter such as compost. At least six hours of sunshine and partial shade is best for most annuals and perennials that attract butterflies. Make sure your yard is not in a “wind tunnel”! To soften the air flow for tissue-thin butterfly wings, include barrier plants such as trees, shrubbery, hedges and fences, the ell of your house.

Now, after you have considered all those requirements, you are ready to design a  garden plan and choose the plants that yield the nectar that butterfly species in your area most favor.

In the illustration below left, a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips nectar from cluster blossoms of a buddleia or “butterfly bush.” I have been unable to identify the other smaller butterfly for certain. It could be a juvenile Monarch (Danaus plexippus)..

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(1) In this stage, consider where best to site your butterfly garden. For example, I can observe butterflies as well as birds while I sit on my courtyard in the northeast ell of my house. From there, my eyes sweep the whole back yard, but stop short of the east lane — now, that’s a wind tunnel! — leading to the front gate.

If you lack space for an in-ground garden, you can design a container garden for your front entrance or apartment balcony, as European city dwellers do.

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(2) Provide a spot for resting and sunning, such as a small rock cairn, garden sculpture, even the rim of a shallow water dish. One of my water dishes holds a small sculptured turtle, a perfect perch for a tired butterfly.

A Nickerbean Blue (Cyclargus ammon) perches on a warm rock pile.

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Little mud puddles from rain or soaker hoses attract butterflies, too, when my resident robin isn’t bathing in one. A saucer of wet sand works, too.

HINT: Don’t be fooled by so-called butterfly houses, unless you want one as a garden ornament. Unlike nesting birds, butterflies don’t live in houses. Nor do they nest. They lay eggs right out in the open among herbs such as dill, fennel, parsley, white clover in the lawn, and, of course, milkweed. (More about milkweed next week.)

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(3) Plan to develop a heady nectar banquet of summer annuals such as sweet alyssum pungent in honey fragrance — a particularly enticing aroma for butterflies and bees, especially in midday heat. Other choices include black-eyed Susan, blue cornflower, cosmos, globe amaranth, heliotrope, larkspur, nicotiana, phlox, salvia, sunflower, zinnia.

Buddleia — butterfly bush — heads the list of perennial cluster blooms that attract butterflies, followed by asters, bee balm, Joe Pye weed, and milkweed. Yellow umbels of yarrow attract Swallowtail butterflies like shining beacons standing tall above pink phlox.

Another Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips through a bent “straw” from a buddleia. Notice that each floweret is tubular, perfect for butterflies as well as hummingbirds. 

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You can find other plant suggestions by touring public butterfly gardens in your area and by downloading the Monarch Plant List at http://www.pollinator.org. 

(4) Remember to include children in your butterfly garden. One of my favorite  books from childhood had a picture of a little boy chasing a butterfly with a long net attached to a stick, another one of a child’s hand holding a single swallowtail resting on her outstretched finger. Children love these delicate creatures they call “flutterbys”; they’re especially fascinated by all the stages of the butterfly life cycle.

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(5) Avoiding insecticides should go without saying. Don’t even consider using them in your butterfly garden! Learn to put up with a few aphids and leaf hoppers, or simply spray your plants daily with a fine mist until the infestation ends. Once a week, you can squirt a bit of liquid soap into your spray.

NEXT WEEK: Milkweed for Monarchs

NOTE: If you live in central Washington state, please join me at the Monarch Butterfly Release Party hosted by Cowiche Canyon Conservancy on Sunday, September 9th, 2-4 p.m., Cowiche Creek Brewing Company, 514 Thompson Road, Cowiche (west from Yakima). Contact Cindy Dunbar,  Operations Support, at 509-248-5065 / www.cowichecanyon.org for specific directions and further information.

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Join In The Fun! Join In The July 2018 Tea Party!

We’re invited to The Little Mermaid’s online tea party, folks. I love this idea, so I’ve accepted. How about y’all?

The Little Mermaid

“What better way to suggest friendliness – and to create it – than with a cup of tea?” -J. Grayson Luttrell

Aloha, charming WordPressers!

I’m delighted to announce you that The Little Mermaid is hosting her first ever monthly tea party on her website. What? A tea party? On WordPress? When? How? For whom? Alright..alright…take it easy. I’m coming on to your questions.

Classically, a ‘tea party’ makes one think of superiorly elegant and elaborate affairs of the Victorian times. It also conjures up images of fluffy scones, flavoursome muffins, Devonshire Cream and dainty sandwiches served on fine silver or deluxe bone china. Still, the elemental part of a tea party remains the affable exchange of dialogue among the invitees. Almost indistinguishably, the tea party that I am organizing is an online social event hosted in honour of bloggers, that is US! Blogging is most enjoyable when it is done…

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Sacred Firs Save the Butterflies

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High up the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central Mexico, orange and black wings of Monarch Butterflies flitter and flutter under dense canopies of oyamel firs.

This dense canopy, like an umbrella, maintains a cool, moist microclimate, a delicate ecosystem for these delicate creatures by slowing down the butterflies’ metabolism for winter hibernation.

The oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) is so named because of the “religious” cross formed at the tip of each branch. Sometimes referred to as a sacred fir, the trees reach high mountain altitudes of nearly 7,000 to over 13,000 feet above sea level.

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Although fir-clad mountain peaks scatter across the volcanic area from Valisco to Veracruz, monarch butterflies limit themselves to an area known as the Monarch Biosphere Reserve — between 9,5000 to 10,800 feet up.

Climate change, however, can diminish the Monarch’s blankets and umbrellas of firs. Temperatures will rise. Water supplies will dwindle. Trees will be stressed out and become more susceptible to disease and pests. Then where will the butterflies go to overwinter?

Climate change isn’t the only challenge. Deforestation as well as natural disease wreaks devastation. Trees underpin ecosystems and provide habitat for countless species, not just butterflies — chipmunks, squirrels, migratory birds — not to mention human economies.

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On the other hand, reforestation presents its own challenges. In assisted migration per managed relocation, seedlings would have to be planted farther north along the mountain range, eventually reaching the limits of the tree line. Up there, the ground is rocky and icy; and the thin air is far too cold for overwintering any species, let alone delicate butterfly populations.

According to a research study in 2012, scientific models suggest that, by 2090, no suitable habitats for the oyamel firs will exist within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve protected by the Mexican government (Forest Ecology & Management, Saenz-Romero et al.). That’s a decrease of 69.2 percent around 2030, alone!

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All is not lost, however. Four years ago, several hundred seedlings were planted at over 1100 feet where suitable oyamel habitat is expected to be by 2030. Those conditions do not yet exist. The current climate could mean frost damage to these seedlings. What is required is a massive [my emphasis] assisted migration effort.

And soon.

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In the meantime, how can we summer butterfly lovers help save the Monarch? Plant milkweed! Build a butterfly garden, especially of summer annuals. The plants will grow, the flowers blooms, and butterflies will show up and do their thing.

TELL ME: What do butterflies mean to you? What do you feel or think when you spy a butterfly fluttering about your backyard?

NEXT WEEK: How to Build a Butterfly Habitat in Your Backyard


The King of Butterflies

Nearly all the forest, from valley to ridge, looks altered and pale, the beige of dead leaves. These are evergreen trees, they should be dark, but that isn’t foliage. There is movement in it. The branches seem to writhe. . . Then the sun emerges and the light shifts. . . Intense color sweeps up the valley like a rippling wave across a lake . . . revealing millions of monarch butterflies alighting to spend the winter in southern Appalachia, far from their usual Mexican migration spot.

If the temperature drops into the mid-20s, not at all unusual in the Appalachian Mountains, winter could mean the demise of these monarchs, these kings of the butterflies [my paraphrase].

Thus begins Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior (c. 2012), a fictional story embedded in the etymological real-life world of drastic climate change.

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The name “Monarch” is distinctive among milkweed butterflies and does not apply to just any orange and black butterfly. There are three others: Queen, Soldier, and Viceroy. I have viceroys with their rapid flap-glide flitting about my garden during late summers.

Monarchs (danaus plexippus) are recognized by their distinctive wing colors of burnt orange with black veins and white dots along the edges of both main wing and hind wing. The male bears a small black spot along a vein on each hind wing. Among the species unique to North America, they are two-thirds the size of the Western Tiger Swallowtails that I wrote about last week.

One life cycle of a monarch comprises four stages of development – (1) egg, (2) larvae/caterpillar, (3) pupa/chrysalis, and (4) adult butterfly. In one year, one butterfly produces four broods or generations. What appears to us as a season of summer butterflies flitting about our backyard flower gardens is actually a series of summer butterfly generations. Each butterfly’s genes carry a microcosm of all the previous generations; thus, each generation begins its next cycle. Here how that works:

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Stage One. The first generation begins in February and March when the butterfly emerges from winter hibernation, migrates north and east, finds a place to lay eggs.

Stage Two. March and April, lay eggs on milkweed plants.  After only four days, the egg hatches as a caterpillar.

Stage Three. After two weeks, the caterpillar begins its metamorphosis, transforming itself into a silk chrysalis for ten days, finally emerging as a fully formed butterfly which . . .

Stage Four . . . flies away later in April, feeds on flowers and enjoys its brief life for six weeks.

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The second generation is born in May and June; the third is born in July and August. The fourth generation – butterflies that emerge in the fall – is the one that migrates 3000 miles from Canada, through the state of Texas, to Central Mexico’s Sierra Nevada Mountains for winter hibernation.

Monarchs begin their migrations as individual butterflies, persevering in spite of damaged and torn wings. Gradually they join up with thousands of others as the homing instinct takes over. Genetic memory of the mother-daughter persists in finding their overwintering sites each year. Entomologists have yet to figure out this system.

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To conserve their energy, they glide like hawks by catching thermal currents and rise higher and higher. To us watching from below, they look like dark orange clouds heralding a storm, but the storm is only winds from thousands of fluttering wings. Finally, on November 1st and 2nd, the Mexican Dios Muerto, they reach their overwintering sites in Michoacán – thus the Aztec tradition that these butterflies are the souls of the dearly departed, returned home for an annual visit.

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At night the butterflies roost high in the oyamel forests of large, multi-trunk trees where they appear like orange and brown leaves of autumn. The oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) is so named because of the “religious” cross formed at the tip of each branch. Sometimes call a sacred fir, it reaches altitudes of nearly 7,000 to over 13,000 feet above sea level. Mexicans cut branches for religious festivals, especially at Christmas.

When the sun comes out, they flutter and frolic and feast from favorite flowers, but if a cloud passes over, they panic and rush back to the trees like flapping breezes. By Mexico’s early spring, they come out of hibernation and follow their mother-daughter instinct north to begin the cycle all over again.



Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

The Butterfly’s Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe


NEXT WEEK: “Sacred Firs: Saving the Oyamel Forests”