Monday, August 21, 2017

Whorled Milkweed

I like to grow a lot of milkweed plants in my garden, as milkweed is the only larval host for Monarch Butterflies, whose famous multi-generational migration across North America is sadly in danger of going extinct.  While many are familiar with milkweeds sold in nurseries, such as Tropical Milkweed, Rose Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed, there are actually many different types of milkweed plants.  One that is a little different and blooming in my garden this year for the first time is Asclepias verticillata, aka Whorled Milkweed or Horsetail Milkweed.

Whorled Milkweed
Asclepias verticillata has thin, very narrow leaves, different than most other milkweeds.  It grows to about 1 or 2 feet high, with umbels of white flowers and leaves that are whorled around the stem, giving this plant its name ('verticillata' is Latin for 'whorled').

Whorled Milkweed is native to eastern and central North America, found in dry prairies, open grassy woodlands, and areas of disturbed soil, such as fields and roadsides.  It likes full to partial sun, grows in medium to dry soils, and is hardy from zone 3-10.  It is a good milkweed to grow on a dry, difficult site, as it is quite drought tolerant once established.

With its narrow stems and leaves, it's one of those plants that I think would work well with other low perennials and grasses.  It blooms mid-summer through fall, a little later than other milkweeds.  It is also one of the last milkweeds to go dormant, making it an important source of food for Monarch caterpillars late in the season.

Whorled Milkweed spreads by seed and by rhizomes.  I grew my plants from seeds by winter-sowing, as the seeds need a period of moist cold to germinate.  It is one of the more toxic varieties of milkweed, so it is very critter resistant (more so than my Rose Milkweed this year, which I think is being eaten by a very mischievous groundhog).  Accordingly, it should not be grown anywhere near livestock that might eat it.  The white flowers attract bees, beneficial wasps, moths, and butterflies, though they are not as fragrant as some other milkweeds.

Because of their long history of use as medicinal plants, Carl Linnaeus gave milkweeds the botanical name of 'Asclepias' after Asclepias, the Greek god of medicine.  Whorled milkweed is no different, historically used by several Native American tribes to treat snakebites, to relieve nose and throat problems, and to increase the milk of nursing mothers.

I really like the airy look of Whorled Milkweed in my garden.  It is a great alternative to the orange-flowered Butterfly Weed for a dry, sunny site - especially in my more pastel-themed front yard garden.  I look forward to watching it grow and seeing if it attracts any late-season Monarchs.

Happy gardening!

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Mid-Summer Garden

A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining,
the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing,
and the lawn mower is broken.
 ~James Dent

Ah, mid-summer, when the garden is bursting with flowers...

and humming with activity.

What would summer be without flowers in the garden and birds, bees, and butterflies to flutter about them?

This summer I am beyond excited to see a good number of Monarch butterflies in the garden - more than I've seen in the previous three years combined.

Such a hopeful thing sign!  We've also been fortunate this year to have a cooler summer with enough rain to make up for last year's bad drought.  Mid-summer has brought some big storms, but other than a few downed plants, my garden is not complaining about the extra water. 

Mid-summer has also brought new blooms to the garden.  I am in love with the color of these 'Shell Pink' Balloon Flowers, winter sowed a couple years ago and finally in bloom.

'Shell Pink' Balloon Flower
Does anyone else grow Sweet Peas?  I grew them for the first time from seed this year.  They sulked after being transplanted and I thought they might die off, but they rebounded and began blooming in July.  The smell is divine!  It's a plant I don't seem to see often in other gardens, despite being one of those 'cottage favorites'.

Some other plants blooming in my garden for the first time this year include Black Cohosh, Whorled MilkweedGray-headed Coneflower, and a pretty pass-along daylily.

Clockwise from top left:the greenhouse garden, Black Cohosh, daylily, Swamp Verbena, Gray-headed Coneflower, Whorled Milkweed
The vegetable garden is producing green beans and zucchini aplenty by mid-summer.  The garlic has already been harvested with turnips, carrots, and bok choy sown in its place for fall.  I thought I hadn't gotten many snow peas this year... until my kids informed me that they had been going out and eating them off the vines every day.  The coveted snow peas kept producing until mid-July, petering out just as the beans kicked in.  I am still eagerly waiting for that first ripe tomato, though, which should any day now.

vegetable garden
While there is always work to be done in the garden this time of year (thanks to weeds, weeds, and more weeds), one must stop and just soak in its beauty once in awhile!  In my opinion there's nothing like walking through the summer garden in the early morning, when the air is still cool and the birds are beginning to wake.  

Alas, in the early mornings I am usually stumbling to the coffee maker while mumbling incoherent things to my wide-awake children.  Thankfully summer evenings are often just as lovely, if a tad warmer!

I hope everyone is enjoying summer and all the beauty it brings.
As always, happy gardening!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghost Pipe Plant

All gardeners have bucket lists - plants they'd love to grow, gardens they want to visit, plants they want to see.  I was excited to be able to check one of my bucket items off the list this week.  While walking near some woods, I spotted a plant I had always wanted to see since first hearing about it: the Ghost Pipe Plant!

Ghost Pipe Plant
The Ghost Pipe Plant (Monotropa uniflora), aka Indian Pipe or Corpse Plant, is a perennial wildflower that is native to parts of North America and areas of Asia, European Russia, and northern South America.  This tiny plant is fascinating in that it doesn't contain any chlorophyll.  It is usually completely white, but will sometimes have some pink or even red coloration.

Instead of getting energy from the sun, the Ghost Pipe plant is parasitic.  It grows on types of mycorrhizal fungi which in turn grow on tree roots.  The mycorrhizal fungi, which usually grows on leaf litter, gives nutrients and water to the tree roots in return for sugars from the tree.  The parasitic Ghost Pipe steals some of these sugars from the fungi.  It's quite a complex relationship, which is why these plants are somewhat of a rare and delightful find!  They are pretty much impossible to transplant or propagate.

emerging Ghost Pipe plants
Because it does not need the sun, Ghost Pipe can grow in deep shade.  It is mostly found in damp, rich, mature woodlands, which is the type of place that I found this colony of Ghost Pipe plants growing.

Like its botanical name Monotropa uniflora suggests, each stem just has one flower which blooms for a week or two anytime from late spring to fall.  The flower is pollinated by small bees, after which the flower turns upwards and is then replaced by a seed capsule.  The stem turns black and dies off, but the perennial root mass will live to bloom the next year.

Ghost Pipe was used medicinally by some Native Americans tribes as an anti-convulsive and an analgesic, as well as to treat conditions such as eye problems, bunions, and fevers.  It is still occasionally used by herbalists, unfortunately leading to over-harvesting in some cases, making this plant even rarer.   Interestingly, grizzly bears have been known to dig up the root mass to eat it.  While raw Ghost Pipe is mildly toxic for people, it is said to be edible (though bland) in small to moderate amounts.  When cooked, it is said to taste rather like asparagus, though I would not recommend picking this plant at all.  Rather I would advise leaving these tiny wildflowers undisturbed so that more people can have the fun of spotting such an unusual plant. 

I know I got a thrill out of it!

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