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Got Milkweed?

If you are reading this, doubtless you know the Golden Rule of Biodiversity: plant milkweed. Please. No, I take back the “please”. Just do it. Even if you garden on only a balcony, grow some milkweed in a clay pot. However you manage it (ie “float” its diaphanous seed in the parkway or the alley), be a guerrilla biodiversifier and…plant milkweed.

You know why I am pushy about this plant: because its leaves are the only thing that Monarch butterflies can eat. As noted entomologist Doug Tallamy says, “To have butterflies, we need to make butterflies. To make butterflies, you must use a native species that serve as a host for butterfly larvae [Ed: that’s a caterpillar] as well as a supply of nectar for adult butterflies. Butterflies do not lay their eggs on any old plant. They lay their eggs only on the plant species to which their larvae are adapted”. And that means…Milkweed.

You even have choices when it comes to which milkweed, but three species are commonly available in garden centers or via seed packets:

The Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca], which has husky leaves, roots that grow to China, and a handsome dusty rose globe of a flower. [If you are worried about this being too aggressive, look for its cousin, Sullivant’s milkweed, which grows slowly, albeit by rhizomes, which means its good in tough-to-grow-anything-else spots. Nonetheless, I like the Common milkweed in gardens–it provides a tall, solid, almost tropical contrast although you might have to tie it up with a strong shoelace.]



Common Milkweed

The Butterfly weed [Asclepias tuberosa], which has flowers the extravagant color of a Navel orange, does well in dry, “crappy” soils, and makes a great bouquet;

1-P1060073 butterfly weed



The Red or Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata] has a two-toned pink flower, narrow leaves, and a pleasing way of gracing a moist spot–especially nice en masse if you have a lake edge to landscape.

Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata]

Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata]

And if Monarch’s weren’t good enough for you, at least 11 other species of butterflies and moths reproduce on milkweed as well. Goldfinches eat the insects that get trapped in the flowers and also use milkweed seed “down” for nesting material, and you may see (good) beetles on the plants as well. Biodiversity can be easy if you try!

Milkweed pods and the seeds that float on the air...

Milkweed pods and the seeds that float on the air…

Okay, I’ll be nice again. PLEASE plant milkweed someplace on your property. Or your balcony. And now I won’t be nice: if you work for a municipality, we gardeners expect to see milkweed growing everywhere around town. It’s the law.#

The Baltimore Oriole is Back!

Thanks to subscriber Nancy Coolley for photographing this stunning Baltimore oriole [Icterus galbula] in her backyard. Look at the clever rig Nancy devised for hanging the oranges. Great idea! And after they eat the oranges in early May, they want a chaser of grape jelly, but how in the world do you hang up the jar?

Baltimore Oriole 5-12-2013 3-28-59 AM 480x360This bird has probably the prettiest nest of all our northern birds. It’s a finely-woven silvery pouch that hangs about 25′ up on the branches of oaks, lindens, elms, maples and birch trees. The Orioles return to the same site year after year. These birds love to eat insects, especially caterpillars (ie tent caterpillars-ugh), aphids, borers (ash borers!), ants and beetles. They also eat the delicious berries of Serviceberry [Amelanchier], red mulberry, wild cherry, and blueberry. By the way, the blueberry is a highly underutilized shrub in the landscape. It is beautiful red in the fall!

The Baltimore oriole is the state bird of Maryland. Why? Because it was named for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baron of Baltimore, who thought Maryland (named either for the King’s wife or the mother of Jesus, or both, no one seems to know) would be a fine place for English Catholics such as himself. The colors on his family crest were…orange and black. As it would happen, everyone who arrived from England to work tobacco was either Protestant or criminal, but the English Catholics got to be in charge. Anyway, the good news is that in 1649, Maryland passed the first law ever to guarantee the right to worship regardless of denomination. So whenever you see this beautiful bird, please also appreciate the idea of religious toleration.

Oh, there are three books I like about “birdscaping”: Wild About Birds: the DNR Bird Feeding Guide; Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams; and The Bird Garden by Stephen W. Kress. Oldies but goodies, just like me.##




Little Bird, Big Threat

KildeerThis little Kildeer was very upset with me when I walked too close last evening in the Middlefork Nature Preserve in Lake Forest. He (she?) spread its tailfeathers and kept lurching at me–a sure sign that it wanted me–gone! Story of my life….

Here’s what Cornell says about this ubiquitous shorebird: Listen to its call as well. I can’t pick up the sound of “Kil-deer, Kil-deer” but maybe you can?