In this day and age pretty much everyone knows about the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. It wasn’t always that way.
Before modern chemical weed killers, farmers had limited ways of dealing with weeds. Depending on the weather conditions, a farmer might have to go over a field two or three times with a horse drawn cultivator. Later, cultivators were mounted on tractors but the process stayed the same. An efficient farmer could do a pretty job of controlling most of the annual weeds, perennial weeds were harder especially if they became established in a field. The only thing to do was to send the family out to the fields with hoes to try to keep the weeds at a minimum.
Milkweeds were one of those perennial weeds that farmers were constantly battling. When the first herbicides were developed, farmers no longer had to spend so much time and energy constantly going over their fields. Perennial weeds like milkweed still were a problem however and farmers hated them. I remember when I was young seeing a beautiful field of some sort of crop — I don’t remember what crop it was — that was completely free of weeds except for a colony of milkweeds that you could see from over a hundred yards away.
Nowadays modern herbicides are very efficient at controlling all types of weeds so we never see milkweeds in farm fields anymore. They’re limited to fence rows, ditches and other out of the way places. The number of milkweeds for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on and for their caterpillars to eat has been drastically reduced. Now, farming organizations that used to join in the battle against milkweeds now pass out seeds and encourage people to re-establish them.
Milkweeds still have the potential to get out of control and become a nuisance. Once they become establish they will spread by way of underground roots. Those roots are very tough and strong and are able to push themselves into surrounding areas and compete with other plants. In one spot in my yard, I started out with a single milkweed plant next to my garage a few years ago. That has now turned into a colony of plants that is over 40 feet long. One of these days I’ll have to do something with them before they really get out of hand.
Another patch is beginning to encroach into the vegetable garden. They’re pushing their way up through seams in the plastic mulch I have laid out.
I don’t mind my milkweeds being a bit unruly, it’s fun , at least for now, to see those plants thrive in the yard. It reminds me that it won’t be long before the monarchs are back.
We still have plenty of winter left to go until spring arrives. In the meantime you can bring a little bit of spring early into your home by forcing shrub and tree branches into budding out of season.
The shrub everyone thinks of first is pussy willows with their irresistible silver, fuzzy buds. There are others that you can force into budding but you have to start now if you want results before spring. Some species of woody plants, such as forsythia, may take only a couple weeks to bloom while other plants may take a month or more.
Fruit trees like apple, cherry and pear can produce showy flowers. Others like maple tree branches are more subtle with their separate male and female flowers.
Aspen and other poplar trees will often send out a pendulous spray of flowers that remind you of warm days ahead. Many other species will reward you with green leaves that have their own charm when viewed up close. Indoors, some leaves even have a faint spring-like fragrance that is lost in the great outdoors during their normal budding season.
Forcing branches is a great excuse to use your special flower vase that has been sitting empty or that rustic flower container. It’s fun to experiment with forcing different types of trees and shrubs. Here’s a list to help you get started: for flowers try forsythia, dogwood, pear, cherry, plum, quince, apple, crab apple, currants, maple and willow. For leaves: beech, poplar and roses.
It’s important to start early because of the time it takes for the branches to respond to being brought inside where it’s warm. Make sure to use sharp pruning shears to make nice clean cuts with no ragged edges. Change the water in your container from time to time to keep it fresh and free from algae.
Use your artistic eye to arrange your branches in an attractive way since you’ll be looking at them for a few weeks without anything noticeable happening. Keep in mind the buds are very fragile once they start opening and can easily be broken off if you’re not careful.
It’s a lot of fun seeing all of the different kinds of Christmas decoration folks have put together out of natural materials. Wreaths have evolved way past just a simple circle of evergreen boughs with a red ribbon tied to it, although you still see plenty of those.
As gardeners we have the opportunity to grow or gather together the raw materials for unique Christmas decorations. For example around here at pruning time, we save our grapevine trimmings and roll them up into circles, that’s a common one many people do. But other materials can be used as well. Many flowers, shrubs , stalks even weeds have interesting features that can be quite decorative. Who remembers making Christmas items in elementary school out of milkweed seedpods?
You only have to use your imagination a little to come up with something that is really neat and one-of-a-kind. If you’re not the creative type, you can always glean ideas from Pinterest.
Right now, while you’re thinking of it, make a note in your phone’s calendar app to remind yourself next spring and summer to look for raw materials for your 2018 Christmas. Maybe you’ll even come up with something cool enough to post on Pinterst yourself.
By the time mid-November in Michigan rolls around you’d think that we’ve seen the last of blooming plants until spring, that’s what I though anyway. Once again, I forgot all about our witch hazel bush that started blooming a week or so before Thanksgiving.
Witch hazel is a native plant in our area. Back when I was a kid I used to see them along the edge of the woods near our house and wonder; are those spidery-looking yellow things on that bush really flowers?
Like many other plants, witch hazel flowers are pollinated by insects, despite the fact that November is not the biggest month for insects in Michigan. With this warm November we’ve been having, there has to be a lot more insects around to pollinate the flowers. Maybe that will result in a larger than average crop of witch hazel seeds.
Although pollination happens this time of the year, the seeds don’t start to grow until spring. They are produced in easy-to-see, green, capsule-like structures that form where the flowers were. Later in the summer as the capsules turn brown and ripen, the seeds are explosively ejected up to 30 feet away. I’ve never had a chance to see this in person but might one of these days since our shrub is right next to the deck.
Witch hazels grow very slowly, the one in our yard is about eight feet tall and has been there for almost 15 years. That can be an advantage in smaller yards since they rarely get too big for a space and out-grow their welcome. They can get up to 20 feet tall but I’ve never seen one taller than around 12 feet in our neck of the woods.
Plant nurseries and garden centers sell potted witch hazel. But be aware that they often offer the imported Japanese witch hazel or Chinese witch hazel, both of which bloom in late winter rather than in the fall.
I was a startled the other day as I was putting on my coat getting ready to go outside. It was quiet in the house and I was the only one home. All of a sudden I heard a snap and the clickey-clack sound of what sounded like small beads landing on the table and front entry tile floor. At first I thought maybe the cat had discovered something and was playing. I often blame the cat for things but to be honest, he very rarely is at fault. I looked up thinking a part the ceiling lamp had disintegrated or one of the lights failed however, everything was intact.
It took a few minutes of investigating but I found out what caused the mysterious sound. Scattered around on the floor and furniture I found a whole slew of seeds that I quickly realized were lupine seeds. Earlier this fall we collected some lupine seed pods from a roadside near us hoping to re-establish a Lupine perennis population on our property. When we got home, we put the pods in a bowl on the table in the front entry and just forgot all about them.
Plants have many ways of spreading their seeds. For example, squirrels bury acorns, maple trees have those little helicopters thingys and milkweed uses silky parashoots that are carried by the wind. Other seeds stick to animals or pass through the digestive systems of birds and are dropped far away from the parent plant.
Lupine seed pods explode when they mature, throwing seeds several feet in all directions. Botanists call this spontaneous phenomenon dehiscence. You may have seen this with other plants such as impatiens or sorrels. In this case, inside the house, it was very surprising.
I made a mental note to make sure I told my wife about it but, through the course of a busy day, I forgot about it. Later that evening when were binge watching Blue Bloods, all of a sudden we heard a snap! and the clicking sound of seeds bouncing off of the walls. Another seed pod exploded ricocheting seeds all over the place. It was then I remembered what it was I meant to tell her.
The mystery sound was solved and the cat was once again vindicated.
When I was aroud ten years old, back when all kids were free-range, I spotted spotted a plant during my wanderings that impressed me so much that I’m intrigued by it to this day. I didn’t know what it was called at the time. It wasn’t until later, when I was in college, that I found out it was called dogbane.
What caught my eye way back then, were the long, thin seed pods. They were hanging from the plant in two’s, connected to each other at the top. What looked weird to me was the fact they weren’t attached like two green beans. They appeared to be one pod that grew into two parts, separating at the top. I’d never seen anything like that before in my young life.
I’m not sure if dogbane was ever that hard to find but I have noticed however, in the past twenty years, more and more dogbane growing all over our area. That’s probably due to more people leaving space for wild plants to grow for butteries, pollinators and other wildlife
A few years back someone brought me a part of the plant that they had collected asking what the plant was. Recognizing it immediately, I said without hesitating “that’s dogbane”. They looked at me like I was BS-ing them, like I made the name up. I could tell they didn’t believe me when they took their plant and just walked away. The next day they told me they had done research on their own and discovered that indeed the was a plant called dogbane and that yes, their plant really was dogbane.
There’s a spot on my property that I cultivated as a vegetable garden for a few years. I decided it wasn’t a good garden spot so I let it go back wild. Lots of different plants moved in including a single dogbane. That one plant has since expanded into a fairly dense stand. Right now the stand is turning a beautiful gold color.
On farms, dogbane can develop into a fairly serious weed. Since it reproduces by seed and by underground rhizomes is can form stands that out-compete field crops. In most cases farmers keep it under control by herbicides or crop rotation.