Saturday, May 21, 2016

Spanish Moss, Gray Beards on the Trees

Softening the branches on many of the trees in our neighborhood, Spanish moss drapes lazily down, creating a mood redolent of heat, humidity and southern tranquility.  I love it.  The streamers of Spanish moss were one of the features I fell in love with when I first drove down this street.

So I was rather shocked when one of our neighbors started talking about how he needed to find someone to take the moss out of his trees, because it was killing them.  I knew from my time in Mobile, Alabama, that Spanish moss is an epiphyte, a plant without roots that does NOT take nutrients from the plant that it is living on.  Epiphytes get all their water and nutrients directly from the air, rain and dust.  They are NOT parasitic, as mistletoe is, despite their similar location in the canopies of trees.

How could anyone not like this beautiful, graceful, gray-green plant that waves so softly in the slightest breeze?

It turns out that there are several serious, fairly widespread misconceptions about Spanish moss.  One of the saddest and most damaging of these misconceptions is that it will harm your trees.  The truth is that Spanish moss will often colonize trees that are already beginning to decline, growing more rapidly than on nearby, healthier trees due to the increased light that occurs in the thinning canopies of the trees that are already dying.  This has made it all too easy to blame the trees' decline on the Spanish moss.

The only "damage" that Spanish moss will actually do to a healthy tree is to partially shade the leaves of the lower branches and, if it's heavily festooning a tree, increase the wind resistance should the tree be in an area unlucky enough to be hit by a hurricane.  The photo above is the canopy of the same tree in the previous photo. The tree is healthy and actively growing, despite having a large amount of Spanish moss growing on it.

Even the concern that large collections of Spanish moss can "weigh down" a branch and cause it to fall appear to be mistaken - Spanish moss is very lightweight and branches that have fallen are almost always found to have other structural weaknesses that brought them down.

So what is this odd plant?  Is it, indeed, even a plant?

Yes, indeed, Spanish moss IS a plant.  Going by the scientific name of Tillandsia usneoides, Spanish moss is actually a flowering plant in the pineapple family!  It is NOT a moss and it is NOT Spanish.  Apparently, if you look really closely during the summer months, you can see small blooms that are variously reported to be green, bluish, or yellow.  Not having looked for said blossoms, I hadn't noticed them before...but I looked for them today and I found them.   Do you see the bloom in the photo above?  Here is a closeup of it....

They are apparently even mildly fragrant.  Here is another flower, more of a true yellow in color.

Although one of the primary structures of Spanish moss is its long stem, which can reach 20 feet or more in length, there is no functional xylem or phloem in the plant.  Each cell either gathers its nutrients and moisture directly from the air and photosynthesizes energy itself or it gets its resources from a neighboring cell.  There are small, very narrow leaves.  Both the stems and leaves are covered with overlapping gray scales that are important in capturing the airborne water and nutrients that sustain this plant.

Not surprisingly since it's native to this area, Spanish moss is actually an important plant for wildlife.  Several birds use it extensively for nesting material, including the Baltimore Oriole.  The Northern Parula (warbler) is said to nest where Spanish moss and other similar lichens occur, building its nest inside the hanging festoons.  There is even a spider that lives only in Spanish moss; many other animals use it for shelter or as foraging grounds.

Looking straight up into the middle of hanging Spanish moss, you can see how nests could be hidden in the larger clumps.

Humans have traditionally used Spanish moss, too.  Native Americans made a tea from it to help cure fever and chills, and they used Spanish moss fibers in clothing, bedding, and to make rope.  They added Spanish moss to clay to make bricks and pottery stronger, and they used it to help start fires and to fire pottery.  The European settlers came to use Spanish moss, too.  Surprisingly, I learned that the seats of Model T Fords were actually stuffed with Spanish moss, as were other types of cushions and mattresses.  It was sometimes used as insulation in homes.

Even today, Spanish moss is used frequently in floral arrangements and for craft projects.  It is said to make an excellent mulch for plant beds, which I intend to try out.  It is common here to see piles of Spanish moss put out for the city waste trucks to pick up;  why not scavenge some of it, keeping it from the landfill in the process?  It's free, it's a beautiful gray-green color, and it's organic.  What's not to like?

As I did research for this post, I saw one final use mentioned for Spanish moss:  apparently in some locales it is draped from fences or wires as a privacy screen between neighbors!  I haven't seen that on Pinterest yet, but I'll bet some artful soul could really make an interesting backyard feature using the general concept.

Speaking of Spanish moss and landscape features, Mobile, Alabama, apparently used to be known for the gracious live oaks, heavily festooned with Spanish moss, that lined many of its streets.  When we lived there, we were told that the Spanish moss was declining, though, due to air pollution.  Certainly there is not much Spanish moss left in Mobile.  What little I've seen there tends to be on the back streets, which fits well with the idea that air pollution decreases its viability.

Of course, when I think about it, Spanish moss IS an epiphyte - a plant that gets all its nutrients and water from the air, rain and dust.  Is it so surprising, then, that poor air quality would decrease its health and therefore its ability to survive and reproduce?

How does Spanish moss actually reproduce?  It seems atmospheric, not reproductively vibrant.  However, as mentioned above, it's a flowering plant.  Thus, it produces (tiny) seeds that can and do produce new plants.  More frequently, though, Spanish moss probably spreads by wind or by animals such as birds, which carry small pieces of the plant from tree to tree as they move around.

Spreading across the landscape as if by magic, creating a mystical feeling by its very presence, Spanish moss is a special plant that creates a unique sense of place as it grows.  I'm excited to be able to encourage it here in our own personal landscape. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Continuing to Learn the Local Natives

When you watch a garden, day by day, it can seem like little changes in it, but if you go away for a week or two, when you come back, it's obvious how big the changes are.

The same phenomenon occurs when you walk a wild area regularly.  Greg and I went for a walk on Eglin AFB this morning, following the same trail that Anna and I took almost 2 weeks ago.  We had both dogs with us and only limited time available, so Greg and I didn't walk as far as Anna and I had, but we still got to see quite a few of the same plants, as well as a couple new bloomers.

Some plants are harder than others to identify, even when they are in full bloom. This little cutie caught my eye 2 weeks ago and it was even prettier today, but I still have no idea what it is.  It's about 6-8" tall, found in a sandhill/mixed pine and oak forest along a roughly maintained road.

The big, smooth stem in the foreground of this photo is probably a VERY healthy Smilax shoot;  it's about 1/2" in diameter, to give you a sense of scale.  Whatever it was, it hadn't leafed out yet. Here are some of the blooms from my mystery plant...

...and a closeup of one of the bloom spikes. 

If anyone can help me with the identification, I would be extremely grateful.  I doubt this plant is in the hort trade, as it is much too small to have any sort of visual impact in the landscape, but its daintiness and bright, cheery color appeal to me.

Not too far down the trail from my mysterious, little, pink charmer, we came across this healthy looking Gopherweed, Baptisia lanceolata.

Gopherweed is a horrible name for an attractive perennial, and I can find nothing about the genesis of or the rationale for the name to justify its use. Surely this pleasant plant, especially with its importance to native bees, deserves a pleasanter name!

Anyway, while the flowers aren't particularly showy, the foliage is pretty and the plant shape is nice. Like all Baptisias, Gopherweed is a nitrogen fixer for the soil, so it can be a good plant to have in the garden, especially here in sandy soil country.

Next on our wildflower discovery tour was a repeat specimen from my last visit, a pinewoods milkweed, Asclepias humistrata.  This individual was one of the only pinewoods milkweeds with fully open blooms 2 weeks ago - now it is developing a couple seed pods, but the blooms appear to be almost done.

It will be interesting to see if this plant reblooms, or if a single bloom is all that occurs, since seed will apparently develop.

Beyond the milkweed was a small, but extremely attractive, bloomer who was almost hidden behind a small, fallen branch and some other foliage.

I knew from the shape of the blooms and from the compound leaves that this plant was in the pea/bean family, but I had to come home and look it up to determine its identity.  Even after looking it up, I'm not sure what to call it.  The scientific name is Tephrosia virginica.  That's pretty straightforward.  However, there are multiple common names.  The USDA Plant Database calls it Virginia Tephrosia, so I assume that's its official common name.  It was, however, most commonly referred to as Goat's Rue.  Other common names are Devil's Shoestrings (apparently referring to its long, tough, stringy roots), Catgut, Rabbit Pea, Hoary Pea, Wild Sweetpea, and North American Turkey Pea.  That's EIGHT different common names.  Thank goodness for scientific nomenclature!

I found several other specimens of Goat's Rue further along the trail, including a couple that seemed to be small colonies, but this little individual, nestled by the reindeer moss, was my favorite.

Goat's Rue has a fairly wide range, including most of the eastern U.S., and it appears to have been a well known medicinal plant to Native Americans.  Multiple sources mentioned that its roots contain rotenone, a chemical that has been used as an organic insecticide and as a fish poison.  Probably not a plant to think about munching on.

Providing a sudden change from the spring-like colors of pink, white and yellow that I'd been seeing so far along the trail, the bright scarlet blooms of Red Basil (Calamintha coccinea) actually surprised me.

I thought this plant was primarily a fall bloomer...but apparently it will bloom at least sporadically throughout the growing season.  It's another plant I'm hoping to find a source for and then add to our yardscape - low-growing, gorgeous flowers, evergreen foliage.  The foliage is very fine textured and rather sparse, but I still think the plant is quite attractive, and in full bloom it is quite stunning.

With our truncated walk, we didn't see much wildlife:  tracks of deer, boar, and raccoon, a male towhee, and the lacy spider web....

...of a funnel spider.  The spider, as is normal for funnel spiders, kept herself hidden deep in her funnel, but the web was beautiful - a true, lacy, fairy's handkerchief. 


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Learning the Local Native Plants

Ashamedly, I have to admit that it took me living here for over 10 months to get off my duff and go back out to the nearby wild area for a walk-about to look for native plants.  Even then, my friend Anna had to initiate the outing.  I can't believe I waited this long - and I'm kicking myself about all the interesting sights I have been missing.

On Monday morning, Anna and I sallied forth to the same road/trail that my family and I visited 18 months ago.  I blogged about our finds in "We're Not in Kansas Any More!" as well as two subsequent posts about specific plants.  Walking on Monday, I actually recognized the American holly tree that I talked about in that original post, but otherwise my attention was generally drawn to very different plants this time.

We were scouting for lupine, which Anna had seen along this sand road just a week or two earlier.  Unfortunately, in the intervening time, some "maintenance" had been done on the trail by a bulldozer, carelessly and messily widening it, and we found no trace of the lupine.  We did, however, discover some other treasures.

One of the first plants we noticed was Pinewoods Milkweed, Asclepias humistrata.

This plant is also known by the common names of sandhill milkweed, for its preferred habitat, and pink-veined milkweed or purple milkweed for rather obvious reasons.  This is a plant that I would love to grow in my yard, as I find the leaves gorgeous just by themselves. 

Add in the attractive pinkish flowers and its function as food for monarch caterpillars and this plant becomes almost irresistible.

Another attractive plant that we noticed was this little white-flowered beauty with its beautifully shaped, dark green leaves.

As I researched to figure out what we were seeing, I was very glad that we didn't try to pick any of the flowers we saw, just to save us from picking this one.  This plant is called Tread-Softly, Cnidoscolus stimulosus, and all of the green, above-ground parts of the plant are covered with stinging hairs.  While this isn't not a true nettle, it is sometimes called bull nettle or spurge nettle.  Another name for it is finger rot, which makes my imagination run wild in all sorts of nasty ways.  Needless to say, this is NOT a plant that I plan on trying to import into our yard!   Ironically, at least one source said that the tuberous roots are edible...but getting to those roots might take some serious caution.

Silphium is a genus that I became somewhat familiar with on the prairie, where one of its most famous members is Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum.  As soon as I saw the leaves of this basal rosette, my mind yelled, "Silphium!", and I think that instinctive reaction is probably correct.

While I won't know for sure until later in the year when I see it bloom, I think this beautiful little clump of big, bright green leaves belongs to Kidneyleaf Rosinweed, Silphium compositum.   I'm not sure you could dream up a much uglier name for a plant.  Despite its ugly name, I hope to find a source for this species, since I think the leaves would look really nice in a native flower bed, adding some dramatic size and visual texture to the overall mix.

There were two flowers that we found that I haven't been able to identify yet.  First was this pinky-purple little beauty.

That's reindeer moss nestled beside it, to give you a sense of scale.  We saw several of these plants blooming and they were all less than 12" tall.

Second was this yellow-green, almost abstract bloomer that I suspect is in the Euphorbiaceae family. We saw several;  they seemed to run about 15-18" tall.

If anyone knows the identity of either of these plants, I would love to know what they are.

Another plant we noticed was this silvery, quiet-looking plant.

A little research gave me the identity, Healing Croton, Croton argyranthemus

What I haven't been able to determine is why it's been given the common name of Healing Croton.  It is the larval food for a pretty little butterfly known as a goatweed leafwing.   I haven't seen a goatweed leafwing since moving here to Florida, although they do occur here, but here are photos of one in Kansas, taken in September 2013.

Speaking of butterflies, at one point we found this large chrysalis hanging from a bare branch.  I don't know enough about such things to begin to guess what species made this chrysalis, but I think it's cool.

Another insect sighting was this black and white wasp, working busily to deal with a caterpillar, presumably extracted from this stitched together clump of leaves.

At the time, I was concerned that it might be a bald-faced hornet, so I didn't get too close. 

When I got home and downloaded the photos, I realized that this little beauty is actually a potter or mason wasp, a solitary wasp, presumably collecting caterpillars to paralyze and store for its young to eat as it grows.

Reindeer moss, sparkleberry, blooming yaupon, black cherry, beach rosemary.....  We saw a lot of other things that entranced us.  I'll leave you with a photo of the sky through the pine trees - a slice of heaven.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pausing to Rest for the Summer

Last spring, on Earth Day, this was our front yard.

Of course, it wasn't our front yard yet, but this was the front yard of the house that we would buy two months later.  A couple big trees, lots of generic, box store shrubs, and a typical Florida sandy "lawn".

Between our grandson being born, a major move, selling our old house, unpacking, celebrating the holidays, and caring for Connor, we did basically nothing to the yard for months except to mow it.

"I thought you were a gardener," quipped one of our neighbors, after we'd been here for about 6 months but still had done nothing in the way of planting or landscaping.

At last, around the end of January, my gardening juices began to flow.  I had some plants that I'd purchased at the Mobile Botanical Garden during a visit the previous fall...few had been planted yet.  There were no defined planting beds except for the first few feet next to the foundation.  The yard was so open and almost barren that I felt almost paralyzed.

Here was the view from our front porch to the driveway, on January 23rd.....

...and here was the overall front yard on that day, little changed from the prior April except for the passing of seasons.

I took stock of the plants in the yard, to see what we had that I wanted to keep.  There were the big trees, although several laurel oaks in the back yard were obviously unhealthy and not long for this world.   Seven camellias - large, with lovely blooms, but planted about 15" from the foundation and heavily pruned with little knowledge or finesse.  Two healthy yellow anise (Illicium parviflorum), unfortunately planted 15" from the foundation directly beneath the big kitchen window, which they were trying desperately to shield from sight. Quite a few healthy, evergreen azaleas, almost all neatly pruned into boxes and planted right up next to the foundation.  Several Knockout roses, all leggy and overgrown, desperately in need of pruning.  Some very nice big clumps of African iris.  A single clump of narrowleaf goldenaster (Chrysopsis linearifolia) that I had found as a "weed" in the lawn.  Some seedling beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) - one about 18" tall coming up through an unhealthy Indian hawthorn and several 6" tall individuals in a clump.  A few, very small St. John's Wort shrubs (Hypericum sp.) that seemed to have come in on their own.  And some partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) growing at the base of one of the laurel oaks.

All in all, not a big start in a 0.4 acre yard. And none of it in a logical sweep that suggested a planting bed or the start to a landscaping plan.

So, I simply got out the hose and started making a big curve in the front yard.  Under the big southern magnolia along the driveway, I used the demarcation of lousy grass caused by heavy shade to get started, then I moved on from there.  The following photo shows the beginning of the middle bed, with some of the plants we had recently planted, after the bed had been outlined, but before I had finished weeding and mulching.

Here along the Gulf Coast, one of the main times of leaf fall is in the spring when the evergreen oaks shed their leaves just before getting their new foliage.  As Greg picked up the fallen leaves, he put them in the newly marked bed under the magnolia.  I found a source of shredded wood mulch from a local tree service and had them dump a load, then used that heavier mulch as a thin layer to hold the leaves in place.  With a slope from the street towards the front walkway and porch, I was concerned that, with the first big rain, all the mulch would float down to cover up the path, but thankfully that hasn't happened.

With shrubs already under the magnolia tree, defining that bed was pretty quick and easy.  Defining the remaining 2 beds in the front yard took a little more time, but we used the same general process - define the outline with the hose, then put down leaves topped with shredded hardwood. Of course, we were also visiting both 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery and Mobile Botanical Gardens to get more plants, placing those where appropriate, as you can see above.

The more open areas that we turned into beds took much more time and effort to outline, plant and mulch than the first bed - but we finally finished today!   I really wanted to get the front yard beds to a state that looked moderately finished, so that we didn't look like the half-built house slumming in the neighborhood.  The beds are still very empty, but we've been able to find and put in several shrubs that should be getting a nice start this year, plus a few perennials that we found we couldn't live without.

These photos don't really show the new beds as well as I'd like them to, but I'm still excited enough about getting the project to this state that I want to share!  First, the overview....

...then the opposite angle, ...

...and the front door gardens.

I'm excited about continuing to fill the beds.  Hopefully, the next time I share photos of the front yard, it will be because these new beds are brimming with gorgeous plants and bright, blooming flowers!




Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Spring Blooms Anew

It doesn't seem fair to go through spring without posting a few "pretty" pictures, so I'm going to give into the urge while I have time and energy tonight.

Since this is a new location and a new garden, I'm still in early days yet, learning what will thrive here, what will just survive, and what just doesn't like this yard.  Hopefully these flowering beauties will all be thrivers.

One of the plants that I just put in this spring is downy phlox (Phlox pilosa) that I bought from Dara at 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery in DeFuniak Springs.  We purchased 3 of these at the end of January and planted them the next day.  At the time we bought them, one plant was just beginning to bloom.  The photo above was taken on March 23rd; 3 weeks later, all three plants are blooming as much or more today as they were in this photo.  So, as of right now, these downy phlox started blooming at the end of January and are still blooming strongly 2 1/2 months later!  Not bad for perennials, especially perennials that I haven't dead-headed.

Next on my spring showcase tour are these golden ragwort (Packera aurea), another great purchase from 7 Pines.  These plants were also purchased at the end of January and planted shortly thereafter into very dry shade under a large southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).  So far, they are doing better than I even hoped for. 

The beautiful little golden flowers started blooming a couple weeks before this photo was taken on March 23rd, the same day the photo of the downy phlox was taken, and they are just now beginning to go to seed.  While I'm tickled about 6 weeks of bloom, I'm most excited about how well the basal rosettes of leaves are doing, as one of my favorite things about these plants is their low, pretty foliage throughout the year. 

Hopefully, in a couple years, this entire area will be carpeted with golden ragwort plants.  To facilitate that, I'm going to leave the spent flowers on the plants until the seeds have dispersed.  Then I will cut the stems off and just let the plants function as an attractive groundcover for the rest of the year.

Moving to the back yard, we planted a trio of Florida flame azaleas (Rhododendron austrinum) next to the sea wall about a month ago.  Two of these plants are just moving into full bloom now and I am loving their vivid orange blooms and bright new foliage against the backdrop of the shifting lake waters.

Of course, I love their blooms up close even more!

I do plan to solve the "plants plopped into the middle of grass" issue...but that will have to wait for quieter times, I'm afraid.

Last but not least, in this little spring tour, are the beautiful little white violets (Viola sp.) that came along with one of the Florida flame azaleas, nestled at its base.  So far I have no species identification for this plant, but I am enjoying its dainty beauty anyway.

As I've written this post, I've realized that I haven't gotten photos of several other blooming plants in the yard, but I'll have to save those for another day.  I hope your spring is bringing you lots of fresh beauty all around!

The Surprising Lure of Open Ground

Why on Earth would I share a photo of such a nondescript area of our "new" backyard, here in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida?

To put it bluntly, I am sharing this photo because it is one of the most "happening" places in our yard.

Yeah, I wouldn't believe it either, if I didn't look out my kitchen window and see it for myself every day, regularly, throughout the entire daylight period.

I am still not sure what, exactly, attracts the birds to this particular area.  They don't dust bathe in the open sand.  There are no thriving ant colonies in the area or obvious signs of other insect life.  There is no pea gravel or other, slightly larger, gravel that could help in their crops.  Yet every day, over and over again, I see blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and cardinals come into this area, stay for a while, then fly off again.  Obviously something is attracting them.

By watching closely, though, I've figured out a bit of the mystery....

The red-bellied woodpeckers fly directly from the trunk of the laurel oak (on the left) or the pignut hickory (on the right) down to the ground, stay for 30 seconds or so, then fly back up.  Watching through the binoculars, I think they are generally picking up the laurel oak acorns that were thick on the ground last fall and through the winter. 

The acorns aren't nearly as common now as they were then, which is hardly surprising, but still the red-bellieds come.

The blue jays fly down from the branches of the surrounding trees.  They, too, seem to be going after the acorns, based on what I see through the binoculars.

On the other hand, the mockingbird perches on the hammock first, then flies to the ground.  He seems to scavenge a little longer than the jays or the woodpeckers and it's hard for me to see what he is finding.  I suspect insects or some other small invertebrates, but it could be seeds.  (I am speaking of this as a singular bird, since I tend to see one mockingbird at a time, but I strongly suspect that more than one visits the area.)

I haven't been able to see anything in the beaks of the cardinals or mourning dove that come in to feed either.  For these birds, I suspect the attraction is seed from the "weeds" that are easily as major a component of the area as any grass that remains from the last sodding.

So why share this area at all?  I guess because I want to point out that even seemingly barren, "waste" ground can be valuable to some wildlife.

When we first moved in, I saw this part of the backyard as an area that needed to be fixed, preferably sooner than later.  I just wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it.  Now I'm not so sure.  This patch attracts many more birds than nearby areas that have much healthier grass.  I do worry about erosion, though, since we get frequent rain and the land in the backyard slopes slightly.

For now I'm content to just wait and observe.  Funny how natural systems see worth in different ways than we humans do.

P.S.  That ugly, plastic, green flag?  I mark plants I don't recognize or that I may want to move when they have come up in the lawn.   That way, I remember to keep an eye on them and the plants don't get mowed before I decide what to do with them.  That particular flag is marking a dainty little sedge that I want to move somewhere more picturesque.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Milkweed Community Beyond Monarchs

My attempt to rescue 4 monarch caterpillars that were about to eat out their food source seemed to fail, despite my provisioning them with 6 white milkweed and 2 swamp milkweed plants from 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.  The last - and largest - of the caterpillars curled up in a question mark on the soil surface one day and then disappeared overnight.  Eaten?  Probably.  Pupated somewhere?  Possibly.  At any rate, I have no more monarch caterpillars to watch right now.

However, I do have my 8 milkweed plants.  Making me quite sure that these plants weren't being treated with neonics, my milkweeds came pre-supplied with bright yellow aphids.  A little research on BugGuide.net informed me that these aphids are oleander aphids, Aphis neriiOleander aphids are actually native to the Mediterranean area, but they have become common around the globe, having traveled everywhere on oleander plants.  Oleander aphids are especially common on oleander and on milkweed plants, although they are known to feed on several other types of plants as well.

As I was looking for the monarch caterpillars, I noticed a fly hovering about 6" from the milkweed plants. Watching more closely, I noticed there were actually about 6 flies, and that occasionally one would dart in, look like it was depositing something, and return to hovering.

So I got my camera and tried to take a photo.  After a long time - and many attempts - I hadn't managed to get a nicely clear photo, but I had managed to get a couple shots where I was able to at least get a feel for the flies I was seeing.

Between the blurry photos, the gestalt I had, and the research I did, I think that this little fly is a species of syrphid fly, Ocyptamus fuscipennis, known both for its dark colored wings and its diet of aphids in the larval stage.  That's just my best guess, however.  It's not a verified identification.

As I was trying, again and again, to get a clear photo of one of the syrphid flies, I suddenly noticed a couple tiny, tiny wasps walking among the aphids.  As I looked through the camera lens, I watched one of the wasps curl its abdomen and seem to poke the aphids individually.  This was a little odd, because the wasp curled its abdomen relatively far away from the aphids, but I was sure that it was laying eggs on them.  Again I took photos, but again I didn't get any good shots - to get clear photos of such minuscule insects, I needed a tripod for stability and a windless day with no sway in the plant stems.

Despite my lack of good photos, I saw enough to have a good idea of what was going on.  After more research, I suspect that the small wasps were braconid wasps, which parasitize aphids by inserting an egg in an individual aphid.  The egg hatches and the larval wasp eats the aphid from the inside, killing the aphid and leaving an "aphid mummy", which is essentially the shell of the aphid with the larva, then pupa, of the wasp inside.  When the wasp emerges from its pupal stage, it cuts a hole in the aphid mummy and emerges, to repeat the cycle.  If you click on the link I've highlighted, you'll see a great photo posted on BugGuide.net of one of these wasps in egg-laying stance, ready to lay an egg on an oleander aphid.

Note:  Looking at several of my photos from this series, there are many little dots on them.  The dots were only visible when I enlarged the images and they only occurred in the middle of the milkweed plants.  I don't think it was a dirty lens (although I will certainly be cleaning it to verify).  There is also a small, beetle-like insect on the vein of the milkweed leaf in the very bottom right of the photo above, which I haven't identified.  I think it might be some sort of weevil, but that is simply another guess.

So right now, with no milkweed blooms to be had, I've already got 4 species that are relying on my milkweeds for the basis of their life cycle:  monarchs, oleander aphids, a syrphid fly, and a braconid wasp.  I've also seen examples of herbivory (monarch caterpillars and oleander aphids), predator-prey relationships (syrphid flies and aphids), and parasitism (braconid wasps and aphids).  Pretty cool for February!