Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Experiment With Butterfly Milkweed

We moved into our home 7 1/2 years ago.  Since then, we have traveled 71st Street to Hoover Rd., going to and from Wichita, at least twice each week.  Conservatively, then, I'd estimate that we've driven by this one spot roughly 100 times a year, for a grand total of about 750 times since we moved here.

Despite driving the same route so many times, it wasn't until yesterday that we spotted beautiful, big butterfly milkweed plants in the ditch along our normal route!  That's right.  Butterfly milkweed, a.k.a. Asclepias tuberosa, with its vivid bright orange blooms.  It's not like this plant is a shy, quiet little mouse, hiding down among the grasses.  No, this plant is a hussy, shouting, "Look at me, world!!!"  And we'd missed it, time and time again.

Now, to cut ourselves some slack, butterfly milkweed would only be in full bloom for about a month, maybe two, each year as we drove by.  Make it an average of 6 weeks per year.  That still means we drove by about 75 times and never saw these plants before.

In our defense, of course, the county road crews have been ridiculously vigilant about mowing the roadsides to a dirty, ragged stubble most years.

But still!

Truthfully, we almost missed the butterfly milkweed yesterday too.  I caught one glimpse of the vivid orange as we drove by, so I asked Greg to turn around so I could verify that there was a plant there.  The orange of butterfly milkweed is incredibly distinctive, so I was pretty sure what I'd seen.  Not only was there one plant, there were FOUR!

It was so exciting to find these plants, the first truly local butterfly milkweed that I'd seen since moving here - but it was rather depressing, too.  Did I mention that the county roadcrews have been great about mowing everything down to a depressing stubble several times a year during each growing season?  The chances of these plants being allowed to set seed is close to zero.  Truly, I'm amazed the plants are alive and as vigorous as they are.

You can't dig native milkweed.  The roots are too deep and you'll kill the plant.  That goes double for attempting anything at this time of year, when it's hot and the plant is blooming.  So I couldn't rescue them that way.  No seeds likely and no transplanting possible.  What to do?

Greg did a little research on the web and started seeing reports of taking milkweed cuttings.  It didn't seem like a viable option, but several sites were reporting success.  The county would be butchering these plants soon anyway - why not try a couple cuttings and see what happened?

So this morning, armed with peanut butter jars of water, clippers, and my camera, we set forth.

Up close, the individual plants were even more stunning than they'd been from the road.  Three of the four were amazingly full of flowers and had obviously been blooming for quite a while, yet still showed new buds that spoke of blooming for much longer still. 

The color of the blooms was a deep, deep orange with hints of red - definitely a deeper color than the orange butterfly milkweed plants in my front garden bed.  The ones in my garden weren't blooming any more either.  They had bloomed for 2 or 3 weeks, and then quit a week or two ago.

While I was looking at the first plant, a butterfly flew in and started to nectar.  It was yellow, which usually denotes a sulfur of some sort, generally a fairly common butterfly.  However, I noticed that the black wing tips were particularly dark.  Then I realized that the tips of the front wings were squared off - a Southern Dogface butterfly (Zerene cesonia)!  Not an unknown butterfly in this area, but not one I commonly see either.

As I watched the butterfly, I debated what to do.  I looked for stems that didn't have blooms on them, thinking those stems would be more likely to root successfully, but there weren't any.  Eventually I carefully selected 3 stems from 2 of the plants and 2 stems from one other.  Why not take cuttings, despite the many blooms?  They'll all get sheared off soon anyway.

Back at home, I carefully removed lower leaves, blooms, and flower buds, dipped the end of each cutting in rooting hormone, and stuck them in wet perlite.  Plastic bags went over the cuttings to keep the humidity of the air up around them until (hopefully) they start to root.  This is my little forest of butterfly milkweed cuttings on the kitchen counter.....

Wish me luck!  I'd love to have some local genetics, especially since these individual plants are so incredibly full of blooms and so deeply colored.  We'll see what happens. 


Linda Starr said...

I hope you're successful with your cuttings, if not I think there are several places on line that you can purchase seedlings, you reminded me that just down the road from me I spied some milkweed I'll have to stop and see if it sets seed, thankfully around here much of the roadside is left uncut. I have heard of folks saying with handmade signs posted 'no mow' or 'no spray' in certain sections of the country and the road crews abiding by that, might be worth a try.

ProfessorRoush said...

You let me know how those cuttings work out Gaia. That milkweed springs up here and there by volunteer in my garden and I might be able to dig you a small plant if we can get it before those deep taproots get established.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Linda, Thank you for the tip. I do have some butterfly milkweed in my garden that I have purchased; what excited me about these plants were that they were truly "wild" and therefore locally adapted genetic stock.

I have put out handpainted signs that say, "Please no mowing - Wildflowers Growing",along the ditches in front of our property...but these milkweeds weren't on our land! I will say that, so far, I'm very pleased with the county's willingness to honor our signs.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Prof, that would be great...if I can't get these cuttings to take root. They've been "stuck" for 24 hours and are looking great so far. (Knock on wood.)

Anonymous said...

I never did try cuttings of them so I wish you luck. I would have maybe divided the plant and cut off the blooms when I planted it. I doubt anyone would have reported you. I see it in Niagara Falls State Park and feel the same as you upon seeing it. I have it planted in my garden and if your cuttings work, I may give it a try.

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

Those are beautiful!!!!
I hope you have success.
I'm also happy to hear that the county honors your signs. Do you know who owns the property these plants are on? Maybe they'd be open to signs for a while.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Donna, There is a lot of talk about butterfly milkweed not transplanting well, so I really don't want to try that - especially if I can get the cuttings to work. So far they look great, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Incidentally, I've also read that butterfly milkweed doesn't divide well, except during the fall when you can cut the taproot into 2" segments and plant them. That, however, sounds like it would destroy the plant if they didn't "take", so I'm not going to try that method. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed for the success of the cuttings at this point.

Gaia Gardener: said...

GonSS, I had thought about trying to figure out who owns the property to contact them, but I hadn't thought about suggesting that they put signs up. Good idea!

Melanie said...

I can't WAIT to see how that works for you. .please keep us posted. I have been surprised to see some native around here too. .though not in abundance. I have had good luck transplanting the liatris from the pasture. .but didn't think that transplanting the butterfly weed or the false indigo would work due to the taproot issue. .I have done lots of cutting of many things. .including lavender plants. .Wishing you the best!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks, Melanie! I'll keep you posted. (Incidentally, I would have thought that liatris wouldn't have transplanted well, because it has a huge taproot too. What time of year did you transplant it?)