Monday, February 15, 2016

Milkweeds - A Different Kind of Valentine's Day Bouquet

This isn't the sort of dilemma I would have faced on February 12th in Kansas.

Last Friday, Greg and I were in the back yard with the dogs when Greg looked down and said, "You've got to be kidding me!" There, on the 90% dead tropical milkweed plant, were 2 monarch caterpillars, alive and kicking.  There were 2 problems here - the weather was due to get down to freezing in the next several days and, even if it didn't, there were only about a dozen leaves left on the plant. In no way was there enough foliage to feed 2 monarch caterpillars.

Then I remembered our recent visit to 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.  Didn't Dara say that she'd moved a block of white milkweed into her greenhouse to overwinter?  A block of white milkweed that had turned out to be well salted with monarch eggs, which had turned into monarch caterpillars, which had munched their way through her plants and successfully pupated? If those white milkweeds were still in her greenhouse, would there be enough foliage for these guys?

So I called Dara to ask. Yes, she had white milkweed in her greenhouse. It was Asclepias perennis, which likes a wet spot in the garden.  That wasn't ideal, given my sandy hill yard, but Dara reported that the plants were leafing back out and that she'd be glad to sell us some.

Greg and I discussed our options.  He said that he'd been planning on ordering me a bouquet of roses for Valentine's Day. Then he asked if I would prefer some milkweed plants instead?

Of course I jumped at that idea! Even if the caterpillars didn't make it, or if the milkweed plants didn't like our yard conditions, we were still attempting to make our yard more wildlife friendly.  The roses - while they would be very much enjoyed and appreciated - would be dead in less than 10 days.  The milkweeds seemed like a great Valentine's Day flower arrangement to me.

So Greg and I jumped into the car and headed up to DeFuniak Springs, where we found a nice block of white milkweed beginning to leaf back out, just as Dara had promised, along with a couple swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and a couple butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa), also leafing out. After my normal lengthy period of cogitation, I decided to get 6 white milkweeds, 2 swamp milkweeds, and 2 butterfly milkweeds.  We then had a relaxing and enjoyable time wandering the nursery and finding a few other gems that HAD to go home with us, as well as talking with Dara and Lloyd about such weighty topics as sausage, beer, and Ft. Walton Beach restaurants.  Finally Greg and I said good-bye, got back into our car, and headed home, intent on caterpillar rescue.

Since the weather was predicted to get down into the 30's for the next 2 nights (and since the milkweeds had been in the greenhouse all winter), I decided to transfer the caterpillars to the new milkweed plants and put the grouping in our laundry room, by a floor length window. 

When we went to get the caterpillars, we found FOUR, not two.  The transfer was quick and easy.  I stayed in the laundry room watching until I saw 3 of the caterpillars beginning to eat, then left them undisturbed for the night.

Sadly, I wish I could report that all 4 caterpillars are doing wonderfully, but I can't.  We keep our house in the low 60's;  perhaps that's too cold.  Perhaps monarch caterpillars don't like to change from one species of milkweed to another as they're growing.  The next morning I could only find 3 of the 4 caterpillars.  For whatever reason, the caterpillars I could find seemed sluggish and uninterested in eating.  Yesterday morning, I could only find 2 caterpillars.

This morning I found one caterpillar obviously still alive and one, seemingly dead, down on the soil in one of the pots.  The weather was warmer today and the sun was shining this morning, so I carried the monarch rescue flat out to the back deck, putting it beside the remnants of the tropical milkweed that all of the caterpillars had started on.

When I checked on the caterpillar this afternoon, it had moved back to the tropical milkweed plant, although it was resting on one of the old, dead stems.  I still did not see either of the "missing" 2 caterpillars.

At this point I plan on leaving the monarch caterpillar back on the tropical milkweed where it hatched out.  We are not due to get below freezing in the foreseeable future, so it should be fine.  I will manage the Valentine's Day milkweeds as appropriate to try to keep them healthy until I feel like it's safe to plant them out in the landscape.  Hopefully, while they may not have ended up rescuing these particular monarch caterpillars, they will still become nursery plants for many more monarchs in the upcoming months and years.

Sometimes our best efforts just aren't enough.


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

They may have another issue that you don't even know about. Always worth a try. Still waiting to see a monarch caterpillar on one of my milkweed plants.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Absolutely true, GonSS. I will keep my fingers crossed about monarchs making a major egg-laying site in your gardens!

katob427 said...

Even with the loses I think your new purchases and what they add to the garden will make this a valentine's day gift to be remembered. Hopefully new monarchs will make their way through this spring and be grateful for the home improvements you've done.

Casa Mariposa said...

I hope he pulls through! But at least now you have more milkweed for future monarchs. :o)