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. 

An Unexpected Visitor: Anise Swallowtail

Late yesterday afternoon, when we went out to do some work in the garden, I noticed a different looking swallowtail nectaring on the Echinacea.  Grabbing my camera, I started trying to capture it on "film".

The swallowtail was much more skittish than most of the other butterflies I see in the garden.  At first, it was hard to get within 15 feet of it, although after a while, I was able to sneak up a bit...

...especially when it started interacting with a tiger swallowtail female that was also nectaring on the Echinacea.  I don't recall ever seeing an aggressive butterfly before, but that's what this individual acted like.

He (?) would come up behind the female and sort of dive bomb her.  Then they would do a circling dance through the air (was it a male trying to initiate a courtship dance?).  Eventually they would both settle back down to nectaring again.

Neither my Kansas City butterfly guide nor my Peterson's Eastern Butterfly guide had this swallowtail in it, but I finally found a photo in another, nationwide, guide that I have.  I verified my identification by checking it against anise swallowtail in Bugguide.  Sure enough!  That was it!

Now I'm left to wonder if this individual was an accidental import on a plant (or firewood? or a vehicle?), or if it is simply a stray, far from its normal range in the western parts of the U.S.  I doubt I'll ever know, but I'm sure glad I happened to notice the visit of this charismatic stranger.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wheel Bugs Growing Up....

Preying mantises and ladybugs have great reputations as good predators in the garden, but I've found a species that I think is even more awesome:  wheel bugs (Arilus cristatus), in the assassin bug family.  Like preying mantises, wheel bugs are very mobile and eat almost anything they can catch.  I've observed them eating a wide variety of insects, ranging from grasshoppers to beetles to caterpillars.

Wheel bugs have only one generation per year so, as with most predators, it takes them longer than plant-eating insects to ramp up their numbers after a population crash.   This is why, when you spray insecticides (which indiscriminately kill ALL insects), predator populations take so long to catch up that the plant-eaters/prey insects end up having huge population explosions in the meantime.  This is great for insecticide companies, but not so good if you're trying to use fewer chemicals in your yard or garden.

Overwintering as eggs laid in clusters on the underside of tree branches, the wheel bug life cycle begins when the tiny new nymphs hatch out in late April or early May, just about the same time that the honeylocusts bloom.  Although I occasionally find wheel bug eggs on other trees, most of them seem to be laid on honeylocust.  I doubt this is coincidence.  The egg cluster above, about the size of a quarter overall and located, like usual, underneath a honeylocust branch, was just starting to hatch on April 21st this spring.

When the tiny wheel bug nymphs hatch out in late April or early May, they look very different from their parents.  For starters, they have a bright red abdomen.  (Actually, when they first hatch out, they are completely yellowish-orange, until their exoskeleton hardens the first time.)  There is no "wheel" structure on their back and they, of course, have no wings.

Even at this tender stage, they are fearsome predators.  On May 11 this spring, I photographed this 1/4" wheel bug nymph carrying (and sipping on) the pupa of another insect, firmly pierced by its proboscis.

With each succeeding molt, the wheel bug nymphs' appearance changes just a little.  They get a little more gray and black, a little less red.  However, they never lose their fierce abilities as predators.  On June 7, this wheel bug nymph had moved from the tree where it was hatched to a clump of Jerusalem artichoke about 30' away, where it enjoyed a tasty meal of grasshopper nymph.

The photo above is, unfortunately, rather blurry, but I was lucky enough one day to spy a wheel bug nymph molting under a leaf of American plum.  The exoskeleton of the newly emerging nymph is, again, orange until it hardens.

That same day, June 8, I found this nymph hiding in daisy fleabane by its discarded, old exoskeleton.  It had obviously also emerged recently; the new, larger exoskeleton was not yet hardened and darkened to the normal colors of gray and red.

Also on June 8, I found this wheel bug nymph eating what looks to be a small caterpillar while posing on a spent bud of lanceleaf coreopsis and sporting a classy red and black abdominal outfit.

Right now, on June 22nd, I'm seeing nymphs that have turned almost completely gray, but that still don't sport the adult's wheel structures on their thorax or their wings.

They are still busily eating their way through the insect population of my yard.

Here in south central Kansas, the earliest I've seen a mature adult is July 21st... or at least that's the earliest I've photographed an adult.  The above photo was actually taken on September 9th in 2008.  In it you can clearly see the wheel on the back of the thorax, as well as the wings folded neatly over the abdomen.  All red coloration is gone from the body, although a little remains on the legs and antennae.

The adults continue to feed, essentially indiscriminately.  Here an adult female is feeding on a tiphiid wasp that was herself feeding on goldenrod nectar.  Actually, in this case the wheel bug's choice is rather unfortunate, since tiphiid wasp larvae parasitize white beetle grubs, the kind that eat grass roots.  Judging from this female wheel bug's abdomen, though, she has eggs of her own that she needs to lay.

By October, the new egg clusters are being laid and the year's adults are beginning to die off.

This female was still around on November 15th last fall, but her will to live seemed to be ebbing.  I watched her for a long time as she sat right next to this tachinid fly, but she never made the move to pounce on it and eat.  I figured that she must have laid her quota of eggs and be feeling worn out and ready to go. 

As cold weather hits, all the adult wheel bugs are gone and the future of the species lies safely - but solely - protected within the years' eggs, glued firmly to the underside of tree branches.  It's a system that's worked for thousands of years.  I can only hope and trust that nothing disrupts it in the future....

Visiting Nearby Grasslands - A Peek Into Other Places and Times

As I work to re-establish a reasonably functional prairie on our Back 5, one of my constant inner questions is, "What was here originally?"  It's hard to know, since years of use as a pasture, including significant overgrazing for at least the last few years, had removed most of the tastier plants from the existing plant palette and substituted weedier ones by the time we purchased the property.  In a region where tallgrass prairie is just beginning to morph into midgrass prairie, there were essentially no clumps of prairie grass at all in that Back 5 acres.  The primary forbs were green antelopehorn, western ragweed, Baldwin's ironweed, yarrow, and white sage - all plants that cattle don't care for, which tend to grow more strongly as their competition is munched away. 

So, to see what we're missing in our palette, I watch the ditches for vegetative clues (but our ditches have been denuded of perennials by the County road crews who, I am convinced, consider them to be their personal lawn spaces).  I look in pastures as we drive by.  And occasionally I'm lucky enough to be invited to walk through and explore nearby pastures.  That's when I get my best clues.

A fellow Sedgwick County Extension Master Gardener, Sid, extended one of those lucky invitations to me for last Friday morning.  So, of course, I went.  I explored his pasture last June, too, about 2 weeks earlier in the growing season than this year.  What would I see again?  Would I see anything new?

Sid and his wife live on land that was homesteaded by his ancestress - a legendary matriarch, a recent widow at the time she homesteaded, who built a house in the middle of a section of land so that each of her 4 sons would have a quarter section for themselves when they reached adulthood.   With the land being in the same family for generations now, there is a sense of continuity of ownership, an understanding of how the land has been utilized over the years, that is often lacking in land that has changed ownership many times.

One of the things Sid wanted to show me were the patches of black-eyed Susan he'd successfully created in his lawn simply by waiting last summer until the black-eyed Susan had set seed, then mowing in a pattern that concentrated the seed into the areas where he wanted it.

The patches were beautiful - and filled with pollinators when we examined the flowers up close.

Next we went out into the pasture.  Many of the plants were ones I'd seen last year:  Junegrass, blue wild indigo (with all the leaves eaten off this summer), cream wild indigo, a single bloom of catclaw sensitive briar, purple poppy mallow, yarrow, spiderwort, leadplant.....

This year I noticed a few more plants blooming, too, that I hadn't noticed last year.  For example, the plant pictured above is woolly verbena (Verbena stricta) growing along the trail that the cattle use most frequently.  Woolly verbena has deep roots and is very drought tolerant, but it's bitter tasting, so the cattle don't eat it and it tends to increase in pastures.

I also noticed both white and purple prairie clovers, Dalea candida and Dalea purpurea.

Sid pointed out narrow-leafed milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), ...

where I was lucky enough to catch a milkweed longhorn (Tetraopes sp.) and a longhorned grasshopper nymph hanging out together.  Do you see the grasshopper nymph almost mirroring the position of the milkweed beetle, a few inches up and to the left?

Another blossom that caught my eye on Friday was the tall, pink spike of tickclover (Desmodium sp.).  Not realizing that there were 4 possible species to be found in our area of Kansas, I didn't look at either the blooms or the leaves very closely.  I'll have to return to identify this species more accurately, although I strongly suspect it's Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense).

I also saw a little, annual, yellow flax (Linum sulcatum), that I've seen in our Back 5 once or twice over the years, and prairie petunia, a.k.a. fringe-leaf ruellia, (Ruellia humilis).  The latter has become one of my favorites as I've watched it bloom over and over again, rather hidden down in the grass, not complaining despite extreme heat and crushing drought.  I'd love to get some prairie petunia started in my flower beds, but I haven't been able to collect seed pods or to transplant successfully so far.

Most fun of all, this year the sand plums (Prunus angustifolia) were sporting a bumper crop of fruit, which was well into ripening.   Sid picked a couple handfuls and we enjoyed a delicious taste of the prairie to go along with our visual feast.

On the way back to the cool of the lawn chairs sitting in the breezy shade, I glimpsed a carpet of golden yellow shining through the trees.  When I asked about it, Sid responded that it was "just that weed", from which description I recognized plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), a pretty annual that grows primarily in ditches and crop fields around here.  As we walked, I noticed a single, straggly plant of it along the path we were following.

I mentioned that I loved plains coreopsis, but that I didn't have much of it growing on our property.  Sid was surprised by that, since it is so common in "wild areas" around here, but actually I wasn't surprised at all.  Plains coreopsis is an annual or very short-lived perennial and, as such, is basically an early successional plant.  We don't have much bare ground on our property where it might take root.

As I started to talk about plant succession, it occurred to me that many gardeners aren't very familiar with the concept of succession, and it's a concept that I find VERY useful in understanding plant behavior in the garden.  This post is long enough...but succession sounds like a great topic for a post in the near future!  I doubt you'll ever look at weeds the same way, once you learn about this interesting concept.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Early June Plant Combination Ideas for a Prairie Garden

Despite the beauty and hardiness of native plants, they are still relative newcomers to the garden scene.  Consequently, there aren't very many "tried and true" combinations of native perennials (and/or annuals) that bloom concurrently for the best garden bed displays.

I've been trying to capture combinations that appeal to me when I see them, which is usually a rather serendipitous occurrence.  Here, for example, is a pairing that I found last week, at the Sedgwick County Extension Arboretum in Wichita....

The bluish-purple of the leadplant (Amorpha canescens) blossoms, with their orange anthers, really struck me when I found them in close proximity to the brilliant orange blooms of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).  I believe this was an accidental planting - the butterfly milkweed had moved here after originally being planted about 20 feet away, but what a lucky accident!  The leadplant's spiky sprays of grayish, tiny leaved foliage make a nice counter to the rounded mound of the bright green butterfly milkweed, too.  Best of all, these two prairie natives require essentially identical conditions, so where one does well, the other one should too.

Nearby the leadplant-butterfly milkweed pairing in the Arboretum was Husker Red Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red') planted in front of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum). 

While I would personally put the penstemon either in back of or beside the cranesbill, the echoes of purple between both plants and the overlapping bloom times, as well as contrasting foliage and plant shapes, made a pleasing combination to my eye.  One of the best things about this combination is that it will do well in part shade, which is rather rare among plants that do well on the prairie.  By the way, the bloody cranesbill is not native to North America, but it's been selected as one of the Great Plants of the Great Plains and there are others in the Geranium genus that are native here.

Some other plants blooming in the prairie right now that could be creatively combined for special garden displays:

Purple horsemint, aka lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), an annual that reseeds pleasantly.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), a well known, short-lived, garden perennial.

Catclaw Sensitive Briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), a rather sprawling perennial with classic mimosa leaves and spectacular bright pink flowers.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.), which provide both a nice linear foliage and beautiful blue blooms.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriacus), Smooth Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), and/or Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), 3 milkweeds of open grasslands that sport large pink pompoms of blossoms with incredibly sweet fragrance.  Shown in this photo is smooth milkweed growing naturally in a grassland; all 3 species look very similar in general appearance and all 3 are excellent monarch larval plants.  Being good larval plants means their foliage can get quite ratty by the end of summer so planting them amidst a "filler" like aster is probably a good idea.  All 3 will form open colonies.

Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata), also called wine cup, which brings a strong magenta blossom to the mix.  Its trailing stems can meander between other plants, but in the prairie they often seem to climb UP its neighbors to provide the plant with the sun it needs.  It's not a heavy or a smothering plant, so this can actually work quite well and look very attractive.

Echinaceas, the classic prairie coneflowers.  While Black-sampson (Echinacea angustifolia) is the native here in south central Kansas, there are many other Echinaceas available that will do well in prairie gardens, including Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Yellow Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa), which are both relatively easy to find in nurseries and garden centers.  Pictured here, of course, is yellow coneflower.  Echinaceas are a North American genus.

There are other native wildflowers that are blooming right now, but these are the main prairie forbs that are currently blooming in my yard and gardens.  What combinations would you put together?! 

Sunday, June 08, 2014

An Unexpected Planting Being Made in our Vegetable Garden

As Greg got ready to clear out another section of the vegetable garden perimeter this morning, he had some questions about how I wanted certain areas handled.  (I tend to save certain native plants that crop up, with the idea of transplanting them into flower beds...or sometimes just letting them be.)  We were discussing the possibilities when he pointed to something about 10 feet away....

It was a female box turtle with her hind end in a shallow depression - had she laid eggs?  was she going to lay eggs?  I snapped a couple photos, then we retreated.

A bit later we came back to see if she was done.  Her spot was empty.  She was nowhere to be seen.  I told Greg to go ahead with the clearing, but he was more cautious than me and poked about in the weeds.

See anything in this photo?  Look closely.

Thank goodness Greg looked carefully.  Mama had moved a short distance away and dug herself in a bit again.  It is rather amazing how effective a box turtle's camouflage patterns are!

When, an hour later, Greg found either the same turtle or another one in a different area of the garden, we decided that the turtle(s) had possession of the vegetable garden today.  We had other tasks we could tackle, but obviously this mama had only one thing on her mind! Wouldn't it be great if, later this summer, we get to see baby turtles shortly after hatching?

Jungle on the Prairie

A week ago yesterday, our daughter was married.  In Florida.  Needless to say, we traveled down there, both to help out ahead of time and to attend the wedding.  Rather than hurry back, we decided to stay a few extra days and relax, which was...relaxing.

There was one big problem with this agenda.  After months of almost no rain, it rained here the day after we left and then again several more times while we were gone.  In fact, we received more rain in the 2 weeks we were gone than we'd received since the start of the new year until the day we left.

Not too surprisingly, then, we came home to a jungle - or as close to a jungle as it gets on the Kansas prairie.

Including the driveway, the only area that didn't look overgrown was the buffalo grass!  (Have I told you recently how much I'm coming to enjoy buffalo grass?!)

The vegetable garden looked particularly disastrous - the spinach, lettuce and many of the broccoli and cauliflower plants had bolted and the weeds had literally appeared as if by magic.  Pigweed - which I hadn't even noticed germinating before we left - was over a foot tall.  Crabgrass - which had barely started to germinate - was a 4" tall carpet of green in areas.

So we started working yesterday morning.  Greg put in about 8 hours of weeding and mulching (for the second time this spring) in the vegetable garden.  I put in about 3 hours of vegetable garden weeding, then a couple more hours, off and on, weeding in the flower gardens and lawn.  After he got too tired to weed any more, Greg mowed.

Things are looking a little better, but far from where we want them yet.

Meanwhile, we discovered that we'd had a MAJOR hatch of grasshoppers while we were gone.  There are grasshopper nymphs everywhere.

This little merry band was on one of the older cauliflower leaves....

...while this more mixed assortment was brazenly staking out one of the broccoli plants.

But wait!  One of those isn't a grasshopper!

Good eyes.  It's not a grasshopper, it's a wheel bug nymph.  With a grasshopper meal on its mind!

The wheel bug nymphs are everywhere and, much to my delight, I found a couple of them snacking on baby grasshoppers.

This one was on lamb's quarters in the vegetable garden,...

...while this one was hiding under a Jerusalem artichoke leaf.

Obviously even an army of wheel bugs won't be able to handle the hordes of grasshopper nymphs that we are currently hosting.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that continued wet and cool will help with that problem, but meanwhile the wheel bugs are giving me great pleasure as I notice them skulking throughout the yard.   Terminators, baby!