Wednesday, May 24, 2006

future monarchs - NOT Charles, William or Harry...

I love gardening. Plunging my hands into warm earth, sans gloves, is one of life’s great pleasures for me (to the dismay of every manicurist I’ve ever encountered). I love the scent and texture of freshly turned soil, and I love to prepare a place for a new plant of any sort, whether it’s a flat of Impatiens that I’m planting outside my front door for the summer or a Ficus tree that will hopefully thrive for years in a pot in my living room. In the 22 years that I’ve lived in my house, I’ve planted untold numbers of flowers in my yard. I enjoy the ephemeral annuals, but over the years I’ve come to really appreciate perennials. I love their reliability; the way they appear, year after year, without any effort on my part. Accordingly, each year for the past several years, I’ve been trying to find more perennials that will thrive in our hot, dry Texas summers and yet withstand the blue northers and winter freezes that are also a part of living here.

Several years ago, on a trip to the nursery for my usual array of annual bedding plants, I picked up a small perennial called "Butterfly Weed". It was one of the first perennials I ever purchased, and I bought it for the name alone. I loved the name; how could I not love a plant called Butterfly Weed? The name is almost oxymoronic, because to a gardener, butterflies are beautiful and desirable, but a weed is...well, a weed.

At first, I thought the name derived from the bright orange clusters of tiny flowers, that, viewed from a distance, look a bit like butterflies. But the sticker said that Asclepias tuberosa is a perennial that attracts butterflies.

Uh-huh. Sure. An appealing concept, but I was skeptical. It sounded too much like the plant equivalent of any number of other appealing but elusive concepts that have ultimately proved disappointing to me over the years, such as "Achieve financial success!" or "Be your own boss!".

Still, I liked the name, and the plant was inexpensive, so I bought it. Regarding where to plant it, the sticker said: "Butterfly weed grows best in full sun, with sandy, well draining soil". That was a perfect description of the most inhospitable spot in my yard. The flower bed beneath the mailbox is a sunny, dry, quarter circle of earth that not only never gets any shade, but is additionally baked by being adjacent, on two sides, to the sidewalk.

With some misgivings, I planted the baby Butterfly Weed there. To my surprise, the tiny plant took hold...and grew, and eventually thrived, apparently sending its taproot down deep. It requires no care, and each spring, I’m rewarded with clusters of tiny, bright orange flowers that last throughout the hot, dry Texas summers, whether the plant gets water or not.

In late September, I always cut it back to nothing, after which it goes dormant, survives the winter, and revives each spring. And yes, it does attract butterflies, which is a nice bonus. In fact, since then, I’ve planted so many butterfly-attracting plants that Katharine once quipped that coming to see me made her feel a little like she was going to visit Snow White in the forest...but I digress.

One day earlier this month when I walked out to get my mail, I found the Butterfly Weed covered in monarch larvae, happily munching away on the tender green parts of the plant. I was delighted, but also worried. Larvae are voracious feeders, and the plant was covered with more than a dozen of them; would they destroy it? That thought only lasted a moment before I was overcome with the wonder of what I was seeing.

I ran inside and got my camera, and trying not to imagine the conversations I might be inspiring in my more conventional neighbors, ("Look here, George! She’s at it again! Look at her, rolling around on the hot sidewalk out there! And you wanted me to fix her up with my brother, NO WAY! Look at her, rolling around out there, what’s she DOING?"), I laid down on the sidewalk and started shooting.

The next day, they were gone, and although the plant looked a little worse for wear, other than that, it was as if they’d never been there.

Except...I know that they were. Since then, I’ve read up on Monarchs. The larva stage only lasts for about 12 days, after which the larvae become pupae, spending the next 9-14 days suspended inside chrysalides, before emerging as gorgeous, full-blown, Monarch butterflies. I’ve searched the shrubs and trees around my house, looking for chrysalides, and I haven’t found a single one...

But I know they’re out there. And some morning soon, whether I see them or not, any number of full blown, gorgeous Monarch butterflies will emerge and fly away. And one of the plants in my yard played a part in all that.

Very cool.


odie said...

Wow! We are in the process of figuring out landscaping, and I don't even know where to start. Wonder if those will grow in my neck of the woods. I'm kind of a 'low maintenance' gal when it comes to gardening. Don't mind the planting, and I love the results, but if I have to remember to feed and water it, we could be in trouble.

dreaminglily said...

Oh that is so cool Judi! And beautiful, BEAUTIFUL pictures! I might steal them for my background on my computer ;op

Mom's still trying to figure out how to plant here. She's so used to Texas planting that coming up here has shocked her lol She's completely lost. So far we've been highly successful with lilac and hostas. Mostly hostas lol Maybe I should give you her email and you guys can talk plants ;o)


Paul said...

That larva would have made great bass bait.

Chris said...

Emma that is an incredible picture of that larva. It is as pretty as the butterfly. Amazing.

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Melissa said...

My dear gardening soul sister,
What a beautiful photograph!! I have tried and tried to photograph things like that in my garden and I just never get that great look that you do. How do you do that?? Aren't the monarch's grand? They live such a short time that they have to be magnificent all at once! I wish I could be there having a cup a joe with you when they make their appearance! I hope you are able to capture it on film.

TJ said...

Oh Judi how dreamy! I haven't seen a butterfly caterpillar so forever!!
We get the butterflys but neber never that beautiful caterpiller!!!
I too have the same plant, I have ben working withher for the last two years. this season is her third. Does it have almost milkweed like seeds in the winter?
I do love itt' color but i am trying to shape it.
I think gardening is teh best thing we can do for oureslves....doesn't hurt the neighbors much either.
I am moving, mulching ans about as sore as anyone could be!
Did ya have a good Memorial? Ours was quiet and boring.
Have a great day! We broke a record here 94 degrees yesterday...Love TJ

Tammy said...

Very cool indeed! Your photos are spectacular! You MUST join the Round Robin Photo Challenges. I have the perfect spot for this "weed." LOL


Marika said...

What amazing photos...just brilliant. You are so talented!!

Lisa :-] said...

That's why they call it butterfly weed. It is a species of milkweed, which is the only thing on the menu for Monarch larvae.

I have done the rolling around on the sidewalk thing a couple of times myself... :)

Judith HeartSong said...

beautiful post... and I love the "thoughts" your neighbors might be having...... you probably give them excitement in their lives.

TJ said...

Driving by again...oh I wish! I would love to be able to do that ya aknow.
Not home again...well that spells out me.
Love TJ