Monthly Archives: October 2009

Where are the Monarchs?

 

DCF 1.0Where oh where have the Monarch butterflies gone? I heard this question many times this past summer. Mostly, it seems the weather was to blame, at least in New England. Butterflies need sun and warmth in order to fly, and they need to fly to locate Milkweed plants to lay their eggs. Their wings are like little solar chargers, soaking up the sun to fuel their flight. This year’s cold and rainy weather in New England provided few opportunities for female Monarchs to fly to areas containing Milkweed plants (Asclepias species), which is the only plant that Monarch butterfly caterpillars can use as a food source.

The good news is that this could be just a regional blip. According to Journey North, a project that documents Monarch numbers during their fall and spring migration, in the past week, Monarchs have been seen crossing into northern Mexico in numbers that have not been seen in years. Hopefully this means that although Monarchs were scarce in New England this year, the weather simply kept them away.

But the weather isn’t the only problem affecting Monarch populations. Illegal logging in the forested regions of central Mexico, where Monarchs make their winter home, has reduced the winter habitat available to those butterflies who survive the long flight south. And according to research at the University of Georgia, since 1976 the female-to-male ratio of Monarch butterflies shows a major decline east of the Rockies. Because females can lay up to 400 eggs over the course of their lifetime, any reduction in their numbers is troubling for population stability.

Researchers are not sure why female populations are declining, but as gardeners we can all help Monarch populations by planting Milkweeds in our yards and gardens to provide food for Monarch caterpillars. If you think they’re weedy looking, think again. There are several types of Milkweed that will grow in New England, and whatever your conditions, there’s a beautiful variety suitable for your garden.

Well-drained, sunny spot? Just perfect for the neon-orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), shown below with our Farm Director “Speck”:

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If your soil contains some moisture, Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a good choice. It’s tolerant of drier soils, too. Besides being the sole food source for Monarch caterpillars, Milkweed flowers contain huge amounts of sweet nectar that all butterflies (not just Monarchs) love. Below, a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly sips nectar from Swamp Milkweed flowers:

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If you have a larger property with areas that you can let “go wild”, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has gorgeous ball-shaped pink flowers with an intoxicating honey scent. Common Milkweed grows naturally in waste places and old fields in New England, so who knows, if you have an area that you can leave unmowed, it may just pop up on its own…

Although not native to New England, Scarlet Milkweed or Bloodflower (A. curassavica)is a worthwhile annual to include in flower beds and patio pots. Its flowers bloom in a striking red, orange and yellow:

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The first year we planted Scarlet Milkweed in a container on our patio, almost immediately a Monarch butterfly found it and laid her eggs. To our delight, two of them hatched, and one climbed onto a nearby trellis to start its transformation into a butterfly:

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Below is the chrysalis that eventually morphed into a brand new adult Monarch butterfly:

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How do they do it?

Scientists and naturalists have always been fascinated by the complex life cycle of the Monarch butterfly, but new research published in Science magazine is showing just how these tiny creatures are able to navigate their way 2000 miles to the same small region of Mexican forest each fall to spend the winter. It turns out that Monarchs have a type of GPS navigation system and circadian clock built right into their antennae, which allows them to use the sun to guide their travel as well as to correctly adjust their direction based on the time of day. Amazing!

Remember, no¬† Milkweed, no Monarchs. Let’s help these unique winged wonders survive for future generations to enjoy by growing Milkweeds anywhere we can!

Nature’s Highlights (Frost in the Garden)

Anybody who has taken one of my classes knows that I always harp on about NOT doing the traditional fall cleanup of the garden…instead of scalping your perennial beds to the ground in fall and removing most of the dead plant material, I persuade my students to leave plant stems standing right into the winter, and delay the cleanup til the following spring. Seed heads provide valuable forage for those birds who spend the winter here, and the leaf litter, hollow plant stems and decaying plant materials all provide plenty of opportunities for beneficial insects to hibernate through the winter in some form. Remember, many of those bugs are are the superheroes of the insect world, who will wake up and start patrolling for pests starting in early spring! And hungry birds picking around your gardens in the dead of winter will appreciate those insect eggs, caterpillars and other protein-rich insect morsels hiding in your garden beds.

But sometimes, it’s not about the wildlife at all. In summer, it might be the colors of a palm-sized zinnia flower or the scent of a rosebush in full bloom that stops you in your tracks to marvel with all your senses. Late fall might not have such flamboyance, but it has its own highlights. Early in the morning, seed heads, touched by an early morning frost or dusted with little snow caps, might give you pause to stop for a moment and take in an unexected but quite lovely view of the familiar. And in this crazy world we live in, dictated by schedules and commitments, any pause to consider nature has got to be a good thing…

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Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flowers tipped by frost on a cold October morning

Backyard Habitat in Autumn…part two

Nature continues to take center stage in central Massachusetts this week, with American Beech foliage stealing the show:

Our habitat pond is a relaxing place to drink in the view and look for frogs, before they dig themselves into the pond’s muddy bottom for the winter:

Ornamental shrubs against a backdrop of mature trees creates a layered look on a steep north-facing slope:

I’ve blogged about summer’s “profusion vases” before, but the fall has its own flower bounty…my husband’s creation of New England Aster, Goldenrod and grass stems lights up the breezeway:

Asters, Goldenrod and ‘Chocolate’ Eupatorium are still blooming, despite being hit by several frosts now. Their flowers continue to provide late-season nectar for whatever pollinators are still active…

Backyard Habitat in Autumn

As any New England ‘leaf peeper’ will tell you, there’s a unique beauty to the annual decay of our natural surroundings. Our Massachusetts backyard, landscaped as a natural habitat, takes on a whole new life in the autumn, when berries ripen, plant stems are loaded down with seeds and the songbirds that eat them, and foliage changes to its fall plumage of earth tones. I always love the contrast of the earliest changing plants (usually ferns) which are a harbinger of the symphony of color still to come:

Below: Possum-haw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) berries are starting their transformation from green to pink to purple. They will continue to ripen into the winter, providing valuable food for our winter birds. Viburnum is a shrub with multi-season interest – in the months to come, their leaves will also take on a gorgeous burnished tone…

Gardens are now a medley of reds, browns, yellows and everything in between:

Below: Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) climbing up a pine tree. Did you know that poison ivy is one of the best native vines for birds? Yes, there IS something good about poison ivy!! Its white berries are a food source for more than 50 species of birds. But poison ivy is one plant I would NEVER recommend planting in gardens. Its foliage and stems cause a severe allergic reaction in most people that touch it…even if you seem to be immune now, you can lose immunity at any point in your life. This is not a plant to encourage in your yard, but if it pops up in an out of the way area where people or pets do not travel, why not let it climb up a tree and provide food and perhaps even nesting for your local birds? It will reward you with its flaming red, orange and yellow foliage: