Visitors to the Milkweed Patch

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Milkweed blossom (Asclepias syriaca)

I am reminded of Michael Pollan’s premise in Botany of Desire every time I visit my milkweed patches. Are they manipulating me? Each spring, the trails I mow in our fields are delineated by the presence of milkweed. This has happened for years now, ever since I discovered the first small patch, arriving a few years after we bought the property and having a chance to grow due to what I have termed benign neglect – in other words, we just don’t mow as much as the previous owners. Now there are three areas of the property with large flourishing clumps of milkweed. I prefer to call this mutual nurturing for I am thrilled to have the milkweed here, but I’m not against entertaining the notion that it is a manipulation.

When I visit the milkweed patch I am primarily looking for monarch larvae because they are such an iconic species, because their population is in decline, and because each larva is a sign of hope to me. But the milkweed plant itself must signify hope for a myriad of other organisms, mostly insects, for I think of it as a hotel bustling with activity. I know of no other plant on our property (aside from tree canopies which I cannot visit) that is so well attended by insects.

There is an excellent book on the invertebrate community of the milkweed patch by Ba Rea, Karen Oberhauser and Michael Quinn called Milkweed, Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community of the Milkweed Patch. It is an extensive overview and has been helpful to me in identifying our visitors.

Not only have we let the milkweed flourish over time by not mowing it, Chris has selectively cut out much of the wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) and stickweed (Verbesina occidentalis), which while native, is aggressive and rarely seems utilized by insects. The pond field is becoming a nice mix of stickweed, milkweed, goldenrod, grasses, ironweed and various other plants I’ve yet to identify. I want the milkweed to get even denser if possible, keeping in mind that diversity is better. Besides, I do want a trail to the pond, so at some point, I will dictate where they grow. For now though, milkweed leads the way. It’s a win-win relationship for much of the Halcyon invertebrate community as well as its bipedal vertebrates.

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Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) getting milkweed nectar
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Milkweed longhorn beetle (Tetraopes sp.)
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Zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)
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Milkweed bug (Lygaeus sp.)
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Monarch larva (Danaus plexippus)

Discovery

CHIONODOXA SARDENSIS
Chionodoxa sardensis (I think)

It happened in a small patch of woods near our waterfall, not part of our regular walks, but I’d walked there many times before. Slowly, pondering, yet mostly looking down for morels or wildflowers in the warming days of spring. This day however, spicebush was blooming and I found myself looking up. What other trees and shrubs were waking? I found beech with its leaves ready to unfold even as it still held last year’s leaves, like a growing child not ready to give up a favorite shirt. The tulip poplar and sycamore still had their seedpods from the previous summer, but their branches were too high for me to discern new buds.

 

Every time I find something new at Halcyon, the discovery of the organism itself is heightened by the wonderment that it has (usually) been there every time I passed by. Instead of chastising myself, I am thrilled. One really can explore without leaving home – a backyard, a vacant lot, even a sidewalk can show us something new. Even our basements and attics are ripe for discovery since there are species of spiders that have evolved to cohabit the indoors with us.

So looking up my gaze settled on some brown papery seedpods hanging on a shrub/tree about 15 feet tall. It took a moment to trace a branch to its trunk, which was a trunk I was about to walk past, unseeing, lost in my thoughts, had I not been wondering what trees were blooming or leafing out. Its bark did not match what I’ve come to know in this small patch of woods: sycamore, redbud, black walnut, maple, ash, tulip poplar, beech (young ones), pine and cedar.

I collected some seedpods to take home and research. So what is my newest discovery? An American Bladdernut tree, which is even more of an interesting find in that I’d only heard of this tree last year from a friend. I think she said it was rare in this area of Virginia.

The American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) is actually a shrub that can reach heights of 20-30 feet. It is native to the United States, east of the Mississippi and from New England south to Florida. If you look at this Virginia Tech fact sheet you will notice that it is not distributed well around the Appalacians. Perhaps this is what my friend meant by its being rare around here.

This site has some pictures that show close ups of the flowers and seedpods:

 

This discovery has brightened my spirits, which have been waxing and waning with the tease of spring’s slow and wavering march. I plan to plant its seeds and with luck transplant it to other suitable habitat on the property. I also plan to see more of my walks; literally see them, as opposed to meanders where I am lost in thought. Such walks do bring discoveries, but often I need more than those internal discoveries – not liking to dwell on the self too much. I am more cheered I think of the discoveries outside myself. Of the life that has been all along and will be after I’m gone.

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bloodroot

Wrestling with Weeds

I’ve struggled with getting a post written this spring. Partly I’m grappling with time and energy, which we all do, though the particular demands on our time differ. Chris cut down at least 10 large invasive white mulberry trees (Morus alba) for firewood, and cut up the large parts before he left for a month-long spring term in New Zealand. I have been cutting up the rest. My chain saw can handle up to 8-inch diameter logs and I have alternated days between cutting and hauling it to our two sheds, aka our Black Snake Exfoliation Spas. I have found myself staring at the growing pile of wood like I do my canning jars all lined up on their shelves in the fall with a mixture of self-admiration – I stacked all that wood to keep us warm – and incredulousness – how in the world did families survive without their backup furnace?

Often while working, a jumble of words and ideas forget to pass each other in the muddle of my mind and form an essay that I’d love to write. But when I do sit down at my computer, and need to work on my children’s books, the essays have tended to re-tangle in my mind instead of flow out my fingers. Mind you, it’s not like I’ve cut or hauled all day. My battery, and the two chain saw batteries I have, only give me about two hours, but that’s enough to drain me for hours afterward, and make me slow going the next morning.

I’m not complaining. I really do like that I can do this work and that we save on our heating bills, savor an old-fashioned heat and get exercise in the process. I know it still pollutes, returns carbon to the atmosphere, but at least I’ve had to work for my warmth.

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One essay I would love to write is about the current state of politics and ecology regarding invasive species versus native species. I have some understanding about ecological processes in different habitats. I am full of concern about lack of understanding on the parts of those people who feel we must return a system to its native species (usually by poisoning) without an understanding that ecosystems are not static. And without an understanding of the underlying reason that said native species no longer exists. Usually all this does is create another disturbance for the same invasive or a new one to enter into the story – and at great economic and ecological cost. For a great example of this see the story of salt cedar on the Colorado River.*

I’m also full of confusion about to what state of nature people want to return our habitats. Before we, the worst invasive species ever, arrived in North America? One or two hundred years after we invaded and had already brought over species from Europe intentionally and unintentionally?   See the following link for examples: http://eattheinvaders.org/we-came-over-on-the-mayflower-too/

I agree that some species are particularly aggressive and I would not be happy to find them at Halcyon. Kudzu particularly comes to mind. Would I succumb to using poison?  Creeping Charlie is quite aggressive, but of course is small, easy to pull and actually to me quite beautiful.  I spent $80.00 on grape hyacinth bulbs last fall to turn the front lawn into a brief purple sea each spring.  Creeping Charlie is doing a much better job, for free.

creeping charlie
Creeping Charlie

So I remain tormented. I pull garlic mustard on my walks when I can easily reach it. I’ve seen it every year since we moved here 17 years ago and it has not taken over. I mow more than I want to keep ailanthus and mulberry from literally carpeting the yard around the house. However, I mow much less than the previous landowners in order to attract wildlife and protect the stream. Over the years we are finding a mixture of native species living with invasive species. There is a slowly growing and gorgeous patch of golden ragwort by the stream because I do not mow to the edge. I found black cohosh last year and wild comfrey this year. There was a small patch of spicebush when we bought the property. Now it is all over…a lovely invading native.

golden ragwort
Golden ragwort

Perhaps I am only seeing a snapshot in time and the invasives will take over. But what if that model is wrong? And what does take over really mean? What if some selective cutting and benign neglect allow the natives a chance to adapt to a newcomer’s defensive strategies? It is possible. I have a right to be here. But, I also have a responsibility to tread as lightly as I can because of my big human footprint. Who am I to kill the house sparrows that nest in a blue bird box – sparrows my species introduced?

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Wild comfrey

Well this essay seems to have spewed out finally, but is admittedly messy and incomplete. I know scholarly ecologists will find my ideas and concerns naïve if they subscribe to the current dogma of saving native habitats. Perhaps I am naïve. It is hard for me to know the best course of action, but I do know that Halcyon is a prettier, wilder (meaning more species live here than when we moved in), scrubbier place than when we bought it. I know too that our management choices – clearing for walking paths, planting mostly native trees, hand removing of some invasives and cutting our own firewood (always an invasive tree unless a native falls) – are disturbances to habitats and that with or without us and our impact on the land Halcyon will continue to change over time. I am just a small part in a small picture from a larger ecosystem.

What kind of story do we want to tell in the long run about our treatment of other species? What if humans don’t learn from past follies and continue to disturb habitats, which in turn advantage invasives? An invasive species is none other than an opportunist looking to take advantage of an open opportunity. An opportunist that could provide food, nitrifies the soil, provides oxygen for us and sequesters carbon. Services we can’t live without.

I don’t feel any more settled about what is the best course of action regarding invasive species. But I intend to go slower with decisions about certain species on the property. Observe them. Admire their tenacity and understand their adaptations. I don’t want to be a master in control of them; I want to feel part of a special place. A place I call home.

 

*Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration by Tao Orion. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont. 2015.

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