Harvesting Milkweed

Harvesting Milkweed

Earlier this week I saw a post from the US Fish and WildLife Service about collecting milkweed seeds. Since I have done this before, both as an individual, and a student group facilitator, I believe it is an important thing to do and this is the time of year to do it! The video is interesting but it ended up being about collecting milkweed seeds on a large scale; the home gardener would not have the equipment necessary to free the seeds from the silk, as is shown in the USFWS video. They do acknowledge this through giving some brief tips on what the home gardener interested in milkweed seed saving can do.

In the interest of providing yet another view, one that has worked for me since I started collecting seeds in 2014, I thought I would post the steps I take to collect and preserve milkweed seeds.

  1. Access your milkweed patch. I have three such patches in my yard – one common milkweed, one swamp milkweed, and one of rose milkweed. Make sure you have permission to pick the seed pods if the plants are not on your property.
  2.  Make sure the pods are dried. You can check this by looking at their color, which should be brown, not green, and whether or not they have started to split open. The pods that have already split open will easily come free of their seeds and silk, at even the gentlest touch, but are showing you they are getting ready for dispersal. Harvesting pods that have been drying on the stems of the plant will decrease the chance of mold forming, once they are stored.
  3. Pick the entire pod off of the stem and put it in a large container. I reuse ice cream and cookie dough buckets for this purpose.  Vent the tops of the container by poking several holes through the top.
  4. Place the container of seed pods in a cool, dark place for the winter. I just keep them in my garage on a shelf.
  5. In the spring, you can remove the pods, place the top back on the container and simply shake to separate the silk from the seed.

In recent presentations, I have been asking children why they think the silk is attached to the seed. Unfortunately, most do not know.  It is there to help the seed travel and find a new place to settle and germinate. If you watch any milkweed patch in mid-to-late fall, on a windy day, you can see this in action! Or, you can watch my YouTube video on it.

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Overwintering the seeds, either by letting them disperse naturally, or by collecting and storing in a cold place provides a needed stratification period for milkweed. Some plant seeds, including the milkweed species of plants, need a cold stratification period of several weeks to ready them to germinate in the spring. Your refrigerator can be used for this if you are not going to plant until spring. If you buy seeds, make sure they have received this cold stratification period.

Finally, even after you plant your milkweed seeds, you will need to be patient.

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Sometimes, it takes several years for the seeds to germinate. But, once they do, you will quickly have a growing milkweed patch of your own, from which you can collect seeds.

Sharing seeds is the fun part! Make sure you only share seeds that are disease free (from a disease free patch and that are native to your area of the country). From the seeds I have saved, an entire section of fourth grade (3 classes) planted in the spring of 2016, neighbors and friends were given seeds, and 180 first graders were given seeds this fall.

A demonstration prop I made containing milkweed seeds and silk, travels with me to my presentations on monarchs and milkweed. I call it my excitement jar.  It has proved to be a great teaching tool to show students the beauty and potential of milkweed seeds.

Lastly, in the fall of 2014 my garden club students and I harvested seed pods from the butterfly garden at school. Monarch Watch had put out a call for milkweed seeds. This was a great service learning project in which we only had to pick the pods and send them to an organization that would then separate the silk and disseminate the seeds to areas in need of milkweed.  Check their website to see if they are doing that again and how you can help. Monarch Watch Website.

The scary part of the milkweed topic is that a group of researchers have determined that over 1 billion, 1.6 billion additonal NEW stems, to be exact, of this plant are needed to sustain the monarch population and keep it from extinction. One point six BILLION additonal stems! Yikes! They have called for All Hands on Deck!  The research is presented in this IOPScience article publisheed earlier this year. Be prepared to read some dire consequences about the monarch and milkweed.

If you plant milkweed, whether from seed you saved, obtained from a friend, bought, or received free, you are helping this effort. Thank you for being a needed participant in saving the monarch!

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Inhabit

Inhabit

For years I have waited,

watched, and prepared

the garden beds for visitors.

 

Carefully, I have examined each leaf

for signs they inhabit my garden filled

with milkweed for them.

 

Common milkweed was the first,

taking years to be established.

Then swamp milkweed, followed by

rose milkweed planted by students.

 

Each germinating, growing,

flowering, and podding – a live advertisement

for those looking to inhabit my yard and fill it with

color and grace.

 

I wait each spring for the inhabitants,

Monarch Butterflies, to arrive and live in

the habitat I have provided for them.

 

Spring has turned to summer now, before they

arrive, causing me pause as my concern over

this species mounts.

 

Inhabit. Inhabit our fields, our yards, our roadways.

Help pollinate our food. Add beauty to the landscape.

Migrate thousands of miles, visiting those who also invite

this iconic creature with milkweed in their yards from

Canada to the United States to Mexico.

Inhabit. I hope Monarchs can continue to.

 

Inspired via Daily Prompt: Inhabit

Tiny Charges

Tiny Charges

Earlier this week, toward the end of the vacation my husband and I took to the island country of Bermuda, I remembered to ask my sister-in-law who was staying with our boys how the monarch eggs that I charged with her care were doing.  I did not get a response.

Our cell phone service on Bermuda was nil, and I only used the “free” wi-fi at our resort, so the occasional text I sent might have been missed or not even received. I worried more about how my sister-in-law would feel about some of the eggs not hatching or the caterpillars not surviving than about whether there would still be ten tiny representatives of the monarch life cycle upon my return.

Monarch eggs, the first stage of the monarch life cycle, hatch in anywhere from 1-4 days after being laid by an adult female monarch on a milkweed leaf, depending on conditions. I had found the eggs approximately three days before we left on our trip. I laid out all the leaves and showed my inexperienced, yet willing, monarch conservation participant what they looked like. We discussed what they do when they hatch – eat their egg shells, and then start eating a lot of milkweed. I told her that the caterpillars will be so tiny they will look like a whitish string on the leaf, encouraging the important tool of daily observation when rearing monarchs. The string is a caterpillar, without stripes. The stripes appear in several days, as the caterpillar eats milkweed and starts to grow.

My boys have helped me to rear monarchs for the last thirteen summers. They could manage the monarch care, if my sister-in-law felt unsure or things started to go awry.  Yet, when my question went unanswered, I wondered if it was because I had bad news awaiting me upon our return from vacation.

I would find out soon enough, so I did not ask again. The day arrived yesterday. We arrived home and after initial hugs, updates, and animated conversations about all our international wait staff on the island, I asked again about the monarch eggs.

“Did any hatch? Do we have any caterpillars?” I asked.

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My answer was a firm yes! We have nine caterpillars! Only one egg did not hatch. Wow! I was so impressed! Last year, I found most of the monarchs I raised in the caterpillar stage. Of the three eggs I found, only one did not hatch. So I was hoping to have a better percentage of success than 66%. Ninety percent was excellent! I was really pleased and thanked my sister-in-law and our boys for taking such good care of our tiny charges.

After dinner, I needed to refresh the milkweed the caterpillars were eating. When they are very small, I empty the entire contents of the netted growing container leaf by leaf on to the counter and make a count. Guess what?! We have TEN, not just nine, Monarch caterpillars. They all are striped now, making them somewhat easier to see, but still they like to hide in the curled edge of the drying leaves.  TEN! Ten means 100% of our eggs hatched! Wow! I am so thankful!

After counting and cleaning, which only entails getting rid of old, dried leaves, and dumping the frass (poop), new milkweed leaves were supplied, along with a slight misting of unsoftened water (something I used to do regularly, but found it is not absolutely necessary to do).

When arriving at my milkweed patch in my garden, I was greeted by a monarch flying from plant to plant! What a welcome sight! I picked some fresh leaves to place in the growing container and just happened to find three more eggs!

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Today, I will order my tags from Monarch Watch, so that when I release these monarchs after they complete their life cycle, they can be tracked, if found.  This will be the third year I have participated in tagging the iconic butterfly. It will be a special year, as I will have raised more from eggs than ever before!

Thanks, Aunt Mary, for taking such good care of your tiniest charges! (And the big, human ones, too!)

 

Inspection Time

Inspection Time

Late last week I spent some time looking at my milkweed patches for signs of monarch caterpillars. It is one of those activities that no matter how many times I do it, it is always filled with hopeful anticipation for me.

I have three main patches. The first patch is common milkweed, next to my garage wall in a long perennial bed. These plants are about knee-high right now and some are even starting to have flower bud clusters.  Eagerly, I looked for eaten leaves, or leaves with holes in them. I found a few and turned the leaves over to inspect the underside. Adult Monarch Butterflies typically will lay their eggs on the underside of a milkweed leaf. There are many reasons for doing this. The egg is protected from the elements – sun, wind, and rain, that might do some kind of biological damage to the developing caterpillar within. Obviously, if a predator cannot see the egg, it is a built-in protective mechanism. The egg is out of sight, under the leaf, it cannot be eaten or disturbed. However, I cannot imagine the egg would provide much sustenance for any other species, as it is tiny! As tiny as the head of a straight sewing pin! It ovoid in shape and a pale lemony color. It took me years to be able to find and identify a monarch’s egg.  I still find it so much easier to just look for the second stage of the monarch life cycle which is the characteristically white, orange, and black striped caterpillar. The common milkweed yielded no eggs or caterpillars, despite some suspiciously eaten leaf margins leading me to believe I would be lucky and see evidence of monarchs visiting my yard.

Last year, my rose milkweed, which is behind our barn and started as seed planted by my garden club students in May of 2015, was teeming with caterpillars. It was hard to count, there were so many! My milkweed inspection turned to this patch next. Now, the rose milkweed is about 3 feet high already! It is a much different looking plant, with a more elongated, sharper margined, darker leaf, supported by reddish stems.  My anticipation was dampened again, after not finding any signs of monarchs in this patch. I did not even see any eaten leaves.

Swamp milkweed is the last type of milkweed in my yard. This type of milkweed likes wet soil. Our yard varies from a sandy loam to a wet, dense clay depending on where you dig. Under a rapidly growing maple tree, in a shady spot, where the soil is almost always moist, grows my swamp milkweed. This plant is different still, not requiring the bright, hot sun, but milder conditions The leaves are a lighter green than the rose milkweed but similar in shape to that plant.  The blooms are white. Again, flower buds are already forming but there is no evidence of flying or crawling visitors.

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My hope was dashed. It is mid-June and I haven’t seen a monarch butterfly yet. There is no evidence they have been here, either. No eggs, no caterpillars, no butterflies. I looked back at my reporting records on Journey North’s Citizen Science Reporting Log for first sighting an adult monarch. In 2008, I saw one on May 14th.  Last year, in 2016,  I first saw a monarch butterfly on July 5th.  This is not good, folks!  I hope they show up soon. I have lots of food for them!

Looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars can be an exciting activity for youngsters. When they were young, my boys loved looking for the caterpillars and now will still report to me if they find one.   Even just learning to identify a milkweed plant on a local roadside hike can be a valuable learning experience, leading to more curiosity about a disappearing icon of the natural world.  Learning about the life cycle of another species is helpful in that we also learn how we, as humans, influence their habitats.  Knowledge is power!

Here are a few children’s books that I have used in the past to engage either my own boys or my students in learning about the Monarch Life Cycle.

The message is simple. Without milkweed, there are no monarchs!

Waiting Patiently

Waiting Patiently

We have some large projects going on at our house right now. The siding is being replaced and a few of the gardens are being revamped, once the siding is finished on each section. My husband is handy, so the siding job is his.

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My job, fitting for a nature lover and master gardener, is to spruce up the beds, once the scaffolding moves on to another part of our dwelling.  Last night, I was working on a long bed next to our garage. Among others, it holds my common milkweed plants. As I worked along on the border, replacing sand between bricks, I finally had to give in and look. The healthy green leaves are just waiting for a monarch visit. Were there any eggs, I wondered? Probably not, to have eggs, one must have butterflies. I have yet to see a Monarch this year.  So, I looked. I looked at the common milkweed. I looked at the swamp milkweed in another bed. And I looked at the rose milkweed, started by my garden club students from seed in 2015. Nada. Nothing, but healthy plants waiting to nourish a beautiful insect that depends solely on the verdant leaves to life.

Patiently, I’ll wait. For the alst 14 years I have raised monarchs, planted new and restored old habitats for this species that undergoes a miraculous metamorphosis and even more astounding migration. It is awe inspiring to be part of the process. It is that awe that I use to engage my students in learning about the environment, biodiversity, and human impact.

 

Hopefully, the monarchs will visit my gardens this year. The milkweed and I are ready for them. Patiently, I will wait. Expectantly, I will observe. Joyfully, I will welcome them once they arrive.

If you’d like to learn more about Monarchs and their plight, I would recommend these resources:

Monarch Life Cycle

Population Decline

How you can help

Milkweed Types

Creating Habitat for Monarchs

Creating School Gardens for Monarchs

My Story: Gardening with School Aged Students & Monarch Habitat Conservation

There are many, many other resources that I am aware of. If you need specific information, please let me know and I can provide it or direct you.  Thanks!

Plant Milkweed!

 

 

Simple Saturday – Nature in my Yard

Simple Saturday – Nature in my Yard

Today, I have a need to just post some simple photos of the evolving aspects of nature in my yard. There are reasons for this simpler post. While glancing at my social media feed this morning, I saw several articles and posts that irritated me. I do not wish to be irritated, so I will leave you with visions of happier more beautiful things that are right in my own backyard!

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Bleeding Heart

 

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Apple Buds

 

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Apple Blossoms

 

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More Apple Blossoms
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Home Fruit Orchard

 

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One of our five blueberry bushes.

 

Rose Milkweed plants behind our barn.

Seeds started by my garden club students in 2015.

We have Rose Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and Common Milkweed in our Yard.

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Many of the 101 new Fraser Fir Trees we had planted in our yard this spring.

Enjoy nature today & leave the annoying posts behind. We’ll all be better off.

Here’s to a Simple Saturday!