Friday, January 23, 2015

Omnivore's Delight

How do you decide what plants to add to your garden? My friend John Magee designed a garden with only straight species native plants. Over lunch last summer he described the garden as a 'vegan' pollinators paradise. No cultivars or hybrids fill the beds or spill from containers. If the plant isn't native to the North American southeast, it's not in the garden. I was intrigued by this idea but quipped that if a native garden could be considered vegan, then mine would be an omnivore's delight. I don't know where my roses, campanula, geraniums, or daylilies are native to but it isn't Virginia.



Even though Verbena bonariensis isn't native to the southeast, adult monarchs love it. But milkweed is the only food source for monarch caterpillars.


Orange milkweed (asclepias tuberosa) is easy to grow in dry, sunny, well drained spots. You can also grow it in a pot since it only reaches about 18" high. All pollinators love it. Whorled milkweed (asclepias verticillata) is another excellent choice for dry, sunny spots.

My garden is full of native plants but it's also full of hybrids and cultivars. 'John Fanick' phlox was moved next to euphorbia corollata last fall while spigelia marylandica thrives next to a hosta whose name I forgot. But when a nonnative plant is introduced to the garden, it must conform to the ethos of "Do no harm". It must support the ecosystem within the garden and cater to the needs of local pollinators. If it doesn't attract wildlife, it needs to be a problem solver like the epimediums that laugh off dry shade and rarely require extra water.




Southeastern native spigelia marylandica brightens a partially shady corner.

But sometimes we are innocently duped and add plants that not only harm our local pollinators but are contributing to their decline. Tropical milkweed, asclepias currassavica, has been shown to alter the migrating behavior of monarch butterflies, leading to fatal infections of OE (Ophyryocystis  elektroscirrha), a parasite that eventually kills monarch and queen butterflies. Instead of migrating to Mexico after they've laid their eggs on native milkweed, they stay and overwinter in warm areas where tropical milkweed is plentiful in home gardens. 




Monarch caterpillar on orange milkweed. 

Cheap and readily available, tropical milkweed blooms long after the natives have gone to seed. In our eagerness to help our beloved monarchs we've actually done more harm than good. After reading an excellent post on Southern Meadows describing the disastrous affects of tropical milkweed on monarchs, I quit growing it and began filling my garden with native orange milkweed and swamp milkweed.




Pink swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata) is much taller than orange milkweed and likes moist, rich soil.

But all is not lost. While clean, pesticide-free milkweed may be a challenge to find locally, it's easy to find online. The following nurseries carry many varieties of milkweed that have never been treated with pesticides. Many are available as seed as well as plants.


Plants:


Seeds:
(Asclepias does well when winter sown. See my Winter Sowing page to learn how.)

Stokes
Terroir Seeds
Vesey's
West Coast Seeds - Canada
Wildseed Farms


Tropical milkweed (asclepias currassavica) is also known as bloodflower or silky butterfly weed. Please don't plant this.

68 comments:

  1. Thank you for telling us about this tropical milkweed. I have never seen it but will know not to buy it if I see it.
    A purist native garden like that of your friend is something very difficult to achieve. Most of the native plants for sale in regular nurseries are in fact cultivars of the original species. Besides, even if you have an original species - it has to come from your area. Viburnum dentatum grows from Northern Florida to Northern Ontario but plants from these two areas are not interchangeable.There is also the question of whether a native plants was actually growing in your area. Often times, no one knows for sure. A plant might be native to your state but not to your area. I follow your approach of Do No Harm.

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    1. When I read that a plant is native from mid-Canada to Florida, I'm always suspicious since the climates are so different. Understanding the microclimates in a single region is so important to knowing if any plant will be happy in your garden. I've added more and more natives over the years but still have many ornamentals I love. I am definitely not a purist but John's gardens are so beautiful. There are more plants available as pure natives than people realize.

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  2. Yikes! I hadn't heard that about Asclepias currassavica. Thanks for the heads-up!

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    1. You're very welcome! Please spread the word! After reading Karin's post a few years ago, I ripped mine out and added more native milkweed. I let my orange milkweed go to seed so I always have seedlings to stuff into any open spot.

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  3. Interesting. But I agree with Alain; it is very hard to determine what "comes from your area". We have to take the long-term perspective sometimes. After all, if we all went for only Native plants, most of us would not be eating potatoes, or tomatoes, or chillies or beans or....

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    1. That's very true. If I had a vegetable garden of natives only, I might starve.

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  4. Hi Tammy, I innocently thought that by planting a mix of natives alongside unusual plants and non-natives from all over the place, one could cater for everything, it turns out this is a naive view and the argument of natives vs mixed doesn't have a simple answer. I'm not really aware of similar "do not plant" directives here - apart from the obvious such as Japanese knotweed (it might even be an offence to plant this). Your approach of "do no harm" is good guidance.

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    1. You and I plant the same way. Everybody is just mixed in together. The native vs non-native argument is a passionate one. I always look for a native plant first but will settle for a cultivar if it better meets the requirement of the spot I need to fill. I do try to avoid plants that are pollenless unless they solve a dry shade problem, since I have so much of it.

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  5. I once have sown Ascepias currassavica from seed we brought from holidays, they look nice, but I´m afraid we have no Monarchs in our part of the world. The caterpillar of the Monarch is a real beauty.

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    1. If I didn't live in North America, I'd plant it, too, because it's a beautiful plant.

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  6. I had no idea about Tropical Milkweed! Thankfully, I've never planted it, only Swamp Milkweed. Good to know! I do try to plant lots of natives, but I also plant nonnatives that I fall in love with. My passion in gardening was sparked by a Clematis with muddied parentage from different parts of the world. Because of that, I believe it's okay to have some of that non-native beauty in a garden - as long as it does no harm, like you said. Anymore we do have to be very careful that the nonnative plants we buy are not invasive.

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    1. I have major love for clematis and have lots of it in my garden. I don't want a clematis-free garden. But I have a cool native clematis that has little octopus shaped flowers. I have one super invasive plant in my garden that spreads by runners but it's growing in a pot to keep it from taking over. :o)

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  7. Such lovely photos of all those beautiful plants and flowers, and all the little critters that survive by them!

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  8. Tropical Milkweed does not survive in our climate, Tammy. So I have no it in my garden. Love your photos, they remind me that spring comes soon :)) and the snow melts.

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    1. It might live in your greenhouse. I saw a few green leaves one of my shrubs that leafs out the earliest as well as a bit of green in the garden. We are closer to spring today than we were yesterday. :o)

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  9. I have to be pragmatic about the omnivores seeding over from next door in my one day we'll be vegan garden. Australian brush cherry is scattering hopeful seedlings - which I harvest as I see them.

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    1. I find native plants much better reseeders than cultivars. They're tougher, too. Hopefully, the wind will blow them into your garden. :o)

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  10. So various milkweed! The only one milkweed that aI have ever grown is tropical milweed (Assclepias currassavica). The other is new for me.

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    1. Tropical milkweed is right at home in your tropical garden! Monarchs can only be found in North America. :o)

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  11. Very interesting and informative post. We are not on a monarch route here. I'm slowly looking up the species we do have and planting them a fine meal. West Coast Seeds is a Canadian company for pesticide free, non invasive milkweed.

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    1. I added them to my list! While butterflies may be attracted to non-natives for nectar, they almost always need specific native species for their caterpillars.

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  12. Great post! The links are a real public service, and your Spigelia look fabulous! Mine are puny by comparison.

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    1. Your spigelia will catch up! Sourcing clean, pesticide-free plants shouldn't be so difficult. Hopefully, people will use this list to add native milkweed to their gardens as well as other clean plants.

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  13. I noticed that some of the public gardens even here in the north plant A. currasavica. But it would either go dormant or die in October with the first hard frost. I remember reading how this is a problem in warmer climates in the U.S. Personally, my garden is an "omnivore's delight" like yours (that's a great way to describe it). I'm adding more native plants, but I do have many non-natives. Most are near the house, and the garden gets more "native" and "wild" moving away from the house toward the woods. Great post, Tammy. :)

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    1. Thanks, Beth. :o) Tropical milkweed needs to stay in the tropics where it does no harm. The public gardens in your area need to be more responsible and use native species both as a source of education since people tend to copy their designs as well as environmental awareness.

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  14. Thank you for this Tammy. There is a lot of information here that I didn't know--in particular the problem with tropical milkweed. I'll use your article as a guideline when I go looking for non invasive milkweed for the Monarchs. We have so few, I think I've only seen one or two in twenty years--as Susan said above, we are not on a Monarch route. You will get the occasional stray. Don't you find it incredible (and also scary and unnerving) that with climate change, we will be witness to things the experts have never seen before in the years ahead? We have to keep our eyes wide open to observe the changes and try to adapt.

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    1. You're welcome. We're on a monarch route but I have fewer every year although last summer I had several. Or maybe it was the same one every day.... A friend had so many a few years ago she ran out of milkweed and brought them to my house.

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  15. Thank you for passing on all the links above....I think the tropical varieties should be straight up banned. I really like that swamp milkweed and would love to add that one this year.......I am pinning this post right now friend! Keep on bringing it!!! Nicole xoxo

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    1. I hope more people read it and think twice when buying their plants. If you give swamp milkweed sun and moist soil, it's very easy to grow.

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  16. This is a subject I have been dealing with for the last few years. I am like you, I do have a mix. I feel it is okay to have your "fun" plants. If they support nature, but when they are harmful like the tropical milkweed-then it needs to go. I have cosmos in my garden and they have that on the invasive list now-shoot-my bees are all over that humming late fall! I will still keep my cosmos.This is a big debate right now + I feel, I am with you:-) I enjoy my non-natives mixed in but when they are harmful-they get pulled out- real fast-no place for them in my space!!!

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    1. How can cosmos be invasive?? It's so good for our pollinators. I'm growing some this spring for my garden. I will always have a mix of plants. I prefer it that way.

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  17. This is such a valuable post Tammy, highlighting how important research and knowledge sharing is. We grow a mix of natives and non-natives and choose plants with the same criteria as you. Over here Nursery plants grown without pesticides are generally much more expensive and there has been a huge rise in 'Bee friendly plants" but they are grown using pesticides and "Bee friendly" seeds that are coated in pesticides too. Motivated by profit rather than care for wildlife. Sadly in the UK the Monarch butterfly is an exceptionally rare visitor, they must be a beautiful sight.

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    1. Thanks, Jules. :o) They are big, beautiful and very much loved. Anything drenched with pesticides isn't bee friendly and should be labeled so the consumer knows what they are buying.

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  18. Thank you for enlightening us with this post Tammy...I had no idea, and it's very nice to know.
    Sometimes when we think we are doing the world of good, it is exactly the opposite.

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    1. It is definitely frustrating to discover we were doing more harm than good.

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  19. I saw tropical milkweed growing in a friend's garden last summer and put it on my plant wish list, because it was so lovely. Now I will cross it off! I have been trying to plant more natives in the past few years, but I can't do without some of my cultivar "pretties," such as all the daylilies. Seeing your beautiful stand of Indian pinks, I sure hope my new seedlings survive our Midwest winter!

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    1. Thank you for not growing this! Please educate the gardeners in your area. I love daylilies and just bought a bunch more. Indian pinks are tough plants. I'm sure they'll come back just fine. :o)

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  20. I am sure the Monarchs are thinking " do me a favour and don't do me a favour" . So often I think we overlook the big picture in our living world and ecosystems. I know we have a huge purple loosestrife and yellow flag iris problem here. The trend here is xeroscaping as it is so hot and dry but we have the greenest chemically treated lawns I've ever seen. ( semi arid ) . Our huge lake has been overrun by Eurasian milfoil caused by someone dumping their aquarium in the lake decades ago. Oh crumbs.

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    1. It's so weird to think of Canada as hot and dry. Purple loosestrife is such a thug. People forget that their choices affect all of us. Our choices are bigger than we are.

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  21. The native vs non-native is a discussion with many arguments, the definition over here in Britain is that native plants are plants that have occurred naturally since the last Ice Age which ended around 12,000 years ago. The list of plants from back then is quite long, but a typical English garden from the last 500 years or so doesn’t have many plants from that list. In my own garden I have a mix of just about anything that can and will grow, suitable to my tiny space and the climate whilst trying to cater for wildlife and avoiding anything invasive and prolific self-seeding.
    I don’t think native planting is for me, I am too fond of all the plants from all over the world brought over here by plant hunters many centuries ago :-)

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    1. I have a mix but I also have a much larger geographic region to pull from. :o)

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  22. I just love how you look after your native wildlife!!! I can never quite get over the fact that you have monarchs....such an incredibly beautiful butterfly, it's sad to hear how their numbers are dropping, at least you have their back. The caterpillar is amazing isn't it....how I would love to see that close up, it almost doesn't look real!!!xxx

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    1. The southeastern part of the US has a lot of gorgeous butterflies. The caterpillars are so big and green they almost look cartoonish with their racing stripes. My garden has its own ecosystem. I am just the caretaker. :o)

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  23. Hi Tammy, yikes, I didn't know about the adverse effect that tropical milkweed has on the monarch butterflies population at all! It wasn't growing in my garden, but after reading your post my garden gate is definitively closed to it. Thanks for providing this info!
    How interesting that your friend John Magee has planted a garden strictly with native plants. I wonder how it looks like and after I am done with my comment I will click on the link, assuming that I will find some photos there. I admire his approach for the sake of the plants and wildlife alike, but it wouldn't work for me though. I am too much hooked on roses, but at least I garden strictly organically and don't spray. I decided a few month ago though to make my garden more friendly for pollinators and plant more perennials that they can feast on. I guess every step counts!
    Warm regards,
    Christina

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    1. John's garden are beautiful! He is a passionate environmentalist who is able to give people the lush landscaping they want while also catering to the needs of the local wildlife. Please spread the word about the dangers of tropical milkweed and hooray for adding more pollinator -friendly plants. Every step DOES count!

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  24. Informative post Tammy, thank you. I've never heard of tropical milkweed and definitely didn't know the harm it can cause. I have been looking at planting milkweed but I think it's the swamp milkweed I'll be planting. I saw some last summer on a trail ride and was smitten. Beautiful plant and beneficial. Sold. I'm not completely strict of native plants but I do like to make sure there's a healthy dose of them in the garden as it seems the responsible thing to do.

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    1. Swamp milkweed smells like honey. You'll love it. :o)

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  25. Thanks for the info on the different kinds of milk weed. I had no idea...

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  26. Very interesting. The same problems apply here in the UK but with different species.

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    1. It must be a universal problem now that finding plants from other climates is so easy. Some plants should come with a warning label.

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  27. Hello Tammy girl !
    I had no idea about this plant ... I love my orange milkweed and cross fingers for the pink one to return (pink is alright right ?) .. in any case this was a great post and I certainly will take note NOT to plant the tropical type. It takes a strong willed gardener to have only natives in his garden .. I have a mixture and I think they compliment each other .. I don't discriminate ! LOL
    It was -18 this morning ... now we are at a balmy -1 .... maybe Spring has a chance in a few months here ... BIG sigh !
    Joy

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    1. I love my orange milkweed, too! I love how tough and resilient it is. Plus, the pollinators go nuts for it. John's gardens are true beauties and absolute havens for wildlife. But I don't think I could give up my roses and clematis.

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  28. I read this post the other day and came back to read it again today to make sure I had all the different milkweeds straight. I have two varieties of swamp milkweed (white and pink) and added the orange milkweed late last summer (here's hoping it survives the winter). I also see the "invasive" native milkweed here in fields (I put invasive in quotes because I am finding that all the different types of milkweed are actually pretty good self-seeders). I am not sure if I have ever seen the tropical variety on offer here. Perhaps it is too tropical for Canada.
    I have admired the spigelia marylandica every time you have shown it. What a nice sized clump it has grown into! I must get some for my garden this spring.

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  29. Tropical milkweed would never survive a Canadian winter but it can still do its damage if its planted in the summer as an annual. Spigelia likes to be well drained. It grows easily for me but I think it just likes the spot its in. :o)

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  30. Thank you for posting about this. I wrote to Better Homes and Gardens to stop advocating planting this milkweed and they never responded after several attempts so I stopped my subscription. This is so important to only plant native milkweed that is grown pesticide free.

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  31. Thank you for contacting BHG! Advocating that anyone in the US plant tropical milkweed is irresponsible and unethical.

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  32. You're a good gardener with extensive experience and your knowledge about plants is interesting and helpful to others. Regards.

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  33. Great post with all those excellent links! The milkweed discussion is so important! I am excited to grow milkweed from seed as Chickadee Gardens passed some along to me. Hoping to grow, save seeds and pass them along too!

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    1. Thanks and I agree. Every gardener should have native milkweed in their gardens, especially since it's available online from reputable, clean (pesticide-free) companies or friends. :o)

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  34. Wonderful blog...I came from Tina's blog.. I have a Monarch Way Station in NY and a lot of native plants, but I am a novice gardener. I only found 7 eggs to raise into monarchs this season and none last year.. I read an article that it is now thought that gardens are now 80% plants from asia. No wonder native pollinators are in trouble with this and all the pesticides and herbicides...Michelle

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    1. My garden is organic and I only buy plants from clean growers. If the grower uses pesticides then I buy them when they're not in bloom in the fall so the systemics have all winter to break down within the tissues and are no longer viable. Many parts of Asia have the same growing conditions we do, which is why their plants do so well for us.

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  35. Like you I respect the all native plant gardener but chose to have other plants in my garden in addition to natives. I'd heard that tropical milkweed was bad news for the Monarchs. I've never grown that but want to get some of the native stuff. I love those seed pods! Thanks for the list of sources!

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  36. A great post. I think it is wonderful to grow native plants that will nurture you wild life. It is worth any effort to protect those beautiful butterflies.
    I do grow exotics but I also grow plenty of natives. I have never used neonicotinoids and I do try to keep my garden safe for wildlife.

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  37. Great post Tammy! I'm glad that you are helping to spread the word! I still find it astonishing how mainstream nurseries, magazines, etc. still advocate invasive and harmful plants so it takes us "little" people to keep up the good fight! And, thanks for the blog link to Southern Meadows!

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  38. I don't know that I'd write off all tropical milkweed for all regions based on one study, but there are plenty of good native alternatives, so it's not much of a sacrifice to not grow it.

    Love your blog and writing style. I'm going to have to sit down one rainy spring day and get caught up!

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