I’m excited to report that some of my little Asclepias tuberosa aka butterfly weed have started to bloom. I really didn’t expect them to the first year. Butterfly weed is in the milkweed family, which means that it is the food source for the monarch butterfly caterpillars. Milkweed is a truly fascinating plant. The flowers have a kind of trap system in place which causes the pollinator’s leg to slip in a crack and land on a sticky clump of pollen. When the animal tries to wrench its leg out of the crack it pulls the pollen out as well. The downside is that sometimes the insect isn’t able to pull itself free, or pulls itself free, but leaves a leg behind. Yikes! Nature is rough.
Here’s a great article, which highlights how important and beautiful designing gardens with native plants can be.
Today I was gardening at Brooklyn Bridge Park up by Jane’s carousel. There is a very tiny, but pretty garden there that is a rain garden. There is a lot of swamp milkweed in the garden, which is one of my favorite milkweeds. But in addition to being very pretty, it is also a host plant for the caterpillars of monarch butterflies.
While I was weeding I noticed a monarch caterpillar. I was very excited because monarch butterflies are in decline. It was wonderful to see that the monarchs found a perfect spot filled with their favorite (and only) food. A minute later I noticed another one. Aren’t they beautiful? And then I noticed that this garden was filled with these beauties. There was a monarch butterfly flitting about as well. But it was teasing me and I never got a photo of it. I just enjoyed watching it dance happily over all the milkweed.
A lot has been going on with my volunteer gardening at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Besides working one day at the Osborne garden, I am now working one day in the Native Flora garden. It’s a nice mix of formal beds and action-packed nature. The Native Flora garden attracts all kinds of insects, birds and butterflies, that it’s almost as much a study of animals as plants when I’m there. Below is one of the many praying mantis I saw one morning.
Earlier in the summer, when I was in the Osborne garden, I noticed bright red fruit on one of the trees. The tree was a cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) tree, which is actually related to dogwoods and not cherries. As many of you know by now, my first question was, “Are they edible?” The answer is a hesitant yes, unless you are from Iran, in which case you get a hearty yes. I read that you could make jam with the berries, so I got permission to gather a bunch that had fallen to the ground. The ones on the trees aren’t quite ripe.I followed a recipe I found online for jam, which I can’t say was a complete success. The taste was wonderful. Cooking the fruit took out the mouth-puckering tannin feel that the raw fruit has. The recipe I used called for way too much water. My preference in making jams and preserves is to cook the fruit as little as possible. What I ended up with was a delicious fruit syrup. Perfect for pouring over yogurt or ice cream.
Next year, I will stick with a more traditional jam recipe. If you run across one of these trees, do give the fruit a try.
One of the fun things about gardening at Brooklyn Bridge Park is all the different spaces. There are fields with regular grass and trees, wetland areas, tidal pools, bamboo thickets and native grass meadows. These photos are from when I was weeding in one of the native grass areas. There is a walking bridge above connecting Brooklyn Heights to the park. This particular area is filled with native grasses and sedges, which was a good challenge in identification for me. I had to pull the weeds and invasive grasses, but leave the native stuff. It was really tricky at first, but eventually I was able to really see the differences in coloration and blade texture.When I got home I ordered a copy of the book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast. It was recommended to me to help in weed identification. And if that doesn’t prove my nerdiness, check out these cool “bird’s nest” mushrooms I saw while weeding. It’s a lousy phone photo where I was trying to get too macro, but if you squint you can see them. There are a few light orange circles that are the mushrooms. When the mushroom wants to spread its spores, the top comes off to expose them. They are the tiny black disks that look like bird’s eggs sitting in a nest. C’mon, you have to admit they are cool!!
The first flower to bloom in my garden this spring is bloodroot. I got this native plant from my favorite plant nursery Project Native in Great Barrington, MA. My first encounter with this sweet flower was on a hike in early spring a couple of years ago up in the Berkshires. Although spring was definitely hitting, it was still too early for anything more than buds on the trees. As we walked along, we spied lots of these beauties popping up. They just screamed spring. There was something so hopeful about this flower springing up out of what still looked like winter. I was smitten.
I bought a plant a few years ago. Last spring was to be the first time I would have bloodroot in my garden. Unfortunately I let my chickens loose in the garden and they ran right to that spot and danced a cha cha on the plant and shredded it beyond repair. I was afraid that they had killed it. Needless to say, I didn’t see a flower that year.
On my early spring rounds of the garden, when I’m searching for any signs of life, I noticed the small curled leaf of the bloodroot plant! A couple of days later the little flower opened. Isn’t it lovely?
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is so named because of the dark red of its root. It has been used medicinally for ages. Applying the root directly to skin, kills the cells, which has led people to try and use it as a way to kill cancer cells. It is currently added to toothpaste and mouthwash as an anti-placque and antibacterial agent.
Bloodroot grows in part shade to shade. It prefers woodlands. I have it in a particularly shady spot in my garden. It already looks as though it is spreading, so hopefully a few more blooms will pop up this spring. After it is pollinated, the petals drop off and a seedpod forms soon afterwards. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole process this year.
My favorite plant nursery in the world (it’s so much more than that!), Project Native, was hosting a butterfly safari. They specialize in native plants as a means to promote a healthy ecosystem. I’ve probably gone into it before, but without native plants, there aren’t food sources for native insects and bugs, which then in turn affects what the native birds eat, etc. etc. etc. There are also some insects that will only lay their eggs on one type of plant (called a host plant). Monarch butterflies are one such insect. They will only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family. And their numbers are declining drastically. In fact our guide mentioned that their numbers could be down anywhere from 30-90 percent, and that they haven’t seen one all summer! But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
During our safari, we were given butterfly nets and instructed on the best way to catch and then release the butterflies into the holding box. Our guides were amazingly knowledgeable about the different plants and butterflies we saw. They walked us through their property, which was a fun glimpse of the different plants they sell growing in a wide, open setting.
We caught several butterflies. Lindsay was by far the best at it. And then we brought them to their newly built butterfly house to release them. The butterfly house is a hoop house, with netting instead of plastic. It is filled with native plants for the different butterflies to feed and lay eggs on.
And, you might have noticed that after I said that they hadn’t seen any monarchs, my first photo is of a monarch. That was from a woman who donated monarchs she used in a classroom setting. They were from PA, so aren’t considered native to the Berkshires. They will not release the monarch when they release all the other butterflies for the winter.
Things are popping up and growing like mad in my little garden. You can almost hear the green shoots popping out of the soil.
I took these photos on May 3rd.
I wish I could share how delicious the crabapple blossoms smell! The lily of the valley are just poking up and the currant bushes look very promising.
This is a week later.
And now the cherry and crabapple tree blossoms are gone. The clematis is getting ready to burst, which means the hydrangea and elderberry bushes aren’t far behind. I love looking out of my kitchen window and seeing green
We’ve been out enjoying the warmer weather these days. Last weekend we went to buy some new pine chips for the chicken run. Their run was mostly dirt, which might not bother the hens at all, but definitely was ugly and also caused dirty eggs.
What is usually a no-brainer errand turned into a bit more of a challenge. Both Lowe’s and Home Depot seemed well-stocked with wood chips. But on closer inspection, they had dyes embedded in them. All of them! And not only were they colored, but the dyes were guaranteed to last something like a year. This was definitely something that I thought would be an environmental and chicken health nightmare. I finally found undyed chips at Home Depot by a company called Great Gardens that is a part of the Long Island Compost project. I had never heard of them, but if you take a peek at their link, you can see some of the great work they are doing. I was much happier buying organic chips for my chickens to run around in, so it was a win-win.
The girls were happy because they got to run around the garden wreaking havoc.
And there were a few plants starting to poke out of the ground..
During my morel hunting last Saturday, I noticed other wild edibles in the woods. There was winter cress, garlic chives (as a kid, we called this onion grass), watercress, and two highly invasive plants – garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed.
Being the somewhat nature-deprived city gal that I am, I took the opportunity of gathering some wild edibles while I was in the woods. I gathered all of the above except the Japanese knotweed. Lindsay took ownership of the garlic chives, and delighted in pulling them up to get the bulbs. We made scrambled eggs with chives that were delicious. The eggs, of course, were from our backyard chickens.
The garlic mustard looked hopelessly wilted by the time I got home, so I put it in a big bowl of cold water hoping to revive it. It seems as though nothing can kill garlic mustard, and it perked up in no time. I made a delicious pesto sauce, using 50% basil leaves and 50% garlic mustard leaves and buds. Now is the time to pick garlic mustard to eat, because after the flowers bloom, the plant becomes too bitter.
In searching online for garlic mustard recipes, I learned more about the plant itself. It is a highly invasive plant that European settlers brought to plant in their kitchen gardens. It is a prolific producer of seeds and will blanket an area in a very short time, choking out all other native plants, including jack-in-the-pulpit, solomon-seal MOREL MUSHROOMS, and others. Wild animals don’t like to eat it, so it grows completely unchecked. And if that weren’t bad enough, the roots send out a chemical compound that makes the soil inhospitable to other plants. A very primitive form of chemical warfare.
There are many groups that host garlic mustard pulls. The amount of bags filled with the weed is astonishing. Unlike other weeds, you can’t pull this one up and just leave it on the ground. The flowers will have enough energy to produce seeds even after the plant has been uprooted. You have to pull it up by it’s roots and bag it.
Here’s a video that talks about the problems with garlic mustard. It helps you identify it and learn how to get rid of it. There’s even an annual Garlic Mustard Challenge, in which you help them log how many bags of garlic mustard have been pulled. Take a peek here.