Native Plant Spotlight: Sneezeweed

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“And here is where I put the sneezeweed…”

“You just planted what?”

That, I believe, was the reaction at my glee this past spring- upon my planting 7 plugs of Helenium autumnale – Common Sneezeweed.

Maybe I should have used the Latin name.  Sounds much prettier and wouldn’t have everyone preemptively reaching for a box of tissues.

Despite it’s name, Sneezeweed is not a source of fall allergies.  When the flower is dried and crushed, in an effort to extract the seeds, then it is very sneeze-inducing.  That seems to be the origin of it’s common name.  A member of the sunflower/aster family, it has many tell tale features of the family, but is quite unique in its own way.

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The central disk is globular, much like a coneflower, but less than an inch across.  Around 10 ray flowers come off and away at the base in a triple lobed pattern.  Like a triple heart!

Flowers branch off the main stem, often times dozens at a time.  In my reading about sneezeweed it seems that they can grow very tall, (mine are about 3 feet tall- it’s their first year and I didn’t site them optimally)  but cutting them back in June can induce a shorter and more branched habit, which may be more conducive to the garden setting.

Sneezeweed can be found in every continental US state (except Vermont according to this map?  I find that unlikely) and throughout much of Canada.

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In the wild, sneezeweed prefers a moist environment and full sun.  It will grow fine in a garden with well amended soil.  I started these this year from small live plants (plugs from Prairie Moon), watering them often in their first months of life.  We had a few short spells of drought, but a decently wet summer, which I’m sure helped them establish.  They always looked hale and hearty- unlike some rose milkweed next to it, which often looked thirsty- so their water requirement isn’t extreme.  My site, along a sunny side yard gets about 6 hours of morning to early afternoon sun.  So maybe they’d be more robust if slightly wetter and a few more hours of sun, but they seem to be ok.

There are a few cultivated nativars of sneezeweed, with shorter habits and different coloration out there.  However, in some cases cultivars are not as attractive to pollinators as the native version- so if creating a healthy habitat for wildlife is one of your goals, stick to the original.

As cut flowers they last well, I brought many inside as part of a small garden bouquet and they look unchanged 4 days later.

Sneezeweed can be a beautiful native addition to the fall garden, presenting a different look than the goldenrods and asters that typify this time of year.

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Top Five Annual Flowers to Improve Soil

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As a gardener you quickly realize how intricately connected the health of what you’re growing is linked to the health of your soil.  Soil rich in organic matter, with balanced pH, minerals and a thriving microbial and fungal community will deliver vibrant plants.

Typically, I prefer perennial flowers.

If sited in your garden correctly (that is, the environment, sun exposure and moisture and general soil attributes), after a little babying the first year- perennials can grow with minimal input from us for years.  And after a few years, you can even divide them to fill in other areas of your yard.  Bonus plants!  Plus, this way I can chose native plants that will serve my area and wildlife best.

But I’m not talking about perennials today.  Today I’m talking about annuals. 

I generally prefer annual plants that readily self-seed.  See, I don’t like spending a lot of money at the garden store on something that will die towards October.  Especially if I’m not eating it.  (I spend plenty of money at the garden store on other things!)  And while I start some plants indoors by seed, I don’t have a huge space or set up to accommodate starting flats and flats of annuals from seed, like my mom can.

Also, I really want my annuals to work for it.  Not just be pretty, or serve as nice cut flowers or feed pollinators and wildlife.  I like annuals that just by physically being there is improving my garden.  I clearly demand a lot.

So I put together this list of no-fuss annual flowers you can plant that have an amazing quality about them- they can actually improve your soil while they are growing, looking beautiful and helping pollinators.  Most of these self seed decently too in my 5b garden- or it’s easy to pick a few seeds and scatter them around while expecting a few to come again the next year.

Let’s get to that list!

1.  Sunflowers

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Sunflowers are super at improving soil.  Why?  Their huge root system.  Sunflower roots reach deep into the ground to access water and support their massive height and weight.  All those roots mean that organic material (the roots themselves) are distributed far and wide throughout the soil.  When the plants die come frost-time, all that root material stays in the ground and will decompose over winter.  What I typically do is cut the plants down at ground level, never pulling the root ball out so as to preserve that material in the ground.  Then, as an added bonus I’ll strip many of the leaves and leave them laying on the ground as mulch.  It’s not the prettiest- but nothing is super pretty in November and it’s my backyard.  In addition to serving as critical nesting and protection for ground dwelling animals and bees, the sunflower leaves are full of minerals that have bioaccumulated within the plant- those minerals have been brought up from taht deep and extensive root system.  Finally, I”ll cut off most of the spent flower heads and chuck them on the ground too.  We’ve had sunflowers for years now and I’ve never planted a one- the birds and animals disperse the seeds through their foraging- and I’ve thrown a few flower heads around and plants always emerge from those sites.

2.  Sweet Pea

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Photo credit: Annie’s Annuals

Sweet Pea makes the list for it’s nitrogen fixing properties.  Plants in the legume family all fix their own nitrogen out of the air due to the symbiotic relationship they have with Rhizobium, bacterial that set up shop in root nodules in legume family plants.  There are lots of pretty legume family plants to chose from, but sweet peas are beautiful in a classic sense and can be at home in any garden.  My neighbors would never care what I have growing in my front yard, but for some reason some folks neighbors do care (don’t they have other things to worry about?) and if that’s the case, beautiful sweet peas snaking up your trellis or fence is a bit more sightly than a mass of scarlet runner beans.  At the end of the season be sure to leave the root systems in the ground- cut the plant at ground level.  All that nitrogen can stay in the soil for the next year.  And the plant makes an excellent addition to your compost pile.

3.  Sweet Alyssum

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I’m including alyssum not for what it does to the soil per se, but how it can protect the soil.  One component of healthy soil is retaining moisture.  High percentage of organic matter (6-8%) helps with this, as does a top layer of mulch.  But the concept of a living mulch should not be overlooked.  A living mulch is basically a ground cover that shields the soil from sunlight, keeping moisture in and weeds out.  Alyssum is low- generally never more than a few inches high.  It’s easy to pull out or push aside, should you want to plant into your living mulch.  I find that it self seeds, but is fairly patchy, so I will sprinkle more seeds around to help it out.  It comes in so many colors too- it can easily compliment any garden.

4.  Borage

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Image Credit: World of Flowering Plants

Borage is another prolific self-seeder.  It can border on a weed but it’s easy to pull and if it pops up in the grass, mowing it down will stop it in it’s tracks, so it’s hardly a bother.  Borage, like sunflowers have a deep root, and thus like sunflowers will leave a massive root system in the soil come the end of season and can bioaccumulate minerals from deep underground.  Borage’s root is more like a taproot and thus can be thought of as a ‘biodrill’.  Biodrilling is the concept of breaking up tough, particularly clay soils & compacted soil using a strong taproot.  Daikon radish is very adept at this and is often used as a cover crop for this purpose.  The taproots allow water to better penetrate the soil and make it easier for next year’s plants roots to go deep into the soil- literally following in the footsteps of last season’s taproot.  Borage has lots of other great characteristics as well that I’m not even going into here (edible leaves, flowers, companion crop) so if you’re interested, seriously check it out.

5.  Bachelors Buttons

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Image Credit: The Spruce

Bachelor Buttons make this list mainly in their no-fuss nature.  Bachelor buttons are often added to flowering cover crop seed mixes because they don’t require much water, can withstand lots of conditions and quickly leaf out.  This quick to add leafy material quality is what makes bachelor buttons a nice ‘living mulch’.  If you need to cover some soil for a few months, want it to look pretty, and then want to till that all under again, look to bachelors buttons.  The small and thin leaves rapidly break down, making it an ideal flowering cover crop that can be quickly and easily tilled back into the soil.

So that’s the list.  What say you?  Do you know of any other easy and beneficial annual that I can use to bulk up my soil?  What about perennials, I think I’ll make that list next!

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Raising Monarchs

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The plight of the monarchs- North America’s most recognized and distinctive butterfly is all over the news.  Through the combined effects of climate change, land development and insecticides & herbicides the monarch population is down roughly 90% over the past 20 years.  While this year they seem to be doing better than last year the population as a whole are by no means thriving.  Vast efforts are underway to re-establish milkweed in critical migration paths- this will be hugely impactful.  But what can us, as individuals do?  Turns out a lot.  And it’s pretty easy.  Now, just one person is not going to ‘save’ the monarchs.  But working together, we can make a big impact.

Forgive me some math…

Say 1 million North Americans (where monarchs migrate to- the majority overwinter in remote mountains in Mexico) wanted to raise monarchs.  The population of US & Canada is about 360 million.  That’s less than 0.3% of the population.  If 1 million of us raised about as many eggs to butterflies as I did this year (about 40) that would be 40 million butterflies.  I started out with about 45 eggs, but only 40 made it.  In the wild the number of butterflies to arise from 45 eggs is about (5-8% chance of survival- call it 6.5%) 3 butterflies.  Instead I got 40!  Now, if those 1 million people did the exact same thing- instead of ~3 million butterflies arising naturally, there would be 40 million butterflies!  Considering last year’s overwintering population of monarchs was ~140-150 million… 40 million is HUGE!

Did this math convince you?

Ok, maybe the math didn’t, but let me show you how easy it is- maybe that would help.

First, there are folks who have done this much longer than I have.  Folks that have seen it all.  Folks that can answer lots of questions.  I am not that person.  I’m a beginner.  And I want to demystify it a bit.

First, before you even begin- consider these things.  One:  you cannot have any trips of more than a day or two planned away during the ~2 weeks your monarchs are caterpillars.  They need to be fed.  Also, they will emerge after ~2 weeks from the chrysalis, so you need to keep that in mind should you find yourself again traveling.

Two:  Monarch caterpillars eat a lot of milkweed.  You need to have access to lots of it.  Either your yard or a very near by park.  I say very nearby because after a long day you don’t want to come home when it’s getting dark and you realize your caterpillars need more leaves and you have to go searching.  In the second week of life a caterpillar will eat 1-2 milkweed leaves a day… like big 5 inch long common milkweed leaves.  If you have 10 cats that can be 10-20 a day especially towards the end of their caterpillar lives.

I have a stand of ~12 common milkweed and that was enough.  That was plenty, most of my milkweed still have lots of leaves- my 40 butterflies were raised over the span of nearly 3 months and the milkweed keeps growing.

Ok, so what do you actually need?  Like actually?  Of course, if you are going to ‘go big’ scale these recommendations up

  1.  1 small to medium sized tupperware container
  2. 2 medium to large sized tupperware containers
  3. a couple sheets of paper towel
  4. a little newspaper
  5. the aforementioned milkweed

done.

I chose to be a little fancier and instead of one medium to large sized container I bought a 12$ butterfly house from the Amazon.

Ok, now let’s assume you’ve found some eggs.  I’m linking this excellent article here with great pictures of eggs so you can know what they look like.  Once you’ve seen one you can find them again.  The first time it’s hard.  The first time I would recommend running around after a butterfly, when you see it dance around a milkweed, positioning it’s butt (ova-depositor) on the underside of leaf for a second.  Check that spot, odds are there will be an egg.

I prefer to cut the eggs off the milkweed leaves.  If I have bigger cats I’ll give them the cut leaf- otherwise, I’ll leave the remainder of the leaf on the plant.  I put these small cuttings into my smallish container on top of a paper towel or newspaper like below and I close the lid to keep it a bit humid in there.  This is the ‘hatchery’

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This is because a newly hatched baby cat will eat it’s egg casing as a first highly nutritious meal.  Isolating them keeps the newly hatched ones from cannibalizing their unhatched sisters and brothers.  **~nature~**

One to 4 days after finding an egg, it should hatch.  You’ll know it’s getting close to hatching because the egg will turn grayer and a black spot forms on the tip.  That’s the caterpillar’s head.  When born they are only a few millimeters long and have a little black head.  You can leave them on their tiny cut leaf for a day or so.

After a day or two post hatching the milkweed cutting will probably be dry and covered in tiny poo.  At this point I pick up that cutting, with the tiny cat on it and place the whole thing on a fresh whole milkweed leaf in a second container lined with newspaper or a paper towel.  This is the ‘nursery’.  You can let several baby cats hang out on a leaf together at this point- they don’t eat too fast.  I generally wrap the end of my leaf in a little wet paper towel to keep it fresh longer.

For the next 4-6 days you will change out your leaves about every other day.  Mostly the leaves will be eaten, maybe not to the stem.  They’ll be withery and covered in poo.  So. much. poo.  At this stage I also dump out the poo every other day by picking up the newspaper or paper towel and dumping the poo.  I don’t get it immaculate, just remove most of it.  Generally I don’t touch the cats at this stage because you can hurt them.  If they are clinging to a leaf stem I leave them be and put the fresh leaves on top of them.  If I absolutely have to move them I do so gently with a toothpick.  I pick them up from underneath, about halfway down their middle.  When they are larger I move them more frequently, but I never handle them with my fingers.

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By the time they are 9-10 days old they can be eating nearly a leaf a day.   At this point you will probably add leaves every day, and at this point I don’t bother with the damp paper towel because they eat so fast.  Also, at this point I move them to my butterfly house, or you can move them to a bigger container, again, lined with newspaper or paper towel.  I say to do this just you can more easily keep track of them if they are all at different stages.  While feeding and changing out spent leaves for the big guys its easy to toss a little guy hiding in a half eaten leaf.

They’ll be super eaters for another 4-6 days.  They only stay caterpillars for 14-18 days total.  Mine average 15 days.  When it becomes ‘their time’ they’ll wander around their enclosure looking for a suitable place to make their chrysalis.  Funny enough, 70% of my caterpillars all chose the same area- something about it must be ‘ideal’.  First, they’ll just sit up there for about 12 hours.  And then for nearly 12 hours they’ll hang in a ‘J’ shape.  Generally they turn into chrysalis overnight.

And then let them be, your work is done. Two weeks later they will hatch out.  Usually in the morning as it becomes light.  You’ll know they’re ready because their chrysalis becomes darker and then that morning it’s fairly translucent.  If you have to leave for the day before it comes out, don’t worry, they can stay inside the enclosure for a while.  Or, you can put the enclosure outside, opened up and they will let themselves out.

After emerging for a little while your butterfly will look weird as it’s wings are all folded up.  It’ll quickly start pumping fluid into it’s wings, which will expand and dry over the course of 2 hours.  After 2 hours they can technically fly.  I take mine out around that time, letting them crawl on my finger (I’ve never had one try to fly around the house, so don’t worry about that).  Then I put them in a sunny but protected spot.  The sun really helps them.  Their first flight is usually short and spastic looking.  But they’ll get the hang of it.

And now, pat yourself on the back.  You just helped save a species.

And if you have more questions, these folks are the real pros:

Monarch Butterfly Garden

Monarch Watch

Xerces Society

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In participation with:

 



Gardening Limited

 

Native Plant Spotlight: Jewelweed

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You know what they say about assuming.

For years, running along this boardwalk- nearly weekly- based on some of the plants before me – the Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica), Phragmites & purple loosestrife, I assumed that all the plants that congregated in this marshy area at the head of the Alewife Brook were invasive.  I ran right by a beautiful little treasure that I want to highlight today.  A wonderful native annual that is in the same family as a common annual you may have in your yard or in a container on your porch.

Impatiens capensis or Jewelweed.

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Jewelweed gets it’s common name from how drops of dew collect and shimmer like jewels on this marshy-loving annual’s leaves.  It’s orangy-yellow bilateral flowers bloom through most of the summer.  They hang under the leaves and don’t look much at all like it’s well known cousin- Impatiens walleriana.  But the impatien family is vast and the shady planter box favorite is just one of many in this geographically well distributed genus.  (Also above- a little swamp milkweed for fun)

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However, when you pick one of jewelweed’s slender seed pods and give it a little squeeze, you are immediately reminded of the common nursery annual.  The pods burst with gusto, inverting into a swirly shape- sending seeds out in every-which-way.

So thank you jewelweed.  Thank you for reminding me to look carefully and look twice.  Even in human disturbed areas saturated with invasives, wonderful native specimens may be holding their own.  I will no longer assume!

Have you encountered any unexpected floral treasures when you looked twice?  Or like me, is there a patch near you full of invasives that you want to give a second look to?