Milkweed and Monarchs


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Because I belong to the local chapter of the Native Plant Society, I notice native plants more, try to learn their names, and even find out if they possess medicinal uses.  We decided to adopt a theme for the year  2014, milkweeds.  Why milkweeds?  They are the primary food for monarch butterflies which are in extreme decline.  Why the decline?  Pesticide and herbicide use plus overwhelming habitat loss, especially along bar ditches and in the area of Mexico to which they migrate annually.  This past winter instead of hundreds of trees in Mexico covered with monarchs, there were only twelve.  Yes, only twelve.  Why do herbicides cause a problem??  When the butterfly larvae eat milkweed sprayed with herbicide, they ingest that herbicide toxin.

Monarchs are an ancient species.  They have been around for over 50 million years.  Monarchs are the only insect species to migrate 2500 miles annually.  Monarchs go through four generations per year.  The first three generations hatch and live up to six weeks.  The fourth continues to live for six or eight months.  They taste with their feet.  Monarchs have special meaning for Mexicans because they arrive in Mexico at the same time as the Day of the Dead.

In the Panhandle of Texas, four common milkweeds grow:  Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepias asperula, Asclepias latifolia, and Asclepias verticillata.  The name Asclepios is derived from the Greek word, Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing.  I find only two of these here where I live, latifolia and asperula.

 

 

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The top photo and the one immediately above are of asperula, more commonly called antelope horns.  They are important hosts for butterflies.  When discussing butterflies of any species, it is important to note that butterflies require two types of plants, host and nectar.  This plant provides important food for larvae.

At least where I live, the more common–by that I mean it grows anywhere and everywhere, even in the driest caliche soil–is latifolia.  However, I have never seen a monarch on either the blossoms or the leaves.  When in full bloom, latifolia attracts giant (as in several inches long) black and orange wasps which seem incredibly non-agressive.

 

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This poor latifolia specimen barely hangs on next to the hydrant by the barn.

 

If you want to try growing milkweed yourself and you live in the Panhandle, seeds and plants can be purchased from Canyon Edge Plants and Panhandle Greenhouses.  Obtain free seeds from Livemonarch.com.  Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, Texas, also sells seeds.  If you want butterflies, do not use pesticides and herbicides.  Contact me if you want me to publish the “Butterfly Attracting Plant List”.

 

 

 

 

Day Trip to Marvin Lake and Canadian, Texas–Part One


Two weeks ago, I joined the local Native Plant Society group for a trip to Lake Marvin east of Canadian, Texas, near the Oklahoma border.  Lake Marvin is located in the Black  Kettle National Grassland  which includes land in both Texas and Oklahoma. This national grassland’s name comes from the Southern Cheyenne Chief by the same name.  An aging chief, he had attempted to make peace with whites and had been guaranteed protection by the head officer at a nearby US Army Fort.  He, along with old men, children, and women was massacred by Lt. Colonel Armstrong Custer and his troops in Custer’s first great “success” as an Indian fighter.  It was an easy battle; the Indians had been assured their safety at this encampment.  They were totally unprepared.  Black Kettle attempted to meet the soldiers and flew a white peace flag as well as a US flag over his teepee. He and his wife were mowed down in a barrage of bullets.  The massacre is called the Battle of the Washita because the Indian encampment was on the Washita River which flows through the grassland.

Those of us who live in the Panhandle of Texas become accustomed to the lack of trees and semi arid climate.  It is always a huge surprise to find those rare spots with numerous trees, water, and thick vegetation. Lake Marvin and much of the area near Canadian provide a total contrast to what we usually see.  JR  Bell, an expert on native grasses and plants, lead the hike around Lake Marvin, a manmade lake constructed for conservation purposes in the 1930’s on Boggy Creek.   Regretfully, I failed to carry a pen and pad to write down the name of all the grasses, some of which exist in the area where I live and others I had never seen before.  Perhaps some of you who read this will be able to identify the various grasses which include blue grama, side oats grama–the state grass of Texas, little blue stem, and two other species of blue stem, switch grass, buffalo grass, and wheat grass.  Unfortunately, Johnson grass, a non-native,  invasive species, also grows near the edges of the lake.

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The hike began near what was once the water’s edge before silt and drought made the lake half its original size.  Johnson grass, the outsider, is not too difficult to identify because of the bright maroony red on the leaves.  This enables an non-expert like me to differentiate among Johnson grass and a few other similar looking species.  While I tried to listen and watch grass identification, rather quickly I realized that without pen and paper remembering all of them would be impossible so I focused on photographing the natural beauty surrounding me.

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No one told me the origin or purpose of the abandoned buildings up the hill from the lake.  The change in flora one sees by facing the hill rather than toward the lake is amazing.  One could almost draw an imaginary line with certain grasses and shrubs on one side and totally different ones on the other.  The magic key, as always, is water.  Where I live, two hours away, no sage brush grows.  Here on the hillside, it grows everywhere with various grasses, some rather small and semi hidden, interspersed.

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I learned several keys to identifying grasses:  seed heads, texture of leaves and stems–some rough and others smooth, size of leaves and stems, some variations in color.  Height helps but does not necessarily determine differences because the same grass species can vary depending on amount of water and type of soil.  The amount and size of the trees continually astonished me, like this tunnel through the trees, something I never expected to see in the Panhandle.

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Where I grew up in northwestern Missouri, huge black walnut trees grow everywhere.  I recall exploring the walnut grove on the farm repeatedly as a child.  I certainly never expected to see them on this little trip.  Suddenly, astonished me stood there surrounded.

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While these trees never reach the size of the ones where I grew up and the nuts remain considerably smaller, here they stood, their distinctive leaves giving them away.  Before I went away to college, every autumn, we picked up the nuts, cleaned them–while the outside is a lovely lime green, the area between the seed and outside, is a sticky, dark brown mess which makes excellent natural dark brown dye, and cracked them to retrieve the meat inside.  Black walnut nuts are much harder than English walnuts and cracking them requires a hammer and something really hard on which to place the nut. After I left home, every year Mom spent hours working on these nuts and brought me at least a pound at Christmas, a true labor of love.  They are especially tasty with in recipes with chocolate or bananas.

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The hike provided continual surprises, a boggy pool, persimmon trees, a plant whose leaves resembled miniature spectacles, a grass so fine and thick in a glade between the trees that it looked like a tiny patch of fog on the ground, and poison ivy.

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Persimmons.

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This particular tree was loaded with persimmons.

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Cattails in the background.

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When I first walked up to this spot, the fine grass toward the back of the photo looked exactly like a tiny patch of fog nestled in a miniature glade among the trees.

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We took off from the main trail especially to come to this cottonwood tree, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the Panhandle. Over a hundred years ago this tree stood as the sentinel for the overland trail that went through this area.  The military, ranchers, and Native Americans all used the trail across this area of the plains.  The tree’s height enabled it to be seen for miles and helped travelers keep on their way with accuracy.  Once we reached the end of the main trail, some of the group took off in their vehicles while a few went on around the lake.  It saddened me to see so much of it dried up and old tires sticking out of the dried mud.  However, along the way, we saw numerous trees I could not identify.  The bark of this tree is particularly distinctive.

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This field trip coincided with the fall festival held annually in the small town of Canadian which gets its name from the Canadian River which flows beside the town.  The town is unique in the number of large, elaborate Victorian houses there.  Several of us ended the trip at the local elementary school with a big craft fair and a barbecue lunch.