Sunday, October 25, 2015

Visiting Cinque Terre on the Coast of Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy 
Four years ago I took a hiking tour of Cinque Terre and Tuscany in Italy with Backroads. Hiking tours range from extremely strenuous to modest. Backroads had options for a variety of walkers. My husband and I had gotten into shape but mostly we were the laggards. Where I took the van the last mile, others in the group found an extra loop to walk. An important lesson I learned from that tour was that being in good enough shape to hike the distance is not sufficient: I needed to be better than that, fit enough to enjoy the walking. 

Despite the discomfort of being behind almost everyone, I had a terrific experience.

I had not been to Italy, so the landscapes with olive trees or Lombardy poplars were enchanting. Wow! it looks like pictures I've seen!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Just a Glimpse of Milkweed Diversity

swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Milkweeds, genus Asclepias, the dogbane family, Apocynaceae, are wonderful plants. They are such a distinctive group that they are easy for botanical beginners to recognize. Consequently, I have been taking photographs of milkweeds since I was a graduate student who could identify only one or two wildflowers.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and Colorado

"Plant milkweeds!" they say. But which ones?
common milkweed, A. syriaca
common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
The number of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexipus) seen in the eastern United States has declined dramatically over the last couple decades. Monarch experts, e.g. Drs. Lincoln Brower and Orley Taylor, make a strong case that the decline has been caused by several factors: First, 1), changes in agriculture in the U.S. midwest that have reduced the number of milkweeds for monarch butterflies to feed upon. In particular, use of herbicide-resistant crops eliminated the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca (dogbane family, Apocynaceae) which had been growing as a weed in the corn and soybeans. Simultaneously, high prices for corn and soybeans, now used for biofuels (ethanol) as well as human and animal food, favored expansion of weed-free cropland into areas that previously supported wild plants including milkweeds. Another cause of monarch butterfly decline is, 2), loss of forests in their overwintering grounds in Mexico, due to illegal logging and poor management. In addition, 3), periods of unfavorable weather reduced growth of monarchs and allowed their natural enemies, from birds and ants to fungal diseases, to find and kill them. (See the Taylor lecture with all the data; link). To counter the decline in monarch butterflies, many changes may be required, but much can be done by having more milkweeds available for the butterflies. Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat milkweeds and accept no substitutes. Consequently, concerned experts and citizens urge planting milkweeds so that there is ample food for monarch caterpillars. Adult butterflies get norishment for the nectar from flowers of many plant species so adult food is rarely an issue.

milkweeds in Colorado
wild milkweeds in Colorado, showy milkweed
If a major part of the problem is reduction in milkweed numbers, then planting milkweeds is a very effective response. To aid that, a variety of organizations are advising people all across North America to plant milkweeds, providing links and advice, and in some cases giving away milkweed seeds. (Monarch Watch, Save our Monarchs, Xerces Society )

However, not everyone should just write away for free seeds and toss them into their yard. My concerns are from the point of view of growing well-adapted native plants. If the plant dies, you've wasted your time and energy and any monarch caterpillars relying on it die too. Conversely, introducing troublesome new weeds would be an undesirable outcome of this campaign. Plant the right milkweed for your area.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Visiting Philadelphia--Mount Cuba Center

Gardening with natives, East Coast style.
cardinal flower and ferns, Mount Cuba Center
On a Road Scholar tour of gardens of the Philadelphia area, we visited Mount Cuba Center. Located in Hockessin, Delaware, the site was the home and gardens of Mr. and Mrs. Lamott du Pont Copeland. Purchased over 70 years ago, the Copelands gradually transformed their home on the top of Mt. Cuba into sweeping vistas, beautiful woods and meadows and luscious gardens. Not only devoted to beauty, the Mt. Cuba Center has become dedicated to promoting gardening and landscaping with native plants.