Ariana Terry of Yankton revealed the mystery of milkweed plants that just appeared among door prizes for attendees at several Master Gardener sponsored public plant talks.
Butterfly weed with its attractive flowers grows well in this region. This is one of the milkweeds that grow here and help protect the showy monarch. Terry shares a few steps to grow butterfly weed from seed that increase the germination rate. Once established, the starter plant usually flourishes without extra care.
Mysterious starter milkweed plants just appeared on the door prize table for several fall and spring presentations in Yankton. Master gardeners who sponsored the events didn’t purchase the plants. The robust milkweeds materialized among the other gifts when no one was looking. The milkweed lady who contributed them revealed herself this summer.
Ariana Terry of Yankton completed South Dakota Master Gardener class requirements this summer and brought some kinds of milkweeds to show classmates. They resembled the mysterious spring fling starter plants. Terry is an avid gardener and the president of Yankton Town and Country Garden Club. She’s originally from Southern California, about four USDA temperature zones warmer than this region, but sees herself as an adapted transplant. She grows lots of milkweeds, among other plants at her home.
“I’m not a well-behaved gardener,” Terry said. She acquires plants without knowing where they will go. “I just like the plants, or they have a purpose down the road.” As far as milkweeds, she has grown butterfly weed, common, prairie, purple, showy, swamp and whorled milkweeds. She still has some starters ready to plant. These days she’s collecting milkweed seeds from banana-shaped dry pods.
“I leave pods on the plant until they are fully mature, or seeds won’t be viable,” she said. “Just before the pods pop, I pinch the ends of the pod and seeds come right off the fluff. Fluff gets everywhere. It’s used for insulation in winter garments as an alternative to down.” She suggests watching YouTube demonstrations to show how to harvest the seeds from the airy filaments. Then she carefully labels seeds.
“If you don’t know what you’re saving, there’s no reason to save it. Instead, buy a packet of seed,” she said.
Once harvested, she air-dries seeds a couple of weeks or more, away from direct sunlight and then stores seeds in closure plastic bags at room temperature.
How to Grow Milkweeds
Not everyone has good luck growing starter milkweed plants from seeds. Terry uses her oldest saved seeds first. She checks for seeds in a multi-drawer seed storage/organizer with label codes. Labels show the number of growing days to starter plants, codes for seed treatment before planting, and codes for annual or biannual or perennial plants. She uses a Brother label maker to get all the letters and color codes on a label with proportional print that fits the small drawer. In the drawer is a packet, if seeds are purchased, a labeled plant tag and dry seeds in a small closure plastic bag. The bag keeps out air and moisture. She writes the name of the plant on the bag. Consistent labeling helps avoid mistakes since many seeds and small plants look alike. The multi-drawer seed storage/organizer is placed away from direct air drafts and direct sunlight on a workbench.
“Many kinds of milkweed seeds require cold moist stratification (which is us pretending to be winter melting into spring) by putting the seeds in a moist medium like sand, a paper towel, or soil, and putting it into the refrigerator. Swamp milkweed and common milkweed need 30 days treatment and some others need 60 days,” she said. A common mistake is ignoring treatments before planting seeds that require this step. Result may be many seeds that can’t germinate, discovered several weeks later.
“That’s one way for cold, moist stratification,” she continues, “I put them in water in small, re-purposed condiment cups, such as for catsup. That works for me. Milkweeds don’t require scarification (such as nicking the seed coat). The seed coats soften with soaking.” Once the cold, moist stratification step is done, Terry finds that milkweeds grow easily, and she usually gets about 90% germination. She germinates a batch of milkweeds in March and uses heat mats for these early seeds. She also starts some in April and later for fall planting.
“Most milkweeds grow better in full sun in well-drained soil. They’re not fussy and grow better without fertilizer in sandy or clay soils that I have here,” she said. By growing several kinds of milkweed, it’s possible to have them in bloom from early to late summer.
Swamp milkweed has bloomed in Ariana Terry’s backyard and was ready for seed harvest in early fall. Just before the pods break open is the best time to harvest milkweed seed, according to Terry. She has grown seven kinds of milkweed locally.
For those who prefer to buy starter milkweed plants, Terry offers a variety of milkweeds and other starter plants. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org She is personally interested in native milkweeds, but recognizes that people like lots of blooms, so she has tropical ones that won’t re-seed, too. Milkweeds come in several colors, heights, and habits. She has milkweeds for the person who just wants to grow a couple in a container and a wider list for the enthusiast that would like to try a collection of milkweeds.
Why Grow Milkweeds?
From the human perspective, an environment in which milkweed and a diversity of plants thrive, also benefits humans. Monarch conservation is human conservation.
For monarch butterflies traveling north through this region in early summer, milkweeds can provide shelter and flower nectar for adult monarchs, and specific leaf food for the caterpillars that hatch. Milkweed contains cardenolides, toxic steroids that protect the caterpillar and the later adult from predators. Without the milkweed toxin, the showy butterfly is vulnerable to predators and numbers decline. See more on milkweeds and monarchs at www.monarchjointventure.org
If milkweeds are available and in bloom locally in early summer, some monarchs will continue their life cycles here. In late summer and early fall, monarchs travel south, feeding on nectar as they go. They are attracted to a variety of nectar-rich flowers in bloom in our region such as goldenrod, yarrow, Aster, Coreopsis, coneflowers, lavender, milkweeds, and Liatris. These native plants retain quality nectar that the monarch and other pollinators are looking for. Sometimes plant developers offer cultivars of these plants with larger blooms, but without also selecting quality nectar as a trait.
“Milkweeds benefit a large number of pollinators as well as the monarch,” Terry said. Only the monarch larvae depend on milkweeds. If they can’t find milkweeds, the numbers of monarchs dwindle.
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