Got Milk…….. Weed?



Painted Lady butterfly on milkweed

Painted Lady butterfly on milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed.

One colony of plants connected by underground roots

One colony of plants connected by underground roots

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed.

Milkweed has a highly complex flower structure and quite beautiful

Milkweed has a highly complex flower structure and is quite beautiful

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the primary food source for monarch caterpillars

  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony

Milkweed's leaves are quite large

Milkweed’s leaves are quite large

  • The flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it

  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Pods of tropical milkweed

    Pods of tropical milkweed


  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow

  • All pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; it more likely expands by the underground rhizome than from seed

    Thorny pods of milkweed

    Thorny pods of milkweed

  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove

  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and microhabitat to hundreds of insect varieties


  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar

    Photo of Monarch Caterpillar by Martin LaBar

    Photo of Monarch Caterpillar by Martin LaBar

  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live from its leaves and milky sap, and the adults drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers

  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators

The milky sap is toxic

The milky sap is toxic

  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location

    Fluffy seeds of milkweed

    Fluffy seeds of milkweed

This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms.  One important fact that I gleaned from my research was that without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me. A long-lasting cut flower, I spot plant it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Other varieties of Milkweed or Butterfly Weed are beautiful  also

Other varieties of Milkweed or Butterfly Weed are beautiful also

Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa, or Balloon plant, Family Jewels, or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods.

Tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.


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Lavender Fields Forever-Phenomenal!


Photographing lavender fields at Westwind Farm Studio in Portland, Oregon Photo courtesy of: Helen Battersby Toronto Gardens – 2013 Canadian WebLog Award-Winner, Gardening (2nd) – One of SweetSpot’s Top 10 Canadian garden blogs

 It is a given that most gardeners want to grow lavender for its romance,  beauty, and scent. Unfortunately a lot of people get frustrated with the plant when it dies after a season or two. The main culprit that will kill a lavender plant is heat and humidity. But there is one variety that has been developed that will tolerate and thrive under those conditions – Phenomenal!


Happy to pick lavender

Happy to pick Phenomenal lavender!

Phenomenal Lavender

Phenomenal Lavender has hit the market by storm and I have grown it it now for two years. Supposedly more forgiving of heat and humidity which hits me hard in Maryland, this plant was chosen from thousands of lavenders for its amazing performance and resistance to root and foliar problems that tend to hit other lavenders. Patented by Lloyd and Candy Traven of Peacetree Farm, a wholesale greenhouse, Phenomenal is a great new introduction. A high oil content makes this plant an asset in the kitchen and bath. There is even a Facebook page for this variety! It was also named a ‘Must-Grow Perennial’ for 2013 by Better Homes & Gardens. Phenomenal sailed through our record-breaking winter temperatures for me without a hitch.

Fresh cut Phenomenal lavender

Fresh cut Phenomenal lavender

Growing Lavenders

Keep in mind that lavender is native to Mediterranean climates with a dry, rocky, and sunny climate, and you will get some clues on how to treat this versatile perennial. I visited a lavender farm in Oregon and saw beautiful fields of different varieties being grown side by side.

White and purple lavender side by side

White and purple lavender side by side

There are several pointers in keeping your lavender plants healthier and producing those beautiful aromatic wand-like flowers.

  1. Hardy to zone 5, lavender’s worst enemy is wet-think poor drainage, high humidity, and frequent rains

  2. No need to fertilize this plant; Think lean and mean!

  3. Drought resistant yes! But don’t forget to water new transplants until rooted in

  4. Make sure there is plenty of air circulation between plants so that moisture and dampness is not a problem

  5. Apply mulch in areas where the ground freezes and thaws throughout the winter

  6. In spring, a little pruning is in order; Cut back a third of the plant for better form when you see new green growth at the base of the plant

  7. Always, always plant in full sun

White lavender is beautiful but doesn't have the same intense scent as blue lavender

White lavender is beautiful but doesn’t have the same intense scent as purple lavender


 Besides being beautiful and aromatic, lavender flowers are also edible. They can be used raw in salads, added to soups and stews, used as a seasoning, baked into cookies and brewed into tea. See my post on Edible Flower Palette  for more ideas on edible flowers.

Pollination Powerhouse

Lavender is one of the top ten flowers for honeybees and other bees. Lavender honey is sublime! Here is a video of the buzzing bees that constantly cover this plant. See my post on Plant These For The Bees on other flowers that bees love.

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Eat Your Flowers!

Edible flowers garnish a green salad
Edible flowers garnish a green salad-Calendula, Nasturtiums, Pansies, Borage

 Edible flowers make everything beautiful to eat. Used in appetizers, salads, entrees, drinks, and desserts, they make food fun to eat. Eye and sensory appeal for food is everything. If the dish is beautiful, colorful, and interesting, people will dive right in. Go to my post Edible Flower Palette for more ideas on uses and suitable flower varieties.

Edible palette of flowers

Edible palette of flowers

There are lots of books on edible flowers, their uses, and recipes, but the most useful one that I have found is Eat Your Roses by Denise Schreiber. 

The book is chock full of luscious recipes and I appreciated that it was printed in a spiral bound hard cover book that was easy to flip through in the kitchen. The pages were glossy thick paper that would be easy to wipe off splatters. No propping a cookbook up and having the pages flip closed while you are cooking!

More Than Just A Pretty Face

I learned in the book that not only are edible flowers attractive but many are chock full of vitamins and other good things.  Lutein, which is used for vitamin formulations for eyesight, is found in Marigolds.

Lutein is found in Marigolds

Lutein is found in Marigolds

Recipes like Nasturtium Bundles-beautifully scalloped nasturtium leaves rolled around a mixture of goats cheese, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and tied up with chive stems, made me want to get into the kitchen and start working. I think I will try them for an upcoming party as a showpiece appetizer.  And Lemon Verbena Salmon is definitely on my list to try as I have a bumper crop of that pungent citrusy herb growing in my garden.

I tried the Oven Roasted Italian Green Beans with Onion Flowers and was wowed by eating this recipe of green beans after I had grown tired of my harvest of plain steamed green beans. I couldn’t face another green bean after eating them plain for weeks, but when I made this dish, it changed the whole taste and look of green beans. Here is the recipe From Denise’s book:

 the cookie sheet with green beans, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, breadcrumbs and cheese

Loading the cookie sheet with green beans, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, breadcrumbs and cheese

Oven Roasted Italian Green Beans with Onion Flowers from “Eat Your Roses” by Denise Schreiber

1/2 pound fresh green beans, trimmed

2 Cups Water

3 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup olive oil

1 Tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 tablespoon onion flowers, fresh or dried

2 tablespoons bread crumbs

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil and cook the beans for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Melt butter and oil together and add garlic. Add pine nuts, breadcrumbs and cheese. Toss with the cooked beans, place on a cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until the beans are a bit crispy but done.

Serves 2 – 3

Variation with Basil Flowers

Onion and Cardinal Basil Flowers

Onion and Cardinal Basil Flowers

I added some chopped up flowers from my Cardinal Basil for extra color and zest. See my post on Cardinal Basil-Striking Beauty to read about this great spicy basil. It is a wonderful cut flower as well as a great ingredient for cooking.

Oven Roasted Green Beans with Onion Flowers and Cardinal Basil Flowers

Oven Roasted Green Beans with Onion Flowers and Cardinal Basil Flowers















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Monarch Way Station


Monarch on Joe Pye Weed

Monarch on Joe Pye Weed

Monarch Way Station-Easy to Set Up!

Because of massive habitat loss due to large-scale corn and soybean farming that has gobbled up every acre of farmland, Monarch butterflies are on the decline.  Pervasive spraying with herbicides has largely eradicated the huge swaths of the common milkweed plant, which colonized margins around farm fields and roadsides that sustained Monarchs on their long migration.

Monarch Waystation on the roof of the conventiion center in Pittsburgh, monarch caterpillar picture by Martin LaBar

Monarch Waystation on the roof of the convention center in Pittsburgh, monarch caterpillar picture by Martin LaBar

 What Can We Do? 

This decline of Monarchs isn’t new information as it has been touted in all the news media for several years, but it seems like people are starting to pay attention and take action. Monarchs are a flagship species like the honeybee, and if we preserve existing Monarch habitats or add to them, we will be helping a lot of other organisms as well. So what can we as gardeners do who plant on small properties? Or even if a gardener has just a balcony or deck to garden on? We can plant the right plants for Monarchs and other pollinators.

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia

Plant Milkweed Everywhere

Launched in 2005, Monarch Waystation was created by Monarch Watch and sells seed kits for starting your own Monarch Waystation or pollinator haven. If you are a school or non-profit, Monarch Watch will provide a free flat of 32 milkweed plugs as well as guidance on how to create a new habitat or enhance an existing garden. That is a great deal and schools should be snatching these up! And if you aren’t a non-profit, Monarch Watch will sell you seed kits with the proper species for your area for a nominal $16. Go to to order. If you are a regular home owner and gardener who wants to help provide healthy habitat for the Monarch, follow the guidelines on plantings to make your very own Monarch Waystation in your yard at the bottom of this post.

The Great Migration

Migration map of monarch butterfly-used with permission of Paul Mirocha at

Migration map of monarch butterfly-used with permission of Paul Mirocha at

Each fall, millions of Monarchs migrate from the U.S. and Canada to overwintering areas in Mexico and California, staying there until spring returns and then make their way back north. The Monarchs east of the Rockies follow a different path from the Monarchs west of the Rockies.  Flying thousands of miles for these fragile creatures is hard work and they need fuel during the journey. Increasingly Monarchs aren’t finding the proper nectar plants on their arduous trek and we need to remedy this. Since the program started there are over 7,000 Monarch Waystations registered. Other organizations, such as The North American Butterfly Association and Wild Ones which is a program specific to Monarchs, and motto is “Healing Earth One Yard at a Time”, are also in the movement.

Cluster of flowers make up the common milkweed flower that sustains Monarchs

Cluster of flowers make up the common milkweed flower that sustains Monarchs


Monarch Habitat Guidelines

By following these basic guidelines, you can set up your own Monarch Waystation and get it certified with a designated sign. The sign and certification applications are available at  Monarch Waystation sign available at


Size: At least 100 sq feet; This area can be split up into different areas

Exposure: At least 6 hours of sun a day

Drainage and Soil Type: Low clay soil with good drainage

Spacing: Plants should be close and can be touching each other to give shelter to the pollinators from predators

Milkweed Plants: Plant at least 10 individuals, representing different species that flower at different times; By planting more milkweed plants, you increase your chances of successfully attracting Monarchs 

Additional Nectar Plants: Add at least four species who have different bloom times. For more information of types of plants that attract pollinators, go to Plant These for the Bees . Zinnias which are not a native is my single biggest draw for Monarchs. See my poster below for more flower options that are attractive to pollinators.

Flowers for pollination poster available at
Flowers for pollination poster available at

Care: Water during drought and weed regularly. Mulch with compost in the spring and cut back dead stalks. Fertilize, amend the soil, and don’t use pesticides!




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Cardinal Basil – Striking Beauty

The flower bracts are a dark purplish color and the flowers open up one by one

The flower bracts are a dark purplish color and the flowers open up one by one

Do you want to grow an ornamental edible plant that has beautiful dark red-purple flowers that cover the plant all summer long, plus makes a bold statement in your garden? Oh, and how about easy, low maintenance, and draws pollinators?  Try Cardinal Basil and you will be hooked and grow it every year.

The tips of the new leaves have a burgundy coloration

The tips of the new leaves have a burgundy coloration

Basils are plants that constantly surprise me with their usefulness and diversity. See African Blue Basil for my post on this extraordinary plant and how you can use it in the kitchen, primarily a wonderful tasting pesto! Cardinal Basil like African Blue Basil, has a spicy pungent fragrance and when crushed leaves a lingering odor on your hands. Decorated with with these incredible celosia-like tightly packed flowers that hang on all summer long, the flowers keep getting larger and darker in hue. Arranged in a pyramid shape of dark-colored flower bracts, the “flowers” are simply specialized leaf structures.


cardinal basil

Cardinal Basil is an easy herb to grow as long as you follow several important rules:

  1. Don’t plant it too early in the spring. I planted mine too early in chilly weather and it languished for a long time. Thinking it was dead, I cut the  whole thing back and when warmer weather came it sprang back and formed a bushy plant in no time.

  2. Wait until the night temperatures consistently stay above 50 degrees F. It will tolerate lower temperatures, but it will not thrive and can have real trouble bouncing back from an extended cool period.

  3. If you notice dark spots forming on the leaves, it is probably due to cold water from the hose. Try watering in the cool of the day to remedy this problem.

  4. Plant in full sun; if in partial shade this plant will suffer and become straggly.

    Usually with basils, you nip the flowers off so that the plant branches out and produces more foliage to use in pesto, but with this basil, I leave all the flowers and bracts on to enjoy and use. The plant naturally forms a shrubby well branched plant about 24″ high and 18″ wide. The leaves can be used like other basils and the stems are a lovely burgundy color.Cardinal Basil

 For more information on lots more basil varieties, go to There are hundreds of them!… and I am still finding and growing more.


Use the leaves, flowers, and bracts in pestos, salads, garnishes for soups and anything that you would use regular basil for. It just gives a whole new dimension in taste because of its pungency. I love using the colored bracts because of the zing of color that it adds to food. Go to my post on edible flowers at Edible Flower Palette to see other edible flowers that you can use in cooking.

Next year, I will try it in containers as I think it would create a beautiful focal point used alone or maybe with one other plant, like a burgundy colored coleus.

A garnish of Cardinal Basil topping roasted green beans

A garnish of Cardinal Basil topping roasted green beans


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