Saddlebacks are Back!

Saddleback, picture taken by Gretchen Schmidl

Saddleback, picture taken by Gretchen Schmidl

Watch out for the invasion of the body snatchers! – no really it is just saddleback caterpillars, Sibine stimulea.  I have noticed them in my yard this year and I would rather be stung by a bee than stung by this nasty caterpillar. They look like ugly bizarre clowns or a Scotty dog in a green t-shirt!

Saddleback Caterpillar

Saddleback Caterpillar (Photo credit: cotinis)

Also known as “pack-saddles”, these two inch long caterpillars are very distinctive looking, and are the larvae stage of a brown moth native to eastern North America. They appear at the end of the summer gobbling up as much greenery as possible prior to pupating into a dull brown moth.

Non-descriptive brown moth

Non-descriptive brown moth

Saddleback Caterpillar

Saddleback Caterpillar (Photo credit: noramunro)

Saddlebacks feed on a large variety of plant material and usually are found on the underside of foliage and thus are easy to miss when you are pruning or weeding underneath greenery. My particular caterpillars were feeding on the underside of a weeping beech and I was crawling underneath the tree to prune it.  I felt an intense burning sensation and flinched back, but they had already stung me. The caterpillars have fleshy horns on either end bearing urticating hairs(irritating bristles) that secrete venom.  These are hollow quill-like hairs that have poisonous sacs at the base of them which can excrete a poisonous punch.The venom causes a very painful swelling and can cause nausea and a rash that can last for days.

Sting of a saddleback

Sting of a saddleback


The best remedy for the stinging and swelling is the application of ice.  Also, if you use some sticky tape to remove the barbs immediately, you can reduce the amount of poison that is excreted. If you are very allergic to stings, it is best to use an epi pen for a bad reaction. I always see these caterpillars in groups of 2 or 3, so you are likely to be stung by several at once. It just gives me shivers to think about it!

Acharia stimulea Clemens, 1960 Common Name: sa...

Acharia stimulea Clemens, 1960 Common Name: saddleback caterpillar Photographer: Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service, United States Descriptor: Larva(e) Description: urticating hairs Image taken in: United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Lavender Honey Ice Cream


Lavender honey ice cream

Lavender honey ice cream

In experimenting with edible flowers, I came across a great recipe which I have tried several times and disappeared quickly in my household. It is really delicious and the best ice cream I have ever had! Lavender is an unlikely candidate for flavoring ice cream but it works. Go to Edible Flower Palette  and Eat Your Flowers!  to see more uses for edible flowers.

Fresh cut Phenomenal lavender

Lavender has just gotten easier to grow with the new variety, Phenomenal. Go to Lavender Fields Forever-Phenomenal!  to see how to grow this wonderfully fragrant herb. I used the honey from my hives for this, but you can use any mild flavored honey in this recipe, like clover or wildflower.

Lavender ice cream tops peach cake

Lavender ice cream tops peach cake

Lavender Honey Ice Cream

2 Cups Heavy Cream

1 Cup half and half

2/3 cup honey

2 Tablespoons dried edible lavender flowers

2 large eggs

1/8 teaspoon salt


Bring cream, half and half, honey and lavender just to a boil in a 2 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally. Then remove pan from heat. Let steep for 30 minutes.

Pour cream mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and discard lavender. Return mixture to cleaned saucepan and heat over moderate heat until hot, not boiling.

Whisk together eggs and salt in a large bowl, then add 1 cup of the hot cream mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Pour into remaining hot cream mixture in saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly. When mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon and registers 170 to 175 degrees on a thermometer, about 5 minutes (do not let boil), take off heat.

Pour custard into clean bowl and cool completely, stirring occasionally. Chill, covered at least 3 hours.

Freeze in a ice cream maker and keep in freezer for several hours to harden.

Serve on top on peach cake for a great summer treat. Enjoy!

Lavender honey ice cream

Lavender honey ice cream

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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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