Notes on Nature’s Bold Artistry: Brilliant, Blooming Butterfly Weed & Her Colorfully Patterned, Wild Guests …

July 9th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

Asclepias tuberosa – Our Beautiful, Native Butterfly Weed Catches the Golden Light of Summertime Along the Wildflower Walk

In search of inspiration for your next creative project; pattern, form or color play? Sometimes, you needn’t look further for fresh ideas than your own backyard! While out admiring the blooming butterfly weed in my Wildflower Walk yesterday, I happened to notice five examples of nature’s bold artistry on one garden plant. Asclepias tuberosa —as our North American, native butterfly weed is known in the botanical world— blooms in beautiful clusters of bright, citrus-punch orange. The tiny, nectar-loaded blossoms are popular with pollinators of all kinds; including bees, butterflies —like the fritillary pictured below— and hummingbirds. But other parts of this plant serve important purposes to wildlife as well. The leaves and stems of both butterfly weed and milkweed  —filled with sticky sap— provide sustenance to butterfly caterpillars; including the boldly striped larvae of the beautiful Monarch Butterfly. Asclepias sap is toxic to many of this caterpillar’s predators, providing the insect with natural defense. Small Milkweed Bugs —colored in bold red and black patterns— also look to Asclepias species for food; feeding upon the seed of this important native plant. Lady luck must have been walking with me yesterday as I strolled through the garden, because I happened upon not only eye-popping, orange blossoms, but wild black & yellow stripes and bold, modernist patterns all on one plant … talk about artistic inspiration!

A Bumble Bee and Fritillary Butterfly Share the Same Dining Table at Their Local Asclepias tuberosa

Last summer, I featured this beautiful, long-blooming summertime flower  —Asclepias tuberosa—  in a plant profile. You can view additonal photos of butterfly weed in flower, and find more about this wonderful garden-worthy member of the milkweed family, by clicking back to that profile post here.

A Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar (Danus plexippus) in my garden, munches on its favorite host-plant:  Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed). I am more than happy to plant plenty of flowers for both of us!

Yellow and Black on Orange: Another Beautiful & Colorful Guest, the North American Native Bumble Bee, Visits Asclepias tuberosa in Search of Sustenance 

And on the same plant, a Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) scurries about beneath the leaves. This brightly colored bug feeds upon the seeds of milkweed and butterfly weed. Because milkweed is considered an agricultural weed, this insect is often regarded as a beneficial

Fritillary Butterflies Flock to the Nectar in Asclepias tuberosa – No Wonder It’s Commonly Called Butterfly Weed!

Asclepias tuberosa makes a great garden plant: pictured here along the Wildflower Walk with Amsonia hubrichitii, Asters, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and Clethra Alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’. Try it in combination with blue and violet flowers for a bold contrast. Or cool things off with a bit of silver, and white!

To read more about Asclepias tuberosa and its cultural preferences click here.

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All photographs, articles and content on this site, (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Sweet-Scented August: Clethra Alnifolia

August 17th, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

Clethra alnifolia, North American native “Sweet Pepperbush’

Some of the most beautiful late-blooming shrubs remind me of that childhood tale, “The Ugly Duckling”. Late to leaf out, looking perhaps a bit twiggy and awkward in June, these stars of the late summer garden take their time dressing up for spring. Sweet pepperbush is one of those shrubs. Personally, I never mind shyness, in fact I often find it quite charming. Besides, it’s like they always say, good things often come to those who wait. And in the case of Clethra alnifolia, that old adage couldn’t be more true. This late blooming beauty produces some of the most fragrant flowers in my garden; attracting butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and humans alike. But when most gardeners are out shopping in early spring, Clethra alnifolia is looking a bit scrappy. Lilac, azalea and roses are scooped up at garden centers by the cart-full, while the sweet pepperbush languishes in the corner like a high school wall-flower. It seems like her only fans are horticultural-geeks, (always quick notice her).

Well, don’t you be fooled by the awkward-spring-nature of this gorgeous native plant. Clethra is a knock-out worth waiting for. Just like that skinny girl at the prom, (you remember the one with the metallic braces?), Clethra makes up for lost time a bit later on in the season, when you will be glad you chose her. When the perky roses are past their prime and that showy azalea starts to look a bit shabby, Clethra’s lustrous green leaves still shimmer and shine in the late summer heat. Then, round about August, Clethra really comes into her own. Oh the flowers!  The sweet smell of pepperbush is a fragrance you will never forget. Borne on the current season’s new growth, the elegant blossoms cluster on upright racemes or panicles, often 8-12″ in length. Bloom time begins in late July or early August and continues for at least 4-6 weeks, (longer when sited in a moist location with partial shade). And there are so many new cultivars! ‘Ruby Spice’ and ‘Pink Spires’ bloom in glorious shades soft pink rarely seen so late in the season, and creamy ‘September Beauty’ extends the spicy-fragrance right into October here at Ferncliff.

Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ in mid-August at Ferncliff

Come autumn, the foliage of Clethera alnifolia turns a gorgeous shade of golden yellow, slowly burnishing to a warm, coppery brown. What beauty! I like to surround Clethra with late blooming blue-violet asters, such as Aster oblongifolium, ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, and violet-blue Aconitum (Monk’s Hood). Placing violet against the gold is a great way to bring out the intensity of both colors. Because of its honey gold autum foliage, Clethra also looks beautiful when planted near darker foliage shrubs such as purple-leafed Cotinus, and Physocarpus cultivars ‘Diabolo’, ‘Coppertinia’, and ‘Summer Wine’. The multicolored autumn leaves of Fothergilla gardenii and many Viburnum cultivars also make great border-mates for Clethra alnifolia.

And now, at the risk of sounding like an infomercial, is the time when I say : “but wait… that’s not all”! Because Clethra alnifolia is a native to North America, growing this shrub is one of the kindest things you can do for late season bees, butterflies and birds. Since many suburban gardeners lean toward spring-blooming shrubs in their planting schemes, few backyard food sources remain for our pollen-dependent friends in the latter part of the season. By choosing late-blooming shrubs and perennials, a gardener can help give back some of the natural habitat we humans have taken away with our subdivisions, lawns and hardscaping. Not only will you enjoy the fragrance of sweet pepperbush in your garden, but the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies will delight in Clethra’s sweet elixir.

Ready to add sweet pepperbush to your garden? Like most ‘ugly-duckings’ Clethra alnifolia has an easy-going personality. And, as is the case with many native plants, this is generally a pest-free shrub with few diseases. Keep in mind Clethra’s needs and you won’t be disappointed. The sweet pepperbush is native to woodlands and swamps from Nova Scotia on south to Florida, (zone 4 – 9). As such a plant, Clethra prefers semi-moist, slightly acidic soil conditions, (though average, well prepared and mulched garden soil will do fine). Also a plus, Clethra can tolerate a bit of shade from taller shrubs or trees. But do keep in mind, this is a suckering shrub, so give it plenty of room to spread out, (cultivars vary in size from small to large, but the species can grow from 4-12′ high and 6-10′ wide or more). Because the blossoms of sweet pepperbush occur on new-growth late in the season, any pruning should take place in the early part of the year,(ideally before June 1st). Be certain to make shallow-angled cuts on the alternate leafed branches, just above an outward facing leaf-bud. Clethra alnifolia forms a loose, natural-looking hedge when planted in groups, and except for the removal of spent blossoms, I avoid most pruning. However, should you find that your sweet pepperbush gets a bit wild and unruly, a severe pruning in early spring will rejuvenate her beauty. To my eye, Clethra alnifolia is always the perfect garden swan.

Clethra alnifolia, ‘Ruby Spice’ in bud at Ferncliff

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Article and Photographs Copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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