Monthly Archives: June 2010

Monarch Caterpillars on Common Milkweed Leaves

Dear Gardening Friends,

I’ve updated the article on common milkweed (see below). The second video of the caterpillar pupating goes a bit dark in the beginning because I was trying to capture the caterpillar’s exoskeleton splitting apart, just below the head.

My husband, Tom Hauck, was quoted on Sound Off in this week’s issue of Time Magazine. His quote can also be found here (scroll down).

Looking at our thriving patch of common milkweed, I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Monarch butterflies to our garden in Gloucester. It is difficult to reconcile the enjoyment we derive from life’s simple pleasures when looking into the faces of the victims struck by the unfolding tragedy in the Gulf Coast region—a tragedy for the nation. I hope and pray that the net result of this catastrophe will be a wake up call, and that we will all come together to fully realize the potential of non-polluting alternatives to our unsustainable use of fossil fuels.

Best wishes, Kim

The pair of Monarch caterpillars, hanging in the characteristic J-shape, are attached to the underside ribs of common milkweed (Asclepais syriaca). They were filmed at approximately 7:30 am on August 22, 2009, one hour prior to pupation. The “twins” pupated within six minutes of each other. “Twin #2” is pupating in the video.

Monarch Caterpillar Pupating

Inside a moment’s time, the exoskeleton behind the caterpillar’s head splits apart. With undulating wave-like contractions the developing green chrysalis is revealed as the exoskeleton shrivels. With rhythmical repetitious revolutions, twirling first left, then right, and back again, he throws off his last striped suit. More gyrating rotations and he fastens himself securely to the pad of silk with his newly formed cremaster.

Creating Summer Magic

Common Milkweed ~ Asclepias syriaca

Recently a friend inquired that if I had to choose one native New England plant to grow to attract butterflies to the garden, which would it be, and why. It was a challenging question because butterflies are typically drawn to the garden planted with a rich and varied, yet very specific, combination of species. A successful Lepidoptera habitat is comprised of many elements all working in tandem. Sunny and protected areas in which to warm their wings, trees and shrubs that provide shelter, and a host of nectar plants for the adults, as well as specific caterpillar food plants, create the successful Lepidoptera garden.

Perhaps if I had to choose a favorite butterfly and therefore a favorite plant to grow to drawthis butterfly to my garden it would have to be common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which is both a larval host plant and nectar plant for the elegant Monarch butterfly. People often speak unkindly about common milkweed, rather I think it deserves applause for it is plant without rue and thrives wherever found—in the cracks of city sidewalks and along country roadsides, highly-trafficked soccer fields, and in the most neglected of neighborhoods. Whether in the garden, along the shoreline, or local meadow, it is on the foliage of common milkweed that we find the vast majority of Monarch eggs and caterpillars. Noteworthy also is that we observe many different species of butterflies and skippers nectaring at common milkweed—sulphurs, swallowtails, and fritillaries, to name but a few. In our garden we grow common milkweed alongside marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); marsh milkweed blooms slightly earlier than common milkweed as it is sited in a sunnier locale. Both species attract a wide variety of winged pollinators. Male and female Monarchs nectar from the blossoms, while the males simultaneously patrol for females. The females utilize the foliage of both species to oviposit their eggs. Typically we observe females freely flitting alternatively between our common and marsh milkweed, depositing their eggs on the choicest leaves and buds, while pausing frequently to nectar.

Monarch Butterfly Egg on Common Milkweed Leaf

The milky sap that flows through milkweed veins lends the genus its common name. Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars have evolved to withstand the toxic milk, but not the predatory bird that attempts to eat one. The adult Monarch’s unique wing pattern and caterpillar’s striped suit warn of its dreadful taste and lethal toxins. A bird that is tempted becomes sick and may even die, and if it survives, remembers never again to try to eat a Monarch. “The larvae sequester cardiac glycosides from the milkweed leaves that they consume. Concentrations of these heart toxins in their bodies may be several times higher than those occurring in milkweed leaves. The glycosides consumed by the caterpillars are carried forward both into the chrysalis and adult stages, affording them protection as well.” (Caterpillars of North America David L. Wagner).

Common milkweed is highly adaptable and grows in nearly any soil. The size of the developing colonies and individual plants reflect the conditions in which it is grown.  Planted in a rich, moist soil, protected from the wind and where it receives some light shade, it will grow six to seven feet.  I use it extensively in my butterfly garden designs, planting in rich, average, and dry conditions, and find it especially appealing and useful for shoreline gardens. In sandy soil, sand dunes, and meadows, where it is exposed to wind and/or salt spray, common milkweed is equally as vigorous, but of a much shorter stature, typically obtaining the height of two to three feet.

A. syriaca thrives in full sun to light shade. In a moist, protected area, plant in the back of the border. In a more exposed site, plant in the mid-ground. Because of its ability to spread readily and rapidly, use in an informal, natural setting as opposed to planting in formal  beds.

Common milkweed is highly fragrant and is the most richly scented of the species of milkweeds found in Massachusetts (A. incarnata, A. syriaca, A. quadrifolia,  A. tuberosa, A. amplexicaulis, A. exaltata, A. pupurascens, and A. verticillata), with a complex wild flower honey fragrance. I have heard it described as similar to the scent of lilacs, but find lilacs have a much sweeter fragrance than common milkweed. Fragrance is highly mutable and subjective.

One- to two-year-old plants are easier to transplant than established plants. Common milkweed takes approximately three years to flower from seed. The method in which I have had the greatest success in propagating Asclepias syriaca, best attempted in early summer, is to dig up a rhizome, found at the base of a plant with newly emerging shoots. The rhizome would ideally be obtained from a friend’s garden. If collected in the wild, be sure to dig from an area where there are many shoots present. You need a fairly large chunk, at least a half-foot, with both roots and new shoots present. Replant the rhizome at the same depth. Water throughout the summer. Towards the end of the growing season you will be rewarded with newly emerging shoots. Common milkweed self-seeds readily, but spreads primarily (and rambunctiously) by its rhizomatic root structure.

Milkweed in general, and in particular, common milkweed, attracts a host of pollinators—bees, wasps, butterflies, and purportedly hummingbirds. I have yet to see the Ruby-throated hummingbird nectar from common milkweed, but it may also be the case that they are attracted to the plant for the multitude of tiny insect populations frequenting the flowers (over ninety percent of a Ruby-throated hummingbird’s diet is comprised of insects). We typically findMonarch eggs and caterpillars on milkweed plants during the months of July and August.

Buddleia davidii ’Nanho Blue,’ with blue-violet racemes, melds beautifully with the muted lavender rose florets of the softly drooping flower heads of common milkweed. The brilliant white of native Phlox davidii and vivid purple-pink of Liatris ligulistylus attractively offsets both. All are famously attractive to Monarchs (and myriad other species of Lepidoptera) and will provide a long season of nectar-rich blossoms and Monarch caterpillar food.

Monarch Butterflies Mating on Common Milkweed Leaves

A note about the video: Monarch butterflies deposit eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in eastern Massachusetts. The chrysalis in this video was attached to a marsh milkweed stem. For a wealth of information on butterfly gardening, read Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!

Flowers of the Air

This beautiful Summer Azure  butterfly (Celastrina ladon ‘neglecta’), seen in our Gloucester garden, is ovipositing eggs amongst the buds of native meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia).

She tightly curls her abdomen in a c-shape and deposits her eggs amongst the unopened flower buds, while pausing every now and then to drink nectar from the opened florets. Just as many species of milkweed plants (Asclepias) are utilized by Monarch butterflies, to both take nectar from the florets and as a larval host plant for their caterpillars, the blossoms of meadowsweet provide nectar and the foliage is a food plant for the caterpillars of the Summer Azure butterfly.

Plant native meadowsweet near to where you will enjoy their delicately shaded rose-pink blossoms and the insects attracted. We grow ours along a sunny path and also grow a patch in the dappled shade cast by our pear trees. The plants sited in sun bear far more blossoms. The shrub grows fairly quickly, three to four feet high and equally as wide, and is easily divided. To create a tidy shape, prune lightly, in very early spring. Playing host to the azures, long season of blossoms, and lovely bright green and finely-cut foliage, meadowsweet is a fabulous native shrub for the ‘wild’ garden.

Time Magazine

My husband’s letter to the editor appears in this week’s issue of Time Magazine (June 21, 2010), in big bold type-face under Sound Off, page 12.

‘If I owned a restaurant, I would love it if Rand Paul came in so I could tell him, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve your kind here.” ‘  -Thomas Hauck, Gloucester, MA, on “Rand and Ron,” June 7.

Brilliant, and always succinct, I am proud of the fact that Tom’s letters to editors of various publications often elicit personal calls thanking him. Our current issue of Time arrived with the mail this afternoon, and not two hours later, he received a call from a 60 year-old African American gentleman in Colorado, thanking him for his letter. We need to hear more from brilliantly clear voices–like Toms–voices that can be heard above the din of the Coulters, Limbaughs, Pallins, and Pauls.

Ravishing Rhododendrons


Tales of the Rose Tree Jane Brown

Tales of the Rose Tree

Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World

Tales of the Rose Tree (written by Jane Brown) was sent to me by the lovely Sue Ramin from my publisher’s office (David R. Godine). Beautifully written and amply illustrated with paintings, photographs, and botanical illustrations, Jane Brown’s Tales of the Rose Tree achieves what she set out to do, and then some—“to construct a history of the genus Rhododendron that pays tribute to the mystery and majesty of these plants.” Every lover of gardens and garden history will want to own Brown’s richly researched and sumptuous celebration of a genus that, in some form or another, nearly everyone grows in their backyard, but about which most know very little.

Jane Brown, the English garden writer whose works include Gardens of a Golden Afternoon (the story of the partnership of Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll), Lutyens and the Edwardians, and biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Beatrix Farrand, writes that “Rhododendrons are a race of giants on a global scale, at home in the snows of the Himalayas and the swamps of Carolina, in the jungles of Borneo and the island inlets of Japan. They are too complex a genus of single truths, and many of the 1,025 species that we know are of a manageable size, for all azaleas are rhododendrons…”

The first rhododendrons came into Western gardens during the working life of Carl von Linné, the Swedish naturalist we know as Linnaeus, who conjured the genus name from Greek rhodon (rose) and dendron (tree) to create rhododendron. China claims as natives over half the species; her southwestern provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan and the Autonomous Region of Tibet are especially rich in rhododendrons. “That some species are given geographical names—sinogrande, bhutanese, afghanicum, caucasicum, ponticum, or dauricum—reveals that they have evolved especially in response to their particular habits, and yet these names string a necklace of rhododendrons across Eurasia. Others can be added, carolinianum, californicum, canadense, japonicum, to extend the necklet around the earth.”

Brown asks for what reason the similarities? It was the American botanist Asa Gray (1810 -1888) who, in frequent correspondence with Charles Darwin, suggested an answer. In 1859 Gray published his conclusions on the similarities between the flora of Japan and eastern North America, suggesting “before the glacial epoch the flora of the North Temperate Zone had been relatively homogenous, extending in a more or less undisrupted belt across North America and Eurasia.” Rhododendrons, being tough survivors of some 50 million years, had happily circled the globe during this time. Gray further proposed that with the advances of the glaciers, temperate flora was pushed southwards; when the ice finally retreated other complications—“mountain building in particular”—made life difficult for the rhododendrons trying to regain their former territory. Remaining communities found they had to adapt and recolonise, or die. But in eastern North America and eastern Asia (including the great Plain of China), Gray further suggested the ancient flora had survived or was able to recolonise without drastic change: “thus the similar flora in the two regions today constitutes relics of the preglacial flora that once encircled the globe.”

Marydel Coast Azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum 'Marydel')Native to the east coast of the United States, the Marydel Coast Azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum ‘Marydel’), seen here growing in our Gloucester garden, has a fabulous fragrance of sweetness and of spice.

In a thoroughly entertaining and often humorous manner, Brown tells numerous stories, including tales of Quaker John Bartram (1699-1777), the first native-born American to devote his entire life to the study of nature, along with his son William’s (1739-1823) rhododendron collecting and travels of thousands of miles with native American Indians as their hosts in the floral wonderland that was America. Brown’s beautiful book brings to light the curious history of Westerners and rhododendrons as one of swashbuckling plant collectors and visionary gardeners, colonial violence and ecological destruction, stunning botanical successes and bitter business disappointments.

In Tales of the Rose Tree, Jane Brown lists Heritage Plantation in Sandwich as one of the best places in America to find rhododendrons. I am more intrigued than ever to see their collection, and would add too that the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain has a stunning collection of species rhododendrons from temperate regions around the globe, including many North American species of rhododendrons.

Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival

Heritage Museums & Gardens and The Thornton Burgess Society co-present the Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival on June 4 & 5 from 10am until 4pm each day.

This two-day celebration of rhododendrons features private garden visits, hybridizing rhododendron demonstrations, a rare rhododendron auction, exhibits, authors & book signings, plant sale, horticulture lectures by Kim Smith, Sharon Ackland, Mal Condon, Irwin Ehrenreich, Paul Miskovsky and Larry Pannell and so much more!

For more information or to purchase tickets, please contact Arlene Hoxie at (508) 888-3300 ext. 111 or email at