January 6, 2018 9:58:49 PM
Mississippi State University's arboretum is looking for gardeners who know where milkweed's growing wild and want to help monarch butterflies.
Crosby Arboretum director Pat Drackett hopes gardeners around Mississippi will both experiment with seed from local plants and send seeds to the arboretum.
"This is a great type of project that concerned gardeners anywhere in the country can do," Drackett said, noting that every state has an agricultural extension service and a master gardener program, both of which can help.
It has to be native milkweed. Garden centers around the country sell showy tropical milkweed, which bears pink, orange or yellow flowers year-round rather than going dormant in the winter.
However, those plants can disrupt monarch migration patterns by prompting the females to hang around and lay eggs during the winter, rather than continuing to Mexico for the winter.
That leaves the larvae susceptible both to cold weather and to a parasite called OE because "Ophryocystis elektroscirrha" is such a mouthful.
The 70 or so U.S. milkweed species include 15 native to Mississippi, said Drackett, who is leading a Mississippi State University Extension Service project to find which are best for gardens in the state.
It started because so many people called to ask about milkweed in 2015, as word spread about historically low monarch butterfly populations.
The arboretum in Picayune, Mississippi, had to buy seed from out of state for most of the species native to Mississippi, and found that origin matters.
"When people look in catalogs, they will often find seed from Pennsylvania and northern climates," Drackett said. But two years of tests have shown that northern seed for a given species doesn't do as well in Mississippi as that from Florida or Louisiana for the same species, she said.
The arboretum hopes eventually to become a reliable source of seed for Mississippi gardeners. However, at present it just sells small plants, most of them grown from clippings, at its annual plant sales.
"We've only found a few that will do in a typical garden," Drackett said.
She said those most likely to do well statewide are aquatic milkweed, butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, green antelopehorn and swamp milkweed.
Butterfly weed is well-known, but other native species deserve wider use than they now have, she said.
For instance, there's aquatic milkweed, which grows near rivers and streams. "It fries in the sun. But if you're looking for something to plant in a wet, shady area, that is an amazing plant," Drackett said.
Swamp milkweed, which can be found as garden seed, "is a wonderful performer for a regular garden," she said.
Though it's considered native to the state and has been found in every state around Mississippi, swamp milkweed hasn't actually been found there in the wild, she said.
"If somebody was to find it in Mississippi, they would make history. ... It's got to be out there somewhere," Drackett said.
Many people pick seed pods too early. Pick them when they've begun to split, she advised.
In areas where milkweeds are sparse, seed can be gathered by tying a bit of stocking or netting around ponds to catch seed when they open. "If it's a large field, you can be fairly sure you can collect seed" without doing that, Drackett said.
If the milkweed is on someone else's land, the owner's permission is needed, according to Jennifer Buchanan, the arboretum's education curator. Collecting permits are needed on national wildlife refuges, and most states also have requirements for collecting on their public lands, she said.
"When you collect your specimens, take a picture, note the location, note the growing conditions," she said. "Then make sure you can identify the species."
Drackett said she doesn't tell gardeners to throw out their tropical milkweed, just to cut it back during monarch migration season. In south Mississippi, that starts about the third week in October.
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