Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Plant Behind the Monarch

Ever wonder what holds Kingdoms together? Often enough it's a plant.

Take for instance, the Monarch, Danaus plexippus, perhaps the best known of all North American butterflies, if you truly want to understand it you need to know about the plant genus Asclepias, that supports it. People love Monarch Butterflies but few know of the one plant that the pupa of monarchs, caterpillars, require to survive; Asclepias, commonly known as Butterfly Weed or Milkweed.

The reason Monarchs are so keen on this genus of plant is because of the chemical it contains; cardiac glycosides. As the monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves they store the cardiac glycosides in their exoskeleton, making themselves toxic to predators such as birds. So birds in search of a meal quickly learn that the monarch is a unpalatable food that can make them vomit.

Few gardeners grow Asclepias, few landscape architects spec it in their designs, and few nurseries sell it, and yet it is crucial to the survival of this much loved wandering butterfly.

Friends of mine recently bought cut flowers of Ascelpias tuberosa, with showy orange blossoms, at the Green Market only to find a luminous green sac hanging from one of the stems. A week later a monarch butterfly shimmied out, though it didn't survive. Nonetheless, it was an inspiring process which they witnessed in their own Brooklyn apartment. Here are the pictures they sent.

I've often bought Asclepias tuberosa, only to realize the plant is hosting several caterpillars. What a wonderful gift to give to a garden, a rooftop, and to nature, more monarchs! And a plant they can return to every year to lay their eggs and feed upon as well as enjoy the nectar of the milkweed blossoms. Asclepias is also a diverse and beautiful genus with many species worthy of being in a garden.

Asclepias tuberosa is a late summer bloomer that is extremely drought tolerant, making it perfect for lazy gardeners or gardens with sandy dry soil. Here is it in one of our terrace projects combined with Yucca filamentosa.

Other Asclepias prefer more water, like the showy A. incarnata, which can get quite tall, and can be found by lakes or swamps. Here are a few pictures of it towering in my mothers garden.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What happens to a suburban dream deferred?

What happens when there isn't enough water to sustain a landscape? Does it shrivel up in the sun until there's nothing left? What about suburban populations faced with the realities of an arid climate met by climate change?

Photo via NPR.

We caught two harrowing NPR morning edition segments on the drought in Texas today. One discussed the effect the drought is having on local ecologies. The earth is dry so the plants are dry, so insect populations are decimated, so the bat colonies don't have anything to eat, and squirrels and deer don't have enough milk to feed their babies, and on and on. Desert ecosystems are fragile, supporting life with severely limited resources. Human development is one of the main causes of desertification, and the Southwest experienced a boom in population growth in the last decade.
Areas in red are high vulnerability of desertification. Credit USDA.

Texas started recording meteorological data in 1895 and in 116 years, this is the driest it's ever been. This year has been marked by extreme weather across the states, from a record-breaking snowstorm in the northeast last winter, to the record-breaking heatwave in July, to the hurricane currently approaching the east coast.

As climate change progresses over the next century, extreme weather will become far more frequent. We've had above-average yearly rainfall in New York City every year for the past 10 years. At the same time, the West is getting drier. Our climate is polarizing, and these changes are going to take a toll on wildlife across the board as it struggles to adapt biologies developed over thousands of years within the span of a few decades. One might think it would be easier for humans to adjust our consumptive industries and aggressive colonization customs, but perhaps the instincts behind these habits are as much a product of evolution as the drought-tolerant nature of Sunset Hyssop (native to Arizona and New Mexico).

Agastache rupestris is a fragrant member of the mint family and a hummingbird favorite. Photo via.

Native plant shout-out accomplished, I wish you a good (and safe) weekend.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Native Appreciation: Divine Edition

Photo via Marie Laser.

Yesterday morning Marni and I took a tour of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. If you live in NYC and you haven't been, put it on your to do list. I found myself wondering if I had somehow taken the 1 train to France, England, or similar gothic cathedral territory (if you've ever sat on the train from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side you know it feels plausible). St. John is huge; it is the fourth largest Christian church in the world, and the architecture is stunning, though perhaps doomed to be eternally unfinished. The 11 acres of grounds that surround the cathedral are beautifully landscaped, dotted with sculpture, and home to three peacocks.

A peek into the Biblical Garden.

Surprise peacock.

Perhaps more incredible than the interior and grounds is the roof. We hiked up a dark stone spiral staircase and out onto this:

Plants growing on the roof!

Under the buttresses.
A few blocks away is the rain garden we recently completed at Columbia's Teachers College. We headed over there to do see what's blooming and take some photos.

In the above photo you can see a cultivar of Joe Pye weed called "little Joe" (tall, pink and in the center), latin name Eupatorium dubium, and fameflower, or Talinum calycinum. Joe Pye weed is native to the east coast.

Fameflower is a favorite at Alive Structures. It's such a champ! It has been blooming for a month now and just keeps going. We love the way it looks against the rocks, and we often use it on green roofs as well. Fameflower is very drought tolerant, versatile, and one of the few succulents native to North America.

Last is this Great Blue Lobelia, or Lobelia siphilitica. This is in the bellflower family and just looks like it belongs in swampy habitats (it does) - perfect for rain gardens. Unfortunately it is listed as endangered in Massachusetts and exploitably vulnerable in New York.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Native Appreciation: Swamp Beauties

This gold and orange firework of a flower is the Turk's cap lily, or Lillium superbum. Surperb. It's native to swamps and wetlands in the eastern half of North America. You can eat the bulbs, but please don't; it's classified as Endangered and Expoitably Vulnerable by the USDA.

Lillium superbum reminds us of a shooting star by its shape, but it's colored like a fireball; bright yellow in the center, turning orange and then red at the tips of the petals. Other notable features include the whorled leaf pattern, shown in the illustration below. In phyllotaxis, whorled means that leaves circle the stem at the same levels.

A botanical drawing circa 1816. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the first thing one wonders when seeing Lilium superbum in nature, is where can I get one? Why don't most people grow these in their gardens instead of all the asian tiger lillies and day lillies? As it turns out, this lily can take up to seven years from seed to bloom, which might make it expensive or discouraging for many nurseries and gardeners to grow. Since we're young and adventurous we're going to give it a try. Look for an update in 2018!

Turk's cap lily in the wild.

I bet you didn't know there are hibiscus native to New York. The flower in the above photo is Hibiscus moscheutos, common name rose mallow. Its territory is similar to that of the Turk's cap lily, but extends as far west as Utah.

Rose mallow and swamp milkweed at dusk.

Our last moisture-loving flower is Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed. It blooms little pink flowers like crested jewels, and as a milkweed, is a favorite food and breeding habitat for monarch butterflies. It's native to almost the whole of North America, barring the west coast.

All of these photos were recently taken by Marni during some nature spelunking in Little Compton, RI. Tragically the flowers were mostly surrounded by phragmites, Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive, wild grape, and many more invasive species. One has to wonder what coastal Rhode Island looked like two hundred years ago, and what gems we've lost since invasives started crowding everyone out.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Truman Capote's Green Roof

In early June, Alive Structures collaborated with the sustainable Hamptons-based architecture firm Modern Green Home to install a green roof in Southampton. We used ultra light-weight green roof soil by The Gaia Institute and pre-grown sedum mats intermixed with native dune grass and prickly pear on this 500 square foot green roof in Sagaponack.

Technicolor sedum mat.

The house's current owner told us that while clearing the invasive honeysuckle and japanese knotweed plants that had taken hold of the property he had unearthed a number of aged Veuve Clicquot bottles nestled in the undergrowth. We can only wonder how they got there, but to fuel your imagination, the beach house originally belonged to Truman Capote. It was an honor to do a green roof on the house that Mr. Capote occupied from 1961, when he commissioned it, until his death in 1984. We just got these photos of the roof in bloom.

In a 1976 profile of the house, Architectural Digest described the surrounding landscape as "a stretch of rolling potato fields and lush farmlands married to the nearby Atlantic Ocean." In the same article, Capote described it as “Kansas with a sea breeze.”

Capote at home. Photo via Architectural Digest, kind of.

Both the dune grass and the prickly pear (seen peeking out from the blooming sedum in the photo at the top) we planted on the roof are native to the area. We used dune grass as a nod to both the location and the spirit of the beach house. Many people find it hard to believe that eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa), a cactus, is native to the Northeast, but in fact it grows as far north as southern Ontario.

Some photos from the installation, below.
Marni and Orlando with a prickly pear.