New Garden Guests

In the second year of growing common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), I not only learned more about the plant’s growth habit in a tended garden, but also about the variety of insects it draws. Like many gardeners in the past several years, I expanded my milkweed inventory to supply food and nursery space for the monarch butterfly. Like the swamp milkweed, the common milkweed attracted aphids, then ants, then lady bird beetles and sooty mold. However, this year a new resident arrived.

One day when studying the evolving drama of The Milkweed Diaries, I noticed a new bug. This one wore a pretty flashy palette of reddish-orange and black. Not that subtle. The mouthpiece was a proboscis, which is an indicator the bug feeds on sap.  It also was just chilling toward the top of the plant, not participating in the balance of life being played out between the aphids, ants, and lady bugs on the leaves below. Naturally I grabbed a camera and snapped some photos of the unknown bug to ID it.

It didn’t take too long searching before I found it on The Internets. It is Oncopeltus fasciatus commonly know as the large milkweed bug.  They can be found on milkweed plants in mid to late summer when seedpods are getting ready to form. If you take a closer look at this adult, there is a black band across its body. I used this to ID it as the Large Milkweed bug, instead of the similar looking Lesser Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) which has a set of inward facing, orange brackets on its back.

Like the monarch butterfly, milkweed bugs ingest the milkweed plant and therefore accumulate in their bodies cardiac glycosides (cardenolides). These alkaloid toxins are dangerous if ingested by predators.

Unlike Lesser Milkweed Bugs, this guy sticks to the Apocynaceae (dogbane) family when looking for its next meal. Both adults and nymphs feed on milkweed pods and seeds.

Do They Harm Monarchs?

Most gardeners grow plants from the milkweed family with monarchs on the mind. Who wouldn’t love waiting on those lovely butterflies? So, as I was reading about the large milkweed bug, I wondered if it was a natural predator of monarchs.

From what I could find, the Large Milkweed Bug is a vegetarian. However, the Lesser Milkweed Bug will scavenge on insects as a adult, including Monarch larvae. I feel this is just another example of why it is so important to carefully research your garden guest before knocking them into that jar of soapy water.

Should They Stay or Should They Go?

Stay. Both large and lesser milkweed bugs do not oppose an immediate threat to milkweed. The feeding damage is minimal, and the bug’s life cycle and overall presence in the garden is short. They are one of its many pollinators. Booming populations on a plant may be an indicator of a plant that is otherwise stressed or lacking something it needs to grow.


Ohio State University Extension

Milkweed: Not Just for Monarchs

Michigan State University Extension

Missouri Botanical Garden

Visit from the Tree Fairy(ies)

The Lot is located under 2 miles from the center of our little city. Our neighborhood is older than the Burbs, with our home being built in 1923. At some point the entire street was planted with norway and silver maples, all of which are at their mature height now.

Since we’ve lived on the Lot, we have had a norway maple in the easement at the South side of the house. The tree helped to shade the porch and home during the hot summer months. In the winter, its absence of leaves allowed the sunlight to help warm the south side. The maple would also keep a gardener cool when she wanted to work in the south bed midday. It was a pretty sweet deal.

However, also during the time we have lived here, a wound in the trunk of the tree has grown progressively worse. The best guess we can make is it was backed into by some past neighbor. We really, REALLY didn’t want to send in a request for its removal until it had to go. This spring was the season.

As all other trees on the street were leafing out this past spring, the norway maple on the front of the Lot was not. Also, the wound on the tree had be weakening the middle of the trunk and the tree was beginning to lean toward the house. All signs pointed to a phone call to the city and a request for the maple’s removal.

Monocultures in Urban Neighborhoods

During our time with the Urban Forest Project, the Other Half and I learned this approach of planting a street as a monoculture (a single type or family) is not the best idea. This became evident to city planners when Dutch Elm Disease in the 1950s and then Emerald Ash Borer in the early 2000s caused entire streets of those trees to be removed at a time.

The city now selects trees that can withstand the harsh urban conditions, chooses trees with the correct height as to not grow into power lines, and aims for a variety of species for the neighborhood. With a diverse population lining a street, the chances of a future tree disease or pest causing the removal of all the trees at once is slim.

A Gift of Gingko

The Other Half and I had been exchanging ideas for a replacement tree for the majority of the season. After removal, it would be another 18 months before the city would plant a new tree (with no charge to us) to replace the norway maple. However, I’m impatient, so we were going to offer to purchase and plant a replacement. We’d simply select a tree from the city’s list of approved trees.

But this morning the universe had a different plan as a Citizen Forester volunteer knocked on our door. A neighbor a block or two down had applied to and received a mini-grant to have trees planted in our neighborhood. There was a lone ginkgo which had been passed over by a neighbor who did not want trees in his/her property’s easement. The Citizen Forester had noticed the white mark on the dying maple (city code for “remove this tree”), and wondered if we wanted the ginkgo. Um, yes please!!

The Maidenhair Tree

Ginkgo biloba, or the Ginkgo, is the sole surviving genus of the order Ginkgoales and is considered a living fossil. This ancient order of plants, believed to have been present 150 million years ago, have characteristics of both ferns and conifers. The fan-shaped leaves of the Ginkgo resemble fronds of the plant genus Adiantum, or the maidenhair ferns. The leaves are also often in two lobes, which is how it picks up the “biloba” or “two-lobed” in its name. The tree was cultivated in China and Japan because of its religious significance, but no natural stands of Ginkgo are thought to exist.

The cultivar ‘Autumn Gold’ is the one now situated in the easement on the Lot. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden website, this ginkgo grows up to 40 or 50′ and makes a great shade tree. It will have green flowers (all current ginkgo cultivars are male) in the spring and gold leaves in the autumn. It requires full sun so the south side of the Lot is an excellent location for it. Due to the low maintenance required and the tree’s ability to tolerate air pollution, the Ginkgo makes a great tree for an urban environment.

Ginkgo Guardians

So now it is up to the Other Half and I to care for our new sapling. It was delivered as a ball and burlap tree, so I’ve already been out there a few times to fuss over untangling its branches. Those are often squished a bit from being bound against the leader with twine before being stacked on delivery trucks. This whole weekend we are supposed to finally get some seasonal rainfall, so the tree should get a good drink. The leader, or vertical stem on top of the trunk of the tree, is a bit crooked. However, the trunk is straight, and I’ve seen leaders straighten out over a few years once the tree is growing in its new location. Next year we’ll make sure it gets watered well throughout its first summer. I’m looking forward to helping it get settled and integrating it into the crazy garden that is the Lot.

WTF – Black Bindweed

I feel this garden season has been packed with plant identification. In no way am I complaining about this. Plant identification is a pretty enjoyable game to me. When a fellow gardener was telling me about a swift-growing vine with heart-shaped leaves in her home garden, I fought the urge to immediately hiss “bindweed” (Convolvulus arvensis). The weed is from the Morning Glory (Convolvulaceae) family and is a complete terror on the Lot. I agreed to make a visit to help with some pruning, so I pretty much had to find out if I was right or not.

Analyzing the Offender

When I arrived and was able to meet the vine in person, I realized it wasn’t bindweed. I would recognize my Nemesis anywhere, in any growing zone, and this wasn’t it. Yes, the vine was eating the porch alive and the leaves were heart-shaped. However, I immediately noticed what looked like white seed heads in large clusters all along the vine… not a trait of the bindweed we deal with on the Lot.

Black Bindweed covering Lantern

There aren’t many weedy vines in our state, so I started going through some weed ID sites looking for the vine that would be going to seed at this time of the season. Eventually I found a site for a project at the University of Michigan: Burnham, R.J. (2008-2014). “CLIMBERS: Censusing Lianas in Mesic Biomes of Eastern RegionS.” (September 6, 2017).  And that is where I found the name of the plant I was looking for: Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) of the Buckwheat (Polygonaceae) family.

Up Close and Personal

When ID’ing a plant, there are a lot of clues one can pick up by taking a thorough look at the specimen. Parts of the black bindweed helping me to ID it were:

  • alternate, simple, heart shaped leaves
  • vine, twining from right to left
  • glabrous (free from hair) ocrea (sheath around the stem)
  • roots are non-rhizomatous
  • branching of vine located more near base of plant
  • papery calyx (sepals of the flower)
  • flower understated with no petals

Black Bindweed on Railing

Evicting the Weed

I struggled to find a control method for black bindweed. It’s an  aggressive, annual weed introduced from Eurasia. The plant spreads by prolific reseeding. The seeds themselves are enclosed by a hard shell and can be viable for more than a single season in the soil. In fact, this was the reason my gardener friend inquired about the plant. She said though a crazy climber, the plant was kind of pretty (which it was). But then she saw all the flowers (future seeds) and thought “Oh sh*t.” Yeah, we’ve all done that before.

What we do have on our side when removing this vine is the fibrous root system and the small area of a home garden. Though fairly deep, the roots aren’t a rubbery, rhizomatous system that takes off underground like a berserker gopher. The plant was removed and burned. Next season, the gardener has to keep an eye open in the spring for any new seedlings and pull as needed.