Wednesday, July 12, 2017

When You Need To Do Some Megaweeding

In a normal year, we would be running the sprinklers on the garden about now, because it would be so hot and dry, with no promise of rain. But this is not a normal year. I'm not sure what that even is anymore. We've just come out of one of the wettest Junes on record and July is off to a soggy start.

Last night, we had over four inches of rain and we really didn't need any. There was water laying in the field across the road and our next-door neighbor had lakefront property right out his front door. We've got two sump pumps in our basement and both of them running together could barely keep up with the water coming in. Fortunately, we weren't one of several residents in the area that lost that battle.

All this rain means the gardens are looking fantastic. The hostas appear to be on steroids. The double daylilies are blooming 100% double, for once. And the weeds are growing so fast and so big that I don't recognize them.

About those weeds... The gardens proper are doing fine in that department, thanks to either full plantings or mulch that's doing its job. But two areas are in desperate need of help. The Berry Barn, which I had completely weeded four weeks ago - it looked fantastic, I promise - now looks as if I haven't set foot in it all year.

And the grape arbor, well, let's talk about the grape arbor. We first planted grapes in 2008 - Mars, Reliance, and Himrod. We enjoyed these seedless table varieties for many years, until the last couple, when they just didn't do well.

This spring, ironically, none of the Reliance vines made it through the winter. One Himrod bit the dust and the other one isn't looking that good either. Both of the Mars vines made it, but they aren't producing a single grape. This has caused us to reevaluate this grape thing.

Romie wanted to just tear out the arbor and be done with it, but I wouldn't have any of that. I love that arbor, grapes or no grapes. So we I decided we'd let the grapes that remain do their thing and plant various clematis vines in place of the grapes that died.

"What if the clematis starts climbing all over the grapes?" he said. "Then they'll look pretty," I said. And that was that. But this post is about weeding, and the base of the grape arbor was absolutely solid weeds.

See the weeds at the rear of the grape arbor base? The whole thing
looked like that when I started weeding.

Dandelions, various grasses, a couple of types of clover (and they'd produced seed pods by now), poison ivy, plantain, baptisia seedlings, white mulberry, thistles, Washington hawthorn seedlings, creeping euphorbia, and various other weeds had made themselves right at home while we mulled over what to do.

Since the arbor was staying and we were growing desirable things on it, these weeds had to go, but oh my gosh, where to start? Images of a bulldozer came to mind, but we didn't have one. I love my family of Cobrahead weeders, but this was no match even for those.

But sometimes, ever so rarely, I have moments of brilliance. They're so few and far between that I'm prouder of them than I have a right to be, mainly because I know that every other person on the planet already knew about this long before I did. But dang, if I wasn't excited about the idea that popped into my head one day when I was doing absolutely nothing and having a good time of it.

What if... just what if I took my grandpa's manure fork (it looks like a pitchfork) and skimmed across the top of the weed-infested soil, about 2-3 inches deep, loosening the soil so that I could sift out the weeds? This would be better than hoeing because if you cut some of those weeds, that just means if you don't remove all the pieces, you're screwed. Some weeds are like earthworms - cut them up and they make new ones from the pieces.

I tried my method on a defunct strawberry bed first. It was a small area and I wanted to use the plot for something else. Oh. My. Goodness. Why I had not thought of this earlier, I don't know, but I now don't look at the weediest of beds with disdain anymore. It's actually kind of fun, because it's a much quicker and easier way of removing large quantities of weeds.

What about the dandelions though? No fork is going to remove those that easily. No, I still had to pull those out individually (unless they were small), but by loosening the soil around them, it made it that much easier to pull them out and get all the roots, especially with soggy soil.

Until the rains came last night, I made quick work of the grape arbor area. I'll finish up when we dry up a little bit. It won't take me long to finish the grape arbor and then I'll move to the other side of the yard and take care of the mess in the Berry Barn.

Hallelujah! Who knew weeding could be so easy? (You don't really believe me, do you? Try it!)

Monday, June 19, 2017

In a Vase on Monday: A Milkweed Bouquet

I didn't intend to put together a bouquet today, although there are plenty of flowers in bloom out in the garden. All I was doing was feeding my monarchs.

Monarch egg on swamp milkweed.

Right now, I've got a dozen monarchs that I'm raising in the house. I found 11 eggs on various types of milkweed in my garden, and one teeny tiny caterpillar that had just hatched out that day. I don't usually raise them this early in the season, but when I saw the eggs and thought about all that could go wrong if I didn't, I just couldn't leave them out there.

Newly hatched!

We're well past that infant stage now, in fact, two of them are now chrysalides, as of Sunday afternoon. That means that the ten remaining caterpillars are eating voraciously and I'd better keep up with supplying milkweed, or else.

So that's what I was doing, going through my garden and cutting milkweed to bring in for them to eat. I decided I would cut four different kinds: common, swamp, butterfly weed, and whorled. The eggs were found on common, swamp and yet another kind I'm growing - poke milkweed. But hey, they'll eat any of it.

When I put the milkweed in water, in a little vase, and was ready to put it in the terrarium I use for raising them, I thought, "Wow, that's kind of a cool little arrangement." That's why you're looking at a photo of my monarchs' breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The wispy one is whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), the yellow-flowering one is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow'), and the other narrow-leaved one is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  In this photo, it's difficult to tell the difference between the foliage of the latter two, but in real life, butterfly weed has rather hairy or fuzzy leaves, whereas swamp milkweed's leaves are smooth.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has been named Perennial Plant of the Year
for 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association. It's usually seen with orange blooms.
This one is 'Hello Yellow'.

All three milkweeds are native to Ohio and many other parts of the country. It's highly recommended that you grow what's native to your area and I give you all the information you need to make those good choices in my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly.

It's appropriate that my bouquet is made of milkweed this week especially, since it's National Pollinator Week. And tomorrow, Tuesday, June 20th, I'll be a guest on Twitter's #plantchat, talking about monarchs and my new book. It starts at 2:00 Eastern, so be sure to join in!


* "In a Vase on Monday " is a blogging meme hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Book Review

If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I'm sort of a bug nerd. I wear that moniker proudly, because insects are some of the most fascinating things ever to roam the earth. Once you start looking at them - really looking at them - you'll see what I mean.

They're bizarre, some of them. Endearing, others. They all have a reason for being here, and it's not to annoy you either. In fact, most of them are doing good things for us and you'd do well to give them the respect they deserve.
Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden won an
American Horticulture Society Award in 2015.

A good place to start to learn more about them and the role they play in our world, and specifically our gardens, is with Jessica Walliser's book, Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control. I know Jessica personally, a result of being a fellow garden writer and being with her at various gardening events. This girl knows her stuff.

I'm the sort of person who likes knowing all about something, right down to the obscure. Jessica's book satisfies that curiosity in me.

One of my favorite photos in the book is this one, of a lacewing egg.

So you think it's strange to want to attract bugs to your garden? While nature has some gruesome aspects to it, for the most part, it's a wonderful plan and Jessica shows us how we can help make it all work together for good.

Integrated pest management involves organic methods of controlling the insect population in our gardens by encouraging beneficial insects to take up residence there and keep the less desirable ones under control. Will it give you perfect plants with no insect damage? No, but there are ways to put nature to work for you.

Jessica gives us 19 beneficial insect profiles, 39 plant profiles for attracting them, and insectary garden plans to help get you started. She provides a couple of citizen science opportunities for you to participate in as well.

If you've been gardening for any length of time, you realize what a futile effort it is to try to keep them away, so why not try and attract the ones that will work for you? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It's really the best way.

Jessica Walliser co-hosts The Organic Gardeners on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has written four other gardening books, including her newest, which will be released later this year. Learn more about Jessica and her work at


Container Gardening Complete: Creative Projects for Growing Vegetables and Flowers in Small Spaces(October 1, 2017)

Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically

A Gardener's Notebook: Life With My Garden
(co-authored with Doug Oster)

Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies,  Lawns and More
(co-authored with Doug Oster)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pussytoes and American Ladies in the Butterfly Garden

You might think it's all about the monarchs here at Our Little Acre, and it is, for the most part, but monarchs aren't the only butterflies that call our yard home. For several years now, we've monitored the reproduction of both Eastern black swallowtails and American ladies.

I raised this Eastern black swallowtail butterfly from a caterpillar in my house.

The Eastern black swallowtails are all over the bronze fennel we grow, for most of the summer, laying eggs, chowing down, and becoming adult butterflies. I've also found them on my carrot tops and when I grow parsley and dill, they make use of those plants, too.

The other butterfly that we see lay eggs here is the American lady (Vanessa cardui). It's often confused with the painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other, especially when they're in flight.

If you can get close enough to see them with their wings open, the easiest way to tell the difference is to look for the presence of a tiny white spot on the upper wings. If it's there, you're looking at an American lady. If it's not, it's probably a painted lady. (I say probably, because apparently, now and then, American ladies are missing the dot, too.)  I've only ever seen American ladies here, although painted ladies are probably are probably present here as well.

In late April, I was doing some weeding in the garden and was witness to an American lady ovipositing (laying eggs) on my Antennaria plantaginifolia, more commonly known as pussytoes. I've grown this plant for years and unlike milkweed, I didn't plant it for the purpose of providing a host plant for butterflies. I just liked the name and the looks of the plant.

Antennaria is a bluish groundcover that throws up six-inch stems with small
clusters of flowers at the top. The flowers can be white or pink.

A female American lady butterfly laid eggs in the centers of two of the
fuzzy Antennaria leaves.

After the female lays an egg, a few days later, the tiny caterpillar will hatch out. It will use its spinneret to wrap itself up in a leaf with silk for protection when it isn't out and about, eating its host plant. This is usually the way you can know if there are caterpillars present, as they tend to only feed on cloudy days or at night.

Soon, you'll see larger caterpillars moving around on the leaves, still eating and preparing to pupate. I've never found a chrysalis in the garden, but they're masters at camouflaging them. Colors can vary from brown to green, according to their surroundings, and like the monarchs, they crawl away from their host plant to find a place to pupate.

Last year, I had Helichrysum petiolare 'Lemon Licorice' in my front flower boxes. American lady butterflies made use of that as a host plant too. Other plants they use include pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and some everlasting plants that are also known as cudweed (Gamochaeta spp.)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Thank You, Daniel — We Will Miss You

Yesterday, one of my garden writer friends lost a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. Daniel Gasteiger was a book author, a newspaper columnist, a blogger, a social media marketing consultant, and more than all that, he was an incredible human being. So many of us are mourning his passing right now and I wanted to share my own Daniel story. It's long, so be forewarned. It's actually done Daniel-style: he could never use ten words when twenty would do...

Every once in a while, someone comes along who stands out and makes a difference in your life. I met Daniel Gasteiger in person for the first time, at the Philadelphia Flower Show, six years ago.

Me, Daniel, and Shawna, at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2011.

First of all, I couldn't believe I was actually at the show. Shawna Coronado and I had been sent there courtesy of the Plastics Make It Possible group and we had an incredibly good time, while highlighting how plastics can have a place in the gardening world in a good way. Meeting Daniel was just icing on the cake.

Over the years, Daniel and I had some wonderful, serious, funny, fabulous conversations, mostly online, because he lived in Pennsylvania (on the east side) and I live in Ohio (on the west side). But now and then, we'd see each other at a garden event and you know how it is - it was like we had just seen each other yesterday.

Daniel took this photo of Shawna, Jenny, and me, when we were in
Tucson, AZ, for the Garden Writers Association annual meeting in 2012.

Daniel started this crazy thing where he'd say online how he sure wished he could meet me someday. Those who would read it would think we'd never met in real life. I had some people say to me, "You've never met Daniel in person before?" I'd explain the ruse, telling them that we'd actually met several times, and they'd look at me funny, like they didn't think it was really funny at all. But they just didn't get it and that didn't matter anyway. Daniel and I did.

Then the day came when I got a contract to write a book with Jenny Peterson. Neither Jenny nor I had ever written a book before and this was definitely uncharted territory for us. Daniel and I were both waiting for a flight in an airport somewhere I can't remember right now, and he congratulated me on the contract and we had a lengthy conversation about book writing.

I reviewed Daniel's book for Horticulture
magazine here.
Daniel had just published his fantastic book, Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too: The Modern Step-by-Step Guide to Preserving Food, the year before, and he had some sage words of advice about writing. Of all the things he said, the one thing that really stuck with me was this: "I wrote that book in three weeks."


Now seriously, people. If you've ever written a book, you'll know how insane that is. I know now that he was probably referring to the actual sitting down and putting it all together, using bits and pieces from his blog and newspaper articles and filling in whatever he needed to in order to produce a cohesive, proper tome, but dang. Three weeks.

Jenny and I wrote our book and while it took longer than three weeks, we were under a tight schedule and it was Daniel's inspiration that kept us motivated, giving us the confidence that we could do it. And we did. Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook For Houseplants was released on April 15, 2013.

Time went on and Daniel kept right on wishing he could meet me and I wished right back that I could meet him. Somewhere in there, he made plans to stop off at our house on the way home from Chicago and share supper with us. We were out of bread and though I don't remember now what it was we were having, we needed bread.

Since we live in the middle of nowhere and going to the store to buy some bread involves more than a quick car trip to the store and back, I texted Daniel, who was on his way, and asked if he could stop somewhere and get a loaf of bread. It just so happened, he had a loaf in his car. Doesn't everyone carry a loaf of bread in their car in case there's a bread emergency?

Daniel often camped out on his cross-country trips, so of course he had some bread, and he supplied it for our meal. And when he left, somehow the loaf of bread didn't go with him. So a loaf of bread got added to our, "I hope I can meet you someday" tete-a-tete of sorts: "And if I ever get to meet you, I'll bring a loaf of bread."
A few years went by and last year, I got another book contract - for The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly - this time writing solo. Once again, I was on a fairly tight schedule. It's a pretty well-known fact that I'm The Queen of Procrastination, but I was determined to set aside my title in order to get this book done without the stress and drama that goes along with procrastination. But you know what happened, don't you?

When I got home from the GWA meeting in Atlanta last September, I knew I really had to put my nose to the grindstone and crank that baby out. And Daniel once again came to mind. I had three weeks until my deadline and the bulk of the book had yet to be written. If Daniel could do it, so could I. So I shut myself up in an upstairs bedroom, looked at my husband and said, "See you in three weeks," and closed the door.

My bedroom office.

There's something to be said for shutting out the rest of the world and concentrating on a single task. I've always done my best work when I'm down to the wire and I'm forced to just do it. It isn't always that I don't like what I'm doing - I loved writing this book - it's just that a lot of the writing process for me happens in my head first. If things aren't organized a certain way in my head, I simply can't put it on paper.

The book got finished and yes, the bulk of it was written in those three-weeks-that-turned-into-four. I only left the house twice in that time. I was on a roll and woe be it to anyone who interrupted the flow of things. My husband was nothing short of awesome. A saint, really.

But I don't think I could have accomplished what I did had it not been for Daniel being there in the back of my mind, urging and encouraging me, though he didn't really know at the time. He truly was a huge driving force, especially as I battled bronchitis during that time and wanted to do nothing but sleep. He kept me focused.

I wanted to let Daniel know how much I appreciated him, so in the acknowledgements at the back of The Monarch, you'll see this:

When I got my copies of the book, I sent one to Daniel, telling him to be sure to see page 158. About a week later, I got this heartfelt note from him, which I will always treasure...

Click on image to make it larger and easier to read.

Daniel was an inspiration to many and it was pure joy to be in his presence. He had an energy that was compelling and you wanted to be a part of it. The best thing was - he let you. I hoped I would get to "meet" him again before this awful disease took him from us. But in the end, I'm grateful that our paths crossed at all, and that I was privileged to have him in my life, even if it was for such a short time. 

Rest well, Daniel.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Have You Ever? (The Garden Version)

There's a game that most of us have played at some point or another in our lives, most probably our younger lives. It's called, "Have You Ever?" and it's a way to find out things about your friends that you might not have known before. If they tell the truth, that is.

For example, you might ask something like, "Have you ever smoked a cigarette in your high school during school hours?" or "Have you ever eaten a booger?" You know, stuff like that.

That could be a fun game to play in the garden, too. For your entertainment pleasure, file these questions away for your next get-together with your garden buddies.

Have You Ever...

  • ...nurtured a weed, thinking it was a flower?
  • ...grown a plant on the Invasive Species List?
  • ...planted a fragrant plant in your garden for the sole purpose of rubbing your hands on it and smelling them once in a while?
Helichrysum italicum is commonly known as curry plant, although it's
not edible. It just smells like curry powder. I plant this one just to rub its leaves.

  • ...used your bypass pruners to dig a hole?
  • ...planted a full sun plant where it got shade for most of the day, thinking a couple of hours of direct sun would be enough, only to find out it wasn't?
  • ...planted a tree too close to your house?
  • ...killed a plant that everyone else you know can grow without even trying? Multiple times?

Johnny jump-ups hate me.

  • ...moved the same plant more than twice?
  • ...temporarily hidden plant purchases behind or under shrubs so your significant other wouldn't notice that you'd bought more plants?
  • ...bought way more seeds than you could ever plant in a lifetime?
  • ...helped yourself to seed pods from the hotel's landscaping while on vacation?
  • ...felt guilty for thinning seedlings and sorry for the ones you pulled out?

You get the idea. We all break the rules now and then, because gardening rules beg to be broken, even if we don't break them on purpose.

By the way, yes, "I have ever" done ALL of the above. I'll bet you could add a few questions of your own for this game. C'mon... fess up in the comments! 🙃

Sunday, May 28, 2017

WEEKEND WISDOM: A "Tendon"cy for Uniqueness

A few years ago, I decided to do a fun bloggy thing in that I would share quirky and interesting information I came across while looking for other things. It may or may not have anything to do with gardening. I called this feature "Weekend Wisdom." I got distracted (a normal occurrence in my life) and I didn't do this on a very regular basis. Now it's the weekend and I just found something I want to tell you about.

Photo credit: Unknown
The human body is an amazing thing and I'm always thrilled to learn new and wonderful things about it that I didn't know before. The untapped potential alone for new and wonderful things is enough to make my mind explode. Here's the latest...

It seems that there is yet another thing that some of us have and some of us don't. There are supertasters - those people who have taste receptors that other people are missing. There are supersniffers too. (Lucky me, I'm both.) And now, it seems that some of us are missing some other body parts.

In your forearm, there is (or isn't) a particular muscle/tendon - the Palmarus longus. You can see if you have it or don't have it by touching you thumb to your pinky finger and then flexing your wrist. If you see a cord of tissue sticking up, that's your Palmarus longus. If the inside of your forearm remains pretty smooth and flat, you're in the approximately 15% of the population that doesn't have it.

I've got it...

My husband does not.

I wonder if either of our two girls are missing theirs. It can be missing on one arm and present on the other, and its general shape can vary as well.

The cool thing about this muscle, which is largely considered to be vestigial, is that it can be used to replace tendons in other parts of the body.

My husband now thinks he's more highly evolved than I am.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Trip to Mexico, A New Book, and This Blog

Goodness, look at the time! The last time I posted to my poor, neglected blog was at the end of January, when I was trying to grow an avocado plant from the pit inside one I'd received in a Blue Apron shipment. So much has happened since that time - unfortunately, that doesn't include a new avocado plant - that I don't know if I'll ever get caught up writing about it all, but you've got to start somewhere, right?

I wrote my latest book during the fall and early winter, and that involved some pretty intense writing time. Here's how I did it...

I literally holed up in a bedroom and did nothing but write, research, and write and research, for four straight weeks. The bulk of my book got written in that time, with many other small writing sessions and lots of editing in the weeks that followed that writing marathon.

For some odd reason, I tend to write better and am more prolific when I'm under pressure and there's nothing like a looming deadline to provide that. With a project as large as writing an entire book all by yourself (my first one - Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook for Houseplants - was with co-author and friend, Jenny Peterson), concentration and staying on task is paramount and there's no one more easily distracted than I am. Thus, pretty much shutting myself off from the outside world was the only way I was going to accomplish everything I needed to do to get that book out the door.

My bed was my desk for weeks.

After I got home from the GWA (Garden Writers Association) Annual Symposium in Atlanta last September, I looked at Romie as I headed into the bedroom which became my office, and said, "See you in three weeks," and went to work. That three weeks became four.

Jenny and Brett Davis
November 5, 2016
During that time, I got bronchitis and sure didn't feel like writing, but the book didn't care. So I slept and wrote and slept and wrote, and took my antibiotics. I got well enough to travel to Texas to see Jenny get married and visit a couple of other friends, Diana Kirby and Pam Penick, only to return home and contract pneumonia. Romie joined me in that fun. Not the trip to Texas. The pneumonia.

Then it was Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and then book editing with both St. Lynn's Press editor, Cathy Dees, and Art Director, Holly Rosborough. Just when that was almost finished, Romie and I went off to Mexico, chasing monarchs, but not before I had another bout with bronchitis. I have to think stress had something to do with my less-than-stellar immune system, which has never been all that fantastic since I had bacterial meningitis in 1999.

Overwintering monarch butterflies cluster on the oyamel fir trees at
El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico.

By the time we got back from Mexico in early March, last minute book editing was the order of the day and then the book was finally off to the printer, in time for its release date of April 12th. The book has enjoyed the position of #1 Hot New Release on Amazon, off and on, ever since its release was first announced back in August, but nearly always has held that spot in the month prior to April 12th and in the month since. It has also received 21 5-star reviews so far on Amazon, and some very positive reviews on blogs. I'm grateful.

So, with my next post, which WILL be within the next week, I'll just dig right in and start telling you about the events I've attended, the gardens I've visited, the new (to me) garden products I've tested, and of course, that fabulous trip to Mexico. I promise.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Grow Your Own Avocados

Wow, was this ever a throwback to my college days. Back in the days of macrame, yogurt makers, and prayer plants - otherwise known as The Seventies - homes, apartments, and dorm rooms everywhere could be seen with this sitting on their window sills:

It was ever so cool to grow your own avocado plant from a pit found inside one you'd gotten at the grocery store. I did it, my friends did it, and I'm betting some of you did it too. I honestly don't remember if I was successful at actually getting that thing to germinate or not, but I tried.

With the trade situation with Mexico kind of up in the air right now, there's been a lot of talk about what things are likely to go up in price if things change. Avocados and limes are mentioned, as is Corona beer and tequila. I can live without all of them, but each one enjoys popularity here in the U.S.

So, about this growing your own avocado thing . . .  Even if I can manage to get this avocado pit to germinate, it's highly unlikely that I will be able to grow an avocado tree that produces any fruit.

First of all, I don't live where avocados would be happy. They're hardy in USDA Zones 8-11 and I'm in Zone 5b, though I do have a greenhouse and they also make excellent house plants. Secondly, even if I can keep it happy, it can take from 4-13 years for an avocado tree to bear fruit. Some trees never do yield anything.

When I cut open an avocado last week and saw that pit, it took me back (sing it with me now . . . "You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest,") and I kind of wanted to try it again. What did I have to lose?

If you want to try it too, it couldn't be easier. Just clean the avocado pit, let it dry, then poke toothpicks into it to suspend it over a jar of water, with the fat side down. Place it in a warm spot and keep the water level so that its bum is submerged. In about 2-6 weeks, you should see both a root and a stem sprouting. At that point, be sure it's in a well-lit location.

As it grows, once the stem reaches 6-8 inches, prune it in half to induce branching. Once it has started to branch, you can plant it in a container of well-draining potting soil. Be sure to leave the top part of the pit exposed, similar to how you plant an amaryllis bulb.

Don't overwater, but don't let it dry out completely. In the summer, you can put it outside, where it will likely grow faster, but make sure to bring it in once temperatures dip below 45°F.

Far out, man.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Honey From Hungary - Selyemkóró Méz

While I was doing research for my new book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, I came upon milkweed honey. Hmm. I didn't think I'd ever seen that anywhere around here. And it turned out that all the information and photos I could rustle up on it, with one exception, were from Hungary.

Really? From one small country on the other side of the world? I wondered why Hungary had the corner on milkweed honey. I tried to see if I could somehow purchase some and have it sent here, but I had no luck with that.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is highly attractive to many
pollinators, including honey bees.

I talked with my go-to bee man, Jamie Walters, and he explained to me how any kind of flavored (called unifloral or varietal) honey earns the right to be labeled as a specific kind. He said you need approximately a 5-acre (or more) field of a single flower for the bees to forage in, for a honey to be considered a unifloral. Just how many large fields of milkweed have you seen lately?  Exactly.

Further research told me that in order to bear a label of a specific honey flavor, only 51% of the honey in the container has to be that kind, so be aware of this when buying varietal honeys.

Jamie does know someone not that far from us who has a milkweed field, and this summer he's going to take his bees there so he can produce some milkweed honey. I plan to go with him when he takes them, so stay tuned for that adventure!

A breakthrough

In the meantime, my childhood next-door neighbor and partner in crime, Kelly Gunderman Beahrs, private messaged me on Facebook, saying she knew someone who might be able to help in securing some of this Hungarian milkweed honey.

To make a long story short, I now have in my hands, a jar of it, which made a really roundabout trip to my house all the way from Hungary. (Hungary to U.K. to Texas to Ohio.) Now Kelly didn't have to do that, and her friend that helped didn't have to do that either, but I am ever so grateful that they did.

How does it taste? 

Prior to my tasting it, I'd read that milkweed honey was considered to be one of the most fragrant honeys of all, keeping that fragrance for a long period of time. It is slower to form sugar crystals and the flavor is high on the list of preferred taste by many.

Since the elusive milkweed honey had come so highly touted, I wondered if I would be in for a letdown when I was finally able to taste it. Not at all. It is indeed highly fragrant, as are the flowers from which it is made. It has the usual taste of honey with a hint of something I can't quite put my finger on yet, and it also has a bit of a bite to it, though that's not offensive at all. I've read that it mellows somewhat, with age.

I'm a supertaster, so I might detect flavors that others may not, so if you have the occasion to taste some milkweed honey for yourself, and decide that it merely "tastes like honey," I would not doubt your opinion. In the end, I love it, as I do most honeys. I am indebted to Kelly and her crew for making it possible to try it firsthand.

The questions burning in my mind now are these:

  • Why is Hungary seemingly the only country to produce milkweed honey commercially?
  • Why don't we produce it in the U.S., since milkweed is a native North American plant? 
I did a little research, and found that the agriculture industry is a very important part of Hungarian culture, due to the climate and soil conditions, which in turn, makes it favorable for beekeeping. Hungary, while only occupying slightly less than one per cent of the land area of all of Europe, supplies 10% of the honey to the continent and contributes 5% to the world honey trade. (2009 statistics)

Map source

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was introduced to Europe as an ornamental in 1629 and was first found in Hungary in 1736. It grows well in the Hungarian sandy soil and has established itself in those areas. (Great Hungarian plain, parts of Transdanubia, and county Bács-Kiskun.) It can have a long bloom time (June-September) in Hungary when the weather is hot and humid.

A drawback of milkweed, which is one reason beekeepers may stay away from utilizing it, is that the  bloom, by its anatomical design, is known to occasionally trap a honey bee by the leg. Bee deaths or loss of legs can occur, although reports I read said that bee loss is very minimal.

Overall, milkweed is considered to be a good honey plant and one that many bees prefer, if given the choice. Growing milkweed for honey production can only be good for the monarchs, too.

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

  • Just last year, a Canadian cooperative, The Cooperative Monark, located in Quebec, has begun producing milkweed honey commercially, thought to be the first on the North American continent: "Milkweed Honey: A First in America".

  • A good article about the use of milkweed as a honey source can be found in Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping, posted online on August 23, 2016: "Milkweeds As Honey Plants" by Connie Krochmal.


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