Scythes vs. dog-strangling vine

by Sandy Garland

Tuesday-in-the-woods day and my trusty crew of Catrina, Mirko, and Kate arrived right on time. Unfortunately, it looked like rain, so we stayed around the centre for a while watering (the plants that don’t get rained on) and potting up more seedlings: Gray Goldenrod and Upland White Goldenrod.

As the sky cleared a bit, we sharpened the scythes and set off for the field north of the woods to do battle with dog-strangling vine (DSV). This week, DSV was over two feet tall and mostly blooming. (Remember, the goal is not to let it set seed.)

Mirko and Catrina cutting DSV along the road north of the Old Woodlot

Mirko and Catrina cutting DSV along the road north of the Old Woodlot

We worked around the damp Red Osier Dogwood/Tamarack field, cutting around large clumps of goldenrod and along the narrow grassy area between the shrubs and the road (photo above). We’ve found that goldenrod competes with DSV somewhat, so we try to give this native species an advantage by damaging its competition (photo below).

Catrina scythed DSV around these clumps of goldenrods, while I pulled any DSV plants left at the edges and the few plants in the middle.

Catrina scythed DSV around these clumps of goldenrods, while I pulled any DSV plants left at the edges and the few plants in the middle.

Tiny Common Milkweed sprouts; hopefully we'll have a field full by the time Monarch butterflies arrive later this month.

Tiny milkweed sprouts; hopefully we’ll have a field full by the time Monarch butterflies arrive later this month.

In the milkweed field (still north of the woods but east of the centre trail), we again cut DSV along the road. In that field, a group of amazing high school students dug up a large area of DSV several weeks ago and planted Common Milkweed seeds, which are now sprouting. They turned the turf upside down on top of more DSV to double the damage and put down a tarpaulin south of the milkweed patch, in hopes of killing DSV there as well.

Questions we hope to answer

How many times do we have to cut DSV in various areas to keep it from setting seed? Will grass grow back faster than DSV, shading it and making it weaker? How effective is digging up the layer of sod that contains DSV roots? How effective is it to put down a thick layer of mulch after cutting DSV – a possible solution around shrubs?

Names of plants

False Solomon's Seal

False Solomon’s Seal

The woods are looking very lush this week as spring wildflowers take their turn adding splashes of colour to the shades of green. False Solomon’s Seal is still in bloom, as are wild Red Columbines and persistent pink ones that arrived many years ago in someone’s fall leaves.

Red Columbine

Red Columbine

Starry Solomon's Seal (right), just finished blooming and Canada Anemone just starting

Starry Solomon’s Seal (right), just finished blooming and Canada Anemone just starting

Interesting sightings
Dozens of Red Admiral caterpillars are eating their way through the nettles in the woods (below left). And Mirko found this tiny (2 cm diameter) mushroom growing in some mouldy wood chips (right).


On Raising Monarchs

by Julia Cipriani

Monarch egg. Photo by Julia Cipriani

Monarch egg. Photo by Julia Cipriani

I have been a number one admirer of the Monarch butterfly for a very, very long time. I find their mid-June arrival in Canada and their September journey to return to their over-wintering grounds in the mountains where the Oyamel fir trees grow in Mexico awesome in the truest sense of that overused and misused word. Many people are infatuated with the monarch. Organizations use the symbol of the monarch quite freely to demonstrate their “celebration” of nature.

In the late 1980s I started collecting the eggs and young larvae which I found on the roadside milkweed in late June. I used window screens salvaged from a flea market to create a shelter on the deck of the cottage where I spent part of my summer. I stuffed the host milkweed plants into bottles and replaced the food as the plants dried out or as the larvae munched through them. Sometimes this involved moving the rapidly growing larvae from the plant which was drying to the new plant.

This is easy to do if you can gently persuade the caterpillar to move over to the new plant. If that does not work, you can break the leaf off the plant the larva is on and lay the leaf on the new plant.

Often the mature caterpillars escaped the shelter. The chrysalis formed in sight and out of sight. If the adult butterfly hatched in the shelter, I opened the screen to allow it to fly when it was ready to take its leave. I introduced the monarch’s life cycle to anyone who showed any interest. A couple of neighbours started raising the eggs and larvae.

I have not had access to that cottage for many years. It is only in the past few years that I have again found and provided shelter for the larvae, using a small cage I created to contain the larvae and to provide a place for the mature larvae to anchor the chrysalis on the roof of the shelter.

This summer I found 10 young larvae on the re-grown milkweed along the mowed side of a road near the same cottage where I used to spend summers. I assume they were the newborns of the first arrivals. I brought them back to Ottawa on the collected plants where I found them. Then I found a few more larvae at another site. Not all of the larvae made it. One died during one of the caterpillar’s instars. One chrysalis fell during the transformation from larva to chrysalis. I released 10 adults in 2014 – 3 females and 7 males.

Until this spring, the host plant of the monarch – Common Milkweed – was on the noxious weed list in Ontario as it is poisonous to some grazing farm animals. Gardeners ripped the milkweed plants out of their gardens and lawns. Herbicide spraying by farmers using Roundup in order to get rid of the milkweed growing on the edges of their fields and along the roadsides of their property also reduces food sources for monarchs. Secondary roads in Quebec and Ontario are mowed regularly during the summer months to control weeds. This practice also removes the Common Milkweed plants upon which the butterflies lay their eggs or kills the feeding larvae.

I see myself as positively interfering with nature. I can easily rationalize my gathering of eggs and larvae as a very small attempt to mitigate some of the damage done on a much larger scale. Raising monarchs from egg or from young larvae is a five to six week long commitment. Please do not even consider collecting the eggs and larvae if you are not willing to tend to them. You need to provide fresh milkweed daily during the 2 week larval stage. I do not collect all the larvae I find, leaving some to mature in their natural habitat. After 10 days in the chrysalis, the adult emerges, pumps fluid into it wings, rests for about a day and then needs to be released to forage, mate and, if a female, to lay eggs.

For a few summers I volunteered in the Fletcher Monarch Way Station. I was delighted to participate in creating a butterfly-friendly environment full of leaves to munch or nectar to sip. It is vital to have chemical-free habitats for monarchs and all of the other creatures who occupy the meadow.

Diane Lepage has done an amazing job of organizing and overseeing the transformation of the area. She welcomes volunteers for the Wednesday evening Butterfly Meadow group. Fighting the Dog-strangling Vine is a hard but essential task. Not only does the plant choke out native sources of food for pollinators, sometimes Monarch larvae hatch upon DSV when the female adult monarch mistakes the plant for milkweed. The larva die because they cannot digest DSV.

Please check the Fletcher website if you are interested in supporting the Butterfly Meadow team.

Immature larva by J Cipriani

Immature larva by J Cipriani

Mature larva on Common Milkweed by J Cipriani

Mature larva on Common Milkweed by J Cipriani

Preparing to hang by J Cipriani

Preparing to hang by J Cipriani

Fresh chrysalis by J Cipriani

Fresh chrysalis by J Cipriani

On the verge of hatching by J Cipriani

On the verge of hatching by J Cipriani

Pumping fluid into wings by J Cipriani

Pumping fluid into wings by J Cipriani

Mature male Monarch enjoying life! by J Cipriani

Mature male Monarch resting before taking wing by J Cipriani



Nature Olympics : Long Distance Track and Field

In honour of the summer Olympics, we thought we’d profile a few of our own natural athletes – the fauna that can be found in Ontario present some incredible contenders! If Mother Nature was to pit some of her sports players against humans, we suspect our multi-legged and feathered friends would be the ones winning all the cereal endorsements.

Long-distance track and field is where some of nature’s athletes excel. Of course, rather than a single-day event, these sports are essential to the ongoing survival of the species – a perfect impetus to excel at endurance movement! Continue reading

Monarchs make the news

Monarch Butterfly on Common Milkweed, photo by David Hobden

Pollinators are numerous and varied, but a segment that for the media comprises predominately butterflies or bees. Monarch Butterflies are well-known as the poster child for pollinators, only recently having to fight it out with the cute and furry Bumblebee for facetime on pollinator topics. However, the plight of the Monarchs remains: as a migratory species dependent upon very specific plants to complete its lifecycle, this is a very vulnerable butterfly to climate change and land conversion.

The Toronto Star published an article this weekend on the plight of the Monarchs, and made mention of some initiatives to encourage people to create pollinator gardens. Fletcher’s own Monarch Waystation Project (and waystations in general) wasn’t covered, but we’re always happy to see how important Monarchs are to people across Canada. Apparently, Monarchs made it to Calgary which is a first in recorded history! The biggest issue of Monarchs reaching even further destinations is that they cannot find sufficient food sources or larval host plants. This is a greater issue in the Prairies where grazing lands preclude introducing Common Milkweed nearby as it is poisonous to livestock. Thus, urban centres will become some of the most important habitat areas for migrating Monarchs. Continue reading

Growing Common Milkweed – Experimenting from seed and transplants

by Sandy Garland / FWG

As part of our Monarch Waystation project, we’re trying to learn everything we can about growing milkweeds, especially Common Milkweed. Common milkweed bloomingDespite the fact that it’s often viewed as a weed, it’s surprisingly hard to grow.

We prepared seeds of both Common and Swamp Milkweed by putting them in the refrigerator in damp vermiculite for a couple of months over the winter. We also scattered seeds outside – in a home garden and at the FWG.

But the germination rate for Common Milkweed has been only about 12-15% – much lower than for swamp milkweed (67%). As far as I can tell, none of the seeds sown outdoors has germinated.

Meanwhile, several people have also donated milkweed plants to the FWG, and we’ve had great success with those. Most of the ones we put in last fall survived the winter. See photos here.

Transplanted milkweedsAt the beginning of June, I planted 6 donated plants in a new area near Prince of Wales Drive. Although they were surrounded by dog-strangling vine, planted in the hardest, most inhospitable soil, and never watered, they are all still alive and thriving (see photo at right).

According to the experts, Common Milkweed likes to grow in disturbed areas. I think that means it’s easy to establish, but what are the implications for the long term? Do we have to dig up these areas every few years and replant?

One other experiment we are going to try is cutting some plants back (to about half their height) in the next week or so, now that they’ve finished blooming and again in early August. That will cause fresh growth and young leaves for caterpillars – especially those that will become the adults that will make the journey south to Mexico this fall. We want to them to be as strong and healthy as possible!

What are you doing this Saturday? Why not help some pollinators!

Monarch caterpillar amongst the flowers of Common Milkweed

This Saturday, June 16th, from 9AM until 12:30PM marks our first public work bee at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden this season. We invite anyone interested in a little hard work and not afraid of getting dirty to come out and lend a hand. Bring a friend!

After meeting at the Interpretation Centre, we’ll head over to the Butterfly Meadow to plant over 2000 native plants beloved by local pollinators. As part of this work, we’ll be preparing planting sites by turning soil and using our fancy big manual sifters to remove Dog-strangling Vine (DSV) roots. Continue reading