Sunday, July 1, 2012

Luscious scents, beautiful flowers, odd pollinators

milkweed flower pickles
It's one of the best Canada Day weekends in memory! Warm but not roasting, lots of sun, and LOTS of milkweeds. Two weeks ago I blogged about cooking green milkweed flower clusters - delicious. I also pickled some flowers - this recipe at is for pods, but works equally well for green flower clusters.

We'll try them out tonight with our Canada Day dinner. I used the usual pickling vinegar, plus a spoonful of wildflower honey and some herbs from the garden. In another two weeks I should be able to harvest the young pods and pickle them too - as long as they are under 1.5 inches or about 3 cms long.

Buttefly milkweed early flowers and buds, High Park PG
Butterfly milkweed in full bloom
Today I'm celebrating three kinds of milkweed in bloom in our country pollinator garden. The flowers of Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, are in full gorgeous orange bloom today, but the picture I took about 5 days ago in our High Park Pollinator Garden caught an early moment in the opening of the blossoms when they look like the amazing Central American milkweed Asclepias curassavica with the colors reversed. I also planted seedlings in my city pollinator garden of the "Gay Butterflies" seed strain of butterfly milkweed which has bright gold and reds bred into it as well as the normal oranges. The seedlings were terribly puny, as well as the Purple Milkweed A. pupurascens I planted alongside, but hopefully in a year or two I can show you some of the range of colors available.Meantime, here's how the wild-type looks today.

"swamp" milkweed - a deeper pink plant
The next milkweed I want to celebrate (take a bow, please, A. incarnata) is the swamp milkweed. I've seen this rising up out of wet soil on little barrier islands of Georgian Bay, and it looks perfectly at home there and is the only milkweed to be found. I put seedlings into the very wet soil in my city pollinator garden pond, where they thrive, and in the merely continuously damp bog in that garden - where they thrive - but the pictures today are in the country pollinator garden with ordinary soil that bakes in the weeks between occasional waterings - where they thrive! That's why I always write the common name of this excellent garden plant as "Swamp" milkweed.

look hard to find honey bee and milkweed bug on this flower cluster
While Butterfly milkweed is golden-orange in nature, "swamp" milkweed varies between pale pink and fairly deep rose-red. Plant breeders haven't worked hard on this species, although they've produced the pure white cultivar "Ice Ballet".

Now normally, my butterfly or "swamp" milkweeds would be crowded with pollinators. But, the unusual weather this year has turned common milkweed Asclepias syriaca into a star. So many plants are blooming that a lush, heavily sweet fragrance hangs over the whole country garden in spite of the cool breeze from Lake Huron.

There are native bees,

honey bees and copper butterflies,


fritillaries and coppers (one large fritillary is so fast I have no picture but it chases any orange butterfly, whether a tiny copper or a big monarch, trying to force them out its milkweed patch!),

hummingbirds (same story - too fast, no pic) and ants and wasps and...

....this fly.

"Fly?" you say - "surely that's a wasp?" At a half a forefinger's length and jet black viewed from above, I thought the same thing at first - until I saw the over-chubby abdomen and the fly-like eyes and antennae. In fact, it's a Mydas fly - probably Mydas clavata, the Orange-Banded Mydas fly. 

Huge for a fly, these creatures look quite threatening but in fact can't sting. The one I saw visited many common milkweed flowers and drank repeatedly. Some references state that the adult fly catches other insects to eat but I saw no sign of this - just an apparently insatiable thrist for milkweed nectar.
Orange Banded Mydas fly Mydas clavata drinking milkweed nectar


  1. Thanks to a brilliant effort in publishing your article. One can be more informative as this. There are many things I can know only after reading your wonderful article.

  2. I've noticed the milkweeds in my area were very popular with a wide range of insects the past weeks as well.

    I'm wondering if the milkweeds signal the end of the main nectar flow for bees?

    Looking at the graphs of hive weight by Thomas Seeley, it would appear most nectar flows in the spring and fall. We usually notice a slow down in our hives by August.

    Is there just not enough Anise Hyssop planted in our area? Are there other native plants that would help sustain pollinators through the summer months?

  3. It's certainly possible that nectar flows are reduced now. It's the end of the tree blossoms, and native wildflowers peak in late summer. Anise hyssop is certainly a great plant for long bloom season - I planted it in the High Park pollinator garden but it hasn't done well this year (affected by the partial drought?).

    Monarda species are good for July but offer more support to long-tongued pollinators. Black-eyed Susans are blooming now in the fields, and shrubs such as summersweet (Clethra) and elder (Sambucus canadensis) are rich sources. My Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula) blooms now and will be followed soon by Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) and later in the month Ironweed (Vernonia).

    Interestingly, in northern Alberta where the Beaverlodge Station is located, nectar flows are strongest in July - see . This is probably due to clover and canola in agricultural areas. Although clover isn't native, neither are most of our lawn grass species, so I'd vote for urging lawns with light foot traffic to be made up of a much higher proportion of white clover, which also provides a natural source of nitrogen through it's symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This reduces the need for lawn fertilizer.

    I've looked for a native equivalent for white clover and haven't found it. Do any other readers have suggestions?


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