Creating Habitat… One Plant at a Time

A newly emerged Monarch caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed 6.4.19

I can remember like it was yesterday… my dad and I had just completed a small pond project in his backyard.  After the last stone was put in just the right place, and the water started flowing once the pump was plugged in, we sat back and admired our work.  For the next few days, as I sat out in my parents’ backyard, chatting about this and that, it became obvious that we needed to add some plants to help put the finishing touches to this new water feature.

We had heard about a plant sale being hosted by a local garden club in Omaha and thought we’d give it a shot.  As we strolled through the myriad of Geraniums, Impatiens, Petunias, and other flowering annuals, we came upon a section of plants that weren’t in bloom.  At first glance, I didn’t notice anything noteworthy about these “not so pretty” plants, so I continued on to the next table.  But before moving on I noticed a tiny picture of a Monarch, sitting on a pink flower, printed on a small plant label that was attached to one of those “not so pretty ones.”  I decided to take a closer look.  Swamp Milkweed is what the label read.  Huh… Milkweed…  I had heard about how Monarch butterflies use Milkweed for their caterpillars’ food, but had never seen a Milkweed plant for sale before.  Despite being short and skinny plants, these Swamp Milkweeds looked really healthy, and the tag said they liked to grow in wetter soils in full sun.  “Bingo!”  I thought… these would work great around our pond.  So, I picked out three plants, and with a sense of curiosity, took them back to my parents’ backyard to plant.

I wasn’t too impressed with them at first.  After planting them, they grew slowly at first.  After a few weeks they grew really well, but didn’t produce any flowers.  In fact, the only color they seemed to sport was the yellowish orange hue from all of the Aphids that were feeding on the stems.

I had almost forgotten about these plants, but around late July, the following year, they started to flower and they smelled like vanilla to me.  Plus, there were several kinds of bees that I’d never seen before stopping by for a drink.  Lady Bug larva had found the Aphids and would make quick work of them… so much was going on in this small area around our pond.  But, it wasn’t until I spotted a black, yellow, and white stripped caterpillar hanging out on one of the Swamp Milkweed that I froze. I got lost in the moment… this chubby bug had my full attention and just like a child, I was full of wonder.  What to some might have seemed like a mere bug sighting, to me, was a “holy crap… it worked,” type of moment.  I hadn’t seen a single Monarch butterfly, nor did I even know what their tiny eggs looked like, but there was no mistaking that this was a Monarch caterpillar.  Questions started swirling… how did it get here?  Were there more?  How big do they get?  On and on it went, and then I spotted another one… and another.  Altogether, there were seven Monarch caterpillars munching on our Swamp Milkweed!

Needless to say, this initial experience with these Monarch caterpillars,  helped to awaken a passion in me that has lead me in learning about native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, trees, and the important connections they have with wildlife.  These often “looked over” or “misunderstood” plants are not truly the “ugly” ones… they are simply the “needed” ones.

When I’m asked about why I grow, sell, and landscape with native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees, the answer seems to surprise others.  What they’re most surprised about, is just how important native plants are.  When others discover that without them, our native insects, birds, and other critters wouldn’t have the habitat they need to survive, they get it.  What we plant matters… and it matters to so much more than we often realize. This realization is the beginning to discovering how we can each create a place for wildlife in our own outdoor spaces.

I’d love to hear your story about how you’ve learned about native plants and/or added them to your outdoor space to help create a place for pollinators, birds, butterflies, and other critters. If you’re new to native plants, and the role they play in creating habitat, we’d love to help answer questions and lead you to just the right plants for your space.

Creating habitat… one plant at a time. It’s that simple! Happy planting!

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