Cycles and Seeds

a. Californica (heartleaf milkweed) seeds being launched by the wind

This planet is so amazing. It is constantly humming, moving, creating, recycling – and we are all so interdependent. Watching the comet, Neowise, over the last several days very much makes one feel small and that everything we know, everything we do, is just one piece of an immense puzzle. Putting together a butterfly habitat is its own puzzle. The monarchs migrate, so they need ready nectar and milkweeds at a variety of times during their migration. This means that what you choose to plant must have a variety of growing and blooming times.

On the way to water Site 8, I checked on the heartleaf milkweed (a. californica) community closest to the house. They were mostly all gone. What had been a joyous discovery only two months ago, was either completely disappeared or small, wilting bushes, nearly dried out, with brown, crinkled branches lying just under the failing limbs of the once robust plant.

A heartleaf milkweed plant fully spent probably helped along to its current state by a gopher

As I find always with nature, where there is death, there is life. One a. californica was still vertical and in the process of releasing its seed. What a remarkable site! In May, they were just beginning to bloom. Last month, I saw seed pods begin to form. Now, they were dried, open and a carpet of fluff surrounded the plant and adjacent area. It was reproducing. I plan to trim the grass or graze the area hard in February next year. If there is no rain in March, I will water it with the rain water, and I will see if the plants grow.

I also helped the seeds along by picking up a handful and letting the breeze take them.

I turned my attention to looking at the leaves for any signs of a chrysalis. I got lucky – not that I found anything close to a butterfly chrysalis; I found an unopened seed pod! I remembered Ron (Milkweed expert) and I talking about these plants in May, and him saying he might want a pod to propagate the a. californica. Fortunately, it was not too late. I took a close look at the pod. There were what I think are some non-butterfly cocoons and some other items stuck to the pod. I harvested it, and have it inside for more observation. I left a message for Ron. If he no longer wants it, I will go back to the site when the pod fully dries, and attempt to sew the seeds throughout that area. I am not as good as he is by any stretch of the imagination. I won’t waste any seed trying to germinate them myself.

As the a. californica die back, the narrowleaf milkweeds are blooming. I have one blooming in Site 9 and one in Site 8. For a fantastic guide to what butterfly plants bloom and when so that you have a continuous supply of food, visit Xerces Society.

Site 8 is healthy despite the murderous rampage of the wild pigs. The three plants, two narrowleafs and one showy, left growing are doing well. I am still hauling water from the rainwater tanks. As the days get hotter more days in a row and the humidity drops, I get more nervous about driving on the grass. Fortunately, I have been extremely careful. I won’t go out if the humidity is too low, the wind is blowing, or the air is too hot. Also, the truck is very well maintained. There is nothing dragging or dripping. I am working on another solution. More on that in a different blog entry.

The Spring Creek is just barely producing now. Water movement is very, very light. There are, however, still a variety of wildflowers blooming. The bees are enjoying some of them. While watering the deer grass on the creek, I saw a disturbing site – a noxious weed, yellow star thistle – growing in the creek bank. I have not had it on the ranch before and can only guess that the rain events we’ve had, where we get several inches in an hour or within a few hours, are bringing seeds from other places to settle in my area.

A pile of weeded yellow star thistle with deer grass in background

Our former Agricultural Commissioner, Cathi Boze, was always educating on this weed and telling all the ranchers and ag people in her classes or at Farm Bureau meetings how awful it is and what programs were available to eradicate it. It is an invasive plant that is prolific and steals the moisture from native plants that flora and fauna rely on. It is also toxic to horses. You can see why yellow star thistle is a concern to both ag and naturalists.

Beyond providing ecological services on a ranch, such as butterfly-related plantings, there is the normal stewardship ranch owners/managers must provide to ensure the ground is as healthy as possible. Soil and grass are two critical elements that must thrive to produce a healthy food, fiber and/or habitat product. To prevent further spread, I pulled out the entire patch. I always bring/wear my leather gloves with me when I work outside. They are very needed for plants like thistle that have hard spikes. I think I pulled most before they seeded. I will keep a watch for more in that location, and throughout the rest of the ranch.

Not exactly the same spot, but you can orient by the flopped over dead tree in the upper right of the before image’s frame and in the upper left of the after image’s frame.

Ever since the week of the pig incident, the dogs have been extra vigilant as we approach this location. To honor the valued work of my fur babies, I will share some of what they do. They run ahead of me, circle the area with nose to the ground and in the air. They check out more ground that I can cover in the same amount of time. Once they are sure there are no pigs (or other threatening creatures in their opinion – which can include squirrels, ravens and pretty much anything else), they sit close by, watching as I work. In this next set of photos, Millie sits high above where I am working, guarding the area as I am engaged in pulling the thistle out. She takes her job very seriously and so do I.

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