The time my special little garden struck gold

Story by Schroeder Wilson

You would never use the word “spacious” to describe my special little garden. We call it a special garden, because you cannot see the miniature garden from the street. It is only visible when you’re on the front porch. It is a space between the L-shaped sidewalk and the house … sort of an afterthought of the builder, and not good for much. That little patch of soil was walked by every time anyone went in the front door. It was probably the most conspicuous 3-by-4-feet place around. If Oklahoma is a fly-over state then this little rectangle bit of garden was a walkover garden, but a pretty one.

Since it wasn’t that big or deep, it had problems holding any amount of compost or plants. We fixed part of the problem by laying bricks on their sides to build a little wall around the space to hold a bit of compost. But there still wasn’t much area to be had for gardening.

It was around the first of June in 2017 when I noticed something green on the southern side of the little garden’s brick border, next to the driveway. Yes, the space would be correctly called the crack between the concrete driveway and the bricks, not exactly a prime location for any plant. But some little warrior of a plant was trying to make this little location a home. There had to be some rich soil somewhere down in those cracks.

There was no problem identifying this volunteer, its foliage was a dead giveaway. The lanceolate leaves were long and fuzzy with strong white midribs. This plant was definitely going to be some type of Asclepias, but from where? And to be totally honest, this wasn’t going to be that difficult of an answer. All you had to do was remember what milkweed had been growing nearby the year before. And the only asclepias growing in the vicinity that year was ‘Silky Gold’ tropical milkweed (A. curassavica ‘Silky Gold’). 

‘Silky Gold’ had been quite content, growing in a large container blooming those lush delicious clusters of nectar-rich yellow gold flowers. The tropical milkweed is most desirable to the hungry caterpillars of monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars will eat no other plants, only milkweed. Those youngsters may be picky eaters, no doubt about it, but they have no problem with robbing a plant of its tender leaves. They will eat the plant down to its bare stems, naked without a hint of foliage. Some say that those nice tender long leaves are one of the reasons the caterpillars love this particular milkweed. Those leaves are not only desired for the caterpillars’ enormous appetites but also for the roughness of that fuzzy milkweed foliage. It is that roughness that makes it easier for the eggs and chrysalises to cling to the plant, a nice feature for the survival of the species. But if your milkweed does get eaten bare to the stem, the best thing to do is to cut it back. Don’t worry, it will resprout and regain its former glory quickly. 

As a gardener, I wondered if this location was going to be comfortable for a rather tall (30-36 inches) sun worshipper. For that matter, I was worried if such a tight location could support any plant for very long with limited sun exposure. This tiny plot of land received maybe six hours of good light. Heat would not be a problem – the area was surrounded on three sides by reflecting concrete and the back was the brick garage. Talk about heat! But milkweed has no problems with high temperatures; this tropical is a native of South America. It laughs in the face of triple-digit temperatures.

Sure enough, ‘Silky Gold’ was a little elongated, stretching for sunshine, but it bloomed and bloomed until the first frost. But even that didn’t totally kill the plant. Sure it got hit hard, but the plant resprouted from the base. The regrowth was fast and it tried to rebloom several times until the final hard killing frost. It might have been that extra shelter from the garage that prolonged its life span. Unfortunately this particular milkweed isn’t perennial in Oklahoma, but it’s definitely a fighter.

Those lovely golden flowers are followed by long narrow seedpods (3-4 inches long). These will split open when ripe, releasing silky tailed seeds for dispersal by wind. So before the big opening, capture the ripening seed heads and allow the pods to dry. Break open the pods and collect the seeds. Clean and store the seeds for next season. You are just helping Mother Nature by putting those little seeds in your garden instead of a crack in the driveway. They can reseed, that we know. I just had never seen the ‘Silky Gold’ volunteer grow in my garden, except that one in the driveway’s crack. This gardener was a just a substitute for the wind.



Monarchs & More!

Nectar-rich milkweed feeds more than just monarch butterflies. To name just a few Lepidoptera that might be found in your milkweed patch: eastern tiger swallowtail, giant swallowtail, painted ladies, pipeline swallowtails, and queens.

A male eastern tiger swallowtail and a bumblebee share this common milkweed flower. Photo by Diane Beyer.

And let’s not forget the hummingbirds, even if they are not butterflies. So include several milkweed species in your garden and sit back and watch the action. 

Article feature image: ‘Silky Gold’ milkweed photo by Dana Dobias.

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