Sunday, August 15, 2010


Milkweeds For Free

It all began with a long-delayed renovation of the front patio. This charming area had waited patiently for us to get around to routing out the weedy undergrowth of moss verbena, the forest of seedling Baja fairyduster, and the overwhelming black dalea for a couple of years - since Gary had finished the patio in fact. Finally last fall it was time, and I cut and pulled and pruned. We planted a few things that had either been taken up to make room for the stones, or that were in need of some relocation. It began to look like a real place. But the bed nearest the door needed work, it needed that ‘something’, that final touch that would make it all come together.

A friend suggested a big agave as a centerpiece of the bed. The centerpiece idea was good, but any agave large enough to do the design trick was too large for the spot. We mulled about a Hesperoyucca whipplei for a while, chiefly because there are three in the shade crying for a home in the ground but it just wasn’t right. Without warning, the solution came to us one evening, the desert milkweed.

This desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata) had been living in this spot by the walkway since before the walk was taken up and redone, before the wall was built, and long before the patio was finished. It was an old hand at our minimal watering scheme in the front, and it was so large that it needed to be cut back from time to get through to the front door. It was actually a little too close to the path, but then who was really in charge here anyway. But it would look splendid rising up out of those perennials a few feet over, more in mid bed than the edge.

Last November we dug a hole for it, dug it out, planted it in the ground, leaving the seedling it had produced in the middle of the path as insurance. We watered it, we coddled it and by the spring it was clear it was dead and not coming back. I left the stems much longer than necessary hoping for a miracle. Nothing.

We then dug up the insurance seedling, planted it more or less in the same spot and since it was smaller and younger we thought we had a great chance. Hah, since when have plants listened to our desires? It began to fade even more quickly than the other one, and although the sticks are still there in a vain hope that something will come from the root, it is clearly dead. The obliging black dalea covered up the corpse for us, and we haven’t had the heart to get rid of it yet.

And then, the plant rose up and showed us the way. One day this summer, as I went out to lay hoses around to water, I noticed a mass of small stems, with even tinier thread-like leaves at the edge of the bed. I was busy, it was early, we had morning chores to do, and I parked it in the back of my mind. The next day while getting the paper, I stopped to notice it, thinking that perhaps it was a wayward desert broom. To my amazement, it looked just like a desert milkweed, it was a desert milkweed, how could this be? Well, how would I know? but there it was, a 6-inch bunch of around two dozen stems full of leaves and vigor on the second day over 110, looking like a little chick that just emerged from its egg shelter.

It is in the original spot, the one that is too close to the path. Now the great quandary, move it again to the spot we would prefer - it clearly likes the heat, or leave it alone and cope with the endless pruning and pushing and cajoling that will be inevitable when it grows up. Can’t say that we know yet, it will take a bit of thinking to come to the right conclusion. But in the meantime, there it is, a chipper little reminder that even in the direst weather, some little life out there is content and happy.

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