Breaking Open?

The other day, my granddaughter excitedly pointed out a flitting butterfly. In her fourth year, she has many, many years ahead of her and hopefully many, many butterflies. I look forward to showing her the butterflies that flock to the fragrant blossoms of the native Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) by the nursery. I want hers to be a butterfly-rich world.

Butterflies demonstrate transformed Life. As a result of the waiting process and the breaking open of the chrysalis, something new and beautiful emerges. The butterfly is a symbol of Easter. Easter, coming up on Sunday, commemorates the breaking of Christ’s body and then the breaking open of the tomb—the triumph of Life over Death.

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) with Swallowtail

It’s easy to look around in our world and see Brokenness everywhere. Earlier this week, I heard two authors speak. Climate change activist Bill McKibben spoke about his book, Falter. Like an Old Testament prophet, he seeks to jolt us into action on climate change despite mourning our losses. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has also written a new book, The Second Mountain. In it he says, when hard times come, you are either broken, or you are broken open. Either you become embittered or you become a better person, focused less on yourself and more on serving others.

Can the Brokenness in our world break us open so that we value butterflies and small children enough to creatively and lovingly protect each other and our precious planet? A butterfly is a symbol of hope, New Life. What effects can gentle wing beats have on the universe?

I don’t know what far-reaching effect a small act like planting a native shrub for the sake of the butterflies (and my grandchildren) will have, but it makes me a better human.

And now the shameless commercial for a natural product I believe in: Support our butterflies (and maybe support a local nursery) by providing food in the form of their favorite native plants. Fragrant native Mock Orange flowers provide nectar; they grow on a large deciduous shrub—10-12 feet tall–and nearly that wide! They bloom in early to mid-summer. Drought-tolerant Mock Orange loves the sun and thrives in the most exposed locations, with very well-drained sandy soils. Our summers are very dry (and getting drier!), despite western Washington’s reputation for rain. Most of our natives, unless they are strictly wetland plants, are drought-tolerant to a certain extent, but Mock Orange is a standout in the drought-tolerant category. But it will also do fine with some moisture in the soil or in partial shade. Its fantastic-smelling white flowers are enjoyed by Swallowtails and other butterflies. Birds eat the seeds.  It grows quickly; its vigorous root system will help stabilize soil on a slope.

Advertisements

Love among the Oemlaria

I’ve been as busy as the birds and the bees, sexing Indian Plums (Oemlaria cerasiformis). Eew! You say! What kind of twisted mind does this woman have? Really, it’s not what it sounds like! There is a practical reason for this behavior. You see, Indian Plum is dioecious; male and female flowers are found on separate plants. I am marking blooming Indian Plums in the nursery with tags noting which sex each is, so we can send them out two by two, enabling passionate plum production. Birds love the fruit and distribute the seeds.

The Indian Plums have been waiting; always one of the early bloomers, they were already beginning to unfold their flower clusters at the end of January, preparing to light up the woods like chandeliers, before Mother Nature wrecked the fun with six weeks of serious winter. 17 inches of ice and snow set back love among the Oemlaria. But the last few weeks, they have been strutting their stuff.

Both male and female plants have graceful, dangly greenish-white flower clusters. At the base of each flower in the cluster is a roundish “receptacle”. The male receptacle is empty; the female receptacle holds ovaries resembling future berries. Pollination between the two sexes enables fruit to form. Pollination only happens when the twosome becomes a threesome; an insect (moth, butterfly, bee) or hummingbird joins in the fun. Par-tay!

The easiest way to determine the gender of a blooming Indian Plum: Tweak off one of the tiny open blossoms. Using your thumbnails, vertically divide the flower in half so you can see it in cross-section. Is the “receptacle” at the base of the flower hollow? Then it’s a male plant.

Is the “receptacle” full of five tightly packed, teardrop-shaped pistils (the round part of the pistil is the ovary)? Yes? Female! Tah-dah! Now you, too, can impress friends, relatives and future mates with your arcane blossom-sexing skills!

Once you have shredded enough blossoms, you literally “get a feel” for which flowers are male (squishier) and which are female (fatter, firmer, lumpier). Destruction is no longer necessary; a gentle squeeze at the base of the flower suffices.

After learning what to look for, you can look into the depths of a flower and recognize the male features – showy yellow balls of pollen above deep-green space (this is a male flower pictured)– and female attributes – just-discernible, waxy, light green ovaries at the base of the pistils.

Read more about Indian Plum on our blog: Habitat Heroes