Asclepias Tubersosa, Native Milkweed

The Asclepias tuberosa, a native milkweed, is the Garden Club of America’s “2014 Plant of the Year.”  This plant will be awarded the Montine McDaniel Freeman Medal on May 9, 2014 at the GCA Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Each year the medal is awarded to a native plant “that is under-utilized but worthy of preservation, propagation and promotion.”  A committee of nationally renowned horticulturists and experts in the nursery trade make the selection from the plants nominated by GCA members.

    (photo left by Carolyn Fannon and right by Thomas Muller)

The Asclepias tuberosa, a native to Texas and much of the United States, is a bushy perennial prized for the beauty of its large clusters of bright-orange flowers. The brilliant, long living flowers are a great addition to any landscape. Once established in a well drained, sunny location, it is long lived – around 20 years. The nectar attracts a wide variety of butterflies and countless beneficial insects and pollinators. However, its greatest value is serving as the larval host plant to the endangered monarch butterfly that migrates throughout much of the United States as it travels from Mexico to Canada each year. This plant is a perfect example of why some plants are critical to our landscapes well beyond their ornate qualities. People might confuse this plant with the tropical milkweed, A. curassavica, which is easy to propagate and commonly sold in most nurseries. 

Asclepias tuberose is at risk of extinction in some areas of the country although it grows in a wide variety of soils, thrives in less than ideal conditions, has a long bloom period, and does not spread aggressively or contain the milky sap of most milkweeds.  With raised public awareness of the environmental benefits and culture requirements, it is hoped that this trend can be reversed.

Propagation of this long taprooted plant can be a challenge since it does not do well in containers and the fresh seeds require a period of cool, damp stratification.  Packets of seeds can be found in stores and are widely available through mail order. You can sow seed in the fall or spring, but they need a season of cold weather before they will produce blooms.

Dr. Malcolm Vidrine, the author of The Cajun Prairie, shared his propagation techniques:

I do have suggestions for growing milkweeds in general based upon my experience in Louisiana.

1.)    Grow plants from wild or healthy stock collected as close to your location as possible--the typical mantra of less than 50 miles in radius is too far in my experience.

2.)   Seed collected can be stored in the refrigerator in dry paper until 6 weeks prior to planting (I do this for Mardi Gras celebration). Remove seed and cold moist stratify (cms) seed in damp sand for 6 weeks in the refrigerator prior to planting. When you remove the seed from cms and add water, the viable seed float--making them easy to remove with a spoon and plant in good potting soil (This is my Easter entertainment). Plant in protected area indoors for highest survival rate--seedlings appear as early as in one week. With the appearance of the true leaves (ca. 3 weeks), move the plants into much larger containers (I move them to 5-10 gallon pots with plenty of room for roots to develop) and grow them for one year. In the winter, you can move the plants to any suitable location. You can even divide the roots into pieces ca. 2 inches in length and multiply your plants. Be prepared to lose up to 50% of your plants due to a variety of stresses in moving them from one location to another.

3.)   I have 15 year old Asclepias tuberosa that can be dug up and propagated by root divisions as above. I have good luck rooting cuttings in early spring. So if there is a mature plant in your area, you can monitor it for seed or make spring cuttings for rooting (remove nearly all the leaves and any flower buds and bury ca. 3 inches into the soil) or dig a portion of its root system and grow plants from the root cuttings.

The combination of beauty, hardiness and environmental value make this a perennial plant that gardeners and naturalists across the country can grow with pleasure and satisfaction knowing they are helping not only the monarch butterfly population, but the beneficial insects and the countless birds and wildlife that depend on these insects for food. 

by Doris Durbin Heard

The Garden Club of Houston



The Growing Plant Song

This is the song that we sang about Plant Parts at the Children's Gardening Series on Sunday, February 9th. Sing it in your classroom or at home, it's fun!

What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is a method for growing food that combines aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). When practiced correctly, it is an entirely sustainable method that requires very little, if any, inputs. 

This is how it works: Fish, primarily tilapia in our area, are raised in a tank. Their waste products go through a passive filtration system that turns their waste, ammonia, into a useable product, nitrate. Meanwhile, the plants are placed in holes within a sort of floatable raft that lie ontop of 6 to 12 inches of water. The nitrate cycles with the water and feeds the plants. The left over water goes back into the fish tank and the whole process starts all over again. Farmers can harvest both the plants and the fish. 

Aquaponics is normally done in a controlled environment or greenhouse. It is perceived as having the benefits of hydroponics--no bugs and no pesticides--but unlike hydroponics is entirely sustainable because it does not require synthetic materials to provide nutrients for the plants. 

If you are interested in learning more, Urban Harvest has taught an Aquaponics class for the past two years in the Fall. Check our class schedule early next Fall for more information. Also, see our earlier blog entry about the Sustainable Harvesters

TAPE Recognizes Youth Education with a 2014 Crystal Award

[Austin, Texas] The Texas Association of Partners in Education (TAPE) is pleased to announce that Urban Harvest has been chosen as a recipient of the prestigious TAPE Crystal Award in the Partnership Program Service Learning category. This award distinguishes Urban Harvest as a leader in developing innovative educational partnerships. The Houston Independent School District Strategic Partnerships Department nominated Urban Harvest for the award.

Urban Harvest will also be featured in the 6th edition of TAPE's signature publication, Soaring to New Heights in Education: Powerful Partnership Practices in Texas, sponsored by Chevron.

TAPE provides leadership and expertise for schools, families, businesses and communities to build partnerships that enhance student success. By identifying award-winning partnerships, we are able to share best practices that positively impact student outcomes. 

UHI Executive Director, Sandy Wicoff, and Youth Education Director, Carol Burton, along with other award recipents were recognized at the TAPE Awards Luncheon and Annual Meeting on Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at the Austin Convention Center during the Texas Association of School Administrators' (TASA) 2013 Midwinter Conference.

"We have received local partnership awards in the past but to be recognized statewide is quite an honor," noted Burton. "This is an accumulation of our past ten years of teaching students how to grow their own food. We really owe this award to all of our garden educators, past and present."

Congratulations to all of our Garden Educators, past & present!

Edible Arbor Covers Provide Fruitful Alternative

By:  Suzy Fischer

Outdoor living anywhere in Texas during the summer can be beastly if there is no shady retreat. Trees often provide a cooling comfort, but many rely on overhead structures like vine covered arbors. Arbors can be covered with any of numerous ornamental vines, but edible alternatives have traditionally been limited to grapes, and then usually Muscadines.

While this year the Urban Harvest Fruit Tree Sale (visit UrbanHarvest.org, under support, for detailed information) we will offer two delicious bunching grapes, Blanc Du Bois and Black Spanish, you may want to consider some adventurous edible alternatives also available at the sale.

Passion Fruit

There are many varieties of ornamental passion fruit, all of which are capable of bearing fruit. But the vine grown for its tasty edible fruit is Passiflora edulis. At the 2014 sale we’ll offer the variety ‘Novack’s Purple Passion Fruit.’

Passion fruit’s fragrant flower makes it perfect selection for the ornamental garden, though it does double duty by producing deliciously sweet fruit.

Passion fruit is a shallow rooted, climbing vine that produces a self-pollinating, and fragrant flower two to three inches wide. The vigorous vine can be planted in partial to full sun with a generous cover of mulch to protect its shallow roots. Fruit ripens in the spring and turns from green to deep purple. It is eaten fresh or often juiced and compliments a number of sweet and savory dishes.

The vine is fairly frost resistant, but the occasional freezing back of this vigorous vine can be viewed as a maintenance plus.

Dragon Fruit

This climbing cactus not only offers a unique character to any simple structure, it stuns with its night-blooming white flowers that can be up to 14 inches in diameter. The red fruit are high in lycopene which is a natural antioxidant and is most often eaten chilled and cut in half so the flesh may be spooned out. Its juice also compliments a number of sweet and savory dishes.

When ripe, the fruit will come off the branch with a gentle pull. They will fall to the ground, however, the fruit is slightly better if picked before they fall. Protection is needed from winter freezes below 28 degrees

The varieties offered at the sale (American Beauty, Purple Haze, Zamarano) will produce fruit without hand or cross-pollination.

Photo by Treesearch Farms


Dragon fruit is a climbing cactus that offers a unique texture to vertical gardening and its flowers never fail to stun.

Tropical Raspberry

New to this year’s sale is ‘Mysore’ raspberry, a black, tropical raspberry. In my early community garden days, we planted a temperate raspberry variety, ‘Oregon 1030.’ Temperate varieties tend to succumb to fungal problems in our summer heat and humidity. It did a lot of spreading in the garden but never got above knee high. The fruit was juicy and sweet but not abundant. As a matter of fact, it never produced more than a handful of fruit that treated a few of the gardeners on a work day. Mysore has been a successful producer across the southern Gulf Coast states, including in the garden of our own Bob Randall. This year we found it in quantities large enough to offer at the sale.

Mysore is a large and rambling shrub, growing to 15 feet. Canes are covered with sharp thorns. A vertical growing technique allows you enjoy this plant without having a lot of urban acreage and you avoid reaching into a thorny bramble to harvest fruit. The plant fruits better and has a sweeter more distinct taste when grown in the shade. Harvest when the fruit is fully black and separates cleanly from the stem. 

Photo by Urban Harvest:

 Mysore raspberry will be offered for the first time in Houston at the Urban Harvest Fruit Tree Sale. Availability has been limited in the past, but in limited Houston trials it has been a big hit.


Suzy Fischer is a registered Landscape Architect and principal of Fischer Schalles, a landscape design/build firm. Contact her at suzyinthegarden@urbanharvest.org.

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