Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Trip to Mexico, A New Book, and This Blog

Goodness, look at the time! The last time I posted to my poor, neglected blog was at the end of January, when I was trying to grow an avocado plant from the pit inside one I'd received in a Blue Apron shipment. So much has happened since that time - unfortunately, that doesn't include a new avocado plant - that I don't know if I'll ever get caught up writing about it all, but you've got to start somewhere, right?

I wrote my latest book during the fall and early winter, and that involved some pretty intense writing time. Here's how I did it...

I literally holed up in a bedroom and did nothing but write, research, and write and research, for four straight weeks. The bulk of my book got written in that time, with many other small writing sessions and lots of editing in the weeks that followed that writing marathon.

For some odd reason, I tend to write better and am more prolific when I'm under pressure and there's nothing like a looming deadline to provide that. With a project as large as writing an entire book all by yourself (my first one - Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook for Houseplants - was with co-author and friend, Jenny Peterson), concentration and staying on task is paramount and there's no one more easily distracted than I am. Thus, pretty much shutting myself off from the outside world was the only way I was going to accomplish everything I needed to do to get that book out the door.

My bed was my desk for weeks.

After I got home from the GWA (Garden Writers Association) Annual Symposium in Atlanta last September, I looked at Romie as I headed into the bedroom which became my office, and said, "See you in three weeks," and went to work. That three weeks became four.

Jenny and Brett Davis
November 5, 2016
During that time, I got bronchitis and sure didn't feel like writing, but the book didn't care. So I slept and wrote and slept and wrote, and took my antibiotics. I got well enough to travel to Texas to see Jenny get married and visit a couple of other friends, Diana Kirby and Pam Penick, only to return home and contract pneumonia. Romie joined me in that fun. Not the trip to Texas. The pneumonia.

Then it was Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and then book editing with both St. Lynn's Press editor, Cathy Dees, and Art Director, Holly Rosborough. Just when that was almost finished, Romie and I went off to Mexico, chasing monarchs, but not before I had another bout with bronchitis. I have to think stress had something to do with my less-than-stellar immune system, which has never been all that fantastic since I had bacterial meningitis in 1999.

Overwintering monarch butterflies cluster on the oyamel fir trees at
El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico.

By the time we got back from Mexico in early March, last minute book editing was the order of the day and then the book was finally off to the printer, in time for its release date of April 12th. The book has enjoyed the position of #1 Hot New Release on Amazon, off and on, ever since its release was first announced back in August, but nearly always has held that spot in the month prior to April 12th and in the month since. It has also received 21 5-star reviews so far on Amazon, and some very positive reviews on blogs. I'm grateful.

So, with my next post, which WILL be within the next week, I'll just dig right in and start telling you about the events I've attended, the gardens I've visited, the new (to me) garden products I've tested, and of course, that fabulous trip to Mexico. I promise.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Grow Your Own Avocados

Wow, was this ever a throwback to my college days. Back in the days of macrame, yogurt makers, and prayer plants - otherwise known as The Seventies - homes, apartments, and dorm rooms everywhere could be seen with this sitting on their window sills:

It was ever so cool to grow your own avocado plant from a pit found inside one you'd gotten at the grocery store. I did it, my friends did it, and I'm betting some of you did it too. I honestly don't remember if I was successful at actually getting that thing to germinate or not, but I tried.

With the trade situation with Mexico kind of up in the air right now, there's been a lot of talk about what things are likely to go up in price if things change. Avocados and limes are mentioned, as is Corona beer and tequila. I can live without all of them, but each one enjoys popularity here in the U.S.

So, about this growing your own avocado thing . . .  Even if I can manage to get this avocado pit to germinate, it's highly unlikely that I will be able to grow an avocado tree that produces any fruit.

First of all, I don't live where avocados would be happy. They're hardy in USDA Zones 8-11 and I'm in Zone 5b, though I do have a greenhouse and they also make excellent house plants. Secondly, even if I can keep it happy, it can take from 4-13 years for an avocado tree to bear fruit. Some trees never do yield anything.

When I cut open an avocado last week and saw that pit, it took me back (sing it with me now . . . "You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest,") and I kind of wanted to try it again. What did I have to lose?

If you want to try it too, it couldn't be easier. Just clean the avocado pit, let it dry, then poke toothpicks into it to suspend it over a jar of water, with the fat side down. Place it in a warm spot and keep the water level so that its bum is submerged. In about 2-6 weeks, you should see both a root and a stem sprouting. At that point, be sure it's in a well-lit location.

As it grows, once the stem reaches 6-8 inches, prune it in half to induce branching. Once it has started to branch, you can plant it in a container of well-draining potting soil. Be sure to leave the top part of the pit exposed, similar to how you plant an amaryllis bulb.

Don't overwater, but don't let it dry out completely. In the summer, you can put it outside, where it will likely grow faster, but make sure to bring it in once temperatures dip below 45°F.

Far out, man.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Honey From Hungary - Selyemkóró Méz

While I was doing research for my new book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, I came upon milkweed honey. Hmm. I didn't think I'd ever seen that anywhere around here. And it turned out that all the information and photos I could rustle up on it, with one exception, were from Hungary.

Really? From one small country on the other side of the world? I wondered why Hungary had the corner on milkweed honey. I tried to see if I could somehow purchase some and have it sent here, but I had no luck with that.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is highly attractive to many
pollinators, including honey bees.

I talked with my go-to bee man, Jamie Walters, and he explained to me how any kind of flavored (called unifloral or varietal) honey earns the right to be labeled as a specific kind. He said you need approximately a 5-acre (or more) field of a single flower for the bees to forage in, for a honey to be considered a unifloral. Just how many large fields of milkweed have you seen lately?  Exactly.

Further research told me that in order to bear a label of a specific honey flavor, only 51% of the honey in the container has to be that kind, so be aware of this when buying varietal honeys.

Jamie does know someone not that far from us who has a milkweed field, and this summer he's going to take his bees there so he can produce some milkweed honey. I plan to go with him when he takes them, so stay tuned for that adventure!

A breakthrough

In the meantime, my childhood next-door neighbor and partner in crime, Kelly Gunderman Beahrs, private messaged me on Facebook, saying she knew someone who might be able to help in securing some of this Hungarian milkweed honey.

To make a long story short, I now have in my hands, a jar of it, which made a really roundabout trip to my house all the way from Hungary. (Hungary to U.K. to Texas to Ohio.) Now Kelly didn't have to do that, and her friend that helped didn't have to do that either, but I am ever so grateful that they did.

How does it taste? 

Prior to my tasting it, I'd read that milkweed honey was considered to be one of the most fragrant honeys of all, keeping that fragrance for a long period of time. It is slower to form sugar crystals and the flavor is high on the list of preferred taste by many.

Since the elusive milkweed honey had come so highly touted, I wondered if I would be in for a letdown when I was finally able to taste it. Not at all. It is indeed highly fragrant, as are the flowers from which it is made. It has the usual taste of honey with a hint of something I can't quite put my finger on yet, and it also has a bit of a bite to it, though that's not offensive at all. I've read that it mellows somewhat, with age.

I'm a supertaster, so I might detect flavors that others may not, so if you have the occasion to taste some milkweed honey for yourself, and decide that it merely "tastes like honey," I would not doubt your opinion. In the end, I love it, as I do most honeys. I am indebted to Kelly and her crew for making it possible to try it firsthand.

The questions burning in my mind now are these:

  • Why is Hungary seemingly the only country to produce milkweed honey commercially?
  • Why don't we produce it in the U.S., since milkweed is a native North American plant? 
I did a little research, and found that the agriculture industry is a very important part of Hungarian culture, due to the climate and soil conditions, which in turn, makes it favorable for beekeeping. Hungary, while only occupying slightly less than one per cent of the land area of all of Europe, supplies 10% of the honey to the continent and contributes 5% to the world honey trade. (2009 statistics)

Map source

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was introduced to Europe as an ornamental in 1629 and was first found in Hungary in 1736. It grows well in the Hungarian sandy soil and has established itself in those areas. (Great Hungarian plain, parts of Transdanubia, and county Bács-Kiskun.) It can have a long bloom time (June-September) in Hungary when the weather is hot and humid.

A drawback of milkweed, which is one reason beekeepers may stay away from utilizing it, is that the  bloom, by its anatomical design, is known to occasionally trap a honey bee by the leg. Bee deaths or loss of legs can occur, although reports I read said that bee loss is very minimal.

Overall, milkweed is considered to be a good honey plant and one that many bees prefer, if given the choice. Growing milkweed for honey production can only be good for the monarchs, too.

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

  • Just last year, a Canadian cooperative, The Cooperative Monark, located in Quebec, has begun producing milkweed honey commercially, thought to be the first on the North American continent: "Milkweed Honey: A First in America".

  • A good article about the use of milkweed as a honey source can be found in Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping, posted online on August 23, 2016: "Milkweeds As Honey Plants" by Connie Krochmal.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ohio Gets a New License Plate to Benefit the Monarch Butterfly (and I helped!)

Today was a special day for me and for Ohio monarch enthusiasts. Many didn't even know it was a special day until it got here. Today was the first day that citizens with a vehicle registered in the state of Ohio could purchase a specialized license plate that will directly benefit the monarch butterfly.

Here's how it happened:

Thanks, Illinois

In March of last year, I saw an online news article from The News-Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, IL) about a specialized license plate being planned for the state of Illinois.

I wondered if Ohio had such a plate and made a search on the website of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. No such plate existed.

There was a plate benefiting Ohio's Nature Preserves, featuring a monarch butterfly nectaring on a coneflower, but the funds collected for that plate don't specifically go toward the monarch. I looked further on the site to see what needed to be done in order to have a new organizational plate created. It didn't seem too difficult, so I made a phone call to the BMV in Columbus to find out if they were aware of anyone else already working on one for the monarch. There were no efforts in progress that they were aware of.

First things first

Rep. Tony Burkley
There were several steps required to create an organizational plate, with the first one being to get a state legislator to introduce a bill. My husband and I knew our state representative, Tony Burkley, personally, since we went to high school with both him and his wife. I contacted him in April and explained what I was wanting to do.

It was late in the session, with only a few days left to get the bill introduced, but Representative Burkley got the job done. It was passed by the 131st General Assembly and on June 16th, Governor John Kasich signed the bill; 90 days later, on September 14th it would officially become law.

Collecting signatures

The next step was to collect at least 150 signatures on a special petition - signatures of those who had registered vehicles in the state of Ohio, who potentially could purchase the license plate. This made me a tiny bit uncomfortable, because I'm not someone who likes to be approached to sign anything myself. But it's amazing how assertive you can be when you're passionate about something, like I am about the monarch.

Though a few were not willing to give their driver's license number (a requirement), so many more were enthusiastic about helping make this a reality. I posted about it on my Facebook page and in the Facebook monarch forums and several people stepped forward and offered to help collect signatures: Sarah Roney Dalton, Don Byrne, Sandy Cobb, Kara Fritz, Janet Denning, Jamie Walters, Melinda Huseby Krick, Richard Moore, Lori Gogolin, Debbie Hartwig Tope, Ashley Tope, Roman Baumle, Brandi Eberle, Karla Erford Treece, and Melissa Downs Moser. (I hope I haven't forgotten anyone who sent me some!)

Since I wanted to be sure to have more than enough verified signatures (yes, they DO check each and every one), I submitted 250, instead of the minimum 150.

Where will the money go?

The license plate costs an extra $25, of which $15 goes to the benefiting organization and the remaining $10 to the Ohio BMV. I wanted the monies collected to remain in the state of Ohio, so I began investigating possible organizations that could make good use of it.

I chose Monarch Wings Across Ohio, which is a part of the national organization, The Pollinator Partnership. Several locations across Ohio are participants in the monarch studies being conducted, in fact, Ohio is the first state to be a part of the national program Monarch Wings Across the U.S. Included in the program are such sites as Holden Arboretum, Cleveland Metroparks, and many others.

The recipient organization had to provide an affidavit to the BMV as well as the logo that goes on the license plate.


I procured all the necessary documents and sent them off to the BMV in Columbus on September  12 by Certified Mail.


My part was now finished and it was up to the BMV to take the baton and finish the race.


I got an email on December 8th, giving me the good news that enough signatures had been verified, the license plate design had been finalized, and the plate would be available for purchase on January 11, 2017. And here we are:

Photo by Lacinda Conley
This is a graphic image of what my own personalized license plate will look like. Since we had just bought a new (to us) car in December, I had to go to the license bureau in person to register it and order my plates. It can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to receive the actual plates once the order is placed.

Current license plate fees in Ohio as listed on the BMV website are:

  • New registration/standard plates & registration/plate renewal:
    • Passenger vehicle: $34.50.
    • Motorcycle: $28.50.
    • House vehicle/moped: $24.50.
    • Non-commercial trailer: Fee is based on weight.
  • Replacements:
    • 1 license plate: $10.50.
    • 2 license plates: $11.75.
    • Decals: $4.50.
  • Plate transfer: $4.50.

The extra fee for the monarch license plate is $25, with $15 of that going to Monarch Wings Across Ohio. If you do want to personalize it, that will cost another $50. Besides providing funds that will help the monarch butterfly and by proxy, other pollinators, the license plate will help create awareness for the plight the monarch faces.

Once again, thank you to all who worked together to make this possible. I've been asked by several others how to go about doing the same thing in their state and since each state is different, my suggestion would be to go to your state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles website (some states call it the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV) and find out what your state requires for the creation of a specialized or organizational license plate.

In many cases, all it takes is one ordinary citizen being willing to do what it takes to make it happen. You will be providing a means for many people to help the cause through the purchase of the plates. I encourage vehicle owners in Ohio to purchase one of these plates. Even though the sale of only 25 plates per year are required to keep the monarch plate in production, we can do better than that.

Do it for the monarchs.

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