By Rachel Reeb


Of all the road trip games (the License Plate game, Punch Buggy, etc.), “Spot the Milkweed” is my favorite. The rules to win are simple: be the first person to spot the oval leaves or pink flowers of the plant species Asclepias syriaca and yell “MILKWEED!” at full volume. This game has a small but loyal following of one person (myself) . . . but what we lack in numbers we make up for in enthusiasm.


“Spot the Milkweed” was born my freshman year of college, while I was field technician in an ecology research lab. One of my first assignments was to collect leaf-tissue samples from natural populations of the species (you guessed it) Asclepias syriaca, also known as common milkweed. That summer I traveled to more than 30 sites across the state of Virginia, mostly in parks and roadsides, to find this ubiquitous plant. I was on an incredibly tight schedule; typically visiting several sites and driving hundreds of miles a day, with only a vague idea of where the milkweed was located.

common milkweed in bloom

On a particularly exciting day I raced down the entire 80-mile length of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, needing to find and collect from several different populations before an afternoon thunderstorm caught up with me and my driving partner. We completed our collections with only minutes to spare before the pouring rain arrived. Near or far, rain or shine, I learned how to pick milkweed out of a field with an expert degree of accuracy. This action of searching for plants out my car window became so routine that it evolved into a game for me; one which I continued to play even after the fieldwork ended that summer.


The following summer, the game advanced to an entirely new level of difficulty. My field assignment was to study populations of common milkweed across its entire range in North America. This totaled to 60 sampling sites across 26 US states. My driving partner and I lived by a military-strict schedule, usually entering a new state every day. The land managers who informed our search were as helpful as they could be, but still we were often left with vague instructions such as to “drive along this train track” or “hike to this field.” Sometimes, we were led to milkweed that had been mown over or misidentified entirely. In those cases, we’d have to scour the property and find a replacement. I found myself in the most random and unexpected places that summer. Some were unpleasant . . . smelly drainage ditches and painful thorn patches. But the vast majority were beautiful . . . a network of national historic sites, ecological research stations, and nature preserves which spanned the country.


The highlight of my trip was the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. At 40,000 acres, this preserve contains the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie left in the world, complete with bison. I was encapsulated in a sea of grassland that extended, nearly uninterrupted, in all directions. While searching for milkweed I was hit by an overwhelming sense of comfort, despite being 1,300 miles away from my university in Virginia. This landscape should not have felt like home. It was flat, silent, treeless, without a single human being in sight . . . the exact opposite of the east coast.

But there was something familiar: a patch of pale pink flowers, sticking out of the grass. Milkweed had become a beacon for me, making each new place recognizable. I followed it across the country like a trail of dots, showing me the connections between every state, every field.

At another time in my life, I would have hidden inside the empty guest house where we stayed that night in Oklahoma. I would have been intimidated by the vastness and loneliness of the preserve. But there were milkweed just outside, welcoming me into the fields. Enticing me to search for wildflowers and insects and bison, and to bear witness to a spectacular sunset.

milkweed growing along the edge of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA

This has remained a consistent theme in my life, even years after the milkweed-collecting fieldwork had ended. In searching for this plant, I learned how to notice my surroundings with a new level of clarity. It sparked an impulse for exploration that I had not known before. I’ve made it a goal to visit every state in the USA… I have four left to go! Milkweed often greets me at these travel destinations and leads me on a personal tour.


During the pandemic, an entirely new level of isolation, I’ve become even more grateful for this connection with a non-human. I rarely leave home these days and I hugely miss being able to escape into natural spaces, as I used to. Luckily for me, however, my favorite plant is just as fond of the city as any other place. So, I play “Spot the Milkweed” to pass the time; until it’s safe to leave again. I still feel a rush of joy when I see their pink flowers peeking out of the grass, like an old friend waving hello, ensuring me that that I am never truly alone.

Rachel is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, studying plant ecology. You can learn more about her research (or her updated Spot the Milkweed scoreboard) at https://rachelreeb.weebly.com/.

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Updated: Dec 23, 2020

by Margie B. Klein


Could a plant hold the keys to Heaven, or at least to the Garden of Eden? This is one special plant. Just pronouncing its name is a feat. If you’re my age, you can remember a tiny Ron Howard trying to pronounce the girl’s name that is A-ma-ryllis in The Music Man movie. How could such a boisterous bloom emanate from a simple bulb that looks like a baseball? I’m fascinated by these flowers, and by the fact that I can grow them!


After Christmas, a holiday I adore, is over, I want to keep the festive spirit going, so I buy more houseplants to fill the vacant space left by the evergreen tree. I especially revel in finding plants with red in the leaves. And I buy amaryllis. More amaryllis. Never mind that there are forty of them in my garden – I want more. There is such a joy in planting them – it’s like planting Christmas, and I only have a short wait until they bloom in the spring and I can celebrate again.


I grew up in Wisconsin, where a Christmas amaryllis in a bulb vase was an oddity, a novelty gift that my Dad knew I’d love. The ones that I was gifted when I was a teenager had sparks of life, but never bloomed. Bulbs aren’t stupid. They knew I was trying to force growth in a centrally heated house while it was 20 degrees below outside. They weren’t going for the ruse. But how could I guess that decades later I would grow these beauties as a staple in my garden in the desert southwest?


Of course it’s a miracle that anything can grow in a traditional garden in the southwest desert. I could tell you the years of struggle to get my garden to produce a few adaptable flowers, but that’s another story. When someone suggested I try amaryllis bulbs, I balked. I’d been planting dollar bills for years and was getting stingy with my horticultural gambles. With a little research, I found that they liked warmth, and figured they were worth a try. Surprise – they grew.


What was really strange was that they didn’t bloom any time near Christmas, but rather closer to Easter, in April and May. So they became a substitute for Easter lilies, which never survived in the heat. Then the obsession began. There were some lessons to be learned along the way - such as planting the bulbs too deep will lead to rot, and too shallow may leave the tops vulnerable to predation. Yes, pillbugs are predators in my book.



As I sought out sources for these beauties, I found that amaryllis come in a range of colors these days - far beyond the traditional red. I guess I’ve become somewhat of an amaryllis snob, because now the traditional Christmas red and white striped ones have become too common for me. I’m in love with the refined colors of pink, magenta, and almost-purple. Varieties like Gervase, Hercules, Lagoon, and Purple Rain are gorgeous. The deep red and purplish ones, like Red Pearl and Honeymoon, are enchanting, but if water gets on the bloom, it leaves terrible spots that destroy their beauty. I haven’t yet decided on the yellowish ones, which are really more white than anything.


As for types, I’ve developed favorites, too, but that’s based on which ones will actually grow here. The South African and Dutch varieties seem to be the most vigorous and do the best. Doubles of course, give twice the bloom for the buck. Those miniature ones are cute, but are dwarfed by larger plants in the garden. And the odd cybister types are just a little too difficult to grow here. Claims of fragrance don’t fool me, for I know that the desert heat evaporates any aroma chemicals. These extravagant blooms are pricey, and $20 is an average price. The new releases of improved hybrids always fetch more, early in the fall bulb planting season. After the Christmas holiday, they are often marked down, and some deals can be scored on the more popular varieties. But alas, the most unique ones will likely be sold out.


Another idea is to befriend an amaryllis aficionado, who might be willing to make a gift of multiplying bulbs. Just remember that secondary bulbs will take several years to attain good flower-producing size. I’m always on the lookout for something new, and the hybridizers are always sure to satisfy. Each year, albeit in May and not December, this girl from the frozen north who was banished to the desert lauds her blossoming miracle: a garden full of gorgeous amaryllis.



Margie's Amaryllis garden


A freelance writer for 30 years, Margie is retired from a career in natural resources. Her accomplishments include being a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Writers, a writing award from The Wildlife Society, and co-authoring a character education curriculum with the Advice from Nature folks.


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by Dennis




Growing up as a Vietnamese-American child along with my twin sister and younger brother, we were exposed to many different foods. Both my parents immigrated here to the United States of America in 1996 and they brought with them the traditional foods and culture that they had back in the motherland. Of course for many of the foods we ate, we had Vietnamese classics such as Pho and spring rolls. But as an Asian-American, I was also introduced to American cuisine as well, especially sweets. Because of this, I often found myself enjoying berry flavored food. I was always fascinated by the taste that berries had and I will always remember the first time I tried one.


In my second year of elementary school, I was part of a reading group that had just recently completed a school project. As a reward, we were given the opportunity to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I remember thinking to myself at that moment, “What the heck is this thing?” But as I lathered spreads on their respective pieces of bread, I was intrigued by the look of the dark purple jelly. I sank my teeth into this sandwich and immediately the sweetness of the grapes within the jelly along with the creamy peanut butter enveloped my mouth. I was amazed by the creation that I consumed. It was my first time ever eating a berry and after that day, I was hooked onto eating more.


Since then, I have always been infatuated with berries. Whether they are grapes, blueberries, raspberries*, strawberries*, or whatever other berry, they will always be special to me. To me, berries are the perfect fruit because they have a mild sweetness, a nice tartness, and a wonderful fragrance to them. They are so versatile and I have eaten so many dishes with berries in them. Comparing American desserts to Vietnamese desserts, they are so much sweeter!


Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about berries is the use of cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving turkey! It still amazes me that berries are able to be used as an ingredient for so many different dishes. Even though I am growing older and am not able to indulge my sweet tooth as much, I still eat berries everyday! I learned over time that berries have very good nutritional value and to this day, I enjoy eating them in my breakfast. They provide vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants that help to fuel me for my long days. I love putting them in my oatmeal and greek yogurt! Berries will always and forever be an essential part of my diet, as they have been since the day that I first discovered them.


*Plant Love Stories Science note: Berry is a scientific term in addition to a common-use term. A berry is a fleshy fruit that is derived from a single ovary of an individual flower. Some of the things we commonly think of as berries - like strawberries and raspberries, aren’t botanical berries - these fruits arise from multiple ovaries, not a single ovary… On the other hand, some things we don’t think of as berries ARE botanical berries, like grapes, cucumbers, and bananas! In this story, grapes, blueberries, cranberries, are botanical berries but strawberries and raspberries are not.

If you’d like to read more about botanical berries and non-berries check out these articles: Bananas are Berries?, by Greta Lorge and Bananas are Berries. Raspberries are Not, by Ada Mcvean and Cassandra Lee.


Dennis is a student studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at The University of Colorado at Boulder.


Peanut butter and jelly sandwich photo by Evan Amos from Wikimedia.


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