Summer Casualties: Milkweed and the Mother Vine

This is a story about perspective.

I’ve lost a swamp milkweed. I clearly did not swamp it sufficiently during the latest record heat wave here in Philadelphia. I planted it in the spring of 2009, and it thrived last year, fooling me into thinking it was established and did not need babying. Whoops. I’m a little sad about the loss. I paid $15 for that guy and I am cheap, so that hurts. Plus, I’ve got a bit of a hole in my back yard border now – about 1 foot around, and four feet tall.

So, by all means, feel sorry for me. But did anyone else hear the report on NPR the other day about the mother vine? This grape vine lives on Roanoke Island in the outer banks of North Carolina and is thought to be over 400 years old. Experts aren’t sure whether it was planted by the first English colonists in the 1500s or by the Croatans who lived there when the English arrived. But either way, it’s way old. John Wilson spoke with Melissa Block on All Things Considered (listen here) and described its bulk. It covers a quarter of an acre. Two adults can barely touch hands when they reach around the trunk. Remember we’re talking grape vine here, not oak tree.

Not only it this vine massive, it is apparently badly behaved. One tendril, it seems, was out of order and had started working its way up a power pole. A contractor employed by Dominion power had been charged with clearing all vegetation off the power poles and lines and sprayed that little sucker with weed killer. Systemic weed killer. Mr. Wilson’s father, who tends the vine, came out one morning in May to find his beloved vine browning at the tips. He cut off the dead sections. The next morning presented more dead sections, and the next morning, and the next morning. As if the dead were growing backward from the tips toward the roots. Just what systemic weed killer is designed to do. Enter through the foliage, poison the roots, and thus kill the plant.

Oh mercy. I would have cried. I’m whining over a 1 foot hole left by a one year old plant that cost me $15. Imagine a quarter acre hole. Left by a plant that may have survived when the Lost Colony did not.

The power company feels badly. They’ve apologized and hired numerous experts are implementing a fertilizing / watering / pruning regimen. Fortunately, it seems to be working. The Wilsons are optimistic that the mother vine will survive, even if this year’s grapes will be a loss. (More info here from WSOC Tv)

Perspective is essential. I will try to remember the mother vine when I feel like whining. Maybe that hole in the back garden is an opportunity. An opportunity that will require only one plant to fill, not a quarter acre’s worth.

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14 responses to “Summer Casualties: Milkweed and the Mother Vine

  1. gardeningasylum

    Perspective indeed! Hopefully mother can be saved – it’s astonishing how resilient plants can be. Even established plants here in Connecticut are suffering in the dry heat.

  2. I get so worked up about the losses in my gardens where most everything is tiny and new. Boy do I need perspective! This really gave me some.

  3. Fingers crossed for success on this one. Makes me so sad when such things happen. And, I do like your thoughts on the subject. I recently had to transplant a Baptisa. And, she died. Or so it appears. I’m still giving the poor dead thing TLC every morning. Sweet how attached we can become to our flowering friends.

  4. I’m sorry you lost your milkweed. I hate losing plants in the garden, but you’re right about perspective.

    I almost want to ask the person armed with the herbicide for the power company, ‘gee, how did we humans manage before glyphosate?’ Being sarcastic of course. Here this spring our power company sprayed swaths of herbicide along the main road. We have no 400 year old vines, but the vegetation turned brown, and now they’ve just left it there. If we were certified organic, I’d be livid because of the risk of overspray. All they did was trade green weeds, for a fire hazard. Genius. Couldn’t use a string trimmer, huh? For the Mother vine, she’s lucky it wasn’t fatal, and perhaps only due to her sheer size will she survive this assault. Hopefully she’ll now outlive us all. Besides, when you’re 400, I think it’s ok to be badly behaved 😛

    • Hi CV – preach it!! I totally agree. I know that chemicals here and there are helpful (they’ve helped save my parents-in-law’s yard full of hemlocks from some nasty fungus) – but it burns me up when they’re used for destruction! As you say – isnt’ there another way??

  5. I am not familiar with Swamp Milkweed, but after many failed attempts I have had success in growing Butterfly Weed (Asclepius Tuberosa). Mine is orange, has a deep taproot and loves lousy soil. However, it only gets about 18 inches tall. The swallowtail caterpillars love it and there is a delightful child’s story to be told on that note. IF this might be a secondary substitute, we could try to take a slip when it is cooler.

  6. I am sorry you lost your milkweed. I find it difficult to keep such losses in perspective myself, so your story was helpful. We have had rain at last and it was wonderful not having to water my garden this morning!

  7. Hi Kelly -what an interesting post about the Mother Vine – I hope it makes it. Thanks for the link on your blog! I now am http;//dakotagarden.com –

  8. Very interesting story about the mother vine! I hope it gets rescued. It almost makes me want to take a trip out to Roanoke to see it while I still can!

    Sorry to hear about the milkweed. I’ve planted it for the past two years but I really have to nurture it. I started the seeds in April and still no sign of blooming yet.

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