Arboretum Paths: Plant rustlers strike at the Arboretum

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Native fewflower milkweed is pretty, but is it pretty enough to steal? (Photo by Pat Drackett).

Native fewflower milkweed is pretty, but is it pretty enough to steal? (Photo by Pat Drackett).

A mystery has occurred at the Arboretum. And like many of life’s mysteries, we’ll probably never know the full story.
On a tour of the garden on Saturday, grounds manager Terry Johnson and I discovered that a number of milkweed plants marked for research in our pitcher plant bog had been cut off at the base.
With the first plant, we thought it might have been bitten off by an animal. Then, one by one, we found clean cuts on the stems near the ground level.
Why, we asked? It would have been obvious the plants were marked. Each was tied with bright pink and orange tape at the base, contained a note stating the plant was for research.
While “poaching plants” would not cross the minds of most visitors, some are apparently not deterred by conscience.
The stems that were stolen were from an uncommon milkweed called fewflower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata). It was one that has been slowly increasing in our bog. By removing the flowers, these plants will not have the opportunity to set seed.
A few days later, someone suggested that these plants could have been “rustled” for floral arrangements. The milkweed has a four-foot stem. However, it would have been difficult to conceal.
With so many fields and ditches outside our 64-acre interpretive site providing floral material, it is disheartening that some people believe it is acceptable to remove plants from our exhibits.
An aspect that probably was not considered by the “plant rustler” who cut our milkweed stems is that this plant is highly toxic. Sap from the stems wiped into the eyes can cause temporary blindness and extreme pain. Monarch caterpillars, however, have the ability to digest this plant, which renders them toxic to predators.
In a past column, I mentioned that as a child I enjoyed learning my botany in the Smoky Mountains, beginning with field walks with my family and a wildflower field guide. It made a lasting impression on me the day we came across a crushed and wilted pile of delicate pink lady slipper orchids on the trail. They were apparently discarded by people who had tried digging them, but had not gotten enough of the roots, so they had thrown them aside.
A few years ago, someone removed a section of the trunk from one of our pine trees on the Pond Journey that had a beautiful collection of shelf fungi. Although the tree holds the scars of enduring Hurricanes Camille and Katrina, removal of a two foot square area of bark will additionally shorten its lifespan.
One of the interesting aspects of the Arboretum is that it appears so ordinary and untouched by man, yet it is a very highly documented and studied property.
It may not be apparent to visitors, but our site is used for research and study, for example, by forestry, biology, entomology, and forestry professors and students from the region’s colleges and universities. It is heartening to see these groups visiting, taking a field quiz, or learning about our native flora. Some mark areas in the pine savanna to count and study the species occurring there. Numerous research papers have been written based on Arboretum plant studies.
The design fields of architecture and landscape architecture have also brought students and professional from around the county to study the Arboretum. Notably, landscape architecture and landscape construction students from Mississippi State University continue to play a valuable role in the planning and installation of our educational exhibits.
On Saturday, August 6, a children’s workshop on handbuilding with clay will be held this Saturday, August 6 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m.Children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Materials fee is $5 per child for members’ children, and $6 for non-members’ children. No charge for adults. Call 601-799-2311 to guarantee your child’s seat.
A free program on “Controlling Wild Hogs” will take place on Saturday, August 13 at 10:00 a.m., and a Mushroom Field Walk will be held Saturday, August 20 at 10:00 a.m. The mushroom walk is free to members and $5 for non-members, $2 for non-members’ children.
For more information, see The Crosby Arboretum is located at I-59 Exit 4 and open Wednesdaythrough Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

By Patricia R. Drackett, Director and Assistant Extension Professor of Landscape Architecture
The Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University Extension Service

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