Arboretum Paths: Exploring secret (plant) worlds

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, June 7, 2017

By Pat Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum
MSU Extension Service

Some of the longleaf milkweed (Asclepias longifolia) we found along the roadside were still in bloom (Photo by Pat Drackett)

Have you ever experienced the thrill of discovering a secret world in nature, a place where you had never looked closely before? Perhaps in your childhood days you were captivated by the antics of ants, and spent hours watching them carry items to and fro and greet one another with antennae high-fives, so intently absorbed with their tasks.
On a friend’s Facebook page this weekend I marveled at the incredibly detailed entomological drawing of a type of weevil that carries tiny mosses and liverworts on its back as camouflage. The diminutive garden gives the insect the appearance of an exquisite table decoration you might find in an interior design magazine.
We had the recent pleasure of stumbling into one of these fascinating secret worlds, an otherwise non-descript area along one of our local roads. Curator Jennifer Buchanan and I had been noticing what looked to be milkweed pods, and these promised a rich reward – seed for the native milkweed garden trials being conducted this year at the South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville. We vowed to check these plants out as soon as possible.
I mentioned summer intern Brady Dunaway in last week’s column, who started with the Arboretum last week. Collecting milkweed seed from these plants was one of the many projects he participated in during his first few days.
Brady had the enthusiasm for exploring, and we entered the area (fortunately, without finding chiggers). We not only found dozens of longleaf milkweed (Asclepias longifolia), but many other species in a terrific slice of wet pine savanna plant community.
Although these were the same plants in the Crosby Arboretum’s Savanna Exhibit, it was surprising to see them her along the roadside. Where roads have been elevated with fill dirt, these areas rarely have anything of great interest. However, at the bottom of the bank, the land was still at its original elevation, and an amazing array of native perennials and grasses had been preserved.
As we were drawn to the clusters of blooms nestled among the grasses, we marveled at how we had been driving by this incredible community of great beauty and complexity. Before us stretched meadow beauties (Rhexia), milkworts (Polygala), club moss (Lycopodium), and standing out above it all – the milkweed.
Like proverbial kids in a candy shop, we yelped with joy at each new species we encountered, and collected a good number of ripe milkweed pods. Returning to the Arboretum, Brady separated the silk from the seeds, and we celebrated our new acquisition. This week, we will plant the seed, and excitedly await its germination. We plan to grow local native plants at the Arboretum for planting in pollinator gardens, and in the case of the milkweed, for its value as a host plant for the monarch butterfly.
Coastal ecosystems such as this slice of wet pine savanna remain today only as fragments. Although some large acreages have been preserved, 97% of the habitat and the associated plant communities, has disappeared. The unusual native plants you might find in a roadside community are tough – and also fire tolerant – as they are historically adapted to live with occasional fire events, such as the current fire burning at the Okefenokee National wildlife refuge in Georgia, ignited by a lightning bolt on April 6. It measures over 100,000 acres, and is still burning.
Come visit the Arboretum to learn about the plants in our Savanna Exhibit. Then, use a wildflower field guide to search for these native species locally. An excellent website for plant identification is Southeastern Flora (
A Nature Photography Walk will be held this Saturday, June 10 from 9:30 to 11:00 AM. Bring your camera and walk and learn with celebrated Gulfport photographer Alex North. Program fee is $7 for non-members $7. Call 601-799-2311 to register (space is limited). Alex is also our featured summer artist in the Pinecote Art Gallery. His gallery opening will follow the walk from 11:00 AM to noon. The opening event and site admission, is free to the public. Light refreshments will be served.
For more information, see or call 601-799-2311. The Arboretum is located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

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