Via E Alexis Christine O'Shay dollfriend in garden

Hi Friends! It’s me, Natalie Alexis Christine! I know, I haven’t written in a really long time! Ali said I could have the honor of introducing our new Friday feature at A Doll’s Picnic–oh boy! So welcome to our first Secret Garden Friday!

I love the book The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Have you read it? It’s one of my favorite books to curl up with and get lost in. I think it’s because Burnett is such an amazing story teller, and also because most of the story takes place outside, in nature, which is what I like best! There are plants, and gardens, and animals, and really compelling (that means fascinating) characters, and mystery and magic. If you haven’t read it, we recommend that you go to your local library and check out a copy right away!

We think any garden can be a secret garden, if you are willing to look at it with wonder and imagination. I think the gardens here at A Doll’s Picnic are very wonder-full places. I think it’s because we don’t keep them too neat and perfect… we let wildflowers–like queen anne’s lace–come up and grow, and we like plants to self-propagate–that means that they seed or spread naturally, all by themselves. Also, the deer and squirrels and raccoons and quail and lots of different kinds of birds come in our yard and keep it messy and interesting. Sometimes Ali gets frustrated because it’s a big yard and she feels like she never gets it under control, but I think that’s part of what makes is so special.

Today, I wanted to show you around our secret garden a little bit. Here’s a really neat cactus that Ali brought home from her parent’s house:

Bishop's cap cactus

It’s called a Bishop’s Cap. Can you imagine it as a hat? I like how it is all leathery and wrinkled, like an elephant’s foot! It grows in an amazing way, from the center out. See those lines of dots? Each of those dots used to be a bloom at the center of the cactus! The flowers are yellow and very fragrant, but they don’t last very long. It’s bloomed once for us, but soon it will be time to bring it for the winter. You might think cactus are tough, but they’re actually pretty picky. They don’t like to be too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry! Isn’t that funny? Do you see those pinkish areas? That’s where the cactus got sunburn, just like a real person!

Bishop's cap cacuts 2

I think it’s amazing to look at plants really closely. Look at all those tiny white dots!

Now I want to show you one of my favorite plants in our secret garden.

Via E Alexis doll milkweed

It’s called milkweed, and it grows wild all across the United States. It’s usually considered a weed, but it’s actually a really interesting wildflower and doesn’t act like a weed at all.

Vie E Alexis doll and milkweed

Milkweed grows from seed into a perennial. (Perennial is one of my favorite words! It means something that comes back, year after year). Milkweed is special in lots of different ways, which you can read about on Wikipedia. Did you know it has really beautiful and complex flowers? They smell good too! But the reason why we have it in our garden is simple: butterflies! Milkweed is the only food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars! The adult butterflies lay their eggs under the leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they begin to munch holes in the leaves right away! One of our favorite secret garden activities in summer is to go out and look for monarch caterpillars on the milkweed plants. Sometimes they’re so tiny they’re hard to find, but eventually they grow up to a couple inches long!

Milkweed has a white, milky sap that is toxic to most creatures, which is why the deer don’t eat it. But the monarch butterfly has evolved to depend on milkweed. As the caterpillars eat the plant they absorb the toxins which make them taste bad to predators! Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

milkweed plant

But it’s fall now, and the caterpillars have all grown up and left. Milkweed is beautiful in the fall: it turns golden, and then the really special milkweed magic begins.

milkweed pod

Do you see that pod? Do you know what’s inside? Can you guess??? Fairies!

milkweed pod splitting

Well, that’s what I like to call them, anyway. Actually it’s seeds, all packed inside, each one attached to a silky canopy of threads, kind of like a tiny hot air balloon.

Milkweed seeds

When the pods start to dry out in the autumn, they split open and all the little fairy-seeds start to fluff out and separate from each other. When the autumn winds arrive, the seeds blow out and float all over the garden and neighborhood!

milkweed pod opening

The pods are beautiful when they split open!

milkweed seeds

Don’t worry–they don’t sprout wherever they land! Milkweed likes water; that’s why you often see it growing in drainage ditches or by irrigated fields. Where we live it’s very dry, and in our garden we’ve found that milkweed seeds only sprout where we water regularly. (It’s also a slow-growing plant, and easy to spot and pull out when it’s young). Still, we like to think we are helping to spread monarch butterfly habitat in our neighborhood. 🙂

milkweed pod dry

Look how neat the milkweed pods are when they’re empty! What do you think they look like?

Empty milkweed pod

Let’s look at a pod up close. Here’s one that fell on the ground:

Via E Alexis doll milkweed pod

It’s a treasure! Ali has one of these in her writing room–she’s had it for years, and it is still perfect!

Via E Alexis doll milkweed

It almost looks like a little elf shoe…

Via E Alexis doll and milkweed pod

…Or maybe a canoe!

Via E Alexis doll and milkweed pod

The seeds are really beautiful up close, and it’s amazing how many are packed inside one single pod–dozens and dozens!

milkweed pod with seeds

The seeds are so soft and fluffy and delicate.

Via E Alexis doll milkweed seed

They’re fun to blow and to try to catch, kind of like dandelions!

milkweed seed

At the base of the silk (also known as the coma) is one oval, dark brown seed, which easily falls off of the silky fluff.

milkweed seed

I think nature is a pretty amazing gardener, if you ask me! She has very creative ways of spreading her seeds!

Via E Alexis doll with milkweed seed

How about you? Do you have a secret garden you can visit and explore? What treasures can you find there?

Via E Alexis doll and milkweed seed

Happy Secret Garden Friday from A Doll’s Picnic!