Tag Archives: milkweeds

Flowers Are Busy Places

In wildflower guidebooks the flowers are featured looking beautiful. Out in the wilds flowers are busy places.

Sometimes I take pictures of flowers and don’t discover the residents in them until later. Often the visitors are obvious. Either way I think they make the picture more interesting.

flowers are busy places for bees
Spring cress is a pretty flower and clumps grow down near the creek. This metallic green native bee was resting on a flower and warming up in the sun.

Insects are the creatures thought of first, especially bees. No one sprays our fields so there are lots of different kinds of bees and bumblebees. The green metallic ones are eye catchers.

Clear Wing Hawk Moth sips nectar from swamp milkweed flowers
Swamp milkweeds have lots of nectar. Clear Wing Hawk Moths visit each flower for a sip.

Flowers are busy places for many insects. Milkweeds make it easy to spot lots of butterflies, wasps and clear wing moths. Beetles lurk as they prefer plant sap to nectar. Flower spiders and assassin bugs lie in wait for an insect meal.

katydid nymphs are common visitors on flowers
Flowers have lots of delicious parts. The nectar is refreshing and sweet. The pollen and seed ovules are protein rich. Petals taste good too. At least katydid nymphs think so. This one is on a rough-fruited cinquefoil flower.

Tiny katydid nymphs like flowers too. They seem to like the pollen and nectar, but aren’t shy about nibbling on the petals. There are times when no flower has all its petals intact for a picture as lots of insects enjoy eating them.

tussock moth caterpillar on milkweed leaf
Some caterpillars are smooth. Then there are those like this milkweed tussock moth caterpillar decorated with white, red and black hair tufts. this one is busy devouring – what else? – a milkweed leaf.

The plants are busy places too. Ants tend aphid herds. Caterpillars devour leaves. Ticks stand poised to leap onto any animal passing by.

Plant stems have suds on them now. These suds surround the stem and are wet and slimy. Walking through tall pastures can leave pant legs liberally smeared with the stuff.

The suds are created by spittle bugs. Wiping the foam away reveals a homely creature busily dining on plant sap. These nymphs will grow up into frog hoppers.

Spittle bug with the foam wiped away
Frog Hopper nymphs are called spittle bugs because of the foam they cover themselves with to hide from predators. Their large heads and eyes which remain as the nymphs become adults give them their name.

Frog hoppers are like leaf hoppers and stab plant stems for the sap. The common leaf hoppers are thin. Frog hoppers have a wide head and thorax giving them a frog like appearance.

flowers are busy places for insects gathering nectar
Swamp milkweed flowers attract many insects including Monarch butterflies and bumblebees.

I’m glad flowers are busy places. An injured foot keeps me from going very far. Instead I can find a nice patch of flowers, sit down and enjoy the fragrances and the show.

Find out more about the natural Ozarks in Exploring the Ozark Hills.

Asclepias by Richard Edward Rintz

Milkweeds, genus Asclepias, are a hot topic recently because of the monarch butterflies. Their caterpillars only eat milkweeds which give them the chemicals making them taste bad to birds.

Another plus for milkweeds is the abundant nectar they produce. Insects of all kinds descend on the flowers to feast on this bounty.

"Asclepias Volume 1" by Richard Edward Rintz

“Asclepias Volume 1” by Richard Edward Rintz

In spite of all this publicity, milkweeds remain an obscure group of plants. Many people don’t realize the number and variety of kinds of milkweeds found just in the United States.

Dr. Richard Rintz does know. He spent years tracking the plants down and photographing them. He spent more years researching the various species. The results are now in a three volume set of books called “Asclepias.”

"Asclepias Volume 2" by Richard Edward Rintz

“Asclepias Volume 2” by Richard Edward Rintz

Each species has its own section. Photographs of the plants begin the section. A history of how the plant was discovered, the formal description – translated into English – and comments about the plant follow the photographs. Drawings from the original descriptions and drawings of the flowers done by Dr. Rintz complete the species sections.

The last full treatment of Asclepias was done by Dr. Woodson in 1954. He organized the genus, tried to settle some of the name and species arguments and gave range maps for each of the species. More information about different species has come to light in the years since. Dr. Rintz has included this.

"Asclepias Volume 3" by Richard Edward Rintz

“Asclepias Volume 3” by Richard Edward Rintz

These volumes are a botanical treatment of Asclepias. They can get very technical. They are intended to update Woodson’s monograph for botanists and serious amateurs interested in the genus.

For the rest of us, these volumes have gorgeous photographs of milkweeds. Only the scientific names are given, but finding the common names is not difficult.

Milkweeds vary from plants not much larger than a dollar bill growing on deep red sand dunes to eight foot tall erect leafless stems in the desert southwest to the broad-leaved plants common in my area of the Ozarks. The flowers all have the typical Asclepias five wells, but vary in color from white to yellow to pink to purple. The range is large and fascinating.

The three volumes are privately printed, 8 1/2 by 11 inches and spiral bound. A set is $200 plus postage. For the present as copies are limited, if you wish to purchase a set, please contact me by email.

Saving Monarch Butterflies

One of my favorite school memories is from one fall day in sixth grade. We had a baseball game going when a cloud of monarch butterflies stopped the game.

There must have been hundreds, maybe a thousand or more of these deep orange and black butterflies flying across the fields. They rested on the bats, our heads and shoulders and fluttered by on their way south. It was a time of wonder for few of us even knew what these butterflies were or that they migrated to Mexico for the winter.

A monarch butterfly sipping nectar from a swamp milkweed flower.

A monarch butterfly sipping nectar from a swamp milkweed flower.

Since that time the wintering grounds of the monarch butterflies has been found and much of it is now protected in Mexico. People are more aware of these butterflies and their migration is tracked online every year.

Bad winter weather has hurt monarch populations over the last few years. The greatest threat to them is agriculture and lawns.

common milkweed

Common milkweed can grow eight feet tall and spreads through rhizomes. It has large leaves. Umbels of flowers hang from leaf nodes up and down the stem. The butterfly is a Great Spangled Frittilary.

In school monarchs are used to illustrate mimicry in animals. Insects are animals. The monarch has a terrible taste causing would be predators to ignore them after a single taste. Viceroy butterflies look a lot like monarchs but taste good. Predators who know how bad monarchs taste also ignore the viceroys.

Monarchs get that bad taste as caterpillars by eating milkweeds. This is all they eat. They store up chemicals in the milkweed leaves that can be toxic to grazers but definitely taste bad.

purple milkweed

Purple milkweed is popular for monarch caterpillars in the spring. The plant is four to five feet tall with a branched single stem. An umbel of flowers tops each branch.

This is where the problem lies. Milkweeds are not grown commercially as crops. They are treated as weeds.

Most milkweeds are not good garden plants. Some don’t look impressive. Others spread.

So milkweeds are on the weed hit list. And as the milkweeds disappear, so do the monarch butterflies.

swamp milkweed

Swamp milkweed grows to five feet tall but does not spread. It’s deep pink flower umbels are numerous. This milkweed likes it wet.

Last year I saw three monarchs. Without help this number may soon come down to zero.

Monarch butterflies and milkweeds may not be commercially important but both are a gift to us. Gifts are special and should be respected and protected.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has started a program to help the monarchs by setting aside areas to grow milkweeds. This is a good idea but ignores one of the best places for milkweeds: roadside ditches.

butterfly weed milkweed

Butterfly Weed is gaining in popularity as a garden flower. It blooms freely for a long period and does not send out runners.

As anyone who reads this commentary knows, I take a lot of wildflower pictures and many of them are of flowers found growing along the roads. This includes milkweeds such as Common, Purple, Swamp, Whorled, Butterfly Weed and Green.

Yet every year as the milkweeds are coming into full use for monarch caterpillars, the road crews come by and mow them down. Most milkweeds will not resprout after being so massacred.

There is good reason to mow the edges of the roads for visibility and motorists needing to change tires etc. There is no good reason to mow down plants growing more than four feet from the edge of the road or in the ditches until after killing frost in the fall.

monarch butterflies come from caterpillars that feed on milkweed

Monarch caterpillars are easy to recognize. This one’s head is at the lower end as it eats a leaf on a common milkweed.

When Lyndon Johnson was president, his wife Ladybird tried to get states to realize that roadsides were the new prairies. Native wildflowers and plants depended on these areas to thrive. Planting them there made the roadsides beautiful and didn’t hurt the highways.

Please take notice and contact the Department of Conservation of all states asking them to put pressure on the road crews to stop cutting down these native plants. These areas are already growing milkweeds, cost nothing and it would be so nice to see wildflowers in place of endless, environmentally useless grass.