Saturday, June 28, 2008

Climbing milkweed

Several years ago, during my first foray into the Ozarks, a young seasonal naturalist asked me if I had a brown colored pencil buried somewhere in my messy desk. Assigned the mundane task of coloring an extensive collection of lovely wildflower sketches for the education of park visitors, she employed red, blue, purple, and several shades of pink pencils. But she couldn't find the brown one. Spring and early summer in the Ozarks usher in three distinctive brown flowers: pawpaw (Asimina triloba), trillium (Trillium sessile), and climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens). The young naturalist grouped the wildflower drawings not by bloom period, but by color, shuffling the interesting brown flowers to the bottom of the stack.

Climbing milkweed grows throughout the Ozarks in rocky streamsides, glades and moist woods. A member of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), it plays host to monarch butterflies and other insects dependent on the milky sap members of the family. I stumbled across several blooming plants recently at the bottom of a dolomite glade, in a seepy area thick with ironweed and crownbeard. Those moist toeslopes of glades, where water percolates through the rock to an almost impermeable layer, harbor a wealth of biodiversity. Plants one normally associates with streamsides or fens (juncus, scirpus, eleocharis, sedges) grow in these specialized areas. Climbing milkweed just happens to be one of the more charismatic ones.

After the brown flowers wither, large round seedpods containing feathery seeds form. Unlike the milkweeds that grow on the roadsides like Asclepias syriaca and even A. tuberosa (all lovely in their own right), climbing milkweed doesn't grow as readily and abundant. The heart shaped leaves and hairy stems are unmistakable in the field and, like every other milkweed, would really make a lovely addition in a horticultural setting.

1 comment:

Mary W. Farmer said...

How neat! An appreciation for brown as well as an introduction to the milkweed vine, of which I was completely unaware. As an aside, before I started looking really closely at plants, I, too, like your colleague, placed an undue emphasis on flower color. And I, too, would have found brown uninteresting and at the bottom of the stack. You've opened my eyes to a great flower color.

The enlarged image of the milkweed is wonderful - those "crowns" especially.

Thanks for this post.