It's a little bittersweet, no, downright sad (to two people who have always lived around the natural world) to hear exclaimed from my backyard in Columbia, "oh my god! We actually have a butterfly in the yard!"
I don't live in or near those fancy neighborhoods full of showy pollinator gardens and unmanaged green spaces all covered in rangy common wildflowers, but sweet little bees like my yard, and the nighttime chorus of katydids and cicadas can be deafening. I won't whine about how many butterflies flock to my mother's yard, to DeLaSoil, my community garden in New Orleans, or even to the 50x50 plot of random favored-by-me Missouri prairie wildflowers I crammed into the gumbo soils of southeast Missouri....strictly for the purpose of attracting pollinators for me to look at. But I haven't seen a butterfly in my yard all year, so seeing the single monarch nectaring on my now 12 foot tall blooming Silphium reminded me that the annual monarch migration must be underway these days. I counted 4, 8, upwards of 15 flitting past my driver's side window during my hot and sticky 43.5 minute commute to work today. More monarchs on Hwy. 63 than in my quiet and neglected little neighborhood full of blooming annual "weeds."
I don't know if the rich, varied landscapes within the Ozark Highlands support thriving populations of monarchs, but within the glades, woodlands and unmanaged anthropogenic old fields, several species of milkweeds, the sole host plant to monarch butterflies, thrive from April through September. I've been fortunate to catch several milkweeds in bloom this year, though I haven't seen a single monarch nectaring on the vibrant and curiously shaped flowers. And, moreover, out of the hundreds of milkweed plants I've seen this year, I haven't seen leaves decimated by big, fat monarch caterpillars.
Nevertheless, a brief guide to some of the more common milkweeds in Missouri's Ozark Highlands, beginning in spring in the woodlands:
Asclepias quadrifolia, pale pink blooms droop from the delicate stalks in mid-May, sharing the space with Jack-in-the-pulpits and mayapples. The four leaves are arranged in a whorl near the bloom. This one is similar in color to A. perennis, restricted in Missouri to the wet-mesic bottomland woodlands of southeast Missouri, a plant so elegant I swoon when I see it.
Around early June, the sturdy blooms of A. viridis open up on limestone and some dolomite glades. Possibly the most rugged of the milkweeds, the blooms of this one are persistent, lasting well into early July. I don't know my ants, but someone out there does: this photo was taken at Valley View Glades, if that helps with provenance.
Rather common in Missouri, A. purpurascens appears in open woodlands, in old fields, and in woodland edges. Down in the Elk River Hills, this milkweed was mobbed by Great spangled fritillaries and Hesperidii. Populations of A. purpurascens are declining throughout the range, though populations in Missouri seem to be stable. Like the rest of the milkweeds, and, well, plants in general, this one needs light to grow. Many of our woodlands in Missouri receive at least enough light for this plant to live.
The hallmark plant of butterfly gardens, A. tuberosa, also known from old fields, roadsides, prairies, glades and woodland edges. The brilliant orange flowers last almost all summer, providing a nectar source for countless species of pollinators.
Another glade species, A. verticillata has fine, stiff leaves and blooms that can be found today in shady regions of limestone woodlands. Similar in appearance to A. stenophylla, this one is more commonly encountered throughout the Ozarks.
And finally, found on glades and in moist woodlands in White River-Elk River Hillls country (and Shannon Co.), climbing milkweed (Matelea baldwyniana), not an Asclepias, but in the same family. A special thanks to the nice young man who corrected me gently this morning, in a manner most unlike my mean colleague.