Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In honor of milkweeds, corrected

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.


Anonymous said...

Lovely essay - aside from orchids, perhaps my favorite herbaceous plant group.

I had dearly hoped to see Meade's milkweed this spring but couldn't get myself organized for a search in the St. Francois Mountains. I'm up to 9 of our 15 native species right now.

Allison Vaughn said...

And A. incarnata is in bloom now in moist riverbanks and ditches. Lovely plant. I think we have plans to burn a handful of the Mead's glades this September. I always miss it, too. I guess I don't really like stomping through fragile environments with 30 people like all the fieldtrips call for. I think it's destructive.

James C. Trager said...

Mead's milkweed grows rather near some of the trails in Prairie State Park and can be seen by those with an eye for it. A bit late to catch it in flower this year, though.

These are fascinating plants, all. I used to wonder why so many insects have become adapted to eating their bitter foliage. Turns out, their tissues are quite high in a good energy source, sucrose. Indeed, common milkweed has a higher sugar content than sugar cane! Who knew? -- Until a former professor of mine, in quest of possible candcer drugs, noted big crystals of sucrose forming in his extractions!

Allison Vaughn said...

Headed to Prairie tomorrow, actually. Cool about the sugars! I never see anything but the white latex coming out of it. I think quadrifolia is just lovely, isn't it?

James C. Trager said...

Lovely, indeed. And it must be virtually immortal. I'd guess fewer than 1% of the plants in the population I know best ever manage to ripen pods before something comes along and eats them.

Anonymous said...

I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite - they're all exquisite. Still, despite its ubiquity, tuberosus never fails to impress, and amplexicaulis is just... odd.