Friday, June 24, 2011

Butterfly Magnets

I don't usually write an article after reading someone's text because it always seems a little uninspired.  This time, I'll give credit to the inspiration to Annie's Annuals  Annie's is in California and at times she gardens a little outside of my conservative Midwest farm roots.  (Roots - is that a pun??)  I love her wild abandon in the garden and her love of interesting and unusual plants.   She advertised milkweed today and she was spot on the money with her advice to grow more milkweed in our gardens.

Milkweed is seen on most of our (if it's not sprayed or mowed too early) road sides. Because farmers have their own reasons for mowing and spraying, the answer to attracting Monarch and other butterflies is planting your own milkweed.  Here are the first two suggested by Annie and I use parts of her descriptive quotes:     

Asclepias speciosa "Showy Milkweed"
Undeniably stunning in bloom, everyone who can should grow at least one of our native perennial "Showy Milkweeds" as it is THE native host for our western Monarch butterfly, which lays its eggs on the stems and leaves. Thriving in poor, dry , well-drained soil, it's tough and vigorous with gorgeous large silvery-green, soft-to-the-touch leaves. Atop the 3' to 4' stems, the remarkably FRAGRANT large round clusters are 4" to 5" across and made up of lovely velvety pink and white star-like flowers. Bloom season occurs late Spring to late Summer. Sometime after bloom it will go deciduous but not to worry, it will certainly return next Spring with more stems. Grow it next to your driveway, parking strip, somewhere your hose won't reach, on a hillside and especially in a xeric or native garden. Does well in a large pot, too, 5 gal. & up.When planted it will temporarily go dormant. Once it's established, you'll be delighted with the fruits of your patience. And so will our Monarchs, who can smell a milkweed a mile off. Look for their incredible chrysalises, glossy turquoise and emerald ringed with unbelievable glimmering gold beads.  Perennial in our Midwest zone 5.

Asclepias syriaca “Virginia Silk”
Very possibly the most stunningly beautiful of all Milkweeds and the most fragrant! Adored by gardeners & Monarch butterflies alike, this species, a native perennial to much of the US (including here), bears large 4” pinky-mauve spherical bloom clusters from early to mid-Summer that are powerfully & deliciously scented of lilacs & hyacinths. Un-branched in habit with strong upright stems 3-5’ tall, it also sports attention grabbing broad rich green foliage that creates a nice contrast against finer leaved plants. EASY, TOUGH, LONG LIVED, tolerant of drought & poor soil, this wonderful Milkweed attracts all manner of nectar seeking creatures including the beautiful Sphinx Moth. Deciduous in Winter, it spreads slowly by rhizomes which can be controlled by chopping the roots, or plant in an area where that’s not a concern or use as a thrilling container subject! Rich loamy soil for most outrageous show! Cut to ground in Winter.  Potted it must be either moved indoors or it will probably die in the pot.

Asclepias curassavica “Bloodflower”/ “Mexican Milkweed”
I planted this annual last year and it was surprisingly wonderful in the garden.  Flowers will be orange/red on this particular one and there are others that are yellow - some with both.  Sadly, it didn't come up from scattered seeds this year so it's officially an annual in my garden.  They should be planted early (plant inside or protect until the last frost is over) so you have a long bloom season for the butterflies.  These are 2-3 foot tall, don't get too wide and tend to flop a little towards the end of the season.  Planting in with other perennials would help support them.  They don't stop blooming until hit with pretty hard frost. 

Milkweed is a good teaching experience for children - the caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly are a nature demo waiting for observation and discussion.

The genus was named after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, because of the many folk-medicinal uses for the milkweed plants.

Pollination is accomplished in an unusual manner. Pollen is grouped into complex structures called Pollinia (or "pollen sacs"), rather than being individual grains or tetrads, as is typical for most plants. The feet or mouth parts of flower-visiting insects such as bees, wasps, & butterflies, slip into one of the five slits in each flower. The bases of the pollen sacs then mechanically attach to the insect, pulling a pair of pollen sacs free when the pollinator flies off. Pollination is effected by the reverse procedure in which one of the pollinia becomes trapped within the anther slit.  Now how cool is that!

Milkweeds are an important nectar source for bees and other nectar-seeking insects, and a larval food source for monarch butterflies and their relatives, as well as a variety of other herbivorous insects (including numerous beetles, moths, and true bugs) specialized to feed on the plants despite their chemical defenses.  Now this is REALLY a cool study in nature:  Milkweeds use three primary defenses to limit damage caused by caterpillars: hairs on the leaves, cardenolide toxins, and latex fluids. Data from a DNA study indicate more recently evolved milkweed species use less of these preventative strategies, but grow faster than older species, potentially regrowing faster than caterpillars can consume them.  About the time humans begin to think we are the only way nature can survive, we are again proved we are not the biggest dog in the lot. 

So today - thanks to Annie and her wild enthusiasm for milkweeds and the realization it's a plant beneficial for most areas of our country.

Top two photos are from the net - bottom three are from my collection.  

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