Milkweed for Monarchs….and everyone else!

The recent push to plant Milkweed for Monarchs is a welcome development in the gardening community.  Monarchs are dependent on Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) for their survival, as it is the only food their caterpillars can eat.  But it’s not just for Monarchs! LOTS of pollinators visit the flowers to drink the nectar.  I took my camera out to several of our patches of Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) yesterday to document a smapling of the variety of insects I see on the flowers.

One of the common names of Asclepias tuberosa is ‘Butterflyweed’ so one would expect to see butterflies.  This female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is dipping her long proboscis into the nectar rich base of the flower in order to drink it up.  It’s like a built in straw.

A close cousin, the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) also feeds on the nectar. Much like the Monarch Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of the plants in a single genus, Asimina, or Paw Paws.

This Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) was looking a little tattered, as it was probably approaching the end of it’s ~2 week long adult life.  It was still sipping nectar as it rested on the flowers.

Bees also love the nectar from this plant.  Here a Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon spp.) perches it’s tiny body atop the flower as it sips nectar from inside. It’s just one of the hundreds of species of native bees here in Georgia.

Another Native bee, possibly a Leafcutter bee (I’m not an entomologist), feeding on nectar.

Another possible leafcutter bee: the whitish mat of hairs on the underside of it’s abdomen are used for collecting pollen.  Look closely to the right of the bee and you’ll see an ant sipping nectar as well.

Speaking of Ants, this Fire Ant also found it’s way up the 3 foot tall stalks for a sugary meal. Ants can be pollinators too, and they are responsible for dispersing the seeds of many spring blooming wildflowers such as Trillium and Bloodroot.

This Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) feeds on nectar as an adult, but like most wasps it hatched from an egg laid on another insect and fully consumed it before the metamorphosis into it’s current winged form.  Golden Digger Wasps are predators to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets.

This Yellow Jacket adult enjoys sugary nectar, but its larvae need a more protein rich diet, which the adults supply by hunting other insects (many of which are agricultural pests).  Wasps are much maligned by humans, but without their predatory behavior we would be literally drowning in bugs and our crops would be decimated.

And finally, not everyone is there for the nectar! This is one of several clever lizards I’ve seen recently near blooming flowers lying in wait for some distracted pollinator to drift too close…..

Milkweed is for Monarchs, but after they have migrated north it’s for butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, ants, beetles, aphids, and even lizards.

Spring at last!

Honeybee on Butterflyweed.

Honeybee on Butterflyweed.

Has no Milk.              Is not a Weed.

Clasping Leaf Milkweed.

Clasping Leaf Milkweed.








But it is what Monarchs need. 

This weekend, May 21 & 22,  we will bring Milkweeds for your Monarchs into Atlanta.  Pink Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata; Poke Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata; Butterflyweed (just a couple of these); and a couple Clasping Leaf Milkweed, Asclepias amplexicaulis.

We will also have a variety of other native plants and shrubs in bloom and out. Shade blooming species, Georgia Prairie species, and interesting shrubs for butterfly larva support and habitat gardening.

Visit us from 9-5 at 393 North Clarendon Avenue, Scottdale, GA 30079.

Miniature Worlds: Milkweed Edition

Every plant is a microcosm of the larger world if you look closely. Creatures go about their lives, feeding, mating and reproducing in their little corner of existence unaware of the larger world just beyond the edge of the leaf. Most plants have co-evolved with their insect predators, and with each new defensive adaptation comes a new insect feeding strategy. Specialized plant defenses lead to specialized insect plant eaters and then specialized insect predators that feed upon them. Unique, interdependent communities of plants and animals slowly take shape over the eons. Plants are the foundation upon which these communities are built, the necessary stage on which all the characters will play out their roles.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are host to a number of insects that are well adapted to feed on this otherwise toxic plant. The most famous is the Monarch Butterfly caterpillar, which like all caterpillars starts out tiny:

Those lines in the background are my fingerprints. Caterpillars grow quickly because they eat, and eat, and eat. That’s really all they do is eat and grow through stages called instars as they covert leaf matter into body mass. In the final stages they are much larger:

The bright colors are to warn would be predators (i.e. birds) that their bodies are full of foul tasting, potentially poisonous compounds from the milkweed leaves.

Monarch caterpillars aren’t the only ones to eat milkweed, or to have those black and yellow stripes. The Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars (Euchaetes egle) also display the black and yellow warning signs:
They also have long stiff hairs to deter birds from trying to eat them. Unlike Monarchs, these caterpillars are gregarious and will congregate in large groups. This swarm defoliated 6 plants before I isolated them. The plants have evolved with this, and respond with a new burst of leaf growth a week or two later once the ravenous caterpillars have starved or pupated.

Another denizen of the milkweed patch is the aptly named Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus). It also sports bright colors to warn of the toxins it has ingested.
Seen here are the smaller, wingless nymph stage at left and the winged adult on the right. They are reluctant to stay still long enough for a good picture because I am more often hunting them down with a can of soapy water than a camera. These insects have specialized mouth parts to pierce milkweed seed pods and devour the seeds inside. I am trying quite hard to get fertile milkweed seeds even without them eating the pods, so a watery grave is all I have for them.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) also present problems for those who grow and sell milkweed plants. They are an invasive insect in the US, as they evolved feeding on Oleander plants in the Mediterranean region. Oleander plants just happen to produce the same defensive chemicals, cardiac glycosides, that Milkweed plants do. When Oleander was introduced to the US as a garden plant the aphids came with it and soon began to feed on the native milkweeds as well.
They are now pretty much synonymous with milkweed, and can rob the plant of its energy by sucking out the juices from leaves and stems. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew from their backsides, and this often nurtures the growth of fungi on the plant that can further weaken it and lead to the death of the plant. Controlling the spread of these nasty aphids can be tough. The simplest method is to blast them off the plants with a jet of water. It doesn’t necessarily kill them, but gives the plant a respite until they find their way back. Soapy water is another favorite, and it will actually kill them.
Soapy water also kills caterpillars and the eggs they hatch from though, so I’ve pretty much given up on spraying the plants with it. I usually just spot treat the larger infestations by knocking the aphids into my trusty can of soapy water. Spraying Neem Oil or soapy water will reduce the aphid numbers, but it will also kill off numerous unrelated insects (like caterpillars) and aphid predators as well. One positive sign I have noticed since discontinuing spraying is the presence of more Ladybug (Coccinella spp.) larvae. The little crocodile-looking larva are predators that love to eat aphids and numerous other plant-feeding insects.
After eating lots of aphids they pupate into the cheery red and black beetles that continue to feed on many of the insects that we call “crop pests.” Yet another reason to plant milkweed, as the ladybugs and their larvae do not distinguish between the green native aphids and the yellow invasive ones. It’s just another food source that will keep them around to guard your other plants.

Those are just a few of the insects that call Milkweed home. You can invite them into your community simply by planting any of the multiple Asclepias species and they will find it. Of that you can be sure.

Milkweeds Sacrifice; Monarchs Take Flight

As we were walking the propagation beds a few weeks back, Pandra and I approached a patch of about 8-10 milkweed plants (Asclepias tuberosa) and she said “Oh no!”  Only one was still green, and all that remained of the others were brown dried out stems with a few dead leaves still clinging to the ends.  It looked a little like this:

We started to discuss what could have caused all these plants to die off and whether or not it was the same beetles that took out nearly all of our Coreopsis last spring.  I said that I’d seen a Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on one of those plants the week before, and maybe they were the cause?  We took a look at another patch of milkweed plants and saw essentially the same thing, dead crowns on all the plants except one.  The one remaining green plant in this patch had three monarch caterpillars feasting on the leaves.  I didn’t get a picture, but they had obviously come from the plants with the dead crowns, as this last green plant was the farthest down the line.  We both said “well, that’s why we grow milkweed” and hoped that the crowns would re-sprout in the spring.

Fast forward two weeks and I’m out at the front beds again checking to see if seeds had ripened on some of the sunflowers.  A Monarch butterfly floated by on the breeze.  Then another one caught my eye flying down to the other end of the bed.  Fortunately I had my camera.

This is a newly hatched Monarch feeding on the nectar of a Georgia Aster flower.  This is also a good example of why you need butterfly host plants AND flowering nectar plants to support a healthy population of butterflies in your garden.  If this butterfly had hatched and there was no food in the area she might have perished, but there were multiple species of plants flowering within 30 yards of the milkweed so she had plenty to eat.  Hopefully it provided a good first meal for the incredible journey to Mexico or South Florida that this lady is about to embark upon. 

    That’s fine and well for the butterflies, but what about our poor milkweed plants?  I went to check on their roots and to my surprise I found this:

Already sprouting new growth!  All of the plants with dead crowns were putting up some form of new growth, and most of it looked larger and greener than the growth that the monarchs devoured.  The milkweeds abandoned their crowns as a result of the siege, and then after the caterpillars left and pupated they simply sprouted new stems.  Host plant/insect relationships are so complex and fascinating.  Almost as fascinating as how successive generations of butterflies know how and when to migrate thousands of miles to a place they’ve never been, but that’s another post.  Until then……

Happy Trails!