Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Milkweed Pioneers

I can't believe I haven't written much about milkweed yet. It is one of my favorite plants. I have developed a reputation for becoming exuberant when driving past a nice patch of milkweed. My teenage children filmed one such episode a few years ago, and I have made them promise it will never end up on YouTube.

What's to love about the humble, common milkweed plant? First of all, milkweed attracts monarch butterflies and is their larval food source. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch, they begin munching on the leaves. Each year at the end of August, my husband and I search milkweed patches for monarch caterpillars to bring into my classroom so my kindergartners can observe part of the monarch butterfly life cycle. (Click here to read more about that.) So, I initially became interested in milkweed because of its importance to monarch butterflies.

Milkweed produces a sticky, stinky, milky sap that is poisonous to many animals. When monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, the toxins get stored in their tissues, and they become poisonous to predators. The connection between monarch butterflies and milkweed is profound, and the monarch butterfly's relationship with the milkweed plant is one of its greatest defenses! The presence of milkweed in the monarch butterfly life cycle seems so beneficent.

Once milkweed had caught my attention, I fell in love with the silky, white seed fairies that burst from mature, tightly packed seed pods that crack open in the fall. The image of seed fairies leaving the pod strikes me as so elegantly powerful and symbolic that I kept a large, framed print of the photo (below) next to my mom's bed when she was dying.


The silky milkweed "floss" has even been used as a filling for pillows!

Our yard overflows with wildflowers. It is a pollinators' paradise. However, there was no milkweed! Every fall for the past six years, I'd bring a few mature milkweed pods into our yard and watch over them as they cracked open and released a multitude of silky seed fairies into the wind. (I read somewhere that each pod contains upwards of 200 neatly arranged seeds.) Each year, I prayed that some of the seed fairies would touch down in our yard and nestle contentedly into the ground for a long winter's nap. But each spring and summer, I was disappointed to find that no seedlings took hold in our yard.

Until last year.

Last summer, we noticed a tiny milkweed plant growing near our compost bin! It never flowered, but at least a milkweed plant finally had taken root in our yard. Milkweed seeds are dispersed through the wind, but the plant also spreads through hardy networks of underground stems called rhizomes.

This year, milkweed is thriving on the riverside in front of our house, and the mother of all milkweed plants has claimed a spot next to our compost! It is more than five feet tall with a stalk that's nearly an inch thick, and there are two slightly smaller plants so close to it that from a distance they appear to be one plant. They - along with their unseen rhizome system - comprise our first colony of milkweed pioneers!


Although I assumed my appreciation of milkweed already had reached an apex, I have discovered new things to love about it. 

Common milkweed blooms in great spheres of pink flowers during the summer and attracts many pollinators. (The nectar and pollen do not contain the poison.)


Spiraling up from the bottom, each sphere (umbel) is in a different phase of flowering, with the lowermost sphere being the furthest along.


The upper spheres haven't opened yet.


Zooming in for a pollinator's view of the lower, flowered sphere, I discovered that each blossom has a five-pointed star at the center. I love to find hidden stars in nature!


Here is a side view of the flowers with petals folded down.


I leaned in to smell the blossoms and was delighted by the fragrance! It was nothing like I had anticipated, given the stench of the milky sap. My husband and I would remark about the beautiful fragrance in the air during our morning walks, and I was amazed to discover that milkweed was the source of it! Why aren't there milkweed blossom scented perfumes and candles?

I go outside every day to inspect and marvel at our milkweed colony. It is like greeting a dear friend. Of course, I'm hoping to find a monarch butterfly egg glued to the underside of a leaf in due time. But at the moment, I am content to observe the flowering. There is so much to love about this incredible plant!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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