Sunday, June 3, 2018

All Aflutter

These stately common milkweed plants (Asclepius syriaca) have flowered wonderfully this year. If you've never gotten up close and personal with common milkweed in bloom, I recommend that you do so. The pale violet-pink blossoms have an exquisite fragrance.

Fortunately these milkweeds -- as well as another stand of them a few feet away -- are readily accessible for a random inhalation. We also have a great view of them from our screened in porch, where we eat most of our meals during the warm months. So we can be entertained by the flutterings of various butterflies taking sustenance from the blossoms.

Most of the butterflies I've seen at the milkweed blossoms have been these little pale, pale blue ones (below), and the majestic orange and black fritillaries. I'm not absolutely certain which fritillary this beauty is -- Kansas boasts five different fritillary species -- but it might be the Great Spangled Fritillary.

I have seen one Monarch
supping at the flowers. Just one. Even if I hadn't seen the one adult Monarch butterfly I would know that the milkweeds have been visited by at least one Monarch female. Otherwise, how would this little guy (see below) be chewing on the buds? I've also seen a few of these caterpillars crawling along looking for someplace to hang their green and gold chrysalises.

After I explained the Monarch's relationship with the milkweed, he began calling these "sacrificial" plants. Indeed, they are. I plant them for the caterpillars. But I get to enjoy them, as well. So far the caterpillars haven't done much damage to the plants, although a couple of much smaller ones have been defoliated and are just crooked stems.

This is one of the reasons for planting native plants, to feed the native critters, which recognize these plants as food, where they might not find some of the introduced plants palatable. And butterflies tend to lay their eggs on only one type of plant, although the adults can sip nectar from almost any nectar-producing blossom. In this case, Monarch caterpillars only feed on members of the milkweed genus -- although I recently read that they will use another plant in a pinch, but I forget which one.

The population of Monarch butterflies has decreased dramatically in part because we've stomped out milkweed populations. Besides feeding the Monarch babies, these beautiful prairie plants also sustain adults of other native butterflies and bees. Last month a cluster of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) was skeletonized by little spiny caterpillars, which I discovered were the larvae of the small, Silvery Checkerspot butterfly. Go ahead and plant zinnias for the adults to drink from, but plant some nursery plants, too.

The butterflies (and the birds and other critters they feed) will thank you.

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