WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Spectacular! That word alone accurately describes the eye-catching beauty of Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), our only native milkweed with showy orange blossoms. But don’t let the words “butterfly” or “weed” fool you. Butterfly Weed is a non-discriminating, pollinator-friendly plant, a fact confirmed by its attractiveness to bumblebees and honey bees. Even Ruby-throated hummingbirds visit its nectar-rich blossoms. Just a weed? Certainly not!
I stop dead in my tracks on sultry August days when I spot butterfly weed in a meadow or alongside a sunny trail. You could call it love at first sight. I am not the only one smitten by this natural beauty that seemingly glows in the early morning sunlight. In 2017, the Perennial Plant Association awarded it the Perennial Plant of the Year award, and 2021 has turned into a banner year for this beauty.
Its long-lasting, bright-orange flowers combined with its short stature make Butterfly Weed one of the most popular milkweeds to enhance native wildflower gardens or edge rural driveways. When it appears naturally in fields, it’s true to its name and attracts legions of butterflies, including monarch butterflies. Don’t even think about digging it from a roadside or a park property, an act which is not permitted. A quick internet search will reveal reputable seed sellers, and late autumn is an excellent time to sow seeds.
The blossoms are at full bloom now and will continue to lure insects and curious humans for another month, perhaps even longer. I captured many of these images in the last week of July in northern Oakland County when a few of its red buds had yet to open. Two photos were “borrowed” from friends and are appropriately credited further down below.
All of the images with monarch caterpillars crawling and leaf crunching on butterfly weed leaves are from my wild meadow. By “wild,” I mean the meadow has never seen the blades of a close-cropping mower, it has never been treated with chemicals or fertilizers, and many of the plants within might truly be considered weeds. That’s just fine with me, for the weeds, some of which are taller than me, also lure in bees, birds, and butterflies. As a bonus, my seemingly unkept meadow creates hunting grounds for a fox family to search for voles and mice and a place for deer to bed down. I only mow the very edge of the meadow where my beehive is located.
My meadow maintenance plan is simple and nourishes butterfly weed, and perhaps a dozen other species. It benefits butterflies and bees as well. Every few years, I create a burn plan which is reviewed by the local fire department and includes an on-site inspection. When conditions are ideal, a burn permit is issued and I set sections of the meadow ablaze with my own fire suppression equipment on site. The plant growth the following year is more vibrant than ever, and I am well rewarded with more wildflowers, more butterflies, and more butterfly weed.
Look closely at some of the images that show monarch caterpillars and you will also spot frass on the leaves. What’s frass? Those dark brown pellets are frass, a catch-all term that refers to the biological waste that insects, including gluttonous monarch caterpillars, leave behind as a natural byproduct of their metabolic activities. Or as a young child would say without any hesitation before breaking into hysterical giggles, “It’s caterpillar poop!”
Milkweed is an essential plant for the Monarch butterfly’s survival life cycle. Milkweeds are the only plant their caterpillars can live off of and are also the plant on which monarch caterpillars create their intricate chrysalis from which their cycle of life continues. This fantastic collage by Kim Phillips documents the emergence of a monarch from a chrysalis.
Although some butterfly lovers consider butterfly weed the ideal “monarch magnet,” I think it is no more attractive to butterflies than any other milkweed species. However, its blossoms are irresistible to nature-loving human eyes and because of that, we pay more attention to this species than to our other native milkweeds that are far less showy. As a result, we see more monarchs on its flowers and monarch caterpillars on its leaves, as well as noticing honey bees and bumblebees that might go unnoticed on other milkweeds.
Michigan has ten species of native milkweeds. The two most common ones are Common Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed. Common milkweed is called “Nature’s mega food market for insects” by the U.S. Forest Service and is extremely common in Oakland County. U.S.Forest Service writes, “Over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant. Numerous insects are attracted to the nectar-laden flowers and it is not at all uncommon to see flies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies on the flowers at the same time.” Swamp milkweed is a moisture-loving perennial and is also easily found in our county, almost always in sunny openings at the edges of swamps and marshes and along stream banks and roadside ditches. Walk up slowly to swamp milkweed on a sunny August day and just wait for a few minutes. All kinds of butterflies may appear, including the monarch, along with an entourage of nectar-loving insects.
Common milkweed is the milkweed that kids and more than a few adults love to find in autumn when the seed pods crack open and silky white parachutes emerge and take flight in winds with a seed attached to each one.
The plight of the monarch butterfly is well known across the nation, and many of our towns and parks host annual monarch festivals. Even though the butterfly weed is not always the first choice for a monarch looking for an egg-laying site, these beautiful milkweeds, with copious production of nectar, certainly draw attention to the life cycle of the monarch. That bodes well for monarchs, for knowledge is often the key to action. “Welcome Butterflies & Bees” seems to be the beckoning message that’s sent by butterfly weed in the dawn’s early light. That fact alone makes butterfly milkweed one of the summer’s finest gifts of nature’s way on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.