Monday, June 28, 2010

June 28: Milkweed in Bloom

At my office we don't mow most of the lawn, instead allowing the native vegetation to take over in a sprawling but natural way. A good portion of it hosts a rather dense patch of milkweed, which has just begun to bloom. We tend to stop paying attention to what we see all the time, so I hadn't realized the milkweed was blooming until I walked from the office to my car this afternoon after a torrential rainstorm had passed through. The humid air was redolent with a sweet fragrance that literally stopped me in my tracks. What was it? I looked around the thicket of plants I had just walked past, and the only flowering plant nearby was milkweed. Ordinary milkweed. I sniffed a cluster of the unprepossessing pink blossoms... and that was it! I had no idea milkweed could smell so wonderful.

What I do know about milkweed is that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the plants, and the resulting larvae feed entirely on milkweed. Milkweed sap is toxic to what might eat a caterpillar; by eating milkweed leaves, the caterpillars become toxic too. I've seen a merlin catch a monarch and spit it out--clearly, the butterflies don't taste good either. So monarch and milkweed have a close relationship, with the aromatic plant being essential to the early life stages of the butterfly, as well as increasing the insect's chances for survival against predators. And I'm sure the monarch plays a role in pollinating the milkweed in turn.

After the rainstorm
milkweed sends perfumed love notes
to the butterflies.

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