With the merry month of May having evaporated, June heralds the arrival of many thousands of young animals, firmly establishes territories, and brings the maturity of many native plants.
Most of the native birds have hatched or already fledged young. Keep in mind that “fall” migration starts this month with adult shorebirds from the high Arctic arriving in Walla Walla County on or about June 20.
This month I want to share with you information about a very important native plant that is not only spectacular as it blooms this month, but is vital to the survival of many outstanding insects and other animals.
The showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is an unfortunate name, as this plant should never be considered a weed of any sort. This big leafed single stocked plant can grow up to 50 inches tall and produce up to six great round heads or umbels of pale pink flowers that can number 28 flowers per head. These blooms appear to be thick and almost made of wax. Each flower is almost seven-tenths of an inch across.
It is after this eye-catching plant goes into bloom that things began to pop around it. As each umbel proceeds to open, the first in a long line of visitors are drawn in to sample its sweet nectar. Small native bees, moths and wasps arrive in droves to start the pollination of showy milkweed. Soon, other insects arrive not to pollinate, but to feed on it and lay eggs on it.
As the blooms mature, a beetle called the red milkweed bore arrives to lay its eggs inside the plant’s stem. Then European honey bees come to pollinate and collect nectar — and get into trouble as it probes for nectar when mouth parts become stuck in flower parts. Many bees die while being held fast by the plant.
The star of this event, however, is a large bright-orange and black butterfly with white dots: the American monarch butterfly. The western population of this spectacular butterfly is in deep trouble due to loss of milkweed plants, being hit by vehicles and the indiscriminate use of pesticides across its range.
How showy milkweed protects and hosts the monarch as a caterpillar is what is so amazing. As the caterpillar feeds on the milkweed leaves, it ingests the plant’s “milk,” which is toxic and unpalatable to birds and some small mammals. Thus after the insect completes metamorphosis and becomes a flying butterfly the toxins remain its body, so much so that several other species of butterflies mimic the monarch to appear unpalatable to birds.
Although monarch populations are under pressure, there is a great conservation success story happening here. At the end of North 13th Avenue in Walla Walla an outstanding effort is being made at the Washington State Penitentiary to quickly augment the butterfly population by raising caterpillars on milkweed plants and then protecting them in their chrysalises through metamorphosis.
This program is an outstanding effort to help conserve one of North Americas iconic symbols — a butterfly that migrates thousands of miles each fall. The leadership of the Department of Corrections, Washington State University scientists and the inmates are working together to bring this spectacular butterfly back. They all deserve our thanks for working on this great project.
So if you find a patch of showy milkweed this month, please think again if you’re thinking about removing it. Think about conservation of this native plant and the butterfly that is so dependent on it for its survival and a sustainable future.
Well, that is it for this month. Enjoy June and get outside.
Remember life is good.