Of Butterflies on Milkweed

By Steven Foster |

Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa in Lawrence, Kansas
Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa in Lawrence, Kansas

It’s milkweed season in the Ozarks and elsewhere in North America. There are over 100 species of milkweeds, members of the genus Asclepias, named by Linnaeus in 1753 after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Conspicuous among milkweeds now blooming is Asclepias tuberosa—butterflyweed, pleurisy root, or chiggerweed—with its brilliant showy orange flowers. I assume the name chiggerweed refers to the fact that our friendly little flesh-eating spider-relatives enjoy living on the plant. The larger tuberous root is used medicinally to treat inflammatory lung conditions, hence the name pleurisy root. If you spend time around one of the plants with camera in hand, inevitably one of the most beautiful of our native wildflowers attracts butterflies in addition to photo seekers.

Butterflyweed, and a couple dozen other North American species of milkweeds attracted widespread media attention last fall when monarch butterflies failed to show-up in the winter home of oyamel fir forests in Central Mexico. The spectacle of millions of monarchs

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

covering trees in their winter home in Mexico since time immemorial was replaced last year by a few thousand monarchs fluttering about trees. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds, sequestering bitter and potentially toxic cardenolides which deter predators from feeding on the butterflies as they make the journey south each winter. Monarch numbers declined by 59% from 2012 to 2013. One of the major factors relative to the decline is the dramatic loss of habitat for milkweeds, with 160 million acres consumed by agricultural or suburbia over the last 17 years alone.

Asclepias-syriaca-61414_408Public awareness about the decline of monarch butterflies has translated into awareness of milkweeds — the food of monarch larvae. In 2014 various organizations have been distributing seed or plants of the dozen or more species of Asclepias found in our area and coaxing them to plant milkweeds. One of the main milkweeds found in the eastern U.S., is called appropriately common milkweed Asclepias syriaca. This species seems to be the favorite food of monarch larvae.

The analogy of chaos in nature as characterized by the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon affecting weather elsewhere demonstrates the interconnectivity of all living things. Without habitat we have no milkweed. Without milkweeds we have no monarch butterflies. Without humans nature maintains balance. Pay attention to life on earth.

Asclepias-syriaca-61414_373

Published by

Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-three years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.