Sunday, August 30, 2009

Milkweed in Bloom

Milkweed is an important bee plant that provides both nectar and pollen. It is also well known as being the sole source of larva food for the beautiful monarch butterfly. This common, climbing vine is attractive to a number of different species of insects. The plant that I encountered on the disturbed margin of a clover field was being visited by numerous monarchs as well as honey bees and native solitary bees. Click on the photo to see a foraging honey bee approaching a cluster of milkweed flowers. Pollination of milkweed is accomplished by insects, but the procedure is slightly different from that of most other flowering plants. Milkweed pollen is held in pollen sacs instead of individual grains. These are located in slits in the flower’s anthers. When an insect steps into a slit, a pair of pollen sacs is attached to the insect; and pollination occurs when the insect steps into the anther slit of another flower.

Milkweed is a plant of varied folk medicine and cultural uses. After being pollinated by an insect, the fertilized milkweed produces seed, covered in fine filaments and held in a pod. The seeds are distributed by the wind. The filaments provide greater insulation than down feathers. Native Americans collected milkweed nectar as a sweetener. The sticky, white sap of milkweed is used as a folk remedy for removal of warts. It is applied several times a day until the wart falls off. Milkweed sap is used in another folk remedy as an effective treatment of poison ivy rashes. The milkweed plant is toxic; animals eating one tenth their body weight in milkweed may die. Milkweed is an interesting plant that is often included in pollinator gardens. Many gardeners welcome milkweed to support the bees and the monarch butterflies.

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