A living ‘cafe’ for Monarch butterfly larvae

Asclepias tuberosa, commonly called Butterfly weed, is found in the Apocynaceae family.  It is a species of native milkweed.  This Asclepias tuberosa plant is blooming right now in the Tucker Mini-Prairie. There are so many cool things about this plant.  For starters, it is the larval food plant for Monarch butterflies.  Adult Monarchs lay one small egg on an individual milkweed plant.  After the egg hatches, the larvae consume large amounts of leaf material on the plant. After a bit of time, the larvae transforms into a pupa, or a chrysalis.  Eventually an adult Monarch butterfly emerges. These adult Monarchs live for  2-5 weeks before laying eggs for the next generation.

Cool fact number two about Butterfly weed is the structure of the flower, and therefore the pollination mechanism that has evolved.  The milkweed flower has a fused organ called a gynostemium.  The male (stamens) and female (pistil) are fused together.  Insects have literally lost legs on this flower by searching for nectar.  The flower has a mechanism that can catch or trap the leg of an insect.  As the insect tries to pull its leg free, it actually pulls out the pollinia (fused waxy pollen) then takes it to the area on the flower where the stigma (female) is located and unknowingly pollinates the flower.  Sometimes though, the insect is not able to pull its leg free and  it dies on the flower.  Sometimes it pulls its own leg off in the act of trying to get free and it soon dies.  Inadvertently the insect pollinates the plant.  What do I mean by this?  Please watch this video. You’ll see yellow attachments on the legs of the honey bees in this video-these are the pollinia. If you’d like to read more about insects getting their legs caught on a milkweed flower, or just more about milkweeds, check out this VERY cool blog.

Image of an orange flower

Asclepias tuberosa (Apocynaceae family)