Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Milkweeds on the Prairies

Okay, so I know essentially all my recent posts have been about plants. Part of that is because I've only really got into plants this past Spring, and I'm sort of obsessed with everything wildflower-related I come across. I go through phases like this. I will become interested in a new facet of nature, then for the next few months I will focus mainly on that new area. I mean, I'm still birding, herping, looking for insects and spiders, and so on, but right now the main thing on my mind is plants and my new-found love of them. I think that if you are a lover of nature, you can't help but be interested in all aspects of nature. Sure, you might have your big "thing," like how I am with birds, but it's hard to appreciate only one thing in nature without appreciating it all. Everything in nature is so connected that when you get interested in one area, you find yourself slowly getting interested in everything it's connected to. For example, if you bird, you can't help but notice some of the plant species certain birds prefer, then you start noticing the certain insect species that always seem to be hanging around certain plants, which then can lead back to birds because they eat those insects. There's no standalone subject in nature.

Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve
Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve is a prairie that contains multiple species of milkweed.
Monologue aside, as I mentioned in my previous post about Scaly Blazingstar, this past Friday I visited Adams County and some of the famous xeric limestone prairies that county is known for. One of the big denizens of prairies in any part of Ohio are the milkweeds, genus Asclepias. Milkweeds are a genus of unique flowering perennials (plants that live longer than 2 years) that contain a latex-based liquid that looks like milk that many use for defense. Milkweeds are known by many people for their ability to attract butterflies, especially Monarchs which are dependent on them, although they attract many other insects and pollinators. In Ohio, there are 13 native species of milkweed. This post will cover 5 of the species, all of which can be, but not always be, found in the southern prairies of Ohio.

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
The most common of milkweeds here in Ohio is the (surprise) Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. This species can basically be found in any county here in Ohio. A sun-loving plant, you can see these growing along roadsides, in overgrown fields, along railways, prairies, and just open waste spaces. Many insect species are associated with Common Milkweed. Oftentimes you will see bright red Milkweed Beetles on the leaves. Monarch caterpillars also feed on the plant, along with certain moths like the Delicate Cycnia. Many times these insects take on the toxic glycosides in the leaves and become toxic themselves, making would-be-predators sick if consumed. As a result, many of these milkweed-associated insects are brightly colored (think of Monarchs) to warn of their toxicity to any possible predators.

Common Milkweed
Common Milkweed can be a tall plant, growing from 2 to 6 feet tall. The ones in the photo above were almost as tall as me (but I'm not that tall to begin with). As you can see, they contain multiple umbels. Umbels are a cluster of flowers in an umbrella-like shape. These flowers can range from very light pink, like the previous photo, to a more dark, reddish-purple color. It blooms from mid-June to August. We ran into a few individuals while at Chaparral Prairie SNP in Adams Co., but this species was not overly common there.

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa
Next up is my absolute favorite, and I would also say the flashiest, milkweed in Ohio. This is Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa. A shorter plant than the previous (Butterflyweed only grows up to 3 or so feet), what this species lacks in size it makes up for in color. The shades of orange vary, and can even be yellow, but a bright yellow to orange colored milkweed in Ohio is going to be Butterflyweed.

Butterflyweed
Just like the Common Milkweed, Butterflyweed requires full sun exposure. It can be found in dry habitats with sandy or gravely soil. Many times you will see this species growing along roadsides. A common species here in Ohio, you can pretty much find some in every county. A few individuals could be found at Lynx Prairie in Adams Co., along with Chaparral Prairie SNP. As the common name suggests, this milkweed species is especially popular with butterflies and other insects. This is due to the large amount of nectar the flowers contain.

Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias verticillata
Next we move on to a tiny, delicate-looking milkweed. Meet the Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias verticillata. This is not a common species by any means here in Ohio. Of the 88 counties, this species has been recorded in about 30 or so of them. The distribution is sort of scattered; there's a handful of southern counties, a few central ones, many northwestern ones, and a few northeastern counties.

Whorled Milkweed
Whorled Milkweed is a small milkweed, reaching a height of only 1-3 feet. They normally only have a few flowers in their umbels as well. A good identification characteristic is the leaves. They are thin, long, and needle-like, almost looking like a stereotypical pine tree branch of needles.

Whorled MilkweedWhorled Milkweed is another milkweed that requires sun exposure and dry soil. As a result, this species can be found in abandoned fields, prairies, savannas, roadsides, waste areas, and the likes.

Tall Green Milkweed, Asclepias hirtella
Now we come to one of the more uncommon ones. This is Tall Green Milkweed, Asclepias hirtella. This is a species mostly found in the southeast corner of Ohio, although there's a few scattered populations up near Lake Erie. The one in the photo above was a lone individual found at Chaparral SNP in Adams County, and that was a surprising find. I've yet to find an "official" record in Adams County, but Andrew Gibson, a field botanist for ODNR and the blogger behind The National Treasures of Ohio, said he's found A. hirtella in Adams Co. a few years ago. The location was surprising too; another person who's collected at Chaparral for a long time said they've never found it there. As a result, this was a really exciting find for me!

This photo shows some of the characteristics which help ID this species. Notice the thin leaves (but not as needle-thin as Whorled Milkweed). The previous photo also shows the whitish flowers with a small amount of purple, as well as the relatively openly-spaced umbel. These characteristics help differentiate it from the other similar milkweeds here in Ohio. This species can be found in dry to moist prairies and fields, roadsides, and the likes.

Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora
Last, but not least, is Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora. A smaller species, notice the compact, green-colored umbel, one of the defining characteristics. This is an uncommon-to-rare species here in Ohio. There have been records from about 20 scattered counties all across the state, but many of the records I found on OSU's Herbarium's page for this species are from the 1800's to the 1930's; as a result I'm not sure the current extent of this species. This species can be found in dry, sunny habitats such as fields, roadsides, and poor-soil prairies. This individual was found in a xeric limestone pocket prairie at Lynx Prairie in Adams County, one of the better places to see this species in the state.

While all these milkweeds can be found in a variety of prairie habitats, they are not the only prairie-loving milkweed species in Ohio. The ones covered in this post are simply the ones I came across on my last Adams County trip. Hopefully as I come across more, I can update this to be more of a "total" guide. I also have more Adams County related posts coming up soon as long as I actually focus and have the time, so stay tuned!

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