Photo of the Week – October 28, 2011

For a prairie photographer who likes to shoot close-ups of flowers and insects, there’s no easier target in the fall than milkweed seeds.  The photos below were taken several weeks ago at one of my favorite local prairies. 

Milkweed seeds at Lincoln Creek Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) are indistinguishable from each other when they’re not flowering – at least to me.  The fact that they hybridize with each other doesn’t help…

Both species are common in eastern Nebraska, and largely underappreciated because of their abundance.  Like many other plant species, they’ve been unfairly labeled as weeds because they can live and thrive in a multitude of habitats, from cropfields to diverse prairies.  However, they aren’t a species that aggressively outcompetes other plants, and have so many positive attributes it’s hard to imagine not liking them.

They’re by far the most used milkweed species by the larvae of monarch butterflies, but are also the home of many other insect species that specialize on milkweeds.  In addition, the flowers of both species are large and attractive, both aesthetically and to the countless pollinator insects that visit them.  Finally, autumn in the prairie wouldn’t be the same without their big fluffy seeds blowing around.  

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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6 Responses to Photo of the Week – October 28, 2011

  1. Matt O'Toole says:

    I always enjoyed burning the hairs during the seed processing phase of the year. The large pods made it one of the easier species to collect.

  2. James C. Trager says:

    Question is, do the seeds remain viable when you burn the silks? We did a small germination test once on some Asclepias tuberosa seeds from the same batch of seeds, 50 burned off and 50 cleaned by ohand. Results – zero germination among the burned group, about 90% among the others. So, we never burn off the fluff any longer.
    Seems that this test would be worth repeating.

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