Photo of the Week – July 2, 2015

Independence Day is this weekend.  Fireworks have been going off in my my neighborhood for days now as people who apparently equate noise with patriotism are enjoying their right to put that feeling into action.  Earlier this week, I was photographing a patch of common milkweed in front of our field headquarters at the Platte River Prairies and thought the flowers looked much like fireworks – but quieter.  Maybe prettier too.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The attention paid to milkweed has increased dramatically over the last year or two as concern over the plight of monarch butterflies has grown.  I’m excited to see that energy because it helps increase interest in broader issues of pollinator and biodiversity conservation.  What’s good for monarchs (plant diversity, natural land cover – especially prairie, land management that favors milkweed, intelligent use of pesticides, etc.) is also good for bees and many other species, as well as broader ecosystem functioning.

I’ve been thinking about milkweed management in our Platte River Prairies for a number of years now, especially related to cattle grazing.  Cattle like to eat the flowers off of common and showy milkweed (A. syriaca and A. speciosa) even in our moderately stocked patch-burn grazed prairies.  The “deflowering” of milkweed and a few others species has pushed us to modify our management somewhat to make sure that every portion of our prairies is completely excluded from cattle at least once every 4-5 years so those species can bloom and reproduce.  So far, that seems to have helped maintain healthy populations of those plant species, but we’re continuing to monitor and adapt our management as we learn more.

Milkweed plants are important to monarchs, but many other species as well.  Their flowers are among the most popular nectar sources for many pollinators, and a number of herbivorous insects have evolved mechanisms to deal with the toxic sap and rely on the plants for food.  Hopefully, the attention brought to milkweed by monarchs will help those other species as well.

Have a great 4th of July!

 

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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11 Responses to Photo of the Week – July 2, 2015

  1. Wendy says:

    Great article!

  2. Jeff from Minnesota says:

    Maybe not compatible with your management objectives, but disking firebreaks keeps the common milkweed in business up in Minnesota. The best patch of milkweed we have is actually six acres we use as a sorghum food plot, it is chopped and then disked to prep for planting, and by late June it is full of common milkweed, It may hurt the sorghum, but this way its still a food plot for Monarch butterflies and caterpillars.

  3. Julie Bain says:

    Hi Chris,
    We all enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot at the field day last week. I wanted to make sure we are on your radar for when you and Jerry visit the Valentine refuge. My telephone number is (308) 533-8115. Thank you! Julie Bain, Bessey Ranger District

  4. Nice photo as usual! Happy Fourth! Our cows love milkweed, but cows can survive without it, Monarchs cannot. I am thinking milkweed must help the cows digestive system? Short Duration High Density Grazing or Management Intensive Grazing gives us the option to avoid grazing areas that need a rest at certain times of the year. The system also allows us to concentrate the cows on areas that need the impact. This past month coming up to our largest patch of milkweed, we just strung up an extra poly wire and kept the cows out. In addition, using day moves allows milkweed to reproduce every year somewhere in our paddocks. We have milkweed in all stages of growth right now, some just sprouting up and some already flowered, cows can’t get to them all. Now if we happen to see a caterpillar, by all means a poly wire will be put up. http://dsfamilyfarm.com/bringing-back-the-pollinators/

    • steve says:

      Interesting. My experience is that most milkweeds are not chosen by cattle but maybe that’s light to moderate continuous and patch-burn grazing. Cattle may behave differently under Mob (HSD), MiG, and early intensive grazing, and are not as good for native grass and forb plantings. However, a year of rest is good, too.

  5. beingbodeker says:

    Most of the milkweed in eastern Iowa is found in the roadside ditches. Always disappointing when a landowner mows for whatever reason consistently throughout the growing season…leaving no good parcels of milkweed for miles. Beautiful photo.

  6. James C. Trager says:

    This asclepiadic fireworks smells a lot better than the usual pyrotehnical sort, too!
    Interesting management note.

    • James McGee says:

      I agree with Mr. Trager. I think if people called this plant “Perfume Flower” instead of “Milkweed” then it would have been more popular. I saw Asclepias syriaca being sold in a local nursery for the first time just this year. I attribute this positive development to more publicity being given to the plight of the monarch butterfly.

      I had many monarch caterpillars on butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, last year. I think I was able to attract the monarchs because I have planted a number of favorite foods of the adult butterflies. One of the best is Liatris ligustylis.

      Your readers should be aware that monarch caterpillars use other Asclepias species as hosts too. Some of these Asclepias species are conservative or have become very rare.

  7. Christie Soderling says:

    I can almost smell it – so good to have an ever-increasing appreciation of this plant!

  8. Beautiful plant with such a lovely reason for being! Thanks

  9. Last time I took a close look at a a milkweed inflorescence I was amazed by the number and diversity of pollinators. There various species of beetles, flies, butterflies, and ants all on just one plant.

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