Milkweed has been in the news a lot lately.
Many have speculated that declines in native milkweed populations may be contributing to recent significant declines in Monarch butterflies.
but today we'd simply like to revisit the spectacular colors and design of these remarkable native NC wildflowers as a reflection on the joys of spring.
You may remember Asclepius, the mythical Greek healer,
famous in our day for lending his serpent-entwined staff to the medical profession
as a symbol of the healing arts.
His name is associated with these plants for similar reasons;
with their complex and striking flower structure and mysterious milky sap,
they have long fascinated practitioners of folk medicine here in America.
Our attraction to the Asclepias and their kin is more aesthetic than medicinal, however,
and we'd like to invite you on a pictorial tour of a few of these native beauties
from our wanderings in Lee, Moore and Harnett counties this spring.
Throughout the month of May, White Milkweed, Asclepias variegata,
graces the woodland margins,
equally at home beside the wood-lined byway or deep along the forest path,
like this perfect little beauty from San Lee Park.
In bloom, they're nearly impossible to miss, with their compact "snowball" clusters of blossoms, perched at or near the apex of the plant.
We encountered this plant with its trio of flower heads perched high on the clay embankment alongside the Highway 421 By-Pass in Sanford.
Sometimes known as red ring milkweed,
for the purplish-red bands encircling the base of the flowers' coronas or "crowns",
these distinctive beauties are among the first milkweed species to bloom in our neck of the woods,
and this double-domed version was encountered in western Lee County over the Memorial Day weekend.
Just over the river in Moore County, we met another striking member of the milkweed clan,
Sometimes called clasping milkweed,
for the manner in which its large, wavy leaves clasp the stem;
we've always been drawn to their large, open umbels, or flower heads,
with ample space for individual blossoms to shine within.
The characteristic milkweed blossom is on full display here;
the upper part of the flower, or corona,
consists of five hoods, each with a corresponding horn,
which extends over the center of the flower containing its reproductive organs.
The skirt-like lower part of the flower is its corolla,
comprised of large petals and smaller sepals,
strongly reflexed in A. amplixicaulis, and to varying degrees in other species.
A. amplexicaulis is fairly common throughout our area,
growing in full sunlight along roadsides and ditch banks,
like these individuals Cousin Daniel spied
on our old stomping grounds in western Harnett County.
As you can see, the coronas range from a pale pink to deep purple,
with duller, flesh-colored corollas.
Clasping milkweed can grow quite tall,
nearly a meter in this instance at Papa Jim's place in the Sandhills of Harnett County,
and the large, opposite pairs of wavy green leaves with prominent mid-veins
are hard to miss once you've become acquainted with a few.
This lovely specimen was just beginning to bloom when we met her on Monday,
so if you're out and about in the Sandhills this week,
keep your eyes on the road,
but maybe sneak a glance at the roadside every now and again,
perchance to glimpse this remarkable native plant at the peak of its blooming.
The third Asclepias on our spring tour is one of Carolina's boldest and brightest wildflowers,
A. tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed.
Butterfly Weed can be highly variable in color,
not just from place to place, but from one plant to the next.
The individual above, located just across the Deep River in Moore County, has yellowish orange corollas topped by fiery reddish orange coronas, while the plant below, located right beside it, was much more uniformly reddish orange.
We'll visit with some more butterfly weed in a bit, but for the moment, we wanted to share a glimpse of another of our more colorful milkweeds, Asclepias purpurascens, or Purple Milkweed.
This lovely native lives just down the hill from the butterfly weed above in Moore County.
Purple Milkweed is rather scarce in North Carolina, and this little patch is the only one we've been fortunate enough to find in our area.
A variety of nectarers love this little beauty, and from an aesthetic standpoint,
she can hold her own with any of North Carolina's other native wildflowers.
The typical milkweed flower structure is apparent here, with the five hoods and horns on the corona,
but the five petals of the corolla are not quite as severely reflexed in A. purpurascens as they are in the clasping milkweed we were admiring earlier.
This purple milkweed is situated near a small creek in a fairly recent logging cutover which has now been thoroughly overtaken by a dense tangle of vines and lush new growth;
a veritable botanists' delight!
On our way back up to the ridge, we spy this fabulous little vine winding its way around the underbrush, climbing up the little sassafras saplings and such.
We wonder at the deep purple blossoms, and remark that they bear some resemblance
to the five-petaled corollas of the milkweed we just left.
After consulting our good friend Bruce,
who's a stellar botanist and author and naturalist of the highest order,
we learn that this little beauty is in the same family as the milkweeds,
and is most likely Matelea decipiens, or perhaps Matelea carolinensis,
known by a number of common names including spinypod and milkvine.
What a beauty, by any name!
And now, more butterfly weed.
As it happens, there are a couple of varieties of butterfly weed in our neighborhood.
Brother Henry has protected the milkweed on his ditch bank in Johnsonville
from mowing over the years,
and now enjoys a thriving colony of some ten or twelve plants.
We took these photos on Memorial Day, just as the buds were opening...
We haven't yet consulted with the experts,
but we suspect we've encountered both Asclepias tuberosa L. var. Rolfsii,
Sandhills butterfly weed,
and the more broadly distributed
A. tuberosa L.
by any name, their beauty is breathtaking...
as you gaze into their depths,
you can almost hear them whisper
Speaking of home,
our milkweed tour wraps up in a gentle drizzle along the barely discernible margin of an old field behind Papa Jim's house.
What was once a sandlot baseball field is now a sturdy stand of young longleaf pines, and right where the edge of the old field once gave way to the woods around the pond,
we find a pale orange butterfly weed,
thriving right there where we left it,
all those years ago...
and as we contemplate the changes and challenges that all those years have wrought,
there is a balm in the simple beauty of a flower,
rooted, and thriving,
right here in the same poor sandy soil that nourished us to adulthood.
And as our tour comes to an end,
right here where we first got started,
and we wonder
whether there might be a grain of truth in all those stories about
the healing power of milkweed...