Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Milkweeds and Monarchs

This afternoon, as I was leaving Carrington Falls Reserve (part of the Budderoo National Park) I noticed an unfamiliar white flower growing beside the road.
Gomphocarpus fruticosus Narrow-leaved Cotton Bush
Naturally I stopped to have a closer look. I realised from the shape of the flowers that it was probably in the Milkweed group. That was easily verified by tearing a single leaf. White sticky sap emerged immediately.

Gomphocarpus fruticosus Narrow-leaved Cotton Bush

I recognised that this plant, whatever it might be (and I did not know for sure, at this stage) was both a terrible weed and the preferred host plant for caterpillar of the the Monarch Butterfly. Sure enough, you can see a caterpillar of that species of Butterfly feeding on the plant, just underneath this head of white flowers. It has striking yellow and black bands across its body. It is just visible in the lower section of that image.

Gomphocarpus fruticosus Narrow-leaved Cotton Bush

Seed Capsule forming, It gives the plant its name of "Swan Plant"
I ought have recognised this plant immediately, for my Mother, having been a keen Floral Art enthusiast, often used the seed pods of the Swan Plant in her flower arrangements. But that was in Melbourne, when I was a child. When we lived in Canberra, that plant was not available, as the climate is too cold for it to grow there.
The seeds earn the plant the other name of Narrow-leaved Cotton Bush, for they have a structure attached to the hard seed which is made up of silky filaments, which allow the seed to be carried freely on the wind. And that is how it manages to be such a weedy plant. The plant is also toxic to stock, which makes it a pest for agriculturalists and livestock farmers.

The black and yellow colours of this caterpillar are distinctive.
Black and yellow seem to be universal warning colours in Nature.
Add to that the two pairs of dangerous looking (but harmless)
black "tentacles" which the caterpillar waves around
and I was persuaded not to interfere with it.
Those warning signals seem to keep birds away.
Caterpillar of Monarch Butterfly - Danaus plexippus
This caterpillar is the larval stage of what is arguably the most famous Butterfly in the world - the Monarch Butterfly. The Caterpillar feeds on various plants (including this one) that have a poisonous milky sap. The Caterpillar appears to retain the poisons in its body making it unpalatable to predators. The Monarch Butterfly's orange colour is a warning for predators to stay away, as the chemicals they got (as caterpillars) from feeding on milkweed plants makes the butterflies poisonous. Source Don Herbison-Evans website
This plant is in the family Apocynaceae, many of which produce strong chemicals, some of which are used medicinally, Many plants in this family are toxic to animals, including humans

The Butterfly of this caterpillar is famous for its migrations in North America. You can click to see a clip from a BBC documentary about that migration here.

The Caterpillar of the Monarch Butterfly "develops two pairs of black tentacles protruding from its back: a long pair on its mesothorax, and a shorter pair on its eighth abdominal segment. These tentacles are soft and in no way dangerous." Source Don Herbison-Evans website.

Caterpillar of Monarch Butterfly - Danaus plexippus

Caterpillar of Monarch Butterfly - Danaus plexippus
I met a friend while I was photographing the flowers and these Caterpillars, and I explained to her that I found myself with a moral dilemma. I wanted to destroy the plant because it is a Weed, (and particularly because it is growing within a National Park), but I did not want to kill the Caterpillars. We talked about this and we agreed to take off all flowers from the plant, and to destroy the several seed pods which were just developing, by crushing them on the road. The seeds were not nearly enough developed to be viable.


mick said...

Very interesting post, Denis, and I also remember that "swan" seed pod from when I was very young.
Haha - can't resist saying this - it was a beautiful sun-rise a couple of hours after your post! :-)

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Mick

I did go a bit later on that Posting than I normally do.
Sunrise? What's that?
We just have a gradual change from black to grey.
Glad you remember the "Swan Plant" too.


Sam said...

Your photos are beautiful. And your enthusiasm is contagious!

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Sam.

Blogging is good fun and rewarding once you get the hang of it.
I look forward to your Blogging, so if my enthusiasm can help - feel free to catch the bug.


Anonymous said...

Hi Denis, Love your photos.
I recently have come across this milkweed plant and have tried to raise the caterpillars in an enclosure but all have so far died. The symptoms of the death are that of chemical poisoning and I have recently discovered that where I collected them their host plants have been sprayed by my local council.Im in Shellharbour NSW, do you know of where there would be milkweed plants that have not been poisoned locally? They are such a beautiful species and I can see why they are near threatened.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Anna
The Milkweed plant I found was unusual, I thought, in Robertson.
I have seen them commonly, beside the road, north from Mittagong, towards the Bargo exit (old Hume Hwy), when occasionally travelling to Sydney.
There is a thing called Moth Vine which grows like a weed (it is) on the coast, below Macquarie Pass.
Or Google Araujia hortorum.
You could cut some parts, and try to feed these caterpillars with that, but please do not spread the plant around (by seed or any other means) as it really takes over.
I found the plant on which these Caterpillars were feeding, at Carrington Falls, on the bitumen road, just opposite where the Nellies Glen entrance turns off. There may be more plants around there (I hope not).
Good for the Caterpillars, but not so great for the local environment.
Remember only the Wanderer Butterfly group can tolerate these plants as their sticky white sap is toxic to other Caterpillars.
I would have to say that I am pleased if the Weed Control people in Shellharbour have been spraying Milkweeds. They are a bad weed (as their seeds spread so easily on the wind) and in a semi-rural area, plants which are toxic to farm animals are not popular.
The Butterfly is a naturally introduced species, however, seemingly. So we cannot blame them.
Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

Hi Denis,
Thank you for all your informative suggestions and taking your time help . Very much appreciated.
Take care

Denis Wilson said...

Such a polite visitor to my Blog is welcome any time, Anna.
Hope you can get some "food plants" for them.
At this time of year, find the food plants and you may well find some more Caterpillars (as I did).
Except I left mine in the bush.