Greetings Friends,

Thank you for supporting our celebration of Native Plants Month in June. Proceeds support the good work of Wild Ones. The new, month-long sale was a huge hit--look for it to return next year!

Do you ever reminisce about the days when butterflies were all over the place? Nowadays, seeing a Monarch or Swallowtail is a special treat. We're crazy for caterpillars and butterflies here at Johnson's Nursery. Monarch butterflies need Milkweed to survive. In fact, most butterfly species require a host plant for the caterpillars, though many aren't as limited as the Monarch. We're talking about caterpillars, butterflies, and Asclepias plants in this month's Leaf in Brief.

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by Carrie Hennessy, Landscape Designer
Monarch Caterpillar
My son, Jack, loves books. He is almost one year old and loves to grab them, throw them, chew on them. He also adores books being read aloud to him. The other night I was reading him " The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle and it occurred to me that we often overlook these juvenile versions of butterflies when trying to attract them to the yard. A caterpillar is an eating, pooping machine (much like a baby), and doesn't have the grace, beauty, or inspiration of an adult catching a breeze or drinking nectar from a flower. But that doesn't make them less important when planning your landscape.

By now I think everyone knows that Monarch Butterflies need Milkweed plants in order to survive. Like most butterflies, adults will visit a wide variety of nectar sources, like Blazing Star, Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Daisies, and Sages, to name a few. Milkweed is a "host plant" meaning, the female Monarch lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves, the caterpillars hatch from the eggs and will eat only the leaves of the Milkweed, growing fatter and fatter until they are finally ready to form a chrysalis, eventually emerging a beautiful butterfly. All butterfly species require a host plant for the caterpillars, though most are not as limited to a specific plant, like the Monarch.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar and butterfly.

Wisconsin has 13 native Milkweed, AKA  Asclepias species, to support this life cycle. Five of these species are either threatened or endangered. This year, we are experiencing a bumper crop of Common Milkweed ( Asclepias syriaca ) popping up everywhere. If you prefer a shorter Milkweed in the yard, try orange Butterflyweed ( Asclepias tuberosa ) or white Whorled Milkweed ( Asclepias verticillata ), both like it hot and dry. For wetter areas, try Red Milkweed ( Asclepias incarnata ).

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillar and butterfly.

The milky white sap in Milkweeds is actually toxic, which is a defense mechanism utilized by the Monarch. The yellow and black markings of the caterpillar are a warning sign to predators not to eat them. Black Swallowtail Butterfly ( Papilio polyxenes ) have used this tactic to their advantage. Though not identical to the Monarch, the caterpillars of Black Swallowtails have similar green, yellow, and black markings to fool predators. But these caterpillars prefer plants in the carrot family, like Queen Anne's Lace, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, and of course Carrots. When you are planting the herb garden in spring, pop some extra Parsley plants around the yard (or Dill if you can keep it from reseeding all over the yard). You'll be rewarded with seeing more of the dark beauties flitting about the yard.

Closely related, and also a common Wisconsin native, is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail ( Papilio glaucus ), though with a less attractive-looking caterpillar. The green larvae have two yellowish spots, like eyes, that seem to stare you down if you find them eating the leaves of Cherry ( Prunus ), Birch ( Betula ), Ash ( Fraxinus ), Linden ( Tilia ), and Tuliptree ( Liriodendron ).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) caterpillar and butterfly.

If you live near an open woodland, forest, or wetland, you are very lucky because you probably see a lot of Red-spotted Purple Butterflies ( Basilarchia astyanax ). Their host plants are native deciduous trees common in those areas: Willows ( Salix ), Aspens ( Populus ), Cherries ( Prunus ), Hawthorns ( Crataegus ), Apples ( Malus ), and Musclewood ( Carpinus ). So if you are looking for a new tree for the yard, consider something that doubles as a host plant.

Red-spotted Purple (Basilarchia astyanax) caterpillar and butterfly.

Often mistaken for Monarchs is the Red Admiral Butterfly ( Vanessa atalanta). These caterpillars have also evolved an interesting defense mechanism: they look like bird poop. Red Admiral caterpillars prefer plants in the Nettle family (not exactly something you want to encourage in the yard) but have also been known to eat Hops ( Humulus). Hops is a fast-growing vine that will quickly grow up a trellis, pergola, or arbor, even in shade. And you can get into home brewing while you're at it. Maybe we should start a movement: Beer for Butterflies. But with or without the host plants in your yard, Red Admirals seem to show up in large numbers. Probably because there is always someone not pulling their weeds.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) caterpillar and butterfly.

Even more similar to the Monarch is the Viceroy Butterfly ( Basilarchia archippus ). Adult Monarchs retain the toxicity of milkweed sap from their juvenile diet. Birds know to leave any butterfly that is black and orange alone. The Viceroy butterfly is especially tricky, because the adults look exactly like a Monarch, but smaller and with a single black line on the hind wings that runs perpendicular to the other black stripes. Viceroy Caterpillars need host plants that are very common in the butterfly world: Willow, Poplars/Aspens, Apples, Cherries, and Plums. In fact, Doug Tallamy, University of Delaware professor and author of "Bringing Nature Home", says that, along with oaks, these are the best trees for native caterpillars, supporting hundreds of species of butterflies and moths.

Viceroy (Basilarchia archippus) caterpillar and butterfly.

Though all these butterflies and their caterpillars are considered common, I don't think there is anything common about the feeling I get when I'm toiling away in the yard, sweat burning my eyes, and I look up to see a Monarch taking a rest on my flowers. Or when I've had a particularly bad day and see a Swallowtail glide past me as I walk through the nursery parking lot to my car. They look so delicate, yet are tough and resilient. Buffeted by wind and elements, they are just trying to survive in this crazy world. The least I can do is provide a nice home for their kids to grow up in. 

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Asclepias tuberosa

Our plant of the month is also the plant of the year, according to the Perennial Plant Association. And why shouldn't it be?  It supports Monarch Butterflies and has bright orange flowers in July, a color that isn't common among perennials. Butterflyweed likes as much sun as it can get but doesn't like too much moisture. Because we have so much clay soil in SE Wisconsin, when installing a Butterflyweed, create its own little berm of soil, to raise it up and allow better drainage. Don't forget the bark mulch to protect the roots through the winter. Be prepared for them to take a few years to truly establish. Also, the soil needs to warm to a specific temperature in spring to break dormancy, so don't despair if you don't see them popping up right away.

Milkweed is named as such for the milky, toxic sap that oozes out when the leaves and stems are broken. Butterflyweed is unusual to the species, being the only one almost entirely devoid of the milky juice in the stems. For this reason, A. tuberosa plants were widely used by North American natives for their healing properties of respiratory disorders, later referred to by settlers as "Pleurisy Root".

The genus, Asclepias, is named after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius (Asklepios). Soldiers on battlefields and the sick and dying, prayed to Asclepius for medical miracles. His own origins were a miracle. Asclepius was actually a demi-god, the product of Apollo and a mortal woman, Coronis. While pregnant, Coronis married a mortal man, which angered Apollo so much that he killed them both (a tragic love triangle, though another story has her dying in childbirth). Apollo cut his son from the belly of the dead Coronis as she burned on the funeral pyre, performing the world's first C-section. Asclepius was raised by a centaur, who taught him the secrets of medicine and healing, growing to become the most famous physician and surgeon in ancient Greece. Tales tell of his ability to bring the dying back from the abyss, even raising the dead, which reached the ears of the gods. Such power angered and scared Zeus (because what use are gods if humanity is immortal?). His brother of the underworld, Hades, had also started complaining about the lack of new entries into his kingdom, so Zeus struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt. The moral of this story?  No one can escape death forever. Statues and art of Asclepius depict him holding a staff with an entwined serpent, very similar to the symbol used for modern day medicine and physicians.

The milky, toxic sap in Common Milkweed

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Johnson's Nursery, Inc.
W180 N6275 Marcy Road. Menomonee Falls, WI 53051 ( map)
p. 262.252.4988