(From the archives, 07/07/08.)
My poor milkweed plants (Asclepias curassavica) look awful. They have bloomed beautifully for weeks, but now, many of them have little more than their stems left. If any other plants in my garden looked this raggedy, I would be sorely tempted to rip them out and feed them to the compost pile. But not these plants. These plants are special.
And here's the reason for their specialness - a monarch butterfly's caterpillar. There were at least three of these guys, one on each of three plants, when I inspected them. Judging by the damage to the plants, I'm sure there have been more, as well.
The butterfly weed is one of the few plants in the garden that gardeners judge to be successful only when it is virtually destroyed. A good crop of these monarch caterpillars can totally take out a stand of butterfly weed, while the gardener looks on, smiling and imagining the beautiful butterflies that will be flitting about her garden in a few weeks.
The only negative that I can see about having the caterpillars is that when a plant is under stress, it transmits an open invitation to other, perhaps less desirable, diners to come and get their share. Milkweeds, of course, contain toxins that make it difficult, if not impossible, for most insect pests to feed on them, but there are a few others besides the milkweed butterflies that can make a meal here.
This is one of them. It is the red milkweed beetle, one of the varieties of longhorn beetles, and one of my plants, in addition to its caterpillar, has a host of these critters. I actually find them rather interesting as well. Their red and black colors serve the same purpose as the bright colors of the monarch and its caterpillar, that is to warn would-be predators that it is toxic and they had best steer clear.
That same plant with the one caterpillar and the several beetles also has some of its stems and leaves covered in these:
This is a rather disgusting sight, isn't it? So where are all my aphid-loving ladybugs and why aren't they on the job here?
The ladybugs may be occupied elsewhere in the garden at the moment, but at least some of my predator friends are doing their best to clean up this mess.
There are green anoles of all sizes among these plants. You can't really judge from this picture, but that is a butterfly weed leaf he is standing on and this guy was really small. He looked like he might just have emerged from his egg not many days before. But he is a fully-formed anole with all the instincts of his kind and he was jumping from leaf-to-leaf in pursuit of his meal. I expect he and his brethren will do their part to keep the bad guys in check.
Once the "pests" have moved on, these butterfly weeds will recover and by fall they should have plenty of fresh, tender new leaves as the migrating monarchs start drifting through my yard on their way to Mexico. Then, if I'm lucky, I'll get a whole new generation of the colorful and voracious caterpillars and they can destroy my plants all over again, as I stand by, smiling.