This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Bright reddish orange, in many-flowered, terminal clusters, each flower similar in structure to the common milkweed (see p. 135). Stem: Erect, 1 to 2 ft. tall, hairy, leafy, milky juice scanty. Leaves: Usually all alternate, lance-shaped, seated on stem. Fruit: A pair of erect, hoary pods, 2 to 5 in. long, i at least containing silky plumed seeds.
Butterfly-Weed. (Asclepias tuberosa.)
Preferred Habitat - Dry or sandy fields, hills, roadsides.
Floivering Season - June - September.
Distribution - Maine and Ontario to Arizona, south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Intensely brilliant clusters of this the most ornamental of all native milkweeds set dry fields ablaze with color. Above them butterflies hover, float, alight, sip, and sail away - the great, dark, velvety, pipe-vine swallow-tail (Papilio phileuor), its green-shaded hind wings marked with little white half moons; the yellow and brown, common, Eastern swallow-tail (P. asterias), that we saw about the wild parsnip and other members of the carrot family; the exquisite, large, spice-bush swallow-tail, whose bugaboo caterpillar startled us when we unrolled a leaf of its favorite food supply (p. 298); the small, common, white, cabbage butterfly (Pieris protodice); the even more common little sulphur butterflies, inseparable from clover fields and mud puddles; the painted lady that follows thistles around the globe; the regal fritillary (Argynnis idalia), its black and fulvous wings marked with silver crescents, a gorgeous creature developed from the black and orange caterpillar that prowls at night among violet plants; the great spangled fritillary of similar habit; the bright fulvous and black pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), its small wings usually seen hovering about the asters; the little grayish-brown, coral hair-streak (Thecla titus), and the bronze copper (Chrysophanus thoe), whose caterpillar feeds on sorrel (Rumex); the delicate, tailed blue butterfly (Lyccena cornyntas), with a wing expansion of only an inch from tip to tip; all these visitors duplicated again and again - these and several others that either escaped the net before they were named, or could not be run down, were seen one bright midsummer day along a Long Island roadside bordered with butterfly weed. Most abundant of all was still another species, the splendid monarch (Anosia plexippus), the most familiar representative of the tribe of milkweed butterflies (p. 138). Swarms of this enormously prolific species are believed to migrate to the Gulf States, and beyond at the approach of cold weather, as regularly as the birds, travelling in numbers so vast that the naked trees on which they pause to rest appear to be still decked with autumnal foliage. This milkweed butterfly "is a great migrant," says Dr. Holland, " and within quite recent years, with Yankee instinct, has crossed the Pacific, probably on merchant vessels, the chrysalids being possibly concealed in bales of hay, and has found lodgment in Australia where it has greatly multiplied in the warmer parts of the Island Continent, and has thence spread northward and westward, until in its migrations it has reached Java and Sumatra, and long ago took possession of the Philippines. . . . It has established a more or less precarious foothold for itself in southern England. It is well established at the Cape Verde Islands, and in a short time we may expect to hear of it as having taken possession of the Continent of Africa, in which the family of plants upon which the caterpillars feed is well represented."
Surely here is a butterfly flower if ever there was one, and such are rare. Very few are adapted to tongues so long and slender that the bumblebee cannot help himself to their nectar; but one almost never sees him about the butterfly-weed. While other bees, a few wasps, and even the ruby-throated humming bird, which ever delights in flowers with a suspicion of red about them, sometimes visit these bright clusters, it is to the ever-present butterfly that their marvellous structure is manifestly adapted. Only visitors long of limb can easily remove the pol-linia, which are usually found dangling from the hairs of their legs. We may be sure that after generously feeding its guests, the flower does not allow many to depart without rendering an equivalent service. The method of compelling visitors to withdraw pollen-masses from one blossom and deposit them in another - an amazing process - has been already described under the common milkweed. Lacking the quantity of sticky milky juice which protects that plant from crawling pilferers, the butterfly-weed suffers outrageous robberies from black ants. The hairs on its stem, not sufficient to form a stockade against them, serve only as a screen to reflect light lest too much may penetrate to the interior juices. We learned, in studying the prickly pear cactus, how necessary it is for plants living in dry soil to guard against the escape of their precious moisture.
Transplanted from Nature's garden into our own, into what Thoreau termed "that meagre assemblage of curiosities, that poor apology for Nature and Art which I call my front yard," clumps of butterfly-weed give the place real splendor and interest. It is said the Indians used the tuberous root of this plant for various maladies, although they could scarcely have known that because of the alleged healing properties of the genus Linnaeus dedicated it to ∆sculapius, of whose name Asclepias is a Latinized corruption. (Illustration,p. 312.)