Idaho’s Native Milkweeds

Concern for monarch butterflies has resulted in increasing interest in milkweeds. Understandably so, as they are the host plants and food source for the larval stage of these migrating butterflies. But milkweeds are an impressive group of plants in their own right, and their ecological role extends far beyond a single charismatic insect. Work to save the monarch butterfly, which requires the expansion of milkweed populations, will in turn provide habitat for countless other organisms. A patch of milkweed teems with life, and the pursuit of a single caterpillar helps us discover and explore that.

Asclepias – also known as the milkweeds – is a genus consisting of around 140 species, 72 of which are native to the United States and Canada. Alaska and Hawaii are the only states in the United States that don’t have a native species of milkweed. The ranges of some species native to the United States extend down into Mexico where there are numerous other milkweed species. Central America and South America are also home to many distinct milkweed species.

The habitats milkweeds occupy are about as diverse as the genus itself – from wetlands to prairies, from deserts to forests, and practically anywhere in between. Some species occupy disturbed and/or neglected sites like roadsides, agricultural fields, and vacant lots. For this reason they are frequently viewed as a weed; however, such populations are easily managed, and with such an important ecological role to play, they don’t deserve to be vilified in this way.

Milkweed species are not distributed across the United States evenly. Texas and Arizona are home to the highest diversity with 37 and 29 species respectively. Idaho, my home state, is on the low end with six native species, most of which are relatively rare. The most common species found in Idaho is Asclepias speciosa commonly known as showy milkweed.

showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Showy milkweed is distributed from central U.S. westward and can be found in all western states. It occurs throughout Idaho and is easily the best place to look for monarch caterpillars. Side note: the monarch butterfly is Idaho’s state insect, thanks in part to the abundance of showy milkweed. This species is frequently found growing in large colonies due to its ability to reproduce vegetatively via adventitious shoots produced on lateral roots or underground stems. Only a handful of milkweed species reproduce this way. Showy milkweed reaches up to five feet tall and has large ovate, gray-green leaves. Like all milkweed species except one (Asclepias tuberosa), its stems and leaves contain milky, latex sap. In early summer, the stems are topped with large umbrella-shaped inflorescences composed of pale pink to pink-purple flowers.

The flowers of milkweed deserve a close examination. Right away you will notice unique features not seen on most other flowers. The petals of milkweed flowers bend backwards, allowing easy access to the flower’s sex parts if it wasn’t for a series of hoods and horns protecting them. Collectively, these hoods and horns are called the corona, which houses glands that produce abundant nectar and has a series of slits where the anthers are exposed. The pollen grains of milkweed are contained in waxy sacs called pollinia. Two pollinia are connected together by a corpusculum giving this structure a wishbone appearance. An insect visiting the flower for nectar slips its leg into the slit, and the pollen sacs become attached with the help of the corpusculum. When the insect leaves, the pollen sacs follow where they can be inadvertently deposited on the stigmas of another flower.

Milkweed flowers are not self-fertile, so they require assistance by insects to sexually reproduce. They are not picky about who does it either, and their profuse nectar draws in all kinds of insects including bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, and ants. Certain insects – like bumble bees and other large bees – are more efficient pollinators than others. Once pollinated, seeds are formed inside a pod-like fruit called a follicle. The follicles of showy milkweed can be around 5 inches long and house dozens to hundreds of seeds. When the follicle matures, it splits open to release the seeds, which are small, brown, papery disks with a tuft of soft, white, silky hair attached. The seeds of showy milkweed go airborne in late summer.

follicles forming on showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Whorled or narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) is widespread in western Idaho and neighboring states. It is adapted to dry locations, but can be found in a variety of habitats. Like showy milkweed, it spreads rhizomatously as well as by seed. Its a whispy plant that can get as tall as four feet. It has long, narrow leaves and produces tight clusters of greenish-white to pink-purple flowers. Its seed pods are long and slender and its seeds are about 1/4 inch long.

flowers of Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

seeds escaping from the follicle of Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

Swamp or rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is more common east of Idaho, but occurs occasionally in southwestern Idaho. As its common names suggests, it prefers moist soils and is found in wetlands, wet meadows, and along streambanks. It can spread rhizomatously, but generally doesn’t spread very far. It reaches up to four feet tall, has deep green, lance-shaped leaves, and produces attractive, fragrant, pink to mauve, dome-shaped inflorescenses at the tops of its stems. Its seed pods are narrow and around 3 inches long.

swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Asclepias cryptoceras, or pallid milkweed, is a low-growing, drought-adapted, diminutive species that occurs in southwestern Idaho. It can be found in the Owyhee mountain range as well as in the Boise Foothills. It has round or oval-shaped leaves and produces flowers on a short stalk. The flowers have white or cream-colored petals and pink-purple hoods.

pallid milkweed (Asclepias cryptoceras)

The two remaining species are fairly rare in Idaho. Antelope horns (Asclepias asperula) is found in Franklin County located in southeastern Idaho. It grows up to two feet tall with an upright or sprawling habit and produces clusters of white to green-yellow flowers with maroon highlights. Horsetail milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata) occurs in at least two counties in central to southeastern Idaho and is similar in appearance to A. fascicularis. Its white flowers help to distinguish between the two. Additional common names for this plant include western whorled milkweed and poison milkweed.

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Poisonous Plants: Baneberry

For all the benefits that plants offer humanity – the distillation being that Earth would be uninhabitable without them – there is still reason to be wary of them. In a world lousy with herbivores, plant species that are unpalatable have a greater chance of survival. Inflicting serious injury or death upon being ingested – or even by coming in contact with an unsuspecting visitor – offers even greater assurance that a plant will survive long enough to reproduce, passing along to its progeny any traits that led to its superior fitness. The traits in this case are chemical compounds that can be toxic when delivered at the right dose to the right organism. This is the nature of poisonous plants, and the reason why from a young age we were all likely warned not to eat every tasty looking berry we come across and not to go tromping carelessly through an area where certain plants might be present. Plants aren’t out to get us per se, but some do have the potential to cause us great harm. Informing ourselves and taking precautions is advised.

This is the first in a series of posts about poisonous plants. The list of poisonous plants is long, so it’s going to take a while to get through them all. There are some plants that are not generally considered poisonous but can cause illness or death to those who are allergic to them – like peanuts. I don’t plan to include such plants, but there may be some exceptions along the way. The popular author Amy Stewart wrote a book about poisonous and other nefarious plants entitled, Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and other Botanical Atrocities. Below is an excerpt from her introduction to that book that I thought would be worth including here:

Do not experiment with unfamiliar plants or take a plant’s power lightly. Wear gloves in the garden; think twice before swallowing a berry on the trail or throwing a root into a stew pot. If you have small children, teach them not to put plants in their mouths. If you have pets, remove the temptation of poisonous plants from their environment. The nursery industry is woefully lax about identifying poisonous plants; let your garden center know that you’d like to see sensible, accurate labeling of plants that could harm you. Use reliable sources to identify poisonous, medicinal, and edible plants. (A great deal of misinformation circulates on the Internet, with tragic consequences.)

Baneberry (Actaea spp.)

“Bane” is defined as deadly poison or a person or thing that causes death, destruction, misery, distress, or ruin. The word seems fitting as a common name to describe a plant with a berry that when ingested is said to have an almost immediate sedative effect on the heart and can ultimately lead to cardiac arrest. Baneberry is a name given to several plants in the genus Actaea, two of which are the main focus of this post – red baneberry (Actaea rubra) and white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda).

Actaea is in the family Ranunculaceae – the buttercup family – a family that consists of several common ornamental plants including those in the genera Ranunculus, Delphinium, and Clematis. A. rubra and A. pachypoda are commonly found in the understory of wooded areas in North America – A. rubra is the most widespread of the two species, occurring throughout North America except Mexico and the southeastern U.S. states; A. pachypoda occurs in eastern Canada and most eastern and Midwestern U.S. states.

The flowers of red baneberry, Actaea rubra (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The flowers of red baneberry, Actaea rubra (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Red baneberry is an herbaceous perennial that emerges in the spring from a basal stem structure called a caudex or from a rhizome, dying back to the ground again in the fall. One or several branching stems reach from 1 to 3 feet high, each with compound leaves consisting of 2-3 leaflets. The leaflets are deeply lobed and coarsely toothed. Several small, white flowers appear in spring to early summer clustered together in an inflorescence called a raceme. The petals are inconspicuous, but the stamens are large and showy. The flowers are said to have a rose-like scent. A variety of insects pollinate the flowers, after which green berries form, turning red or occasionally white by mid to late summer.

The berries of red baneberry, Actaea rubra (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The berries of red baneberry, Actaea rubra (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Red baneberry occurs on diverse soil types and in diverse ecosystems across its expansive native range. It seems to prefer, moist, shady, nutrient rich, acidic sites, and is considered an indicator of such places. It can be found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forested areas. Its preference for moist sites means that it can also be found in swamps, along stream banks, and in other riparian areas.

White baneberry has a relatively smaller native range and is found in very similar environments. It also has many of the same features and habits as red baneberry, with the main distinction being its striking white berries formed on prominent, stout, bright red axes and peduncles (the “stems” and “branches” of the racemes). The stigmas are persistent on the berries, forming large black dots on each berry and giving it another common name, doll’s eyes. This is a feature of red baneberry as well, but is much more striking on the white berries.

Baneberry is occasionally browsed by livestock and wildlife including deer, elk, and small mammals. However, it has a low degree of palatability and isn’t very nutritious. Birds, unaffected by their poisonous qualities, eat the berries and are the main seed dispersers of baneberry.

The berries of white baneberry or doll's eyes Actaea pachypoda (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The berries of white baneberry or doll’s eyes, Actaea pachypoda (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The roots and berries are the most poisonous parts of baneberry, however all parts are toxic. The berries are quite bitter, so it is not likely that one would eat enough of them to receive a severe reaction. If ingested, symptoms include stomach cramps, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium, and circulatory failure. Eating six or more berries can result in respiratory distress and cardiac arrest. The toxin in the plant has yet to be clearly identified. Protoanemonin is present, as it is in all plants in the buttercup family, but the real toxicity of the plant is probably due to an essential oil or a poisonous glycoside. There have been no reported deaths due to the consumption of red or white baneberry, but a European species of baneberry (A. spicata) has been linked to the death of several children.

Native Americans were aware of baneberry’s toxicity, so rather than use it as a food source, they used it medicinally. Among other things, the root was used as a treatment for menstrual cramps, postpartum pain, and issues related to menopause, and the berry was used to induce vomiting and diarrhea and as a treatment for snakebites. Leaves were chewed and applied to boils and wounds. Two websites I visited claimed that arrowheads were dipped in the juice of the berries to make poison arrows. Neither cited a reference, and in the section on arrow poisons in Wicked Plants, Stewart doesn’t mention baneberry. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

What do you fear the most? Batman villian, Bane, or baneberry? (photo credit: Comic Vine)

What do you fear the most? Batman villian, Bane, or baneberry? (photo credit: Comic Vine)

References