Common Michigan Milkweeds

Eleven species of milkweeds are native to Michigan. All species except the Butterfly-weed possess milky sap. Monarch butterfly larvae feed on the milkweeds’ foliage and the adults feed on the nectar of the flowers. The pod is correctly called a follicle that is a fruit that splits in half when it is mature along a single joint. Attached to the seed is a feather-like pappus allowing the seed to travel via the wind. Flower clusters are in umbels meaning the individual flower stems all come from the same point. Michigan’s five common species are:

Asclepias exaltata

Poke Milkweed

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) is a woodland species, having smooth, thin, opposite, leaves that are pointed on each end. Its white flowers, tinted with lavender or green are some of the largest of our milkweeds. Hanging in loose umbels that come from the leaf axils, they are quite distinctive.

Asclepias incarnata

Swamp Milkweed

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows where its feet can get wet. The two-toned (whitish and pink or rose) flowers, in upright clusters, bloom over a long period of time. You can often find plants with follicles that still have flower buds. Smooth, opposite, lanceolate leaves, smooth stem, and narrow upright follicles are good characters to use to recognize this species.

Asclepias syriaca

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has flowers in dense spherical umbels. Their color varies from white to pink to rose to almost green. The leaves are hairy, opposite and blunt tipped. Warty, fleshy, follicles are covered with fine dense hair. This species is common in fields, woodland edges, and waste places.

Asclepias tuberosa flowers

Butterfly-weed flowers

Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has non-milky juice, alternate leaves and orange or yellow upright flower. The three photos showing the variation in flower color are all from the same stand. It grows in the Lower Peninsula and is most common in the south half.

Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly-weed plant and seeds

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) has narrow leaves in whorls of 3 to 8 and umbels of white flowers that normally appear along the upper third of the plant. This is one of our shortest milkweeds, appearing slender in habit. It grows in dry fields, roadsides, waste places, and prairies; often in large stands, that can be spotted from a moving car. It is more common in southern Michigan but there are several records from the Upper Peninsula.

Asclepias verticillata

Whorled Milkweed

I would encourage you to plant a few milkweeds in your landscape. Plants are available from many nurseries, the flowers are unique as well as colorful, and the Monarch Butterflies could us the help.


Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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Prickly-ash and the Giant Swallowtail

For the last forty years (on and off), I have searched for the larva of the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) which feed on Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum.) Prickly-ash occurs in Tenhave Woods, Oakland County and I have seen adult Giant Swallowtails in the woods for many years. I was helping identify and measure trees in the swamp forest when I found three larvae, the first that I have seen. They resemble bird droppings. A few days later, I found another group of Giant Swallowtail larvae at a highway rest area in Genesee County. This seems to happen to me often, that once I find an insect or plant for the first time I will start finding it at other places.

Giant Swallowtail Larva

Giant Swallowtail Larva

Prickly-ash is not an ash but a member of the Rue family (Rutaceae) that includes the citrus. The odor of the flowers and fruit is similar to that of lime and the unripe fruit looks like a tiny lime. The plant is armed with prickles and a stand is painful to walk while doing fieldwork. The twigs and the main leaf stalk have prickles. Prickly-ash grows mainly in the Lower Peninsula but recently a few stations in the Upper Peninsula have been discovered.

Zanthoxylum americanum

Prickly-ash flowers and fruit

The adult Giant Swallowtails have an impressive six-inch (15 cm) wingspan. When it alights on a flower it must continue to flap its wings or the flower stem bends under the butterfly’s weight. This makes the butterfly easy to identify and difficult to photograph. The Giant Swallowtail ranges north to Saginaw. Go out and look for it in southern Michigan.

Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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Michigan’s Wild-banana

Asimina triloba Pawpaw leaves and fruit

Pawpaw leaves and fruit

Pawpaw or Wild-banana or American Custard-apple (Asimina triloba) occurs in the southern third of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We are at the northern edge of its range. It is Michigan’s only member of the largely tropical Custard-apple Family (Annonaceae).

Pawpaw is a shrub or small tree that can bear fruit on plants as little as a meter (3 feet) tall. In Michigan, they normally grow along rivers in floodplains but also occur in rich deciduous forests and swamps.

Asimina triloba Pawpaw flowers

Pawpaw flowers

The dark maroon flowers, with three long outer petals and three much shorter inner petals, appear before the leaves expand, and look quite tropical to me. Their foul smell attracts flies that pollinate them.

The leaves are alternate, broadest near the tip and 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 inches) long.

Asimina triloba Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw has the largest fruit of any native Michigan plant, up to 13 cm (5 inches) long and 2cm (1 inch) thick. It is a large berry containing four to twelve flattened black seeds about the size of a lima bean. The flesh is edible, my favorite wild fruit to eat, although I have friends who hate the taste. The fruiting season is short. Raccoons love them, and have climbed into baskets of Pawpaws as I was carrying them. The picking technique I use is stand to one side of a fruit cluster (so the falling fruit does not hit me), gently shake a small tree and catch the falling fruit. I pick them when they are slightly green but they ripen in a few days.

Asimina triloba Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw fruit

The Pawpaw Foundation is developing commercial cultivars. Local farmers’ markets sometimes have them for sale. My preference is to eat them raw or cooked into a custard or Pawpaw bread. See the Foundation’s website for recipes.

Now is the time to pick Pawpaws. Get out and explore a river floodplain and look for Pawpaws with their ripe fruit. Only one of these large berries is needed to provide a sample of their unique taste.
Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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Flatormenis proximais and Acanalonia bivittata

Northern Flatid & Two-striped Planthoppers

Recently I observed two Planthoppers in a local woods. I mistakenly thought they were the same species and just different sexes or different growth stages. On further study, they were found to be not only different species but also species in different families.

Flatormenis proximais

Northern Flatid Planthopper Flatormenis proximais

The first one is in the Flatidae family and is a Northern Flatid Planthopper (Flatormenis proximais). It has a greenish tint under its waxy secretions. It is 1 cm (3/8 inches) long and feeds on a large number of plant species. This one was on Goldenrod. The Citrus Planthopper (Metcalfa pruinosa) is similar but with a grayish-blue to purple tint and a bright yellow or orange eye.

Acanalonia bivittata

Two-striped Planthopper Acanalonia bivittata

The other species was in a different family, the Acanaloniidae. It is a Two-striped Planthopper (Acanalonia bivittata). This species hides by mimicking a leaf. It is also 1 cm (3/8 inches) long. Although it feeds on plant juices this species occurs in small numbers so it is not considered an insect pest.

Graphocephala complex

Candy-striped Leafhopper Graphocephala complex

The Harlequin or Candy-striped Leafhopper, in the genus Graphocephala, is a colorful little leafhopper. The species in this genus are difficult to tell apart, requiring accurate measurements and the correct determination of their sex. I am content knowing only an insect’s genus, especially when collecting and dissecting it is required for identification. I think this is part of the G. coccinea complex. The family is Cicadellidae and its members have a row of spines along the leg (the tibia to be exact, which is the second segment from the unattached end of the leg). This group also has short antennae located between their eyes.

Graphocephala closeup

Candy-striped Leafhopper closeup Graphocephala closeup

The Planthoppers and Leafhoppers are fun to find. Many more species occur in Michigan, some are drab and others are colorful. The casual observer normally does not discover them. I had not noticed the planthoppers before; however, after seeing one I have now found them other places. Get out and look for them. Late summer and early autumn is the time to find them right after the nymphs have metamorphosed.

Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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