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Milkweeds dominate mid-summer roadsides

A milkweed plant in bloom features florets on a ball-shaped cluster. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal

The second half of July is seen as midsummer more than any other time of the year. These are the days when weather is again the topic of conversation among local residents. But instead of talk of cold or snow, as is often heard in the Northland, we now speak of heat and storms. It is frequent that the hot and humid days will lead to storms as well. These storms may give hard rains and steady lightning, but it is the winds accompanying that may leave the most lasting memories. It seems like each year, we have a plethora of downed trees in the wake of this July weather. But midsummer has much more to offer than heat and storms.

This is the time of berry picking. Strawberries that have been ripe for weeks may be waning now, but their place is quickly filled with the new crop of raspberries and blueberries. We are not the only ones to search for these wild delicious products of summer and birds, small mammals and, of course, bears, also seek these snacks. Though picking of raspberries and blueberries are well known at this time, fewer of us go for the ripe fruits of a couple of small trees: Juneberry (serviceberry) and pin cherry. Most other wild pickers handle the lack of humans quite well and the plants receive plenty of attention. Elderberries and dewberries also abound in the woods and are readily eaten by the local wildlife.

Besides berry time, midsummer is a great time to observe the diverse species of butterflies and dragonflies. Both of these large insects add color to their dynamic flights. Bird songs have largely waned by this time since the home territories that they defend with songs are no longer needed; the family of young ones has been raised. Though a few bird species still sing, most of the sounds that we now hear come from the fledglings. But sounds of nature are still here. And each day there are more spider webs in the dew-covered mornings as the young ones grow larger.

But along the roadsides at this time there is much more to see as I walk by — newness in the wild flowers each day.

Much of what I see here began flowering in early summer. Clovers, sweetclovers, vetches, trefoils, daisies and cow parsnip are still common. With the coming of July, others matured and continue to show each day. Here, too, are bindweeds, thistle and tansy. Native plants thrive now as well and I see bergamot, joe pye weed, fireweed and evening primrose all glowing and growing in these open sites. Late summer plants are also starting to show and I've found a few kinds of sunflowers, goldenrods and asters all opening their blossoms. But the dominant plant of this scene, always getting me to stop for a closer look, are milkweeds.

Though there are several species in the region, it is the common milkweed, standing three to six feet tall, that we'll encounter the most. Swamp milkweed with a more reddish-purple flower and butterflyweed and its orange florets are hard to pass by. Common milkweed largely lives up to its name. The milk is a reference to a white latex juice in the plant. This can be seen in breaking open nearly any part of the plant. Unfortunately, the suffix of "weed" is misleading. This degrading term is a reference to an unwanted plant and is often applied to non-native noxious plants. Common milkweed is native and with the recent interest in monarch butterflies, milkweed plants have moved from unwanted to wanted. Despite the less-than-desirable taste, milkweed plants are the sole food for the developing monarch caterpillar, making their taste also to be avoided.

Besides the taste and the white liquid, milkweed has the uniqueness of propagation. The pinkish flowers are borne in ball-shaped clusters. Many grow in these groups, each with a delightful color and odor. They are hard to pass by and as I stop to visit these flowers, I see dozens of insects — usually bees and butterflies here besides me. Most are present for nectar, some pollinate, some stay. Again being different from many other flowers, the pollen of milkweed is not on the top of the stamen, but formed in two bags located at the base of adjacent petals. Visiting insects may get their feet caught here and carry off these "saddle bags" as a way of spreading the pollen. This is fine if the insect, like a bumble bee, is large, but the fate is different for the smaller ones. It is not unusual to look over the numerous florets on the milkweed plant and find a small bee, fly, moth or butterfly that got its foot caught and was not able to free itself. A simple visit to a flower proved to be too much for these insects.

Such is not the fate of most insects that come here and the plants are magnets for various kinds on many parts of the plants. It remains like this for as long as the plants continue to flower for the next few weeks. Later in fall this dynamic plant will give us quite an encore with its spreading seeds. Now, in midsummer, they invite us to stop and take a closer look at much that is happening.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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