The Milkweed Archipelago

“The universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it.”  Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A tiny island of orange beckons an orange butterfly.  Down she goes as millions of her ancestors have for eons of time.  This brilliant orange flower and this beautiful insect have a relationship common in nature.  Milkweed is required for the reproduction of the Monarch butterfly.  The plant has many defenses for protection from hungry bugs.  One of the most potent is a chemical called cardiac glycoside.  It is poisonous to most animals.  It is life to the Monarch.

The female carefully sticks her cone shaped eggs to the bottom of the milkweed leaves.  In a few days they will hatch, and the tiny caterpillars will find themselves on a salad bar perfect for their taste.  Cardiac glycoside is the flavor they crave.  They like it so much it becomes part of them, stored in their tissues.

When they emerge from the chrysalis, their bright orange wings will fill with fluid.  Not only are they bold and bright in color, they fly slowly.  They are an easy target for insect eating birds.  Monarchs are easy to catch, but hard to digest.  Glycoside from the milkweed causes a nasty stomach upset for the hungry bird, and the bright orange and black pattern of the Monarch makes it easier to remember the nauseating dining experience.  It is no longer on the menu.  Monarchs that fly past this bird in the future can pass in safety.  The bold pattern of the monarch is a warning coloration.  While many species in the animal kingdom try to blend in, the monarch, armed with its own version of chemical warfare, stands out.

At least two other insects have adapted to eating milkweed and making glycoside their own.  The Milkweed Beetle and Milkweed Bug feed only on milkweed.  The orange-red Milkweed Beetles are often seen on the leaves, and the red and black Milkweed Bugs can be found on the seedpods.  They are brilliant, beautiful, and a sickening meal for predators.

 

Milkweed

Milkweed

 

Rich Mountain is an excellent stopover for Monarchs due to the many species of wildflowers that bloom during the end of September and the beginning of October. We can’t predict the exact days of the migration, but it usually happens in the first days of October.

A wave of orange will descend onto the white, yellow and blue flowers along the Lover’s Leap Trail.  The adult Monarchs are not limited to milkweed, but nectar on many different wildflowers.  Only as caterpillars are they tied exclusively to members of the milkweed clan.  Thousands of Monarch butterflies will steadily move over the mountain toward their wintering ground in Mexico.

A few Monarchs trickle through the park all through August and September. These early individuals are just the preview of the flood that will come.

This remarkable phenomenon of the fall season reminds us of the unending cycle of life. Each year Monarchs wing their way across the Ouachitas persistently fluttering toward the southwest.  Grounded, we watch them pass and take comfort in the promise it gives us for the years to come.

Next year the Monarchs will head north from their wintering ground in Mexico searching for the scattered clumps of milkweed. Their islands of survival, the milkweed archipelago, is the center of the Monarch’s universe.

Brad Holleman, Park Interpreter

Brad Holleman, Park Interpreter

Brad Holleman has been the park interpreter at Queen Wilhelmina State Park since 1991. He started his career in 1983 as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Ouachita State Park andLake Fort Smith State Park. In 1984 he received a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Management from Arkansas Tech University. Brad worked as an interpreter at Lake Catherine State Park from 1984-89 and then at Petit Jean State Park from 1989-91. He is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and is a Certified Heritage Interpreter. He is also active with the Talimena Scenic Drive Association and on the Board of Advisors with the Ouachita Mountains Biological Station.

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9 Responses to The Milkweed Archipelago

  1. Michelle says:

    My butterfly-loving son and I are trying to find out how to procure native Arkansas milkweed plants to grow in our yard. Any suggestions? Thanks for any help you can give!
    We hope to come this fall to Rich Mountain and see that amazing sight you described–that sounds so wonderful!

    • I would think you could get it a most nurseries in the state. If that doesn’t work give a call to Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, AR. They have one of the best herbalists in the state.

      • Donna Dowler says:

        Garvan Gardens in Hot Springs are having a plant sale Oct 7 & 8. I believe they will have native plants. I am hoping to find some milkweed plants. I did find some at a local nursery also. I also found native milkweed and some monarch butterflys in Fordyce, while out with my husband looking for hunting areas.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joe Jacobs, Arkansas State Parks. Arkansas State Parks said: We have a new article on Arkansas State Parks Blog http://ht.ly/2QzhJ "The Milkweed Archipelago" #butterfly #plants #flora [...]

  3. debbie jess says:

    Great article. I love the Monarch, and want to grow Milkweed in my yard.

  4. Brandy Ballard says:

    Awesome imagery and ideas. Kinda makes the world seem a little smaller in a good way. Brad is truly an artist and brings it all together in a way that most people could never put into words.

  5. Kelly F says:

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing, Brad!

  6. Nikki Cherry says:

    Great article, Brad! You always know how to keep us interested in even the smallest miracles on Rich Mountain.

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