Common Milkweed: A Frequent Stop

From May until October, Common milkweed is one of the flowers that I stop at regularly on my rounds in Eliza Howell Park. From being a “weed” in need of eradication, it has in recent years acquired both respectability and fame as a host plant for the larvae of the popular Monarch butterfly. I watch it for that role and for many other reasons.

In September, the plants, many of them 4 feet tall, are dominated by follicles (seed pods).

20190918_163254

When the seed pods open – and some are just beginning to do so – we can witness the delicate beauty of the seeds attached to the silk that allows them to be dispersed by the wind. This is definitely worth seeking out a sunny fall day.

20190918_155013

Common Milkweed is a perennial wildflower native to eastern North America that spreads both by seeds and by underground rhizomes, the second being the reason they are often found in patches. They sprout in May, usually shortly before the Monarchs return. (This year I saw the first Monarch on May 15.)

20190520_101532

Monarchs start laying eggs on the milkweed leaves almost immediately after arrival. Once hatched, the larvae (caterpillars) eat the tender leaves. This picture of a tiny caterpillar is from early June.

20190608_130107

By the end of June, milkweed is beginning to flower. I was especially struck this year by how fragrant the flowers are. Even for someone like me, who does not have the most sensitive nose, it is easy to know that one is in a patch of blooming milkweeds from the fragrance alone.

20190630_200504

20190701_084340

Milkweeds get their name from the fact that leaves and stems, when broken, produce a milky sap. There is a toxicity in the milkweed plant and Monarchs acquire this toxicity from ingesting the leaves as caterpillars. The result is that adult Monarchs are not preyed upon by birds, who have come to know that Monarchs are not healthy food.

Monarch butterflies are not the only insect that benefits from using Common Milkweed as a host plant for young. In September, it is easy to find seed pods covered with Large Milkweed Bugs. In the picture, the left shows adult Large Milkweed Bugs and the right picture is of young ones (nymphs). (Yes, there are Small Milkweed Bugs, but not in this entry.)

20190918_190514

Large Milkweed Bugs have some characteristics similar to Monarchs: milkweed is the host plant on which the young feed; they are orange and black; they acquire a protective toxicity from milkweed; they migrate south for the winter.

I have recognized Common Milkweed for as long as I can remember, but I have only really gotten to know it from my observations in Eliza Howell Park in recent years. The more I know about it, the more I like it.

 

Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

20190828_090419

20190828_091048

When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

20190819_135952

20190818_123309

In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

20190828_090502

The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

20180817_112120

I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.

Marvelous Monarch Morning

Monarch butterflies were active early on a recent late July warm and humid morning in Eliza Howell Park. I began to see them before 8 a.m.

Black-eyed Susan is now in bloom in the park. Based on past observations, it is not a flower I think of when I see Monarchs, so when a Monarch stopped on one to nectar, I approached for a picture.

20190728_115712

Given the numbers of Monarchs flying in the peak of the summer flower season, I decided to record in pictures some of the different flowers Monarchs came to rest on this morning. The second flower was definitely no surprise; I have often seen Monarchs on Red Clover.

20190728_115725

Monarchs are perhaps the best known North American butterfly – large, colorful, easy to spot, often discussed in terms of their migration practice and in terms of their declining numbers. One additional point is that Monarchs will often allow someone to get close while they are feeding on nectar, as long as the approach is slow and without any quick movements. These pictures were all taken with a phone camera.

Eliza Howell Park has several new benches. I was tempted to sit in the shade and watch the Monarchs, but I needed to be on my feet to get close.

20190728_084118

Butterfly Weed is a Monarch favorite, a flower in the milkweed family that serves both a feeding plant for adults and a host plant for caterpillars.

20190728_100036

Another flower that I have previously noted as a Monarch favorite is Purple Coneflower. One of the several Monarchs flying around in the “prairie wildflower field” stopped just long enough for a quick picture.

20190728_124506

I cannot be sure, of course, because there were several butterflies in their irregular flight patterns, but I think that each of these pictures is of a different Monarch.

The last picture I took this morning is of the butterfly on Boneset. Boneset is not one of the more common flowers in Eliza Howell and not one that I have ever associated with Monarchs in the past.

20190728_115923

Five pictures of Monarchs on five different flowers in about 2 hours = a Marvelous Monarch Morning.

I came away with a better knowledge of the flowers in the park that Monarchs select as food sources. After some 1300 Eliza Howell nature walks, I continue to learn something new almost every time.

 

Chicory: Eat, Drink, Admire

It is estimated that only about 10 % of the flowering plants in the world are blue. Chicory, a fascinating example of the 10 %, is now in bloom.

20190714_160535

Chicory is sometimes called “blue dandelion,” or “blue daisy,” or “wild bachelor’s button,” or one of various other names. The ones I see in Eliza Howell Park are typically the shade of blue in the above picture, but some blooms, especially as they appear in bright sunshine, are a different shade.

20190716_112626

A plant native to Europe and now naturalized in North America, chicory is valued for a variety of reasons. The roots, roasted and ground, have long been used as a coffee additive and, mostly in times of coffee shortage, as a coffee substitute (chicory does not contain caffeine).

The leaves are eaten as a green (“wild endive”). They are perhaps a little bitter, but if one has never tasted a chicory leaf, I suggest a test bite during the next  observation of the plant. 

20190714_105240

There are other uses of the chicory plant as well, but it is the bloom that attracts me most, just to observe and admire.

Each stem produces several flowers, but an individual bloom opens for one day only. The flower opens up in the morning (the next picture was taken at 7:30 a.m.) and begins to close in the afternoon.

20190713_132358

I don’t know if it is because of the relative rareness of the blue color, but there is something about the chicory flower that seems to call for a close-up look.

20190713_193233

During my walks, I often stop to check to see whether – and which – pollinators are coming during the limited visiting hours.

20190714_160433

20190701_123005

Chicory blooms from late June through the rest of the summer. For me, that likely means many more stops and many more looks.

 

The Lady Has a Favorite

Over the past two to three weeks, I have been noticing the amount of time the American Lady butterfly has been spending around and on Red Clover in Eliza Howell Park. The attraction is obviously very strong.

20190707_114837 (1)

The American Lady, which is usually seen with its wings closed or only slightly open, has been present in large numbers this year. It is distinguished from the Painted Lady, in part, by the two large eyespots on the underwing.

20190701_160038

Red Clover, with its pink flowers, is also abundant this year. It is a plant native to Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, which was brought to North America and has become naturalized here. It has often been grown as a fodder crop and is valued for its ability to enrich soil by fixing nitrogen.

20190612_131733

This has been a great year for both Red Clover and American Lady in EHP. I suspect that the widespread clover is the primary reason there are so many American Ladies. The clover is, without a doubt, the Lady’s favorite flower.

The relationship between the two is not an exclusive one, of course. The clover welcomes other pollinators, not only bees, but other butterflies. I have seen visiting Red Admirals and Monarchs.

20190713_170100

20190713_170258

And the American Lady also likes to check out other flowers from time to time. Here it is on coreopsis.

20190618_162352

It is fascinating to observe the American Lady’s strong preference for Red Clover, but I am left with a question: What was the American Lady’s favorite flower before Red Clover was introduced to North America?

Nature Discovery Day Is July 13

On Saturday, July 13,  there is a great opportunity for visitors to the park to become more familiar with the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, mammals, trees — and more – of Eliza Howell Park: 9:00 – noon. Free and open to everyone.

Resized_20190527_141858_9041

There will be exhibits, activities, and options of guided walks designed to point out some of the natural wealth of this Detroit park. The park entrance is on Fenkell east of Telegraph. The event also includes an opportunity to learn more about the U-M wildlife motion-activated camera project (which includes Eliza Howell Park).

Among the highlights of mid-July are the meadow/prairie wildflowers. Among those catching my attention recently are these.

20190705_121638

Clockwise from top left: Foxglove Beardtongue, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed

The event is organized by Eliza Howell Park Partnership (EHPP), a coalition of persons with different organizational affiliations and a common interest in highlighting Eliza Howell as a place for observing and enjoying nature in an urban environment.

Guides will be present to assist in identifying the varieties of flowers, as well as the specific species of butterflies they attract. These are among the common butterflies at this time of the year.

20190705_123112

Clockwise from top left: Monarch, Common Ringlet, Red Admiral, Pearl Crescent.

While I am often unable to get a picture of a butterfly I see, it is never difficult to find flowers waiting to be photographed.

20190705_122050

Clockwise from top left: Staghorn Sumac, Chicory, Wild Bergamot, St John’s Wort.

Eliza Howell is the kind of nature park it is, in significant part, because the Rouge River runs through it. For those who wish to take it on Saturday, a short walk to the footbridge provides a good view of the shaded river.

20190705_122423

Back in the field, one flower not to be missed is Wild Bergamot, a mint family flower, sometimes called beebalm, that has only recently begun its summer blooming season. It is a magnet for a variety of insects. In this picture, the visitor is a Hummingbird Moth.

20180712_155601

Many mammals are more active at night than during the day. The cameras used in the UM wildlife camera project have located and identified some of the mammals of the night, as will be reported on July 13.

Two that I have recently seen during the day are White-tailed Deer and Groundhog.

20190708_104019

I thank EHPP for providing this opportunity to witness and enjoy the natural wealth of the park.

 

The Call of Coreopsis

In the middle of June I find myself drawn repeatedly to the patches of Coreopsis now scattered in the fields of Eliza Howell Park.

20190612_081729

Coreopsis, also known as Tickseed (a name based on the shape of the seed), is one of the flowers more often called by its Latin name than its English name.*

Coreopsis is a native American wildflower, about 2 feet tall. Each stem has just one flower at the top. The flower has 8 petals, each normally having 4 lobes at the tip.

20190617_164922

I am called to the concentrations of coreopsis in two ways. 

20190614_144322

The first is simply to admire and enjoy the flowers. The second is to check out the visiting insects. Coreopsis calls to them also.

On a recent walk, I came across a Black Swallowtail and a Painted Lady.

20190617_135157

20190617_122737

The meadow flowers of the summer provide the best opportunity of the year for insect watching in Eliza Howell and the season starts with Coreopsis. Here are a few I noted in the last couple days.

20190617_135705

The weather has been cool for June, but the silent call of the Coreopsis is signaling the beginning of summertime nature walks, featuring blooming meadow wildflowers and a fascinating variety of insects.

——–

* For those interested in the meaning of the name: The Latin word “coreopsis” itself describes the shape of the seed, taken from two Greek words meaning “bug” and “appearance.” Most of us, however, don’t think of the meaning of the Greek root words when we think or say “coreopsis.”

 

 

Some Recent FOYs

“FOY,” meaning first-of-the-year observation, appears frequently in my notes about my visits to Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year. There is something new to be seen every day.

Here are a few selected FOYs from recent walks, each of which seems noteworthy in its own way.

1.FOY Wild Lupine.

20190521_073939

Lupine tends to be the first to bloom each year among the flowers in native wildflower field at Eliza Howell. It is starting to bloom now and I always note it both because of its attractiveness and as a herald of all that is to come.

2.FOY Baltimore Oriole Nest

20190520_190401

Photo by Kevin Murphy

The nesting Baltimore Orioles are one of the highlights of the Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell each June. (This year it is Saturday, June 8, at 8:00 a.m. – free and open to all.)

These orioles typically arrive in the first week of May and begin building nests in the third week of the month. The picture here was taken on May 18; the female was weaving.

3.FOY Burrowing Crayfish Hole

20190521_125642

Crayfish (also called crawfish and sometimes crawdads) are gilled and clawed crustaceans, related to lobsters. Some are terrestrial, spending most of their lives away from bodies of water. They burrow down to groundwater and come up at night to eat on land. They are nocturnal and I have no pictures from Eliza Howell, but this hole is evidence that they remain present in the park. This one will probably continue to remove mud as it digs deeper, piling it up near the entrance in the shape of a chimney (or volcano).

4.FOY Common Milkweed

20190521_125259

The common milkweed is a wildflower made famous as a host plant for Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae. Right after I saw the FOY Monarch on May 15, I checked a spot where I have found early milkweeds in other years. They are up and growing and will be ready any time the Monarchs are ready to lay eggs.

5.FOY Fledgling Robins

20190521_125830

The day after I took this picture of 4 young robins filling the nest, they left it. While I have been observing a number of different bird nests this spring, this is the first that I have watched successful fledging.

6.FOY Opossum Encounter

20190520_134011

On a recent walk in the EHP woods, I met this opossum along the path. “Possums” are nocturnal mammals and this daytime encounter reminds me that they are sometimes visible during the day. Maybe someday I see a mother opossum with several young on her back. That would be a great lifetime first (designated in my notes by “L” for “lifer.”)

7.FOY Honeysuckle Blossoms

20190521_110934

The redbuds and the crabapples have already been blooming for some time, but one of my favorite blossoms, honeysuckle, is just beginning. Most of the honeysuckle in the park have white blossoms, but a few, like this one, tend toward pink. The picture was taken on May 21.

—-

This list of recent FOYs could be considerably longer, but it is time to get away from the desk and back to the park to see what is new today!

Cutleaf Toothwort: A Spring Flower with an Unusual Name

Cutleaf Toothwort is one of my favorites among the early wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park, a delicate woodland flower with a not-so-delicate name. It is beginning to bloom this week and will be finished blooming already in a couple weeks.

Note: The first public Eliza Howell nature walk of 2019 will include a look at this and some other spring wildflowers: Saturday, April 27, at 10:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome. We will meet near the nature trail, about ½ of the way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.  

20190417_165226

Cutleaf Toothwort (or Cut-leaved Toothwort) is a perennial that grows in moist soil that is undisturbed and rich with organic matter, typically found in areas that have dappled sunlight before they become shaded when the trees overhead have leafed out.

It often grows in patches and is quite common in Eliza Howell along the path in the woods.

20190416_175828 (1)

It gets to be several inches tall, with anywhere from 3 to 15 flowers bunched at the top of the stem. Each ½ inch flower has 4 white petals, sometimes tinged with pink. The flowers often hang down and may be only partially open on cloudy days.

20190416_175347

The “cutleaf” part of the name is clearly understandable when one looks at the leaves. “Toothwort” is less evident. “Wort” is a word used for a number of plants, especially those considered to have some medicinal value; an example is “St. John’s Wort.” There are a couple possible explanations for the “tooth” part of the name. One is that it is based on the reported use of the roots by some Native Americans to treat toothache. The most widespread explanation for “tooth” in the name, and the explanation that I usually give, is that the underground tuber resembles a tooth.

I try not to disturb native wildflowers growing in the park, but we have a little patch of Cutleaf Toothwort in our yard and I dug up a plant there.

20190418_083021

Cutleaf Toothwort is a true ephemeral perennial (short above-ground life cycle); about two months after the first growth appears, it has produced its seed, dies back, and does not show itself again until the next spring. It’s a plant to enjoy while I can.

20190416_175648 (1)

Other early woodland wildflowers that appear in Eliza Howell near the end of April include Spring Beauty, Trout Lily (2 types), Violet (a variety), and Wild Geranium. After a long winter, they are all most welcome. Cutleaf Toothwort is just one, but somehow it gets my special attention.

Blue Flag and Yellow Flag: Two Irises

Among the very earliest perennial flowering plants to emerge in Eliza Howell Park in the spring are the two iris species: blue flag and yellow flag. They grow in wet areas and I am aware of only one location for each, in different sections of the park. They have now, in late March, both emerged and begun to grow.

Blue flag presently looks like this.

20190325_083006

Blue flag is a native North American iris, one of the many native wild flowers that bloom in Eliza Howell. Because there is only one small patch (as far as I know), in a wet woodland location, not many visitors to the park are likely to see it.

In about two and a half months, in early June, it will look like this.

20180608_092541

The yellow flag iris patch is in the flood plain of the Rouge River, where it survives despite being under water several times in a typical spring. This is what it looks like at present, as the water is receding.

20190323_093515

Yellow flag is not native to North America, originally found in Eurasia. It was brought here as a garden flower and the wild ones now found in places like Eliza Howell “escaped” from gardens and naturalized. It blooms later in spring. 

20160527_105745 (1)

Both are lovely examples of Eliza Howell flowers, blooming in the season after the earliest woodland wild flowers and before most open field flowers.

Blue flag is prized by those interested in having plants in local parks that were in the Detroit area long before European Americans named it Detroit and changed the landscape. There is something to be said for maintaining that connection.

20190313_172106

I am happy to help park visitors find either or both.