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NATURE HAPPENINGS - July 2006


Summer Milkweeds
by Damian Fagan

Asklepios was the Greek god of medicine and healing. Some say he was a real physician, a mortal who became a god. Among his healing abilities, Asklepios could revive the dead with the blood of Medusa. Yet as Greek myths and tragedies go, Hades (the god of the underworld) feared this intervention would deny his existence. So Hades confronted Zeus, complaining that no mortal or god should have this power. Persuaded by the argument, Zeus “smoked” Asklepios with a thunderbolt.

Gone, but not forgotten.

The centaur Charon raised Asklepios, the son of Apollo. The centaur taught his adopted son the healing arts. The symbol of Asklepios’ healing center was a rod with an entwined snake. This symbol gave rise to the modern medical profession’s symbol – the caduceus.

Though the Canyonlands Region is far from the temples of ancient Greece, there is a connection between place and person.

The great Swedish naturalist Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) honored this ancient healer by naming a genus of plants, Asclepias, after him. Several members of the genus are common throughout southern Utah and may be found blooming in summer.

Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is a widely distributed perennial that may grow up to four feet tall. The large, opposite leaves are oval in outline and may be six to eight inches long. The pinkish-white flowers grow in a cluster and attract a variety of large butterflies and insects as pollinators. Though Native Americans consumed the young buds, shoots and seedpods, this milkweed is best known for its relationship with the monarch butterfly.

The female butterfly lays her eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. The developing caterpillars consume the leaves, but are not affected by the toxic glycosides produced by the plant to deter herbivores. Instead, the caterpillars concentrate these compounds within their bodies, and this, along with their coloration pattern, make them undesirable as prey. As the caterpillars molt into adult butterflies, the compounds continue to protect the adult. Predators soon learn that ingesting these orange and black-veined insects produce gastric distress and severe vomiting.

Showy milkweed has qualities, as well. The seed down was collected in WWII by schoolchildren and sent to processing factories. The lightweight down was inserted into life jackets for buoyancy or flight suits for insulation.

Butterfly-weed or pleurisy-root (Asclepias tuberosa) has been used in the treatment of bronchial infections, pleurisy and rheumatism for hundreds of years. The roots of this plant were ground into a powder and either brewed as a tea or made into poultices for open wounds and sores. In 1751 John Bartram (1699-1777), the preeminent American botanist and plant explorer, wrote “the root must be powdered and given in a spoonful of rum, or rather as the Indians give it, bruise the root and boil it in water and drink the decoction….”

Consumption of the tea increases bronchial dilation and drainage of the lymph system.

Even the orangish flowers were harvested as a crude sweetener. Laden with nectar, these flowers attract a swarm of insects during the blooming season; hence, the common name.

Though both of these milkweeds offer abundant nectaries for insects, sometimes the unsuspecting pollinator pays a price.

Milkweed flowers have a unique design. Five scoop-shaped hoods surround a stout center column, which houses the style and stamens. Pollinators land on the center column and, while trying to find the nectar glands, a leg may slip off of the column and lodge into a slit below. Within this slit are pollen sacs that resemble saddlebags. If the insect is large enough to withdraw their leg, the sacs wrap about the lower leg. If the pollinator is too small or not strong enough, the sacs become proverbial cement shoes. Escape from their floral dungeon is rare – a tragedy the ancient Greeks would have loved.

Butterfly Weed

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