Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Guide to the Milkweeds of Ohio

It's been a while since I dedicated a post to the identification and study of a specific group of plants.  I meant to get this particular one out this time last year but never got around to it so what better time than now!

The milkweeds.  One of my favorite genera (Asclepias) in the vascular plant world for their fascinatingly unique flower structure as well as the array of colors and sizes they come in.  All are perennial herbs with entire, (mostly) opposite leaves, and have seeds produced in a follicle (pod).  Most but not all of Ohio's species have the classic milkweed characteristic of a latex-based milky sap.  The genus name of Asclepias was given to the milkweeds by famed botanist and father of the modern binomial nomenclature system, Carl Linnaeus, after the Greek god of healing Asclepius (due to the milkweed's many medicinal uses back in the day).

Here in Ohio we have 13 native species in a wide variety of habitats.  Some are incredibly common and easily seen in just about every county in Ohio; others more rare with restricted geographical ranges and/or habitat requirements.  The specimens and information presented here is of typical Ohio plants that I have come across during time out in the field.  All 13 indigenous taxa are present in this post and displayed in alphabetical order by their scientific epithet.  Fortunately, our milkweeds are all discernible from one another through photos showing leaves and/or flowers.  For that reason, I did not include/use a key and think photos and descriptions will give what's needed to tell them apart.  Being a treatment and ID post it's quite long so take from it and use it as you will!  It's my hope to clear up and exhibit all Ohio's milkweed species in one easy-to-view and use place.

*Remember to click on the photos to see them in a larger, more detailed resolution!*

Clasping Milkweed, Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis)

Asclepias amplexicaulis
Asclepias amplexicaulis

Up first is one of our more uncommon and earliest blooming species: the clasping or blunt-leaved milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis).  It also happens to be one of the most obvious and easily distinguished of the milkweeds.  It typically grows upwards of two-four feet tall with a single terminal inflorescence at the end of a naked stalk well above the highest pair of leaves.

Asclepias amplexicaulis
Asclepias amplexicaulis

Speaking of leaves, this is the only species that exhibits entirely sessile, clasping leaves that hug the stem.  No other Ohio milkweed has clasping leaves this obvious and noticeable.  Another intriguing aspect to A. amplexicaulis is the color variation of its inflorescences.  They can range from a wine-red color (shown above) to a yellowish tan (show on the right).

Asclepias amplexicaulis North American distribution (courtesy: BONAP)

Clasping milkweed is a species of concern in Ohio and has two distinct population centers: the northwest corner and the south-central/southeastern areas.  It grows in a variety of dry, sandy/gravelly, and open habitats like roadside/embankments, fields, meadows, prairies, and dunes.

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)
Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)

Poke milkweed (A. exaltata) is one of our green-flowered milkweeds but still quite easily told apart by its habitat, leaves, and flowers.  This species can grow upwards of four feet tall and can have multiple flower umbels that tend to droop and hang over.  Each individual inflorescence is a very unique combination of green and white and hangs on a long peduncle in the open, lax umbel.  Poke milkweed's leaves are rather large and more or less evenly sized up the stem.  They are similar in size and shape to pawpaw (Asimina triloba) leaves to me.

Asclepias exaltata North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Poke milkweed seems to be the most shade-tolerant of all our species.  It grows in woodland settings from dry, upland forests to more mesic deciduous forests in a variety of soil conditions.  I have seen this species growing and flowering (the specimen above right) in the dense shade of a sandstone gorge as well as a rocky, upland oaks woods under similar lighting conditions.  Few other milkweed species grow in full shade conditions.  Poke milkweed is widely-scattered throughout the state but is predominately found in the eastern and south/eastern counties.  It blooms from late May through June and into July.

Tall Green Milkweed, Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella)

Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella)
Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella)

An uncommon and distinct species of mid-late summer is tall green milkweed (A. hirtella), otherwise known as prairie milkweed.  Its small, spherical umbels of tiny greenish-yellow flowers look like mini pompom balls or exploding fireworks and occur along the top third of the densely pubescent stem.  Tall green milkweed's leaves are very narrow and linear in shape with an alternate attachment.  It's a very attractive species when seen in full bloom and clumped together.

Asclepias hirtella North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Tall green milkweed is restricted to largely the same areas as the aforementioned clasping milkweed in the south/east and northwest.  It grows in mesic-damp fields, prairies, and roadsides and typically blooms late June into August.  Worth noting is the existence of the longleaf milkweed (A. longifolia); an excruciatingly similar looking species of the Atlantic coastal plain and Gulf states.  Some authors and taxonomists keep them separate species; others recognize them as subspecies.  I won't get into the differences here as only A. hirtella occurs in Ohio.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is one of our most common species and can be seen in literally any of Ohio's 88 counties come mid-late summer.  The plants can vary greatly in size depending on the habitat conditions from two to over five feet in height.  They are easily identified by the terminal flower umbels consisting of dozens of small, bright pink flowers.  The leaves are oppositely arranged and are narrow to widely lanceolate in shape with little to no petiole (and somewhat clasp the stem).

Swamp milkweeds growing in an emergent wetland

Swamp milkweed is a species that loves to keep its feet wet or at least moist.  It grows in a very wide variety of hydric-mesic habitats and occurs in high-quality to degraded environments.  Floodplain forests, thickets, swamps, wet prairies/meadows/fields, roadside ditches, fens, marshes, and along just about any waterway all are places you're likely to come across swamp milkweed.

Asclepias incarnata North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Swamp milkweed is incredibly common across its wide range in North America.  It's typically a mid-late summer bloomer here in Ohio with flowers coming on in early July through August.

Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)

Purple Milkweed - Asclepias purpurascens
Purple Milkweed - Asclepias purpurascens

Relatively common and nothing too special in its own right but purple milkweed (A. purpurascens) is a stunning plant that lights up the roadsides and forest margins come early summer.  Its deep, vividly purple-pink colored umbels of flowers occur at the apex of the central stem.  The large ovate-oblong lanceolate leaves are oppositely arranged and very similar to the common milkweed (A. syriaca).

Some may have difficulties in telling purple milkweed apart from the common milkweed so here are a few key differences:

                     Purple Milkweed                                                               Common Milkweed
       - flowers dark purple colored                                  - flowers whitish-purple, sometimes purple/green
       - umbels few, almost always terminal                                       - umbels numerous, mostly axillary
       - corolla larger, longer (8-10mm)                                           - corolla smaller, narrower (7-9mm)
         - follicle (seed pod) without spines                                   - follicle (seed pod) with large, soft spines

Asclepias purpurascens North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Purple milkweed occurs throughout Ohio but is chiefly found in the south-central counties of the state.  It blooms from late May into July.  This species is more adaptable and tolerant of shade and grows in open woods, thickets, forested margins, and roadsides.

Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia)

Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia)
Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia)

Typically our earliest and one of our smallest milkweeds to bloom is the aptly-named four-leaved milkweed (A. quadrifolia).  Looking at the photograph above left it isn't too difficult to see how it got the name 'four-leaved' milkweed as the lower leaves tend to form a whorl of four (rarely three or five) leaves.  The fewer-flowered terminal umbels occur typically in ones or twos with a light pink-white corollas.  This is overall one of the most glabrous (hairless) milkweed species.

Asclepias quadrifolia North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Four-leaved milkweed is a frequently encountered species throughout Ohio, excluding the northwest quarter.  It most commonly occurs in the southern and eastern counties in dry-mesic woodlands and/or forest openings, borders, and margins.  It blooms from mid-May to June and is one of the first, if not the first milkweed to flower.

Sullivant's Milkweed, Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Sullivant's Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)
Sullivant's Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

This next species just so happens to be your blogger's personal favorite: Sullivant's milkweed (A. sullivantii).    This particular species was named after the great Ohio botanist and bryologist William Starling Sullivant.  Its large, terminal umbels contain fewer flowers (less than 20) than most other milkweeds and have one the largest individual flowers.  The flowers are a unique bubblegum pink color.  Leaves are nearly sessile on very short petioles and held +/- erect.

Close up of Sullivant's milkweed flowers

It can be confused with the common (and purple) milkweeds but can be told apart in a few key ways:

        Sullivant's Milkweed                                Purple Milkweed                            Common Milkweed

  - starts blooming in late June                  - starts blooming in late May         - starts blooming in mid June
- prairie obligate species, needs full sun       - grows in woods/shade         - grows just about anywhere/weed
    - corollas large (10-12mm)                   - corollas (8-10mm) long                  - corollas (7-9mm) long
- corollas bumblegum pink colored           - corollas dark pink/purple            - corollas light pink/white/green
- leaves erect (hairless underneath)    - leaves horizontal (finely hairy under)   - leaves horizontal (hairy under)
- follicles (seed pods) smooth, waxy       - follicles pubescent, lack spines         - follicles rough, hairy, spined

Asclepias sullivantii North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Sullivant's milkweed is an uncommon species in Ohio due to being a prairie obligate plant that only occurred in Ohio's historic tall grass prairie openings.  Much of Ohio's prairie landscape has been lost to the ages by development and agriculture and with it went this milkweed.  It still occurs throughout central/north-central and northwest Ohio, in prairie pockets, fence rows, roadside banks, and dry fields.  It typically begins to flower in late June and will bloom into August.

 Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If any of these 13 native milkweed species should look and be familiar to you, it's this one.  The common milkweed (A. syriaca) is 'common' for a reason as it can be found with great frequency in every single Ohio county.  It can grow upward of four to five feet in height and has large, pink/green/white umbels of flowers that are nearly spherical in shape and occur in the axils of the leaves.  For more information on how to tell this species apart from the the purple and Sullivant's milkweed refer to the charts above.

Asclepias syriaca North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

The common milkweed begins to bloom in mid June and will continue on through the summer up into August.  It occurs in just about any kind of disturbed, open habitat such as meadows, roadsides, railways, river and stream banks, and fallow fields.  It can be an aggressive weed that will take over an area if not controlled.

Butterfly Milkweed, Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

There's no mistaking this species of milkweed.  Not even cruising down the highway at 70 mph will you fail to miss the butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) when in full, glorious flower.  The small, bright orange colored flowers in the numerous erect umbels are like crack-cocaine to passing butterflies; you almost never see a lonely looking orange milkweed.  The linear-oblong lanceolate leaves are scattered in an alternating fashion along the roughly hairy stem.

More yellow colored flowers of butterfly milkweed

Some specimens of butterfly milkweed will have flowers that exhibit a more yellow color rather than the typical orange.  Regardless, there are no other milkweed species in Ohio with bright orange or yellow flowers.  An important characteristic and trait of this species is its clear colored sap.  This clear sap also has lower levels of the natural latex in its sap, which allows for butterfly caterpillars (like the Monarch) to have a lower mortality rate in their early instars.  Species with milky sap have higher levels of latex and cause the young caterpillars to get stuck and drown when eating the leaves or especially when severing the main leaf vein to drain the leaf of sap.

Aclepias tuberosa North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Butterfly milkweed is another incredibly common species that can be found in just about every county of Ohio in many open habitats.  Dry fields and roadsides are heavily utilized by this species.  It can be found in both high-quality and disturbed, degraded ecosystems.

White Milkweed, Red-ringed Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

 White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)
 White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Moving on with this mega post on Ohio's milkweeds is one of our most stunning taxa.  White milkweed (A. variegata) is another shade tolerant species whose snow-white flowers stick out like a sore thumb in the shadows of its woodland home.  Its broadly elliptic leaves are arranged oppositely on the stem and sit on long petioles.  The flower umbels are terminal and erect with each individual flower exhibiting a charming purplish-red ring at the base of the hood.  This is our only large statured white milkweed.

Asclepias variegata North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

White milkweed is restricted to south-central Ohio and only extant in a handful of counties.  It grows in dry, rocky woodlands, roadsides, and thickets.  The best place to see it in our state is to drive through the ridge top roads of Shawnee state forest come late spring and early summer.  It's an early blooming species that flowers from late May through June.

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)

Ohio's daintiest species might also be the most charming in the whorled milkweed (A. verticillata).  It gets its name from the needle-thin, linear leaves that whorl around the stem.  The small, few-flowered umbels droop from the apex of the stem and rarely stand more than a couple feet tall.  Whorled milkweed's flowers are not nearly as white as the aforementioned white milkweed; I'd call them more of a cream color.

Asclepias verticillata North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Whorled milkweed is a more western species that only gets into Ohio in a scattered fashion. It prefers dry, open/sunny conditions where it occurs in dry fields, roadsides, and prairie openings.  It's one of the later flowering species that doesn't really kick in until July and blooms into September.

Green-flowered Milkweed, Short Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora)

Green-flowered Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora)
Green-flowered Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora)

The green-flowered milkweed (A. viridiflora) is another one of our uncommon species that has a seemingly random scattering of occurrences throughout Ohio.  It may be small but it's easily distinguished by its green colored flowers, horn-less corollas, and small, sessile umbels in the leaf axils.  This species seems to have a weak stem as I rarely ever see it standing erect but usually bent over and laying atop nearby vegetation.  Its all-green color and small stature help it to easily blend in and be overlooked.

Asclepias viridiflora North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Green-flowered milkweed grows in dry, open areas of grassy fields, slopes of goat prairies, roadside banks, and prairie openings.  It tends to grow in higher quality environments than disturbed ones.  It blooms later in the year from late June into August.  Best place to see it with any consistency is the limestone barrens and prairies of Adams county (e.g. Lynx Prairie).

Spider Milkweed, Antelope-Horn (Asclepias viridis)

Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis)
Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis)

The last and final species of Ohio native milkweed certainly isn't last in looks.  Right behind the Sullivant's milkweed on my list of favorites is spider milkweed (A. viridis); a showy and peculiar species of extreme southern Ohio. There's no other milkweed that looks like this species with its large, open green flowers.  It rarely grows more than a couple feet tall and is our most geographically-restricted species.

Asclepias viridis North American distribution (courtesy BONAP)

Spider milkweed is a southern species that barely makes it across the river and into Ohio at the northeastern fringes of its range.  It's locally common in the Adams county area in the prairie openings and limestone barrens as well as roadsides and dry fields.  It is one of our earliest blooming species that flowers starting in mid-late May into mid-June.

There you have it!  All 13 native species of Ohio milkweed in one helpful place.  I think each species stands out on its own and none are too hard to tell apart but that's why this post exists.  I hope you've enjoyed it and maybe have been introduced to species you didn't know our state had, or perhaps even existed!  If you have any comments, suggestions, or complains with the post feel free to let me know.  I'd like it to be as helpful and accurate as possible!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Quest for the Western Wallflower

So much to see and do with so little time.  The theme my life revolves around more and more it seems as my list of plants and places ever grows.  For every successful sighting and experience I scratch off the list, two more are sure to be added.  It's the law of nature for this botanist but how could I complain?  I count myself among the lucky and am very thankful my passion and career only seems to grow in the number of things I want/need to accomplish; a product of the "more you know, the more you don't know" line of thought.  That being said, I made sure to make some time this late spring for an attempt at seeing one plant that had been on my radar for years.

Looking east along the top of the limestone bluffs along the Ohio River 

Back in late May, myself and good friend Dan Boone, who is one of the best field botanists in the state decided to hunt down one of the rarest of the rare: the western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum).  Its only known site in the entire state of Ohio is along a stretch of steep limestone bluffs that hang a couple hundred feet above the Ohio River near the small town of Aberdeen.  Dan and I had a pretty good idea of where to look and were greeted by a very precipitous slope that made for a harrowing search.  In an awkward catch 22 situation, the dense thicket of bush honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii) allowed for something to grab and steady yourself on as our eyes scanned for a blip of unmistakable orange.  I never thought I'd be so thankful to have an invasion of honeysuckle around me.

The western wallflowers clinging to the steep bluff's slopes.

They took a while to find with some moments of nervousness that the plants had been crowded/shaded out but in the end our search was not in vain.  What had been recorded as an occurrence of over 30 plants a decade ago had unfortunately dwindled to just five flowering plants and six vegetative rosettes by our count.  Regardless of the low numbers it only takes one specimen in full flower to see just how striking a wildflower it is!

Close up look at the western wallflower's unique shade of orange

I can't say I've seen every plant known to Ohio, but I think proclaiming the western wallflower as the most unique and vibrant shade of orange in the vascular flora to be an accurate assessment.  It's definitely the most showy of its fellow mustard family (Brassicaceae) brethren!  Even under the thick shade of the oaks, maples, and honeysuckle its fire-orange petals beckoned us to them like a moth to a flame.

North American distribution map (courtesy: BONAP)

As mentioned earlier, the western wallflower is only known from this single site in Brown county along the Ohio River.  Even looking back over 150 years into Ohio's past the only other record for this plant was an 1838 collection from Franklin county by famed Ohio botanist (and Ohio University alum; yay for a fellow Bobcat!) William Starling Sullivant.  That ancient record, at least ancient in botanical terms, is probably what gives the most credit to our flora recognizing it as an indigenous species rather than adventive/introduced.  Looking at its distribution above you can see that once you get east of the Rocky Mountains the species tapers out almost instantly before popping up in a seemingly random scattered pattern as far east as the Virignias.

Dan standing with two of the handful of flowering western wallflowers we found

The photograph above shows Dan standing with two of the handful of blooming wallflowers.  Like I mentioned earlier the slopes really were a challenge to navigate and keep upright on.  Dan isn't holding on to the honeysuckle trunk for the sake of a pose.  The white colored background beyond the trees is actually water of the Ohio River, not sky if you can believe that.  I guess the common name of 'wallflower' was a valid one as its preferred habitat of limestone bluffs, slopes, and outcrops was being displayed picture perfectly.

Western Wallflower - Erysimum capitatum

With any luck this piece of priceless Ohio biodiversity will one day be under the management and protection of the state.  Better sooner than later, as the site could use much-needed habitat management to remove honeysuckle and open back up the upper slopes.  Hopefully long-dormant seeds that have been biding their time in the soil will germinate and spring forth with an increase in sunlight.

Once satisfied with our scouring of the river bluffs and getting an accurate count of the western wallflower, we climbed our way back up to the ridge top and walked back to the car with a very satisfied feeling of accomplishment.  Dan had never seen this particular taxa before either and was just as pleased as I was to finally have it on his life list.  Between what Dan and I have seen in our respective botanical experiences, it's not every day we both get to see something we've never seen at the same time.  The day seeing something as rare and breathtaking as this starts to bore me is a day I never want to know.