A monarch butterfly sips nectar from a butterfly weed. The wildflower draws a variety of butterfly species and hence is aptly named. Monarch butterfly caterpillars also eat the leaves of butterfly weed, which is a species of milkweed. CONTRIBUTED BY KOPPH / CREATIVE COMMONS
Photo: Kopph/Creative Commons
Photo: Kopph/Creative Commons

The butterfly weed is aptly named

Drive along nearly any country road bordered by grassy fields and unmowed roadsides in Georgia now, and you’re apt to spy the tall, brilliant orange blooms of one of Georgia’s most beautiful summer wildflowers, the butterfly weed.

It’s appropriately named because it draws a variety of butterflies like a magnet. During an hourlong stroll across a sun-filled meadow in the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge in Middle Georgia last week, I saw six butterfly species — red-spotted purple, eastern tiger swallowtail, cloudless sulphur, pearl crescent, common buckeye and variegated fritillary — feeding at the nectar-rich blooms of butterfly weed. In addition, a bevy of bees and other pollinators vied for the energy-packed nectar.

The butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of 22 species of native milkweeds in Georgia — but it is by far the most majestic of them with its neon-bright flowers that seem to shout, “look at me,” even from afar. It is also the most unusual of the milkweeds in that it produces clear sap, unlike the white, milky sap characteristic of other milkweeds.

It’s called “weed” (short for milkweed) but that is a disservice. Unlike weeds, it’s neither aggressive nor invasive. It’s drought-tolerant and sun-loving and will bloom all summer long.

Native milkweeds, of course, are invaluable for monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars feed only on milkweed foliage. So, it’s not uncommon to find monarch caterpillars on a butterfly weed while adult monarchs sip nectar from the flowers.

Poets, too, are drawn to the butterfly weed’s striking beauty. In his poem “The Tuft of Flowers,” Robert Frost poignantly tells of coming upon a blooming butterfly weed in a hayfield newly mowed by a farmworker wielding a scythe. The butterfly weed is the only plant still standing, untouched by the worker’s blade perhaps because of its splendid beauty.

“A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared,” Frost wrote.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first quarter Saturday night. Mercury and Venus are low in the west just after dark and set less than an hour later. Mars rises in the east about four hours before sunrise. Jupiter and Saturn rise in the east just before midnight.

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