Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keep it in check.
Here are some facts about this amazing plant:
Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
Nectar source for monarch butterflies
Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.
When all of my common Milkweeds are done, Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars.
Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers.
For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweed are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs.
One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.
Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch, people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.
Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods
Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Other Varieties of Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.
Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.
Monarch on Joe Pye Weed
Monarch Waystation Sign available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The pods of Hairy Balls are a conversation piece
Tropical Milkweed is brightly colored
Milky sap exudes down the stem
Milkweed pods are positioned vertically
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
Colony of Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond
Tropical Milkweed has pretty yellow and orange flowers
Prior to pupating, the cats go on “walk-about”, trying to find the perfect spot to make their chrysalis. In the wild, they can travel up to 15 to 20 feet away in their search. Found in some odd places, the chrysalis might be on fences, flower pots, window ledges, benches, bird houses, siding- just about any structure in your yard or house.
After crawling around the caterpillar finds the perfect spot to form their silken button that attaches to hang in their prepupal “J”, prior to their last molting. The silk comes from the spinneret on the bottom of the head. After shedding its skin for the last time, the caterpillar stabs a stem into the silk pad to hang. This stem extends from its rear end, called the Cremaster. The beautiful gold dots that adorn the chrysalis are not known to have a function.
For the last skin shed, the caterpillar makes it chrysalis and goes through the “pupa dance”, a process that only takes 3 minutes or less.
Relocating a Chrysalis
Sometimes the cats make a chrysalis in a place that isn’t safe, like on the Milkweed branch that they are eating. In a matter of days when the chrysalis completes the cycle, the Milkweed branch is dead and not sturdy enough to hold the chrysalis. Happening several times in my tomato tower, I relocated the chrysalis using some dental floss. Tying the dental floss around the black Cremaster, I relocated the chrysalis to hang at the top of the enclosure.
For more information about relocating chrysalises, go to Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. Just remember that you must hang the chrysalis so that it will form normally.
To witness Eclosure, the moments surrounding a butterfly’s emergence from its chrysalis, is magical, no matter how many times you observe it. The only way to do that is to have the chrysalis in captivity, where you can monitor its progress and not miss the miracle of metamorphosis. It is extremely hard to catch this happening in the wild as once it occurs, it only takes about 3 minutes from start to finish.
Eclosure normally occurs in mid-morning. You will notice the chrysalis darken after about nine days (typical of females) or ten days (typical of males), right before the butterfly emerges. Immediately prior to this, the chrysalis darkens to almost black. Bright orange wings begin to show through the chrysalis covering.
For a great image of the Monarch chrysalis as it ages and changes color, go to Spica’s World.
The excitement builds as you watch and wait for the butterfly to emerge. Typically in early-to mid-morning, the chrysalis’s transparent skin cracks around the head at the bottom. The butterfly pushes it open and drops its abdomen down, still clinging with its legs to the empty shell.
When the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis, it has stubby little wings and a plump body. Fluid from the body pumps into the wings, expanding them to full size in a few minutes. After the wings have fully expanded, the butterfly discharges waste products that have built up during its dormant period. A couple of hours later the wings are dry enough for the butterfly to take its first flight, usually a short one to the nearest tree. As a fully grown adult, it is now ready to mate and to spawn a new generation. You can tell the sex at this time very easily.
Releasing the butterflies is always bittersweet as this generation that comes of age in September is most likely going to make it to California or Mexico for over-wintering. They have a long journey ahead of them. For more information about their journey, go to The Monarch Diaries, Part 1.
Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.
As the cats grow larger, shedding their skins, I transfer them to a slightly bigger container with fresh leaves. Clear salad mix receptacles that you buy at the grocery store make great containers at this stage.
Milkweed-Eat & Grow
When the cats reach about 3/4″ inch long, I put them in with the “big boys” in the tomato cage tower that is full of several types of freshly cut Milkweed branches stuck into water bottles. To keep my Milkweed from immediately wilting, I use a flower arrangers trick-flaming the cut ends so that the milky sap stops flowing. I use a small propane torch, like one that you would use for creme brulee. A match doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t hot enough to sear the ends to stop the sap which will make the branch wilt.
All it takes to keep your cats happy and healthy is a good supply of milkweed, because that is all that they eat-nothing else! Eat and grow is the primary goal for the caterpillar. The Monarch butterflies nectar on many types of flowers, but the caterpillars eat only Milkweed. There are lots of kinds of Milkweed, but it must be Asclepias, which is the Latin name for Milkweed. Go to Milkweed Guide to see great pictures and descriptions if in doubt. Growing Milkweed around the country to fuel the Monarchs is really vital to the Monarch survival and people are starting to grow it everywhere. Check out Got Milk…….Weed to read some amazing facts about this essential ingredient to raising Monarchs.
Milkweed is a source of food for many insects, most notably aphids and Milkweed bugs, which I wash off carefully before bringing inside. I don’t want anything else to be eating my collected Milkweed-just my caterpillars!
Monarchs complete almost all of their growth during the larval stage which lasts from 9 to 14 days, during which time they undergo five larval instars or skin shedding. Before molting, the cat will become very still. If you catch this right after it happens, you can see the skin and then they eat it!
I try not to handle them at all, especially during this vulnerable stage as the larva spins a silk thread to keep attached to the leaf. From hatching to pupation, monarchs increase their body mass about 2000 times!
By the time they are ready to pupate the caterpillars become these pudgy clown-like eating machines. So, move them to a large enough enclosure so that they can move to a flat surface, stick, or other hard surface to attach their chrysalis which is their last skin molting or instar. I place sticks in my cage to give the cats added surface area for the chrysalis.
Making a Caterpillar Tower
As soon as I saw this ingenious enclosure at my workshop by The Monarch Teacher Network, made out of a tomato cage, black tulle, and clothes pins, I was hooked. Taking only a few minutes to slap together and tall enough for Milkweed plants, this was a great solution to keeping the cats contained while being able to observe them. Directions are below.
Directions for Monarch Tower
Buy a tomato cage with 4 rings. I used one that measured 14″ in diameter and 27″ from the first to the last ring in length. Cut half the length off of each protruding tine and bend the legs at the base inwards.
Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.
Laying the cage on the side, clothes pin the tulle to the bottom ring of the cage pulling it taut. Using needle and thread, overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring of the cage. Almost there!
Using 3 clothes pins, fasten the overlap area of the tulle on the side and place your cage on top of a pizza box base. If you aren’t a pizza lover, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the base.
Set up your cage on the base and it is ready to fill with your milkweed plant or cuttings. Tall enough for plants and lots of caterpillars, they will travel to the top when they are ready to pupate. This setup is easy to see through and clean, essential when you have lots of plump cats eating away.
I had a few cats die after turning black caused by a bacterial disease. This is upsetting but part of life. I removed these as soon as I spotted them to stop any spread of infection to others. Be sure to clean and rinse your milkweed before using and clean your cage thoroughly every day to increase your caterpillar survival rates. If you notice a caterpillar looking sick, remove it from the others immediately. Once your caterpillar gets sick, there is really nothing that can be done. You can euthanize by placing in a ziploc into the freezer. For more information on caterpillar diseases, go to 7 Common Monarch Diseases.
Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly
Monarchs always amazed me with their unique migration, over 3000 miles in some cases, which seems an impossible task for such a delicate creature. The only butterfly that makes a two-way trip, Monarchs are unique in the animal kingdom. Unable to survive cold winter temperatures, the Monarch has evolved to make this incredible trek to over-winter in warmer climes, such as Mexico and southern California. Using a combination of thermals and air currents, Monarchs sense when it is time to travel and know where to go even though the migrating generation has never been to the distant over-wintering sites.
Monarchs travel along one of three major routes and investigators think that a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others guide them. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to two months to complete their journey. Traveling only by day, Monarchs roost at night high up in trees to rest before warming up in the sun to continue their journey. A distance of 265 miles in one day is the longest recorded distance of a Monarch! A great website to track the migratory happenings of Monarchs and other animals is Journey North. Citizen Scientists record their observations all over North America to show the movements of animals north in the spring and south in the fall in real-time.
Many teachers include Monarch rearing in their science curriculum in Elementary school but I missed the opportunity in school and wanted to do it myself at home to observe the incredible transformation that these creatures go through. How can such fragile creatures make a 3,000 mile journey to an unknown location and remain there for months, mate and then return to the north to start new progeny?
Monarch rearing has been on my “must try” list for several years and a two-day Monarch workshop put on by MonarchTeacherNetwork got me motivated and ready to go. Milkweed growing, enclosure instructions, Monarch activities and games, healthy practices of raising, and release ceremonies were all covered in simple, easy to follow directions with added field trips to meadows full of Milkweed and a butterfly house. After the intense two-day workshop, I felt fully prepared to set up my own Monarch raising operation at home.
After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!
The hardest part of raising Monarchs is finding their tiny single creamy-white eggs which are smaller than pin heads. Carrying a portable hand lens on an overcast day makes it a little easier to spot the eggs in the field. If you observe Monarchs swooping in and landing on a Milkweed, there is a good chance that she just laid an egg.
Monarchs tend to lay their eggs singly on the underside of freshly grown leaves of Milkweed, hidden from predators and directly on their food supply for best survival rates.
The butterfly glues the egg on the leaf surface so that it adheres even through a rain storm, but predators find the eggs a tasty treat. The first egg for me was hard to find, but subsequent ones much easier once I knew what to look for. The likelihood of a Monarch surviving the egg and larval (caterpillar) stages is less than 10% in the wild. For great tips on finding eggs, go to How to Hunt, Gather, and Protect Monarch Eggs . This site gives great information on where, when and how to look.
After locating an egg, I note what type of Milkweed they were attached to and remove the leaf or branch and add it to my “nursery enclosure”, a small plastic container with holes poked in the top. Taking only 3 to 5 days to hatch, watch your eggs carefully as the caterpillar can emerge, eat their egg shell and will move on to fresher leaves pretty quickly. When the top of the eggs turns dark, hatching is imminent.
Adding some extra Milkweed leaves will keep the tiny caterpillars busy when they hatch. You could also place tulle or pantyhose over the top to keep any wandering minuscule caterpillars inside. Lining the container with a moistened paper towel makes cleanup of the “frass” or black gooey caterpillar poop easy and adds some moisture to their environment. Once inside the house, air conditioning tends to dry the air out for the caterpillars and a light mist from a spray bottle of water helps. I clean out the plastic container every day as the frass can bring in pathogens that can harm the caterpillars.
After the eggs hatch in about 4 days, the tiny caterpillars are no larger than 1/16 of an inch long. They are delicate and easy to overlook as you handle the Milkweed leaves, so move carefully when you are changing out old for fresh leaves.
Next: Part 2-Larval Stage and How to Make a Tomato Cage Enclosure