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MILKWEED FLOWERS

Flowers of Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosaMilkweed flowers are so bizarre and interesting that they represent one of the "extreme" ways that blossoms can behave. In eastern North America, probably the most famous milkweed is the one whose flowers are shown at the right -- the Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa. You really need the Latin name here because several very different plants go by the English name of Butterfly Weed. Of course it's true that butterflies just flock to this plant. Like our Standard Blossom, milkweed flowers possess five sepals and five corolla lobes. In the picture above, the corolla lobes are the lower parts of each flower, their tips pointed downward. You can't see the five sepals because they're hidden by the corolla lobes. Beyond having the usual calyx and corolla, however, the milkweed flower's anatomy departs drastically from what's normal among flowers, as the next picture clearly shows.

milkweed flower structure showing crown, hood and pollinarium glandTo make the image at the left I removed part of the flower's top appendages to show what's inside. In that picture, note that arising from atop the corolla-lobe bases are five scoop-shaped corona limbs or hoods. The five limbs considered together are termed the corona or crown. The corona is completely absent from our Standard Blossom.  Nestled within the coronas are slender items known as horns, which also are absent in our Standard Blossom.

The greenish thing in the picture's center is yet another structure not found on our Standard Blossom. Composed of the flower's grown-together stigma and anthers, it's known as the gynostegium. Notice the thing on the gynostegium labeled Milkweed flower showing pollinarium gland between crowns pollinarium gland. At the right you can see that the pollinarium gland is barely visible when intact flowers are viewed from  their sides. Now let's try to understand what that pollinarium gland is all about

milkweed pollinarium composed of two polliniaAt the left you see a much magnified image of a pollinarium gland at the tip of a silvery pin's head. Below the dark pollinarium gland are two honey-colored pollinia. The whole upside-down-V-shaped structure with its pollinarium gland and two pollinia is called a pollinarium. We begin thinking that all this might start making sense when we learn this: Among milkweeds, pollen sticks together into granular masses, and those masses are called pollinia. The pollinia at the left are yellowish because they are made of stuck-together pollen grains.

So, imagine this: An insect pollinator is attracted to the milkweed's bright flower and begins figuring out how to get to the blossom's nectar. As the insect crawls all over the flower one of its legs slips between two of the flower's corona limbs. When the leg is jerked upward, it snags between two pollinia and catches at the pollinarium gland. As the leg is withdrawn upward, the entire, upside-down-V-shaped pollinarium is removed from the flower and remains stuck to the insect's leg!

By now you can guess that when the insect visits the next flower, the pollinarium dislodges from the leg, the pollinia come into contact with the blossom's stigma, and then pollination takes place. Sneaky, huh?

If you ever find a wild, flowering milkweed, examine its blossoms with your hand lens, looking especially for the extremely small pollinarium glands. If you find one, place a pin beneath it and, lifting upward, try to remove the entire upside-down-V-shaped pollinarium.

Asclepias viridesAnd while you have a flower, be sure to look for broken-off insect legs stuck in the flower, because sometimes an insect's leg breaks off before the pollinarium comes free!

The picture at the right shows the inside of the flower of a Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridis, a common wildflower in a field near my home. I include it here to show that milkweed hoods, coronas and other parts come in many, many interesting and pretty configurations.