NEBRASKAland July 2016

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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Page 53 of 79

M ilkweeds are getting a lot of attention lately, and it's about time. They are among the most fascinating of Nebraska's plants, but are largely ignored. Unfortunately, the main reason for the recent interest in milkweeds is the decline of the monarch butterfly. Monarchs deserve attention, and milkweeds certainly play a critical role in their life cycle. However, paying attention to milkweeds only because of monarchs is like going to a NASCAR race only because you're a fan of loud noises. There is much more to Nebraska's milkweeds than just caterpillar food. First of all, it's important to recognize that there is more than one kind of milkweed. Common milkweed, the big tall pink-flowered plant seen most commonly in road ditches and crop fields is the species most people visualize when they think of milkweed. However, common milkweed is only one of 17 Nebraska milkweed species, and one of 72 species in the U.S. and Canada. While milkweed's public relations image has been dominated by "Big Pink" – common milkweed and a few similar species – only four of Nebraska's species have pink flowers. There is a milkweed with rose red flowers, one with orange flowers, and the remaining 11 species have either white or greenish-white flowers. The species also vary tremendously in height, leaf shape and habitat. One of the most fascinating aspects of milkweed plants is their pollination story. I covered this extensively in a July 2015 NEBRASKAland article "A Series of Fortunate Accidents." Rather than having grains of pollen that stick to the hairs of visiting bees and butterflies, milkweeds have little packets of pollen stuck together in little gel packs called pollinia. Those pollinia are hidden inside the flowers and can only be removed when an insect's leg accidentally slips through a slit in the flower and hooks the pollinia on its way out. Pollination is only completed if that same insect happens to slip that same leg into a slit on a different flower and leave the pollinia behind. It's a unique, crazy and wonderful pollination strategy that, by itself, should endear you to milkweeds. Successful pollination leads to seed production, and Story and photos by Chris Helzer Common milkweed is the best known species of milkweed to most Nebraskans. 54 NEBRASKAland • JULY 2016

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