(First published in Orlando Sentinel November 25, 2007)
Caterpillars are gobbling up my plants, and I don't mind a bit.
I'm not bothered because the hungry nibblers are the larvae form of monarch butterflies, beautiful orange and black-winged wonders that will soon be flitting through my garden, brightening the landscape with their regal presence.
Monarchs -- the same butterflies famous for their much-documented migration patterns -- are strong fliers, but when it comes to eating, they're just plain finicky. The plants that supply the nectar they need to survive are in the genus Asclepias. We know those plants by their more common names of butterfly weed or milkweed.
Milkweed is one of those wonder plants that thrive on neglect. It grows, blooms, self-propagates and attracts swarms of butterflies and bees without much, if any, human attention.
A gardener who has introduced milkweed plants to the landscape need only sit back and admire the cheerful orange-yellow flower heads and the wildlife attracted to those blossoms. It's not even necessary to turn on the sprinkler because milkweed is like a horticultural camel -- it can withstand long periods with limited water.
If you're wondering, "What's the catch?" there is one: caterpillars.
This leggy wildflower is a botanical magnet for monarch butterflies that come for the nectar and remain long enough to deposit their eggs on the undersides of the plants' thin leaves, stems and blossoms.
Monarchs are single-source egg layers. The only plant that will do as a depository for their eggs is milkweed. That's because, when the eggs hatch, the only food the emerging caterpillars will eat are milkweed leaves.
It takes three to 12 days for the tiny white eggs to hatch. The resulting caterpillars are curious-looking critters with black, yellow and white bands ringing their stubby bodies.
Two long black filaments extend from behind their heads and two shorter ones from their abdomens. Although caterpillars don't have vocal cords, they do very well at expressing a message.
Their distinctive coloration and those black filaments transmit the warning, "Stay away!" to birds and other predators.
It's a message worth heeding. When the caterpillars chew on milkweed leaves, they consume a toxic substance in the plant that doesn't bother them but is distasteful to their enemies.
Two weeks later, after eating a diet of nothing but milkweed leaves, the larvae are ready to enter the next stage of their development, the jade green chrysalis or pupa.
Ten to 12 days later when butterflies emerge from the chrysalises, the toxin from the milkweed leaves will still be in their systems. This makes the butterflies equally as unpalatable to avian predators as they were during the larvae stage.
The monarch butterfly's metamorphosis is a wondrous process. And to think we can witness this remarkable transformation by simply adding milkweed plants to the landscape.
There are eight kinds of Asclepias -- milkweed -- that grow in Florida. None are natives, but all are invaluable additions to the garden for anyone who enjoys the sight of butterflies fluttering through the air.
While monarchs are the only butterflies that totally depend on milkweed plants for their survival, many other winged creatures seek out this humble wildflower for its nectar. Plant a few milkweeds in your garden and you are likely to see soldier, queen, swallowtail, painted lady, American lady and fritillary butterflies.
During the day, hummingbirds might flit from blossom to blossom, and just before dark, a hummingbird moth is likely to navigate the evening air for a nectar nightcap.
It is amazing how much beauty revolves around such an ordinary wildflower. With a lone flower head topping each stem, milkweed isn't particularly showy. It has no profusion of blooms and is leggy and, at times, even scraggly-looking.
To say it's a messy flower would be an understatement. When the seedpods open, white fluff flies everywhere. Hundreds of feathery parachutes, each attached to a single black seed, are as likely to settle on lawn chairs and porch screens as they are in flower beds. Yet, despite several false landings, enough seeds survive to warrant the label nuisance plant.
Wildlife sees past all that. Animals and insects are keenly aware of truths people often overlook. Beauty has many layers. Plain can be powerful, and something as ordinary as a lowly wildflower can be extraordinarily essential.
Caterpillars are gobbling up my plants, and I don't mind a bit because there's a promise of beauty in each denuded stalk. From egg to larvae to chrysalis to butterfly, monarchs seek milkweed for sustenance and support. By cultivating this modest plant, I'm following their lead. If it's good enough for royalty, it's good enough for me.