Milkweed is in full bloom on the Santa Margarita Ranch and that means all sorts of tiny animals and creepy crawlies are present, too.
There are 15 different types of milkweed found in California. The narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and the Indian or broad-leaf milkweed (Asclepsias Eriocarpa) are the most common on our ranch. The flower of a milkweed plant is arranged in clusters and the pod or fruit on the milkweed vary in size depending on the species.
Milkweed is named for the bright white milky sap that oozes from the stems and leaves when they are damaged. These plants are an important food source for one of the beautiful butterflies we see migrating through the area: the Monarch butterfly. These butterflies have an interesting relationship with milkweed, as the lay their eggs on the plants stem. The larvae hatch and feed off the plant’s leaves. The chrysalis is commonly formed on the milkweed plant and once the Monarch is in its mature state after it completes its metamorphosis, the butterfly feeds off the flower nectar produced by the milkweed.
Other common insects found on the milkweed plant are the red milkweed beetle and the tarantula hawk. The latter is known to battle tarantulas in the fall. They sting the tarantula, which puts the spider in a state of paralysis. They then drag the tarantula down into a burrow where the hawk lays a single egg inside of the tarantula. Creepy, yes—but also impressive!
The milkweed is a toxic plant and the animals that feed off the milkweed are in turn also toxic. The milkweed toxins collect in their bodies and this actually helps protect these animals from being consumed by predators such as birds.
Who know that such a simple-looking plant could play such an amazing role in our ecosystem!