Last spring, I decided to expand on this, by devoting one bed entirely to this combination.
Now, we do know that Liatris tends to get chewed on. It is not unusual to find a new spike felled every few days by vandal rabbits. My thinking was of strength in numbers. If we planted a whole bunch of Liatris, then a downed spear here and there would not be missed.
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is so named not only because butterflies feed on its nectar, but because it is a host plant for the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) — as are other Asclepias species, such as the less beautiful Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Monarch moms lay their eggs on these plants, which are then eaten by the resulting caterpillars.
Instead, within two days of Amy’s careful planting, marauding Gray Squirrels dug up 24 of the 25 Liatris corms, chewing on each one before discarding it to dig up the next.
Only the Butterfly Weed (and one lonely Liatris) remained. In time, Monarch Butterflies did indeed find our patch. They danced happily from plant to plant laying eggs all over. Before long, we were spotting numerous caterpillars and were very pleased to play some small part in the survival of this majestic threatened species.
Then the first of the peculiar bugs appeared — orange and black guys which flew a little, but mostly just hung out on our Butterfly Weed plants. Some of the bugs would pair off, rear end to rear end. As we read online, this is how Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) mate. Soon, there were lots and lots of Milkweed Bugs all over our Butterfly Weed.
Besides mating, Milkweed Bugs eat milkweed seeds. They have a long mouthpart known as a “rostrum” which they use to pierce the plant’s seed pods and suck juices right out of the seeds themselves. As with Monarch Butterflies, the toxic glycosides from the plant make the bug distasteful to predators, and their orange color serves as a warning. Birds know not to eat them.
As far as I could find out, there wasn’t much we could do to control these bugs. Poison would also harm the very butterflies and birds we want to encourage. One article I read suggested squishing the bugs individually, but I just don’t have that kind of free time.
Within a couple of weeks, our once beautiful Butterfly Weed looked haggard and desperate. Withered and discolored, its seed pods opened prematurely to release their downy contents before all hope was lost. Not fluffy enough to fly, the fuzz mostly clung to the ratty plants while pulsing swarms of Milkweed Bugs backed into each other in ecstatic frenzy.
This year, all of those Butterfly Weed plants have been cleared out. We’ll keep the one or two plants we have elsewhere. Liatris, however, will get another try. This time around, Amy has planted 50 corms — and staked a wire mesh over them to thwart the squirrels until they start sprouting.