Thursday, 18 February 2016

What was the flower?

The plant is Gomphocarpus physocarpus - synonym Asclepias physocarpa - common names: balloon plant, swan plant, hairy balls, family jewels tree - a species of milkweed. The plants main claim to fame is playing host to the Monarch Butterfly.
lavae/caterpillar via               butterfly via
Monarch butterflies cannot survive without milkweed; their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants so the butterflies need them to lay their eggs. The leaves of milkweed are poisonous to most animals as they contain chemicals called cardenolides which does not affect Monarch caterpillars. They store the chemicals in their bodies which makes them poisonous to other animals. When the lavae turn into butterflies the cardenolides remain, protecting them too.  
It can grow up to 2 m tall - a slender perennial erect shrub.
It has these extraordinarily large distinctive prickly pods - I wondered what was inside
Until I saw this split pod packed full of seeds. Each seed wore a luxurious silky white flowing parachute
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Whilst doing some research I discovered that there are over 100 species of milkweed and all of them are quite different from one another. Some have bright orange flowers in clusters, others come in shades of white through to yellow, pink, purple and red. Only Gomphocarpus physocarpus and a sub species Gomphocarpus fruticosus appear to have these large round hairy seed pods. However, most milkweeds do have extraordinary seed pods. It is worth taking a look at them on google images here.
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Congratulations and well done to Celia Hart and Rod Lutes who both identified the flower correctly.

31 comments:

  1. Well, that is such an amazing plant, because without them there would be so beautiful butterflies. Regards.

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    1. It is important for people living in the States to grow milkweed in their gardens for the Monarchs survival - apparently it is in decline at the moment.

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  2. I was really interested to read this, Rosemary and have so enjoyed reading about milkweed. I don't live far from RHS Hyde Hall and someone I know was surprised to see a Monarch butterfly on the flowers there last July. Although I happened to visit shortly afterwards I didn't see it. I would have loved to! The butterfly was an escapee from a local exotic butterfly collection and, sure enough, it would have been enjoying the milkweed growing at Hyde Hall.

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    1. Apparently Monarchs have been spotted quite frequently in Cornwall, the Scilly Isles, and along the south coast, presumed to have been blown in from California on strong currents. Maybe if I establish this plant from seed in my garden a Monarch may find its way to it !!!

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  3. Hello Rosemary, You are right; I should have recognized the basic milkweed flower structure. Perhaps because of the Quiz mode, I was blocking that out, expecting something exotic. The common milkweed in America has wider leaves, and white to pinkish-purple flowers. The silk is sometimes gathered to fill small pillows or pincushions. The mature plants are excessively bitter and inedible, but young plants of common milkweed have many edible parts.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - gardeners in the States are being encouraged to grow this particular milkweed for the sake of the Monarch butterflies which apparently are in decline.
      Yes, I was surprised to come across a blog with a recipe for milkweed pods cooked with rice - they were immature pods and had been used before they developed cardenolides.

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  4. The seed pods are different to most.
    Good to know the name of the plant and useful for the butterflies.

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    1. I couldn't believe that such a dainty little flower would have such enormous seed pods.

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  5. I wish I had known about this last year, I would have planted some milkweed ! There have been so many wonderful butterflies here, no reason not to encourage them to stay . Along with the butterflies, I have quite a few hummingbirds which just fills me with joy when I see them. Tiny magical beings :) Wherever I end up living next, I will be sure to plant some milkweed !

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    1. Apparently large flocks of Monarchs pass near Tallahassee in Florida. It is a good idea to check which milkweeds are best for the Monarchs - the one I have shown here is one of their favourites, but there are others that are suitable too.

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  6. Hmm, yes, I see why they call it the hairy balls plant.

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    1. They are more like gigantic gooseberries.

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  7. I thought that after the name of the plant was revealed I would say ' oh, yes of course ! ' , but actually I don't know this plant. I wonder if it could grow in Milan which has temperatures quite different from Paris , I wouldn't mind an extra help to attract the butterflies together with my Buddleia'.

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    1. I think that butterflies other than Monarchs do like this plant too - you can get seeds on the internet.

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  8. Ηello dear Rosemary!
    What an interested post!
    I do'nt know this plant.
    Very beautiful seed pods,indeed!
    Thank you for sharing those informations!
    Dimi...

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    1. I was really surprised when I spotted the very large seed pods.

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  9. We have milkweed, but as you said there are many varieties and ours certainly looks different from you picture.

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    1. I was surprised at how different they all were and how many there are.

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  10. Wow, thank you - I learned two things (plant & butterfly) at once. Great!

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    1. (In my answer I mentioned hesitatingly Euphorbia - and Euphorbia heterophylla for example is what I learned as milkweed - though your wonderful flower is different).

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    2. I do sincerely apologise Britta but I had mistakenly not associated Euphorbias with milkweeds. However, the Euphorbias do also exude a similar poisonous milky sap so I probably should have done - sorry♡

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  11. So interesting and I really never heard of this plant. I have grown in summer in my garden as an annual the orange Asclepia curassavica with the same leaves and seeds, also with silky parachutes but not such a prickly gooseberry seedpods.

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    1. I was surprised at just how big the seedpods were Janneke. The plant was completely new to me when I first saw it in Paris, and I discovered all I know about it from the internet. What a great source of information the internet is for us.

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  12. Fascinating as always!! I have heard of milkweed from American and Canadian blogs, but didn't recognise the flowers, the dried up seedpods are amazing! xx

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    1. I had no idea that there were so many milkweeds and that they varied so much - surprising what I discovered from this plant discovered in Paris.

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  13. A Comment received from Gina has unexpectedly disappeared
    Gina said - Dear Rosemary, We have plenty of milkweed growing along our ditches. Still, I did not recognize your plant.
    A few years ago we visited a tiny mountain village in central Mexico, Anguangueo. We were taken, by open truck, to a high mountain top. There we watched the wonder of millions of Monarch Butterflies clinging to pine tree branches. As the sun was coming up the butterflies began to open their wings slowly and finally open them fully to a spectacle never before imagined.

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    1. Dear Gina - I do apologise as I do not know what Blogger has done with your comment.

      I was amazed how many different milkweeds there are and how different they all are. The one I showed is a very important plant for the Monarchs.
      I have seen a film about the Monarchs, and have always imagined that to see them must be a magical spectacle to witness - you were very lucky

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  14. Those seed pods are amazing! I do hope the butterflies will head further inland and find your plant! Sarah x

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    1. The pods and the seeds are really very beautiful - it would be great if a stray Monarch should find its way up here.

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  15. I should have known this but had not looked closely at the flowers. Both Doug and I have numerous Swan Plants in our gardens for the Monarch butterflies. A while ago I took a photo of the cage where Doug puts branches of swan plant - he then collects the caterpillars and keeps them to save them from wasps. He has released over a hundred this year.

    I don't think I have posted this picture so will do so now with one of the swan plant as well. Thanks for making me look more closely at the flower.

    (Doug knew what it was straight away).

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    1. Next time I show a flower quiz you must call Doug in to help.

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