Guest Blogger: Dogbane for Dinner

Our guest blogger for today is Anne McCormack. I have known Anne (or known of her) for more than 25 years now, first as a long-time editor of Nature Notes, the journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, and more recently on a personal basis as I, myself, have followed in her editorial footsteps. Anne is an astute naturalist whose breadth of knowledge spans not only botany but also entomology and ornithology, all of which she write about in her own blog at Gardening with Binoculars.

I planted Common Dogbane (Apocynum cannibinum) because some of my butterfly-watching friends reported numbers of juniper hairstreak butterflies on the patch of dogbane at Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood. I assumed incorrectly that dogbane was a host plant for hairstreaks, and believing it to be little more than caterpillar food, I placed it in a hot, dry, narrow strip along the driveway. Ragged, caterpillar-chewed leaves wouldn’t be noticed there, and I forgot about it. After a few seasons, it was still a modest-sized clump, but the leaves were in great shape. In fact, it had grown into an attractive bush of airy, elegant lime-green foliage, wine-red stems, and tiny white flowers. It’s quite a contrast to its relative, Common Milkweed, growing next to it, which looks as if it were designed by Dr. Seuss—even before it gets chewed to bits. At this point I decided it was time to look it up and see why it had failed to support hordes of munching caterpillars. As you have already guessed, gentle reader, the Juniper Hairstreak’s host plant is juniper, not dogbane, but good old Common Dogbane is a great nectar plant. Now that Dogbane and I understand each other better, I can appreciate the amount of traffic its tiny white blooms bring in, like this Peck’s Skipper butterfly. Ants, butterflies, tiny native bees, honeybees, and this mason wasp are busy there all day long.

Along with several species of moth, it is the host plant for the Dogbane Beetle, which spends its larval stage devouring the roots and its adulthood dining on the leaves of Dogbane, and nothing but Dogbane. Dogbane Beetle can be confused with Japanese Beetle by beginners like myself, but unlike its fellow Coleopteran, Dogbane Beetle is harmless. That makes its iridescence all the more gorgeous, as shown in this wonderful photo by Courtnay Janiak. It’s a native insect that has shared a long evolutionary history with this under-appreciated native plant. American Indians valued it for its bark, which is tough but peels off in long strips. They plaited it for bowstrings and anything that called for twine; hence, its other common name, Indian Hemp. Don and Lillian Stokes, in their 2002 PBS show about bird watching, demonstrated how birds seek out the dry stems of this perennial, pulling off strips for nests in early spring. Nesting material can be hard to come by for birds in the tidy suburbs, so I don’t clean up the stems after frost. “Bane” in the name refers to the toxin cymarin in the plant’s leaves, though the plant would have to be covered in braunschweiger before my dog would be interested. Edgar Denison, in Missouri Wildflowers, translates the genus name Apocynum as “away dog.” The species name cannibinum refers to hemp. Its seedpods remind me of French green beans. These split at the end of the season, and the seeds fly away on fibers similar to milkweed seeds. Collect some and try this plant in your butterfly or native plant garden. Give it a spot where it’s easy to watch the colorful visitors.

Dogbane beetle (Chrysochus auratus) - Copyright © Courtnay Janiak

Copyright © Anne McCormack 2010

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13 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Dogbane for Dinner

  1. Welcome aboard, Anne. I love this sort of backyard natural history, and look forward to being able to do some in the now overly tidy landscape around my recently purchased house.
    One thing: The dogbane beetle “harmless” – I wonder what the dogbane would say about that? :~)

  2. Dogbane’s a great nectaring plant. I’ve got a bunch around here. I also have that black wasp with the white ring visiting my dogbanes. Any idea of what species it might be?

  3. I think the wasp is the solitary, caterpillar-hunting vespid Monobia quadridens. About an inch long, nests in abandoned burrows of other insects (incl. carpenter bees), bamboo stakes, wind chimes, etc.

  4. Nice post and great beetle. We have another dogbane species – Spreading Dogbane Apocynum androsaemifolium – on our quarter section in the country. Lovely clusters of nodding pink flowers, but unfortunately it is listed as a noxious weed in Alberta, so I won’t be planting any seeds at home. Actually, I probably should be doing something to prevent its spread or some such. Perhaps encouraging some striking chrysomelid would count as such and from what I’ve been able to find out, Chrysochus auratus will feed on both dogbanes.

    Since Spreading Dogbane is considered a native plant in Alberta, I assume it is on the weed list because it is poisonous to cattle and does well in disturbed pasture land. Our land was once cattle pasture until the beaver returned and flooded the meadows about 40 years ago. The dogbane persists as occasional small patches on some sunny south slopes where the moose, deer, and beavers conspire to keep the aspen and scrub at bay – and presumably avoid the dogbane.

    I can’t find Apocynum cannabinum on any list of officially banned weeds here, but then I can’t find it on our Moose Pasture either.

    • Interesting that Spreading Dogbane grows in Alberta. Don Kurz in Ozark Wildflowers mentions that it occurs in old fields in Missouri also, but only in the south central part of the state. I hadn’t thought about it being poisonous to cattle, as well as dogs. Thanks for the info!

      • I don’t quite concur with Kurz, in this case. :~)

        Yes, we find it in fields occasionally in MO, but A. androsaemifolium seems more at home in this area in open woodlands, particularly those kept open by periodic fire. It also thrives after timber harvesting.

        Dave, I’m sure you’re right about why it’s designated a weed in Alberta. Cattle interests like “clean” pastures and have political clout. Of course, it is their grazing practices that favor all the bitter and otherwise well-defended weeds in pasturelands around the world.

      • There will be no hairstreaks or dogbane beetles to report, Anne, but I did get another lesson in the fact that nature has its own ways and often doesn’t comply with the wants and desires of humans. Inspired by this post, I revisited that dogbane up the road intending to take a few photos. What I found were virtually bare stems, lots of deteriorating caterpillar webbing and a couple of late developing Dogbane Saucrobotys Moth caterpillars that were still active. 😦 I photographed one of the caterpillars instead. Neither the cat not the resulting moth is nearly attractive as an hairstreak, but that’s the way it goes. 🙂

  5. A wonderful post, Anne – a nice opener for the guest blogger series while I was away. Those beetles really are gorgeous – I can remember encountering them in my earliest days of insect collecting as a child (in a vacant lot across from my house in the inner city) and thinking they were the most beautiful beetles I had ever seen.

    Something tells me the dogbane may not appreciate the beetle’s presence, but that it doesn’t suffer from it too much either.


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