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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Friday Flower – Cleft Phlox

In a recent edition of my Friday Flower series I featured Tradescantia longipes (dwarf spiderwort or wild crocus), an exquisite Ozark endemic found scattered in dry igneous woodlands of the Missouri’s St. Francois Mountains and Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains and that I had seen this past April at Sam Baker State Park. Growing alongside these beautiful plants was this equally exquisite plant bearing strikingly cleft petals on its blossoms.  I recognized it clearly as some type of phlox, but not one that I recalled having seen before.  There is good reason for this, as a quick check of Steyermark (1963) revealed this to be Phlox bifida, which, though not a true Ozark endemic, is known from just a handful of Missouri counties where it grows typically in dry, rocky soils of upland woods, ravine slopes and bluff ledges.  Commonly called cleft phlox or sand phlox, the strongly cleft (bifid) petals distinguish it from other species in the genus and, not surprisingly, are the basis for its species name.  This is another plant that would seem to make a good choice for a native wildflower garden, as it can perform very well in cultivation.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18), Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon MT-24EX flash (diffused 1/4 power), typical post-processing (levels, unsharp mask).


Steyermark, J. A. 1963. Flora of Missouri. Iowa State University Press, Ames. 1728 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

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Friday Flower – Sedum pulchellum

I’m particularly enamored with glades, and after nearly 30 years of exploring Missouri’s Ozark Highlands, there aren’t many glades of any significance that I haven’t visited at some time or another.  However, during my mostly unproductive Memorial Day weekend collecting trip, I had a chance to visit Bona Glade Natural Area in Dade County for the first time.  Located in southwestern Missouri where the Ozark woodlands of the Springfield Plateau begin transitioning to the grasslands of the Great Plains, this small (20 acres) sandstone glade is noted as a station for the federally threatened and state endangered Geocarpon minimum.  I did not see this diminutive plant (sometimes called tinytim) during my visit, but I did see another pretty little succulent – Sedum pulchellum.  Also called widowscross, this plant belongs to the Crassulaceae – the same family as the familiar jade houseplant.

Although not nearly as rare as Geocarpon, widowscross is nevertheless somewhat restricted in Missouri, occurring primarily in the southwestern quarter of the state.  Throughout much of its range it is primarily associated with calcareous limestone glades, ledges, and outcrops (Baskin and Baskin 1977), but in Missouri it grows also on acidic chert and sandstone glades (Yatskievych 2006) – as is the case at Bone Glade.  I’ve not encountered this plant before, thus when I spotted this little stand with its profusion of brilliant pink blossoms, it immediately caught my attention.  A winter annual, this species prefers full sun and well drained, disturbed soils and apparently produces seeds quite prolifically when grown under the right conditions.  These features, along with its petite attractiveness, would seem to make it an ideal native alternative for succulent gardens.

Another, much less common sedum also occurs at Bona Glade, Sedum nuttallianum (Nuttall’s sedum).  This species is similar to S. pulchellum but can be distinguished by its smaller leaves and yellow blossoms.  It’s range is similar to that of Geocarpon, growing almost exclusively on chert and sandstone glades from southwestern Missouri and southeastern Kansas south to Louisiana and Texas.  I did not see this plant either – in fact, after finding this small stand of S. pulchellum I searched the entire glade rather thoroughly and did not see any other plants of that species either.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100-200, 1/400-500 sec, f/5.6), Canon 100mm macro lens, ambient light. Post-processing: minor cropping, levels, unsharp mask.


Baskin, J. M. and C. M. Baskin. 1977. Germination ecology of Sedum pulchellum Michx. (Crassulaceae). American Journal of Botany 64(10):1242-1247.

Yatskievych, G. 2006. Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri, Volume 2. The Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis, 1181 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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