When thinking about endangered species, charismatic animals like tigers typically come to mind. But many plant species are endangered or threatened too. Endangered plants are worth protecting because when plant species are lost, not only is the world a less vibrant place, but human communities risk losing essential products and services. Plants are the base of nearly all terrestrial food webs, converting the sun’s energy into food for us all. Some plants provide medicines while others provide essential habitat to animals, including people (the wood used to make houses comes from trees).
Part of Green’s research at Matthaei Botanical Gardens aims to better understand the physiological switch that is flipped in monarch butterflies to create migratory populations in fall. “Whether it’s changing gene activity, hormonal changes, or some other potential mechanism that generates the difference is what we are studying,” said Green.
By keeping this tree here to decompose naturally, the staff at the Botanical Gardens is letting nature take its course. Even though it might look odd, the ecosystem is benefiting from the tree in several ways. Downed trees are just one excellent example of how nothing in nature goes to waste.
As the days become colder and flowers fade and turn brown, many gardeners begin prepping their spaces for winter by cutting down spent blooms, stems, and leaves. However, by leaving the plants intact, gardeners can provide a variety of benefits to area insects and birds over the cold winter months.
A nervous eastern bluebird on the wing alights on a tree branch, its orange breast standing out amidst the lush, late-summer greenery. Nearby on metal posts are a pair of wooden boxes. The bird keeps a concerned eye on a group of three volunteers trudging through knee high vegetation toward the boxes.
By adding native plants back to urban landscapes, private landowners can make a difference and help restore native ecosystems. The Great Lakes Gardens are a testament to the impact that native plants have even in a single plot of land. There, myriad butterfly, moth, fly, and bee species flit from flower to flower. “The insects just showed up. We did not introduce any insects,” said Kost. “It really shows you that if you plant it, they will come.”
Habitat loss is the primary threat to Monarchs: clearing their overwintering grounds for agriculture and urban development has left far less shelter for overwintering butterflies. Pesticides and herbicides used in industrial agriculture also claim the lives of Monarchs and their milkweed hosts. Although Monarch populations have fluctuated quite a bit in the past – last year, for example, was a bumper year for Western Monarchs, with many more individuals than usual recorded – the increasing trend of their threats makes it clear that they are at risk.
Many of us love exploring Milkweed plants for the chance to find a chubby Monarch caterpillar: a sign that things are working and that the Milkweed is serving its big purpose. Monarch larvae are always an exciting find, but Milkweed plants are host to tons of other fascinating critters. This week’s bug spotlight shines on two such friends: the Milkweed leaf beetle and the Red milkweed beetle. If you’ve spent time examining Milkweed leaves, you may have encountered these two beetles, both of which display an interesting trait reflective of their Milkweed-eating existence.