22-30 June 2003

Installment #178---Visitor #hidden counters

Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week


One of the best things about bicycling is that it allows one to sample the world in ways unimaginable to those who travel highways only at 60 miles per hour in air-conditioned vehicles with windows closed and the stereo cranked as high as it can go. For more than 30 years we have found great pleasure in pedaling back roads of the Carolina Piedmont, sniffing the essence of summer wildflowers, occasionally hopping off the bike to help a turtle get to the other side, and generally getting a slower-paced view of nature while we work on our cardiovascular fitness. We've seen lots of interesting sights while bicycling, but this week were so pleased at something growing along the roadside that--after riding back to Hilton Pond Center--we grabbed our camera equipment and drove out for a closer view.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

What caught our attention was a large patch of orange-red flowers growing on the shoulder scarcely a quarter-mile from Hilton Pond. As we approached the colony and placed the digital camera on a tripod, we noticed really tiny greenish flies among the quarter-inch-wide flowers (above), and quickly snapped a few exposures as one tried to steal nectar from a gap between petals. Despite the flies, we knew this wasn't "Fly-Weed," and the presence of large numbers of industrious and surprisingly docile Honeybees (below right) didn't mean it was "Bee-Weed," either. No, this magnificent stand was actually "Butterfly-weed"--even though there wasn't a single butterfly to be seen on any of the thousands of blossoms that brightened the edge of the road.

Butterfly-weed has always been one of our favorite native wildflowers, in part because it contrasts so brightly with the green grasses and shrubs that grow beside our highways. We also like it because it is, indeed, a magnet for insects, and we've spent numerous hours counting how many different kinds of bugs, beetles, butterflies, and bees would land on a particular cluster of flowers.

Butterfly-weed likes full sun, so it's no wonder it does well along the right-of-way--at least until the friendly but single-minded maintenance folks come by and mow it down on the shoulder or median. Miraculously, roadside mowing seems to have done a favor for the plants we discovered this week. They were growing in a slight depression and competing with Blackberries, Poison Ivy, Japanese Honeysuckle, and various grasses. Somehow, as the mower made its swipe along this stretch of roadside, it cut off the tops of the competing vegetation and passed over the Butterfly-weed; or maybe the mower operator shared our enthusiasm for this plant and intentionally avoided its destruction. Regardless, two exceptionally large plants with a spread of almost six feet were spared, and it was these that attracted our attention as we cycled past.

Butterfly-weed grows in open places--including prairies and fields--from the Rockies eastward; local forms can vary greatly in length of stem and hue of flower, from yellow to orange to red. Although Butterfly-weed is actually in the Milkweed Family (Asclepiadaceae), it's a species that doesn't have the typical milky-white sap. Its scientific name, Asclepias tuberosa, comes from Asklepios (the Greek god of medicine, for medicinal properties attributed to many milkweeds), and from its long tuberous taproot that makes Butterfly-weed extremely difficult to transplant. (HINT: Don't attempt to move a mature Butterfly-weed from the wild without a backhoe that guarantees a big clump of undisturbed soil, lest you end up killing the plant.) Butterfly-weed is best propagated by collecting ripened pods in autumn just before they burst open to release plume-covered wind-blown seeds characteristic of milkweeds (above right).

Seeds are also available from several mail order companies that capitalize on the fact that many milkweeds are attractive to butterflies either as nectar sources or as host plants for their larvae. For example, the Monarch, its close relatives, and other butterfly species are known to lay eggs on Butterfly-weed. Like other milkweeds, Butterfly-weed is loaded with glycosides--powerful purgatives that don't sit well with the digestive systems of many organisms from insects to birds to humans. Monarch caterpillars in particular thrive on milkweed and concentrate its glycosides in their own bodies--which in turn makes them less-than-tasty to potential predators.

Native Americans and early European settlers dug the tuber of Butterfly-weed and used it judiciously as a poultice for bruises and rheumatism and internally as as expectorant, laxative, diuretic, and treatment for lung inflammation--hence its alternate name of "Pleurisy-root." The plant is called by other less-attractive epithets, including "Chigger-Weed" because it often grows where these much-despised itch-causing redbugs are plentiful.

Butterfly-weed is protected from herbivores not only by its toxic compounds but also by a dense growth of long hairs that cover its stem (above left); the narrowly oval, 3-inch leaves and short petioles are also more or less fuzzy. All in all, the plant is infinitely more pleasing to the eye than to the palate.

We spent about an hour or so marveling at the roadside Butterfly-weed, admiring its size and color and taking photos from every possible angle to reveal the plant's anatomy--including individual blossoms that have five colored sepals folded down to reveal five fleshy petals formed into a tulip-like cup (below). Inside the cup are five yellow-red stamens, each bearing pollen that didn't seem to collect in any quantity on the legs of Honeybees feeding on the blossoms; this is probably because milkweed pollen is held in "pollenia"--small packets that must be forcibly dislodged before they can attach to the pollinator.

Those Honeybees--oblivious to our presence and certainly not the slightest bit interested in stinging--were everywhere, enthusiastically forcing their fat heads into the flower cups and extending their mouthparts to lap up the Butterfly-weed's apparent sweet nectar load. Despite this frenzy of insect activity, there were still no lepidopterans to be seen on the Butterfly-weed, even though it was a mild, sunny day when butterflies should be flying. However, just as we started to fold up the tripod and head back for Hilton Pond, a small flutter of activity caught our eye on the big Butterfly-weed further from the road. At last! A butterfly feeding on its namesake plant!

We quickly moved the tripod, not bothering to identify the butterfly but snapping a few exposures before it disappeared as fast as it had come. Not until we downloaded the images from camera to computer did we confirm we had witnessed a Pearl Crescent, Phyciodes tharos (right), sipping nectar from the Butterfly-weed.

Although it's one of the most common butterflies in North America, we haven't yet identified a Pearl Crescent at Hilton Pond Center--perhaps because we have no Butterfly-weed, either. That, you may be sure, is a situation we are determined to remedy this fall when we bicycle a quarter-mile up the highway to collect seed pods from our new-found colony of roadside Fly-Weed . . . Bee-Weed . . . no, Butterfly-weed.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

All contributions are tax-deductible


The Piedmont Naturalist, Volume 1 (1986)--long out-of-print--has been re-published by author Bill Hilton Jr. as an e-Book downloadable to read on your iPad, iPhone, Nook, Kindle, or desktop computer. Click on the image at left for information about ordering. All proceeds benefit education, research, and conservation work of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History

Please refer "This Week at Hilton Pond" to others by clicking on this button:

Follow us on Twitter:


Comments or questions about this week's installment? Send an E-mail to INFO. (Be sure to scroll down for a tally of birds banded/recaptured during the period, plus other nature notes.)

If you enjoy "This Week at Hilton Pond," please help support
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
It's painless, and YOU can make a difference!

(Just CLICK on a logo below or send a check if you like; see Support for address.)

Make credit card donations
on-line via
Network for Good:
Use your PayPal account
to make direct donations:
If you like shopping on-line please become a member of iGive, through which 950+ on-line stores from Amazon to Lands' End and even iTunes donate a percentage of your purchase price to support Hilton Pond Center. ..Every new member who registers with iGive and makes a purchase through them earns an ADDITIONAL $5 for the Center. You can even do Web searches through iGive and earn a penny per search--sometimes TWO--for the cause!Please enroll by going to the iGive Web site. It's a painless, important way for YOU to support our on-going work in conservation, education, and research. Add the iGive Toolbar to your browser and register Operation RubyThroat as your preferred charity to make it even easier to help Hilton Pond Center when you shop.

22-30 June 2003


Carolina Chickadee--1
Red-eyed Vireo--1
Northern Cardinal--4
House Finch--25

* = New species for 2003

4 species
31 individuals

46 species
649 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,763 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
House Finch (1)
07/25/01--3rd year male

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the


--Just before departing on 14 Jun for a week-long family reunion, we filled our hummingbird feeders with fresh sugar water mix and went off to the North Carolina mountains, confident the several birds that had been around all spring would be well-fed. Upon our return, we were stunned to see that the feeders were essentially untouched and that no Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were to be seen. We quickly changed the sugar water and re-hung the feeders, but even then no hummers were observed for another 48 hours. Even then it was only a fleeting glance, and we are at a loss to explain what has happened to the local population. Perhaps the profusion of Trumpet Creeper blooms that followed our rainy spring has made the feeders superfluous. We hope that's it and take solace in the knowledge that over the past 19 years, the last week in June has always been a slow period for catching and banding hummingbirds.

--Had it not been for an abundance of recently fledged House Finches whose parents apparently led them into traps baited with sunflower seeds, our banding totals for this week would have been very low. Few new birds or already banded individuals of any species hit the mist nets.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Click for York, South Carolina Forecast
Click on image at right for live Web cam of Hilton Pond,
plus daily weather summary

Transmission of weather data from Hilton Pond Center via WeatherSnoopfor Mac.

You may wish to consult our Index of all nature topics covered since
February 2000, or use our on-line
Hilton Pond Search Engine:

For a free on-line subscription to "This Week at Hilton Pond," send us an
E-mail with SUBSCRIBE in the Subject line and configure your spam filter
to accept E-mails from

Please report your sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(spring female at right)

Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week

Back to "This Week at Hilton Pond" Main

Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

Our backyard Web cam at Weather Underground

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research, conservation & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Web site contents--including text and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To request permission for use or for further assistance, please contact Webmaster.

New Release DVD
The link above is required by a Web site that provides us with a free page counter.
You are not obligated to click on the link.