Try listening to the story instead of reading it!

Photo by Joan Herrmann – Common Milkweed

Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… the lyrics of a song named “A Hundred Million Miracles” sometimes repeats itself in my mind as I wander through “the meadow”. When we purchased our home in the North Country, I was overjoyed to have not only a lovely home; but also two and a half acres of woods, one acre of lawn and gardens, and three and a half acres of meadow. Even though I enjoy all of the acreage, my greatest love is the meadow and all of its amazing flora and fauna. So it is truly the song from the musical “Flower Drum Song” that I hear while looking at all of nature’s magnificent critters and wildflowers. The majority of blooms that can be found throughout the spring, summer, and fall are native New York plants. In addition to the wildflowers, there are a multitude of ferns, mosses, and shrubs. Some of the things which I have observed over the years are butterflies emerging from their chrysalis, a newly born fawn beginning to stand on wobbly legs, bluebird nestlings in one of the many nesting boxes, and a host of other miracles. I have watched as a mother deer licks the plants that are safe to eat, as her fawn is now weaned (no longer nursing). I have seen Orb Weaver spiders create magnificent webs that in the morning light and dew look like superb jewelry. Even though at times, like when the deer eat my garden flowers, and raccoons and bear take down the birdfeeders, I can adjust by spraying favorite perennials or removing feeders at night. I am truly grateful that so many critters and creatures find habitat and refuge in the woods and meadows that we share.

One of my favorite plants in the meadow is the numerous patches of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) which is the host plant for many insects; the most familiar is the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Every part of this fragrant plant is a food source for a plethora of insects, including stem, leaves, seeds, roots, and seed pods. This native plant can thrive in meadows, gardens, roadsides and almost any undisturbed parcel of land. In addition to common milkweed, there are at least one hundred other species that grow in North America. One species that “likes its feet wet” is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate). It is much taller than the common milkweed while the blossoms are smaller and a deeper shade of pink. The follicles (seed pods) are much smaller too.

Photo by Joan Herrmann – Female Monarch laying egg on milkweed.

Monarchs may be seen in our meadow as early as late June through late October. Milkweed (all species) is the only plant which the female will lay her egg on; and she will only lay one egg per plant because the one larva, will in two to three weeks, consume all the leaves on that plant. She will approach the plant and stop to “smell” it with the lower part of her leg called the tarsus (or foot), this is where her smell receptors are located. Each egg is extremely tiny and she will adjust her abdomen to curve under the milkweed leaf and attach the egg. With magnifying glass or macro camera lens, you can see that is conical shaped with ridges. The metamorphosis from egg to adult is accomplished in a fairly short amount of time and is dependent on weather conditions such as rain and temperature. A complete metamorphosis consists of egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult stages. If it is dry and warm the egg will hatch within four to six days. The newly hatched larva (caterpillar) will immediately begin eating. First, it will consume the egg that it just emerged from and then it will begin eating the leaf to which the egg was attached. It will continue eating the entire plant and may even move to a nearby plant and eat for two to three more weeks. The drier and hotter the weather the sooner it will reach its last instar (molt) and begin the next stage of metamorphosis. An instar (molt) is the shedding of its skin, which would be like us outgrowing clothes, and needing the next larger size. After the fifth instar, the caterpillar has grown from minuscule

Photo by Joan Herrmann – Monarch Butterfly larva.

to about two inches in length. It now has yellow, black, and white stripes and has two long black tentacles in front of its head and two shorter tentacles at the other end. The third stage begins now as the caterpillar seeks a spot where it will spin a silk “button” and attach itself by the end of its abdomen to a stem of the now leafless milkweed plant or other suitable spot. It could be a tree limb, a building, or any other structure. The body of the caterpillar will hang from the silk button for several hours before its outer skin begins to shrivel up and drop off its body. The now skinless body will begin to shrink and within a few hours look like a pale green “jelly bean” encircled with a golden ring and several golden dots. It will now take as long as five to fifteen day for the adult to emerge. Again weather conditions will determine the length of time for this fourth stage. The day the adult will emerge is signaled by a change in color of the chrysalis, which is now crystal clear, and black and orange colors show through it.

Photo by Joan Herrmann – Chrysalis with attached shed skin of caterpillar.

The adult, when ready, will chew through the pupal case and hang from it. Its abdomen is extremely large and its wings are rumpled and wrinkled. As the butterfly pumps hemolymph (insect blood) into the veins of the wings they will begin to dry and fill out. The adult will need several hours to rest and dry completely before it will be ready to fly and fulfill its purpose as an adult. It will seek nectar from nearby wildflowers or any garden flowers. Females will be sexually mature within four to five days and males within three to five days.

Milkweed will benefit the many insects that consume it, as ingesting the plant, makes them toxic to many predators. The leaves, stems, and roots all contain a toxic alkaloid, known as cardiac glycoside, and while absorbing them is not fatal to the insects, it may be fatal to those attempting to consume them. In addition to monarch caterpillars also look for tussock moth caterpillars and numerous beetles, ants, and a multitude of pollinators. You may just experience a miracle or two also… hope to see you Whereiwander.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at