Species families are so interesting to me. When Darwin was traveling around the world visiting islands and observing species, he noticed how different things were on the different islands. Species had adaptations evolved specifically to their individual environments. This became more clear when he was looking at islands, rather than the larger continents, because islands are islands – seemingly isolated bits of land.
So many natural relationships are happening and evolving around us all the time!!
Last Friday I had a bit of this type of revelation, only it was kinda in the opposite way of Darwin. I was at the Foster Botanical Gardens in downtown Honolulu, and discovered 2 Crown Flower trees (pua kalaunu in Hawaiian language).
I was introduced to this beautiful tree the previous Monday by a wonderful woman I met at the Montessori school here in Honolulu where I was teaching a workshop. She was showing me the garden beds she had planted around the admin building and the crown flower tree was in two of them. She explained how the flowers were prized for lei making, but the trees were prized by caterpillars who would decimate it.
Can you imagine how pretty these would be strung as a lei? They look like they are made of sugar or icing!
So, when I found two very large specimens of the tree at the garden, I decided to really investigate and see if I could find some of these ravenous caterpillars she spoke of, because a bit of leaf munching was evident. Upon closer inspection, I found 1 caterpillar that I swore looked like a monarch, but monarchs eat milkweed, so it couldn’t be, right?
I also found a clump of eggs, and more leaf munching.
Now you might assume that when I first found the tree I would have looked at its botanical plaque, but no, I just got right in there to explore. So after my perplexing caterpillar discovery, I figured I better look at the sign and see what I could learn. Well what do you know, the Crown Flower tree is in the milkweed family!!!! I’m not crazy, this could be a monarch caterpillar after all!
A little later, in the actual butterfly section of the garden, there were about 10 monarchs flitting about the nectar plants in a frenzied mating dance. Confirmed! Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) live on the island of Oahu!
If you look very closely you can see little flecks by the points of the arrows. The mating monarchs were in no mood to have their pictures taken!
This got me thinking about how little I know about species adaptations. The monarch migration through North America is no secret, but I have never heard any mention of how monarchs flew thousands of miles to Hawaii and adapted to eat crown flower (Calotropis gigantea) leaves over the leaves of the common milkweed (Asclepias spp.).
With a little more botanical research once I returned from the garden, I discovered that these two plants have the same Order (Gentianales), Family (Apocynaceae), and Subfamily (Asclepiadoideae); the genus and species are where the two differ. No wonder it was so easy for monarchs to discover this suitable tree!
Hungry! Notice the light fuzz that covers the leaves and young shoots.
Now, how the clever monarch discovered the crown flower tree is one of those type of nature mysteries to which I don’t necessarily need to know the answer. I’m an artist before a botanist, and I sometimes just like to leave some questions to the wonder and magic of mother nature. I do though, find it fascinating that once milkweed was introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s, monarchs, which are not native to the islands, appeared. Perhaps there were eggs on the milkweed, perhaps a storm blew migrating monarchs off course from Mexico, who can say.
You can see the trees (technically shrubs) grow quite large and bloom either white or purple flowers.
But still, how did the monarchs know the crown flower, which is native to India, China, and southeast Asia, was a suitable host plant relative? Smell perhaps? Intuition? Pretty wonder sparking, right?
However nature adapts and evolves, the monarchs and the crown flower trees are flourishing here on Oahu. And sometimes it’s nice to simply rest in the beauty of the relationship, in the wonder of the mystery, and in the advice of Rachel Carson that “it’s not half as important to know as to feel.”
What natural wonders are you content feel over know?
Share in the comments below & pics on Instagram #wingswormsandwonder
Seeds to Sprout:
Learn more about the Hawaiian Monarch here.
Live in a warm climate and want to grow your own crown flower tree? Learn how here!
learn how to make a lei from the crown flowers and a bit of the historical significance of the flower here.
Learn more about adaptation from UC Berkeley here.